Steve Cole has one of the most original voices on the smooth jazz scene but his journey to success is a little different to what you would expect. I caught
up with Steve to find out more about what makes him tick, what inspires him and how he approaches practising saxophone.
NM: Your Dad was a sax player wasn’t he – so I guess you started with music pretty early?
SC: Yes my father played the saxophone and had a band. My first memories of my Dad were that I used to think he was pretty cool when he would put on a tuxedo and pick up his saxophone case. And I would say “where are you going?” and he would say “I’m a musician so I’m going to play music”, and I would be like, “Wow! That’s a pretty cool thing to do!”
NM: What sort of band did he have?
SC: He had a steady gig in this restaurant in Chicago called the Tally Ho. He was the house band there, so he had a dance band. He also had a Selmer Super Balanced Action from the mid to late forties – it wasn’t new at the time – he had it in a Tray Pack case with the deep purple velvet. He would leave it open in his room, because he was always practising, or just having it around, and I thought it was the most remarkable looking thing I had ever seen! I used to sneak into his office and open it up and just look at it, knowing that if I touched it several alarms would go off. But I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
He saw that I was interested in the instrument itself. He was also a clarinet player, and I was just fascinated by instruments, visually, before I even thought about trying to make music with them - I had this affinity for the beauty and craftsmanship of instruments.
So it wasn’t too big a jump before my Dad realised that maybe he should see what I could do with it early on. So he put a reed on one of his student clarinets and gave it to me. I remember working out a little melody just on the A flat and the A and the open G – I played a little song on three notes, and it was like, okay, maybe there’s something here.
NM: So you ended up studying at Northwestern University – was that a Classical degree?
SC: So I was on and off with music through elementary school and middle school and even my first year of High School. I loved it, I was into it, I was kind of self taught and my Dad gave me some pointers. But I wasn’t really serious about it – I wasn’t really committing to it, until I got to High School and there were some bands, and there were some players that were really good, and I thought to myself “well I’d like to be good!”
Then I happened upon a teacher who really changed my life. His name was Wayne Richards and he was a marvellous saxophonist. He had studied at the Bordeaux Conservatory with Jean-Marie Londeix, after studying with Fred Hemke at Northwestern. I started taking lessons with him and he changed my life. He made me really love music and I was fascinated with his ability. His sound was incredible, and he challenged and inspired me to really commit.
I got serious about classical saxophone playing and fell in love with the repertoire. And then I went to Northwestern to study saxophone with Dr Hemke. I did that only for about two and a half years and then I freaked out and ended up getting a degree in Economics!
NM: That’s an interesting turn –so was it a three years course then?
SC: No it was a four year degree but I ended up finishing my degree in Economics. I don’t have a music degree. I got my music degree in the clubs, and from all of the players that I had the privilege to perform with. There's a great tradition of mentorship among the musicians that I came up playing with in Chicago. I learned the most from them.
NM: I think the classical repertoire is a terrific grounding for a saxophone player, but what was it that made you take that left turn and change course?
SC: It was a combination of things – being young and not having a whole lot of confidence. At that time being a concert soloist as a saxophone player was something not a whole lot of people were able to do. I honestly didn’t have the confidence or the belief that I could be one of them.
Recently I happened upon a recording of myself playing the Glazunov Concerto in my Freshman year in college and I listened to it, and I have to say, I was pretty good! But I was also getting frustrated because my musical leanings were moving towards popular and contemporary music, not only jazz but that confluence of influences in jazz and soul and RnB, and rock and blues.
I was listening to Grover Washington Jnr and David Sanborn and thinking to myself, “Now that’s cool!”
NM: So that was the music that was turning you on. It’s interesting – the classical road is a very narrow path – when I was studying classical sax in Australia I was looking ahead and no-one was coming out of a classical degree and getting a job, and even in America I guess it’s a bit like that – it’s a difficult road.
