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George Garzone: Keep Going… Just Keep Playing

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesAugust/September 2021Spotlight • September 16, 2021

Massachusetts native George Garzone is amongst the most famous jazz musicians to come out of the state, adding to its rich history and culture. It is home to a number of the world’s finest colleges, universities, and conservatories, including the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where you can find professor Garzone teaching any number of jazz saxophone or improvisation classes. Amongst those who have studied alongside Garzone, include a who’s who in contemporary and Jazz music: Joshua Redman, Teodross Avery, Seamus Blake, Chris Cheek, Luciana Souza, Mark Turner, Donny McCaslin, Doug Yates, Danilo Perez, and Grammy-Winning Drummer Antonio Sanchez, to name a few.

I’ve known Professor Garzone for a number of years and during that time I have had the opportunity to hear a number of great stories. For those of you who know George personally, you know he is full of personality – funny, witty, and able to energize a room with his presence. I’ve always enjoyed speaking with George and thought it would be a great time to conduct an interview. While I would have preferred the quick ride up to Boston to hang with George, take in a Red Sox game, and enjoy the local cuisine, the pandemic continues to hinder my plans and those of most everyone else for that matter. So over the phone it would have to be.

During our conversation, George and I spoke about a number of topics, ranging from the release of the second part of the Triadic Chromatic Approach to three nights in LA with Peter Erskine and Alan Pasqua to hanging with Michael Brecker on the tour bus, and even to the alternate future of having become Chef Garzone and whipping up his culinary creation, “The Gorgonzola.”

Music has surrounded George from the beginning, having grown up in a family of musicians. He recalled a story of when he was about 2 years old and crawling around his Uncle Joe’s drum kit. Joe’s band was having a jam session with his Uncle Rocco and a young George Garzone got his head caught between the bass drum pedal and drum. “That really was the first time at a young age that I had a musical memory,” mentions Garzone.

George’s musical family afforded him the opportunity to play a number of instruments before settling in on the saxophone. I did not come from a musical family, but discovered another similarity between us, as both George and I started on trumpet before moving on to drums. I’m sure George was more proficient on both, as I fizzled out on each by my mid-teens.

George gravitated to woodwinds, thanks to a friend who had a clarinet and his uncle Rocco, a clarinetist. It was uncle Rocco who started George on saxophone and by the time he was 12 or 13 years old, his family brought him out to play weddings. “By the time I was 15, my uncle was still teaching me and I had gotten to a point where he couldn’t teach me anymore,” Garzone says. “He knew Joe Viola and they were really good friends, so Joe – while I was still in high school – would let me come and take saxophone lessons with him. When it was time for college, he got me in and I was with him for the whole four years. That was like a godsend and a blessing. You were able to study with a master of saxophone from high school all the way through four years of college. By that point, I knew it was going to be good. Music was all around me. It was at Berklee that I met Joe Lovano. I started to bump into people that were very influential for me in terms of understanding what I needed to do.”

Having known George for some time, I knew that Joe Viola (founding chair of the Berklee College of Music Woodwind Department) was his mentor, so I ask George what figures had been most influential in his development. “I was blessed to have these people,” he replies. “I met Joe Viola, then Joe Lovano. Years later I would come to meet Frank Tiberi, who was the leader of The Woody Herman Band, who had this playing concept like no one else. When he finished with Woody, he moved about 10 miles from me out in the country here. That’s, like, unheard of to have someone of that level come to a country town and live near you. That’s when I was about 30 years old. I was able to work with him to develop a concept of my own, which is the Triadic Chromatic Approach. I just feel like I was blessed to have the right people around me all my life.”

Speaking of the Triadic Chromatic Approach, we talked about the concept, as well as the new version, which will be available soon. The Triadic Chromatic Approach, pioneered by George, is an improvisation concept which has his own signature in the jazz improvisation vocabulary. “I think it’s an alternative to the way people are playing these days,” Garzone explains. “It’s something that I developed. I mean, this is the only thing I’ve done in my life that I really credit something as an individual that taught me how to play outside of the traditional harmonic concepts. It’s something I put together listening to Coltrane and having this opportunity to play with my band, The Fringe, for 50 years and work everything out on the bandstand. I teach the Triadic Approach at Berklee in our master’s program. It’s just a different way of playing. This is my claim to fame right now.”

The first edition of the Triadic Chromatic Approach was developed in conjunction with Jody Espina (Jody Jazz Mouthpieces), which was released in DVD format. “The Music of George Garzone & The Triadic Chromatic Approach” is a Jazz Improvisation Instructional DVD featuring examples of in-depth lessons, trading play-alongs, an in-depth lesson of saxophone sound production, and more.

“It’s split into two parts,” he says. “The first part I did with Jody. We did major and minor triads of chromaticism. The second part is about augmented and diminished triads which is much more intense with chromaticism. I didn’t want to do everything together because it would have been a lot of information at once. The augmented and diminished part of it helps you to really expand what you’re already doing. Basically I’m just trying to tell people that all triads are created equal. There’s no difference between the four triads: major, minor, augmented, diminished. When you play them in revolution and spin them around, they all become equal.”

I had once heard legendary saxophonist Michael Brecker – who was influential in the development of RS Berkeley Virtuoso Saxophone line and the tenor sax George has been playing for a number of years – say, “I’m not the master of the saxophone… George Garzone is.”

“Before I actually saw it, I didn’t believe it because one of my students told me that and I was like, ‘What?’” recalls Garzone. “I think, even though he said that, we all respect each other so much, you know? Lovano, Liebman, Frank Tiberi – you know all the cats. I think he was just giving respect to what I’m doing. He was such a humble guy, I’m telling you. When I did that thing in Japan with him, I didn’t know any of these guys. I went to the back of the bus when we were in Japan. I was by myself in the last row and Michael came on and he saw – I’ll never forget this – he saw everybody and said hi. Then he saw me in the back and walked all the way down to the back of the bus and we hung until we got to the hotel. He was asking me about mouthpieces and stuff like that, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I think what he’s saying is maybe people that are working on mastering their instrument, because there is no one person that does anything that you can consider the master. That’s how I rationalize that, but we all worshiped Mike, mostly because he was a beautiful guy.”

Moving away from music for a minute, because I know George come from a family that likes to cook, let’s explore that alternate reality. “If I didn’t become a musician, I would have been a chef because of my Uncle Rocco,” says Garzone. “I came from a family of pizza makers and chefs. It was either music or cooking school. Luckily, the music thing hung in. The chef thing is like… forget about it. That would have been the two options, but what could we do? Music took.”

Speaking briefly about the pandemic, I ask what advice he would give his students and fans about the future and George responded, “Keep going… just keep playing. Play long tones, meditate. Right now is the biggest test for any human being that we’ve ever had in our lives. Keep going.”

Up next for Garzone, the 50th anniversary of The Fringe, a legendary jazz trio founded in 1972 that includes bassist John Lockwood and drummer Bob Gullotti.

Drum and guitar enthusiast Todd Feldman has been a member of the music industry for more than ten years, working alongside some of the top musicians in contemporary and jazz music including: The Rolling Stones, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Tom Scott, George Garzone, Tim Ries, Chris Potter, Paquito D’Rivera, Pedro Eustache, and Hugh Masekela. He has worked in partnership with a number of high vision organizations, including: Horns To Havana, Jazz House Kids, The Rolling Stones Musician To Musician Initiative, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Litchfield Performing Arts. Todd currently serves as the vice president of Operations and Sales for RS Berkeley Musical Instruments and holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Montclair State University, as well as certifications from The University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, and The University of California, Davis.

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