Jay Rattman is an incredible musician in NYC. I found his answers to these questions very interesting and thought provoking. Thanks a lot Jay for sharing!
When did you start playing music/woodwinds? What got you to start playing?
My folks had and still have a piano in their house, and I made up songs on that from when I was very little. So I started taking lessons when I was in first grade, but that only lasted about 6 months. I think learning to read words at the same time as music might have been more than I could handle at the time, so I was pretty discouraged, but I continued playing piano by ear. I started playing clarinet in 5th grade band, but only because that was required before learning saxophone which I got to a few months after that. I wanted to play saxophone because in the area I grew up, Stroudsburg/Delaware Water Gap, PA I had many opportunities to hear Phil Woods. Specifically, his big band came out with a CD, and played at this local jazz festival he cofounded, and I would listen to that album, “Celebration,” every night as I went to sleep that year, and think, “I’ve got to learn how to play the saxophone.”
Who are some of your biggest influences as a jazz player? As a musician in general?
In Delaware Water Gap is a fairly well-known club called The Deer Head Inn, and for many decades John Coates Jr. was the house pianist there. People who have heard him know that he’s a genius, really one of the finest pianists anywhere. But for many reasons — he’s always been shy, was content staying put and playing at the Deer Head and writing choral arrangements for Shawnee Press across the street from there, etc. — he never gained that much notoriety outside of the area. Now he lives in California, having rekindled a relationship with his first wife from the early 60s. Keith Jarrett was known to go check him out regularly as a young man, and even sit in with him on drums and soprano saxophone. I’ve played recordings of John from the 60s or 70s for people, and they say, “Oh, so that’s where Keith got it from!” Anyway, many of the best listening experiences of my life so far have been at the Deer Head hearing John from the time I was in Kindergarden or so, up until he moved when I was a couple years into college. I also really love Paul Motian and just about everything he ever did. I can’t count the number of times I must have gone to the Vanguard to see him before he died two years ago. I especially looked forward to the couple weeks at the end of summer each year he did with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. I think Motian encompassed all of jazz history in his playing, but with this beautiful irreverence. Nothing was sacred. He edited out every note that wasn’t completely necessary, leaving only the most important ones. And his time was so precise, and his underlying feel so deep, that the notes he did play implied everything that he was leaving out.
Paul Desmond is an influence too in the way he expressed harmony in his lines. A lot of the time, he’s improvising compound lines that imply 2- or 3- or even 4-voiced chorales. And with such clarity of logic. I love improvisors like that! I put Charlie Haden and Coleman Hawkins in a similar circle.
Thelonious Monk, more and more, represents everything I love about jazz: his time feel; the sparseness, but again with the most meaningful notes at the most swinging moments; the experimentalism and modernity, both growing very organically out of an older tradition. Of course, I also love all of the saxophonists who played with him, especially Johnny Griffin and Charlie Rouse. But also, I’ve always loved the way Steve Lacy interpreted Monk’s compositions, among other things.
And I can’t mention Steve Lacy without proclaiming my worship of his and all of our forebear Sidney Bechet. The way Bechet could float over the time and instantaneously snap into the most precisely grooving syncopations and eighth note lines is a thing of wonder. The only other player who comes to my mind who can do that so beautifully is Sonny Rollins.
As obsessed as I am with counterpoint — whenever there’s not music or noise going on, I can’t stop myself from harmonizing little snippets of melodies or parts of scales in my head in 2 or 3 or 4 voices over and over again as a sort of constant and involuntary exercise — I of course worship Bach. As a saxophonist/clarinetist, I am especially drawn to things he wrote for mostly-monophonic instruments, like the cello suites or violin sonatas and partitas, that express many-voiced chorales within a single line — I am sure Paul Desmond had to have spent some time with those. I also love the Trio Sonatas for organ — my girlfriend Janet, who is an organist, and I like to sing through those together at the piano. And of course the Well-Tempered Clavier, The Goldberg Variations, Art of the Fugue, etc. And the Brandenburg Concertos. And the St. Matthew Passion. I think that if I were told I had to choose only one composer to ever hear or play again, it would be Bach. And obviously, he didn’t even write anything for saxophone or clarinet. So that puts me out of a job, but I’m fine with that.
