Many artists find an affinity for the spontaneous to be a part of their constitution; Adam Larson, over the years, has had to cultivate his. Since he came to New York from the Midwest nearly a decade ago, the 28-year-old saxophonist/composer has pushed himself through transpositions not only of artistic expression, but life philosophy. A need for adaptation has transformed into desire for openness, and an evolving flexibility now pervades his sound.
“I do feel like, in my younger days, I would step on the bandstand and say, ‘Okay, I’ve been doing all this stuff in the practice room; I’m going to just go into shred mode and let the chips fall where they may,” says Larson. “But now—I mean what’s the point of hiring all these great musicians if you don’t take advantage of what they’re going to do? I think listening to how people interact and create has helped.”
A few weeks ago, Larson put together a last-minute gig at 55 Bar. Surrounded by three risk-taking improvisers—Ari Hoenig, Matt Clohesy and Fabian Almazan—Larson felt supported, if a bit nervous. Without time to rehearse before the hit, he considered abandoning a new tune he had been looking forward to premiering, but decided to embrace the raw dynamic instead.
“I almost bailed on it,” he says. “We got to that tune in the set—it was a packed house—and I was like, ‘Okay, I have everybody here I need with me.’ [The anxiety] was irrational because I was playing with three of the best musicians I know, so it could have gone wrong and still been great. And it was great. It was really great.”
A band-leading tenor player, Larson has been involved with certain projects whose members rehearse intently and others whose members don’t rehearse at all. He appreciates each as its own, unique opportunity. “Both have their benefits,” he says. “If you rehearse [the tunes] to death, there’s maybe not as much spontaneity, but if it’s under-rehearsed, it could go two ways; it could be catastrophic or loose and cool.”
Looseness, as a concept, got the better of Larson in his early days on the scene. Before he learned to draw inspiration and energy from unpredictable situations, he’d put up a formidable fight. “‘I can hear what’s going on and I don’t like it, so I’m going to just bull-in-a-china-shop through this until they come with me, or just bow out.’ That’s kind of where my head was at before, because I didn’t like the looseness,” he says. Today, however, Larson feels more comfortable in a more open environment. “I think it’s a growing moment. I like to try things when I can, because I’m not sure when I’ll get to do it again. And the people in my band, more often than not, I trust them that it’s going to be fine.”
This flexibility increasingly finds its way into Larson’s routines both on and off the bandstand. For a young father, the struggle to slow down is ubiquitous. For an artist as organized and regimented as Larson, that struggle has peaked a gradual evolution that began when he was still a student.
“My time is so limited now because I’m a father, so I guess [scheduling has] gotten even more intense,” he says. “When I was in school, it was hard for me to divorce my two brains—one that was practicing and one that was composing.” Larson frequently would become frustrated when he’d spend the same amount of time composing that he would practicing, because he wouldn’t see, hear or feel the same results.
“I felt like it was the waste of an hour, when I wasn’t doing anything productive,” he says. “Once I started to accept that I wasn’t going to get at anything I actually wanted to play, but just spend some time composing—not worrying about the saxophone for a second—it wasn’t until then that I started writing stuff I actually would think of playing on the bandstand.”
Those moments of clarity changed the way Larson wrote music, and the way he spent his time writing music. He began composing beyond exercises for the classroom—what he had been used to writing during one-hour sessions at the piano. “I would never play [those exercises] beyond in the classroom because I didn’t care to play them beyond in the classroom. The stuff I wanted to play out in public, with a band, I sat with a lot longer.”
Playing out in New York City and, subsequently, Chicago also led to a transformation in Larson’s composing style. He rarely, if ever, writes with specific players in mind, but a range of musicians collaborating with him live and in the studio have influenced the aesthetic he seeks to elicit with each piece. And perhaps no expression changes the musical dynamic as dramatically as that of a player’s comping style.
“Can Olgun is one of the sparser compers you’ll ever encounter,” says Larson, who views Olgun as the artistic “foil” to his own energetic, at times, aggressive playing. “Fabian, he’s the guy who gets in there from the first note. I do feel like [they each challenge me] in different ways. Fabian tends to give me a lot of information that I really like going with and, if I’m doing my job right, it forces me to stop and listen. On the other side of the coin, with Can, if he’s laying out a lot, it gives me a lot of freedom to make some decisions—and that’s also (a challenge) sometimes.”
According to Larson, the piano player who falls squarely in the center of both sparse and fertile comping styles is Rob Clearfield, who’s featured on his new record Second City, along with bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Jimmy MacBride. Larson first heard the Chicago-based piano player on a Greg Ward recording, and knew immediately he wanted to collaborate with him. “I like his playing a lot. I feel like he has a much more active left hand than Can does in the comping, but I also feel he doesn’t give me as much information as Fabian might; so, it’s like a delicate balance between the two of them.”
After he began working in New York, Larson started booking gigs in Chicago, a city he’d never played when he was coming up, despite having grown up in a couple hours away in Normal, Illinois. Finding himself playing in the Midwest more frequently, Larson put together a core group of Chicago-based players, including Clearfield, whom he’d call whenever he had a gig or tour in the Midwest. But finding a drummer proved tricky.
“I’m very picky about drums and, up until this past summer, I didn’t really have a drummer in Chicago I necessarily would have preferred aesthetically over Jimmy MacBride,” he says. “I feel a very strong connection with him. That’s certainly not to say there aren’t drummers in Chicago who are really dealing, because there are; it’s just a different thing.”
For Larson, Jon Deitemyer is one of those drummers. “He sounds incredible,” he says. “If ever Jimmy can’t do the gig, he’s probably my first call. That really opens the idea that I have a whole band in Chicago who’s committed to the music and makes it sound great; I don’t feel like I’m losing anything aesthetically not bringing a whole band from New York.”
While he cites Clearfield and Deitemyer as his first-call guys in Chicago, Larson admits the struggle to book both New York and the Midwest with a working band continues to be a challenge for him. While he’d love to bring guys like Almazan and Matt Penman on the road with him wherever he goes, reality checks those intentions and compels him to get creative within the booking hustle.
“I always thought the first record would be my band forever, but that just isn’t the case,” he says. “[There’s kind of a catch-22 to] this whole project. You’re trying to make touring more feasible with an actual band—a group of people working together; only, right now, it’s been difficult to get that band booked in the Midwest, versus my third record, which was an all-star band from New York I played with for two years. And it will line up eventually, but it can be frustrating to put together something that is for one purpose musically, but the practicality doesn’t happen the way you envision it (to happen). It will. I’m just very impatient.”
The fire that fuels Larson’s impatience also fuels his persistence. One of many admirable qualities present in the young artist is a sophisticated business savvy. Navigating the cold call and the follow-up with frank mastery, Larson acts as his own business manager, booking agent and publicist. And, even as a young father supporting his family, not a day slips past him without sending out at least a couple messages.
“For the past last nine years that I’ve been here, I’ve sent some kind of business-related email every single day,” says Larson, “a lot of which, within the first six years of moving here, (were) never responded to—trying to get gigs. I think it’s imperative, no matter where you’re at, if you’re serious about being a freelance musician, that you’re doing something business-wise, yourself. The email thing is certainly important for me; it’s part of my everyday routine. I have to be clever about when I do it, because my first priority is my child. Before I was a dad, this was the most important thing; in reality, if I respond to it three hours later, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Larson has spent increasing time as an educator as well, and would like to see the paradigm shift toward a more comprehensive curriculum that includes practical advice—such as emailing and inquiry etiquette—for students looking to break into the scene and become architects of their careers. He often mentors students, offering advice on what he always had thought of as “common knowledge,” but has realized, since he became an educator, that these tips and strategies rarely find their way into an institution’s music curriculum.
“Schools don’t really care about that,” he says. “They care about, hopefully, making you as a good musician as you can be, but when you’re out the door, you’re not their problem anymore. That has to change. Immediately. For me, business is really important, if for nothing else, because I’m a horn player and I have a really strong desire to be playing my own music and leading. I’m not a sit-on-your-hands-and-wait-type dude and, at this point in my life, I can’t be. I have a lot of responsibility to be a parent.”
Larson’s advice? “Start with what you know.”
This concept carries over from cold-calling and sending emails, to approaching club owners and promoters. “I recommend to all my students who are in college, when they ask, ‘So how do you get gigs?’ ‘Well, do you know the person who books it? If you don’t, do you have a strong recommendation who knows them really well?’”
