May 24, 2024

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Interview with Dean Tsur: There’s a science to the soul, and there’s soul to science: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Dean Tsur. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Dean Tsur: – I grew up in a small town in rural-northern-Israel. My parents are jazz fans, and my sister is a vocalist; she used to sing music from Operas when I grew up. Therefore, it was pretty natural for me to get into music. We played a lot of Louis Armstrong at home, and I mistakenly thought he played the saxophone. Therefore, when I was in second grade, I asked my parents for saxophone lessons. We went to the local music school, but they said that I was too small to play saxophone, so they had me play recorder for two years before letting me make the switch to saxophone.

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

DT: – Growing up, I listened to great artists who are also great entertainers, for example, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, and Cannonball Adderley. As a teenager, I became inspired by artists with a more “abstract” sound: John Coltrane, Woody Shaw, and Mark Turner. I continued being fascinated by Woody Shaw’s playing when I studied at Berklee. Eventually, I moved to NY and started attending Juilliard, where we would play Duke Ellington’s music a lot, which was relatively new for me. I also began performing with older musicians such as Roy Hargrove, Billy Kaye, and others. I often played with Evan Sherman’s band, and Evan would invite Roy to play with the band as a soloist very often. At some point, the band started feeling like a collaborative band of both Roy and Evan’s. Playing with older musicians in NY made me realize how much the jazz greats I grew up listening to are not that far from us generationally. I began to meet some musicians who have played with the greats of the 1950s and 60s. For example, I’ve played in Billy Kaye’s quartet, and he used to tour with Thelonious Monk for a few years.

During my early years in NY, I realized that my sense of rhythm needed to improve. I improved my rhythm by studying 1920-1930s jazz and seeing and sitting in with Terry Waldo, Jon Eric Kellso, and other experts of that style. At that time, I also learned a lot from the late-night sessions at Dizzy’s Club, including from musicians of (roughly) my generation: Michael Mwenso, Patrick Bartley, Russell Hall, Emmet Cohen, Evan Sherman, Sammy Miller, and others. The level of intensity and band-communication in those sessions was something I hadn’t experienced until then (and I’m still trying to catch up). Michael Mwenso ran the sessions at Dizzy’s, and he was a mentor for many of us. He taught us about becoming entertainers how that is actually a significant part of the jazz tradition. We all arrived in NY at around the same time, and these were formative years for all of us. Later on, I started my Saxophone Choir project, which played in various clubs in NY. I had some of my favorite saxophone players of my generation play in the band. I learned a lot from playing with such great saxophone players.

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

DT: – Rhythm is something that I need to warm up every day. Just like with saxophone technique, if I don’t practice it, it fades. I play my warm-up routines while listening to recordings with a strong beat (lately with James Cleveland recordings). This question is actually a perfect set up for me because I’m just about to release a new book about how to warm up as a jazz saxophonist. A lot of it is about rhythm. The book is available for preorder on my Bandcamp page and will release later this month.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

DT: – Creativity is part of human nature. The more we study various subjects more deeply, the art gets better. At first, other musicians’ influences could make someone sound “forced” or a “fake” version of another musician. However, the more one improves as a musician and their skills become second nature, the more the artist has room to be creative.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

DT: – Great question. One shouldn’t warm-up technique and rhythm alone but also the mental space for playing. Therefore, my warm-up routine includes exercises that sound “kitschy” and over-emotional because playing them frees up the spirit so we can feel a broader range of emotions. (more about that is available in my book)

The entertainment factor is missing from many jazz performances (which could sometimes apply to my performances too). Being a good entertainer comes from feeling free on stage. Freeing myself from fears is my job.

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JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

DT: – The album includes some of my favorite musicians in NY and Israel. As you mentioned, the album consists of music from different studio sessions. Therefore, many musicians vary from one track to another. However, these are musicians that I’ve known for a long time, and we’ve played together a lot. Additionally, each of these recordings represents a concept or a period of my life that has influenced my music. Therefore, the music’s diversity is part of the album’s concept and makes it possible for the album to showcase different sides of my music. As a listener, the album’s musical diversity makes it a more exciting experience. It also has different types of ensembles between some of the tracks. For example, we play a ballad with a string orchestra on one track and an uptempo swinging tune with a small band on another track.

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

DT: – They’re interconnected. There’s a science to the soul, and there’s soul to science. There’s a mathematical way of breaking down soulful music. There’s also a lot of feeling and spirituality involved with the research process and the freedom one gains from doing research about the music.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

DT: – We all want the same thing, and it’s my job to try to get us there.

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

DT: – The first time I got to rehearse with Wynton Marsalis was at a Juilliard Jazz Orchestra rehearsal that he directed when I was attending Juilliard. We worked on a chart by Duke Ellington entitled Chinoiserie, an extended tenor saxophone feature for which I was the soloist. I played all kinds of harmonic substitutions in my solo, inspired by Woody Shaw, and I had felt that sounded good. What I didn’t understand at the time was that I needed to serve the composition better with the way I played. Wynton told me that he wanted me to spend the week between the first and the second rehearsal, figuring out how to sound “country,” not sophisticated, and soulful. He said that in front of everyone, so I felt a little embarrassed but determined to improve. I took an actor’s approach for that week: I grew my beard and changed how I walked and talked.

Additionally, I spent the week trying to figure out what it means from a musical standpoint to be “country.” I played in front of a mirror and tried to look more country while playing. The following week, Wynton came to the rehearsal again and complimented me much; he said: “you see how much you’ve improved in one week? Sounds great.” Thinking back about this story, I find it both funny and a highly meaningful week. That tune’s final performance is available on YouTube (look up “Dean Tsur Chinoiserie”).

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

DT: – We should play good songs that are well-known today, along with the old standards. However, I’m not sure how much of the appeal of jazz is due to the songs. I suspect that it’s mostly about rhythm and improvisation.

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

DT: – I think that music is about people and their shared human experience. Music is just one crucial form of expression of our humanity. As far as life’s meaning, obviously, that changes from one person to another. I’m generally trying to enjoy life and leave a legacy.

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

DT: – I would like to have five really nice jazz venues that are totally packed every night in every city globally, but especially in Tel Aviv.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

DT: – James Cleveland. His music has the most exciting combination of soul, rich harmony, choirs and bands, musical variety, great singers, great instrumentalists, and good lyrics… It’s really amazing.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

DT: – Unity.

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

DT: – Minton’s Playhouse around 1950 on a night when both Bird and Earl Bostic were jamming.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Dean Tsur - Juilliard Graduate Saxophonist - New York | SoundBetter

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