Jazz Improv Magazine — Spring, 2007
Interview by Jazz Improv
JI: How did your research and work in the area of Artificial Intelligence impact your artistic development and creativity?
AS: My research focused on learning – I designed techniques that allow computers to learn skills on their own. I’m not sure that my research impacted my music much, other than the fact that it taught me an awful lot about how people acquire skills, which is useful in my practicing and in my teaching. But the research I did shares a lot in common with my music. In my research I investigated how we learn to do not the most arcane skills, like playing chess or writing a poem, but the simplest and most mundane, like walking across a room or recognizing a face. Turns out that they only seem “simple” because they are so essential to us that their complexity is buried deep in our brain, beyond our conscious awareness. The music I strive to make has that same quality: it feels grounded and simple and catchy. The complexity that makes it work is hidden deep in its structure rather than hitting you over the head. When people tell me they like a tune of mine and have it stuck in their head, I know I’ve done it right.
JI: What significant career and personal benefits do you find to be advantages living in the San Francisco area?
AS: The Bay Area has a strong jazz scene – one of the strongest in the nation – but noplace in the world compares to New York. My reasons for living out here are largely personal. I came out to the Bay Area for my doctorate at Stanford, and when I decided to give up academia I needed to rebuild my life, and I chose to do that out here rather than New York, where I grew up. The priorities out here are different from New York – there’s a lively intellectual life, but also what I consider a much healthier lifestyle… the food, nature, the air quality… and, most of all, the pace of life.
JI: What were some of the guiding ideas that you learned from Eddie Daniels and Warne Marsh whom you credit as being some of your influential sax teachers?
AS: Warne and Eddie were like night and day. With Warne I spent time learning solos and songs by ear. I’d sing them, play them on tenor, play them on piano. We did rhythmic and harmonic exercises that taught music at an abstract level. We seldom worried about instrumental technique. So when I came to Eddie he went to town helping me refine my craft. Warne was a poet, a dreamer. Deeply understated, with a profound love of the music that I can still feel to this day, though this year is the twentieth anniversary of his passing. Eddie, by contrast, is passionately outspoken and down to earth and has a much greater love for fine detail. Two brilliant musicians.
JI: What recording or recordings initially sparked your interest in jazz, and inspired your desire to perform and or compose?
AS: The first sax players I checked out were Charlie Parker and Charlie Rouse. I had borrowed a tenor sax from my school and wanted to hear what great saxophone playing sounded like, and they were my first taste. I developed a curiosity for it immediately, and a great love only a bit later. Probably the most important record for me was an odd and wonderful CD called Apogee that paired Pete Christlieb with Warne Marsh, produced by, of all people, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steeley Dan. It was finally reissued on CD by Rhino a couple years ago. I listened to that record so many times! I bought it one day on a lark, used, for a buck, down at Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies in the West Village. A week later I ran into a guy on the bus carrying a sax case, and started talking to him. Coincidentally, he was coming from a lesson with Warne Marsh, whom I had just been checking out on that record, and he convinced me to give Warne a call. I did, we had a trial lesson, and Warne agreed to take me on as a student.
JI: Talk about the relevance of developing a healthy curiosity about ideas and people, in and out of music, to bolster your artistry.
AS: It’s been said a lot, but never hurts to repeat: Music isn’t about music, it’s about life. Without a rich emotional life, a musician would have no subject matter for his music, any more than a poet would have anything to write about. And without ideas to use to structure those emotions, you can’t communicate them in any coherent way, or with any subtlety. I suppose it doesn’t require much by way of ideas to produce a raw musical cry, but that sort of music doesn’t interest me much. I go more for music that has story line… that has structure and finesse. Those things require a broadly developed mind and an understanding of the world. You can’t acquire them just sitting in front of a piano.
JI: Could you talk about your activities as an educator at The Jazzschool, The Brubeck Institute and Stanford Jazz Workshop?
AS: I teach courses and give workshops at the Jazzschool in Berkeley, California. Pianist Susan Muscarella founded it in 1997, and it’s amazing how far it’s developed since then – it’s become a hub of activity for the Bay Area jazz scene. One of the nicest things about teaching there is the flexibility I’ve had to offer unusual courses and workshops. I teach workshops on specific subjects ranging from the physics of woodwind instruments to the dominant 13 flat 9 chord, to the business of releasing an independent CD. I’m currently teaching a class I developed called Improvising Eighth Note Lines. My favorite thing is to work with students who have spent years learning scales and chords and patterns but have have been frustrated, unable to really make music with them. When I see them finally start to create meaningful melodies… to have something to express and to be able to express it… it reminds me of why I play music in the first place.
