February 27, 2024

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Interview with Lynn Baker: The goal is to express soul and to move the listeners’ souls: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Lynn Baker. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Lynn Baker: – I was born and spent the early years of my life in Salem, Oregon, raised by my very supportive parents, Mac and Adella Baker. Even though Salem was a not a cultural center, my parents provided me with as many opportunities as they could. My father was a barber and owned a barbershop next to one of the music stores in town.  When I was young, I used to shine shoes at the barbershop and sometimes I would take breaks and go to the music store next door and just hang out. My mother played piano a little bit, and she had me take piano lessons when I was seven with Mrs. Ward, I believe, and then with Mrs. Robb. In the fifth grade, you could start band class—I wanted to start in fourth, but they wouldn’t let me. I started on my sister’s hand-me-down Clarinet, and my first teacher was Mr. Whittmer. My mother loved the sound of the Saxophone, and in the sixth grade she took me to the music store next door and bought a Conn student-line saxophone for me. We didn’t know whether to get Alto or Tenor, so I tried each one and even though my mom wanted me to get the Alto, I liked the sound of the Tenor better, and we got that. She wanted me to get the Alto because it was smaller than the Tenor, which was almost as big as I was. There was a summer band program and Morningside Elementary school and my mother drove me out there, cross town, and I started playing my Tenor with Glenn Williams, the band director, but I didn’t practice much.

In the seventh grand I started school at Waldo Jr. High with the band director Grant Hagestedt. There were three Tenor players in the beginning band, and I was number three. Mr. Hagestadt was a very good teacher, and knew how to motivate Jr. high students very well. He gave weekly assignments and every week or two, students had the opportunity to “Challenge Up.” I took this as a personal challenge and started practicing. Within about two months, I was the first chair Tenor player and never relinquished my position through Junior High and High School.

Mr. Hagestadt started a Dixieland band when I was in the eighth grade and invited me to play Saxophone in it. He didn’t know much about jazz, but he enjoyed it.  He had a set of books with Dixieland tunes in them so we learned tunes like Tiger Rag, Sugar Blues, Struttin’ with Some Barbeque, and Big Butter and Egg Man without ever hearing the music performed. But we were the best teenage Dixieland band in town, so we got all the gigs: State fairs, County fairs, UNICEF fund raisers, Parents Without Partners meetings, you name it; if they needed it, the Chowder House Ate was there for them. Fortunately, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band toured around this time, and I got to hear New Orleans jazz played live—it was a very powerful experience. Half the CHA band was a year older than I was, and when they went to High School, we stopped playing regularly, but most of us had the Jazz Bug.

The summer before my sophomore year of high school the band director, my old teacher Glenn Williams, invited me to play in the McNary High School stage band summer reading sessions. We read simple arrangements of big band swing tunes. One of them was a blues that had open solo choruses. I remember Mr. Williams asked if anyone wanted to solo, and I raised my hand right away because I played Dixieland and wasn’t afraid, but I clearly remember the other students gasping at the audacity of my volunteering to improvise. There were no chord changes on my part and they probably would have just confused me anyway, so the only guide I had was my ear and the few background phrases that were written in my part. I figured that if the notes worked for background phrases, then they would work for improvising too, so I started my improvisation with the first note of the background phrase. Fortunately, it was the sixth of a dominant chord which I immediately resolved down to the fifth and had my first lesson in “Tension and Release.” I played in the McNary band under Mr. Williams for two years, and then he left McNary to teach at Sprague, the new high school in town. A young band director fresh from Oberlin Conservatory, Elling Hoem, succeeded Mr. Williams at McNary. Elling and I became good friends right away and he encouraged me to pursue my love of music. I had never taken a private lesson on Saxophone and he found me a very good teacher with whom to study, Dave Matthews.

I started studying with Dave in January of my Senior year and preformed that year in the Solo and Ensemble Contest where, once more, I was third place. And once more I took that as a personal challenge to get better.

