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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.

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