Tom Saviano by Thomas Erdmann
There is little in the pop, rock and jazz music world multi-woodwind and keyboard instrumentalist Tom Saviano has not done, and brilliantly. In addition to being one of the most highly sought after session and touring musicians in the world, he is also a composer, conductor, orchestrator, arranger, producer and song lyricist. The list of his successes is mind-boggling, and while no article could contain them all perhaps a short list of a few will demonstrate Saviano’s immense talent. He has performed on the following Platinum (sales of over one million units) Record Albums: Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company, Earth Wind & Fire’s Raise!, Dolly Parton’s 9 To 5, and Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs. He worked as a songwriter on Sheena Easton’s A Private Heaven, and was a soloist on Gino Vannelli’s Hurts To Be In Love and The Boys’ Messages From The Boys; all Platinum records.
As a performer Saviano has also appeared on Grammy Award winning records such as Earth Wind & Fire’s “I Wanna Be With You,” Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5,” Michael Nesmith’s “Elephant Parts,” Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company,” and his own Crossings was on the initial Grammy ballot in 2000 in the category of contemporary jazz. As if this isn’t enough he has recorded and performed with artists as diverse Lee Ritenour, Steve Gadd, Randy Brecker, Clarence Clemmons, Chicago, Lionel Richie, Ringo Starr, Sergio Mendez, Paul Anka, Thelma Houston, Glen Campbell, Maroon 5 and Barbra Streisand.
After Saviano’s early years as one of the most heralded studio artists in Los Angeles, Melissa Manchester hired him as her Musical Director to play and arrange the music on three of her albums including the smash hit “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” During this time he also created the group Heat. In this band Saviano produced, arranged, played saxophone and keyboards, and wrote or co-wrote all of the group’s songs, generating two top 40 R&B hits: “Just Like You” and “This Love That We Found.” These successes led him to work with Brenda Russell, Earth Wind & Fire, Sheena Easton, and Tower of Power bassist Rocco Prestia, to name just a few. Saviano’s most recent work includes recording with Maroon 5, Meat Loaf, Ray Charles, Tim McGraw and Thom Rotella. Additionally he has recently been performing live with Ziggy Marley, Lee Ritenour, Clarence Clemons, and Steve Ferrone’s Farm Fur with members of Stone Temple Pilots. Saviano also, along with Bill Champlin of Chicago, co-wrote the hit single, “Holdin’ On” from Chicago Twenty 1.
Always exploring new and different mediums Saviano was chosen to be the band leader and conductor for the pilot of the NBC television production of David Letterman’s first show, Leave It To Dave, and produced, composed and performed music for Showtime’s Aerobicise, which went to number one on Billboard’s Video chart. It’s also important to note Saviano, from 1986-89, was a featured soloist and permanent member of The Late Show with Joan Rivers, the show that launched the Fox Television Network. As if all this work wasn’t enough, as a solo artist his first CD, Making Up Lost Time, debuted at number 43 on the Gavin Smooth Jazz chart. Oh and by the way, Saviano is listed by noted critic Rick Varner as one of the 100 Greatest Saxophonists Of All Time.
Let’s start by talking about the hit record you have out right now, “Desert Nights” by the artist Shaun Labelle. On the tune you’re playing alto sax, with Everett Harp on tenor sax. You co-produced and wrote this song with Shaun. How did this collaboration occur?
Many years ago Shaun and I were signed to a publishing deal at Warner Brothers Music; mine was based on a cut I had with Sheena Easton and a few other songs. It’s a common practice for publishers to put their writers together to create writing teams. They try to pick writers that are prolific and whom they think would be a good match. Shaun and I were put together in this manner by Warner Brothers. We hit it off, had good chemistry and wrote a few songs. We would also call each other to play on records we were producing at the time. Many years passed and we didn’t see each other. He went on to produce a lot of hits for people like the British artist Shola Ama, I think he even won the British version of the Grammy. I went on with my career. A couple of years ago Shaun and I hooked up again and started writing over the internet. He sent me a few songs and asked me to write with him. At the same time, he was communicating with another artist who’s involved in Desert Nights, Everett Harp; Everett is a good friend of Shaun’s and they’ve worked together for many years. Everett mentioned to Shaun that he thought Shaun would do well in the Smooth Jazz format. Over a period of years, with Everett encouraging this, Shaun decided to give it a try. Long story short, after writing together for a while we came up with the music for “Desert Nights.” We composed, arranged and produced it together, and now it’s on the radio.
You’ve had a lot of hit records on the radio with a variety of artists. Because this will never happen to me, I was wondering what it’s like to have a hit record on the radio?
The first time you hear it you experience a lot of mixed emotions. With my own group on MCA Records – Heat – I was so excited to hear it on the radio for the first time that I left the radio on 24/7. When I finally heard it I thought, “We’re on!” I sat there, listened and said, “This is fun.” Then I became very critical of what I was hearing, for example I’d say, “Hey, how come the bass is so loud?” I remember a funny experience I had as I was driving on the 101 freeway during rush hour. I was listening to Chuck Niles, the famous jazz DJ and broadcasting icon that had talked about many of my favorite jazz musicians on the air. As I was listening to the radio, I heard my name. There I am in my car, by myself, and the song ends and Chuck says, “That was composed and performed by Tom Saviano.” If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to see it, or hear it, did it really fall? I wanted to roll down the window and say, “Hey, that’s Chuck Niles talking about me!”
Crossings is an incredible album, but I was wondering why you featured yourself on alto saxophone so much on the album? Is that the instrument, out of all of the different woodwinds you play, that you feel expresses your personality and musical thoughts the best?
That’s an interesting question for me because things have changed lately, but truthfully my dad, a musician, started me on woodwinds. He wanted me to be a lead alto sax player who had a big sound, was a great reader, who could double on flute and clarinet, and who had the temperament to lead the section. He groomed me for that when I was a kid. He really pushed me on alto. He never had me play tenor, and I don’t know why. Maybe we couldn’t afford it? At the time I wasn’t old enough to make that decision for myself; I knew I loved music but I wasn’t ready to make a decision like that. I actually started first on clarinet, like many woodwind doublers do. But there was a bit of a detour. Before I started on clarinet, I was given my uncles alto sax to play when the fourth grade music programs started but my dad took it away when I accidentally damaged it one day. That’s another whole story. So clarinet was the first serious instrument. When I was a child the words I seemed to hear a lot from my family, because some of my uncles were reed players too, was, “You know, alto’s a little harder than the tenor.” I thought, “Why am I not playing the easier one?” Now that I play both an equal amount of time, I don’t think that’s the case. Later in life I bought my own tenor and taught myself to play it; it wasn’t that hard, same fingerings, but I struggled a little finding a good setup. I have a good Tenor setup now. Back to the alto and the question, I think I had more experience and felt more comfortable on alto back then so that’s why I made that choice.
I have to ask about how it felt to have your CD Crossings placed on the select Grammy Award list in consideration of being nominated as one of the Top 5 Best Contemporary Jazz Albums of the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards? I asked Frank Macchia this same question, and he mentioned how after first getting on the select list the following year his next CD was actually one of the top five finalists?
It felt great; I can’t deny it. When I shared the information with some of my musician friends they said, “I guess you’re headed in the right direction.” Then I thought about it and wondered, “How long does it take the boat to get there?” All in all it’s an honor and I’m proud of it. I guess it’s like a reward for all the hard work you put in.
Bill Champlin has a huge reputation, in popular music circles on the West Coast, for not just his playing abilities but even more for his songwriting abilities. You’re also an incredibly successful song writer. How did the process unfold of writing the song “One More Dance” with him on your Crossings CD?
Bill and I have spent a lot of time writing songs together and we’ve been doing this for years. We were in a band from San Francisco – Marin County to be precise – called The Sons Of Champlin. It was the band Bill started with and with whom Bill and I co-produced the last couple of albums. After a rehearsal, as we were sorting through some ideas for what was to become the Sons last studio album, Hip Lil’ Dreams, he and I started to write “One More Dance.” The keyboard player from the Sons, Geoff Palmer, was there and he contributed to that song as well. Initially, I thought it was written for the Sons, but the song was never recorded on a Sons album. Sometimes you just write and the song will determine where it should be placed. When I started working on Crossings, the song was a perfect fit.
People on the East Coast aren’t really familiar with that band, Sons Of Champlin. On the West Coast however, that band is huge. Can you describe, for people on the East Coast, what that band is and what it’s about.
The original band, The Sons Of Champlin, was formed in the late 1960s. It was the era of Jimmy Hendrix, The Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. The Sons played at The Fillmore and other venues with all those groups. During that time the rise of rock groups with horns began; Blood Sweat And Tears and Chicago started in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I think the Sons were one of the first, if not the first, rock band to have a horn section. The guy who ended up as Chicago’s first producer, James William Guercio, approached them and it may have been before he produced Chicago. He contacted the Sons and let them know he was interested in doing a record with them. For some reason the Sons said they weren’t interested. I don’t remember why. The way Bill put it was, “He knocked on the door and we answered the phone.” I wasn’t in the band at that time, but it seems like the story with the Sons is that they were really great musicians, very musical with tons of talent. Unfortunately, opportunity would come and the time just wasn’t right. They had record deals with major labels like Capitol early on and had a few hits but nothing that would make them a household name like Chicago or Blood Sweat And Tears. At least that’s the way it was during the late 60’s and through the 70’s.
Somewhere in the middle to late 70’s, Bill got a little frustrated economically and needed to support his family so he moved down to Hollywood and became a busy, in demand session singer and songwriter. He won a Grammy with Earth Wind & Fire by co-writing “After The Love Is Gone” and another Grammy for “Turn Your Love Around” by George Benson. He had a nice career going. At times, he missed playing with his old group, the Sons, which had been together since his high school days in various forms. So he’d go back up to San Francisco and do a gig now and then with them. They’d rehearse the band for a while and do some gigs. One of those times happened in 1997, and that’s the version of the band I was in. At that point the band had a resurgence that lasted for about seven years; that version of the band was really good. We had Mic Gillette from Tower Of Power on brass and myself in the horn section; it was a lot of fun. We played The Fillmore and gigs of that nature. We released a couple of albums during that time and some of us in the band wanted commercial success.
We got pretty close, but no cigar. Bill’s been in the group Chicago for the last 27 or so years. When you have a steady gig of that magnitude, there isn’t a lot of time to really promote anything else. As you know, it takes a lot of time to promote a record the way it needs to be done in order to get national coverage. It means you have to be available for all kinds of promotional things; long extended tours, interviews and appearances. Bill did a lot of those but it became difficult juggling schedules and I’m sure it was hard on Bill as well.
Your first disc as a leader, Making Up Lost Time, is, to my ears, a bit more of a varied recording in that you do some great up tempo horn section work on songs like “JP’s Groove,” as well as some truly pop oriented things like “Modern Life.” As I was listening to it I thought back to something Bob James said while he was discussing his first solo CTI recording, in that he thought of that album as a demo disc that others could listen to in order to hear the full range of his abilities. I was wondering if that sentiment at all played a part in how you constructed your first recording as a solo leader?
With Making Up Lost Time the title says it all. I was doing a lot of production and writing at the time, and doing a little less playing. At that point I had been performing for quite a while as a session player and soloist. I had reached a point where I got a little complacent or maybe bored and I started to procrastinate. Every so often I would think, “You know, I’m going to do a really cool jazz album one of these days.” You know, the famous one-of-these-days line. I was procrastinating in the largest sense, because I never did get around to doing it. Then a fateful event happened in January of 1994 when there was a large earthquake in Northridge. That made me realize my mortality. I thought, “You know that album I’ve been planning to do might never happen if I’m buried under a pile of rubble.” I started to pursue the idea with a vengeance and the process of writing Making Up Lost Time began. The title cut was the first in the batch and I really loved the groove and the direction it was headed musically. At first, I didn’t have anyone writing with me, I wanted to do it myself to see what I was hearing in my head without any distractions. The first three cuts are a reflection of that thinking.
My first thoughts were, “Hey, this is pretty good. I think I should do a whole album.” Then I thought, “If I do an album, what’s the purpose of doing an album? Should I showcase what I’m capable of musically, do an album of all the same kind of material, or should I try to use my pop songwriter sensibility and try to make this commercial enough to get a record deal?” There are some artists who make a record that will have one kind of style on one cut and then the next cut is something that is totally different and not at all related to the style of the previous cut. That would be me on this album. That’s why, ultimately, there’s a wide variety of material on Making Up Lost Time. It didn’t start out as a demo at all; it started out with me trying to express myself with the music I was hearing in my head at the time.
Those first three cuts on Making Up, as a musician, are my favorite cuts. I would imagine that as a musician they’re your favorites as well.
I think most jazz instrumentalists would see where I was going with those first three cuts. One of the nicest compliments I received regarding that album was passed down from one of the finest arrangers in town, Jerry Hey. I was speaking to Bill Reichenbach on the phone and he mentioned that upon hearing Making Up Lost Time Jerry thought I was “writing my butt off.” I told him, “If it’s coming from Jerry, I’ll take it.” It’s always gratifying to hear positive feedback from your peers. It’s all about the integrity of the music. A lot of people have commented about how those opening cuts sound like a full big band, which if you voice the real horns and the synths correctly it can sound that way. There’s nothing like the real thing though. I’ve been told I should form a big band with the concept of Making Up Lost Time in mind, in other words the fusion kind of rhythm section along with some tunes that are straight-up swing.
I interviewed Chris Tedesco, who’s a Hollywood studio trumpeter, and he told me he carries, in his car at all times, a few brass instruments in the trunk just in case a studio session comes up at the very last minute while he’s out driving around doing errands or coming from a previous gig; that way he’s available should another trumpeter get sick at the last minute and Chris gets a call to come to the studio in the next 20 minutes. He said this has actually happened a number of times. Do you do the same thing? Has this ever happened to you?
That does happen, but I don’t like to keep my horns in the car. I had a bad experience once where a horn of mine was stolen from my car. Also, most of the time in California it gets pretty warm, and it will, on a saxophone, dry everything out. For me, no I don’t do that.
I’ve interviewed a number of studio saxophonists for Saxophone Journal and many of seem to think of it, and here I paraphrase, as 95 percent boredom and five percent sheer terror. Is this how you would categorize it?
My dad was a trombone player and arranger who studied with Zilner Randolph. He was Louis Armstrong’s second trumpet player and also a great arranger. My dad started music late because he came from a family of 16 that went through the depression and couldn’t afford to buy the whole family instruments. He was one of the younger children so his older brothers had the instruments and he was left to play a paper accordion for a while. It wasn’t until he married my mom that he got his first instrument, a trombone. At that point he jumped on it with a vengeance, began to arrange, and ended up being the leader of a band that featured a lot of his brothers in it. Zilner was one of those cats who’d take the train with bands he was traveling with and would write out charts for the different groups while traveling that way. For example, he would be on the road with Woody Herman’s band and Woody would say, as the group was going from Chicago to New York, “Zilner, I need a chart by the time we arrive.” There was no piano on the train so he would write out the whole chart by using his ear and his knowledge. Zilner taught my dad how to write and arrange without a piano. Zilmer also taught him how to develop perfect relative pitch. He would move a door that would squeak and then ask my dad what the pitch was. My dad would say, “I don’t know Zil” and Zil would say, “When I get done with you hopefully you’ll know because you’ll need to have it in your head. That way when you’re writing something and there is no piano you’ll hear it all in your head.”
Dad wanted me to be a guy who could be a great studio musician. He wanted me to be able to walk into a studio, sight-read, play clarinet, sax, flute, or whatever, like Gene Cipriano or one of those cats, and be totally prepared for any kind of session. That way I wouldn’t be terrorized going into the studio for the first time. Keeping that in mind, here’s what really happened. My first session work was with Melissa’s (Manchester) producer Vinnie Poncia, and I was called in to do some arranging. He then wanted me to do some of the playing, so I coordinated the other horn players and played a couple of the horn parts myself. Since it was my arrangement I wasn’t terrified to play it. I was already the leader on the date. That was a nice way to enter as a studio musician; it was a bit more low pressure than most others experience.
As time goes on people hear about you and the work you do. That happened with me and I started to get called by contractors. I think the first time it happened for me was off of a Paul Anka date. I was called by a producer to write some charts for one of Paul’s albums. I went in, did the arrangements and played some sax solos. Then Paul told Don Costa – who was Frank Sinatra’s arranger – about me and the next thing I know I’m sitting in a sax section with some of the saxophonists from Supersax; Ted Nash, Med Flory, Jack Nimitz and Gene Cipriano. Here’s what was cool. I was expecting them to look down at me and say, “Who’s the new guy?” Instead, they were so supportive it was incredible. At the end of the date Costa yells out to the band, “Okay everybody can go home now except for Saviano.” I thought, “Oh no, I made a mistake and will have to do something over again.” In fact, they wanted me to do some solos. I got a little nervous, panicked and said, “But you have Ted Nash and all these other great players.” Ted and those cats looked at me and gave me a thumbs up, and said, “Go get em’ kid.” Was I terrorized still? Sure. It was like living the dream that my father had tried to prepare me for, yet it was the first time I was doing it. My dad made me listen to a lot of those musicians when I was younger, and here I was sitting next to them. It was because of my dad that I was prepared to do that kind of work.
You worked as Melissa Manchester’s Music Director during her most popularly successful years. What was your working relationship with her like during that three-year period?
It was great. Basically, Vinnie produced her first three or four albums. He is the one who initially called me and was totally responsible for hiring me on those albums. I give him tons of credit because he’s the guy who took a chance and gave me my first big time opportunities. I guess you could say he discovered me. On those first couple of records he had me do some arrangements and play on them. He was very supportive and encouraging. Melissa liked my work as well. By the time it got around to the Singin’ album Melissa wanted to go to New York to record the tracks. They hired Steve Gadd, Will Lee, Don Grolnick and a few other New York session players. They came back to Los Angeles to do the sweetening. It was then that I was hired to put the horn arrangements together for that album. Melissa approached me during one of the sessions and said her new album was a fresh start for her, she was changing her direction a little bit and I was asked to take on the role of her Musical Director, which I gladly did. That’s when it started and it was great. We had a wonderful working and musical relationship together. We did a summer tour splitting the bill with Leo Sayer. In the fall, we performed at Carnegie Hall with no other acts. Just Melissa. We did a few more tours, recorded a live album and then took a short break. After that we recorded the album Don’t Cry Out Loud, for which I was responsible for all the rhythm section and horn arrangements.
When you go into the studio to work with a specific band or solo artist, how do you prepare yourself? Here I’m thinking of your work with Sheena Easton as an example.
Here’s how the Sheena Easton situation arose. I was wearing the hat of a songwriter at that time. As can happen in certain situations, it becomes an interesting mix of talent meets politics, etc.; not unlike the way the rest of the world works. Sometimes people will say, “The music business is different than any other business because you have to know so and so and that it’s not all about the talent.” Sometimes that is the case. The truth is that in every business and field of employment there is a certain amount of who-do-you-know and there is a certain amount of politics involved somewhere in the process. It might not be as predominant as it is in music, but it does occur in all areas of life. I was writing with another songwriter and friend of mine, Gino Cunico, who wrote a number one record for Barry Manilow -“When I Wanted You.” We were writing the song that eventually ended up being covered by Sheena but we didn’t know it at the time. He said, “There’s a great lyricist I know by the name of Adrienne Anderson who wrote the lyrics for ‘Déjà Vu,’” which was a big hit by Dionne Warwick. Gino wanted to bring her in and have her write some of the lyrics, even though he and I had almost finished the song, both musically and lyrically. I said I was open to it. We brought her in, she wrote a wonderful lyric and we were thrilled to have her in as a co-writer on the song.
Sheena happened to be a fan of Adrienne’s lyrics and ended up going to her house to listen to some songs with her. Out of all the songs the one we wrote happened to be Sheena’s favorite. It happened so fast that we didn’t have to worry about whether we were going to get the cut on the new album, it actually turned into – Sheena likes the song, and the next day Sheena recorded the song. Our mouths were hanging open. After that, the album came out very quickly on EMI/Capitol, and the hits were already on the radio; one was called “Sugar Walls” and the other was called “Strut.” Those two songs made the top 10 nationally. When EMI started doing the promo spots on the radio stations advertising the album, our song was being played along with the first two hits and we were immediately wondering if we were going to be the next single. Needless to say we got very excited about it. That’s how it started with her. We didn’t actually meet her until she invited us to her performance at the Universal Amphitheater after the album was already out. She had us stand up and take a bow as the writers of the song that was her favorite on the album. She eventually presented us with Platinum Albums as a token of her appreciation.
One of the skills that is absolutely essential to have as a working studio musician is to be able to play and write in all music styles. You wrote “Safe At Home” for the movie “American Pastime,” and arranged it as a big band chart. On the soundtrack you played the piano, bass, drums, took the tenor sax solos and played lead alto. You told me the Director of the movie asked for an early Count Basie sound with a Lester Young type solo at the top. I understand this song is in the opening of the movie. When you were young how did you study styles in order to incorporate them so seamlessly into your playing and writing?
That goes back to my dad. He had me do a lot of listening when I was young. I wasn’t the kind of young man who would listen to rock on the radio. That didn’t happen until much later. At that time I wasn’t a real big fan of rock. I don’t know why, but it just didn’t appeal to me; maybe it was the rock music of the era I was growing up in, but for whatever reason I preferred to sit at home and listen to a Count Basie or a Frank Sinatra record. I liked to listen to records that had a lot of brass on them. I got so infatuated with it that I would use my dad’s old Wollensack tape recorder. It had sound on sound capability. I would write out four or five saxophone parts or play an existing arrangement and overdub the sax parts. I didn’t have a tenor sax then, so I played all the parts on alto and bari. For me, it was all about listening and hearing the music day after day, and then actually performing and trying to record things myself in order to learn what made things sound a certain way. I look at it as “back engineering.” Let’s say a group of scientists finds a UFO that has crashed. They’ll try to take it apart to figure out how it works. Back engineering! That’s one of the ways I learned, especially arranging, by back engineering songs and sounds I liked and figuring out how they were put together. It’s easier to emulate something if you’ve analyzed it properly.
You worked with David Letterman on the pilot for his first network television show. What was it like to work with him?
That came about because Melissa’s manager Larry, also her husband, worked for Rollins-Joffe-Brezner-Morra Management, who managed Woody Allen, David Lettermen, Martin Mull, Robin Williams, etc. They had a ton of comedians. Larry liked what I was doing as Melissa’s MD. He came to me and said something like, “Tommy, I’ve got this kid from Indiana who Carson Productions is grooming to be the next Johnny Carson. They want to do a pilot. Would you be interested in being the Musical Director and putting a band together for the pilot?” Of course I would. Larry introduced me to Dave at NBC in Burbank. Dave was very nice. We shook hands, then went in and did the show. During the taping of the pilot, David never did pronounce my name right. I never busted him for it, it just wouldn’t be right to do that on his pilot. The name of the pilot was Leave It To Dave, which I believe was to become a morning show once the pilot was picked up. If I’m not mistaken, I think I still have some of the charts that were used on the show sitting in my archives somewhere. The guests were Robin Williams, Martin Mull and Madman Gallagher. The band was pretty much the band I had hired for Melissa that I had taken on the road.
You were in the band for The Late Show With Joan Rivers. That was a pretty groundbreaking show in many ways. How was that band put together?
They got a personality to front the band, Mark Hudson. He was one of the Hudson Brothers who had a variety show sitcom on television for a little while that probably a lot of people know about. Or maybe they don’t. Mark later went on to win a Grammy for a song with Aerosmith. While we were doing The Late Show, he hadn’t won a Grammy yet, but he had a great personality and he knew a lot of musicians. For the kind of band that was needed, he leaned a lot on other great musicians like Randy Waldman as to who to call and who were the cats needed for the band. What they were looking for was a Tonight Show type of band that had a rock and roll edge to it. He wanted musicians that could read but also had personality to be able to jump up and do a rock solo and do some theatrical things on stage as well. He certainly got what he asked for. The original saxophone section was myself, Brandon Fields, Dave Boruff and Bev Dalke-Smith. Later on in the show, Bob Sheppard replaced Dave Boruff. Bev was the last member to be added because Joan wanted one woman in the band to do some comic routines with her.
There were various times as the band was being put together where Randy Waldman helped pick the guys in the band; in other words Mark would go to Randy and ask who should be called to play trumpet. Randy would give him a list of a few guys and he would call the ones he wanted. By the way, the band was great. We had Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Rick Baptist on lead trumpet and many other great musicians. As we started to rehearse the band we heard that Joan wanted a girl. At that point at rehearsals we were listening to female trombonists and trumpeters to find a female musician. Finally someone said, “I know the girl who played in the video of ‘The Heat Is On’” by Glenn Frey. She didn’t play the sax part on the record because another friend of mine, David Woodford, played the solo on the record, but Bev mimicked the solo on the video and was recommended for the band. She was a North Texas State University graduate. So Bev was put on Bari and Joan nicknamed her “The Tramp.” The band was called The Party Boys And The Tramp. Bev was anything but a tramp; she was the nicest person you could ever meet. She was a great reader and an incredible doubler; flute, clarinet, any saxophone, and did a lot of theatrical work in town. She is married to Greg Smith, another great saxophone player. They met at North Texas.
I wanted to ask about some of the groups you’ve recorded with, maybe live in the studio or in an overdub manner, that I think the readers would enjoy hearing about regarding your contributions. Let’s start with your work on Earth Wind & Fire’s Raise!
Jerry Hey called me for that date. We had worked together on a few sessions, including Dolly Parton’s 9 To 5 and two albums by my own group – Heat – that I arranged and produced. The first Heat album had been released and it was being compared to Earth Wind & Fire by some of the critics. It’s no wonder. I was a big fan of theirs; so much so that I had done the “scientific back-engineering” that I mentioned earlier in order to try to figure out how they sounded the way they do. I was able to hear how they put things together and then went for it. I guess you could say I was the logical choice. Who knows? At the same time, The Phoenix Horns were stuck on a plane in Chicago and couldn’t make the date; so Jerry’s horn section was used. On that session I was sitting there, loving every second of it, being the only sax player in the horn section. We did two songs including “You Are A Winner” and “I Want To Be With You,” which won a Grammy. I really love “You Are A Winner.” If you like brass, you’ll probably like it as well because of the punchy brass parts that Jerry wrote. It sounds great. It was a thrill to be on an album by a group I truly admired.
Was your association with Bill how you ended up on Chicago Twenty-1 with the song “Holdin’ On?”
Yes. I remember David Foster was producing Chicago before Chicago Twenty-1. Bill and I went to David’s studio in Malibu and played some songs we had written to see if he wanted to record them. We did this a couple of times and didn’t get the results we were looking for. That particular song, “Holdin’ On,” was played for David and he said, “Great song, but I think we’ve already got something like that on the record so we won’t use it.” Holdin On went through at least three producers. After David, Arif Mardin heard it and liked it but he didn’t record it. Later, Ron Nevison became their producer and it was he who recorded the song.
The arranger for that recording date – David Campbell is someone I’ve worked with many times over the years. He also hired me for the Maroon 5 album “It Won’t Be Soon Before Long.” He’s a great arranger and always has been. His son is the rock musician Beck. David does a lot of high profile stuff. The horn section included Gary Grant and Steve Madaio on trumpets with Don Marquis and myself on sax.
How did you work on improvisation when you were young?
When I was young improvisation was not my first priority. It became a priority later. Being classically trained, I was taught to be a sight-reader and a doubler. At first, I was a little disappointed my father didn’t say, “Okay, let’s listen to some changes and start playing by ear.” He didn’t want me to go there yet. When I moved from Chicago to California to attend college, I began improvising. I realized to that to play jazz I needed to improvise and I had to jump on that in a hurry. I had stopped taking lessons from my original teachers in Chicago; the first being my dad’s lead alto sax player – Floyd Waltz – a great reader/doubler and the other, Kenny LaBon. He played lead alto for WGN television in Chicago and did a lot of their studio work. He had also been with The Paul Whiteman Orchestra. When I went to Golden West College and Orange Coast College I ended up playing lead alto and sitting next to great players like Tom Kubis. The competition fired me up and sped up the process.
I was studying arranging and composition with several teachers. One of them was Bill Baker who wrote and arranged for Ray Charles and the Righteous Brothers. He was also a very good lead alto player with a unique sound and an original improvisational style. I asked him questions about how he learned to solo and what kind of exercises he played. He told me to start listening to the people I liked. I pulled out some old records that I liked and came across Cannonball (Adderley) Live in Chicago. One cut in particular caught my ear, Limehouse Blues. Cannonball and (John) Coltrane both improvise on that track. I guess you could say I really started listening to them at the same time. Cannonball was fun because I was playing a lot of alto at the time, but when I heard Coltrane a whole new world opened up for me and I began to play tenor. That’s when my tenor playing started. During that growth period I spent a lot of time listening to their records. Of all the Coltrane albums I listened to, A Love Supreme was the first and possibly my favorite. It absolutely knocked me out. It’s a masterpiece. I also listened to Coltrane play standards. Then with Cannonball I had the live recordings with Lou Rawls and Nancy Wilson. I remember a quote on one song where he said he wanted to drink some muddy water himself. Nat was on that recording as well. I listened to a lot of Cannonball’s other records as well.
At the same time I was listening to In A Silent Way by Miles Davis, as well as every Jimmy Hendrix record I could find. In addition, the group Dreams and the Brecker Bros. I can’t remember all of them but there were a lot more. There was a wide range of material that I extracted ideas from as a soloist. At times some of my trumpet player friends would hear me play a solo and say, “That one lick you played sounded like something a guitarist would play.” I said, “Interesting you should say that because that’s exactly where it came from.” I really believe that what you listen to can influence how and what you play when you improvise. Later on I got into reading books about improvisation and how to use scales and modes and incorporate them into my playing.
You have an incredible high register and are able to play clearly and with such great control up there. How did you learn to do this?
I started out by using the Studies in High Harmonics book by Ted Nash, and then I got a hold of a Don Menza fingering chart for the altissimo range. In college, a fellow saxophonist and a friend of mine, Al Pena gave me a copy of Don’s chart. The fingerings are very natural and easy to remember. That truly opened up a whole new world for me in the upper register.
What advice do you have for young saxophonists?
The first thing they should do is find a setup that works for them; a good horn that plays in tune will make it easier to get a centered tone without struggling to find the pitch, and of course they’ll need a good mouthpiece and reed setup. It is important to find a skilled and inspiring teacher because a teacher like that will help get them started out the right way. Then keep an open mind. The most important thing I would suggest to any young player is to not get psyched out by what somebody tells you. In other words, rules are sometimes meant to be broken. If somebody tells you “if you don’t do this you’ll never be able to do that,” I don’t believe in that. If you start believing that, that is exactly what’s going to happen; but if you say, “Maybe I started out doing this the wrong way, but now I’m going to overcome it,” you will; this way your mind is open for the change. I understand how having some bad habits and bad practice habits can cause some problems, but I think the damage can be undone if you use your mind the correct way. Try not to create mental blocks because they’ll only get in your way. There are thoughts we have, as we play, that can lead to mental blocks. For example: If we think, “That’s very difficult and I can’t do that,” you are programming yourself and your mind in such a way that you may never do it. It’s better to program your mind into believing you can do it. Keep a positive attitude.
What kinds of projects are working on now?
I’ve just finished the rest of the Desert Nights CD with Shaun Labelle. We’ve been adding the final touches while the first single is climbing the charts. I produced Chris Bennett’s new Girl Talk album. It features an all girl band with the exception of one cut. There is a lot of great saxophone work by my fiancé – Sarah Underwood – on that CD. I am currently producing a fine violinist, Cara C. I also produced the violinist featured on David Foster’s recent PBS special, Caroline Campbell. Her material is incredible and we recorded it with great musicians including Vinnie Colaiuta, Randy Waldman, Dave Carpenter and Thom Rotella. Her album should be out soon.
Soprano Sax – Old Conn dated from 1914 purchased from an old college jazz band mate who claims it was played by one of Louis Armstrong’s saxophonist, with a Beechler 5S mouthpiece and Medium Hard LaVoz reeds
Alto Sax – Selmer Mark VI #168000 with a silver plated neck, a Vandoren Jumbo Java 75 mouthpiece with Medium Hard LaVoz reeds
Tenor Sax – Yamaha YTS 62, a Guardala mouthpiece purchased from Bob Sheppard who said it was a prototype Michael Brecker had played but it does not have an interface number, just the letters DG, with Medium to Medium Hard LaVoz reeds and sometimes Vandoren ZZ 3 or 3_ reeds.
Flute – Silver Yamaha YFL 385
Clarinet – Buffett R-13 with a Selmer Hs double star mouthpiece and Vandoren 3_ to 4 reeds
As A Leader
Crossings (Miramar, 2000)
Making Up Lost Time (Break Away, 1998)
Heat (MCA, 1980)
Still Waiting (MCA, 1981)
With Alessi Brothers
Words And Music (A&M, 1979)
With Paul Anka
Listen To Your Heart (RCA, 1978)
Headlines (RCA, 1979)
L.A. Concession (MTM Classix, 2006)
With Bob Bailey
I’m Walkin’ (Light, 1983)
With Shirley Bassey
Magic Is You (EMI, 1978)
With Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett (Beachwood, 1993)
Girl Talk (Renegade, 2008)
With Miguel Bose
Bravo Bose: 30 Grandes Exitos (Sony, 1999)
With Glen Campbell
It’s The World Gone Crazy (Capitol, 1981)
With Roberto Carlos
From Brazil With Love (Sony, 1990)
With Lynda Carter
Portrait (Epic, 1978)
With Valerie Carter
Wild Child (Columbia, 1978)
With Ray Charles
Genius Loves Company (Concord, 2004)
With Bill Champlin
No Place Left To Fall (JVC Japan, 2008)
He Started To Sing(Turnip, 1998)
Through It All (Turnip, 1996)
Mayday: Bill Champlin Live (Champlin, 1996)
China (Rocket, 1977)
Chicago Twenty 1 (Full Moon, 1991)
With Rita Coolidge
Heartbreak Radio (A&M, 1981)
With Mike Costley
I Am A Singer (Mirada, 2005)
With Peter Criss
Peter Criss (Casablanca, 1978)
With Gino Cunico
Gino Cunico (Arista, 1976)
With Mac Davis
Fantasy (Columbia, 1978)
With Ryan DeHues
My Dream Come True (Gold Label, 2001)
With David Diggs
Out On The Limb (PBR, 1976)
With Dane Donohue
Dane Donohue (Columbia, 1978)
With Phil Driscoll
Inner Man (JCI, 1990)
With Earth, Wind And Fire
Raise! (Columbia, 1981)
With Sheena Easton
A Private Heaven (One Way, 1984)
With Faragher Brothers
The Faragher Brothers (ABC, 1976)
With Sandy Farina
All Alone In The Night (MCA, 1979)
With The Four Tops
Tonight! (Casablanca, 1981)
With Dana Glover
Testimony (DreamWorks, 2002)
With Thelma Houston
Thelma Houston (MCA, 1983)
Dife (Sony International, 1997)
With Kids From Fame
Kids From Fame (RCA, 1982)
With Cheryl Ladd
Cheryl Ladd (Capitol, 1978)
With Patrick Lamb and Patsy Meyer
Don’t Get No Better (Bluehour, 2007)
With Steve Madaio
Midnight Rendezvous (Mirada, 2006)
With Melissa Manchester
Essence Of Melissa Manchester (Arista, 1997)
Don’t Cry Out Loud (Arista, 1978)
Singin’ (Arista, 1977)
Help Is On The Way (Arista, 1976)
With Gino Matteo
I’ve Been Thinkin’ (Idium Music Group, 2007)
With Les McCann
Pump It Up (ESC Records, 2002)
With Meat Loaf
Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose (Virgin, 2006)
With Barry Minniefield
Give Me Love (Mirada, 2007)
With Michael Nesmith
Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma (Pacific Arts, 1979)
Best Of Michael Nesmith (RCA, 1977)
With Juice Newton
Take Heart (Capitol, 1979)
With Tony Orlando
I Got Rhythm (Casablanca, 1979)
With Dolly Parton
Dolly Dolly Dolly (RCA, 1980)
9 To 5 And Odd Jobs (Buddha, 1980)
With Rahsaan Patterson
Love In Stereo (MCA, 1999)
Rahsaan Patterson (MCA, 1997)
With Greg Phillinganes
Significant Gains (Planet, 1981)
With Steve Plunkett
My Attitude (Quality, 1991)
With David Pomeranz
It’s In Everyone Of Us (Arista, 1976)
With Rocco Prestia
Everybody On The Bus (Lightyear, 1999)
Taken (MTM, 2005)
Rock On (Arista, 1979)
With Thom Rotella
A Day In The Life (V2, 2002)
With Brenda Russell
Brenda Russell (A&M, 1979)
With Leo Sayer
Leo (RPM Silverbird, 2002)
Leo Sayer (Warner Brothers, 1978)
Exiled On Earth (RCA, 1984)
With Bjorn Skifs
Skifs Hits (EMI, 2008)
With Bev & Greg Smith
No Baggage (Intima, 1987)
With the Sons Of Champlin
Hip Li’l Dreams (Dig Music, 2005)
Live (Arista, 1998)
Secret (Sons Of Champlin 2004)
Original Movie Soundtracks
American Pastime (2007)
Chicken Little (2005)
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)
Swing Shift (1984)
Fame Season 02 (TV, 1982)
Elephant Parts (1981)
9 To 5 (1980)
With Dusty Springfield
Simply Dusty (Mercury, 2000)
Living Without Your Love (Mercury, 1979)
With Ringo Starr
Bad Boy (Portrait, 1978)
With Livingston Taylor
3-Way Mirror (Epic, 1993)
With B.J. Thomas
B.J. Thomas (MCA, 1977)
With Mary Travers
It’s In Everyone Of Us (Chrysalis, 1978)
With Dwight Twilley
Rock Yourself (Del Rack, 1990)
Twilley Don’t Mind (The Right Stuff, 1977)
With Phil Upchurch
Rhapsody And Blues (Go Jazz, 1999)
With Randy Waldman
Wigged Out (Whirly Bird, 1998)
To coincide with the release of the Saxophone Journal Interview I will be offering autographed versions of “Crossings” and “Making Up Lost Time” at this store. Stock is limited so order your copies while you can.
Visit the new STORE