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Walt Weiskopf: All About the Sound

Bob Kenselaar By

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Another important association for Weiskopf early in his career was with the Toshiko Akiyoshi / Lew Tabackin Big Band. "After the better part of two years with Buddy Rich," he recalls, "I decided that I should come back to New York and try and stay there. I actually had an opportunity to go with Woody Herman's band, but I was about to get married or had just gotten married and decided that I would not do that, although it would have been nice to have that opportunity. I started making my way in New York, trying to go to jam sessions and play gigs." It was then that the opportunity came up with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin. "That was perfect. That started in 1983, and thing about it was you didn't have to go on the road for months and months at a time. It was isolated tours, and we would play New York frequently. We played at a club called Lush Life on Mondays for a while, and then at Fat Tuesdays on Mondays, and the Village Gate on Mondays—all over the course of ten years, I guess. Altogether, I was with the band for 14 years. It was much easier to be a full-time member of that band, because we were only on the road for a few weeks a year. We went to Japan many times, but those tours were maybe three weeks at the outside."

Working with fellow saxophonist Tabackin had a number of benefits for Weiskopf. "He was certainly an influence as far as my professional ethic. Stylistically, I wouldn't say he was much of an influence, but he did teach me a lot about playing the tenor per se. He has just a huge sound. And I learned a lot listening to him blow the horn. He has a unique style."

Steve Smith: Jazz Legacy, vol. 1 Other major benefits for Weiskopf from working in the band were the strong bonds he made with fellow the band members who spent long hours on buses together him—including several prominent jazz musicians of his generation, such as Billy Drummond, Conrad Herwig, Joe Magnarelli, Scott Robinson, Gary Smulyan and Jim Snidero. All have appeared on recordings led by Weiskopf, and he's returned the favor for Drummond, Herwig and Snidero, in addition to collaborating with all of them on other projects. He counts Snidero as an especially close friend; he teamed up with the fellow saxophonist for online multimedia instructional projects, Jazz Improvisation Workshop I and Jazz Saxophone Workshop, produced by the Jazz Conception Company.

Another close collaborator for Weiskopf is his old associate from the Buddy Rich band, Andy Fusco. The two were co-leaders on one album, Tea for Two (Criss Cross, 2005), and they joined together for a tour and two recordings led by Steve Smith, the versatile drummer known for his long tenure with the rock band Journey, Steve Smith's Jazz Legacy: Live on Tour, vol. 1 & 2 (Drum Legacy, 2012). "We had a ball doing that," he says. Whereas Weiskopf emphasizes original compositions heavily for his own recordings, Smith's band focused largely on jazz standards, giving listeners an opportunity to hear Weiskopf on such staples as "Airegin," "Two Bass Hit," "Moanin,'" and "Night in Tunisia." (His concluding cadenza on the latter tune, on volume 2, is one notable highlight.)

Family Roots

The one individual musician with whom the saxophonist has the closest association is his younger brother, the pianist Joel Weiskopf, whose career has included work with Woody Herman, Stan Getz and Quincy Jones, and who himself has recorded five albums as a leader, including Where Angels Fear to Tread (Steeplechase, 2016). Joel appears on eight of Walt's recordings and also serves together with him on the faculty at New Jersey City University. Rather than a sibling rivalry, the saxophonist describes their relationship as colleagues and co-conspirators, who made a lot of great music together. The last recording the two worked on together was Tea for Two in 2005. "It's always great with Joel. We kind of realized, though, that we maybe had to branch out and play with different people, which we have done. But we still work together, and I'm sure we will again."

The two have also worked together as composers, writing a four-movement piece in honor of their father for his 80th birthday. "Waltz for Dad," from that collaboration, appears on the saxophonist's 2013 recording, Overdrive. Their father, a full-time physician and part-time pianist, provided a very musical environment for the brothers growing up in DeWitt, in central New York State, outside of Syracuse. (They moved there from Augusta, Georgia, where Walt was born.) "He was always a fairly high-level pianist. We grew up hearing beautiful piano music in the home. He played Chopin, Liszt and Brahms, you name it. He still plays today. Ironically, he never played any jazz at all."

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