From Miles Davis to the Rolling Stones, Andy Snitzer is one of the busiest and most successful touring musicians on the scene today.
I caught up with Andy just before he set off on a European tour with Paul Simon and Sting, to have a chat about his career and his approach to learning saxophone.
NM: So Andy, how did your musical journey start?
AS: I started learning clarinet as a kid when I was about 8 years old. I got pretty good on it but at about age 14, the saxophone came into view.I remember hearing David Sanborn playing on David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and some sax solos on the Rolling Stones’ records.
I was only young so it was before I was really aware of jazz. I thought the sax players on those pop recordings were cool and it got me thinking that if I played saxophone I could play in a band and at parties – that seemed more socially interesting to me than playing in a concert band!
I got really into saxophone and started practicing 4-5 hours a day. I actually got my high school to let me take the last 2 periods of each day for self study!
NM: That’s some good negotiating!
AS: Yeah, so I would spend the last 2 periods each day practicing, then I would take the school bus home and keep practicing! I guess it was thing that happens to a lot of kids – you get that bug for whatever reason and all you want to do is practice.
That continued for me from age 15 right through to when I finished college at 22. That intensive study formed the basis of my playing. It took me from being a kid – and I was no prodigy, I was just pretty good, – to being full of all sorts of information and technical prowess just by virtue of having the opportunity to practice that hard.
NM: I understand you started off studying with Fred Hemke at Northwestern?
AS: Right. In high school I studied with a clarinet player from Philadelphia who was an orchestral guy. Unlike some of my peers, I didn’t know any pro sax / doubler players when I was younger so I really didn’t know what I was doing when we were looking for colleges.
My parents wanted me to go somewhere that was academically top notch and I had no idea that the focus of Northwestern University would be so specifically on classical saxophone. In retrospect if I had understood that clearly, I probably would have decided it was not for me.
Within 2 or 3 months of being at Northwestern I was learning a ton but realised it wasn’t right for me. So by the December of the first year of college I already had Miami University in my sights. I made the switch there in my second year.
NM: I’ll bet it was an amazing time to be at Miami University – there were so many great players that came through at that time.
AS: Aparently they still talk about those years at Miami as a sort of saxophonistic apex of sorts. When you start thinking about the people that were there – all aged 18- 21 – and what they then ended up doing, it’s kind of an odd moment in time.
Rick Margitza turned up there in my second year. He had a devastating amount of harmonic knowledge together. That spun all of us on our head and propelled us forward. Ed Calle was a few years older than me, but he was a guy who on the rock and pop side, was doing a whole bunch of stuff that I had only heard on records! That was incredibly inspiring. It was just dumb luck to have all those students there at the same time.
NM: Did you spend a lot of time transcribing when you were at Miami?
AS: Great question. My view is “transcribe, but not too much”. I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend all your time transcribing and learning solos by memory and the reason I say that is this. Think about the players you see as your heroes – what did they do?
They took the things that were before them and put them into a blender so to speak. And they ended up with something that obviously refers to what came before them, but sounds essentially unique. And most importantly sounds like them.
You don’t hear Michael Brecker playing 3 or 4 bars of Coltrane in a solo. You hear a reference to Coltrane in his sound but not exact quotes. Even with very good players I’ll sometimes hear 3 or 4 bars of a Brecker solo pop out. They get to a certain set of changes that are the same as a tune Michael played and they don’t realise it, but all of a sudden there is a little moment of inadvertent plagiarism.
This is counter to your goal as a sax player. You don’t want to transcribe so much that you don’t create your own vocabulary and your own voice. That is the only goal – your own vocabulary and voice. You can’t have Sanborn’s or Brecker’s or Coltrane’s – they have already been spoken.
NM: What came next for you after Miami?
AS: Bob James came and played with the big band at Miami when I was there. Bob is a smart guy and a great musician. He picked 4 of us from the school and took us on the road with him. It was a great opportunity. It was kind of like an internship!
Actually I remember when we were on that tour, we had an act open up for us in Houston. It was a theatre in the round and I remember Bob and I checking out the sax player who was fronting the support band. Bob and I looked at each other and said “This guy is really good!”. His name was Kirk Whalum! I could see the cogs turning in Bob’s mind – that was the start of Kirk’s career and his long association with Bob James.
After touring with Bob I moved to New York and went to graduate school. Bob was around though and he kind of looked after me a bit. I remember doing a session, (long before I knew any of these guys, and they probably wouldn’t remember it) up in Westchester that David Sanborn couldn’t make at the last minute.
“You can call this kid, he’s brand new but he really sounds like Sanborn!”
On this session I found myself at 22 playing with the Brecker Brothers and Jim Pugh! I can remember it clear as a bell because I was so nervous. And it was Bob who plugged me into that. Someone had asked Bob to help them find a sax player for the session at the last minute and he had said, “You can call this kid, he’s brand new but he really sounds like Sanborn!”
NM: I guess everything like that is a product of all the connections you make along the way.
AS: The great lesson of all this is randomness. There are very few people on this earth that say “I’m going to play with the Rolling Stones” and then set out to network specifically to do that. Mostly it’s just random. You get out and meet people. You play as well as you can, and then stuff just lands on you, because you’re putting your best foot forward and practicing a lot.
