Lessons in music: Joel Frahm talks about his life in jaz

Joel Frahm brings an understanding of jazz history and a sense of humour to his music

Joel Frahm‘s saxophone can be found in a lot of other people’s ventures. And he’s always had his own projects too.

Two of those will be at the Ottawa Winter Jazz weekend — his duo with Toronto’s Adrean Farrugia and his trio with Dan Loomis and Ernesto Cervini.

“This has changed over the years. This past year was my 30th in New York City as a professional jazz musician. When I first got out of school and was trying to make it happen I was taking absolutely everything, but I would say over the past five, 10 years, I have become more judicious about what I am doing.”

He doesn’t have to take everything on offer because he’s established and his music pays his way.

“Now what happens is I will have a gut reaction about a gig or about the musician who is calling me. Either I will know them from the past or I will have a visceral reaction. I know now that I want to play with musicians who will at least accommodate me, or challenge me. So I try to take gigs that are musically inspiring.”

Inspiration definitely what drives Frahm. He is such a serious student of jazz that he was one of those who transcribed solos by different players.

“It was definitely an eclectic mix. I spent some time in really deep study of Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Bird (Charlie Parker), Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. There have been periods of time when I became very obsessed with a particular player. I would do a lot of transcription and study of individual style.”

He tells his students that just just playing a solo by ear and by memory  that “the act of putting pencil to paper is like putting the final stamp on the product. It indelibly marks your brain.

“Music is language. There is an aural component and there is a written component. Both are important. It’s also really important to figure out how the two are married.

“The way my brain works, I see and hear the music while I am playing. Not literally, but there is a visual shape component going on in my brain.”

He hooked up with Adrean Farrugia when he joined a quartet being formed by Toronto jazz percussionist Ernesto Cervini, a percussionist. Dan Loomis was also in the group.

We played a bunch of tours over the years. Adrean and I got closer.”

It was at a sound check before some gig when Joel popped the question. He said, “we should make a duo project.”

Frahm seems to make friends for life. One of his oldest mates is Brad Mehldau. They have been mates since 1985 when the two of them were 15 and attending William H. Hall High School in Connecticut.

The two don’t hook up all that much but this past year Frahm joined Mehldau on the latter’s recording Finding Gabriel which just won a Grammy on Sunday night.

After recording the album, the two hopped on tour and ended up at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival this past summer.

“When we do play together there is definitely a depth there. There is something about our friendship and our musical communication that has some real history to it.

“Over the years I have started to feel a bit more like a peer than I did. When I was in high school he was just so far beyond all of us. As far as now, we have a common feeling about the way we play. There is something to the fact that the two of us discovered jazz music together.”

Frahm was born in Racine, Wisconsin, where he started by taking piano lessons.

“I wasn’t that serious. I had talent and I had an ear at an early age, but I was kind of lazy back then.

“I gave piano up at 12, 13. I tried French horn, bassoon, flute but nothing stuck. I had a best friend in the eighth grade jazz band in Racine. He said why don’t you play saxophone in the jazz band with me.”

They handed him a tenor sax and told him to start figuring it out.

“I remember the day clearly when I had it in my hands for the first time. The band director sent me into a coat closet and literally said, ‘Figure it out’. I sat there, looked at it, put it together and learned by doing.”

That was beginning of it all, he said.

After moving to Connecticut, “I kind of became a jazz snob for a couple of years back then but I was listening to all sorts of stuff.”

There were some older kids in the school who were pretty serious musicians. They became mentors for Frahm.

“On my 16th birthday these guys bought me some jazz LPs. That was important day for me. They bought me an (Art) Blakey record, a Miles (Davis) record, a Sonny Rollins record and a Horace Silver record, all this incredible stuff.” Those records plus hearing Charlie Parker for the first time sealed the deal for a life in jazz.

“I used to carry around a book full of Parker’s transcribed solos but I had not heard him play. These older kids said ‘You are carrying around the book and trying to learn the solos but you have to listen too’.”

So he said he went to the library and found a cassette someone had burned of Parker solos.

“I took it home, put it in my Walkman and pushed play. I remember the moment clearly. As soon as Bird came on, the solo was Kim. I had the book open and I was watching the notes go by.

“It hit me like a mountain. I have never felt anything so profound. I immediately needed to know what this guy was doing.”

Frahm has many influences in his music.

“You can hear pretty clearly Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz, a bit of (John) Coltrane, of course, like most people have. There is quite a bit of Sonny Rollins in my playing. Also sometimes you’ll hear me play something from the Bach Cello Suite, or a ’70s TV theme.

“I quote all the time. I refer to tons of different things from different eras.” His ears are open.

“I try to have fun when playing. I never want to take it too seriously. I like to reference things and make people laugh. I am a terrible punster and I tell bad jokes. That’s part of my music.

“I’ll throw something in just for the absurdity of it. I like doing that. I like throwing in the theme from The Rockford Files in the middle of a rhythm change just because people aren’t expecting it. They basically have to do a double take.” These riffs often prompt audience members to ask what that was that they heard.

He said he’s a movie fan “and my memory seems to be better in certain areas. I can remember actors in scenes and the lines the deliver. Music is like that. I remember melodies pretty well.”

Frahm does seem to like to play with Canadians.

“I do think there is something there. I have created a few different relationships with Canadian musicians that are pretty strong such as Ernesto and Adrean.

“I have had good friendships with a lot of Canadian horn players. I’ve done a number of gigs with Ingrid Jensen and I became close friends with Ralph Bowen and Michael Blake and Seamus Blake and Grant Stewart and Phil Dwyer.”

There seems to be a certain sympatico between Canadians and Americans from the Midwest especially a state like Wisconsin, Frahm said.

“Essentially I’m an honorary Canadian. I see a similar personality, patience and kindness. I fit in with that.”

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival presents:
Adrean Farrugia & Joel Frahm
Where: Arts Court Theatre
When: Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m.

Joel Frahm Trio
Where: Arts Court Theatre
When: Jan. 31 at 9:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawajazzfestival.com


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.