Nelson Rangell Interview

Sunday, April 19, 2015 


Contemporary jazz artist Nelson Rangell has been an inspiration for many young sax and flute players since his first album release with the prestigious GRP label in 1987. I caught up with Nelson to discuss his career and his 2 new album releases.


NM:  You’ve had a pretty interesting career Nelson. How did you first discover music?


NR:  I come from a musical family. My parents were very musical and artistic people and all their children, the four of us, ended up as professional musicians. My oldest brother Andrew, has a Phd from Juilliard and is a tremendous concert pianist, my brother Bobby is a wonderful alto saxophonist and flutist, and my sister Paula is a singer in New Orleans. Music was always around in our house and so it was not surprising that in junior high school I started playing the flute.
I ended up having a natural talent for it. The saxophone was kind of a natural extension from there so I started on that 3 or 4 years later. I started seriously playing sax just before college.


NM:  So you came to saxophone quite late then?


NR:  Pretty late I guess. I started really practicing the saxophone when I was about 17. But, I had played flute since I was about 14½.
NM:  You obviously found a passion for playing quite quickly because you went on to win some awards?
NR:  I loved playing my instrument from the first day I owned it. I was able to have fun and engage with others musically very early. That's a lucky blessing for which I'm very thankful. As far as awards, well, they have the Down Beat Student Recording awards in the USA and I won the best jazz soloist award in high school. Then I won the pop soloist award in college. Those were the only actual competitions I think I ever engaged in.


NM:  And did you find a love for contemporary and pop music early on?


NR:  I loved Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, David Sanborn and The Brecker Brothers along with Charlie Parker. I've always liked a lot of music. I have a passion for jazz but I'm hardly a straight ahead jazz player. I love great classical flute playing but I'm not a classical flutist.


Some players devote their whole lives to be great in a specific area, and it shows. People find themselves on different, individual musical paths. I’m earnest about trying to become a better player and musician each day. I love many different types of music and I enjoy playing on a fair amount of different things.


I’m hopefully growing as a jazz player over a number of years. It's been a great continuing learning experience for me digging more into standards and more challenging repertoire. If there's some sort of label attached I guess I consider myself to be a contemporary player and stylist.


NM:  That’s very modest of you! So you studied classical flute?


NR:  Yeah, that was in there! I did classical and jazz flute studies at the New England Conservatory. I think it’s really important to have done some classical studies on that instrument. It's been important for me. I had a great flute teacher in college named Robert Stallman who furthered my appreciation for striving for excellence just by hearing him play up close. I was also very lucky to study sax with Joe Allard. For me, I'm a bit mystified by classical saxophone. That’s something I don’t know anything about.


NM:  Not many people do Nelson!


NR:  There is some fantastic classical saxophone repertoire that I can’t even imagine playing. Again, people dedicate themselves to different things. It's great! There are many different roads to take. I would say regardless of what style you are into, a solid foundation with your skills is really important.
NM:  Who were the first idols you discovered on sax that gave you an idea of the sound you wanted to aim towards?


NR:  First, I used to go watch my brother Bobby when I was younger. Everything about watching him playing live was compelling and amazing to me. In the 70s and early 80s here in Colorado it was a very vibrant time with lots of venues and bands. I would go and see my brother play a lot and that inspired me. I loved listening to him. I liked what he liked.


Nelson Rangell Playing for Keeps

Playing for Keeps” (1989) was the first of 8 albums with GRP Records.



I remember Bobby playing records by the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Hubert Laws and The Crusaders to name a very few. I loved those records the second I heard them, and they are still amongst my favourite recordings today. I knew when I was a kid that I was into that style of playing.


I even remember trying to make the “split tone” effect that Dave Sanborn used on sax when I was playing the flute! I thought it was so visceral and expressive.
NM;  And it wasn’t long before you were actually playing with these guys. That must have been amazing.


NR:  Well, it wasn't like I was playing with all my favorite jazz idols on a regular basis but some remarkable things did happen after I got to New York and it was an important, sort of magical, time for me. I was very lucky. After finishing school in Boston I packed up a car and moved to Brooklyn. I did every kind of gig that came my way, went to clubs and to every jam session I could. I was lucky to meet a lot of the people I had always listened to. I even got to play with a lot of them.


Nelson Rangell with Alto Sax


A pretty fair amount of things happened, I got a recording contract, played a lot in the studio and luckily I’ve managed to have a career as a musician ever since. I’ve done a lot of things. I've been thankful for all of it.


NM:  Your involvement with GRP lasted a long time. Was that a great experience for you?


NR:  Couldn’t get much better than that could it? I was always in disbelief at the time. I met a lot of incredible players and got to participate in some wonderful things. I still know these guys and get to play with them from time to time.


NM:  I was watching a youtube clip recently of the GRP big band and you were in the sax section along with Ernie Watts, Eric Marienthal, Bob Mintzer and Tom Scott - Amazing! Was Tom Scott a guy you grew up listening to?


NR:  You know when I was younger I was working through the [Charlie Parker] Omnibook and learning Cannonball Adderley solos, which I still do now probably with deeper appreciation and reverence, but the music that really turned me on was more modern pop stylings. And the main guys for me were Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Ernie Watts and Tom Scott.


These incredible players were doing a very influential and important type of commercial jazz where their individual styles and improvisation were the key components. That was really inspiring to me as a kid and to this day.


NM:  A lot of us saxophone players are doublers on flute and or clarinet but you’ve managed to take that to a whole different level. What would be your advice on how to develop and maintain a tone equally on flute and saxophone?


NR:  Number one I have to say that I think there is no substitute for time and focus. If we have the gift of time to practice then we have to view it as a precious thing and take advantage of it. If you desire to work on two instruments, and you want to be good at them, then there’s no magic to it, it’s all about “quality time spent” on each.



Nelson Rangell on Flute
To play one instrument well is a lifelong job. You’ll never run out of things to work on. If you don't have very much time then your focus has to be that much better. You have to do serious listening and you have to really be aware of the qualities you want to have in your own playing.


NM:  So having a clear idea of the tone you’re going for on each instrument and treating each instrument as a “main” instrument instead of as a double?
NR:  I guess. Yes. Easier said than done though. I certainly think for a saxophone player to become a really good doubler on flute and clarinet is a great accomplishment. I never got the clarinet part under my belt! But the more specialised and the better you want to get on each instrument the more commensurately focused you need to be with your practice.


NM:  I imagine you are quite diligent with your practice. Do you have some favourite exercises that you use to develop your tone?


NR:  I listen intently, and I listen critically a great deal. I think about issues of diaphragm support and mental confidence. I record myself more than ever and try to confront areas that I need to keep working really hard on. I try not to kid myself and to be analytical and conscious.


It's important to try to play melodies well and expressively, and in a "singing" manner with character. Long tones are a pat answer but I would say strive to play melodies beautifully. Play along with recordings of your favorite players. I think about not only core sound but elements of nuance, articulation, dynamics, pliability, vibrato.



Nelson Rangell
All these things go into the sum of a person's expression and sound. Try to not sound like you're in a practice room. On a basic level, on sax, I try to make sure I have taken the time to procure and play on a good reed! That's really important.


Play in some varied spaces if you can, even ones that make you sound a little better than you actually do. I wish reverb just came out of my face! It's a very basic thing but we need to feel good about ourselves to be able to really sing out loud!


Think about the characteristics of sounds and players you are most inspired by and strive for those yourself. You have to be able to hear it in your head and feel it in your heart.


“You have to hear it in your head, and feel it in your heart.”


For exercises I think that it's important to work on scales, patterns, licks, transcriptions, and play alongs! Even up your fluency in all keys. Learn all sorts of tunes and in different genres, jazz, R and B, soul, latin, ballads etc. Listen to singers.


NM:  Are these things you did when you were starting out?


NR:  Yes, I still do now.
NM:  And what’s the process for you with transcribing?


NR:  I've learned and played a lot of transcribed solos. It's a challenge, fun, and great practice to play them with the recordings. I transcribe passages and licks. I've never transcribed a whole solo. I take bits that interest me the most - a phrase, a pattern. If something sounds cool you can study it and then apply it to your own playing. This is an ongoing thing for me.


NM:  And what do you think is most important when it comes to developing a style


NR:  Again, there's no substitute for time spent listening, practicing, thinking about music, and playing with others. Be honest with yourself and follow your heart. Pick up things that you like in other’s music and begin to emulate those things in your own playing and music. Most importantly, become self assured enough that you believe wholeheartedly what’s coming out of your horn. Make it your own. All this is an ongoing process that never stops.


NM:  That’s great advice. It’s easy to get caught up with just making yourself “saleable” as a musician - we’re all guilty to some extent of that. But it’s great to hear you encouraging us to decide on what we want to sound like ourselves and following that dream.


NR:  Well, it's an ongoing journey and a really big topic. We, of course, also need to be out there working and so having your “jobbing” skills together is essential if less inspirational.



Nelson Rangell on tenor sax
As a soloist, trying to figure out what you want to say and how you want to connect is really important and personal. Listening to your own voice inside as opposed to what others are telling you can be a challenge. It’s easy to fall prey to the opinions of others or the broader idea of “what is hip”. You have to be kind of brave.
NM:  What about the way we approach practice?


NR:  Well, for mature or adult learners I think it’s really important to decide what your goals are with saxophone.


First off, don't beat yourself up too much. It’s great if you just want to play, improve, and have fun over time. That’s a great thing and it doesn’t need to be any more than that. It’s wonderful if you can fit music in with the rest of your life and have consistent enjoyment on your horn along with doing other things.


