What do Esperanza Spalding, Maceo Parker, Branford Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Vijay Iyer, and countless others have in common? They’ve all played with Jure Pukl. Hailing from Slovenia, with degrees from Berklee, the Vienna Academy, the Haag Conservatory, and the University of Performing Arts in Graz, Pukl is a saxophone virtuoso and an adventurous composer. He’s recorded seven CDs as a bandleader, two of which were recorded in New York, and is featured on over forty as a sideman. According to pianist Vijay Iyer, “[Pukl] is one of those rare beings whose music reflects a higher understanding at a young age. With his album he has created a listening experience with something to teach us all. He knows.”
Pukl will be bringing his Abstract Society project to The Jazz Gallery this week, featuring Darius Jones (alto), John Escreet (piano/prophet synth), Harish Raghavan (bass), and Jason Nazary (drums). On the phone this week, Pukl spoke passionately about the concepts of originality, adventure, and the willingness to dare. Our conversation quickly left the realm of composition and technique, and ventured into the philosophy of artistry and creation. In addition, we touched on his formative studies with George Garzone, his current challenges, and his journey towards “a zone where improvisation and composition become one.”
TJG: Will you mostly be playing music from your 2012 album Abstract Society (Storyville Records)?
Jure Pukl: There will be some music from the album, but not all. I’m writing new music, Darius is going to bring a couple of tunes, so it’ll be a little mixture of my music and his music.
TJG: Tell me about your new compositions.
JP: I was thinking you were gonna ask me that. Hm. With the last Abstract Society, I was getting into more odd rhythms, and fewer chord changes, in favor of specific sounds and voicings. Not stuff from the jazz book. The harmony is predominantly inspired by contemporary classical music. The charts they look a little different already, they’re not jazz sheets with chord symbols. I write out what I expect from the piano player, same with the bass player. For the drummer, I keep things open, so the drummer can pick up their own vision on a certain tune, can keep it loose and open.
TJG: It sounds like the biggest feature is the notation, in terms of what you’re giving the musicians beforehand.
JP: It’s a continuation of some stuff I was doing on Abstract Society. For a while, I was trying to get better at the jazz language in specific ways. I left that on standby for a while, continuing where I left off: clarinet in music school, conservative path of European music school, classical saxophone, contemporary classical stuff and extended techniques. Then, I stayed away from that for a while, because I was digging more into traditional jazz, polyrhythms, modern playing. It’s a never-ending process. Sometimes you have to study for a while, and then you dig back into your originality again.
TJG: It’ll be quintet with Darius Jones, who has such a penetrating, soulful sound. How does he contrast your approach to the horn?
JP: It’s true, he has a different sound. Of course, he plays a different kind of sax, but he sounds different too. That’s the whole point in improvised music, I think: To do music together with someone who has a different sound, a different voice. If you listen closely and dig out where we come from, what we like, we have a similar vision. When Darius came over for the first time, seven hours passed like two hours, just playing and talking. Although we have different sounds, we catch that vibe in music which brings two voices together. It’s like we’re one multiple voice, something like that. The whole point, what I really like more and more, is to do stuff with people who seem different but you realize think in the same way. It’s all over the history of this music. Coltrane and Eric Dolphy is a fine example of that.
TJG: On keys, you’ll have John Escreet, who has a pretty crazy, angular approach to harmony and a really wide comping sound. Plus he’s playing synth, too. Has he played your music before?
JP: I’ve never really work intensively with John, so I’m looking forward to our rehearsals this week, where we’ll find out how we are gonna get into the vibe. He plays with some of my favorite musicians, and is so expansive. We did some sessions, but have never really worked on my music. I’m excited. That’s the thing about New York. You can bring your tunes, your compositions, your sound, but then you can make a phone call and get these amazing musicians who bring their sound and energy as well. It’s so creative, it’s always pushing you. You think you have an idea about a certain composition, but then you see that all these strong individuals gonna add something of their own. It might change the whole direction of the tune. In New York, you never know beforehand or even in the middle of the process how it really sounds. Sometimes I wanna get out of my body, see it and hear it from above to get the whole picture.
TJG: What are some of your biggest challenges on the horn right now?
JP: What are my biggest challenges? Man, you wouldn’t believe. I studied classical saxophone, so I have a strong technical basis on my horn, but I keep coming back to the basic stuff. I’m not talking about major scales, but I am talking scales, intervals, extended fingerings, false fingerings, multiphonics, quarter tones. I took some lessons with Steve Lehman, for example. He’s deep into that kind of playing and thinking, and he can rationalize why he’s playing this note or that note specifically. I’m coming more from an open side of microtonality, I use it in the moment of improvisation. I’m not thinking, “This would be related to that.” I’m trying to be spontaneous. He’s spontaneous too, but he’s more methodical, more theoretically and harmonically confident, where I wouldn’t know exactly how to explain what I’m playing. So I’m working on those things, trying to get into a zone where improvisation and composition become one. I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m not always capable of improvising and composing at the same time. That’s my goal, where my technique, harmonic knowledge, and extended stuff can all come together and be a strong voice or expression.
