Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Julian Brezon. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Julian Brezon: – I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in a tiny town called Trappe, which is a very rural area. We would jokingly say we were “trapped in Trappe!” For all of the area’s bucolic beauty, jazz concerts and arts performances in general were few and far between. I was lucky enough to have artists for parents who brought jazz into my life very early, shortly after I started playing saxophone in the school band. One of my most vivid memories of my father, who passed away shortly thereafter, is of him taking out an old Buescher tenor which I didn’t know we had and playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and playing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Rollins’ Horn Culture records for me. After that it quickly became my passion.
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?
JB: – In my house, there was a piano, an old Selmer clarinet which belonged to my grandfather (which I still play), and my father’s flute and saxophone. I tried them all when it was time to pick an instrument for band and the saxophone came most naturally to me. I was blessed to have the opportunity to take lessons with saxophonist and composer Matt Belzer at the Peabody Preparatory (in Baltimore) on a scholarship starting in middle school, and since I was still living in Trappe, my mom had to drive me 3 hours round-trip every Saturday for lessons. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for that dedication! I studied with Matt for about eight years, through high school and eventually at UMBC in my undergraduate studies, and I credit him with instilling in me an unrelenting dedication to developing a unique voice as a composer and a strong, warm sound on the instrument.
More recently, I was lucky enough to meet tenor legend and Baltimore-native Gary Thomas (who played with Miles, Herbie, etc.) and after I was done being awestruck I began studying with him for about three years. He helped me a lot in regards to change-playing, developing a stronger rhythmic sense, and exploring new harmonic approaches. I’m currently working with trumpeter Alex Norris, and his focus on learning loads of relatively obscure standards and studying Lester Young has really helped me reach another plateau in my musicianship.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JB: – Well, I primarily played alto all the way up until 2013, so my sound really changed when I switched my focus to tenor. My saxophone idols up until then had been primarily Sonny Rollins, Cannonball, and Paul Desmond (for his lyrical tonal approach.) I became really fascinated with the potential of odd-meters after hearing Guadeloupean trumpeter Franck Nicolas make it sound so groovy while still being harmonically adventurous. You can hear his influence in the vamps on Rhinocerosand Amaru.A few years ago, when I heard Kenny Wheeler’s Songs for Quintetrecord, I became kind of obsessed with Stan Sulzmann’s playing, and that was around the same time I started studying with Gary Thomas, so their (very disparate) approaches have kind of blended into what I really want to sound like. I still think I’m only just starting to get there.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JB: – Hm, I’d say listening to all kinds of music, not just post-bop jazz, even though that’s where my main influences lie. Gary Thomas’ no-holds-barred approach to playing time on the saxophone really inspired me, along with his insistence that I sounded much better when I played less notes with more intent. That should be obvious to all of us, but I needed to be told time and time again! As far as this record goes, playing with a rock-solid rhythm section like Eric Kennedy and Blake Meister makes it really easy to play good time. I think they should get a lot of the credit!
As far as specific routines or exercises go, I like to pick a rhythmic motif and use exclusively that for many choruses, while practicing. Playing scales and patterns in all subdivisions from quarters to septuplets with a very slow metronome has been really instrumental in my own technical development. It’s more of a mindset thing when improvising, though. Stripping away all the notes and imagining that you’re playing a percussion instrument, then adding melodic concepts back as a new layer. I also consider Herbie Hancock’s eighth-note touch and phrasing to be a gold standard.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
JB: – As you can hear, I like working with harmonic motion from areas of darkness into light, and exploring all the contrasting colors which become available. I’m definitely trying to create a mood rather than just a template for blowing solos. I love lydian to minor motion. Melodically, I’ve been just scratching the surface of viewing everything as combinations of approach tones and chord tones. I arrived at that mindset by studying the way Gary Thomas uses a sort of “double chromatic approach” to augmented triads, resulting in scales derived from Olivier
Messiaen’s third mode of limited transposition. It allows one to use almost all 12 pitches but still stay rooted in a tonal area and I find that fascinating.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017-18 year?
JB: – Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan’s Small Townhas been on my player for a while. And I really like Alan Ferber’s Jigsaw.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JB: – Haha, you’re asking me for an answer? I studied in an academic setting, and I wouldn’t be the same composer without all the theoretical knowledge. And yet, I think intellect gets too much attention in certain circles. I started playing much better when I stopped thinking as much and started listening more. I think listening and feeling comes more from the “soul” side of things. I don’t want to make people think, I want to make them feel. Grief, joy, love, whatever.
