I moved to New York City to be a jazz saxophonist, but having immigrant musician parents I also had a very blue-collar attitude about working and making a life as a musician, so I spent about twenty years saying yes to everything and that has taken me down a lot of roads that I wouldn’t have ever gone down otherwise. NYC is amazing in that way – there’s no end to the amazing talent that’s here from all corners of the world.
I’ve built my career by being a part of so many different scenes. Pre-pandemic, a typical week for me could easily entail Broadway work, playing synagogue services, jazz gigs, chamber rehearsals and performances, and of course trying to write in between all of that and also make time for my family. It was a lot to juggle and it always feels like something was always taking a backseat. I still don’t quite have a great answer when people ask me “What do you play?” or “What kind of music do you do?”. One day I’ll figure out how to answer that!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
Most of my playing has been as a side person, which I love to do. It’s great just getting to show up and play and not have to take the back end of things. It’s always a tricky balance figuring out how much freedom there is in the parts and how much leeway I have in the group to make suggestions. I know how hard it is to write music and corral musicians together, and I try to make that easier for everybody I work with. Fortunately, so much of my work is with my good friends now, so I definitely feel like there’s room for collaboration and dialogue. My favourite groups to play in have been the ones where everybody feels free to contribute, and as micro as some of my writing can get, that’s the environment that want to create when I play as a leader.
You are a composer and a performer. How does your performing influence your composing and vice versa?
As somebody who is brought into most situations as an improviser, I don’t separate the two worlds very much. I’m not a structured composer, and I never had any proper schooling in it. Instead I see it as an extension of my playing and a tool for developing my playing. I have a lot of limitations that I have to constantly confront. I think my background as an improviser helps me write in spite of those limitations. I forgot which jazz great said that we’re shaped more by the things we can’t do than by the things we can do. Maybe it was Miles Davis? He couldn’t play like Dizzy Gillespie the way he aspired to early on, and fortunately out of that we got Miles.
Of which works are you most proud?
Of my albums, I’m most proud of two of The Words Project
albums on New Amsterdam Records. The first one (The Words Project,
2006) was done on one full band rehearsal and I really feel like the stars aligned there with that group. There’s a unity to that album that I’ve struggled to recreate, and so many of the singers on it have gone on to big careers – it’s still amazing to me that I had them together there.
I also love Words Project iii: Miniatures (New Amsterdam, 2010), which I recorded in many sessions in collaboration with Michael Leonhart over the course of a year or so. All my other albums have been recorded with musicians playing “live” together for two days or so, but I really went to some interesting places having the freedom to track this one individually, bring in a whole bunch of sounds I’d never worked with and expand things as we went.
As a side-person, I’ve been really lucky to have some enduring relationships, particularly with Darcy James Argue, one of the most determined and inspiring artists I’ve ever known, who I’ve been playing with for over 15 years now. I’m also really thrilled to be with the Philip Glass Ensemble now, which carries such an incredible legacy and is so challenging and rewarding to play with. I’ve also been so fortunate to be part of some very cool theatre productions and am hoping to be able to write some music for that world in the coming years.
How would you characterize your compositional language?
I hope it’s evolved over the years and been representative of whatever I’ve been doing at the moment. When I wanted to become a better clarinettist, I wrote clarinet etudes, and it was while I was playing The Band’s Visit that I decided to explore this more folky, Jewish/Middle-Eastern world of sound that is The Solomon Diaries. I think the one constant is that I hope that everything I do reaches listeners who might not gravitate towards jazz or classical music. I don’t like music that’s made for other musicians or for listeners of a certain sophistication. When people say they don’t connect with any modern music, I don’t believe in judging them for it. A lot of it is too brainy for me, and as I get older I become more comfortable with that.
Amongst other things, The Words Project was an effort to bring listeners in through the amazing power of the poetry and text that I set. When Nathan and I perform The Solomon Diaries music, I really make an effort to talk about the music and what inspired it in order to give people a way in.
How do you work?
Alone, with big chunks of time to really lose myself in whatever I’m working on. Playing wind instruments is very physical, so it’s always tough to balance the physical maintenance that they require with the writing I do, most of which is done at the grand piano in my living room that I’m so lucky to have. Some of my best writing periods have been when I have a regular night-time job that puts an instrument in my face so that I don’t have to think of the physical upkeep that I have to do constantly as a player.
Tell us more about The Solomon Diaries…..
This is music that was inspired by my fascination with the rise and fall of the Borscht Belt
. It’s all my original music, but it’s a deep collaboration with accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Nathan Koci, who’s become such a great friend these past few years and is very much a musical journeyman like me. I’ve played a lot of Jewish music over the years. My father is an encyclopaedia of klezmer and European folk music – he supported his family playing gigs from the time he was 15, so I grew up hearing that music quite a bit. I never really wanted to learn that repertoire in a deep way, but I can mimic the style decently, so as a result I’ve fallen into playing a lot of Jewish music the last ten years, not only at The Band’s Visit,
but also playing in synagogues most every week and getting to sub extensively on the solo chair in the most recent Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof
. I admire the musicians who’ve really committed themselves to those musical languages. I hope The Solomon Diaries
combines that Jewish influence with the other aspects of my musical world.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and advice to impart to aspiring musicians?
Establish real relationships with people – those will be the things that carry your career forward more than anything. Support people around you that are making things and don’t close yourself off to things that might not be part of your original musical design or purview. When I’m struck by any work that I find I love to write to the people who made it simply to just thank them for it, which is so easy to do these days. Sometimes I don’t get a response at all, which is totally fine, but a lot of the most important artistic, musical and personal relationships in my life began with a simple piece of fan mail that I wrote.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
If people are listening to my music and I can find a way to keep on making it I’m pretty happy. What is your most treasured possession?
I own Artie Shaw’s BULLSHIT stamp. My dad was hired to appraise his piano after he died and saw his hand stamp collection in the dumpster and grabbed it for me. Most of them were pretty standard issue, but I had to save that one.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Losing myself in most anything, forgetting about time and other constraints. I really love performing and making music with others. Needless to say, Covid has been very challenging on that front. I don’t take that joy for granted the way that I used to.