JJ 05/94: Bob Mintzer – ‘It’s just 16 people’

Thirty years ago Mark Gilbert did an informative interview with the Buddy Rich, Thad Jones, Jaco Pastorius and Yellowjackets saxophonist. First published in Jazz Journal May 1994

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Bob Mintzer. Photo from JJ Archive

Bob Mintzer leads something of a musical double life. Some will think of him first as a tenor soloist, a prominent member of the group of white New York based tenor saxophonists who began in the early seventies to develop a distinctive and influential synthesis of Coltrane, Rollins, Henderson, Shorter and others. Others will know him best as a big-band writer and leader who has led eight big-band record dates since 1984 and become a sought-after lecturer, clinician and guest director. He spoke to Mark Gilbert while in London with The Yellowjackets, and began by explaining how he became involved in big bands at a time when his peers were making their way in small groups.

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‘Well, I like to work, you know, and that work was available. It was one of the options if you were a saxophone player, and I got called to play in Buddy Rich’s band. I also wanted to play in small groups, but I just happened to fall into this big-band thing.’

After a childhood in which he found music ‘was something he could sit down with for hours and kind of toy with’, Bob became serious about music in his senior year of high school and transferred to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where he met fellow students Peter Erskine and Danny and Chris Brubeck. From there he spent two and a half years as an orchestral clarinettist at Hart College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, before moving to the Manhattan School of Music. New York offered many distractions from formal studies:

‘During that time in the early seventies, there was a lot of playing going on in the lofts, and it became increasingly hard to get to class because there was always a jam session or something. I eventually left school and went on the road, first with Deodato in 1974 then with Buddy in 1975-77.’

‘I’d write something for Buddy’s band and make a mistake like writing too high for the trum­pet and one of the trumpet players would come over and say “Look, you really shouldn’t write like that.” So a lot of what I learned about orchestration was just from making mistakes’

Before long, Buddy realised that Bob had a writing talent worth nurturing, and gave him the opportunity to make his mis­takes with the band. ‘I played Buddy a little cassette demo tape on the bus one day of some quartet stuff I’d done and he liked it. I did my first arrangement for Buddy and I learned pretty much from being on the road with bands. I’d write something for Buddy’s band and make a mistake like writing too high for the trum­pet and one of the trumpet players would come over and say “Look, you really shouldn’t write like that.” So a lot of what I learned about orchestration was just from making mistakes.

‘I think a lot of the more unique writers were not schooled. They were thrown into situations where they had to come up with something. And if you’ve got to come up with the goods you don’t have time to look in a book. You just try to put some stuff together.’

Mintzer’s big-band apprenticeship con­tinued when he played in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, 1977-79. This was an important influence on his own big-band writing, which he describes as ‘taking an orchestral brass approach and combining that with a Thad Jones approach’. The tra­dition is thus strong in Mintzer’s writing, but his music also reflects the sounds of his own generation, incorporating rock, funk and Latin colours. He is hardly alone in that – Gil Evans, Mike Gibbs, George Russell and George Gruntz, to name a few prominent examples, have done some­thing similar in a rather looser fashion. And in the other direction along the stylis­tic line, Kenny Wheeler, Edward Vesala and others have produced an equally con­temporary effect by more abstract means. Such comparisons can leave some of Bob Mintzer’s passages sounding like ener­getic if routine underscoring for prime-time TV. Indeed, the smooth orderliness which typifies a Mintzer big-band date has left some critics distinctly unenthused, much to Bob’s bewilderment.

‘A lot of reviewers that preferred the looser sounding big-band stuff said “It’s too tight, it’s no good,” which to me is absurd. Is the Chicago Symphony no good because they play together?’

‘A lot of reviewers that preferred the looser sounding big-band stuff said “It’s too tight, it’s no good”, which to me is absurd. Is the Chicago Symphony no good because they play together?’

Although Bob’s music might be more easily digested than that of several other contemporary big bands, that doesn’t make the job much easier or the world more welcoming. As so often in jazz, much of the reward is in the work itself.

‘The industry has not looked favourably on big bands in the last 20 years or so. There’s a lot of preconceived notions that big bands are old-fashioned or whatever, but I always maintain it’s just 16 people. You can do whatever the heck you want with it. When you get 16 people, there’s a lot of energy, particularly in an acoustic big-band setting where you have acoustic wind instruments playing together.’

After Thad and Mel, Bob did the sideman gig around New York, including a memorable record date, Heads Up, with Stone Alliance and work with Sam Jones’s 12-piece band, Joe Chambers, Ray Mantilla and Hubert Laws. Experience in Jaco Pastorius’s Word of Mouth big band in the early eighties left him primed for his debut as a big-band leader. That was Papa Lips in 1984, the first in a continuing series of recordings.

Notwithstanding the fact that Mintzer’s big band is strongly anchored in the tradi­tion, he has always been open to new sounds, using electric bass and synthesis­ers and investigating the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) synthesiser driver. However, aside from his big-band work, Bob is most often associated with a tradi­tional, fully acoustic instrument, the tenor saxophone. Though the big band has occu­pied much of his time over the last decade, Bob has devoted many hours to develop­ing his variation on the eighties tenor sound.

”I’m fairly self-taught on the saxo­phone. I studied for a semester in college with a classical saxophone teacher, but it was mainly just listening to records, play­ing, experimenting, and applying what I’d learnt from clarinet studies in terms of sound production’

‘I’m fairly self-taught on the saxo­phone. I studied for a semester in college with a classical saxophone teacher, but it was mainly just listening to records, play­ing, experimenting, and applying what I’d learnt from clarinet studies in terms of sound production. Principles of good play­ing really transcend category, but the nuance is different in jazz, and you learn nuance by listening to the music and try­ing to emulate it. I listened to Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Paul Gonsalves, Gene Ammons – all of them. They were all say­ing something.’

Mintzer might have immersed himself in the whole of jazz saxophone history, but the result of his studies is nevertheless a saxophone sound very much of its time. While many younger players have retreated to the safely classified excite­ments of the swing era, Mintzer, along with Bob Berg, Steve Grossman, Bob Malach, Jerry Bergonzi and others, has kept alive the flame of Coltrane’s legacy. As part of that community, he has not been immune to the influence of its most visible representative, Michael Brecker.

Compared to Brecker: ‘I don’t blow quite as hard as Mike. I play softer. I play many less notes, basically out of necessity. He’s just a real virtuoso. I don’t consider myself to be that kind of technician’

‘Mike was around, and we were playing on records together, we were hanging out, jamming together. It was hard to turn on the radio and not hear him, and in fact in the commercial music scene, the produc­ers would say “Can you play like Mike Brecker?” So I actually at one point, in order to work, wound up playing some stuff the way Mike would play it. And along with that, us having similar influ­ences, there is a similarity. But there are differences. I don’t blow quite as hard as Mike. I play softer. I play many less notes, basically out of necessity. He’s just a real virtuoso. I don’t consider myself to be that kind of technician. Our lines are different; they would have to be. You never find two people that have the same lines.

‘Steve Grossman was another guy who hung around back then in the late seven­ties, and I tried to emulate his playing as well. I mean, I emulated whoever I heard, or tried to take some part of the essence of their playing and experiment with it, see if it was something I could incorporate in my playing. I think that’s how we learn.

‘To me, the newest saxophone playing I’m hearing is Dave Liebman. He’s sort of dropped all the licks. Everybody else to me is playing licks, whereas Liebman, the emphasis is more on the sound and the inflection and the rhythm’

‘Some people are more “in their heads” than others and manage to come up with something that’s less influenced by others, but I don’t know how many new angles are left. To me, the newest saxophone playing I’m hearing is Dave Liebman. He’s sort of dropped all the licks. Everybody else to me is playing licks, whereas Liebman, the emphasis is more on the sound and the inflection and the rhythm. The licks he plays are actually quite obscure in a way, very abstract. If you were to transcribe Dave and just play it verbatim, it would sound ridiculous. It’s less the actual notes he plays and more the way he plays them.

‘There’s an alto player in my big band called Pete Yellin, and very few people know about him, but this guy plays different than anybody. He’s really a stylist and has a really unique style and sound of his own. Why doesn’t a guy like that get recorded? Because it’s kinda out of fashion. I was talking to Dave Liebman about the whole chronology of saxophone players, that now they’re recording guys when they’re 20, but between the age of 40 and 60 you can be terribly overlooked. Then when you hit 60 all of a sudden you’re this old, valuable entity and people start to take notice of you.’

Thanks to his other job as college lecturer and clinician, Mintzer is in a good position to consider the vexed issue of jazz revivals and teenage prodigies. He takes a pragmatic view of the epidemic of new jazz signings in the late eighties, but his optimism is not unqualified.

‘What gets me is this whole movement about if it’s not acoustic jazz it’s no good, and what is jazz and what isn’t jazz. For me, if some­thing sounds good, it sounds good. I’m not looking at who’s playing or what style it is or whether it’s electric or acoustic’

‘Bottom line, it’s helping the music stay alive, and it’s promoting jazz music. There’s as many jazz festivals as ever right now, and that’s good for everybody, but trends are set in the industry, and there the focus tends to be more on the formula than the content. And in terms of educat­ing the public, I don’t know if a 20-year-old who’s signed to Columbia and has maybe just played with one band is partic­ularly equipped to go out and explain what’s happening in jazz music in the same way that a 40-year-old might who’s played for 20 years on the scene with a variety of bands. I think a lot of these 20-year-olds feel like they’re supposed to know what’s going on, so they start expounding on these topics, and what gets me is this whole movement about if it’s not acoustic jazz it’s no good, and what is jazz and what isn’t jazz. For me, if some­thing sounds good, it sounds good. I’m not looking at who’s playing or what style it is or whether it’s electric or acoustic’

Bob’s interest in good rather than cul­turally correct music made it easy to accept an offer from The Yellowjackets a few years ago. Some listeners, including this writer, have found a certain insuffi­ciency in The ‘Jackets’ music, but Mintzer is quick to defend it and point out the band’s strengths.

‘Some of the guys in the traditional jazz scene would see me and say “Oh, you’re out there making the big bucks, huh?” and it makes me angry. First of all I’m not making the big bucks, second of all, the only reason I’m doing this is because I like the music’

‘Light? Not at all, I think it’s deep and profound. I think there’s a lot of precon­ceptions about The Yellowjackets’ music, based on ignorance and on some of the stuff they’ve done in the past which was more pop-jazz. But if you listen to Greenhouse, there’s nothing light about that by any stretch of the imagination. It’s all very well played and adventurous. Listen to a tune like The Spin. I think that’s a very interesting, profound tune. Listen to Geraldine – there’s a lot in there compositionally, melodically, soloistically. It’s just good music to me. It feels good to play. Some of the guys in the traditional jazz scene would see me and say “Oh, you’re out there making the big bucks, huh?” and it makes me angry. First of all I’m not making the big bucks, second of all, the only reason I’m doing this is because I like the music. I can make more money doing my own shit, and being home more. But I really like this and I like being part of it. I like the audience response, yeah, I like being in a band that’s playing on a regular basis where people are collaborating and writing together. I never heard it the way you describe it. I thought even their more pop-oriented stuff was very well done, very tastefully played. The Beatles I thought were great, and Little Richard – great even though it’s not jazz chords. And I thought that of the instrumental bands, The Yellowjackets have been one of the better ones. And they asked me to join because they were looking to expand further and really stretch and try for something, for more adventurous ways of playing.’

Mintzer’s assessment of the aesthetic depth of The Yellowjackets squares well with his reluctance to do commercial work.

‘I’ve done a smattering of that, but I never really got totally involved ’cause you have to pretty much be in one place and make it a priority, I never was that interested in doing that. I was always drawn more to composition and playing with creative groups. It’s not as good for your chops as just getting out on the band­stand and playing. I never felt like I was playing when I did commercial work. I’d just play a few notes or something. It seems like the less notes you play, the more money you get paid. But as I get older, I’m a lot more particular about who I play with and what kind of stuff I do; I just feel like time is valuable and I’m really trying to do stuff that is meaningful to me, that conveys a message that is what I’m about.’

Selected records
As leader:
Papa Lips (Sony, 1984); Incredible Journey (DMP, 1985); Camouflage (DMP, 1986); Spectrum (DMP, 1987); Urban Contours (DMP, 1988); Art Of The Big Band (DMP, 1989); One Music (DMP, 1991); I Remember Jaco (BMG, 1991); Departure (DMP, 1992); Only In New York (DMP, 1994)
With others:
Stone Alliance: Heads Up (PM Records, 1980)
Various: The Saxophone (BMG, 1993)
Don Grolnick: Weaver Of Dreams (Blue Note, 1990)
Peter Erskine: Sweet Soul (BMG, 1991)
The Yellowjackets: Greenhouse; Live Wires; Like A River; Run For Your Life (all GRP)