Jazz interview with the bad saxophonist Sam Weinberg. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Sam Weinberg: – I spent a lot of my early childhood (until around age 14) in Los Angeles, CA with a fleeting stop in St. Louis, Missouri in 5th grade which is worth mentioning only because it is where I took up the clarinet. Given that I moved to STL late in elementary school, social circles had already sort of codified I was left out to dry and didn’t have a ton of friends. As a consequence, I developed something of an obsession with playing the clarinet and my parents could tell that I was quite serious about it – practiced for 3 hours a day etc. – so they got me private lessons at Webster University. I don’t remember much about those lessons, aside from the fact that the teacher would keep orange rinds in her case, but I’m sure they were helpful.
We moved back to LA at the end of that year by which point I had my sights set on the alto saxophone which I then took up. Although I continued taking saxophone lessons throughout middle school, I somehow convinced myself that it was quite lame and favored the Epiphone SG that I had been given and became fixated on the guitar – even though I had something of an aptitude for it, the saxophone started to feel a bit compulsory and not dissimilar to kids being forced to take piano lessons. I seriously considered quitting in 8th grade, as I found bending the shit out of pentatonix on my guitar far more appealing than the Charlie Parker Ominbook or my Jamey Aebersold play-a-longs.
And yet! The summer before my freshman year of high school my family moved us to the suburbs of NYC, in Nassau County, Long Island near the Queens border. That summer my mom signed me up for this jazz studies camp which would meet 4 days a week for the whole summer. I remember at first feeling a bit resentful that I had to do this thing which required me to play the saxophone the whole summer since as I said the feelings of ditching it were still quite fresh. Ultimately, though, I do credit that camp as being a pretty pivotal experience for me. It was that summer, when being taught by a number of younger Brooklyn based musicians, that I learned a tremendous tremendous amount about the history of jazz music, both sort of more canonical things which I had been vaguely familiar with (Ornette, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Miles, Monk, Mingus, Charlie Parker, Joe Henderson), and then a lot of more contemporary people who I had never heard of before and was frankly floored to learn about and then swiftly seek out and go see live (Paul Motian, Tony Malaby, Ben Monder, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, Bill McHenry, Chris Speed, Andrew D’Angelo). I was instantly hooked. I would go to the libraries all around Nassau and Queens and check out stacks of Jazz CDs and rip them onto my computer and just binge them. I would sit on the schoolbus, talk to nobody, and bump “Ornette On Tenor” and “Unit Structures.” I also spent many of my weekends in high school taking trains into the city to see things constantly. The Stone had just opened and they had this policy of $5 admission for high schoolers so I would go there pretty religiously; the Village Vanguard multiple times a year to see whatever Motian was cooking up; the Cornelia St Cafe where they would serve me beer when I was 15 and I was able to witness dozens of shows. Those were the halcyon days. Everything seemed incredibly exciting then. I don’t think I really went to a single show in HS that I thought was bad which is funny because I’m fairly critical these days.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
SW: – I think of this as a still somewhat nascent thing, although I can tell that my sound and my concept has changed and it is my hope that that will continue as I continue to grow and my interests become more refined. I have had times of an absolute disavowal of the pitch-based, melodic properties of the saxophone and have felt ashamed of them, but have, in the last few years, grown to love those things again and recognize and become enamored of the power of pitch and more melodic things. I had a long conversation about this with Evan Parker a few years ago who put it well and very succinctly (and this is a paraphrase) but: “if you’re afraid of playing notes, then you’re playing the wrong instrument.”
Having said that, I think I appreciate the years I spent in the timbral trenches as I think they’ve contributed to what I’d like to think of as something of a juggle between the melodic and the timbral – having both of them at my disposal simultaneously, and being able to toggle between them, and maintain this balancing act. I think that’s a powerful thing and something I’d like to develop more. My heroes in that respect are Evan, Roscoe Mitchell, Joe Maneri, Anthony Braxton, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Barry Guy, Bill Orcutt, Derek Bailey.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
SW: – I have a number of different things I can work on at any given time and which I continuously implement. In the past few years it’s been a lot of quiet multiphonic circular-breathing long tones which have a meditative, stabilizing impact on whatever comes after in a given practice session. Very grounding.
I’m glad you asked about rhythm, though, as it has been a pretty central component of my work. Around 6 or 7 years ago I realized my articulation wasn’t remotely close to where I needed/wanted it to be so I started off on a pretty rigorous regimen of concocted exercises (based on groups of notes, at various speeds, but also speech rhythms, the poetry of Gertrude Stein etc) to improve upon that. I also had a long stretch wherein I would get stoned and listen to Anthony Braxton records from the 70s on double speed and had that as an aspirational articulation North Star – the cool thing about that was that it seemed that while it was hard, it wasn’t impossible for one to ultimately get to sound like that. The operant assumption being that if I listened to these things enough, that speed of processing and what articulation at that speed sounded like, would become hard-wired into my subconscious DNA. I’m not sure the extent to which that worked but it probably did something.
