May 20, 2024

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Interview with Greg Yasinitsky: Music requires both intellect and soul: Videos, New CD cover

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

Greg Yasinitsky: – I was born in San Francisco, California, and grew up in South San Francisco, a suburb. I was always interested in music and took piano lessons from my grandmother when I was quite young. I heard records featuring saxophone and was drawn to the instrument. My parents got me a saxophone when I was ten. I started taking lessons and played in school bands.

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

GY: – I listened to lots of recordings and was fascinated by sound. Some of my favorite saxophonists for sound and tone are Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, Gene Ammons, Willis Jackson, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Joe Farrell, Michael Brecker, Ernie Watts and so many more. Of course, I was strongly influenced by John Coltrane, as was everyone. I did, and continue to do, many long tone exercises to develop my sound. My saxophone teacher in high school was Jerry Vejmola. He had an amazing sound and I worked to emulate him. As a composer, I loved Thad Jones, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Slide Hampton, Sammy Nestico, Oliver Nelson, Maria Schneider, Duke Ellington, so many others. I studied their scores. I studied the craft of composition—jazz and classical music—to develop my own way, my own sound. Also, I write constantly, always trying new things.

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

GY: – My basic practice routine is to do long tones and to play scales and arpeggios, and to practice improvising in all major and minor keys. Also, I work on pieces which I need to prepare for performances and on pieces which are particularly difficult. For rhythm, it is important to practice with a metronome. For time feel, I worked to emulate the rhythmic approaches of my favorite jazz musicians no matter what instruments they play.

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

GY: – I am not quite sure what you mean by this question. I am influenced by a wide variety of musical ideas, some of which may seem disparate. If something sounds good to me, I want to learn more about it, I want to incorporate it into my composing and playing. If I don’t like it, if I don’t think it is musical, I just ignore it.

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

GY: – I try to find time to practice to be ready, but sometimes I just have to get on stage and do it and try to accept the fact that whatever I play is the best I can do for that particular day. I want to be in the proper mind set for the performance. I aspire to be open to what my colleagues will play, to get my ego out of the way and provide what the music requires. I aspire to make a connection with the audience and hopefully play music which is meaningful for them.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2021: Yazz Band: New Normal, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

GY: – What I love most about YAZZ Band: New Normal are the wonderful contributions of the musicians featured on the disc. The album showcases new arrangements of compositions of mine, scored for little big band: four saxophones, two trumpets, trombone and rhythm section. About half of the album was recorded in the studio, but then the pandemic hit. When it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to go back into the studio, I decided that we should complete the album virtually, with everyone recording their parts individually, most in their homes, our “new normal.” All these tracks were assembled into the final album. It is always a thrill to hear fantastic musicians playing my music. I hope that YAZZ Band: New Normal has something special to say to listeners as well. Currently, I am writing music on commission, for publication, and for my students, music for our pandemic times.

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?

GY: – I am not sure what you mean by “ism.” Do you mean my “Gregism,” my approach to music? That evolved—and I hope is still evolving—over many years of collaborating with wonderful musicians and friends and of countless hours of study and work. I have worked with most of them for many years and all of them are good friends. I am well aware of their artistic gifts, and I kept those in mind as I crafted the compositions and arrangements for the album.

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

GY: – Music requires both intellect and soul. Music is a deep expression of who we are spiritually. Making good music also requires intellect and thoughtfulness. It is a mixture of expression and technique. The purpose of music is to speak to our souls, but we need intellect and technique to craft music with the ability to do that.

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

GY: – I am happy to give the people what they want. The problem is that I cannot guess what that is, and if I try to guess, I am likely to be wrong. Also, every audience is different and wants something different. Instead, I compose and play music that I would like to hear and then hope that the audience wants to hear it also.

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

GY: – I have been lucky to have a long and rich career. Recent highlights include conducting and composing for the Jazz Education Network All Stars Band featuring some of the greatest musicians in the world including Tia Fuller, Sean Jones, Roxy Coss, Jeff Coffin, Clare Daily, Francisco Torres and more. I remember the premiere of my Jazz Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by soloist Willis Delony with the Baton Rouge Symphony, and the premiere of my Concertino for Flute and Orchestra with my wife, Ann, as the soloist in Vienna. I remember writing music for David Sanborn and performing with Clark Terry, Randy Brecker, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, so many others. I remember wonderful concerts with my student bands at Washington State University over many years. And, I particularly remember the fantastic friendships and musical collaborations with my long time colleagues.

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

GY: – We need to help them connect jazz to the music of their time. Jazz is not all about the past. On the other hand, everyone likes to play good music, no matter when it was written.

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

GY: – I went back to school in my late 30s. I was looking for something, the meaning of life. I discovered that the meaning of music was the meaning of life, at least for me.

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

GY: – I wish it wasn’t so hard for musicians to make a living. If they didn’t have to struggle so much, they could spend more time developing and perfecting their craft and then making better music.

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

GY: – I spend a lot of time listening to the music of my students. I also listen to wonderful music by my colleagues and friends. I receive recordings from lots of people and I try to listen to all of them. For me, assembling an album requires a lot of listening, mixing, editing, mastering. I never tire of listening to my favorites: Joe Henderson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Garrett, Ernie Watts.

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

GY: – My goal is to produce music which is optimistic, uplifting, emotional, inspirational. It is hard to put the exact message into words. It is a sonic message, which by its very nature, cannot be explained by words.

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

GY: – I am not sure I would want to go back in time. If I had to pick a place, I would say New York during the swing era. I would love the chance to play in one of those bands.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

GY: – I am so grateful for jazz supporters like you. What is it about jazz which energized and captivates you so much?

JBN: – Jazz is my life !!!

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

GY: – I am excited about music every day. It is endlessly enriching and challenging. There is always more to learn. As long as I think I have something to contribute, I plan to keep composing, playing and working on new musical intiatives.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan


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