Another important mentor at McNary was the choral director, Alice Rose Jones.  She invited me to play saxophone and percussion in the Highlanders, the McNary “swing choir.”  She even arranged for me to go on their Hawaiian tour with them.  Ms. Jones was a very important person in my musical development.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose your musical instrument?

LB: – I started attending college in the summer of 1973 at Oregon College of Education in Monmouth. I was interested in playing and teaching music, and OCE seemed like a good choice because my Saxophone instructor taught there and they had a strong Education program. However, I was continually dissatisfied during these years of my life and I transferred many times to many schools to try to remedy my feelings. In my sophomore year, I transferred to University of Oregon, the biggest, and supposedly the best, music school in the state. I had good experiences there, playing in the top Saxophone quartet and the Wind Ensemble conducted by Richard Wagner, I was dissatisfied with the jazz program. The upside of being in Eugene at that time was I had a chance to hang out and play with a young John Zorn, and that relationship had a powerful impact on my music aesthetic. But that wasn’t enough to keep me in Eugene, and I transferred back to OCE after Fall Quarter of my Junior year.

OCE hadn’t changed much in that short period of time, but a couple of new students had arrived, most notably my friend Randy Kim. Randy had joined Paul Schimming at OCE.  Every place that I went I found at least one fellow “searcher” and I was always able to learn as much from them as I learned from my professors. At OCE I took English classes from Robert Baker, who was a devout jazz hound, and who introduced me to his bass-playing son, Phil, who was in high school and the time. I started jamming with Phil and other young musicians in Salem, including the guy that first turned me on to Charlie Parker, Stu Fessant. Stu had been attending Southern Oregon State College and was dissatisfied, and Phil was planning to attend Mt. Hood Community College in the fall. Mt. Hood was the jazz hotspot of the Pacific NW at this time and the Stan Kenton band frequently picked up players from Mt. Hood. In short, if you wanted to prove that you could play jazz, you attended Mt. Hood Community College and played in Larry McVeigh’s band. So, at the beginning of my Senior year, I transferred again, this time moving to Portland with my friends Stu and Phil. At Mt. Hood I auditioned and earned the 2nd Tenor chair in the top jazz band. Due to the band’s connection of with Stan Kenton and the strength of the brass section, the band played a near-steady diet of Kenton tunes. I grew tired of this quickly and requested the assistant director, Dave Barduhn, that we play some Thad Jones. After my third request, he told me that there was no way we were going to play any Thad Jones music, and I made the most rash decision of my young life – I moved out of my apartment after the fall quarter and quit the band without telling Mr. McVeigh or Dave that I was leaving or why, transferring back to OCE.

At this point, I’d transferred 5 times to 3 different schools and decided I needed to finish my degree and get on with my life. But the big lesson that I had learned, finally, was that other people and other places, and other schools couldn’t fix what was wrong about what I was feeling.  To “fix” it I had to take responsibility for my musical growth no matter where I was, and that was a very powerful lesson.

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

LB: – It is often confusing to talk about a player’s “sound.”  Are we talking about the basic tone of the instrument?, the way the player articulates? (for me, articulation is one of the greatest determinates of style), the players rhythmic concept?, the types of melodies and jazz language the player uses?, or perhaps something else?  My “sound” developed by emulating great players that resonated with me.  At one point, I was very into Wayne Shorter and tried to cop as much of his “sound” as possible.  This was frustrating and I finally realized I was not, and was never going to BE Wayne Shorter, so I would never have his “sound.”  This led me to the concept that I should emulate all the players whose music resonated with me and let my personal aesthetic and the musical situation of the moment determine my “sound.”  I studied Bird, Stitt, Jay Corre, Coltrane, Henderson, Liebman, Shorter, Farrell, and many others.  Now, depending on the musical environment, my “sound” is a mixture of these many players that is appropriate for the music I am playing.  So, I guess my “sound” is somewhat flexible.  However, one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received is when a musician who had known me for a long time heard one of my recordings and said, “I can recognize your sound anywhere.”  This is the goal of most jazz musicians, to have a distinctive enough “voice” to be distinctly recognizable.