SC: It’s like if you can’t get one of those coveted university tenure track positions, then it’s a lot of bouncing around adjunct / part time work and studio teaching without a whole lot of predictability. And the opportunities to perform with ensembles are hard to come by unless you are going to create those on your own, which I think is a really cool thing. Some players are creating their own ensembles and concert series and saying, “well if I build it then I’ll have a chance to perform”.
It was kind of all at once that I started getting immersed in that intersection of those different styles. I heard Grover Washington’s Mister Magic and Inner City Blues – even “Winelight,” and it was the sound, the interpretation, the feel. And then any one of David Sanborn’s albums like Hideaway or Straight to the Heart – I loved the intensity and the sound, the complexity, the size and the band-width of the sound that they were using and producing.
I felt a little bit constricted with the classical sound and the parameters of classical music at the time. Even though, in hindsight, coming back and re-engaging with the repertoire as I’m doing now, I actually think my perceptions of the limitations were quite naïve. I think there’s much more breadth and depth to classical saxophone than I gave it credit for at the time. But I was super-inspired by the emotion and expressiveness that was going on, and I felt a real connection to it.
Spyro Gyra were another band that were really inspiring to me – their composition and the music. I started playing along with their records. I also played along with straight-ahead records too. There was a Johnny Griffin record that I would play along with. Billy Pearce was one of my favourite tenor players that I would transcribe and play along with, as well as playing along with Charlie Parker, and trying to study a little bit of Michael Brecker and thinking, okay…
NM: Coming from your classical background did you find your technique gave you a good starting point?
SC: That’s the great thing about having that background and work ethic, especially with Hemke students. Hemke himself really places a high value on developing your technique as a medium for the progression towards artistry. I always felt that the pursuit of technique is really not for technique’s sake, but it’s to gain a facility on the instrument and a confidence so that you start to approach artistry without the limitations of mechanics.
And I think I’ve applied that in my jazz playing and my contemporary music – thankfully I’ve not been afraid of technique, because I feel fortunate that it was something that was really stressed in my development. The importance of it, the cleanliness, and the importance of developing velocity and well as accuracy.
NM: So after you finished your degree in Economics you went to work in that field for a while?
SC: Yes after I graduated I went to work for a consulting firm as a management consultant, then I went to work on strategy development for a big multi-national company - it was great money!
NM: Was it difficult to make the transition back into music after working in economics?
SC: I never stopped playing even when I was working full time in another field. I was always playing gigs and still aspiring to be a saxophone player, even though I was doing something pretty different.
I remember I decided to go to Graduate School and I was accepted to the University of Chicago in their MBA programme. First of all I felt amazing relief when I got accepted because it meant I could quit my job and I could do so respectably. But it also meant that I would be a full time student again so I would have more time for music!
I think that subconsciously I went back to school to study business so I could check the box, so I had this body of work, so if all else fails… right?
So I ended up getting an MBA and I absolutely loved it. I learnt an incredible amount about business, and entrepreneurship, and just management. I was very fortunate because at the same time I was really able to re-engage with my career as a musician. And during that time that I was a full time student again I was able to put myself in situations where it was a combination of hard work and luck – I started to get into the scene a little bit, I started to do better work, working with better players.
By the time I graduated I didn’t really want to get another job – I wanted to be a full time saxophonist. And I was able to do that since Graduate School - so I got the MBA but I never really got a job! Which was kind of the goal!
NM: But I'm sure doing the MBA has been useful in your music career. You’ve been signed to some big labels with all the support that goes with that, but do you agree that these days musicians need to be a lot more business minded?
SC: Absolutely. Frankly it was a whole lot easier back in the day even though it seems as though it was way harder. So the caveat to that is that it was very difficult to get a record deal, but once you were one of those ten people who had one, things were a lot easier.
The record companies were large corporations with dedicated staff and all these different roles to help you. There was also a much more focussed distribution plan both for recorded music and for broadcast music. It was a full infrastructure of radio stations and things like that. So while you had to be entrepreneurial and while you had to be aware of what you were doing, and crafting a strategy about your career that was well thought out and responsive, taking into consideration all the different variables going on, crafting yourself a unique voice and brand, etc, you still had an incredible amount of help. You also had the help of having a very small pond!
NM: Also a few years ago the industry was different. People were buying a lot more albums – the economics were different.
SC: We weren’t competing with YouTube, and Netflicks and Facebook. Today you have to be way more savvy – there are an infinite number of skills and acumen that you need to develop in order to undertake a successful career in music. And that’s part of why I started teaching – because what musicians are responsible for today is so much different than in the past.
NM: You don’t just need to play – you need to be an entrepreneur.
SC: Yes, you have to understand marketing, and technology, and human behaviour, - you have to understand all of these different dynamics. And even best practices in these narrow fields like marketing through social platforms and things like match value and interruption cost and maximising the utility of a post- it’s crazy!
Not only that, but how to rise above the noise and develop a community of fans who are responsive and involved, and developing reciprocity and a sense of accountability. I mean it’s a business, no question about it. If you want to be a musician today you need to open up your mind to the reality that it’s not just about the art. It’s got to be about the art, and it’s got to be about understanding the entrepreneurial dynamics required in today’s creative community.
NM: On the flip side of that though, there are a lot of things that are easier, in terms of getting your music out. You’ve got things like YouTube and Facebook so it is possible, if you are proactive musician,to connect with a lot more people.
SC: Absolutely. There’s a large part of the music industry that’s in a state of democracy because all of the things we now take for granted, like the ability to produce video and have it disseminated basically to the entire world. We also have the ability to communicate, market and promote on platforms that have hundreds of millions of eyeballs. Also, it’s possible to create your own identity online and you can communicate in your own voice and in your own way. We can now easily foster creative and collaborative communities online too. We take all these things for granted now, but they used to be the sole domain of large media enterprises.
NM: They were the things that you wanted to get a record deal for!
SC: Exactly, because the only way you had access to them was through the gatekeepers that were standing between you and that infrastructure. That’s no longer the case.
So that creates an incredible spectrum of opportunity but it also creates an incredible spectrum of challenge - the good thing is that anyone can do it, but the bad thing is that anyone can do it!
So on the one hand it’s astonishing and ground breaking and it’s a sea change, but on the other hand, that in itself creates the requirement that musicians engage with certain skills and dynamics that didn’t used to be required. They were optional because they were skills for other people to specialise in, in the same way that the artist specialises in what they do best which is creating the art.
NM: Your first album Stay Awhile came out in 1998. I suppose you would be classed in the smooth jazz genre. You must have seen a lot of changes in that industry in those seventeen years?
SC: I have – our industry in some ways reflects what is happening more broadly in the music industry, but it’s also insulated a little bit from it because there is such a loyal fan base and such a strong touring infrastructure.
When I started out the goal was to get a record deal, and it was very rare that someone you saw out on the road wasn’t signed to a major record label. At the time all the labels were involved – Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Universal, EMI – and my peers at that time were signed to major labels, or some of the more prominent indies.
But there was no-one who was independent. It was so rare for someone to put out an album and to get radio airplay, and for it to come to the attention of promoters of shows as an independent artist. You just never saw that.
Today it’s a little different – I don’t know any major labels that are still in the game. We are all either independent, or with the labels that are still in the business like Shanachie, Mack Avenue, which is my label, Concord, to some extent – there’s a really great independent label out of the UK called Trip and Rhythm, that a lot of cats are with. But so many people that I see on the road just make their own records, and they develop their own way of coming to the awareness of the public and of some of the promoters.
I’ll be on a show with an artist and I’ll be like “so you made your own record, and you got your own radio promoter, and you kicked ass online, and here you are!” Which is cool.
NM: Have the audiences changed over the years?
SC: In some respects the audience has shrunk substantially. It used to be that there was a radio station in the genre in every major city, and secondary markets as well. The awareness of the genre, the excitement about it and the opportunity to experience and embrace it were much more.
So we saw thousands of people at radio station events and there were many of those. We don’t have radio station events anymore. We have festivals, and we have theatre shows and club dates. So the audience that we see on the road has shrunk just because of the change we have seen in the structure of the types of shows that are available.
When terrestrial radio stopped supporting smooth jazz, it really did impact on the size, reach and distribution to the public. That said, you go to a festival like Sea Breeze, there are thousands and thousands of people. And you get out on the road and play shows at clubs and theatres and people are coming out and still passionate about it. So it’s much more targeted work to reach people but there is still incredible support.
NM: It’s been great to see more support of the genre in England over the last few years too.
SC: Yes definitely. Jimi King is one of the guys who has really made a push to bring it back in the UK.
NM: Have you guys come across to the UK with the Sax Pack?
SC: Yes, we’ve not been there for a few years but for three years in a row we were at Pizza Express. And I was just there last year at Pizza Express with Chuck Loeb. I will be back at Pizza Express in June with Nick Colionne. So I’ve had a pretty good steady gig in London in the past five or six years which has been really cool – it’s one of my favourite places to play and one of my favourite cities to hang out.
NM: I wanted to ask you about writing. I was reading that you do a lot of collaborative writing. How do you approach your writing? Do you set yourself a challenge of a certain amount of time to work on your writing, or does it happen more organically?
SC: I used to really focus on writing a lot. For years I would be disciplined about writing and very deliberately prolific. A lot of times I would try to be inspired by something and see where it took me.
Honestly the last few years what I realised is that I do my best work under pressure. It’s so funny because some people are like “You can’t rush creativity Man!” But I’m like “Nothing inspires me more than a deadline!” And stress – stress is my biggest motivator.
I end up writing for things. I have a new record that’s coming out in June, so this is the experience that’s most fresh in my mind. So I promised the label I’ll deliver the album in three months, and I’ve got nothing – not one song!
So the first thing I do is call up people I’ve had great success writing with and I say “Hey Man so I’ve got a record to do! Wanna write music?” And they’re like “Yeah!” One of the things that’s really important to me is putting myself in inspiring places. My environment is probably the single most important thing for me in terms of being creative – other than the stress!
One of the places I love writing music is New York City, and luckily my primary writing partner whose name is David Mann (a wonderful saxophonist, super talented producer and great guy) lives in New York.
We do a lot of writing together and we have a little routine. I go over to New York and we hang out at his apartment, I bring some ideas that I have, some tracks that I might have been working on, and he brings some of the stuff that he’s been working on, and we do a little bit of a mind meld. Sometimes we continue some music that either of us initiated, and sometimes we’ll just start out with silence and we’ll figure out what today sounds like.
NM: When you are writing with David is it just the two of you sitting around a piano, is it done on a computer, do you look for some inspiration from a lick, or a melodic line, or a chord change – how does it normally start?
SC: We’re in a home studio so there’s everything available. So if you start with a groove you can click a couple of times to a drum kit and make it happen. But a lot of times it’s playing a track, or an idea, and then we have this rhythm where we’re like “Hey what if we did this?” or “I love that”, or “I hear a melody” – it’s really super-organic.
Sometimes it starts with something, sometimes it starts with nothing. I think that’s one of the great things about developing a writing relationship with someone, and I think that’s probably what gives me a lot of confidence to say “Yes, I’ll be able to make a record of original material”. Because even though nothing exists, I’ve developed certain relationships with certain writers and I’m really confident that if we put our heads together we’re going to come up with something really cool.
NM: It’s inspirational when you find somebody that you can bounce ideas off. It’s someone that inspires you and you’ve both got different skills that you can bring to the party.
SC: I think that’s a really important thing too. I like the fact that when you work with someone with skills that you don’t have, I think you are much more open to collaboration and you have a much more open mind and you are able to get out of your own thoughts. Because if you both have the same skill sets then you are both trying to make your own ideas manifest the same way.
Whereas, there are certain things that I do really well, and there are certain things that another person does really well. It’s almost like, “so you are on a thing that you do, so I’m going to sit back and see what you do because I’m confident and I respect the fact that it’s probably going to be awesome!”