If you are more ‘"serious" about learning saxophone and music then I think it’s important to be very earnest about organized, methodical practice. Write down short and long term goals and keep a type of practice log. Make advances tangible to yourself. Look at what you've accomplished over a week, a month, etc.
Don't leave things undone. That can even relate to working on just playing 8 bars of a tune. The mental discipline of perfecting something will serve you on everything you play afterwards.


NM:  What’s the one thing you would practice if you have limited practice time?


NR:  I would play along with recordings and work with “play alongs”. I think immersion in actual playing and hearing yourself in the context of music around you is super important. Playing along with original recordings is a lot of fun, it inspires you for sound and makes you feel good. It’s great for the ears. I’m a fan of the Jamey Abersold recordings or the iReal Pro app. The act of actually practicing with music and playing, interacting musically with others who are at or beyond your level has enormous benefits in a lot of ways.

iPhone apps for practicing saxophone
Apps for practice:
iReal Pro
Apple / Android
Irealpro is a great smart phone app that generates a backing track for any chord progression.
You can define different playing styles plus there is a huge online community sharing their song arrangements for free download.



iPhone / iPad
To really make great progress with your practice it’s important to record yourself. Saxtracks is a handy app that makes recording quick and easy. Plus, import any backing tracks and record yourself with them, then instantly share your new recording with the world direct from your iPhone / iPad. Simple!

NM:  You’ve been pretty busy lately making not one but two records. Tell us a bit about them.


NR:  "Red" and "Blue" are 2 different sides of me that I wanted to represent. I really enjoyed making both CDs. "Red", my sax CD is kind of a throwback to the commercial horn albums I first loved listening to. I feel really good about the writing and arrangements and there is also a priority put on the blowing. I’m really happy with how it has turned out. I think it's accessible and substantive.


Red by Nelson Rangell

There are some ace players on the CD including Randy Brecker on a tune titled "Smoothly Sinister" and a great young British drummer named Louie Palmer. Nine of the ten tunes are original and I think contemporary sax fans will really enjoy it.


NM:  There is some amazing flute and piccolo playing on your album Blue also, particularly the track “Le Tombeau de Couperin”.


NR:  “Blue” is my flute CD. It has a lot of different music recorded on it. There is everything from Stevie Wonder to Maurice Ravel. I had very few preconceived notions about what I was going to record other than the hope that music that I'm moved by would find it's audience.


Nelson Rangell Blue album

In contrast to "Red" only 2 of the eleven tunes are original but a lot of time was spent arranging things in a unique way. It features a few jazz adaptations of classical works that I thought would sound really good on the flute. Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau De Couperin being one such piece.


I also recorded “Pavane” by Gabriel Faure and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” which is a piece I've loved since I was a kid. We did a short Claus Ogerman piece called “ I Love You” that’s a lovely light classical composition. There's also a beautiful arrangement of a tune by Vince Mendoza titled “Ao Mar” and an Antonio Carlos Jobim piece I whistle titled "Children's Games." There are a few nice piccolo pieces as well.


The CD features two fantastic pianists - Mitchel Forman and Bob James. Mitch is one of the best jazz pianists and keyboard players there is and Bob is pretty much a contemporary jazz legend. He played on 4 very eclectic pieces of music and was brilliant on all of them. Bob's playing on Don Sebesky's jazz burner “Free as a Bird” is amazing. I’m very honored to have them both on my album.


Nelson’s gear

Woodstone / Yamaha Custom Z by Ishimori, Japan.
ARB 6 or Beechler Metal 7 mouthpiece.
Brancher Jazz Reeds size 3.
Tenor :
Wood Stone "New Vintage" by Ishimori, Japan.
Theo Wanne “Datta” 8 and “Shiva” 8 mouthpiece.
Wood Stone size 3 reeds.
Soprano :
Yamaha 62.
Selmer Super Session size I mouthpiece or a Runyon 7*.
Brancher Jazz Reeds size 3 ½
Flute and Piccolo :
I play a Drelinger Air Max headjoint on an old Yamaha 681 Flute and Drelinger piccolo head joint on Yamaha P62 piccolo. Particularly for doublers these head joints really help.



More info:
"RED" and "Blue" are both available from iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon.  Check out Nelson's site for tour dates and news: and Nelson Rangell's Official Musician/Band on Facebook for more info.



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About the blog:

I created this blog to share my experience touring and performing over the last 30 years all over the world with big bands, jazz ensembles, symphony orchestras and touring shows. I've pretty much worked in every part of the music business from soloist to band leader, musical director, studio musician and even managing an orchestra in London's west end. I love talking about saxophone and helping others to reach their saxophone goals. Most importantly though, I want to hear about your progress, challenges and victories on the road to learning sax. Leave me a comment to start the conversation! Nigel McGill
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