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

LB: – For several years, my practice regimen was centered around playing bebop heads from memory in all keys.  This practice was inspired by a comment by David N. Baker, one of my mentors, when he said, “If you want to learn how to play bebop, all you have to really do is play all the tunes in every key.”  It turns out that David was right and my bebop-related language and technical facility flourished during and after this practice.  However, I finally grew tired of this approach and was inspired to move in a different direction.  My next inspiration came from comments by Chick Corea and Maria Schneider.  They were asked in separate interviews their opinion of the most exciting developments in jazz and both immediately said “flamenco.”  I started pursuing the rhythmic foundations of flamenco and soon expanded the basic tenants in my practice sessions.  I found these exercises so valuable that I wrote three books that deal with those ideas.  The set of books is called “Jazz Foundations in Flamenco” and are available in Bass and Treble clef at Amazon.  I am also incorporating some of Steve Coleman’s concepts of spiral intervallic structures as well as other intervallic formulae that can provide structure to “free” improvising.

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

LB: – Now I prefer all harmonies and harmonic patterns, as well as no harmonies and harmonic patterns.  My musical aesthetics are free from the constraints of these ideas, while also incorporating them when the musical environment is appropriate.

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

LB: – This is a challenging question because most of my recent listening has been devoted to IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) producers such as Flying Lotus, FKA Twiggs, and DJ Nigga Fox.

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

LB: – OK, we’re getting heavy now!  Soul is the goal.  The only use for the intellect is in the preparation of oneself to express soul.  Notice, I said the preparation to express soul – not the act of expressing soul.  Human intellect is a slow, pondering, judgmental, calculating, function that only inhibits musical expression – especially in improvised music.  There is no time or use for engaging the intellect when improvising.  The improviser must trust their subconscious and unconscious wisdom to react and then move on.  Intellect is necessary in the preparation for performance – analyzing the composition, creating new sounds, judging and extending the player’s technical competence, etc.  Without the application of intellect it is very difficult for performers to develop new subconscious and unconscious experiences that can be called upon in the acts of spontaneous creation.  However, the goal is to express soul and to move the listeners’ souls.

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

LB: – My single most transformative experience was listening to a David Liebman/Richie Beirach duo concert at a little club in Portland, Oregon.  I was seated on a beanbag chair about 6 ft. from the bell of Lieb’s horn and the same distance from Richie’s right hand.  I sat there, transfixed, as they played two sets of the most exciting, communicative, passionate, diverse, music I had ever experienced.  I left the concert a changed person, and I know that’s true because I immediately went to a jam session after the concert and played Recordamê.  After I finished the tune, several friends approached me and asked what I had been practicing because they had never heard me play like that before!

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

LB: – Hanging out with John Zorn when we were both just beginning to figure out what we were doing has to be top of my collaboration list.  However, I’ve had many wonderful collaborations with colleagues from Seoul to Sao Paulo and Brooklyn to Bangkok since.  I treasure them all!

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

LB: – That’s easy, we have to stop thinking of jazz as a specific repertoire of compositions and think of it as a way of being.  Jazz is a collaborative, communicative musical art form that emerged from the African-American experience and quickly expanded to the entire planet (and beyond).  When people start appreciating jazz as a creative act, not a repertoire, rhythm, instrumentation, or whatever, they will become interested in it.

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

LB: – As with much that Coltrane said, I stand in agreement.

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

LB: – I would love the music industry to be able to move beyond categorization in the way music is brought to people.  Categories such as “classical,” “alternative,” “jazz,” etc. are only useful in sorting the bins in a record store.  Our musical heritage and contemporary dissemination environment is much greater than this, and the music business needs to match the greatness of the art and the technology.  The music business needs to get a lot smarter.

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

LB: – A real fantasy here – playing the tenor saxophone part on the recording session of Free For All by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (sorry Mr. Shorter).

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

LB: – Thanks for the opportunity to openly opine, but I’ve probably disclosed more than enough!

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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