Interview with Mark Hynes: Jazz is inherently an intellectual pursuit: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Mark Hynes. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Mark Hynes: – First, let me say thank you for le<ng me do this interview! I grew up in the Home of the Blues, Chicago. It was a great place to hear music since music was everywhere. I used to love to go downtown on the train and there would be amazing musicians, full bands even, playing blues and soul music outdoors in the middle of a weekday right on State Street. Also, all the fesGvals all summer were free and open to the public, like the Blues Fest, Jazz Fest, and smaller fests that seemed to be every week in the summer.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

MH: – My first influences were coming from R&B and Blues—Grover Washington, Stanley TurrenGne, David Sanborn. As I became more educated in the history of jazz, I kind of went through phases. I tried to sound just like ’57 Coltrane, then I tried to sound like Joe Henderson (noGce the word “tried!”) But I kind of kept going backward in jazz history in my awareness and when I began listening to people like Ben Webster and Johnny Griffin, their sound and link to the blues really took hold on me. When moved to Detroit, the sound of one’s instrument was such a part of the history there. People like Marcus Belgrave, Rodney Whitaker, you could hear their personality in their sound immediately. So even the younger generation adopted that approach, where lots of cats around the country were more trying to sound like the latest fad.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

MH: – One thing I was taught by my mentor Gene Parker was the importance of keeping the fingers glued to the keys, so to speak. If you are flapping your fingers way up above the saxophone keys, there’s lots of wasted motion. So I try to do lots of exercises that pertain to that.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

MH: – Actually, I love to have disparate influences in my playing! In fact, I believe that is part of an improving musician’s duty is to be aware of all music, even if you don’t enjoy listening to it.

Thelonious Monk once said to his acolyte, “Listen to ALL music.” Dennis Irwin really taught me about that. When I would be on the road with him, he would bring records and the entire score for Mahler symphonies. I have been especially influenced by opera of late. I began listening to more Coleman Hawkins and trying to absorb what he does, because I’m not naturally attuned to that “vertical” style of playing. So I thought, “Well, I know that Hawk listened to mostly opera, so I should really do that too.” At the same time, I grew up on ’80’s rock, and have been trying to incorporate that music into what I do in a tenor trio context.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

MH: – Practice more! Seriously, though, the spiritual element of life is crucial to maintain both on and off the bandstand. I firmly believe that God gave us all our gics and abilities. But there is also something inherently spiritual about jazz music, which I feel came from its legacy in the blues. In my listening I have tried to delve deeply into the roots of the blues—thanks to people like Alan Lomax, we can hear the plantation songs and work songs that accompanied the horrible history of slavery in our country and really was the emotional underpinning of our music. In addition, I think listening to jazz is essential — I had a great teacher who taught me that if you practice one hour, you should listen to jazz one hour. If you don’t listen, you won’t learn the language, because it won’t be in your soul.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time?

MH: – And how did you select the musicians who play on the album? Well, the record was really the first session of what was supposed to be two. I wanted to go back to the same studio with Dennis and the drummer Darrell Green and add a piano to play some of my originals, which work beher with a chordal instrument. Yasushi Nakamura and Jerome Jennings went into the same studio with me later to cut the tune Goodbye which seemed appropriate for the Tribute concept.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

MH: – I think in jazz music, the soul always has be what’s leading you. Of course, jazz is inherently an intellectual pursuit and those who don’t approach it as such are never going to get far. But when you’re performing, if you are not “telling your story” no one is going to enjoy what they’re hearing.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relaGonship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

MH: – I don’t think there is a dichotomy, there, really. I think of Duke Ellington, who wrote music well into his 70’s, and even well acer he had been diagnosed with cancer. He would always play the “golden oldies” that his core audience that came to hear him would expect, but then he would hit them with the latest composition, sometimes an extended suite. And his later works were even more adventurous harmonically, as well as extending into classical and gospel contexts with the Sacred Concerts. Nobody ever walked out, as far as I know, because it was the Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, or Harlem, they just were listening to Duke!

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

MH: – One gig I played with Dennis Irwin is memorable because it featured the great Ellington tenorman Harold Ashby. As he was from Kansas City, this concert in KC’s Folly Theater with Art Baron’s band The Duke’s Men featured him. Harold sat in a chair as he opened the concert with a quartet. The very last tune we played Cohontail and had a bit of a tenor bahle, which was amazing and Howard Johnson remarked that his eyes lit up like he was 20 years old again. The next morning we found out he had been admihed to the hospital, and he never played another gig.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

MH: – That’s an excellent question, one that I think musicians and fans alike have been faced with for many decades now with no clear answer. The way I think of it, I certainly didn’t grow up hearing The Way You Look Tonight, or Bye Bye Blackbird, I only know them because I’m a jazz musician. What we have to do in our time is what the jazz icons of the 1940’s and ’50’s did—take the music that is popular, in their case mostly from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, and adapt it for improvisation. That’s the goal of my next album, jazz versions of tunes I grew up hearing—the music of Ozzy Osbourne, The Police, Led Zeppelin. There really is a natural progression to create jazz improvisation over this material as that music came directly from the blues. Who was it that said, ”The blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll?”

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

MH: – One thing that people seem to forget about Coltrane when they talk about him being a saint and all that is that he wrote A Love Supreme as a dedication to God. He was a drug addict who had been fired by Miles Davis from the preeminent jazz group of the day for his addicGon. When he beat it, he was inspired, years later, to write this entire suite to the Creator for rescuing him, essentially. But I think that you could hear that awareness in his playing. I think that God created music for us to praise him and I don’t think that it has to have lyrics or be played in a church to be in glory of him. In terms of the meaning of life for musicians, giving God praise with our instruments is definitely the goal.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

MH: – Within the world of jazz, I find that there is such micro-categorization. There are cats who will listen to Paul Bley but refuse to listen to Oscar Peterson. And then there are some who are completely the other way around. I say, why can’t I enjoy listening to Ben Webster and Archie Shepp and Messiaen and Cheap Trick, and so on? Musicians are a universal family, in my mind, and we all should be supporting each other.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

MH: – One of my favorite all-time musicians of any instrument is Kenny Kirkland. I’ve always wondered, how does he always sound like Kenny Kirkland, even when you hear him playing rhythm changes? Then I learned that he was a serious fan of modern 20th century composers, such as Messiaen, Stockhausen, and Berg. So I’ve been really hiting that hard. Also, the Metropolitan Opera here in New York has been streaming one free opera every day from their archives, and that has been an incredible resource to expand my listening.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

MH: – My message is — Swing, baby!! Really, though, I think that the dance tradition in the music has to come through in the way you feel it. And that doesn’t mean it has to sound like you’re stuck in 1936. But the feel always has to come back to the listener saying “Yeah” and pating their foot. Wynton Marsalis has stated that Louis Armstrong’s overarching message to us was, “Yes, there’s pain in the world, but, . . . swing, and everything will be allright.”

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

MH: – I know exactly ‘cause I’ve thought about this! I want to be transported to the stage of whatever club with Billie Holliday, and I would be playing obligato behind her. Wow!

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a quesGon from yourself…

MH: – Great idea! Simon, how did you get to be such a big jazz fan and how do people like jazz in Armenia where you are from?

JBN: – Jazz is my life!!! Meny people like jazz in Armenia!!!

JBN: – So puting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

MH: – Because of great pjeople like you, Simon!! Thanks so much for the opportunity to speak.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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