We decided to expand our magazine with jazz music. In the future you can expect a lot of interviews and reviews with jazz musicians. We will cover old and new. Series will be called 'Jazz Corner' and here's the very first interview with Matt Criscuolo.
Matt Criscuolo recently released a brand new album Headin' Out. He's well known post modern jazz saxophonist and also a composer coming from New York City. Headin' Out is his sixth album. In the following interview we will talk with Criscuolo about making this albums.
When and where were you born?
I was born in 1971 in the Bronx, New York.
How old were you when you began playing music and what was the first instrument you played?
I was about 6 years old when I started playing the piano. The first song I expressed interest in was "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin. I was living on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx and I was about four or five years old and my mother had to go and buy it on vinyl for me because I was throwing a tantrum if I didn't get it. After that, I started to take classical piano lessons. I wasn't crazy about the classical piano but when I was about 10 years old I was given the opportunity to play the saxophone in elementary school. Some guy came around to the schools demonstrating different instruments and he said that we could choose an instrument to play in the band if we liked. Maybe he was a saxophone player because he sounded pretty good and the saxophone just looked so cool me, and I like the way it sounded. I knew immediately that that's what I had to play. And I loved it right from the very beginning.
What inspired you to start playing music? Do you recall the first song you ever learned to play?
When I started playing the saxophone, the first person that influenced me was an Italian saxophonist named Fausto Papetti. My father went out and bought me a bunch of 8-track tapes and I sat in the basement of my house and played along with those tapes for a few years until I discovered David Sanborn, then Charlie Parker, then John Coltrane, and the rest is history.
You attended Manhattan school of music. Would you say school assisted on what you became as a musician? By that I mean your style of playing and on how are you approaching the process of writing new compositions.
It definitely influenced me because I was surrounded by classmates like Joel Frahm, Chris Potter, Chris Byers, Myron Walden and D.D. Jackson The list goes on.
Studied with Walt Weiskopf, Dick Oatts, Rich Perry and John Purcell.
Those guys gave me a lot of really good tools. Harold Danko taught me how to play some piano to the extent that I could compose music.
Your very first effort was an album you made in 2002, Streets Of New York. What can you tell us about the lineup for this album.
I surrounded myself with some really good musicians and a lot of them because I felt comforted having my friends around me for support and I wasn't ready to do an expository quartet type of thing just yet. I had my friend Graham Bruce on trumpet Who is the genius who Also arranged the music expertly. Ken Barry on the tenor saxophone who's sound is as big as a house. We played the songs together as a 3-horn frontline. The rhythm section was Alan Palmer on piano who played with Jackie McLean for many years, Phil Bowler on the bass who has played with everybody and swings his butt off, and "Beaver" Bausch on the drums. These are all just top-notch musicians who really made the record come out incredibly. I recorded it on 2 inch tape and it's the only record I've recorded in this manner. Everything else was digital after that. I have to admit the 2 inch tape makes a difference because the sound is warmer and Richer.
Three years later you managed to record an album with legendary pianist Larry Willis. How was to work with him and what would you say about the album, titled Lotus Blossom.
I met Larry through a recommendation from Phil Bowler who is also on that record with Larry. Actually Lotus Blossom is not my favorite record. It had some nice moments on it and it was great to play with Steve Davis on trombone but I was really nervous and somewhat unprepared for that recording. Working with Larry has been wonderful. He is a very happy jolly type of a guy and he's an amazing musician and person.
What can you say about the arrangements?
I can arrange music but I have very limited time to begin with so I prefer to write music and then either arrange some of the music myself or let another fine musician like Larry Willis or Tony Purrone lay hands on the music to put their stamp on it. There is an element of surprise and wonder when I do it that way. The arrangements are excellent in my opinion. So grateful for Larry, Graham Bruce and Tony Purrone or anybody else that has arranged any music of mine.
Are you satisfied with the album?
I am very satisfied with this album because it represents a shift in my musical direction that I'm happy to have embraced. I love traditional jazz but I put a premium on pushing the music forward. I feel that the heart of Jazz is that of innovation and rebellion and artistry.
I want to play jazz in a way that if Charlie Parker were to rise from the dead, and be at one of my gigs, that he would pay me a complement something to the effect of "hey nice job kid. I'm glad you're not just regurgitating what I did so many years ago. Keep pushing!"
This last record that I did, headin'out, documents where I am at at this point which is that I am exploring the possibilities of truer and more authentic expression and trusting the music to go where it wants to go by getting out of the way. One of my philosophies is that "there are no accidents" but rather there are "opportunities" during improvisational explorations. I'm still searching and trying to be comfortable with myself as an improviser and a musician but I liked what I did on this last record. And the rest of the musicians are just incredible and made me sound good. I hope I did the same for them. They elevated the bandstand and that's what I try to do.
What was happening between Lotus Blossom and Melancholia, which came out a few years later.
Not a whole lot. I started to get the itch to make another record, I had heard Larry Willis's beautiful record on MapleShade's called "Sanctuary". I was inspired by the string arrangements that he wrote. It knocked me out. It was so rich and beautiful. Dark and hopeful at the same time. And I just had to have a record like that. I wanted to hear myself playing over a string section with those types of sounds. I am so grateful to Larry for arranging the music the way he did.
