Victor Goines: Liquid And Fire

Jason Crane By

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The goal of a great teacher is to be confident and comfortable with themselves, so that if they're fortunate enough, their students become better than they [themselves] are
Victor GoinesSaxophonist and clarinetist Victor Goines has been a key planet in the orbit of Wynton Marsalis for more than a decade. He played on the seminal Marsalis album Live At The Village Vanguard (Columbia, 1999) within a week of joining the band, and he's continued to appear with Marsalis and with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra ever since. Goines recorded New Adventures (Criss Cross, 2006) in 2005.

All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane talked with Goines in the spring of 2007 about New Adventures, his years on the road, and exactly how many times you have to have played the bass clarinet to get Wynton Marsalis to hire you.

All About Jazz: This is a very diverse album. From one track to another, it covers a lot of bases. First of all, how did you put this band together?

Victor Goines: I have to give credit where it's due. Gerry Teekens, who is the owner of Criss Cross [Records] actually recommended the rhythm section of [bassist] Carlos Henriquez, [drummer] Greg Hutchinson, and [pianist] Peter Martin. Peter Martin and I go back some time ago in New Orleans when he decided to move there from St. Louis. Carlos Henriquez and I have a relationship with in the Wynton Marsalis ensemble and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Greg Hutchinson has been a favorite of mine for many years, he's one of the fantastic drummers. So the opportunity to record with them is a good feeling. It just made sense, and with all of the music that they have knowledge of, it allowed the music to take a different type of diverse path.

AAJ: Talk about that a little bit. From the very first moment of "Stop 'N' Go," it sounds like a tune that I've always known, even though it's one of your compositions.

VG: "Stop 'N' Go" has the influence of Sonny Rollins. Even the melody is a little riff that I picked up from Sonny Rollins in my transcriptions along the way. So it became a tune that evolved at a concert some years ago at the St. Lucia Jazz Festival. So you hopefully hear the spirit of Sonny Rollins inside of the song. The way Sonny has the freedom of rhythm and the harmonic knowledge to be able to play across the bar lines and through the harmony without any kind of restrictions.

AAJ: And it has a drone in it that gives you more freedom.

VG: It has that drone, which allows the soloists to be able to superimpose harmonic and melodic ideas on top of the drone in the first chorus of their solos, then we go to straight-ahead rhythm changes. But at the same time, that rhythm section was so free that once we got into the regular part of the walking [bass line], they took the opportunity to be out there and explore all of the harmonic and rhythmic background.

AAJ: What does it mean to say a rhythm section is "free"?

VG: In this case, what I mean when I say they're free is that they're so well versed on their instruments and so informed about the jazz language that there are few restrictions. Of course, no one is perfect because it's impossible to have knowledge of all the music that exists today. But these guys have been able to internalize a tremendous body of work, so as a result there are few restrictions that they have to deal with. If I took a certain harmonic direction, I felt that Peter Martin was going to be able to anticipate and find out where I was going to be. Carlos Henriquez—if I took a certain rhythmic direction, he usually jumped into it immediately if not sometimes led me places where I thought I might want to go. And Greg Hutchinson is secure enough as a drummer, period, that he's able to make sure that with all the things that are going on, he's the cement that keeps everything in place along the way. At the same time, [he takes] risks with the band, but [he knows] he can pull it back together whenever we need it.

Victor AAJ: Is listening the key to everything you just described?

VG: Absolutely, because we're having a dialogue on the bandstand. We're having an organic conversation, so listening is a very important part of what's going on. And participating in the conversation is a very important part.

AAJ: How did you learn to listen? It seems to me like people have to acquire that skill.

VG: That's a good question. The answer came to me pretty quickly when you asked that. In my early stages of performing with Ellis Marsalis in New Orleans at a place called Snug Harbor, quite often I would go to the gig and he would call the tunes on the bandstand, he wouldn't call them ahead of time. So it would require me to really pay attention to what was going on. I'd be there with my Real Book, and I'd be trying to turn the pages to the song he would be performing, but he would change in the middle of it.

After trying different things, I realized that wasn't going to work, because he was always going to do something I wasn't prepared for. I decided that I would just listen to what he was going to play and try to learn the melodies on the bandstand. If I wasn't able to catch a melody the first time around, I would stand behind him and try to learn it there. Then, if I still wasn't able to catch it, I would ask him to play some of the melody inside his comping during the bass solo, and he would do that for me. As a result, it became like an ear-training course in real time.

It's just become part of what I do now. To listen to people has become fun, because I like to know what people are thinking and how they function. I believe that the more I know about how someone does whatever they're doing, it gives me that much more of an opportunity to be able to interact with them.

AAJ: You said a few minutes ago that there are times when a member of the band will take you someplace that you weren't thinking about going. When that happens in the studio setting, do you have the freedom to do that?

