Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist and composer Matt Olson. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?
Matt Olson: – I think that every song offers a particular “riddle” that you try to solve, whether it is harmonic, rhythmic, or something else. We are trying to find the best way to express ourselves given the particular structure of the song combined with the way that we and are bandmates interpret it.
JBN: – Do you ever get the feeling that music majors, and particularly people who are going into jazz, are being cranked out much like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?
MO: – I think all of us who are involved in music education worry about this sort of thing. However, I find comfort in the fact that the skills we acquire from studying music – discipline, time management, ability to focus, efficiency, professional skills – are applicable in all walks of life. There truly are no guarantees in any field of study, for the most part. I know some really strong musicians who didn’t receive formal music training, and I know lots of people who make a living doing something non-musical who play well and enjoy music. The music world has lots of room for lots of people in it, whether they are performers or not.
JBN: – What about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects-the agents and the clubs?
MO: – A career in music comes with a healthy dose of rejection – not winning an audition, not getting a gig. The business aspect can be really frustrating, of course, but if the artist really believes in their product, they should be persistent.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
MO: – The more control you retain over your creative product, the better. This all depends on the situation, of course. If someone else is hiring you to do something, you necessarily need to cater to their needs, but hopefully a healthy part of our existence as creative musicians is spent working on our own material.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
MO: – Wow, there’s a tough question. We need both. Maybe soul is something that is deeply engrained in us (or not!), and intellect is something we work to develop? Soul is not something I actively think about when I play. Rather, it’s something I hope I have based on my life experiences and musical experiences. Intellect helps feed my curiosity, but is also a crutch sometimes – I think too much!
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
MO: – I think it is incumbent upon us musicians to relate to those people who listen to us play. I enjoy explaining this great music to people who don’t understand it. My father was not a musician, so I had plenty of practice talking with him about this music that he had no experience with. Jazz is a difficult music for a general audience member – how do you listen to improvisation, for example? I believe that they more we can inform our audience about what they are hearing, the more likely we are to build an audience for jazz.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
MO: – Some of my favorite moments as a musician have come when I’ve played for large and enthusiastic crowds, like when I played a show with Aretha Franklin or a concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival. The energy from the crowd is very inspiring. I also really respect and value any time I get to spend with older musicians, whether they are famous or not. Older musicians have so much to share, and I’ve always tried to intentionally soak up my time with them.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
MO: – I just showed a student some 1943 footage of Judy Garland singing “I Got Rhythm” yesterday! He had never heard anything like it, but I wanted him to have a sense of where these tunes come from. In terms of getting young people interested in jazz, we probably need to continue to re-invent what a “standard tune” is these days, and try to relate more directly with younger people.
JBN: – And lastly, being a teacher, do you find it difficult to write music yourself?
MO: – Only in the sense that I don’t have as much time to write as I would like. For me, the writing process can be a bit obsessive, and I need the time to stay focused on it. I tend to write when I have specific deadlines, and then I simply make the time to work on it. I need to do a better job of building some time into my schedule more regularly.
JBN: – How important is it to you to have an original approach? Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer?
MO: – I think we are all trying to be ourselves in the music. I tend to write because it is fun, but I don’t consider it to be my main pursuit. It’s highly personal for me, and like lots of musicians, I tend to be rather self-conscious and overly self-critical about my writing. As a musician, finding your sound and approach to the music, as a player and/or writer, takes a lifetime. As a 47 year old, I am starting to feel like I have a sort of identity as a musician in terms of the music that speaks to me and that I want to play, and I’m comfortable with that, though I still have so much else left to discover.
JBN: – Do you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or is it just something that we feel?
MO: – I’m trying to make a personal statement on the music that speaks to me.
JBN: – What do you see for your extended future? You know what you have going on? You have life? If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
MO: – I really enjoy the balance I have as a teacher and performer. There are times where the balance seems off, and having a career that involves a full-time teaching position is a trade-off. I have some stability in my life that I value, but I am limited in the things I can do creatively in some respects. I believe that most musicians struggle with this balancing act in one way or another.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
MO: – One of my students recently hipped me to the alto player Baptiste Herbin, so I’ve been enjoying getting to know his playing a bit more. Same with Melissa Aldana – she has a lot to say. I really enjoy discovering new musicians, but I also cherish the time I spend with the iconic recordings that shaped me as a musician.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
MO: – I just want to be honest with the music, to try to give my best version of it as I can, and then I hope someone, somewhere enjoys it on some level.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
MO: – Easy question and one that I wonder about from time to time. I think most people would maybe want to see their parents or grandparents as kids or young adults, or maybe travel back and see if the stories in the Bible were true, or witness some major historical event, but for me, I want to be sitting in the Village Vanguard in the mid 1960s listening to John Coltrane. I would want to feel the energy in that room in a way that no recording or video can provide.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
MO: – I could put any of these philosophical questions to you! I’m always interested to know how others perceive jazz and the broader musical market, particularly in different parts of the world.
JBN: – Thanks for answers. Our questions, in my opinion, are not philosophical, but about the intellect of the musician, we and every day our more than 63,000 + readers are interested in musicians have a mind, or … According to your words …
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
MO: – I just try to be the best musician I can be, and try to help my students find their path as happy, healthy humans, whether they are making their contribution to the world as musicians or something else.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan