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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Woodstone / Yamaha Custom Z by Ishimori, Japan.
ARB 6 or Beechler Metal 7 mouthpiece.
Brancher Jazz Reeds size 3.
Wood Stone "New Vintage" by Ishimori, Japan.
Theo Wanne “Datta” 8 and “Shiva” 8 mouthpiece.
Wood Stone size 3 reeds.
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.