May 18, 2024

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Interview with Matthew Alec: The grooves feel good and the solos are really dynamic: Video, new CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz tenor saxophonist Matthew Alec. An interview by email in writing. – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music.  How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Matthew Alec: – Yeah, so, I grew up in Richfield, Ohio, which is about 20 minutes or so south of Cleveland. I think my interest in music was there since I was a child, but I didn’t get heavy into making music until well into high school. I started on the saxophone in fifth grade around age 10, but a lot like the average kid I had very little interest in it at that time. I didn’t really start to develop until about mid-high school when I started listening to classic rock legends like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and Queen. Music started to become my identity. Not long after that, I befriended a younger saxophone student that was way into Charlie Parker and he hipped me to a whole new sound. From there, I was hooked. After that, I wound up at Kent State University studying music and everything pretty much just grew from there. I’ve been working ever since.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound? What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

MA: – Sound! Yeah. That’s what my focus has been almost the entire time I’ve played. To me, sound is your voice, much like any vocalist out there. Every time I touch the tenor, I’m envisioning a big, full, clear, and direct sound. I envision Michael Brecker. I don’t think I sound exactly like him, but that’s what I have in my mind’s eye when I play. Every practice I have is at least in part focused on my sound. Centering it and speaking with clarity.

As far as rhythm, lots of stuff. Backing tracks and metronomes are your best friend. Although it’s evolved, I’ve had my sound mostly figured out well back in early college. It took me a much longer time to develop a rhythmic approach. Listening to the masters like Brecker, Charlie Rouse, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and newer cats like Joshua Redman and Chris Potter have really helped bring a rhythmic feel to my music. Redman just grooves so damn hard in his solos. Some combination of listening, trying different ideas, and transposing solos have improved my rhythmic concept over time. I think the most important thing overall is listening, though. You can’t swing until you know what swing sounds like. I listened to my old Winslow recordings recently and I sounded okay, but I didn’t know how to swing yet. You’ve got to learn to think like a drummer. Listen to the drums when you play with a group and listen to the drums on recordings explicitly, especially that ride cymbal. They’ll tell you something. Then when you’re soloing, match your swing to what the ride is doing. Follow it closely. It will instantly make you a hipper soloist.

As far as the harmonic approach, that’s something that I’m constantly working on. To me, there’re two basic harmonic things you can do when you solo. The first is making obvious diatonic statements that dig very hard into the groove. Those types of statements are based in the blues. Obviously, the blues scale and other pentatonic scales are low hanging fruit to make those types of musical statements, but other things work, too. Major scales, minor scales, etc. To me, this includes chromatic bebop phrases that work those chromatic ‘bebop’ tones on the ands of the beats. You’re still landing chord tones and consonant pitches on the beat, so I’d still include those into that first type of diatonic and expected musical statements. Much of what Charlie Parker did fell into that category.

The other harmonic statement you can make is the one that’s not obvious harmonically. One player that comes to mind is Kenny Garrett. He’s astoundingly good at inserting non-diatonic and unexpected statements into forms and making them fit so very perfectly. In keeping with Garrett, the harmonic major scale comes to mind. The whole tone is another favorite of course. So, to build this, I’d say to keep working on all different scale types and seeing how they fit over various chord change structures. Remember, too, that while one scale might work over a certain chord, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to sound right over that chord in a certain chord sequence, so keep the tune structure in mind. Experiment and try stuff. Over time, you’ll see what works and what doesn’t. Also remember that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ notes. Only ones that sound good to your ear and ones that don’t. If they sound good to you, they’re likely going to sound good to everyone else, too. Then when you’ve got your consonant, feel-good blues ideas together with some of your more unexpected ‘outside’ ideas, you can start mixing and matching them throughout your solos to give them more interest.

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

MA: – Ha! Yeah, wow, great question. I’ve always envisioned this perfect world where I could train like I was preparing for a marathon. Waking up every morning to a three-hour workout, then eating a prepared, healthy lunch, and then practicing for 4 hours every afternoon on all of my various deficiencies. Answering business emails for an hour or so after that, then eating dinner and performing that evening or supporting a fellow musician’s performance. Although I don’t talk about it much, I’m also quietly spiritual and pray daily, so I would, of course, work that into my perfect daily preparation. Perhaps needless to say, a day almost never works out like that. There’s just way too much going on in life to try to make things perfect in almost any capacity. So, to answer the question directly, I do my best given the daily circumstances! For recordings and performances, I do pretty much the same thing. Practice the material as much as I am possibly able for at least a week or so leading up to the session or performance. That includes knowing the head of the tune and the song forms as best I can in that amount of time. I can learn off of sheet music, but that’s not preferred for me, personally. I would prefer have a recording I can listen to and play with. I find the music sticks better to my grey matter if I have that. Then it’s just a matter of getting as many reps as I can before the date. As far as stamina, I keep myself in shape so I can keep up. I know a lot of musicians out there don’t do that and no judgement from me if it works for them, but I don’t know how they do it!

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2023: Matthew Alec and The Soul Electric – Live at the Bop Stop!, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

MA: – You know, it’s really not a perfect record overall. I chose the Blues Brothers material and some of the more classic soul jazz tunes specifically for Tom Malone knowing we wouldn’t have much, if any time to rehearse with him once he arrived in Cleveland. We only had a couple of rehearsals as an ensemble with the material and then we had a few short run throughs at the club with Tom a couple of hours before the gig. That was pretty much it. That said, it’s a really fun record. The grooves feel good and the solos are really dynamic with a lot of energy across the board.

Admittedly, I think the horns could have been tighter, but again, no rehearsal time. It was a lot of fun and a true honor to play with a legend like Tom. It was definitely one of the bright spots of my career thus far. I also think that the horn section of Tom, Tim Coyne, and myself would be an absolutely smoking horn section if we had some more time to gel together. I think my favorite cuts off of this album are “The Chicken,” “Butterfat,” and “Soul Man.” Those all came together really nicely. Interestingly enough, I was blown away to find out that Tom was the original trombonist on the 1975 version of “Butterfat!” It was off David Sanborn’s very first album Taking Off. The Brecker Brothers filled out the horn section on the original recording.

I’ve got a ton in store right now including a series of singles from Cleveland Time Records due out this year. The first of which is an absolutely breathtaking version of the standard “My Funny Valentine” from my frequent pianist collaborator Brian Woods. He sings and plays piano on it. I do take a sax solo on the cut and I produced the tune. Later this year we’ll be heading back into the studio for the second studio album which is tentatively titled Cleveland Vice.

Buy from here – New CD 2023

Live at the Bop Stop! - JAZZIZ Magazine

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

MA: – I’ve got a nice cast of cats that I use regularly. I consider The Soul Electric group to be a sort of collective of musicians that I pull from depending on what the project or performance calls for and their individual availability. I think I definitely had the right cast of guys for this release. They did a great job bringing the music to life. Tom Malone had some very nice things to say about the band after the performance.

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

MA: – The feeling or the soul of the music is really the most important part. Speaking to your audience in terms of a groove is what jazz is all about. That said, the best music really implements equal parts of both. You can make music from strictly a mathematical approach which has been done plenty of times, but that’s typically going to come across as sterile and rigid and ultimately not something a general audience is going to gravitate towards. Music that incorporates both elements gives the most rewarding experience to both the artist and the audience.

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

MA: – Absolutely. I think you said it best yourself with the “two-way” comment. To me, a perfect performance is one that captivates the audience and give them what they want to hear while also allowing the artist to be true to themselves and express ideas as they desire. In a jazz performance I’d add an additional layer to that which would be to allow each soloist in the group to have moments to express themselves. I try to feature each of my musicians at various times throughout a performance. I’d like to think that comes through on the Live at the Bop Stop! recording.

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

MA: – Wow. Well, so, so many. In recent memory I think I’ll share my experience making the Cleveland Time album at Jim Stewart Recording in Cleveland. Jim’s a great engineer and he’s in a new studio now in a different part of the city, but at the time he was in this great spot just a few blocks away from downtown called Superior Sound. The recording took four full days of studio time. Just being there in the moment with my guys and hearing all of my ideas come to fruition was a transcendent experience. I really think who I was not only as a musician, but also as a human changed over the course of those few days. When I was younger I always considered myself more of a live player. Making the two Winslow records that I put out as a younger man were also great experiences, but there was this disconnect between the performances I was able to give live and what I was able to deliver on record in a studio setting. Making Cleveland Time really showed me how much fun the studio really is. Fast forward two years later and I somewhat consider myself a better studio player now than I am a live performer, although I’m not bad at that, either. Of course there’s the producer aspect of what I do now, too, that’s grown a lot. I love producing. Envisioning a project and bringing it into being. That’s what it’s all about.

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

MA: – Or older. Ha! Yeah, learning The Great American Songbook is an important part of becoming a jazz musician. The song forms, chord sequences, and all the common chord substitutions are all pertinent to how jazz works and an integral part in learning how to be a soloist. That said, they’re really just a building block for jazz musicians to grow upon. To me, the future of the music isn’t all about standards. They’re important to learn, but not where the music is going. The way I see it, jazz has continued to evolve through its fusion with other music. When I attended the Inside/Outside Retreat at Wooten Woods a few years ago, there were a lot of great young musicians there that didn’t know many standards at all. It wasn’t because they weren’t good enough, it was because their experience never called for those songs. Most of the gigging opportunities out there for jazz and jazz-oriented musicians are rooted in popular music for better or worse. The really great younger acts out there today like Snarky Puppy, Cory Wong, and Kamasi Washington are making modern music that has jazz elements. I’d like to think that’s what I’m doing as well. To me, that’s where the music is headed and that’s the key to keeping it relevant to a younger generation.

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

MA: – It would be to make jazz a popular music once again. One can hope, right?

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

MA: – It depends on the day. It’s a bit sad to say, but I don’t have much time to spend listening these days. Every day is so packed with my own music that I only have a few minutes each day to actually listen to someone else. The one artist that I do try to listen to daily, however, is Michael Brecker. His playing defines the tenor saxophone for me and I try to listen to him as much as I can to always have his sound and phrasing in my mind’s eye. During road trips to gigs, I almost always have him playing. It honestly helps me get into performance mode. Aside from him, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Kenny Garrett, Kamasi Washington, Chet Baker, and John Mayer get quite a bit of listening time from me. Interestingly enough, I’ve been on a bit of an ‘80s pop music binge listening kick lately as well trying to gear up for the upcoming Cleveland Vice studio release.

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

MA: – For me, it depends on the recording. Each release I plan I’m going for something different. The Soul Electric stuff is by and large going to be of the more groove-driven fun variety, with a few exceptions. For the Cleveland Time album I envisioned a sort of modern version of a classic ‘70s jazz fusion record. I think I did a decent job of capturing that. This Live at the Bop Stop! release is really just a product based on Tom Malone’s career. I don’t anticipate releasing another one anything like it I don’t think. For the next record, I really have more of an ‘80s vibe planned with some traditional jazz mixed in somewhere. I’m thinking along the lines of Steps Ahead perhaps.
All that said, I’ve got some other releases planned just under my name that are much more personal and straight-ahead jazz oriented. As far as the message itself, some tracks I have a specific message in mind and for some tracks I’m really just focused on the melody, groove, and mood of the piece. Some of my future recordings are going to feature more vocals and with those come more of a true intended message. For the instrumental stuff, I may have something in my mind’s eye about what they mean, but I like it when listeners derive their own meaning based on how it touches them individually.

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

MA: – Oh, great questions! Definitely have me thinking. I’ve done a number of interviews recently and they really make you dive deep and think about your craft and experiences in a different light. As far as , how did you get started with that? I’ve spent some time on it now and it’s a great website.

JBN: – Thank you! It was originally a Jazz & Blues Facebook group and has more than 62,000 followers. Then when I graduated from Berklee College of Music – Jazz, the Facebook group was too small to say anything, I created the website. It was in 2010 and year by year it developed more.

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

MA: – Oh, yes. Many free concerts over the years. My days of playing for exposure are over, although I still do benefit concerts with some regularity. As long as it’s for a good cause, I’m amicable to do things like that. I’ve proudly done some work recently with the Washington, D.C. based nonprofit Music Beats Cancer. They’re doing a fine job raising money for cancer research. Great cause. As far as any expectations for this interview, I don’t have any. It’s my pleasure to answer your questions. I appreciate you having me!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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