I’ve spent a lot of time listening Bartok. I love his Concerto for Orchestra, with that fugue in the brass in the first movement! And of course the string quartets. From there I got into a lot of Ligeti. I love Messiaen too — I had listened to a bunch of his piano music, and of course the Quartet for the End of Time, but since I started dating Janet, I’ve gotten to hear a lot of his organ music. There’s nothing like hearing that live! One piece we heard at a concert downtown had this “chord of death” in it, symbolizing the crucifixion. It was the most scared I’ve ever been while listening to music. It lasted a good 30 seconds, and you think the world is ending. Every time I closed my eyes while that chord was going on, I had to open them again, it was so frightening. Any composer who can accomplish that must know what he’s doing! Completely apart from that, I love Stravinsky for his cleanness and elegance. “Agon” and “Apollo” are two of my favorite pieces of his, probably because I’ve seen the ballet do them so many times, I can really see what is going on in the music.
I also love the Beatles and Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. And I guess the Beach Boys too: any time I hear one of these new indie rock bands, as a general rule of thumb, if they sound like the Beach Boys, I’ll probably like them. Like The Fleet Foxes. They’re good in my book for that reason.
When did you get into jazz? Were there any first recordings that really inspired you?
I’ve loved jazz for as long as I can remember. I attribute that to my parents taking me to the Deer Head and other concerts from the time I was born. They took me to hear Bob Dorough when I was 10 days old, and they say I was so quiet that they kept taking me to other concerts.
Could you talk a little about your experience growing up near the musically rich Delaware Water Gap?
Sure. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have grown up there, with the chance to hear so much incredible live music, and in a community small enough that the musicians were all very accessible. Phil Woods and Dave Liebman both mentored me from around middle school age. Another wonderful saxophonist out there named Nelson Hill was my main teacher from when I was in 5th grade until I graduated high school. I took ear training and composition with Caris Visentin, who is married to Dave Liebman, and is a great composer and oboist in her own right. Rick Chamberlain is a trombonist out there, who plays great trad-jazz, plays lead in Phil’s big band, and also is the principal in the New York City Ballet orchestra. He is one of the reasons I got into early jazz, but he also always impressed on me the importance of aspiring to be a solid, versatile, complete musician, who can execute anything on one’s instrument, play stylistically appropriately in different settings, and generally know what’s going on. Pat Dorian taught music at the local university out there, ESU, when I was growing up and he presented a lot of amazing concerts and guest lectures that he made open to the public. And he always made sure the I, and the other young kids out there who were serious about studying jazz got to meet or even get little lessons with visiting artists. Unfortunately with budget cuts coming from the Republicans in Harrisburg, and a new university president who doesn’t seem to get it, there are a lot of changes for the worse going on around there, especially the defunding of the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection in their library, where all of Al’s materials are, along with a lot of other Pocono jazz-related items. Thank goodness the Deer Head is still is a world-class place to check out a band for three sets in a row in a very cool, small-town, mom-and-pop sort of setting. And Bob Dorough is turning 90 on December 12! But you’d never guess it: he’s still singing and playing piano and leading his band and recording and writing witty, hip tunes, and I expect he will continue in this fashion for another couple of decades at this rate. I love him!
Do you have a favorite performance you’ve done in the last few years?
No one thing springs immediately to mind. I enjoy any gig where the musicians are listening carefully to each other, and anything could happen at any moment. I’ve enjoyed the Aerial Photograph gigs for that reason. I try to steer clear of gigs where I know that won’t be the case.
Do you have any specific practicing routine that you work through? How do you practice? Also, I know you compose a lot – do you have any particular compositional approach/process?
I’m constantly adjusting and experimenting with things to try to make my practicing as efficient and productive as possible. I’ve heard it said, and couldn’t agree more strongly with the idea that as long you have good control and mastery of your tone and your time, everything else falls right into place. So a big part of my routine on all of my instruments is long-tone exercises: different ones aimed at evenness of timbre from note to note throughout the entire range; smoothness connecting notes of all different intervals; gradual and extreme dynamic contrasts; intonation of every note against every possible interval with a drone; etc. A similar slew of articulation exercises.
