Jazz interview with a bad musician, as if saxophonist Jan Prax. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Jan Prax: – I grew up in Karlsruhe, a city in South Germany. My father was a classical piano professor in Poland before he came to Germany back in the eighties, so I started getting piano lessons when I was three years old.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the your musical instrument?
JP: – I took the piano seriously until I started saxophone as a second instrument when I was twelve. I first did it just for fun but eventually it took over and I completely committed myself to jazz music and the saxophone when I was around 16 years old. I’ve had great teachers throughout such as my father Marian Prax, Laszlo Wolpert, Peter Lehel, Klaus Graf, Hubert Winter, Steffen Schorn, Florian Trübsbach…
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JP: – I really did (and still do) a lot of tone exercises in order to come closer to the sound ideal I had and still have in my head. Overtones (especially the Joe Allard method) and different kinds of long tones in varied dynamics and articulations helped me a lot. I would also practice long tones while listening to the jazz greats and try to emulate their sound, intonation and the emotional quality of their tone. But part of developing a sound is also gaining more experiences and learning more about life.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JP: – Every practice session I start with long tones, overtone exercises and wide intervals over the entire range of the horn. I also give special attention to the lowest and highest notes, because it’s a challenge for me to get them even and in tune. After I feel comfortable, I go on to work on my time feel and on rhythmic patterns. For example I set the metronome really slow, like 10-20 bpm, and first play whole notes, then half notes, then quarter notes and so on and then switch between different tone lengths. Another thing I practice for improving my rhythm is that I set the metronome on different beats while playing jazz standards. For example on every third eight note or on every ninth quarter note. Another thing is to play continuous 5- or 7-note groupings over jazz standards. I also practice classical pieces and play along different kinds of music, as well as taking phrases through all keys.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
JP: – McCoy Tyner’s harmonic concept is a big influence. I like the possibilities of modal improvising in terms of harmonic tension and release (inside-outside playing). Stacking up chords is also fun if you are really able to hear those sounds, for example playing a Eb-7 chord over a Cmaj7, like C E G B Eb Gb Bb Db. But I am also rooted in the bebop language, so it depends on the situation.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
JP: – Branford Marsalis with Kurt Elling („Upward Spiral“) comes to my mind, and also Ahmad Jamal „Marseille“.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JP: – Intellect comes from continuous study, but I think soul is what gives the music meaning. People relate to the soul in music, but the music has to be based on a certain knowledge and intellectuality in order to be valuable.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JP: – I remember a crazy gig three years ago when I was invited by David Sanborn to sit in at his concert at the Palace of Arts in Budapest. I had to get up at 4 a.m. and take the train for 9 hours in order to get to Budapest on time. I did not know who the band was and what tunes I was going to play with them. I arrived early and was pretty nervous. Then the band showed up. It was Ricky Peterson on keys, Andre Berry on electric bass, Nicky Moroch on guitar and Chris Coleman on drums. One hour later Dave showed up and we rehearsed for some time, some tunes I already knew and some I had to learn on the spot by ear. In the evening at the gig I waited backstage until Dave would announce me to come join him on stage. I tried to recall the melodies Dave showed me at the soundcheck. I waited for a long time, it really seemed so long! Finally I heard his announcement and went on this huge stage and we just played beautiful music. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.
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?
JP: – In my view the music is the most important thing in this „business“, even if some people might say otherwise. It can be difficult sometimes, when there is not enough respect for the music, but it is a learning process for me and I am learning more and more about handling all those different things. But playing my instrument is really central for me. Believe in yourself and believe in the music.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
JP: – I don’t know whether „business“ is the right word, because business is always about the profit. In (jazz-) music we often rely on financial support or grants in order to make something happen. Personally, I think a lot is about networking between musicians and personal relationships. Being a musician today, you have to deal with a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with playing your instrument, so a lot of focus and dedication towards your craft is needed in order not to be distracted too much.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
JP: – I have been lucky to work with some great musicians so far. A special collaboration for me is with the great double bass player Riccardo del Frà, who played with Chet Baker for a decade and with many of the greats. I am playing in different projects of his since three years and have been learning a lot about music, life and the „business“.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JP: – In order to enjoy art music it really helps to have a basic understanding of the subject. I think that’s a reason why some young people give up when it comes to more demanding music because it opens up too wide a subject and that may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s rewarding also! The standard tunes are actually timeless because they tell stories about things we all experience. In my opinion it’s more a question of listening habits and how you were brought up.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JP: – As I understand it, Coltrane was always striving to become a better version of himself. Music was his tool to achieve this and he dedicated his life to it. I find this very inspiring and admire his strong will and his ability to communicate his ideals and spirituality through music.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
JP: – I just hope to be able to continue making music with great musicians that I admire and from whom I can learn more about music and life. The lack of stability can be a struggle sometimes, but everybody has to find his own way to navigate through the music world under the given circumstances.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JP: – I’d wish that jazz music – or really any form of art music – would be represented more in the mainstream media. I also feel that because of the digitization and the resulting constant overstimulation everything is becoming more superficial and short-lived. This is not doing jazz a favor.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
JP: – I’m currently working on a project with brilliant drummer & producer Gene Lake. I went to New York City last year and we recorded a few tunes in his home studio and at the moment we are working on more tunes and keep sending stuff back and forth.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
JP: – All music strives for portraying experiences we make in life. In jazz, improvisation is very important for expressing those feelings. As long as improvisation has a significant role in what ever form of music, similarities with jazz can be found.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JP: – At the moment I am listening to the following albums among others:
Joe Henderson – In’N’Out
Gene Lake – Cycles
Lee Morgan – Search for the New Land
Everette Harp – My Inspiration
John Coltrane – The John Coltrane Quartet Plays
Stan Getz – People Time
McCoy Tyner – Focal Point
Miles Davis – Milestones
Meshell Ndegeocello – The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
JP: – Alto saxophone Selmer Reference 54, Selmer Soloist F, Hemke Reeds 3 1/2
Soprano saxophone Yamaha Custom EX, Vintage Selmer Soloist G, Hemke Reeds 3 1/2
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JP: – Since I am a huge fan of the jazz music from the 1960s, I would definitely go to New York City and attend John Coltrane’s gig in November 1961 at the Village Vanguard. And many more…
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
JP: – What do you think, will be the state of jazz in, let’s say, 50 years?
JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers. I think as yes, of course. But in my humble opinion it will be much technical, to the point of view.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan