May 24, 2024

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Interview with Samir Zarif: Jazz musicians have to be willing to push things forward while connecting: Videos

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Samir Zarif. An interview by email in writing.

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

Samir Zarif: – I’m from Houston, TX.  I grew up in a “music family” as people like to call it; although I feel like everyone kinda does, right? My mom was a piano & vocal teacher for Parker Elementary, a magnet school in Houston. My dad wasn’t really involved in music but I heard he could carry a tune, lol! My eldest sister, Zahrah went the path of my father and is a businesswoman. My brother Larry grew up playing various instruments but doesn’t anymore, he’s a math tutor now. But he’s also the reason my sister Tahirah started playing cello and eventually became a Grammy-nominated cellist. As you can tell I’m proud of my family! Lol. Long story short, as the youngest in my immediate family, music was inevitable for me.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz saxophone?

SZ: – So before my mom & dad were together, my mom was married to a saxophonist by the name of Larry Whittington. Apparently he was pretty awesome and performed in the Duke Ellington Band in the late 60’s to early 70’s. By the way, if you were wondering how my siblings and I are Samir, Tahirah, Zahrah and “Larry” (lol), mystery solved! Anyway, he passed away in the mid 70’s so years later my mom remarried, I was born and sneaky little Samir use to sneak into his mom’s closet all the time! That’s where I found a couple saxophones! At the time I was playing violin but I convinced my mom to let me learn sax. She was cool with the idea but only if I continued playing violin too. After a while she let me drop the violin but it took about 5 or 6 years.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the jazz saxophone?

SZ: – Simply put I thought the saxophone was cooler than the violin. I started playing violin when I was 3 which was influenced by watching my sister play. But later after finding the saxophone in my mom’s closet, I was so fascinated by it. As for teachers, I owe a great deal to all my saxophone mentors but two really stand out the most; Conrad Johnson & Ed Petersen! Conrad Johnson better known as “Prof” was a mentor to many notable saxophonist coming out of Houston for decades like my homie, Walter Smith III. Prof is legendary and helped set the foundation for me at the very beginning of my adventures into improvisation. Ed Petersen was my mentor while I was attending the University of New Orleans. On the other side of the spectrum, Ed’s approach comes out of the free jazz movement of Chicago and is a masterful technician on the saxophone. But most importantly, he taught me the value of creating music without boundaries, to dig deep and find out who I was as a human being and how that translates to the music I perform.

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

SZ: – While living in New Orleans my focus/sound stemmed from the friendship I developed with Jason Marsalis. During that time I was obsessed with Ben Webster and Sam Rivers (two ends of the saxophone spectrum). Simultaneous to that I was really into odd-meter and mix-meter composition but with the focus of making it lyrical. When I moved to New York and started school at Manhattan School of Music that began to develop even deeper and was reflected in two bands I co-led, The Paislies & The Story and then later in my debut album, Starting Point. But after touring for a few years, my group The Story broke up and I was left to figure out what was next. That ended up manifesting into the formation of an electronic music duo, Pax Humana where I learned how to record, produce and perform electronic music primarily using Ableton Live, (and no saxophone, lol). I was still playing sax with bands like Hans Glawischnig Trio and Miguel Zenon’s Big Band but as a leader, my main focus was electronic music. Fast-forward to last year, I decided to marry the two worlds together (music production and saxophone performance) and really developed a sound that pays homage to not only my background as a jazz artist but also the music I grew up listening to and love, hiphop & rnb.

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

SZ: – I don’t know if I have a routine of some sort. In all actuality I don’t really like routine so that’s not really going to work for me. But I do listen to a lot of hiphop. And when I’m improvising on the saxophone, I imagine myself rapping, using word-play and repetitive rhythms. But also, I always practice with a metronome. And when I practice, I usually play everything slow so I can really dive into the nuances of what I’m learning. So, maybe there is some routine there.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

SZ: – Harmonically I like to keep things simple and open; major, minor maybe some rises 11’s. I love being creative around harmony, especially when improvising, so I’ll usually leave extensions or complex harmony out of the actually chord and imply those complexities in the melody or what I improvise on top of a simple chord. It’s more fun that way! It’s something Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers and Monk were geniuses at and I love it! Also a lot of the music I’m doing now is mainly groove-based and the harmonic aspect of the music is based on the melody. When I studied with Terence Blanchard for a few years, that was the main thing I took away; melody comes first, then harmony.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

SZ: – Yes, always be approachable! The most important aspect of business, especially in the music industry, is how you make people feel. Having a good attitude and not letting success or the lack of success dictate how you treat others is super important. So, be nice and make friends! You never know who might end up giving you the support you need to get to the next level of your career. In fact, my manager, Stacy James was my friend for many years before we ever did any work together. Now, most of my recent success I have her to thank.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

SZ: – Yes, jazz is a business in my opinion. If there’s music business in general, there’s always going to be a place for jazz within that and in a lot of ways at its forefront. Some of the best “music” was, and still is, created by “jazz musicians.” Think of Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, even Gil Scott-Heron. And then you have albums like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” and Common’s “Black America Again” which are two recent examples of how deep jazz is still influencing music today. Jazz is here to stay!

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

SZ: – Lol! This is a funny question. But one the evokes a really important point that I try to make when I can. If you look at the true tradition of “jazz,” we should not be playing irrelevant music to the times. Jazz is supposed to represent the times. When John Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” that song was popular and fresh. That’s why one of my favorite albums is Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard. That to me is a great blueprint for keeping the tradition alive, not trying to recreate recordings that already exist. Jazz musicians have to be willing to push things forward while connecting with today’s audience, not the audience of the 20’s & 30’s. Don’t get me wrong though, that music is amazing and essential for learning. But a great historian only studies the past to predict the future, they don’t study the past to recreate it!

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

SZ: – I am a Soka Gakkai Buddhist so my philosophy about life stems from that. In a nutshell, we are on this earth to become happy regardless of our circumstances. And that happiness comes from a sense of fulfillment and the joy of taking action for the happiness of oneself and others. As far as music being my spirit, I agree. I jokingly tell people, my first language is music, english my second. And the reason is, I can express myself a lot easier through music. It’s just something extremely deeper and honest. Music is a direct reflection of the soul and definitely is the most powerful language of humankind. That’s also why I like chanting, it sounds like a song.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

SZ: – My immediate expectations are to continue reaching more and more people through my music, through live performances all over the world and for that music to inspire others to create something new. It’s important to me to be successful because it was something I promised my parents in my heart, be it that they both passed away before I was 19-years-old. So I guess in the same sense, I don’t want to let them down or myself for that matter. So no matter what, I have to move forward.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

SZ: – After releasing my latest album, Stereotype Threat, I have been performing quite a bit. But I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to perform in Europe & Asia. I haven’t toured Europe in a long time and I miss it a lot so that’s the number one thing on my list; I have to make that happen but it’s got to be within the right terms.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

SZ: – Yes! Music is music. I love it all!

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

SZ: – Lately I’ve been diving in to Quincy Jones, particularly his album You’ve Got it Bad Girl. And I’m always listening to artists like Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def, Common, Kaytranada, Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, The Roots, Solange, Frank Ocean, The Internet, etc. To be honest, I haven’tt really been listening to “jazz” much lately.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

SZ: – Specific brand of saxophone or reeds I won’t mention for now. But I’ve been playing on this Otto Link metal mouthpiece since forever. It’s all beat up and I love it! I also perform with my Ableton Push 2, Akai Midi Controller and Universal Audio Apollo Twin interface which is as important a part of my performance as the saxophone. Ableton Live is a huge part of how I perform now and it’s so fun!

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