And then for time, I incorporate the metronome different ways into various technical things (scales, arpeggios, tonal and chromatic intervalic sequences that I figure out as a sort of ear training), as well as into improvising, which I’ll go into as briefly as I can manage. I typically don’t use the metronome to click on downbeats. Instead I’ll hear the clicks as occurring on a given sixteenth or triplet subdivision, or as occurring every two, three, four, five, six or seven subdivisions, for instance. Now, there are two camps about metronomes. Some folks love them and say you can’t develop steady time without one. Others say that the metronome becomes a crutch and that you never develop an internal, self-sufficient sense of time if you use one. I think both camps are right. So I like these fancy-pants metronomes you can find now, like Metronomics for iPhone where you can program gaps in the clicks, so that it clicks however many times you want before staying silent for however many clicks you want. I figure that way, you get the best of both worlds as you increase the length of the gaps: you’ve got to provide your own groove in your head while the metronome is silent, and then when it eventually comes back in, it will tell you with brutal honesty just how you did.
Very briefly, as far as incorporating the metronome into practicing things that prepare you for improvising, my philosophy is that I want to improvise with my ears, and not my fingers, so I want to train my ears and avoid forming habits in my fingers to the extent that is possible. To me, that means playing notes only at a slow rate. So I’ll practice playing through tunes, or chord progressions of different types with only quarter notes, or dotted quarter notes, or only upbeats, or something along those lines, but with the metronome playing on all sorts of wacky subdivisions, and in various meters, so that I am forced to select only the strongest — or most harmonically meaningful — few notes in any given measure, all while hearing and playing precisely within fast-moving rhythmic subdivisions. This way I am hearing and selecting the most harmonically evocative notes at any given time, over a very precisely subdivided rhythmic framework, all while playing as few notes as possible, so as to avoid developing predictable habits. In a performance, the subconscious is able to fill in the rest of the connecting notes in the rhythmic framework. And when I practice, I’ll put various obstructions on what I’m doing, like limiting myself to certain intervals, or certain chord tones, or keeping one note the same through different chords and harmonizing above or below it, etc. I hope that all makes sense.
And sometimes, I do none of this. I got mono and strep throat at the same time last winter, and didn’t practice at all for a month or so, but when I came back to it, everything felt better. So I was forced to realize that sometimes, it can be good to step away and come back fresh. I’ve realized that sometimes, maybe even frequently, the best thing you can do is not practice, and just listen extremely closely to some good recordings instead.
As far as my compositional process, I write down little ideas or parts of things, and then come back to them when I’ve got to finish something for a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. I find that my most successful attempts at composing result from singing melodies, or improvising two-voiced melodies at the piano, and then harmonizing them after the fact. I usually record myself doing these things, and then go back and transcribe and edit and tweak after the fact, so that whatever I write is coming from a spontaneous, improvisatory process to start with. I find that makes a big difference for me in the naturalness of the phrasing, pacing, and rhythm — it’s very hard for me to just write something down that doesn’t sound contrived. But sometimes for melodic material, I’ll start out by musically spelling words or names or numbers that hold some significance or curiosity for me, and then I’ll develop it from there. Usually those things end up so buried or mutated, you’d never know they were there, since ultimately I want the melody to be strong and singable above all other considerations.
What have you been listening to these days?
The last few days, I’ve been going through Sibelius’s symphonies, because they are beautiful and I feel like I should know them. I don’t believe in any historical inevitability in the progression of music or anything else. For instance, Schoenberg followed a natural progression through Beethoven and Brahms and Wagner and Debussy and all the rest, but what he arrived at, as wonderful as it was, was certainly not the only possible result, despite what he or others might have believed. At any given time, history could have progressed in a different direction, changing everything after it. Sibelius represents to me just another possible direction things could have gone at the end of the 19th century, and the fact that he took that path after the beginning of the 20th had already intervened makes it all the more interesting to me for that reason.
I’ve also been trying to stay more on top of all the cool new jazz out there, especially that of my peers. I love listening to Lucas Pino, especially his nonet, and Jonathan Ragonese, and Alex LoRe, and Anna Webber. And it’s been great to hear Paul Jones throughout the year in your band! There are so many others. Bobby Avey, who I grew up with out in PA is writing some incredible stuff.
Do you have any book recommendations?
My all-time favorite book is John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. And it just flies by! I also recommend Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus” and “Magic Mountain.” A day didn’t go by that I didn’t think about something in those books for a good three months after I finished reading each of them. I’m gearing up to read “Buddenbrooks” soon — those books are long and fairly dense, but rewarding.
What are some of your musical goals?
To surprise myself more of the time.