Blippity Blat was your next release and you also did Melancholia (Re-Imagined). What can you say about making this two albums?
For "melancholia re-imagined" I wanted to try something different and fun that I thought certain family and friends might enjoy more, or differently, than the acoustic instrumental stuff I put out. I had a brilliant musician friend of mine named Bill Donovan "Donovan Quixote" remix and reimagine my string record "melancholia".
There are a handful of Blue Note Records that were treated the same way by hip-hop artists and I was inspired by that. I thought maybe I might reach another audience but my main goal with the "Melancholia Re-Imagined" record as well as any of my records has always been to document some original music and also to document where I am musically at that point in my life. It never had to do about money or sales. Not that there's anything wrong with being motivated or inspired to sell records. That's a great thing too. Incidentally, I'm just saying that that was never my focus. I've been fortunate I supposed to just focus on making a record for more artistic reasons.
You're a record producer and you have your own label. You're also a proud owner of restaurant group Jazzeria. You must be a very busy man?
I am busy. I don't know if I'm any busier than anybody else because I don't keep close tabs on anybody else's life enough to know the difference. I own four restaurants without any partners. I have good managers and assistant managers and wonderful employees. I am busy but I make time to practice every day. Certain days I get a little tired and I would just rather lie on the sofa and watch Netflix. I haven't had much time to compose lately but I have been performing more than usual so that's a good thing. The restaurants feed my musical life. The money that I make from the restaurants helps me to produce whatever records I make. It also allows me to have more options in my life. I'm very grateful to have those restaurants. When I meet people and tell them that I'm in the restaurant business they often say "wow. That's a tough business. A lot of restaurants fail and it's a lot of work". They are correct about that. But what I usually tell them ; "it's almost as tough as being a jazz musician!"
Headin' Out is your latest release. You have Tony Purrone on guitar, Preston Murphy on Acoustic Bass, Ed Soph on Drums and yourself on Alto Sax. What's the story behind making Headin' Out?
I was inspired to make this last record because of the last couple of years of gigs that I have had with Tony and Preston. We haven't locked in with a drummer that we all agree on but Tony, Preston and I have been playing over the last couple of years quite a bit. I was inspired to make this record because of the cool things I started to experience playing with these guys. I have been inspired by Tony and Preston but mostly by Tony because he seems to be on a mission and I have fed off of his energy and vice versa . Tony is an unsung hero. Out of the gate at a young age he was all the rave. He was playing with Jimmy Heath and so many other great top shelf musicians when he was a teenager. He was a prodigy right from the beginning. Unfortunately nowadays he feels left behind. What I don't think he realizes is that it's not his fault. I mean to a certain extent, our shortfalls are in some part our own faults. But he's playing a form of music which has a very small dwindling audience to begin with and he lives in Connecticut which is not exactly the hotbed of jazz culture.
What would you say are some of the most influential musicians for you?
Charlie Parker will always be the first guy I mention. I think if he were alive today he would still be the hottest cat around. But I put a premium on innovation and for that reason I like The way Steve Lacy played. Jimmy Lyons, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Bunky Green,. But the guy that knocks me out the most lately is David S Ware.
There are tons of guys out there that can play so beautifully that I admire but these are some of the guys that pop into my mind first.
What are some future plans?
I'm trying to stretch out harmonically more. I have some perceived limitations that I have convinced myself of -one of which is remembering chord changes. Or maybe it's not so much a perceived limitation, maybe it's actual. I don't know. But whatever it is, it is what drives me to develop whatever personal concept I will ultimately build upon. My drummer extraordinaire friend Artt Frank told me that after Chet Baker had his teeth knocked out, he obviously couldn't scream on the upper register of the trumpet like so many other players but rather he capitalized on his limitations and built his own style from there and consequently did some really beautiful things on the lower register of the trumpet that I never heard anybody else do. That's a consolation to me. I digress but my point is that we all have limitations and we can overcome them by capitalizing on our strengths. My future plans are to make another record. I really want to do something that is even further out and more abstract. I like to believe that common people and nonmusicians can hear fundamental musical exploration as long as it's coming from a place of truth. I'm aware that a lot of people label things which creates a block for them to truly experience certain things as well, but I'm not overly concerned about that.
Thank you very much for taking time to be part of It's Psychedelic Baby's Jazz Corner. Last word is yours.
I think it's a bit disappointing that there are so many musicians out there that cannot produce their own record because they don't have money. I wish it wasn't like that. I also feel bad for all those soldiers out there that love the music so much but are struggling. I wish it wasn't like that. I like playing instrumental improvisational music that we call "Jazz" but I wish it was a little easier to make a living at it. I think jazz musicians should unite more and create support groups for each other. And I think it would be nice if there was some community leaders out there that would implement some programs and ideas that would plant some seeds for the future to build an audience that will support jazz because my understanding is that the audience is dwindling. I have the luxury of being able to play jazz without having to worry about making a living from it because of my restaurants but my heart aches for all my brothers and sisters out there who are trying to make a living playing jazz. One day I would like to be out of the restaurant business only to be supporting myself playing music and I hope by then that my brothers and sisters and myself included will be able to be happier supporting ourselves playing this music that we love.
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2015
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