Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist EJ Hughes. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
EJ Hughes: – I grew up in New Hampshire in the northern part of the US and I loved live music since an early memory of seeing my grandfather and my Father jam at the house. My Dad played drum set and Granpa played piano and many other instruments. He was playing in dance bands around New England from his teens. Honestly the first instrumental music that really made me want to play an instrument was Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” that I heard in the 80s. I used to noodle on piano without lessons and I still do.
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? What made you choose the saxophone?
EH: – After my parents divorced there were many moves and I ended up eventually in Kenner, Louisiana a suburb near New Orleans. While there I chose to play saxophone in band at age 12 because it was a way to get out of gym and I was not being picked for sports. My band director was encouraging and it was a positive experience marching in Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans at 12 years old. I later realized the saxophone felt natural because I played some recorder while living in Brampton, Ontario Canada. I moved to the coast of Georgia in the middle of 8th grade and had a lot of difficulty and some awkwardness playing at the school I relocated too. It seemed as if I could not make the saxophone sound good. I later went to a local repairman, Marty Oberlander, who repaired my saxophone which was my main setback. While getting the saxophone repaired I noticed the best player in the middle school coming out from a lesson. I asked if he would teach me and studied regularly trying to catch back up to the better players. He introduced me to saxophone, clarinet, and flute. As well as the records of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, and Cannonball Adderley. Marty was a monster player and played in groups all over New York before relocating to Georgia. I am still deeply grateful. It wasn’t until college that I realized what a great teacher he was. He was like Yoda to me and others who wanted to really play.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
EH: – Honestly my saxophone sound at first was not my strongest. I was very natural with clarinet but I improved over time. Eventually I got the urge to play tenor after realizing most of my favorite records and saxophone solos were on tenor. I heard Michael Brecker’s tone quality on Dire Straights “your latest trick” and I always admired it. It wasn’t thought until I heard Billy Mitchell on Long Island play a ballad at Sonny’s Place on Long Island that I found the tone that would make me sit to play long tones forever. Billy was very encouraging to me and used to give me lessons at his house when I moved to New York. He is a legend. Having played in Basie’s and Gillespie’s big bands.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
EH: – I have worked a lot to keep harmonic rhythm by playing without a background track just metronome for a long time but now I honestly need to get back to that. I wanted to let myself be a little more free and play with more fluidity and expression not being bound to be strict. It has caused me to turn the beat around sometimes but I’m learning to feel spaces in a bigger way. Lately playing with some incredible musicians from Venezuela has taught me so much though about the importance of rhythm. I have a long way to go but I really want to be impressionistic with the ideas but not cause the rhythm section to feel lost or have to work hard to find me. I’m not trying to be robotic but I think honestly for younger players it is an absolute must. I hope to study harder so I can be more free.
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?
EH: – I took some lessons in New York with George Coleman and he taught me to listen to the bass and extend the chords relative to the bass. I honestly feel my harmonic choices need to be justified by strong theory. That is really my strongest area is the harmonic knowledge so I am trying more now to trust myself and play intuitively while realizing my theory brain should help but not keep me from taking risks. I choose to think like a pianist when it comes to harmony.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
EH: – I am trying my best to stay open hearted and adaptable. To just try to improve and learn daily.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
EH: – I think you need to be practicing constantly to be free on your instrument so that when an idea comes you can execute it very clearly. The intellect I believe is a tool express the soul and make decisions.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
EH: – I like that Cannonball said it should be 50/50. I’m more of that mindset now. But I realize I’m a bit unrelatable so I’m not necessarily trying to play what people want to hear. I want to find the audience who wants to hear the this type of music and make them happy.
Maybe its just my mom, ha ha. That’s ok. When I play commercial music I really do enjoy playing the saxophone, Careless Whisper, tequila, etc. They make people happy but my creations have to be really from me and from the heart. I want to be genuine so that I can gift art to people that is really from my efforts.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
EH: – I remember once sitting in with some guys on a summer gig and the singer saying to the audience “wow that boy’s anxious aint he!” I was really embarrassed but it in a way sums up some of my qualities. Anxiety, Depression, Self-Doubt, These are my battles and many musicians I know. I think I’m using my instrument to overcome these quirks and be able to make a life contribution. One great experience though was after playing some rythm changes at Sonny’s Place on Long Island Billy Mitchell pulled me into the back after I made the crowd happy and said. “Remember that!!!! No one can take that from you.” I think he empathized. It’s really hard to create that feeling with every solo or performance but we jazz musicians are searching for that every time we go out to play.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
EH: – I think the words are the key. Great songs have great stories and the great players will always search out and create their own vehicles to express on. We have to find common ones. Common ground to play together. The standards are great for that. I was sharing Miles Davis “relaxin” with a student because he is playing “guys and dolls” at his school. He had no idea that If I were a Bell is a great vehicle to express on. Now he seems inspired to try it his way.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
EH: – I am a Christian and my faith is very important to me. I believe music though is universal to all faiths and helps us reach for the inexpressible things that we sense and feel. I want to give thanks with my music and also express my story. The spirit is our unique I.D. that the creator gave us so we can be received by others and God in communion and harmony with everything created. I am not trying to be religious here but I have not sacrificed everything for my music as some greats have. I look at every chance to play music as coming from the patience and grace of God because he know how everything could be when existing far longer and knowing much more in supreme intelligence and collective experiences. I’m grateful in this quantum mist to be able to feel him so real and alive.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
EH: – I wish musicians would be kinder to each other and more encouraging.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
EH: – Lately Paul Gonsalves and Charlie Rouse.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
EH: – Music is a bridge to understanding different cultures and being able to love and accept each other.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
EH: – I would love go back in time and play with my grandfather and dad together.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
EH: – Would people like to hear this music somewhere live? And if so where?
JBN.S: – Thanks for answers. I do not know …
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
EH: – I’m just taking each day as a gift. Thanks Simon!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan