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Walt Weiskopf: All About the Sound

Bob Kenselaar By

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What is it that drives Walt Weiskopf? It's all about the music, all about the sound.

He's reached a large audience in ten years of touring with Steely Dan. He's written a half dozen books on jazz improvisation techniques and methods, and he's taught at the Eastman School of Music, Temple University and New Jersey City University, where he now heads the jazz program. We find the real key to his work, though, in the huge catalog of recordings as a leader, overwhelmingly featuring his own compositions and arrangements for aggregations that range from quartets to nine-piece ensembles.

Ask him what he tries to evoke with his writing, and he's disarmingly forthright: his focus is on the musical expression itself—the melodic lines, the harmony and the rhythm, interwoven and all framing the improvisations of the group, with his own stellar tenor sax work sharing the spotlight pretty much equally with the other musicians. Going by the titles of some of his compositions, he's clearly dedicated a few to his family and at least one to a musical influence ("Like Mike," for Michael Brecker). And there's even a full album, Sight to Sound (Criss Cross, 2003), where the professed aim is to tie the compositions with the work of great visual artists, from van Gough to Picasso. But you don't have to press him hard before Weiskopf will admit that he concentrates almost exclusively on the sound alone.

His recordings have been widely reviewed in the jazz press, where Weiskopf has received a number of accolades for his work. C. Andrew Hovan in All About Jazz called him "easily one of the most mature and fully individualistic saxophonists and composers to come along in the last 10 years." Bill Milkowski in Jazz Times dubbed him "a major talent... a monster tenor saxophonist as well as a prolific composer and accomplished arranger." Zan Stewart in Downbeat echoed those comments, calling him "a consummate saxophonist, composer and arranger." Bret Primack, now best known as YouTube's "Jazz Video Guy," once picked out a Weiskopf album as one of the ten best of the year. Other commentary by Hovan provides some notable observations: "Not to take anything away from other jazz saxophonists, but Weiskopf's musical persona is the complete package. He has an identifiable sound, chops aplenty, great ideas and a strong emotional base that is often absent in other technically gifted players. . . . [He] not only sets a benchmark for jazz that functions within the tradition, but speaks with individuality and emotional attachment."

The Way You Say It

The Way You Say It His recorded output includes eleven albums as a leader for Criss Cross, the jazz label based in the Netherlands, and since 2013, he's been recording for Posi-Tone Recordfs. His 2016 release, The Way You Say It, is his third for the label. The saxophonist's last outing on Posi-Tone, Open Road, featured a traditional jazz quartet instrumentation, with Peter Zak on piano, Mike Karn on bass and Steve Fidyk on drums. His first recording on the label, Overdrive, added vibes and guitar. The titles of both albums relate to the setting for most of his work composing and arranging. "I do the lion's share of it on the on the road. That's when I have the time, and I'm free of distraction. It would definitely be an adjustment if I had to write the material for a whole record if I didn't have that time to myself to do it. Otherwise, I never have any down time."

Weiskopf credits Posi-Tone producer Mark Free with sparking the idea for forming the group featured on The Way You Say It. "We were trying to figure out what to do next," says Weiskopf about his conversation with Free. "This recording, we knew, was going to be not more than five people and probably not less than four. I hadn't done an organ record in a long time. And Mark was aware of that. So, we started with that concept." The last recording Weiskopf led featuring organ dated way back to his second album on Criss Cross, A World Away (1993), featuring Larry Goldings along with Peter Bernstein on guitar and Bill Stewart on drums. For the organ spot on the new record, Free recommended Brian Charette, another accomplished Posi-Tone artist based in New York.

Weiskopf weighted in on fleshing out the rest of the group. "I love the idea of having two lead voices to work with. And I love the vibes. So, Mark said, 'Well, what about Behn?'"—that is, Behn Gillece, who collaborated with Weiskopf on Overdrive. Weiskopf remembers, "I said, 'Great!' All I need is a parameter. Just start me off, and I'll get to work." Drummer Steve Fidyk rounds out a quartet for The Way You Say It, and, as it turns out, the instrumentation—sax, organ, vibes and drums—is an uncommon one in jazz. "I hadn't thought about it until somebody else pointed it out, but, as a matter of fact, there's only a couple of records with that same configuration," says Weiskopf.

The focus for the compositions on the recording, according to Weiskopf, is "the way things sound—The Way You Say It. Mark had asked me to write an original ballad for this recording, and I got an idea for it from my wife's speaking voice, which I love. That's the title tune, "The Way You Say It," which has a kind of a double meaning on the old adage, 'it's not what you say, it's the way that you say it,' or, in jazz, 'it's not what you play but the way that you play it.'"

The album's opener, "Coffee and Scones," stands out in particular—a bright and highly infectious melody, likely destined for a fair amount of airplay on jazz radio. The title seems fitting, to the point that you might think it was the first line of lyrics, if there were any. But, actually, the title was partly producer Mark Free's idea. Weiskopf's real focus? Again, "I'm just trying to write good music."

Walt Weiskopf Quartet: LiveOther selections on the album include "Separation," one of very few of Weiskopf's compositions that he's recorded more than once, and "Inntoene," titled after the Austrian jazz festival where he's played several times. All but three of the dozen tunes on the recording are original compositions. Among the non-originals, "Scarlet Woman" is an unusual choice; it's credited to Alphonso Johnson, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul and comes from Mysterious Traveler by Weather Report. Here, Weiskopf adapted an arrangement he used on trip to Europe, working with the German saxophonist Johannes Enders, among ofthers.

Taking the Lead Otherwise & Elsewhere

While much of Weiskopf's output consists of studio recordings, a live date recorded in 2008 and released in 2011 is especially notable, Walt Weiskopf Quartet (Capri), featuring pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Tony Reedus, recorded at the University of South Carolina. "I never intended that to be released. I was invited to play there, and Renee and I are old friends. I was lucky enough to get her and Tony Reedus on a record years ago called Anytown [Criss Cross, 1999], with Joe Locke, a star-studded record the likes of which will probably never happen again. And, so, Renee was available, and we took Paul Gill along, and I had been playing a lot with Tony Reedus at the time, whom I loved. And then, about six months afterward, Tony died. I think I was aware along the way that the concert was being recorded. They sent me the recording, just as a courtesy. It obviously wasn't a studio recording. But the engineer, Jeff Francis, had worked with Sony and was a very experienced guy, and for a raw recording, it didn't sound bad at all. Tony's playing in particular was brilliant—absolutely brilliant. So, when I heard that he died, I decided I was going to try and do something with this. Jeff was terrific; we basically mixed for two days to put it together. I'm really glad we did it. The sound quality got some criticism, but it's the music that matters."

A standout studio recording deeper back into Weiskopf's catalog is Man of Many Colors (Criss Cross, 2002), featuring pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Clarence Penn. The group came together partly through another visit that Weiskopf made to Europe, playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague. He shared the stage there with Mehldau, somewhat serendipitously. The festival organizers gave Weiskopf his time slot, gave him a list of other musicians on the bill, and left it to him to find a quartet to play together. "Brad was going to be there, and I had been working with Rick Hollander, a terrific drummer from Detroit who was living in Munich, so it wasn't too much trouble for him to come. And [bassist] James Genus was there also." Criss Cross Records producer Gerry Teekens was very impressed with the resulting concert and set about putting a studio recording together featuring the saxophonist and pianist. "Of course, Brad is in a league of his own. So, I said, 'Sure. You want to try and engage Brad, be my guest, absolutely.' And so he did. John Patitucci had just moved to New York, and so he was around, and Clarence was available. I thought to myself, 'Enjoy this while it lasts, because these guys are on a rocket ship to fame in the jazz world.' And they were. It was great, great experience."

Of his other recordings, Weiskopf is hard pressed to single others out. "I always say it's kind of like your children. It's hard to have a favorite." He is especially grateful to Criss Cross producer Gerry Teekens to give him the opportunity to record leading larger ensembles, including two nonets (Siren [2000], Song for My Mother [1997]), one octet (Day In, Night Out [2008]) and two sextets (Simplicity [1992], Sleepless Nights [1998]). Over the course of conversation, talking about his musical influences, Weiskopf mentions another recording, one that's actually outside of his own output: Renee Rosnes's For the Moment (Blue Note), winner of Canada's Juno Award for Best Jazz Album in 1992. Weiskopft doesn't perform on the recording, but it features his composition "Thinking to Myself," with the lead voice played by the great saxophonist and composer Joe Henderson, whom Weiskopf counts an important influence, especially in his compositions.

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