NM: Also what they come up with inspires you. It’s interesting because some people prefer to work on their own but for others it’s all about collaboration.
SC: It’s all about where your comfort zone is. There are some songs that I enjoy the pride of ownership of. Those songs are were meaningful to me and were inspired by something very personal. Collaborating on those tunes almost takes away the uniqueness and the personal nature of it.
NM: When you are collaborating on a track, do you programme up most of it?
SC: Sometimes the composition actually includes the arrangement. So sometimes some of the things that might be construed as production elements are actually compositional. So when we’re done composing it kind of sounds like a track already.
Whereas other times we are simply trying to get the ideas out quickly and it just sounds like someone playing piano in real time and another person – usually me – singing terribly in the background into an iPhone! I’m usually whistling because I whistle better than I sing. So it’s usually me whistling a melody and someone else playing the chords that we’ve come up with just to make sure we’ve got it.
NM: I can’t wait till those recordings come on Facebook! So when it comes to putting down the final drum track or bass track, do you programme all that stuff up or do you go out and get the guys to come in and put them down over the skeleton of what you have made?
SC: Usually we put down a scratch drum track and a scratch bass track with technology, just because a lot of the melody ideas and a lot of the arrangement, for me, gets inspired by the groove. And so for me it helps to have a little bit more of a draft as opposed to a sketch, before going into production.
But that said I like human beings who play music, not just one or two of them that play all the instruments, but people who have life experiences, emotions, ideas, points of view, to contribute those to a track. I’ve also trained myself to not simply try to recreate the sketch with real people. It’s more like “Here’s the idea, now you bring your thing. And if your thing is different from my thing, then I’m going to evaluate it artistically as opposed to evaluating it based on how close it is to my preconception.”
NM: So tell me about your new album.
SC: It’s called Turn it Up – it’s a record that’s going to sound really great loud! I wanted to get away from the preconceptions of what Smooth Jazz sounded like and where it’s going.
When I think of the artists that inspired me and the records that were around during that time, they were interesting, and the compositions were amazing, the playing was amazing and it was organic and inspired and in the moment. I wanted to make a record that had those production values and those sensibilities. So the record sounds a little bit retro, of that time rather than super-produced, super-compressed or technology driven. I think this record breathes, which is really cool.
NM: Can you tell me a bit about how you go about approaching practice? Do you have favourite things that you like to come back to?
SC: Over the last couple of years I have developed a much more regimented practice, as I am re-engaging with the classical repertoire. Early on, sound was the most important thing and still is, but what I focus most on, and what I was obsessed with, was creating a rich and engaging and large tone.
Sometimes I would just play ballads really slowly in order to express every single note. On alto saxophone for me the upper register always seemed a little bit thin. So I would obsess with playing that note, in context, and trying to manifest the idea of what I wanted it to sound like, assess it with the sound I was making, and realise that I am not going to let the saxophone determine how I am going to sound on it. The saxophone will submit!
The other thing is absolutely to play scales, and I always set myself a personal goal of perfection – not to get through it with great velocity. I am not going to compromise on what I believe is appropriate technique in the palm keys. And if it’s not absolutely even then I’m going to make sure that it is.
NM: So when you say scales, do you just go up and down them, do you have patterns?
SC: Major and minor scales, thirds, fourths, fifths,… then I lost interest! I don’t do intervals anymore, that’s just a drag.
NM: Have you always done scales in intervals?
“Don’t practice the stuff that you know,
practice the stuff that you don’t.”
SC: Hemke used to make us do it – when you walked down the practice rooms at Northwestern it sounded like a bunch of saxophones yodelling!
The other thing I do is to practice things that I suck at. There are things that I don’t do well and one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was don’t practice the stuff that you know, practice the stuff that you don’t. We only have a limited capacity to practice, we have to take care of ourselves, we can’t over-exert ourselves, and we can’t burn out.
NM: That’s great advice and something most people miss.
SC: You want practising to be fun. There are times when I pick up the saxophone and I’m not practising, I’m playing for enjoyment. I’ll put on a track, a Jamie Aebersold play-along or something, and I’ll just play because I want to.
I play the blues all the time, because it’s awesome! You can work on all of your range, it’s melodic, it’s deep, and it’s got grit.
So I’ll just play the blues – not “a blues”, just “the” blues. There’s a big difference. That’s playing for pleasure. But if I’m practising, if there’s a piece of repertoire that I’m playing, I will go to the part that either I’m insecure about or I’m not confident in my ability, and I will just work the crap out of that.
The other thing that I do is when I’m practising I start excruciatingly slow. I reward myself with one click on the metronome. I’ve had to discipline myself not to think “Oh I can do it at 72 so let’s try it at 144 now!” You just want to get there. I tell my students this all the time.
NM: You have a lovely sound on your sax. Do you have a top tip for developing that big sound?
SC: Firstly, you can’t develop a big sound unless you have an idea in your brain of what you want to sound like. So, figure out what you want to sound like, by listening to players that have great sounds and figuring out which great sound you want to have, or which combination of sounds.
The mistake a lot of players make is to think “I want a really big, rich sound,” but when you ask what that sounds like, they say, “I don’t know, I guess I’ll know it when I find it”.
You’ve got to explore, you’ve got to figure out what sound resonates with you. You’ve got to have that in your mind, then you’ve got to use that as your yardstick or your blueprint, and constantly measure what you are producing with what you want to produce. Pretty soon those two things will converge. But one doesn’t happen without the other.
Secondly, the mechanics of your embouchure and your oral cavity are crucial. You cannot have a tight embouchure and create a big sound. At least I can’t! You have to have a proper round embouchure that is fixed but not taut and allows the reed to breathe. And you have to have a very large oral cavity, to think very deliberately about really opening up the back of your throat to create that warm air.
I tell my students to pretend to sing opera. When you pretend to sing opera the back of your throat gets huge! You can feel it! Any time I think my sound is thin or it’s not the way I want, I just focus on opening up the back of my throat and just putting warm air through the saxophone.
NM: That’s a good analogy, thinking about opera singing, it’s something people can relate to.
SC: Another thing – reeds! Play reeds – I mean the kind that are made of cane! That’s for me.
NM: So many people are into synthetic these days, but I can’t get on with them. Also so many people we’ve spoken to for Saxophone Life are using Plasticover reeds – I was really surprised by that. For me, maybe because of coming from a classical background, it’s got to be cane. It gives you that warmth.
SC: Absolutely. I think people have got accustomed to listening to synthetic or plasticover reeds – it’s almost like we’ve become accustomed to MP3s and we think they don’t sound so bad!
“I’m going to make the saxophone
sound like I want it to sound”
So, hey, play cane reeds. But don’t expect that they’re going to work right out of the box. I play Henke Premium reeds, I’ve played them for years and they are the best reed for me. But I’ve got to do a little something to them, because every player is an individual, and finding out the exact architecture of a reed for you is really important. So, I’m like, I’m not going to play the sound the reed wants me to play, I’m going to play the sound that I want to play. And I’m not going to let the instrument play the sound that it wants to play, I’m going to make it sound like I want it to sound.
In all of those things you have to be proactive and there’s going to be some work involved.
Tenor: Selmer Superbalanced Action (35,000 series)
Henke Premium reeds No. 3,
Guardala Superking RnB mouthpiece
“I use one of the mass-produced (laser trimmed) Guardala pieces. I’ve been playing it for fifteen years. I’m also playing the Trevor James Custom Raw tenor. I actually recorded it on my new album and I really dig it. I’ve been playing the Superbalanced for ever and I’m not going to abandon the Old Faithful. But I’ve been really impressed with the sound and the action of the Trevor James. It’s kind of slick!”
Alto: I was playing a Yamaha but now I’m playing a new Selmer Series II
Selmer C * S80 mouthpiece with Henke reeds (for classical).
Soprano: Yamaha 675 with a Dukoff 8 and Henke reeds.
Check out Steve’s website for tour dates and album release info:
Images by Jules Ameel