TJG: You studied with George Garzone at Berklee. What was some of the best advice they ever gave you?
JP: Well, my first lesson with George was pretty interesting. It was 8:30am in the morning. As a freshman, they usually put you in a random class, but I knew the system. I went and knocked on George’s door, told him where I came from, told him about my friends who studied with him, “And by the way, they say hello,” and so on. He took me to his class essentially over the line, I didn’t have to wait, which was amazing, I was super lucky. So it was 8:30 in the morning, I was sleepy, and he was too. He had two boiled eggs, unwrapped them, started eating them. I said Wow, this is something [laughs]. I knew his music and his playing, and he talked a bit about that. That was the first lesson. Everything he talked about and played, I transcribed.
The second lesson was more interesting. I said George look, I transcribed this, I looked at that, I wrote this down with all the intervals, and he said “Oh my god, I don’t even know what that is. If you do all this, you’re not gonna go far.” “What?” I said. “This is not how I think,” he explained to me. The way he thinks, studies, and practices is slowly bringing him to where he wants to be, where he wants to sound. He said, “If I were to study the patterns, analyze them, then practice them, I would sound like that. I don’t want any patterns, I don’t want anything from the box. That’s why I don’t analyze anything. I don’t wanna know. I wanna practice things that will shape my playing in a year, two years. No licks. No patterns. You practice different things that slowly come together.” That was my first ‘Wow’ moment. So much freedom in that, yet it still comes from a specific type of motivation. It’s not free, it’s very defined in its origins. But once you’re in the moment, it’s not defined anymore. It’s not coming from a pattern. It’s coming from everything, mixed together and channeled.
I’d never thought like that before. Sometimes George would be like, “Man, sometimes it’s like there’s no ground beneath your feet, you just kinda walkin’ in the air, you never really know, you step on the floor, you’re up in the air again.” For me, coming from a more classically-trained background, that was really something new for me. I just started loving it more and more, even though I was already in love with the music. I was thrown into the sea with sharks, and I had to swim.
TJG: You also studied in the Vienna Academy, The Hague Conservatory, and Berklee College of Music. But outside the academic music world, where have you learned some of your most important lessons?
JP: Yeah, It’s been a lot of time in the academy. You forgot to mention another one—after Berklee, I did a masters in Graz in Austria, just to add another one [laughs]. But school for me was never a big deal. Let’s say I wanted to go to Vienna. The best way to live in Vienna is to go study. Den Haag was kind of an in-between stop, Berklee I wanted to come to the USA, and they gave me a good scholarship. When I came to Berklee, I knew it was an institution. You learn tools. Music, it’s outside the building. When you close the doors of the school, that’s when the music starts. I always had an urge to write music, to write a tune without knowing the harmony. This childish perception of being a music should stay childish, in my opinion. If you have the urge to write music anyhow, whether you study or not study, you will produce.
If you go to an institution, you have to do things for that institution. So I always did what I needed to school, but the minute I was done, I would run down to Wally’s, for example. Where Kendrick Scott and all these cats were jamming and playing. The first two months of sessions, I didn’t even take my horn. It was so heavy, I didn’t dare. I’d practice the tunes they’d play, write down the tunes I didn’t know, then one time I took my horn. That’s how it all started. From the start, you need your foot in real life, connecting with people. Teachers will tell you great stuff, but they’re just helping you on your way of freeing yourself to be your own teacher. I even know great classical cats who are great teachers, because they know how to be their own critic when you need to be. There’s no teacher on this planet who can make you a musician in six years.
TJG: It seems like you’ve learned a lot of important lessons through music.
JP: You know, for example, when I talk to some musicians, I realize how much I don’t know, this theory, that theory, I realize the work I haven’t done. But then I think, “Damn, I did my own things. I’ve lived with my music, lived from my music.” In the end, you have to know how to say something in the moment. Sometimes I think that’s a problem now, everyone learns how to play from the tradition, but they’re forgetting that the music was already played by someone who kinda already invented it. You can never tell a musician it’s time to do something different: Everyone should play what they like. But for me, this urge to produce something of my own from the very beginning. Maybe I shouldn’t have released my first three records, maybe I wasn’t so proud of them, but they put me in a position where I could get gigs, get out, start managing my life. The music is still a business.
TJG: We’re thrilled that you’re coming through The Jazz Gallery with your group, and we can’t wait to hear your new music.
JP: Thanks, man. The Jazz Gallery is really the platform for these things we talked about, these things we’re trying out, that’s what The Jazz Gallery is all about. I’m missing more venues like that. Art is such an open form. We need places to be able to dare, to dare to try in the moment. People don’t say, “Oh, now I’m going to make this life-changing picture, write this life-changing poem.” Mostly it happened in certain circumstances. The Gallery is really the best. It’s not a pizza place, it’s not a falafel place: You don’t go to get one thing from the menu. The Jazz Gallery has everything. We need more places where music is directed by the musicians, with no influence as to what they should play. I love that idea.
Jure Pukl’s Abstract Society plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 31st, 2017. The group features Mr. Pukl on tenor saxophone, Darius Jones on alto saxophone, John Escreet on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Jason Nazary on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.