JI: How are your activities in the area of jazz education a challenge or inspiration for your artistry?
AS: Teaching beginning and intermediate students appeals to my love of communication, more than anything. I love to explore things like improvisation that we do largely at a non-conscious level — I guess that’s something that hasn’t left me since my Artificial Intelligence days — and to find the best way to convey it to students, leveraging the concepts they already have in place. Advanced students are a different story. I’m a clinician for the Brubeck Institute, and when I teach the Brubeck Fellows, it’s really a give-and-take. There’s no way to stay ahead of them; there’ll always be things that they can do that I can’t. So it’s a matter of finding the areas where I can impart skills or point them in directions they haven’t considered. And I’d have to be blind and deaf not to come away from them with new musical directions that I want to explore myself.
JI: Could you discuss the relevance for you as an artist, to approach this music as a road to be traveled, with the opportunity for a lifetime of growth and learning, as opposed to a destination to be reached.
AS: Life has the humbling quality that just when you think you’re starting to get it down, something comes and hits you from out of nowhere and you’re a beginner all over again. Music, if you’re treating it honestly, has that same quality. Seems to me if you don’t feel that, you’re not really paying attention. It’s humbling to see jazz through those beginner’s eyes, and also very exciting.
JI: What are some of the challenges you face and expect to face
as an independent artist, and how do you envision making them work for you?
AS: For me the biggest challenge is finding the hours in the day to do it all. I run my own record label, and I’m not a big enough operation to have an in-house designer, publicist, radio promoter, booker, accountant, administrative assistant, etc. Some of those things are easy to outsource, others more difficult. And to some extent I have to be on top of everything regardless, because otherwise things have a way of falling through the cracks in the music business. It’s doable, but it requires a lot of time, and that’s time I don’t spend playing music. That is the biggest challenge. Otherwise, the benefits are enormous. I have complete control to create and follow my own vision, both musically and professionally. To me, that’s priceless.
JI: How have you strived to develop your own voice – in the face of the immense influence of certain overwhelmingly influential artists?
AS: One of the things I tell my most advanced young students is not to be so preoccupied with doing something new. Sometimes they can be so afraid of sounding unoriginal that instead they just sound bad. I say, don’t be afraid of the music you love. When something musical speaks to your soul, immerse yourself in it and explore it with abandon. When you inhabit that music, the love you feel will come through to the listener. Anyone who’s cut out to be a jazz musician has a natural passion and creativity. As you assimilate music you love, your creativity and uniqueness will lead you in new directions. By contrast, novelty simply for novelty’s sake is just ego. It may be interesting but it’s not likely to have real beauty or staying power. So explore every new idea you have, but don’t mistake those explorations for art… or at least don’t expect them to reach anyone emotionally.
Put another way… I haven’t striven to develop my own voice as a player any more than I’ve striven to develop my own personality as a man. The way I see it, if you live a complete life and act on what you believe in without letting fear or complacency get in the way, you develop character. I see character is exactly that – the byproduct of a full and honest life. My take on the music is similar.
JI: How if at all do the pressures of talent buyers, peers and the marketplace affect your music or creativity?
AS: I consider myself lucky. The music that moves me and gets me excited is not arcane and cerebral. It’s subtle and smart, but it’s also grounded and accessible. So when I’m successful at the music I’m trying to make, it naturally has a wide audience. I love it when jazz aficionados enjoy my stuff, but I also particularly love it when I hear someone say, “I never thought I liked jazz, but this music is great.” That gives me great pride… as well as a bit of comfort when I look at jazz’s precarious market share!
JI: What goal are you hoping to accomplish, or experience in the next three years?
AS: I’ve got two particular CDs in mind – the concept, and most of the compositions and arrangements – that I’m looking forward to recording. I suppose I’d be in the studio now, except that for me releasing a CD is such an intense process that each time I attend to it my musical growth comes to a stop. Right now I’m in a period of recharging my music – when I’ve achieved that I’ll be raring to go again. And if I can manage each time I go through the CD process to streamline it a bit so that it requires less of my personal time, I’ll consider that a big accomplishment.
JI: Tell us about your activities outside of music and how they have helped you stay balanced, and contribute to your personal and artistic growth?
AS: Exercise is always key to my balance. Lately I’ve taken to running. About a year ago I discovered accidentally that when I run in nature I can go much further than I can in town. So I’ve been heading up to the hills for long runs. I love to learn, so I’m always reading, though lately that’s mainly been taking the form of audiobooks – they’re convenient when I run and also when I’m driving to and from gigs. My latest read: Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness.” Great book!! Next up is William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.”