VG: Absolutely. I think you also have to be willing to take the chance in that situation too, because I don't know about a lot of other musicians, but I don't want to work my solo out ahead of time in the studio. I like to practice the tune so I have some options before me, but I also go in there with the realization that I hired these great musicians to come into the recording session so they can bring to the table what they have to offer. If I go in there and I'm not honest enough to take some chances with them, then I might as well just hire anybody to play exactly what I practiced. So in the studio, I try to take some freedoms and liberties and risks.

Chapter Index

  1. Kindergarten With The Marsalis Family
  2. Adventures On The Clarinet
  3. Joining Wynton's Band
  4. The Art of Playing Ballads
  5. Life Now

Kindergarten With The Marsalis Family

AAJ: You mentioned Ellis Marsalis. You and the Marsalises have been part of each others' lives since you were knee-high to the proverbial grasshopper, right?

VG: We go back quite a bit. Wynton and I, as it turns out, went to kindergarten together. We didn't know each other as early as that, but it's really ironic that we go back that far. We did become very familiar with each other in elementary school. That kindergarten is named Martinez. It's a very popular kindergarten in New Orleans, Louisiana. In elementary school, we became very involved, along with Branford [Marsalis], in the honor band, particularly one at Jesuit High School. The band director was responsible for taking the most outstanding students around the greater New Orleans area and putting together a concert band. As destiny would turn out, we all found ourselves, as we got to high school, performing in all-state ensembles together.

It has been a tremendous opportunity for all parties involved. We're in our forties. I always say that you meet your friends when you're young. And to go back that far and interact on a day-to-day basis is really a tremendous privilege for me.

AAJ: Particularly doing something as intimate as playing music.

VG: Absolutely, because there's a trust factor that's there that surpasses the one that most of us have the opportunity to develop with the musicians we work with.

AAJ: Did you start studying with Ellis in college?

VG: I was a junior in college at the time. Wynton went out with his own band, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, which was [saxophonist] Branford Marsalis, [pianist] Kenny Kirkland, [drummer] Jeff Watts, and "bass de jour," because the bassist always changed. That was in '82. He had just come out with that first record of his entitled Wynton Marsalis (Sony, 1981). I said, "Hey man, what do I need to do, in your opinion, to get to the next level?" He said, "You need to study with my dad." I had never studied with his dad. I never went to the Center For Creative Arts like he did, and like Branford and Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison. I went to an all-boys school by the name of St. Augustine. So I said, "OK, I'll call your dad."

I called him and asked him, "Mr. Marsalis, will you please take me as a student?" He agreed to. I wasn't surprised but then I was surprised. I mean, he's Ellis Marsalis. To me, he is the premier pianist and has always been, there's never been a doubt. When he took me as a student, I used to study with him weekly. I'd have assignments that he'd give me, but most of all he'd give me the opportunity to study the historical perspective of the saxophone. He exposed me to the entire instrument.


After a year of studying with him, he decided that he was going to put a band together of young musicians. In that band were myself, a drummer by the name of Noel Kendrick and a bassist named Reginald Veal. So that was my first introduction to Reginald Veal. We would play around New Orleans, then we started traveling around the United States a little bit. Then we went abroad a bit. We played together for some two and a half years in New Orleans.

At that time, in 1986, Mr. Marsalis was afforded an opportunity to teach at Virginia Commonwealth University. I remember we were going to Asia with the United States Information Agency. He said, "Look, when I get back, I'm taking this job at Virginia Commonwealth, so you all need to figure out what you're all going to do." I was like, "Oh, man, we're just getting started."

So we all started making decisions about what we were going to do. I was teaching mathematics, so as he left and started his career teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, an opportunity came to me again via Ellis Marsalis, which was to go to Virginia Commonwealth and get my Masters. I've always been an advocate of education, not only as a teacher but as a student. If somebody's going to pay for me to go to school, I'm going to school. And then I'm going to go study with my mentor? There's no doubt about it.

So I went up to Virginia to study with Mr. Marsalis for a year and a half. We had a lot of interaction. A lot of times, I'd be by his home. His family was up there—his wife and her mother and his son Jason, but it was like two people being in a place where they didn't know a lot of other people. So I had many days of interaction with him in a very unique and personal way.

Shortly after that, I decided to go up to New York for the first stay I was going to have in New York, in 1989. Soon after that, Ellis Marsalis was offered the opportunity to come back down to New Orleans and be the chair of the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans. I was playing in New York on Black And Blue, and an opportunity came to me to teach at Loyola University in New Orleans. So I traveled back down there to become an assistant professor of saxophone at Loyola University, as my former teacher, Paul McGinley, was taking a leave of absence.


When that year expired, the University of New Orleans decided that they were going to invite a saxophone instructor to their campus. They had to do a national search, and my name became a part of that search and I was very fortunate to get that position. While I was in a position to be a professor again, I saw it as another opportunity to be a student again, under some of my favorite players and teachers—Ellis Marsalis, [composer/arranger] Harold Battiste, another gentleman named Charlie Blancq.

What was really amazing about Charlie Blancq's relationship to all that is that he had done a book about one of my favorite saxophonists, Sonny Rollins [Sonny Rollins: The Journey of a Jazzman (Twayne, 1983)], so it was like the circle was getting completed along the way.


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