Interview with Joseph Herbst: If something is soulful, I don’t really care whether it’s intellectual or not: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Joseph Herbst. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Joseph Herbst։ – I grew up near Greenville, South Carolina. My parents encouraged me to learn piano when I was in 3rd grade, and similarly encouraged me to play saxophone in middle school band a few years later. A lot of people share specific moments where they fell in love with music, but I never had a moment like that. I just gradually fell more in love with music, and my love for music just continues to deepen.

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

JH: – During high school, I decided to study both classical and jazz, though I largely kept those studies separate. My jazz studies began with the tradition – Johnny Hodges was one of the first saxophonists I both fell in love with and studied. My jazz teacher at Michigan State University, Diego Rivera, guided my studies by transcribing saxophonists through time, progressing through various parts of the jazz tradition. The overall focus was on bebop, so through much of college, I was balancing classical on one hand and tradition steeped bebop on the other. As I shifted focus to my own projects, especially after graduating, I began exploring ways in which I could bring together my studies in these two genres. I began writing and writing and writing, as well as playing as much as I could. Through this, I was able to explore many possibilities, shaping the sound you hear on my album. My sound has continued to evolve since then, and I expect it will always continue to evolve as I continue to create.

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

JH: – I make it a point to practice songs in odd time, like 5 or 7, every day. When I was able to safely play gigs in person, I would call tunes in odd meters as much as I could. I believe the more you play rhythms or feels that are challenging or different, the more comfortable they get, broadening your rhythmic ability.

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

JH: – In terms of the art I create, I think my answer to this is that I don’t. I believe you can and should draw influence from everywhere. My music is influenced by all sorts of music, as well as all sorts of art.

In terms of the projects I lead, I have to be true to myself. If something or someone is trying to push me to do something that isn’t honest to my vision, I acknowledge that and stick with what I’m doing. However, I always believe in keeping an open mind, so I aim to balance creating a space for feedback on my work with staying true to my vision.

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

JH: – I don’t have any particular routine. I try to perform a lot, which gives me the practice I need in regards to maintaining stamina. I draw energy from other people, so before a performance, you’ll often find me hanging out with bandmates or the audience. To me, live shows should embrace the communal aspect.

Occasionally, before a performance I’ll feel out of it – like I’m not feeling the musical and spiritual energy I usually do before I play. In this case, I do the opposite of the above and I step outside or go for a short walk. I find separating myself from the music and having a moment to breathe and be with myself really helps ground and center me before performing.

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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? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

JH: – The first time the band played this music was around September of 2017. We were all students at Michigan State University, so I asked five of my friends and colleagues, many of whom I had played with quite a bit at that point, to read some music I wrote over the summer. At the time, the style of music I was writing was very different from what we were used to playing in school. Between then and the recording session in June of 2019, we all grew more comfortable with this style of music. Plus, many of us graduated in May of 2018 and went separate ways, which gave us a chance to bring back new experiences. So yes, our sound evolved quite a bit from the first time we played this music as a band.

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

JH: – I think intellect serves to advance the soul. If something is soulful, I don’t really care whether it’s intellectual or not. For me, music is about feeling. However, intellect can help guide you to finding new sounds that can farther deepen your expressivity through music.

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

JH: – Sort of. I believe in honesty, and I believe that most audiences, or at least the audiences I strive to reach, value honesty. In that light, I give them what they want by sharing honest music. But in the same vein, I write music that is true to myself first and foremost. I do think a lot about accessibility of music, though. In order to reach more people, particularly those outside the jazz world, I need to make sure my music is either presented, written, or performed in a way that is accessible. I believe collaboration is a very powerful tool in this light, as you can connect people to the music through words, visuals, and so on. Similarly, creating themed shows and projects gives the audience something to latch on to outside of the music, which can help bring them in.

So really, I create the music that I want to create and then I ask myself, “How can I make this more accessible?”

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

JH: – The band had never played the music I wrote to go behind the spoken word pieces, which were recorded separately and earlier, until we were in the studio recording the album. I remember recording those felt magical – the band just brought it to life in ways I didn’t expect. Not only that, but I was originally happy with the first take of some of those, and Luther S. Allison, the pianist, suggested we record another take on most of them. We did and those were even more magical!

After one of our shows during our tour leading up to the recording session, someone came up to me and said something like, “I didn’t think I liked jazz, but if this is jazz, then I love it!” And I think about how meaningful that is to me a lot.

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

JH: – I think an important part of the jazz tradition that is often overlooked is how jazz musicians used to choose songs to play. So many of the standards we play were popular songs, often from musicals and shows. So why don’t we do that now? I think we should expand our understanding of jazz repertoire to include popular songs of today. I’m trying to incorporate songs from my favorite movies and TV shows into my repertoire.

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

JH: – I consider myself a human first. I live in this world – in my environment – alongside so many people, my community. These relationships I have with all the different aspects of the world shape my life. I don’t know if there is such thing as a meaning of life, but I do know that I aim to strengthen my community and relationships while building a better world both for those around me and those who will follow. That is to say, I aim to create a better world as part of my community. This – my life and spirit – guides my music

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

JH: – I would make the need for making music as accessible and equitable as possible a priority for all of us. Meaning, there are often barriers to entering the musical world. How can a poorer family afford instruments, reeds, music, lessons, and all the other expenses involved? How do other factors like race play into that and what can we do to address it? How do you choose who gets opportunities to improve, such as attending a clinic, in a way that isn’t based on having access to more resources in the first place? How can we uplift up and coming musicians rather than trying to make them compete to see who is better at something that is ultimately subjective? I wish there was a magical button that could fix the inequities that exist in our world, but since there isn’t, we need to be actively addressing these issues.

There’s a saying that the way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, practice, practice, but we need to break down this idea of hard work as the ultimate solution to success and truly examine all the intricacies of the social and economic factors involved in shaping the road to success.

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

JH: – Recently, I’ve fallen back on listening to some of my favorite musicians. Diego Rivera and Etienne Charles, both mentors of mine from Michigan State, come to mind. I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band and Ron Miles.

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

JH: – Much of my music ultimately falls back to creating a more just and equitable world founded on a sense of community. We’re all in this together.

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

JH: – If this type of time travel somehow involves me being unnoticed to those in the time we visit, I would love to see the conversations had and work done to create Steven Universe, a show created by Rebecca Sugar. Currently, this is my favorite piece of art created – from the storytelling to the themes to the colors to the music, I love it all. I’d love to see how the show came to be – what conversations were had, what concerns were brought up, how everyone worked together. I think that would be fascinating to see.

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

JH: – What is it that you like about jazz?

JBN: – All except Jazz rap.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

About Me — Joseph Herbst Music

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