June 20, 2024

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Interview with Don Hanson: The Intellect causes us to select a way of playing: Video, new CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Don Hanson. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Don Hanson: – I grew up in the North Bronx, New York City about 1 mile below Mount Vernon. I always loved listening to music, but you could say it was my friends that got me interested in playing an instrument. They got into the school orchestra in the 5th grade, and I wanted to be like them, so I got an opportunity to play in the 6th grade, (clarinet). I was so far behind, but motivated to catch up, so my mom got me private lessons, and the journey began. Those 4 years of classical training served me well. But it was my older brother who literally made me listen to Charlie Parker even when I didn’t want to (he’s 9 years older than I am) that helped motivate me to explore jazz.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

DH: – I think my sound evolved with the expansion of my influences. When I began playing alto in 8th grade, I knew of Charlie Parker, but as I began listening to several other cats.. Dexter, Stitt, Coltrane, Charles McPherson, Richie Cole, as well as Grover, Sanborn and Gerald Albright I absorbed a little from everyone. I also still enjoy playing a variety of grooves, and my album Echoes Of Light reflects some of that.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

DH: – My favorite book is Oliver Nelson’s Patterns For Improvisation which is great for flexibility and “hearing” in all twelve keys. I feel play-along albums are helpful as well.

JBN: – How do you keep stray, or random, musical influences from diverting you from what you are doing?

DH: – You can learn something from everyone you listen to. I tend to listen to musicians whose level of proficiency helps inspire / elevate my own playing. The genre is less important than the inspiration.

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

DH: – Spiritually I pray and make scriptural affirmations every day including before performances and recordings, and still enjoy swimming and basketball a few days a week which helps in terms of stamina.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Echoes of Light, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

DH: – Echoes Of Light has been a long time in the making, I have video of my daughter singing some of the songs on the album when she was like, 6 years old! I love the fact that a variety of grooves are represented, but am probably most proud of the fact that the WORD is made accessible to those of us who enjoy good sax (like Stitt, Dexter and Trane) as well as good vocals (such as Sarah and Ella). I have many more original compositions, some instrumental and some that feature as many as 3 part vocal harmony. And of course I’d love to record some of my favorite instrumentals.

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

DH: – Reggie Nicholson, the drummer, and I have been working together since 1987 so he was a no brainer. Don Hanson II on bass knows the nuances of my original music so well; likewise for him. Shingo Kano, the pianist I met at a jam session and really enjoyed his playing. Joy Hanson has evolved into my favorite new singer, I first hired her in 2010 and she has matured into a beautiful jazz singer.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

DH: – Intellect causes us to select a way of playing, but great music really comes from the spirit, which some may refer to as “soul”. Charlie Parker said, ” First learn your horn, then forget all that ‘stuff’ and just play”. Developing a proficiency of expression, then being open to play what the spirit leads I feel is the key to great music/soloing.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

DH: – Sure, emotion moves us. When we can connect with an audience emotionally, we give performances that are more impactful. Musical taste is what I feel we all should strive for; it’s moreso about being sensitive to the music, giving the music what it needs as opposed to trying to prove how much we can play. Connecting with the audience emotionally may often elicit a more emotional response from them as well.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

DH: – I got the opportunity to study briefly with Sonny Stitt before he died, and he impacted me in a number of ways. First, we were having a casual conversation, I really can’t even remember what we were talking about, and he started a sentence and finished it with “…but I love my Jesus”. I didn’t ask him what he meant by that, but the phrase lingered in my mind for a long time, obviously even until today. It sparked a spiritual curiosity in me.. and the second incident occurred after I didn’t see him for several months.

He battled alcoholism and was initially somewhat frail when we first met, but about 6 months later when I saw him again he looked like he gained oh, 15 pounds, looked peaceful and strong, and was playing like a maniac, (which says a lot because when he was really inspired he could blow people under the table). And I remembered all he drank was Perrier bottled water between the sets. So I said to him “Sonny, you look great! What have you been doing?” And he said “I’ve been reading my Bible Donald”. So I remember thinking ‘I need to find out what’s in this bible’ because of the obvious benefit I had seen in Sonny. One of the greatest tags I ever heard him play was on a recording of “Yes, Jesus Loves me” which he recorded with a trombone player and played the tag like he never wanted the song to end.

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

DH: – I think the understanding of what’s going on is crucial. When rappers ‘spit bars’ ‘off the dome’ they’re just doing what jazz musicians have always done from the beginning: ‘Free styling’ or improvising. Spontaneously creating something that didn’t exist. Laying back rhythmically. Once you explain to someone what the guys are doing, in context, at least you provide a framework for understanding. Doing the same thing with a song they already know and love would be a demonstration of how this works in a context they can appreciate, then taking them back to a beautiful song would be understood.

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

DH: – Scripture tells us that the meaning of life is to seek out and enter into a relationship with God. That’s in the Bible’s New Testament Acts chapter 17 verses 26 and 27. We are spirit beings, we have a soul and live in our bodies, and I believe Coltrane was referring to not thinking about what to play, but being led by his spirit in his expression, which is an evolutionary process. The music is already there, we are just latching on to it..

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

DH: – For jazz music and jazz musicians to receive the same level of respect and compensation that classical and pop musicians do worldwide. This takes education, (beginning on the elementary level), promotion and radio play, but much is achievable once we begin.

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

DH: – Kenny Garrett, Eric Alexander, Gary Bartz.

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

DH: – Peace, Love, Joy, Healing and relationship with God, both instrumentally as well as vocally.

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

DH: – Musically I’d love to go back to about 1953 and catch cats like Bird and Clifford performing live. Bebop and Hardbop gave us intellect and joy, many emotionally satisfying musical moments.

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

DH: – Thanks Simon! What did you do before you started this platform, and what helped you make the decision to start doing this?

JBN: – I have been a political analyst, commentator since 1993, and a jazz critic since 2001, yes, of course!

JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

DH: – That people would gain understanding of where I’m coming from and enjoy Echoes Of Light!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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