Tuesday, December 15, 2009

George Garzone: Shedding New Light On Coltrane

Since the landmark release of Giant Steps, musicians have struggled to explain how John Coltrane created his trademark "sheets of sound." In his new DVD, George Garzone, successfully does just that with his "triadic-chromatic" approach to improvising.

Garzone's new concept for improvisation is a product of more than twenty-five years of teaching at such institutions as the Berklee College of Music, The New England Conservatory, The Manhattan School of Music, and New York University. While his playing today may be classified as avante-garde, Garzone came from modest beginnings, learning the art of swing in the back of a pizza parlor.

Growing up in Boston, Garzone began playing to carry on the family tradition, including a fat sound that he credits as an heirloom of his Calabrian descent. His earliest influence was his Uncle Rocco, a successful tenor saxophonist who'd worked in various big bands during the thirties and forties but gave up music to settle down. In order to support his family, Rocco set up a pizza shop, (Rocco’s Pizza, located at Norfolk and Geneva in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood,) which went on to become a Boston institution unto itself.

George would come by every week, and his uncle would school him in the fundamentals of music, and introduce him to artists like Stan Getz, but it was the Italian culture of romantic music, which so influenced the "family sound" he inherited. Garzone still repeats the words of his uncle, who spoke of "romancing the instrument" and “sensualizing the sound.” As he told the audience, the "sound comes from life experience," likening his uncle's vibrato to something "that you could cut cheese with.”

Eventually, Uncle Rocco realized that his student had outgrown his instruction, and convinced his old friend Joe Viola to take the 15 year-old under his wing. Viola had founded the Berklee College of Music’s Woodwind Department, and taught only their most advanced students, but the relationship was immediately fruitful. “Joe was a guru,” Garzone said. “You could learn just by sitting next to him.”

Garzone officially enrolled at Berklee in 1968, encountering young hotshots like Kenny Werner, Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman, but it was a seventeen year-old Joe Lovano who really blew him away. He first saw Lovano playing in Herb Pomeroy’s band, and recalled, "I never heard anyone play like that before. Joe was playing, and we all left literally crying. I was in tears because I had never experienced music like that."

Shortly thereafter, the two were practicing Coltrane's "Giant Steps" in adjacent practice rooms at Berklee when Lovano literally kicked open the door and grilled him, asking, 'man, what are you practicing?' Garzone, stumped for how to respond, replied with the same question, at which point Lovano introduced himself, beginning a lifelong friendship.

A few years later, fresh out of college, Garzone went on tour with Tom Jones, stopping in Cleveland, where Lovano invited him over to his family's house for a wonderful Italian meal. Garzone "can still smell the tomato sauce" from when he walked in the door.

After the large meal, Garzone was ready to plop on the couch and watch television, but Lovano invited him down to the basement where they jammed along with Lovano's father, "Big T," one of Cleveland's top tenor players. "It was Joe on one side and Big T on the other. We started playing bebop tunes and blues, and they were so intense that they just squeezed me out of there. I couldn't hang with it, and I watched father and son go at it. It was a spectacular moment for me, to see something like that: dad and son, schooling the kid."

After a year in Tom Jones' band, Garzone was stuck back in Boston and in need of work. There he formed his long-running band, The Fringe, with drummer Bob Gullotti and bassist John Lockwood, who also got him a gig teaching at Berklee in the ensemble department.

Eventually he worked his way into teaching saxophone department, and there he began to develop his triadic chromatic approach to improvisation. "This concept, the triadic-chromatic approach, is really coming from Coltrane, but it's something the students really helped me develop because they would come and listen to my band The Fringe every week, improvising freely, and they would ask me, 'how do we do this?' So I had to figure out how I could give them a very layman's version of how to do something that I didn't even know how to do."

As Garzone's reputation grew, he began teaching at multiple institutions in New York and Boston on a weekly basis. It was in his regular drives between the two cities that Garzone listened more closely to Coltrane and discovered "subliminal messages that he left in his improvisation that were very triad-oriented."

Teaching at these schools, Garzone worked with many young virtuosos, whom he needed to give new material to. "When you have students like Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Donny McAslin, Branford Marsalis, they're already playing, so you need to go in and find something that challenges them, and that's what I did through figuring out this concept because of these high-level players I've had. These kids can really play. Especially today, I'm dealing with people that can go neck and neck with me on a gig, but the only thing that gets them is this: major triads with half-steps in between, random inversions, don't repeat yourself. That gets them."

It was one student, guitarist Chris Crocco, who really pushed Garzone to clearly formulate and organize his triadic chromatic approach. Crocco studied with Garzone every week for seven years during the nineties, and in Garzone's estimation, he is the only other person, besides himself, who is really fluent in the triadic chromatic vocabulary. The two demonstrate and outline this concept in a brilliant lesson format on Garzone's new DVD: The Music Of George Garzone & The Triadic Chromatic Approach.

While his name may not ring out in the pantheon of jazz tenor players in the way that John Coltrane's does, Garzone's influence on the jazz scene, through the proliferation of his ideas, is immeasurable.

George Garzone plays the standard "I Want To Talk About You," inspired by John Coltrane's rendition, and then speaks about his approach to saxophone and unraveling Coltrane.

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