I still have a number of goals for working up to certain rhythmic ideals that I have in my head. Some are a bit more doable on alto than on tenor. It’s a process.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
SW: – This is quite the difficult question – hard for me to tackle the “anxiety of influence,” but I’ll do my best. As I’ve noted above, I’ve certainly paid my dues checking out, deeply studying, and internalizing a whole lot of the history of jazz and improvised music and there are moments where that has made me a bit worried about the extent to which I’m sounding too much like any given person. I think that has been more directed at Evan Parker’s work and playing than anyone maybe ever and sort of a reason why I haven’t listened to him in a while: it gets too deep and also a bit discouraging given how advanced what he was doing was in the 70s and how I’ll invariably fall short of that.
But I think maybe more to the point: I listen very very widely outside of things that would have a direct influence on my work, or if they did, things which would actually be somewhat beneficial for me – elements that would come out in my music that many improvisers hadn’t checked out. I had a multi-year obsession with Memphis Rap tapes from the 90s, deep dive into Houston rap, a ton of noise, noise rock, musique concrete, grindcore, “lowercase” improvisation, field recording work, modern composition, some pop music etc. All of those things end up being major constituent parts of my work in ways that might not even be perceptible to me.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
SW: – It’s now been 6 months almost to the day since I’ve last performed, one livestreamed situation in June notwithstanding. I never really had much of a routine for preparing myself – if the situation was right musically, I sort of tried to deliver some version of “the goods” irrespective of whatever the situation was . Of course some venues were easier and more conducive than others but I always found that once the music was happening I was pretty much singularly focused on that: dingy attic in Rochester; smoke filled bar in Leipzig; rock venue in Montreal; bizarre office building in Midtown Manhattan.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
SW: – I think that’s a bit of a false dichotomy. I don’t tend to view things that way and don’t ever think of music as either “cerebral” or “spiritual” or whatever – even the most in the weeds, mixed meter “modern jazz” shit to me just doesn’t register that way. I understand where the impulse to categorize things in that way comes from but it just isn’t how I have ever viewed anything.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
SW: – I think if I was interested in giving the people what they wanted I would be making a very different kind of music than I do.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
SW: – There are hundreds of gigs I’ve played across the United States, Canada, and Europe. I’ll keep it in 2020: I started the year off with three shows in Los Angeles (solo, and duos with Martin Escalante, and Corey Fogel) which were great; two shows with my band BLOAR which were originally in anticipation of a recording session which never happened given COVID; a show at Mimi’s apartment in Delaware; a memorable trio show with Brandon Seabrook and Henry Fraser; a first time duo with the great tenor player Matt Nelson which was the last show I played in the year. There were 2 tours on the books and about 20 more shows for the summer planned but alas.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
SW: – Huge question! But I think there’s a bit of a misguided assumption embedded within it, namely that jazz is only standards. I should preface this by saying I’m hardly the authority on jazz per se and wouldn’t really claim to want to speak to that or its reception or posterity. I will say, though, that my perception from stuff I’ve seen online is that there’s a lot of stuff out there that seems to appeal to young people (particularly in the UK) which is jazz interspersed with elements of dance music or what have you that seems to appeal to younger people – like the projects of the saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, or certain things on the International Anthem label which seem to have some cultural cache, although, again I barely know anything about that stuff. But, sure, if your conception of jazz is people getting together and playing uninspired versions of “Softly As in A Morning Sunrise” or “The Days of Wine and Roses” then I would imagine that would be a tough sell to anyone, not just youngsters.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
SW: – I can’t make a comment on something like this without seeming extraordinarily presumptuous.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
SW: – I would like myself and everyone I work with to be able to be paid a living wage and to be able to live off of their work. My close friends in the global community of improvisers are more deeply invested in & more committed to this type of music than 99% of people are to anything in their lives and it’s a huge shame that we can’t live off of touring and making the work we care about. As a consequence, much of the work is watered down because people have to allocate their time doing other things just to stay alive.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
SW: – I mentioned a few things above, but the past few weeks it has been – Cecil Taylor Solo in Birmingham 1987; Bill Orcutt Slow Troll; Air’s Air Time; Sam Waymon’s soundtrack to the movie Ganja and Hess; Home Blitz’s Foremost and Fair; a few of the bootleg series from Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation; DJ Screw Three in da Morning; Crossed Out’s discography; Memphis rapper Buckshot’s Strapped With Them Thangz; Phill Niblock Touch Food.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
SW: – I don’t think I’m trying to have a pedantic goal that resembles that.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
SW: – I’d say going to Berlin in 1988 to Cecil Taylor’s residency would be pretty fucking deep. Seems like a pinnacle in free improvisation which I’m jealous people got to witness.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
SW: – What is your aim in writing about music? Is it to expose readers to things or grant them insights to the work?
JBN: – Jazz is my life !!!
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
SW: – I strap it in, and let it rip.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan