Adam Larson grew up in the cornfields of Illinois which, as he puts it, was “about as boring as it sounds.” But despite being a big fish in a small pond, Larson exploded onto the jazz scene at a young age, showcasing his talents through The Grammy Band, the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, a YoungArts Jazz Fellowship, and a number of other equally weighty institutions. Having completed two degrees at the Manhattan School of Music and recorded three records under his own name, Larson finds himself these days looking ahead to bigger questions of destiny and purpose. It may just have something to do with the fact Larson and his wife are expecting a baby this fall. We caught up with Larson and talked about how he reconciles his upcoming Jazz Gallery show with his impending fatherhood and his continued search for musical growth.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve got quite the who’s-who of musicians for your upcoming show, including Gilad Hekselman, Fabian Almazan, Matt Penman, and Ari Hoenig. Tell us a little bit about how you put the band together.
Adam Larson: Sure, I’ve been playing with Matt and Fabian for the better part of the last three years. They were on my latest record, along with Jimmy Macbride and Matt Stevens on guitar. I started playing with Ari Hoenig in his Nonet over the last few years, so I called him for one of my gigs a few months ago. It worked really well, so I was excited to invite him for The Jazz Gallery show. I’ve know Gilad Hekselman since I first moved to the city eight years ago. I’ve wanted to play with him for a long time, but never had the chance to have him on a gig. Ari is new to the music and Gilad will be playing it for the first time, while Matt and Fabian have been playing my tunes for a while.
TJG: Have you all played together before?
AL: Not in this configuration, though I’m sure they’ve all played together in different formations. I know Fabian hadn’t played with Ari until we had a gig of mine recently, so I think the chemistry may be fresh. Matt and Ari play together often too. It’ll be cohesive for sure, but the surprise factor will still be there, given that the five of us have never shared a stage. It’s been a while since I’ve done a quintet show. I put out my latest record Selective Amnesia (Inner Circle Music, 2015), and Matt Stevens was on the record, whose playing I love. He got busy working for Esperanza Spalding and has been on tour with her since May. In his absence I didn’t call anyone else for guitar, and I’ve mostly been playing quartet. So I’m looking forward to having the guitar sound folded back into ensemble with Gilad.
TJG: In this new configuration, what specific interactions are you looking forward to hearing?
AL: I’m not sure I’ve done a gig with the core rhythm section of Ari, Matt, and Fabian, but I’m looking forward to seeing how everyone fills in the information. I think Fabian is the best piano player in New York, for whatever my opinion is worth. He’s able to consume musical information and flush it back out in an orchestrated way that supports everyone. A lot of times in the quintet, I can get confused about who’s doing what. The incredible thing about Fabian is that he can work seamlessly with another comping instrument. As a soloist, that’s exciting. I’m looking forward to hearing how Gilad and Fabian interact.
Regarding Ari, certain rhythmic things he does can get overwhelming; it’s hard to know where to focus my attention sometimes. It actually becomes a great problem to have, because there’s so much great stuff happening on the bandstand. I feel like if I’m doing my job correctly, the least amount on my mind is when I’m playing, and it’s more about having awareness of what’s going on around me. It may be cliché, but these four guys are going to bring the music to a different place. And with the addition of guitar after months of playing quartet, it’ll be great to hear some of these intricate melodies doubled.
TJG: What music will you be playing on Friday?
AL: It’ll be a mixture of old and new. Every time I’m at The Gallery, I try to present some new music. Right now, I have almost an entire record’s worth of new stuff. At The Gallery, it’ll be a mix of a few tunes off my recent record Selective Amnesia, as well as some newer material. There will be a few things that I’ve been playing throughout the past months, and even several brand-new things that I’ll finish before next Friday. Both sets will be a mix of old, recent, and new music. I’ll be sticking with tenor and soprano saxophones, most likely. I played a lot of alto in high school, I’d be stepping out of my comfort zone to play alto in New York. I spend most of my time on tenor, which feels most conducive to my compositional voice. There are things I love about the alto though, so maybe I’ll make a game-time decision.
TJG: Selective Amnesia was released on Greg Osby’s label, Inner Circle Music. How did you meet Osby and come to an agreement for releasing your project on his label?
AL: We’re both artists for the saxophone company P. Mauriat. I met Osby at the NAMM show through P. Mauriat when I was in my early twenties. I was a bit shy and intimidated, but after a year or so of keeping in touch with him and sending him some music, we began speaking in earnest about a record. I knew that I wanted to put the latest record on a label. So I approached Greg with the music and he gave me the green light. The friendship and mentorship with him has been valuable in so many ways, both personally and in terms of my career. I had a publicist for Selective Amnesia. That, combined with putting the record on Inner Circle, really helped push the record along. Having previously released two records under my own name, the label has been a big step forward.
TJG: Tell me a little about the title Selective Amnesia.
AL: The title actually came from my landlord. She’s a nice lady, but can be strict. One day, I was writing my rent check, and her address had disappeared from my fridge. I texted her and asked for her address, and she mistakenly thought that I was the downstairs neighbor, who could be a bit difficult to deal with. She replied with a text that said “Yeah, you can send your rent check and a $25 late fee; I’m not buying the selective amnesia.” That was where I got the actual title, but the meaning goes much deeper. I’ve spend quite a bit of time thinking about the things I can’t control, especially as I get older. Things come up all the time, and it’s important to learn what you can and can’t control. My musical interactions and reactions, my ways of reacting to stress, the things that make me upset, and so on: The overall deep meaning of the album is to selectively forget the things that bother you and move on, rather than dwelling on the things that are beyond your reach. It’s better to use that energy to do something positive, like write music or see a show or practice.
TJG: In perusing your website, I came across your writings on the ‘Pedagogy’ page. You discuss contracts, negotiation, and working with talent buyers and recruiters. Has it been a difficult learning curve coming up as a freelance musician?
AL: That’s a hard question. On paper, the learning curve has been reasonable. You learn things all the time. I’ve been working on things for eleven years. I’m twenty six now. When I was a sophomore in high school, my father, who is a drummer, told me that he wouldn’t book any more gigs for me, and that I should start doing it myself. That was one of the best business lessons I’ve ever been given. So for the past eleven years, I’ve had a chance to work on effective communication. I spend a lot of time each day working on getting opportunities for myself, if for no other reason than that I have to. I have a wife, we’re having a son in a little over a month. The learning curve isn’t tough, but some things are surprising. A musician can have a great night at a great club, and then the next night, things can not go as well. I think every music major should be able to learn how to hear the word ‘no’ like a million million times before they hear the world ‘yes.’ That’s what doing your own thing is about. Learning how to be persistent, knowing when you’re being annoying versus when you’re being persistent. You have to do it.
Knowing what you need is important for self-management. When I do masterclasses, young musicians have no idea how to make a living out of it. That’s unfortunate, because they spend so much time developing their craft. They get dark on it because they’re not able to make ends meet, and they can’t make a living with their craft. My idea is that for every hour you spend in the practice room, spend fifteen minutes writing an email. Find out who books shows, and see who might have you for a masterclass. In jazz education, we don’t talk enough about how to make a living. The fact that you can go through four years and not discuss business once is kind of crazy to me. Most people have a really hard time seeing themselves as anything but the person who makes the music. And even if you have a manager, it’s difficult to just be a good musician and that’s it, you know? You need to be able to communicate with people and make your own opportunities. We should spend more time on that inside the classroom.
TJG: What was it like growing up in Illinois?
AL: It was cool. An insulated environment. I worked a lot. I grew up in Normal, Illinois, which was about as boring as it sounds. There weren’t really any places to play music, so that was another skill I got early on. Being able to go in as a young teenager and have a conversation with adults about booking music at their restaurant and getting them to pay me on top of that, that was a great opportunity to cut my teeth. My father was a music education major and freelances on drums, and my mom is a trumpet player, so I grew up in a musical household. I got to play two or three times a weekend in junior high, but I suffered from ‘big fish small pond’ syndrome. Moving from the cornfields of Illinois to New York City was a rough adjustment. But growing up in Illinois was great. I often wish I could warp back to my hometown when the going gets rough in the city. But I’m fortunate to have grown up in that kind of community, to get exposure to the art and business sides at once.
TJG: Is there anything notable you’d like to add about your upcoming hit at The Gallery?
AL: Yeah, actually: This show will be my last one for a while. After this, I’m taking a hiatus. My son is supposed to be born on Halloween. If people are curious about the band, the music, or my playing, come out and see the show – It will likely be a couple of months before I come out and do anything under my own name! I’m taking time to make sure that I’ll be ready at a moment’s notice to go to the hospital and have our first child, which is crazy to me. Some of the music I’m writing is inspired by the angst, the perils, and the beauty of becoming a dad. That’s crazy to me. I sit down to practice in the morning, and I think, This is all great, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I have a bassinet set up in my apartment, and soon there’s going to be a child there. Some of the music is about my intense feelings about becoming a dad in a month and a half. It’s gonna get real real, real fast.
Saxophonist Adam Larson performs at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, September 16th, 2016. Mr. Larson will be joined by Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Ari Hoenig on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.