NM: I remember meeting you back in the late 90’s at the Metropolitan Cafe in New York and you were just back from touring with the Rolling Stones. You’re so busy with all these amazing acts. How do you go about maintaining your skills when you’re out on the road so much?
AS: The truth is that it’s hard. People have different perspectives on this but I’m not the guy that will practice in a hotel room. So the reality of the road is that you can’t practice in the same way.
The “Stones” thing was kind of an anomaly because we were off stage more than we were on. In that music the horn section is an occasional participant. So, honestly, I would practice underneath the stage in the long 5 or 6 song periods where I had nothing to play. I would stand underneath the huge stage and practice against the Rolling Stones playing live to a stadium above me!
On the Paul Simon tour I just have to practice less. I just try to make it up when I get home. You’re playing the gig so you’re getting something done but it’s not the same.
“I like to work on chromatic scales…. to get an even sound from the bottom of the horn right up to the top”
NM: And if you have a limited amount of time, what’s the thing you find yourself practicing?
AS: Firstly I want to find a good reed. It seems obvious but to me, practicing with a reed that’s not working properly is kind of counter to the whole experience of playing. So that’s the first thing. Then I would just work on sound.
I’m a huge “sound” guy and my approach is to have a loose wet embouchure and an open throat. Regardless of volume I like to have a very focussed and centered air stream. So I like to work on chromatic scales and also maybe F and E major scales over and over. I’m trying to get my airstream going, my embouchure feeling good and experience an even sound from the bottom of the horn right up to the top.
When I see guys from college that I haven’t seen for years they always say their memory of me was playing endless chromatic scales up and down – “it was almost torture” they say!
NM: Tell me about the current tour with Sting and Paul Simon?
AS: It’s an amazing evening of music. The orchestration of the show really turned out to be brilliant. Everyone was curious about how it would work but they’ve put a set list together that is really spectacular. I’m having a great time.
So I’ve already got the Paul Simon book but if Sting calls any of the Branford [Marsalis] tunes like “Englishman in New York”, I’ve got a lot to do in the evening so it’s really a lot of fun.
NM: It must be great doing the “Still Crazy After All These Years” solo.
AS: It’s fun. I’ve played it a lot and don’t get tired of it because it’s a seminal saxophone moment in pop music. And I can pay tribute to one of my main, if not “the” main guy for me – Michael Brecker.
NM: You mentioned earlier that David Sanborn was an inspiration for you. Would you say Sanborn and Brecker were your main inspiration when growing up?
AS: By the time I was 17 I was also clocking John Coltrane. For modern players I was really into David Sanborn and Michael Brecker, but for jazz it was Trane, Cannonball Adderley and Stanley Turrentine. I loved Charlie Parker and thought it was amazing but it wasn’t really my thing. I didn’t spend all my time learning the “Omnibook”. I woke up each day and my fascination was with more modern music.
“You can’t let anyone tell you what you should dig.”
I always say that you can’t let anyone tell you what you should dig. You have to go with your gut. Your gut really is an indication of the things that are tweaking you both in mind and body. Don’t let anybody tell you “hey man you gotta go study 5 years of Ben Webster before you can play like Bobby Keys”. It’s not true. If you want to do that, that’s fine. But if you’re not interested in Ben Webster then you have to let that fly.
NM: That’s great advice, but strangely enough it’s not would you would hear in some jazz schools.
AS: Exactly, and maybe why that’s why I don’t get invited as much as I might!
NM: You have brought out some great albums and I think you’re really doing something different with your last 2 albums “Traveller” and “The Rhythm”.
AS: I was really doing what I love to do with those albums, and trying not to fall into what is now a very wide well of same-sounding contemporary jazz records. I spend a thousand hours writing, pre-producing, producing, playing the saxophone performances, participating in the mixing and mastering. That’s the artistic me.<
NM: Do you do the keyboards on those albums too?
AS: Yeah. I’m no chop monster by any means but I like to come up with parts and I have sound ideas to frame a song. I’m really just a sax player who is trying to realise something that he doesn’t hate.
AS: I’m telling you, the truth about the creative process is that when you work on something that long and hear it that much, it is difficult not to loathe it at some point! It’s like if someone says “you’re going to eat salmon 3 times a day for the next 6 months”. What would you think about salmon 4 months from now?
NM: You’ve had a lot of success with those albums too?
AS: Yes, I’ve had really good radio success and really good artistic feedback from both the general public and in my community. It’s great when people come up to me and say “you know that Traveller album you did, it’s a good record”. I actually listen to that feedback.
The reality is that most of the time when you get a new record you listen to it once and you put it away. That’s no disrespect, it’s just the way we feel about most records. The number of records you choose to listen to over and over is a small set. So for someone to say to me that they listen to my album in the car, it’s an enormous compliment to me. I feel like, “oh my god, I may have actually done it – once!”
“I’m the opposite of some of my peers – I find something I like and I just play it to death.”
Check out Andy’s tour dates and latest album news: www.andysnitzer.com