Sax Gordon - Interview
An explosive mix of R&B: Sax Gordon in Ascona for the first time
Sax Gordon, listening to your music, the listener plunges into the heart of American musical tradition: rock, r&b, soul and jazz. I read that you started with a garage band – I'm a big fan of The Sonics. What were the fundamental steps in developing your style?
I started out just having fun and part of that was playing in every situation that I could. There was also still all kinds of music on the radio in those pre-internet days. Without even thinking about it you'd be hearing Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. I saw Chuck Berry playing on the back of a truck in a muddy field when I was a kid! There were some older musicians that would jam in a garage down the street and I would pass by when I was walking home from school with my saxophone. One day I stopped and asked if I could play with them. They were playing rock and pop songs and I did my best to fit in. I learned a lot about playing in a group, not just waiting for a solo. And, some of them were old enough to buy beer! I think I answered an ad looking for a sax player for a 1950s-style group and they would pick me up at my house, talk to my parents and take me to rehearsal where we played songs like Little Eva's "The Locomotion" with its great classic rockin 50's sax sound so that sound was already getting in my ear. I played in a little group with a local high-school teacher that played Jazz, Boogie, and Stride Piano so I started learning some simple Jazz standards and how to riff over Boogie-Woogie. This was in Northern California so there were Grateful Dead-style bands too! Eventually I joined a local group called "the Spydels" (later to become northern California favorites "Mumbo Gumbo") and we played all kinds of great roots-rock. I remember we opened up for the Blasters at a campus coffeehouse on their first tour when they still had the great Lee Allen on sax (that played all those great solos on the classic Little Richard records like "Lucille" and "Good Golly Miss Molly"!) I was also studying Jazz with a Bay Area Jazz musician that had moved to town, playing in a local Blues band led by a guy named Bill Scholer, who's still around, I met Little Charlie & the Nightcats before they got on Alligator Records, and eventually I started working with the great west-coast Bluesman Johnny Heartsman that had moved to Sacremento. He used me on a little cassette-only release called "Shine On" and that was all before I was 17 or 18 and I left for the East Coast. I was already buying records and trying to figure out what I should listen to so I could learn the right thing to do in different situations.
Grant me a technical question: how do you manage the wind to both sing and play the sax?
I like to say that "I'm full of hot air" (which here means that one is full of "bullshit") I guess I've just been doing it a long time and when the music is good it actually gives you energy!
The song that changed your life and which inspired you the most?
There's too many to list! It was a big and magical moment when through a strange coincidence a total stranger handed me a cassette copy of Red Prysock's "Rock & Roll" album. King Curtis' "Memphis Soul Stew" was a big one, then all of his music. Clarence Clemmons was a big inspiration, I used to love to try and play like him when the Spydels would play Bruce Springsteen's "I'm Goin' Down." Seeing Big Jay McNeely perform in the 1980s was amazing for me. He was so strong and in control while performing and doing wild and fun things with the sax. A local sax player around Boston named Gaylord "Reggie" Grant (who's still around!) was a huge inspiration. He played every week at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square Cambridge, MA with Soul/R&B singer Little Joe Cook and my face would hurt from grinning so hard after watching him play. I later did the gig myself before going on my first real road gig with Chicago Bluesman Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson who was based in Boston at the time. Matt "Guitar" Murphy also lived around here and I joined him later. Each player that I love brings something special and unique to me with their playing. I could go on forever about lesser-known players like Vernard Johnson, Al Sears, Buddy Lucas, Lonnie Youngblood, Eddie Chamblee, Harold Ashby, Bobby Forte...
How important are contact with the audience and live performances? I ask because often in the last few years studio albums do not seem to have the same edge live shows have
That's probably different for every performer. I'm very live-performance-oriented. I think the real purpose of my own music is to be played live and to reach an the audience, to try and grab them, to get their attention and make them feel something. I like the extremes, I love rocking like mad but a ballad can also be extreme the other way, deep and moody, bringing a totally different feeling. I think of most of my albums as a way to capture or translate what we do live. I do have one quiet Jazz album ("In The Wee Small Hours" - Delmark Records) that's more like late-night mood-music, but otherwise when I record I try to capture the excitement and fun of a live show.
You met and played with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, one of the giants of soul music. What memory do you have of that meeting?
I just did one little tour, a week of dates around the north-eastern part of the USA. A brief but valuable experience. Sam was nice and signed some souvenirs for me, a poster and a little book where he tells his story. Reading the book later was very revealing. He did not paint a complimentary picture of his own behavior for most of his life. It was almost like a confessional! It made me think about how he was when I met him and that maybe he was happy to have survived and was making an effort to be better. I've been lucky to have had the opportunity to work with some of the great Soul voices like Solomon Burke, Howard Tate, Little Milton, Johnny Copeland, Ben E. King, Martha Reeves, and more.. Of course with the house band for many years at the great Porretta Soul Festival in Italy we backed so many great old and new Soul artists like Carla Thomas, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Spencer & Percy Wiggins, Lattimore, William Bell, Willie Walker, Swamp Dogg, and instrumentalists like Bernard Purdie, and Stax Records saxist Joe Arnold.
What projects do you have in store for the near future?
I'm excited to be coming to Ascona with a great band! I still love to travel and play and have dates coming up in Italy, Romania, Spain, Lithuania, France and of course the USA. This summer I'll be touring with a lesser-known but great Soul singer named Leon Beal. I really enjoy helping to organize shows and arranging music. I like to lead bands playing my own original music, sometimes I'll concentrate on swingin' Jump Blues and R&B in 1940/50s style, but I also have a group where we do a different show in more of a 1960s Soul style. I'm often called to be a guest at 1950s Rock & Roll events and at Boogie Woogie festivals and I love all of it! As soon as I get caught up on some other work I'll be recording again. I'd like to record with a Twang/Rockabilly Band I know, but I'd also like to make another Jazz album, but this time more for dancing. Some people don't remember or realize that Jazz was like Rock & Roll once, it was the fun music, the music people liked to party and dance to and there's a lot of musicians keeping that going even if you don't hear about them in the "Modern Jazz" press. I'm happy to record and perform with other people too. I just did a record for my old friend, the guitarist Junior Watson and the record I did with singer Whitney Shay is doing very well, I think you'll be hearing about her soon!