At Harvard there are two jazz bands: the Sunday band, which is essentially the JV squad, and the Monday band, the varsity team led by the preeminent saxophonist Don Braden. In freshman year I started as the Sunday band benchwarmer pianist, before slowly and proudly making my way up to Monday band. When I got to the Monday band, I met saxophonist Kevin Sun. Sun was a joint NEC-Harvard student and he blew the rest of us away, in torrents, swells, and squawks on his tenor saxophone. He could make the whole ensemble sound better with the slightest of tweaks: while prepping for a Herbie Hancock tribute show, he detuned and bent notes on his sax to sound eerily like the beer bottles on “Watermelon Man.” Even Braden could only shake his head and laugh.
Two years later, Sun is now an active player in New York and has released an acclaimed album with the collaborative group Great on Paper. This week, Sun released a new record with another collaborative group, Earprint, which includes a few of Sun’s longtime collaborators from Boston: Tree Palmedo on trumpet, Simon Willsón on bass, and Dor Herskovits on drums. I caught up with Sun this week to talk about his time playing jazz in China, having a day job, his songwriting process, and how he soaks up information from teachers and older musicians over the years, including Miguel Zenón, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
The Jazz Gallery: How did this group form?
Kevin Sun: The band was sort of a workshop/lab type project for me: I wanted an outlet to write a lot of music. I was studying with Miguel Zenón. We had done a lot of transcribing up that point, working on a lot of fundamentals. Basically, he was pushing me to do more composition, and being as specific as possible when notating—especially writing bass and drum parts. He would show me examples of his own writing where all the parts were specified.
TJG: How did Miguel influence your approach to music?
KS: I think he really changed a lot about my playing and my outlook on music. At the time, my sophomore spring, I was pretty dark about things. I remember feeling like there was so much information, but I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do with all of it. I was kind of losing sight of what drew me to music in the first place.
He assigned me a Sonny Rollins solo, “Come Gone” from Way out West, and I didn’t get very far—I was really busy at the time. Basically we couldn’t progress at all so I felt, ‘Wow, he’s not going to let me slide.’ So I started working on it seriously, and saw how much work it was to not just transcribe a solo but memorize it note for note. Memorize, play along note for note with the record, convincingly in the style of Sonny, and faithfully reproduce the nuances.
Even after I had put in the effort to memorize it, it still took a few weeks to get to the point where he was satisfied about the way I was phrasing the lines, articulating notes, putting accents. Even the energy of it. I was trying to get the feel of really powerful ‘Sonny Rollins blowing keys off the saxophone’ vibe. I thought I was doing it, but he was like, “no it’s not there yet. Come back next week and try again.” It was pretty frustrating. At the end of the semester he was like, “Okay, that’s good. We can get started on this next thing.”
TJG: Did you really feel like you really got into Sonny’s head?
KS: Absolutely. I don’t think I had gotten into anybody’s head that thoroughly. From there, I really committed to it. I saw a lot of progress from myself, playing-wise. I started listening, becoming more attuned to things, rhythmically, especially playing with other people. That made music a lot more fun, because it more inter-relational.