As one-fourth of the collective Secret Mall, Alfredo Colon has established himself as a rare dedicatee to the Electronic Wind Instrument, or EWI. However, for his upcoming solo show at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 11, Colon has put together a fully acoustic project called Big Head with pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks joining Colon on alto saxophone. We caught up with Colon to talk about his differing approaches to saxophone and EWI, capturing the spirit of electronic music with acoustic instruments, and the not-so-elusive origins of the project’s title.
The Jazz Gallery: What is the significance of the title, “Big Head?”
Alfredo Colon: It’s very literal—I just have a big head. It’s also an inside joke between Nick Dunston and me. Lately I’ve been playing sessions with him pretty frequently where we just improvise. I feel like I can play anything and he’ll make it sound like a tune under me. Just anything he adds sounds so big and full with so much motion.
TJG: Is there a theme to the music besides your large head?
AC: A lot of it is inspired by my time in middle school—just being 12 or 13.There’s a tune about running around in the woods with my friends, getting lost all the time. We used to hang out in Inwood Park, the last remaining natural forest in New York City [laughs].
TJG: How did you decide to write about this stuff?
AC: I’ve been listening to a lot of pop punk from when I was that age. The Starting Line is my shit. Shout-out to Steve Williams—he’s a fellow Starting Line fan. Listening back invoked a lot of feelings and brought back those memories…
TJG: How do you capture the spirit of pop-punk for example in acoustic music?
AC: I think it’s all about energy. When you break that music down, it’s really kind of just dumb and loud, but in a good way. Put a 17 year-old kid in front a microphone and tell him to scream and sing about how he feels. There are a lot of feelings when you’re 17 years old. So I think the takeaway is I have a lot of feelings and I want to play loud (laughs).
TJG: What were you like as a kid?
AC: I was kind of annoying [laughs].
TJG: Is that something you’re looking to capture in the music?
AC: No, I’ve filtered out the annoying stuff. I’d describe the music as very catchy but frantic at the same time.
TJG: Since this is strictly an acoustic gig, are your influences for this gig limited to acoustic music?
AC: No, a lot of the influence comes from a lot of rock music, a lot of punk or pop punk, and a lot of straight up electronic music like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, who I listen to constantly. And a lot of it is inspired by my own music—trying to write the opposite of what I usually write. Steering away from my tendencies as a composer.
TJG: Yes, I wanted to touch on that. Are you treating this gig any differently since to some degree it’s a debut of sorts?
AC: I’m taking it as a chance to showcase a side of me most people aren’t familiar with instead of the most obvious version of me. Over time, I’ve been able to find a flow in writing which is different than my usual compositional style. I like so many things and I want to do a lot, so I put this together because I caught myself doing a lot of the same—I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into the fusion / electronic scene. A lot of what I love exists outside of that bubble, and I wanted to create something outside of it.
TJG: How are you going about composing for this gig? Do you have a standard process?
AC: It starts with something different every time. Usually as I’m practicing something will come up and I’ll think, “This is catchy.” So then I’ll start improvising around it and either I’ll find that I can write a lot around the original thought, or that I can play a lot against it, or that a lot of people can bring different things to it. So I’ll write the idea down, and I’ll come back to it later. When I listen again, if I still feel that way, I decide to move forward with it.
TJG: Do you have an idea of what you want the music to sound like before you write it?
AC: Yes, there is a sound in my head that I work off of, so if I write something that doesn’t fit that sound I will scrap it. Pete Robbins has been a major influence as far as what I want the band to sound like. His compositions are really catchy but then allow his bandmates to take the music in any conceivable direction. That’s what I’m going for—I really just want to allow Nick to be Nick, Connor to be Connor, and Jacob to be Jacob. Overall, there’s very little that’s written out. I think of the music as a question that the band can answer.
TJG: Let’s talk about the band you’re bringing to this gig. A lot of the players like to play on the outside of things. How far out are you planning on going?
AC: As far as they want to. The music, the way I’ve written it can be interpreted as strictly to the page as possible where we don’t deviate at all, but knowing them they’re going to take it somewhere else. How far I think depends on how we’re feeling that night.
TJG: How did you decide to pick Connor for this gig?
AC: It started with me choosing to play with Nick. A lot of the times that I’ve heard Nick and really enjoyed the music have been with Connor—like Aurelia Trio or with Arta Jēkabsone. I’ve always enjoyed hanging with and listening to that pair. I’ve never played with Connor before so I’m really excited for it.
TJG: What are you hoping for from Connor?
AC: For him to be himself and to play in the most Connor way possible. Connor is just a really happy, positive person. Whenever I put my name on something I get stressed, so having positive people around really helps.
TJG: Can we talk a little bit about your musical upbringing and your personal approach to playing? How did you start playing the saxophone?
AC: Circumstance has brought me to where I am today. When I first started out, I didn’t even want to play the saxophone.
TJG: What did you want to play?
AC: I didn’t want to play music. I started playing because my parents said you have to either play a sport or do some other type of extracurricular activity. Music was something my school offered, and I discovered that I liked it. It soon became a thing, and I got into jazz and wanted to play Charlie Parker—I really liked bebop as a kid. Then I heard people like Joshua Redman and Chris Potter and I wanted to play some of the funky stuff they were doing, like Joshua on Momentum. And from there I found people like Eric Dolphy.
Also, around that time a music teacher of mine took me to Carnegie Hall to see Brad Mehldau, who had a commission which featured Chris Cheek, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Becca Stevens, and Kevin Hays. It was this weird all-star lineup and really strange music, and I remember seeing Chris Potter play alto and bass clarinet on that gig. After that, I went home and checked out Joshua Redman’s Momentum which had Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on it. I think they do an Ornette tune, and maybe even a Led Zeppelin tune. When you’re fourteen or fifteen, that’s just about the coolest thing there is. I’m not the biggest fan of the record now, but it was perfect for a fourteen year old kid to listen to.
Later on I started working at The Jazz Gallery where there was this stack of CD’s, and they said “Feel free to borrow them—just bring them back.” There were a bunch of Roy [Hargrove] CD’s in there, and a bunch of Fabian Almazan records, some Chris Dingman stuff—everything you could think of was in that stack. At that point it dawned upon me that I really can go in a number of directions.
TJG: How has playing in Secret Mall affected your saxophone playing? Has the EWI specifically changed your playing on alto?
AC: After hearing me play, a lot of people tell me “I often hear people play EWI, but they don’t play it like an EWI or a synth—they play it like a saxophone.” but the reality is that’s how I play saxophone too. The EWI has this weird short history and very few exceptional players, so a lot of the material I’ve learned from comes from guitar players and keyboard players, and just transcribing electronic tracks. You can tell they sequenced everything in a lot of electronic music, and no human played those notes on any instrument ever. So a lot of my influence comes from there.
When I play some of those lines on saxophone, there are range limits and there’s resistance on the instrument so you get a lot of notes that sound crackly and broken up, and they don’t sound anywhere near as clean as on the EWI. That’s something which I personally like about that sound—just the distressed sound of reaching for something that isn’t easily accessed.
TJG: So you intentionally play the saxophone like an EWI so you’ll hit these limitations?
AC: Not intentionally, but I like the sound of struggling to play around your limits. A lot of my favorite players have that kind of sound—if you listen to Jackie McLean records like Dr. Jackle, that music sounds evil, you know? It sounds like they recorded it in the Black Lodge. Or when you hear Logan Richardson start going into it, and his sound just starts gurgling or cracking up, that’s when it gets the best for me.
TJG: What about that type of sound appeals to you?
AC: It sounds like a human voice. When you listen to some rock records, the singers’ voices are fucked up a little bit—it sounds like they’re trying their best to get something out. That sound always appealed to me.
TJG: What about that aesthetic do you find appealing? Has it always been that way?
AC: I think my being a part of the musical process has done it for me. I remember one time listening to someone’s rehearsal and he was struggling through all the music. It was music he wrote, but he just couldn’t get it to sound the way he wanted to.
But to me it sounded fine and to the band it sounded fine. Seeing that struggle—the frustration even with a great product taught me that I might never be happy with something, and that’s ok. That’s the beauty of it, because when I get to hear something, I get to hear it as it is in that moment. I really enjoy listening to the process, and finding the little moments that that creates.
TJG: Is there a goal to the process?
AC: To be in it. That’s the fun part. I feel like you should shoot for the best you can, but I think too many people get caught up in “It’s not good until it’s ‘X’. It’s not perfect, so it’s invalid.”
TJG: It seems you use these “imperfect” sounds in a very deliberate manner, though. How did this sort of vocabulary work its way into your repertoire?
AC: I was obsessed, along with every other saxophone player, with John Coltrane, and when I was in high school a friend put me on to late Coltrane. So I bought First Meditations and Sun Ship. I was just starting out at the time and initially I hated it. But I had already spent money on the CDs, so I would go back to the records now and then, and try to find something I like in them. Over time I recognized that I could use a lot the sounds from both of those records—you know: false fingering, crunchy sounds.
At some point I took a lesson with John O’Gallagher, who was transcribing a bunch of that stuff. He was showing me what he found in it, and seeing how he extracted material from it gave me insight into how I might start doing the same thing.
TJG: What was the feel when you went back and re-listened for the first time?
AC: At first I thought it was really anxious music, but over time it started to sound more like joy, frantic joy.
Jason Rigby has also been a big influence who put me on to a ton of music in that world. I’ve transcribed a bunch of Rigby’s stuff from his recordings with the Mark Guiliana quartet and I was a student of his for 3 or 4 years. I remember playing these transcriptions for him, and I didn’t tell him it was him. I said to him, “Can you believe this is the same person on the same tune?” And he said, “No, who is that?” (laughs) and I told him “It’s you!”
We then spoke about what he was thinking about during the solo, and he said something like “If the song is a circle, and a circle is an infinite number of points, you can push one point at a time with a needle. If you push the right places, you can creates stars and squares and shapes like that, but my goal is to make the circle bigger so I can drop a bomb inside of it push everything out at the same time. Or I can just micromanage and push the top-right corner for a while and work my way to the bottom-left and I have a bigger circle.” And that didn’t make sense to me for a really long time.
TJG: And it does now?
AC: It kind of does now—I certainly don’t have a better or clearer way of explaining it (laughs)! The main point is it made sense to him. Music theory helps explain something that isn’t tangible in a way that’s personal. The goal is to have an emotional connection with what you hear. So as long as the person who is practicing gets it, it’s done its job.
TJG: What are you listening for these days when someone is soloing?
AC: I’m listening to see if they’re listening. There are so many people who are highly regarded, but when I go to check them out it just sounds like they’re using the band as a backing track. They can play all the things in the world—they can play up and down the horn, they’ll play as fast as possible, and that’s really cool, but you can hear the rest of the band being bored in the background. It sounds like a 9 to 5 for the rhythm section. I really like hearing the conversational aspect of the music and prefer listening to that over a virtuoso who doesn’t care to interact.
TJG: What are your current goals professionally?
AC: I want to play my music. I don’t want to be in a situation where someone hires me but asks me to cut out certain parts of my playing.
TJG: Have you experienced that?
AC: Yeah, there are so many places that tell you that you have to play like this, or dress like this—and that’s why I love the Gallery. Rio gives you a night and it’s your night. You have the freedom to do anything. Not playing to an expectation. I think that’s special and people need to hold on to that.
TJG: This should be a fun show.
AC: Yeah, you get to hear a full set of music which I’ve written and has never been played. If not for me, come for the rest of the band—these are some of the best musicians I’ve ever been around, and it’s also my birthday, so we’re going to be hanging afterwards. I’m bringing Hennessy.
Alfredo Colon’s Big Head plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 11, 2019. The group features Mr. Colon on alto saxophone, Jacob Sacks on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, and Connor Parks on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.