Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist John Petrucelli. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
John Petrucelli: – I was born in Trenton, New Jersey. My earliest memories of music stem from my dad playing records that you could hear throughout the house- in particular, I can recall Richie Cole, Eddie Jefferson, Grover Washington Jr., Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt as part of an ever constant sound track growing up.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today?
JP: – Again here, I have to credit my dad, Steve Petrucelli. Listening wise, saxophone was the predominant leader for many of the records he enjoyed. He was also my first teacher, and began with introducing me to the music of Charlie Parker, Phil Woods and Sonny Stitt, who would become some of my earliest influences on the alto saxophone. Around age 10 he began bringing me to jazz clubs in Trenton, including The Candlelight and Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon, to hear Richie Cole and his Alto Madness Orchestra perform. Soon after, Richie began letting me sit in with the band, which served as a major incentive to practice! At a certain point I began studying with Aaron Drake as well, who is a talented saxophonist and who now owns Drake Mouthpieces. When I got to college at University of Virginia, I studied with John D’Earth, an incredible trumpet player, composer and mentor whose lessons both on and off the bandstand were critical and formative to my artistic conception. When I moved to New Orleans, I studied with Jason Mingledorff, who helped me learn the trad jazz, soul and r&b repertoire that forms the lynchpin of the city’s unique musical bricolage. In 2010, I moved back to New Jersey to begin my MM in Jazz Studies under the tutelage of Ralph Bowen. I look back on my lessons with him as an intense training ground in which I further developed and refined my technical, theoretical and improvisational skills. My last formal teachers were Professors Geri Allen and Amy Williams at University of Pittsburgh. Professor Allen’s lessons were more emotional and spiritual rather than directly musical. We talked about her unique experiences in jazz, her conception of art as a life pursuit in of itself in addition to playing duo together frequently. Professor Williams expanded what I thought was possible in our composition lessons- asking questions designed to provoke my preconceived notions of musical structure, to seek an underlying formal inspiration for the composition as a whole which guides and binds the motivic and harmonic material. It was through Professor Allen and Professor Williams that I began the compositional sketches that would culminate in the suite known as Presence.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What do you do to find and develop your sound?
JP: – Rather than evolve, I think my sound has probably been refined over time. My equipment has remained quite consistent throughout my career, though I did change to a new (to me) saxophone for this live recording. I think primarily my sonic fingerprint developed from several critical influences including but certainly not limited to John Coltrane, Lester Young, Michael Brecker, Joe Henderson, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin, Mark Turner and Ralph Bowen. I think that my study of long tones, overtones, enharmonic voicing, multiphonics and lip bends is primarily responsible for the technical development of my sound, while I have also dedicated substantial time to tuning, intonation, articulation as well as the presentation and interpretation of the melodic lines I am shaping. Most recently, I have been returning to whistling as a tool for a “return to basics” approach to melody. Some of the compositions from Presence are actually transcriptions of free form, whistled improvisations which took particularly poignant melodic shapes.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JP: – I maintain a daily practice of long tones, overtones, scales and arpeggios, and rhythm reading. I studied tabla for several years and rhythm reading has become deeply important to my musical conception. I read rhythms from books such as Louis Bellson’s Fundamentals of Rhythm Reading in 4/4 and work on applying them as motivic phrases or as representing forms on existing compositions. I have also been particularly enjoying the challenge of displacing basic melodic material into contrasting octaves, a technique which has been applied in diverse musics such as the Bach Cello Suites and the improvisations of Chris Potter, Joshua Redman and of course, Mark Turner.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
JP: – Thank you very much for your compliment! I think that in the context of this suite, harmony is very much following, rather than dictating, the melody of these compositions. The large majority feature contrapuntal, interlocking melodic material from which the harmony arises. To me, it was more a matter of labeling the harmonic progressions as a courtesy to our pianist, Brett Williams and our guitarist, Peter Park, since the large majority of their parts are fully composed! In reference to your question regarding dissonance, I think Conrad Herwig said it best when he told me “in order for there to be light, there must be dark.” To me, he was referring to the balance that must be constantly struck within musical forces. In order for dissonance to be meaningful, there must be resolution. Even the most atonal musics have points of energetic and harmonic resolution. To me, the use of dissonance is dependent on the orchestration and the musical backgrounds of the members of the ensemble.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
JP: – I’m confident that my influences color my work and I’m glad that they do! We live in an incredible moment in which we enjoy constant access to a large majority of the recordings ever produced. No music exists in a vacuum and we can trace the histories and connective threads between bands and musical lineages like musical detectives! I relish when people hear “Mercury Crossing,” for example, as being influenced by classical minimalism, or the rhythmic breakdown in “Field of Heaven” as a nod to funk music, because my artistic conception represents the mediation of a wide range of musical inspiration through my personal experiences as an artist.
Today I am working on developing and revising the curriculum as Director of Jazz at Northeastern State University. The university has a long history as being a beacon for artistic development in Oklahoma and I am honored to be following in the footsteps of some talented pedagogues and artists who contributed to the program before me. Artistically, I have been researching and listening to the varied Native American musical traditions that are maintained in this area of the country.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance between intellect and soul?
JP: – Wow, I’m not sure I have the space to answer this one! I am thinking of something Victor Lewis told me late one night after a performance: “the hand follows the heart.” I’ve never heard a better explanation than that, and certainly not one more succinct!
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
I think that the audience and artists are creating an experience together. Presence would have been a fundamentally different project and experience without performing it with our audience. With brand new music, it’s hard to anticipate or predict how an audience will respond. There’s a degree of risk with any debut, as we learned from the (in)famous Stravinsky premiere.
JBN.S: – Please share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio session which you’d like to share with us?
JP: – I have a vivid recollection of one of the most memorable moments in my performing life to date while my trio, Peter Park, Gusten Rudolph and myself were on tour in China.
During one of our performances, we played Ravi Coltrane’s arrangement of the John Coltrane classic composition “26-2.” It’s a tricky arrangement in 9/4, and the presentation of the time signatures flips between 5+4 and 4+5. At that point in the evening, we had played several other compositions of mine that feature mixed meters- my arrangement of “I Hear a Rhapsody” and “Prism.” After we concluded the composition, several members of the audience stopped us. They asked us, before we continued, to explain the time signature, to explain how we were all playing together in this complex rhythmic context. Gusten in particular, began trying to explain verbally, but there was a significant language barrier. A musician in the audience who also spoke english got on stage with us and began translating to the audience. Then we all began clapping the hemiola patterns together! It was a magical moment.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JP: – Well I think that there is a love and admiration for the American popular songs of the early to mid 1900s that will never fade away- there will always be interpreters of that musical tradition. I think in the present day there is a great enthusiasm, particularly amongst my students, for music that stems from the fusion, funk, r&b and neo-soul traditions of jazz. I think young people are deeply interested in the music of Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Snarky Puppy, Christian Scott and many, many other bands who connect with this repertory. Perhaps Wayne Shorter’s “Palladium” is in more vogue now that “There Will Never Be Another You,” but I don’t view this shift in emphasis as positive or negative. Another interesting shift I have been perceiving is the (re)incorporation of vocals in jazz settings. I recently recorded an EP with vocalist Anastasia Hagermann called Mischievous Minx that explores some of these ideas after being deeply influence by David Bowie’s Blackstar album. I welcome the opportunity to investigate the borders and boundaries of jazz and pop, which is the spirit from which the interpretations of the American popular song genre stem!
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JP: – I suppose I try to understand just how little I understand of life and its meaning. I do strive to live life musically but I feel comfortable not reaching any conclusions, just doing all I can while I can.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JP: – I wish that those who work in the airline industry could spend a few months or even a year as professional musicians, and take that experience to heart when musicians board planes with precious, often irreplaceable instruments. It is incredibly difficult to travel with an instrument currently and a conversation about why a fellow passenger shouldn’t be allowed to cram a roller board bag against a tenor saxophone is frequently not the most rationale.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JP: – I have been listening to Tyshawn Sorey, as much as I can get my hands on!
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JP: – I’m glad I don’t have this option because I would spend huge amounts of time on where and when I would want to go and I’m not sure if I could ever possibly settle on one! Lucky for me I’m confined to the present.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan