You can’t pigeonhole saxophonist Jérôme Sabbagh. One night you might find him playing standards with a hard swinging trio. On another, he’ll be playing with a very different trio, playing music both gorgeous and abstract. But on Saturday, Sabbagh is coming to The Jazz Gallery with his home base quartet, a group that is celebrating their 10th anniversary together.
The group, which features Sabbagh along with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Ted Poor (Jochen Rueckert will be filling in on drums for this show), has released two albums together and is coming out with a third this fall entitled The Turn (Sunnyside Records). We caught up with Jérôme by phone this week to talk about what makes his quartet tick and what his new album has in store.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of your quartet at this show. Can you tell us how everyone met and why the group has stayed together for this long?
Jérôme Sabbagh: I met all these guys 10-15 years ago. I really looked up to Ben as a guitar player and wanted to play with him, and then we experimented with different rhythm sections on several gigs. Kind of by accident, we ended up doing a gig with Joe and Ted and I just felt everything clicking.
After that we did our first record, which was in 2004, called North on Fresh Sound, and then we kept playing together. When you play on stage with a group over a period of time, I feel the music evolves and gets better, so this group feels like home base for me. I feel like I can write music that these guys can play really well. I write music with these guys in mind, and I feel that they can be themselves when they play with me as well as connect with the tunes.
TJG: Why do you think you all clicked when you played together 10 years ago? What about everyone’s playing makes the group so cohesive?
JS: First, Ben is a great comper. In general, I really like the sound of saxophone and guitar. But specifically, Ben uses a lot of different sounds: his knowledge of harmony is really thorough; he has all these colors that he can pick from. Ben knows when to leave space and knows when to support and knows when to egg you on and perhaps help you reach some stuff that you might not have thought of. He’s just a great comper and I feel really at ease playing with him.
Everyone in the group can really shape the music. At the same time, we can all be in the moment, but also step away and look at the big picture, and I feel they know how to shape music in terms of what this tune needs now and where we are going. Ben, Joe, and Ted do that naturally, in a way that’s not contrived or preconceived.
TJG: Since everyone has such an ability to shape the form and structure of a piece in the moment, has that changed how you write for the group?
JS: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes we’ll go to areas of playing on certain tunes that will inspire me to write something more like that. Over ten years you evolve. Every time we tour or do a recording, I’ll write—or try to write—a new repertoire for the group. I always do that with them in mind, and the experience of playing together informs the writing for sure.
TJG: At lot of times it seems there are two different paths that jazz composers take when writing for a long-running group. Sometimes the writing becomes more intricate as the players become more comfortable with the writer’s idiom, and sometimes it becomes simpler as the writer can trust the improvisational instincts of each player on a deeper level. Have you felt yourself going in either direction?
JS: I think I tend to write less. First, I’m not drawn necessarily to complexity in writing. I like strong melodies; I like songs that sound like songs. I am not trying to make anything more complicated than it needs to be. I know some people like to solve musical problems through writing, like working from something in a challenging time signature or a really intricate sequence of chords, but that’s not how I like to work. I just try to sit with a pen and paper and work out a melody that sounds good to me and accept it for whatever it is. I try to work from more of a songwriter’s perspective. Since I’m working with people who have such a strong sound, and you trust something will happen if you just get together in a room and play, I like to start with something that has a clarity and lyricism to it and let everyone take it from there.
TJG: You talk about wanting clarity in composition, but I think you also look for clarity of interaction between musicians, as you generally work in groups of four or less. Why do you like playing in these intimate settings?
JS: I am really drawn to trios and quartets. I’ve never really written for larger ensembles—I wrote a couple of big band arrangements a long time ago—but it’s not something that I’m really drawn to. I’m really drawn to the interaction that can happen with a small group of people, whether it’s playing standards or original music. The people I play with are more important than the material that we play, although it is great to write original music and hear great people play it. Style is not that important to me: I’ll play free music and standards and my originals, which I think of as songs. What’s important to me through it all is a certain feeling of connectedness with the people that I play with and a feeling of discovery and exploration, along with melody and groove.
TJG: Speaking of creating a feeling of discovery and exploration, back in 2011 you played with a drummer who really epitomizes that feeling: Paul Motian. What did you learn from that experience, and how has it impacted your work in the quartet?
JS: That was an amazing experience, for sure. One thing that I took from it—this was all leading
by example, he didn’t say much to me—was that Paul really encouraged me to be myself and listen to the music as hard as I could and figure out my part in it. I don’t think he had any preconception of what the music should sound like. He just wanted me to find my place and trust that instinct and go with it.
He was really the master of that. It wasn’t only what he played, but the conviction and clarity of intent that he played with—even playing music that some people might find unclear. I think I could always relate to where he was coming from, so it was really easy to play with him in some ways.
I originally hired him to play with Ben and me for a gig, and he liked it so he hired us to play at the Village Vanguard. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen him and Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano there a ton of times, and I was like, “How am I gonna follow that?” I thought it was going to be more difficult to play with him than it was. It was challenging in terms of the level of musicality and the intensity of the musical experience, but it wasn’t challenging because the group was difficult to play with or I wasn’t sure what to do. Basically, Paul played so well that whatever I did, he would make it sound good. And I felt he really trusted me and just wanted me to be the best possible version of myself.
That’s what we all want to do as musicians, but it’s easier said than done. Sometimes your preconceptions get in the way, your love for the way other people play gets in the way, you try to do a certain style too much. But Paul’s playing helped me push that stuff to the side and let me be me. That’s something I really strive for in my band—it’s my ideal. But being close to someone who was a real master and could deliver that night after night, that was a great lesson. It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to be on stage with someone who’s able to do that.
TJG: You have a new record with your quartet on Sunnyside called The Turn coming out this fall. Can you give us a little preview of what’s in store on it?
JS: It has seven tunes of mine and one of Paul Motian’s, actually—“Once Around the Park”— which is one that I played with him that I really loved. The rest is pretty varied. Some of the tunes are ones that I wrote for the band for our last tour. There are a couple of ballads. I don’t have a master plan for a record when I go into the studio. We just record the songs that I’ve written and when I listen back to it, certain through lines emerge on their own.
What I like about it is that it sounds like us. We play all in one room with no headphones. We try to play like we play live and hopefully capture some good things. My goal with this record was to try to be fully in the moment, let things happen, and not force anything out, and hopefully that’s what comes out when people listen to the record.
The Jerome Sabbagh Quartet performs at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, June 14, 2014. Sets are 9 and 11 p.m. The group features Sabbagh on tenor saxophone, Ben Monder on guitar, Joe Martin on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on drums. $22 general admission ($10 for members). Purchase tickets here.