Something intense! The “intellectual” side of music is a part of the toolset, like the instrument, in my opinion.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JB: – In December, I played the music from the album in a sextet configuration in my hometown, and it was the first time playing for a sold-out room packed with people who were there to hear my music. It was a very good feeling! Another nice moment was a few years ago, when I had a combo in my living room recording some tracks for my application to a program, and after playing the planned music, we decided to record a spontaneous or “free” improvisation, and it ended up being my favorite recording of the day. That kind of thing only happens with the right group of people and I loved playing with them.
JBN.S: – Which collaborations have been the most important experiences for you?
JB: – While there have been some less fruitful ones, I don’t think I can place higher value on any in particular, because they’ve all helped me to stay on the path I’m on, which feels like it’s going in the right direction. Studying with a one-of-a-kind player like Gary has definitely been a highlight though. He has a very powerful presence and he showed me what focus looks like.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JB: – Haha, I’m a young person and I love a lot of those tunes! I think that most of the songs that are still with us after many decades are still around because they are great tunes. Musicians may get tired of overplayed standards (I’m thinking of specific Real Book tunes) because they hear them a lot, and they’re often the less challenging ones, but people still emotionally react to the “overplayed” favorites, like Girl from Ipanema, because they’re great songs! I also think the sales don’t tell the whole story, and a lot of young people have connections to these tunes because of their family members and specific memories they share. I know some twenty-somethings, non musicians, who are very disconnected from “the jazz world” but who love to put on swing music when they’re hanging out at home and they know the melodies. It’s timeless. Just because people would rather buy mumble rap or indie rock albums en masse right now doesn’t change that fact.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JB: – That’s a serious question which I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer for, but I’ll explain the title of my album, because it’s in that vein. When I think about “deep light,” I’m thinking about the positivity and hope that comes out of crisis events in our lives. Traumatic situations. My father’s passing when I was a kid changed my life in many ways, and it involved many years and methods of grieving and trying to understand what it all meant. But I’ve maintained a relationship with him in many ways–music, art, film, and even the way I relate to people. I don’t feel like he’s gone. That’s what Nothing Lostis about. I wish he were still alive in the physical way, but I believe no one ever really dies.A friend of mine, Anne Watts, and her group Boister (which everyone should check out) have an album called Your Wound is Your Crown,and it touches on similar themes. I deeply relate to that title. We can be sad, grieve, mourn our losses and attacks on our minds and bodies, but ultimately the only real choice is to grow because of these things.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
JB: – Well, not to get too political, but on that same theme, I think America is in a place right now where we are going through a very dark time, with the political divisiveness and hatred within the power structures. I think it’s easy to be scared or anxious, but, as Tim Wise put it, we are in a “very possible moment.” I think the dirt is coming out from under the rug, and if we reckon with it properly (music will be a part of that process) we will have a shot at actually being the great nation we’ve always pretended to be. Our society hasn’t lived up to the promises made in our Constitution, for so many people. Globally, however, trends in poverty and crime are actually on a slow, steady track of improvement and that gives me some hope.
On a more personal level, I’m a very anxious person, and I’m only just beginning to deal with that in a real way. For my own future, I just hope to keep playing my music and finding a way to support myself within this industry. I’m lucky enough to really enjoy working with kids and teaching private lessons.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JB: – My wish would be for more people to have the opportunity to create and share the music that’s in their hearts with less interference from egotism, financial constraints, and oppression. So many artists are creatively disabled by these and other factors. I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to create a project like this, working with six other musicians. It was a privilege. It would have been very easy for self-doubt or a lack of finances to prevent this from becoming
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
JB: – Well, I’m about to take the plunge and move from Baltimore to New York, so that’s a real frontier! I look forward to the challenges and opportunities that await in a new city. And I feel that I have a lot of work to do as a saxophonist. I had to work very hard to be able to play this music at a level I found acceptable, and just in the few months since recording, I feel like I’ve had a few breakthroughs as an improviser. Long term, I am interested in making a concept album which incorporates spoken word or video pieces to portray a narrative. That’s probably a ways off though.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
JB: – Yes. The importance of melody, and rhythmic unity to name a couple.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JB: – Wayne Shorter, Gary Thomas, Stan Sulzmann, Kenny Wheeler, Mulgrew Miller, Franck Nicolas, Alan Ferber, Stan Getz, Vector Lovers, Aphex Twin, Cecil Taylor, John Abercrombie, Steve Grossman, Bennie Maupin, Bill Frisell, Ernie Krivda, Charles Lloyd… I keep a pretty varied and long list of music going on a regular basis.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JB: – I wouldn’t want to interfere, and I don’t think tourism is good for indigenous people, but it would be fascinating to hear any world musics pre-colonization. Particularly Carnatic music or Indonesian Gamelan music.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
JB: – Honestly, I’m just curious how you found my record, since I’m quite unknown outside Baltimore and D.C…
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. Haha … We have all the new compact discs that come to light.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan