An Interview with Stan Sulzmann

 Over the past week the Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz Department has hosted saxophonist and composer Stan Sulzmann. His visit was primarily to work with the Jazz Orchestra which is something I’ve been lucky to be a part of this semester. There was a concert in the Adrian Boult Hall on Thursday which presented all the material we’d been working on. This was an extremely special experience for me and having the opportunity to play Stan’s music alongside him will be one I’ll reminisce about for years to come.

Stan is one of the most genuine musicians I’ve met and his wealth of generosity and energy have been inspiring. He is most famous for his work with Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor and today has become one of the UK’s most sought after musicians. He is also a highly respected composer and arranger and his Neon Orchestra are definitely worth checking out. I thought Stan’s visit was the perfect opportunity to host The Jazz Gospel’s first interview and I’m extremely grateful for his time, participation and insight into his life and music.


The Jazz Gospel: What would your ideal practice session entail for the young jazz musician?

Stan Sulzmann: I learnt a few things about myself towards the middle years of my life I started doing lots of stuff and getting lessons in composition, talking to people about all sorts of things to do with life, a mid life crisis in the nicest kind of way. Funny enough thinking about personality, for me it comes down to how much time we can waste with a practice session. Saxophone players fiddle with reeds so you could waste two hours of a practice session changing reeds, which in actual fact is a complete waste of time rather than putting something straight on the instrument and do something constructive, you might even be better going for a walk around the block and getting some fresh air. You should look at how much time you have and portion segments of that time to things that you’d need to do. To say if you were to break up an hour, for me I’d have to write it down and keep organized. I even brought a kitchen timer, so after ten minutes I’d have to stop doing what I was doing and move onto the next thing. Practice things slowly, that was something I’ve become more aware of now as early on I often approached things too fast and now I find I’m having to go back over things and relearn them. Your fingers have finger memory and doing things slowly means your fingers will go to things much more smoothly and with the least effort, essentially thinking about the easiest way and breaking down the process of getting from A to B

That first ten minutes should ideally be some technical things then the next ten could be someway of working on you sound. My thing about playing long tones is that I love playing tunes so I try to combine things that way you’re more in the real world. Playing ballads and learning how to play long phrases is essential and a lot of people miss this out so you often get people gasping for air every two bars. It’s a great way to practice as it exposes intonation, the quality of your sound along with the fact that you could be memorizing that tune in the same process. That is good practice because you’re combining several things.

Another important segment is practicing performance. I’ll pick a tune and essentially act as a one-man band; it has to be in time and I’ve got to work on the changes and really describe the harmony. It’s all about thinking performance without anyone else there as when you take the band away it’s not only just nice doing things on your own you’re also developing strengths so when you put the rhythm section back you’re so much stronger and you’re no longer relying on anybody. Ultimately, if you can be more self sufficient you can take more of a lead which gives the band more license to stop having to feed you time and harmony and instead give them freedom to gift the music with colour and style, giving the whole performance a greater feeling of forward motion.

As jazz players there’s also aspects of memorizing things during your practice. I’d pick one or two tunes and stick with them for a couple of weeks and really try to learn them. It’s all about memory so the best thing to do is throw the paper away and embrace the mistakes because you can always sort them afterwards. The biggest thing about using that as a process is that by using the brain in this way it’ll get stronger so the more of it you do the easier it’ll get. I remember when some of the American big bands used to come over and you’d never see them with paper in front of them in the same respect you couldn’t imagine the Miles Davis Quintet with five music stands in front of them.

TJG: What are your views on imitation, influence and the journey to discovering who you are as a musician?

SS: Ultimately you have to learn to enjoy that you sound like yourself, that’s the end of the later part of the journey. People who sometimes come for lessons are always trying to sound like someone else and even if you manage to copy them it’s never going to be as good because when it comes down to it if you want to buy a record that sounds like them you’d just go out and get it from the source. But at the same time there are a lot of people that we’d all like to sound like.

It’s not about having an ego or being big headed but you should enjoy listening to yourself, I often look back and think I was too critical on myself. If you actually listen to yourself you’ll find you play a whole host of lovely things that are you but often we’re too concerned with it not being how who we want to be would have played it. There’s an innate quality about yourself, your playing and your sound that is all to do with you and that’s the strong bit that people react to. Looking back in history you have the incredible differences of players for example likes of Stan Getz, Coltrane and Roland Kirk, all great saxophone players but all so vastly different.

To take things back to when you start. Usually, we begin with someone who we idolize. I used to love Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims. I never had jazz lessons so I used to play along with the record player and try and copy their sounds and I think that’s a good thing. It not just about doing a transcription and getting the notes down, you’ve got to get their phrasing and their sound too. The interesting thing is not to get completely fogged in with one person. Learn from what they do but don’t necessarily copy exactly what it is. I remember hearing Iain Ballamy when he was very young and I got to see him quite regularly.  Every time I saw him his playing changed and I used to ask him what he was doing to which he’d tell me that his influences had changed. The end product is taking all of these styles and mixing them up and then out pops Iain Ballamy and I’d definitely say that his personality really comes out in his playing. The nice thing about that is that you’ve absorbed a lot of history and I really like that.

TJG: What were some of the biggest things you got from playing with John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler?

SS: I got closest to John Taylor early on in my career. He was a very accessible person to get information from to learn about the music. I’d often turn to him and ask him what he was doing on the piano and he’d always have the time to show you and tell you what exactly it was. To work with him was like having a lesson and I’ve learnt all sorts of things from him. There’s a certain sense of warmth and generosity in his playing; he played for the band and always with you not against you. He was an incredible spirit and the energy and I can think about it now because he never lost that, it just got stronger and stronger. He wasn’t just a piano player who I worked with, he influenced the way I wanted to be.

As for Ken. I remember when I first heard him play it was like everything I ever wanted to hear in one. Just to play a unison line with him was absolute magic and he had this utterly beautiful sound. Ken was a very dedicated person, he’d be up at 8am in the morning writing a piece, practice every day even when he was well into his 80’s. There was a story of him getting up in the middle of the night towards the later stages of his life and start practicing to which the neighbors had to call up his wife and ask him stop. He couldn’t stop practicing and he knew that he had to keep his chops going. It was remarkable for a trumpet player of his age to still be able to play the way he did. That’s dedication; he never wasted a minute which was a massive thing I learnt from him. He wasn’t into self-promotion all he wanted to do was play the trumpet and make music.

The other thing I learnt from him was process. He often worked on things as a part of a process and didn’t worry about what the end result might be. I think for some musicians it’s a healthier mindset as it takes the strain off being self destructive because all you have to think is that what you are doing is part of a process in which all you have to do is produce something. It’s easy to say but hard to achieve but it really is such a relief once you get off your own back. All you can then do is focus on what you can do to the best of your ability. You’re not necessarily guaranteed anything but what I do know is that when you start to produce stuff, things happen. You never know who you’re going to meet by chance. I even met John Taylor at a party and I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t have gone to that party. I’ve found that with a lot of my stuff, nobody has asked me to write anything but I love doing it and it’s the process of doing it that’s more important to me. Even when I’m in a quiet period I’ve got something to do and when I have something that exists, sooner or later something will come up somewhere in which something that you have written might be suited to the criteria. I went through a period of arranging a couple of English composers tunes which as I enjoyed the process so much I decided to do a whole suites worth. As a result of this, a couple of years ago I ended up going to Colorado with this whole set of English music which got everyone there interested in the English jazz scene. It created a beautiful weeks work for me but three years previously I didn’t know that was going to happen; I was just sat in my little room writing stuff into Sibelius as part of a process to produce something.

TJG: The biggest thing I’ve got from playing your music over the last week is that every part feels like it has a purpose to the bigger picture. Each individual line, whether it be a backing or melody feels incredibly satisfying and enjoyable to play. What is your thought process here?

SS: I came up playing in hundreds of bands of many descriptions so I played tonnes of music, some of which was pretty awful. As a tenor player so you have the classic 2nd tenor part – all the notes that nobody else wants which make horrible parts. When I first played Ken Wheeler’s big band music I sat and thought how fantastic it was that it didn’t matter which part you played it always feels like you’re playing something lovely and meaningful. Because I’m a player, I knew there was an importance to have good part to play which then draw the band in. I guess that’s partly a selfish thing because I want people to play the music well.

Basically, if you want people to play something well then give them something they are able and might like to play. I try to pass things around the band to keep melodies moving and especially give them to the instruments that you don’t expect to play them. Suddenly, the gig comes alive as the attention and energy of a player naturally rises, as they know, at some point they’ve got something important to play.

There are technical ways of doing this within writing lines that I learnt from the old school guys. Ken Wheeler had this concept of crossing the inner parts so you’d make a smooth moving line. By swapping parts in a certain way you can make a nicer melodic shape. That does take more attention and time on your behalf but if you want to love what you do and be proud of what you do its completely necessary. It also shows a great deal of care towards the people that are going to play it, a quality I used to care about when I used to sit and read the 2nd tenor part.

TJG: A lot of the music in tonight’s concert are arrangements of other peoples tunes, many who are close friends. How do you find it is arranging someone else’s composition who eventually, will get to hear it?

SS: I’ve only recently thought about this and I never really ask if they minded, ha! The very first one I did was John Parricelli’s, ‘Alfredo’. It’s a lovely tune and I thought I’d love to do an arrangement of that. When I finished it I sent it him for him to have a look and I think he’s even used it once or twice on a gig of his own. For Mike Walker’s ‘Clockmaker’, I actually asked him if I could do it and he sent me a lead sheet as he had a very detailed part. He’s quite particular about his piece and the shape of it so I kind of just scored it up for a larger ensemble and didn’t mess with it too much. For me it’s just another excuse to play these tunes that I love. John Taylor’s ‘Between Moons’ was a commission he set for me to arrange which I was very honored about being asked to do that. It’s a very interesting point; I’m not really sure what they would say in private haha!

I do make sure I always send them the finished product and I remember doing Gwilym Simcock’s, ‘I Know You Know’.  There was a mistake in it that I knew about and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He just wrote back to me, helped me out and fixed the error. When you’ve got other people’s stuff the one thing you don’t want to do is get it all wrong so I spend a lot of time checking that things are right. If I did do something and someone turned round and said they didn’t like it out of respect I just wouldn’t use it.

TJG: What three albums are on your essential listening list?

SS: That’s a tough one! Believe it or not I actually love listening to Desert Island Discs. The idea of having to choose something is incredibly difficult.

Something by Cannonball Adderley, he made an album called Cannonball’s Bossa Nova which I don’t necessarily think is the greatest album but every time Cannonball plays he has the kind of character that makes the sun comes out. I often thought if I was on that desert island and it was somewhere where the weather wasn’t that great and you were a bit miserable you could put Cannonball on and the world would become a brighter place.

Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess was one thing that I loved when I was very young and I still love that record. The way he played the flugel horn was like the way I want to play the soprano saxophone.

The third I’m thinking something a bit more contemporary so something by Messiaen. There’s a few things of his that I like such as ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ and ‘Poemes Pou Mi’. They’re very deep and every time I put them on I get a very powerful sense of life.

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