Saxophonist Tivon Pennicott is the jazz equivalent of what’s referred to in sports as a “glue guy”—a player who can fit into any situation and elevate the time. For years, Pennicott has palyed with singer Gregory Porter–with whom Pennicott logged over two hundred shows a year–as well as Ari Hoenig, Al Foster, Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, Esperanza Spalding, and many more. Pennicott is now stepping out more as a leader as well, working with his quartet to complete a new, ambitiously-orchestrated followup to his debut, Lover of Nature. We caught up with Pennicott to talk about the development of this new work.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you fill me in on your current project and the album you’re working on?
Tivon Pennicott: Yeah, it’s a quartet album with Philip Dizack on trumpet, Joe Saylor on drums, and we alternate between bassist Yasushi Nakamura and Dominique Sanders, a big-time producer and great upright player based out of Kansas City. We recorded the quartet version already, and now I’m finishing out the strings: I’m writing a 24-piece string arrangement to compositions that we’ll record later on. I’m out here in LA now, and I just met with a great orchestrator named Inyoung Park, she’s a film scorer and went to NYU, lived to New York, moved to LA, she’s always working. I showed her my scores for her to consult, because this is my first time doing this.
TJG: What did she have to say?
TP: You know, she flattered me, said I’m a natural, and can’t wait to hear the final product. But she had some good pointers for me, in terms of orchestration, part-writing, details like “make sure the violas are doubled here,” or “when you do glissandi, make sure you notate it like this,” talking about the difference between a portamento and a glissando, things I’ll need to be aware of. She helped a lot.
TJG: Sorry if I’m not quite getting this, but is this 24-piece string orchestra going to overdub on the existing quartet recordings?
TP: No, they’ll be separate pieces. Right now, for example, there’s a ballad where I wrote the background string accompaniment. There’ll be sections where it’s just me and strings, other parts where the quartet will back me up with light string accompaniment. That will be one song. And between the quartet songs will be string interludes, giving the effect of a very dry sound, then lush, orchestrated strings, into another dry sound where it’ll be another quartet song. The album will be a complete orchestrated collaboration.
TJG: Will you record the strings in New York or LA?
TP: New York. I’m in LA now for several reasons: I came straight from the jazz cruise with Gregory Porter, and came out to NAMM because I’m endorsed by a few people, and wanted to touch base and make some connections. Instead of heading right back to New York, and before going to Jamaica for my cousin’s wedding, I decided to stay out here a little longer, continue working on my music, and enjoy the weather [laughs].
TJG: Take me all the way back to the beginning of this idea to do an album with strings.
TP: First, I decided to do an album on tape, the purist way. My initial desire was to get that sound of the 50s and 60s, the way they recorded it, get into the spirit and process they went through. There’s still so much new music where people still pay tribute to those old classic sounds, whether it’s in the writing, recording, or using samples. I wanted to recreate that sound from the ground up because man, every time I hear the old stuff, there’s just nothing like it. Also, I fantasize about what it would be like to have lived in the 50s and 60s. What I would do, how would my music sound, how would I have interacted with those people? This album came out of all that thinking. We did it in Studio G in Williamsburg, where they have a really good tape machine and a big room, with everyone in one room, and did it the way they did it.
TJG: Any specific albums that jump out when you think about the sound you want your album to have?
TP: One big inspiration, as far as the strings were concerned, were the Nat King Cole records with Nelson Riddle doing those amazing string arrangements. That style is so classic, it puts you in a certain mood. I wanted to recreate my own version in the spirit of that with my own music. As far as the quartet sound, I realized early on that a chordless quartet sounds really interesting when you’re playing simple harmony. Just two horns, bass, and drums. It amplifies the sound: It still sounds new. A lot of my compositions are harmonically simple, but you get this feeling when you hear them with no guitar or piano. Those are the two ideas I decided to combine on this record. I think it’s gonna be really cool. I’m excited about it.
TJG: How long has this project been in the works?
TP: We started recording in October of last year. This recording process is unconventional: We go in and only deal with two songs at a time. Since we’re recording on tape, there’s no editing involved, and whatever we have is what we get. I wanted to go in there with no pressure, spend as much time as we need on a couple of songs. We’d play, then talk about it. Don’t like it? Play it again. If we didn’t get a take we wanted, no pressure, we would go right back in the studio and do it again. We took our time.
TJG: Recording with tape, taking extra studio time, using a full string orchestra: That can be expensive. How have you been able to finance the project?
TP: A lot of prayer [laughs]. You know, this is something I’m really passionate about, and fortunately, I’ve been able to save some money while touring with Gregory Porter and doing other projects. I would like to have some time of help, but for now, I’m just going for it.
TJG: Any plans for crowdfunding or grants?
TP: I was thinking about applying for some grants, but it’s one of those things where I’m organizing my own time, and it takes a while for my mind to settle into the creative mode of writing like this. It takes a lot of mental creative energy. And at the start, I didn’t plan on combining the string section. My initial thought was to record on tape and do this as a quartet. When I listened back, I thought “I definitely need to add strings.” It’s all coming together in an organic way. As the project moves along, I think I may have to get it all recorded before I can shift my focus onto grants or shopping the project to labels, letting them know what I’m up to. It hurts, but I’m doing it [laughs].
TJG: It’s great that you’re going where your heart takes you! So at the Gallery show, it’ll be basically the quartet from the album, except Dean Torrey is stepping in on bass. Will you mostly play stuff from the upcoming album?
TP: Yeah. There will be some new stuff too. This quartet has played a lot, and people who have heard us a lot may have heard some of the songs that will be on the album. But there are some new songs that will be on the album too, and we’ll debut those at this Gallery show.
TJG: What are you looking forward to about the show, especially since you’ve already recorded some of this material?
TP: Man, I’m looking forward to our cohesion. We’ve developed a special thing. Philip and I especially, we’ve spent a lot of time developing space, learning when to speak, when to listen. When we speak together, we sound as one, you know. I’m really proud of how our sound together has developed.
TJG: One more question: You may not know this, but you’re the first person I ever interviewed for The Jazz Gallery, about five years ago. It’s a special treat for me to talk with you again today! Since we first spoke, what have some of your biggest musical moments been?
TP: Okay, so we’re in 2019. We’re talking about 2014… Wow. Okay. It was in 2014 that I first had this idea to do this kind of chordless quartet, and we may have talked about this configuration in our first interview. We started to play locally, and I was getting the group on a few jazz festivals. Then, I got the call from Gregory Porter. I started touring, and that was literally a year-round gig, over two hundred shows a year starting in 2015. That has continued basically until now. I haven’t really had the time or energy to focus on my own stuff, it’s all been dedicated to being on the road with him. Within those four years, I’ve had amazing experiences throughout the world. Some of my favorite concerts were in Porto, Portugal, the most beautiful city. Royal Albert Hall in London is amazing, like Carnegie Hall. That was a big moment. The Berlin Philharmonie… It’s been great.
TJG: You’ve been around the world, and now you’re getting back into your own thing again. Amazing. Congratulations, this is such an exciting time for you!
TP: Yes. I’m looking forward to it. It’s time.
The Tivon Pennicott Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, February 9, 2019. The group features Mr. Pennicott on saxophone, Philip Dizack on trumpet, Dean Torrey on bass, and Joe Saylor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.