“People ask me, ‘How do you get a gig at the Gallery? Can you refer me?’ I say, ‘Sure, you can put in an email referred by me, but if Rio doesn’t know you and she’s never heard your music, think about how many hundreds of emails—I’ve been to the back of the Gallery and seen the CDs pile up. It’s not her job, at that point; it’s not anybody’s job. You want her to give you the space, for what?’ I always tell people if they can meet the person (face-to-face), that’s a really strong first step.
“I remember having that conversation with Spike Wilner when I was 19. I sent him a nice email, and he responded, ‘Thanks for the courteous email,’ but he was honest. He said, ‘Keep coming to the club and hanging out, or maybe if you played with somebody else as a sideman, I’d get a chance to hear you and that would be an opportunity for us to talk.’ For me, it’s the same story everywhere. The more you can get a personal connection with someone, the better shot you have at (being booked).”
Even though Larson is immensely comfortable with talking with venue bookers, that comfort isn’t always there in conversations with people outside the jazz world. “When neighbors ask him what he plays, he answers “jazz,” always qualifying his response by adding, “but it’s probably not what you think.”
“The copout answer would be modern jazz,” says Larson, “but that also doesn’t help out anybody outside of—even within—the genre; what does that mean?” The question of style and genre can even be a thorn when finding places to play.
“When I’m booking—that’s interesting, too, I’ve observed,” he says. “I think my music best fits places like the Gallery and 55 Bar just because of the aesthetic. I always feel a little like—not a con artist, but a sore thumb, maybe, at Smalls. I like playing there. It’s one of my favorite places to play, but I know that, over the course of a month, I’m going to be one of maybe five bands who play music that’s that aggressive and of that nature. The vibe down there is mostly gonna be swinging, and I love it. That’s why I continue to go there.
“I don’t know what you would call what I write because it’s not like I’m reinventing the wheel; it’s that I’m growing off the kinds of aesthetics that I really like. If I had to go through my record, I would say tune two, “Out The Window,” is an homage to the Yellow Jackets, tune three is like—I should owe Josh Redman a bunch of royalties. All these guys—they’re all in there.
This move to a less-classifiable style of music has been a constant evolution. “My writing from six years ago, when I was writing stuff for my first couple records, is probably less harmonically sophisticated, let’s put it, than—hopefully—what it is now,” he says. “I think it has to do with my ability to be at the piano and also to see different relationships.”
Growing up in a musical family, certain aesthetic tendencies came naturally to Larson. Having a drummer for a father and trumpet player for a mother conditioned a young Larson to approach listening and composing from a rhythmic perspective because he found rhythmic patterns were easiest for him to identify. But, he struggled with notation.
“It was so hard to figure out what I was actually doing because I’m so horrible at counting,” he says. “Still, to this day, I’m not good at it.” Larson admits he was so mystified by rhythmic notation that he’d resort to calling up college friends to have them sort out his music for him—notating whatever he was playing.
“There’s a tune of mine [I wrote] when I was 19 called “Strong Mind, Strong Body,” he says, “which ended up being a bar of 5/4 and a bar of 7/8. I had originally written it out as, like, 17/8 or something. And I thought, ‘First of all, I don’t want to read this; secondly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me; and thirdly, I don’t even know if it’s right.”
During his first year as an undergrad at MSM, Larson found room in his class schedule to fit Rhythmic Analysis with John Riley. “I was really excited about it because I’d heard that John Riley [had] this wealth of information, and he went on to be one of my closest mentors at school.” On Larson’s first day of class, Riley popped on “Hipadelphia” by Cannonball Adderley, and told the class to transcribe the rhythm. “I said to myself, ‘What does that even mean?’ I was a deer in headlights.”
Within moments, a classmate of Larson’s walked to the front of the room and scribbled the entire rhythmic transcription on the whiteboard, without error. After speaking briefly with Riley when the lesson ended, Larson dropped the class. “I was petrified, which is ironic, because most of my stuff now is tricky rhythms.
“I think my love for mixed meter has just come out of listening to it a lot. I also love rock and roll and straight eighth and hip hop—not that I don’t like swing. But I often tell people I’m not the greatest chameleon in the world. If you want someone to sound like Hank Mobley, I would never accept a gig like that because I know I wouldn’t do the greatest job. I love playing swing, I really do, but I find myself, more often than not, writing stuff that doesn’t swing.”
While he may not consider himself the most versatile player on the scene, with his compositions, Larson seeks to create a vital, fluid soundscape, rather than a series of deconstructing meters and melodies. “The thing that I’ve heard in the past, that I really hope continues to be the case with my music, is that you can hear that something different is happening with the meter, but hopefully it doesn’t detract from the overall picture.”
Larson’s interest in rhythmic complexity has led him to seek out different players as mentors. “The 55 Bar is probably my favorite venue outside The Jazz Gallery, just because I went there every Tuesday to hear Dave Binney and John Escreet. And when I heard John Escreet the first time, I thought it was horrible. I didn’t get it. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ But the first gig I ever played in New York City, really, was at the Gallery and John was playing piano.”
Fortunately for Larson, a lot can change in a year—especially in terms of perspective. He started going down to hear Escreet play every chance he got, asking himself the same question each time: “‘What is it that I don’t like? I think it’s that I don’t understand it.’
“There’s a lot of joking about the bearded college kid with a flannel shirt drinking an Amstel Light down at 55 Bar, counting feverishly through all these tunes. That was me,” he says. “I got informed because I liked it. It was challenging. Those guys were all really nice to me, too; John let me read some of his crazy-ass music when I was 19. I’ll never forget it. Ambrose Akinmusire was the same way. These are the people who allowed me to try these things that I was curious about, and helped inform the way that I write. And they’d give me shit about it, too.”
During a rehearsal with Akinmusire, Harish Raghavan, Sam Harris and Justin Brown, the former asked to play one of Larson’s tunes, then promptly and playfully mocked both the chart and the composition itself. “[He did it] because it was like—these hits that were screwed up, but didn’t really make any musical sense. So little things like that, along the way, helped me redefine [and say to myself], ‘Okay, maybe that’s not what the music needs,’ but how fortunate to have had those experiences.”
While that experience may have been a little embarrassing in the room, Larson counts it as an important learning experience. “I think it keeps you honest,” he says. “I think it’s therapeutic. I’ve been like that throughout my whole life. I feel like being your own worst critic is really important, and if you can’t do it yourself for some reason, have somebody you trust do it for you. Be honest about where you’re at because, otherwise, how do you know what to work on?”
The therapeutic component of self-reflection resonates profoundly with Larson. In some instances, his tendency toward frankness and candor even exaggerates whatever issue he’s struggling to resolve. “When I say I can’t count, obviously I can count,” he says, “but I have a hard time with it. I do. This music I’m playing tomorrow, Ricky Rodriguez’s, is some of the hardest shit I’ve ever had to read on a piece of paper, and [it wouldn’t be] hard—if I knew how to subdivide 16th notes a little better.
“And it hasn’t taken me Ricky Rodriguez’s or Ari Hoenig’s music to give me a wake-up call. It’s something I’ve been able to get away with for a long time, just listening to it and internalizing it. It’s not that I can’t read—it’s just, (I’ve got to) be honest about it, ‘Oh man, I’m not reading in this thing here as good as I thought I was.’”
In the past six or seven years, Larson has become a more sensitive player—a more receptive and curious player. But perhaps the most critical artistic virtue he’s embraced is acceptance. Reserving judgment and checking preconceptions has helped him develop more fully as an artist.
At a hushed moment during the his recent set at 55 Bar, pianist Fabian Almazan dropped out completely. Suddenly, Larson was alone with bassist Matt Clohesy, who was playing something different from what Larson had written on the page. But instead of freezing or bulldozing, the way he might have five or six years ago, Larson relaxed into the moment and received the waves of sound. “It forced me to listen and I liked it. I like those situations,” he says. “Whatever happens, go with it.”
Adam Larson celebrates the release of Second City at The Jazz Gallery this Friday September 29th, 2017. The group features Mr. Larson on tenor saxophone, Rob Clearfield on piano, Clark Sommers on bass, and Allan Mednard on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each. Purchase tickets here.