At Hamilton’s Bakery in Harlem, Adam Larson shows up early for coffee. Purple Rain shakes the place at full volume, followed by Superstition. We sit and I ask him about the neighborhood. Larson quickly gives me a rundown: “Tazo Coffee on 157th, Tsion Cafe on 148th, where Wayne Escoffery plays some Thursdays, Sylvana on 116th, the old St. Nick’s Pub, now closed.” Larson is a living vault of venues, musicians, and opportunities in New York City. His knowledge of the industry extends beyond the names of clubs and owners. At only twenty six years old, self-managed and self-motivated, saxophonist and composer Adam Larson has turned the elusive art of booking gigs into a tangible science.
It’s all in service of the music. Larson, now a father, still premieres new work with new ensembles on nearly a monthly basis at venues across the city. His upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery with Can Olgun (piano/nord), Desmond White (electric/acoustic bass) and Jonathan Blake (drums) is presented in partnership with Composers Now. Over coffee, between texts to his wife and calls to the plumber, a very busy and hyper-focused Adam Larson discussed his upcoming gig schedule, his thoughts on composition, and the ways in which he pursues personal and musical growth.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been living in Harlem for a while?
Adam Larson: About five years, yeah. I’ve steadily been moving north since I graduated. Next we may move to Queens. In the 2008 brochures from Manhattan School of Music, it was like, ‘Don’t go above 125th street’ [laughs]. Now it’s all different. I love this spot, Hamilton’s Bakery. It’s pretty hipster, but this is my spot.
TJG: Last time we talked was before your previous Jazz Gallery show in September, right before your son was born.
AL: We were expecting him on Halloween. The 30th came, and we thought he was going to be late. Then, late in the morning, my wife feels these kicks. Eighteen hours later, he was born. Healthy, happy, great.
TJG: You were saying that show at The Gallery would probably be your last for a while, so you could spend some time with your son.
AL: I didn’t travel until two weeks ago. I stayed in the city from September to early February, which is new for me. Usually I’m out every single month doing something. And I took a month off from performing outside of New York, aside from playing at Birdland in November. I knew I had that on the calendar months in advance, and I considered cancelling since I wouldn’t be able to get a big turnout. But I had actually drafted up all my press emails a week before he was born, so in the recovery room, I had my phone and hit ‘send’ on these emails. The music is important, but getting people to the show is one of my major priorities.
TJG: So what was it like to be away from your son for the first time?
AL: It was difficult, but it was only about 36 hours. I didn’t really have time to think about it. I was so busy doing stuff while I was away. I have to provide, it puts things in perspective. My wife’s a stay-at-home mom, and the financial obligations fall on me. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. It’s a pleasure to have opportunities to create. It helps a lot.
TJG: You seem like someone who’s always done the most to capitalize on your time. What’s it like having your time squished even more?
AL: It’s all about managing expectations. I can’t play four hours a day, like I did in college. And it’s okay with me: I want to be a part of my son’s life. I’ve always been conscious of my time, but can compartmentalize things. I can look at the clock and say, ‘Okay, I have 30 minutes right now, and 30 minutes this afternoon. How can I use these minutes effectively? Am I going to write? Play saxophone?’ It’s a tightrope act, making sure I’m being a good husband, a good father, and am taking care of my music.
TJG: These days, how do those 30 minute chunks look?
AL: I write a lot. Most of the time, there’s an idea in my head that I haven’t put on paper yet. This morning I taught a lesson via Skype, and I had twenty minutes after I got out of the shower to do something of my own. So, I wrote down a tune, almost finished it. There’s no need to get dark about productivity; there’s plenty of time, you just have to be super focused about it.
TJG: It’s good to know you can do it when you need to. Some people might get into these time-crunched situations and say; “I need to be focused about this, but I’m not a person who can be focused.”
AL: I don’t really have an option any more. I want to write new music and play it, and need to get it done. I’ll stay up late or wake up early. I’m a bandleader, with lots of things coming up in the next six months where I want to have new music. Development is not just an option for me; it’s something I feel compelled to do. I write when the iron is hot, and I have to take advantage of it.
TJG: You sent me a couple charts to look at ahead of time, ‘Flatline’ and ‘Loophole.’
AL: Yup. ‘Flatline’—it’s overly tricky and has lots of mixed meters. I wrote that one a while back, and ‘Loophole’ was on my first record, even though I haven’t played it in a while. I have a few newer tunes that I wrote for this gig at the Gallery, and one that I’m finishing up now. We’ll play ‘Flatline,’ the three new tunes, and maybe a few others I seldom play. When I travel, I’m playing with pickup bands, and we don’t really get the chance to rehearse. For this gig, it’ll be different now that I’m playing with people who will have the time to check new tunes out.
TJG: Have you been writing stuff specifically for this quartet?
AL: Not specifically. My personnel changed even this last two weeks. I’m thrilled to have Desmond [White] playing bass. He’s incredible, a serious musician, so that’ll be awesome to have him in the band. Can [Olgun] has been playing with me for a while. Turkish guy, we’ve been playing since we went to school together. He’s been on a few of my records, we’re close friendship- and music-wise. He’s on every gig I have in 2017 right now. We hang all the time. His son is a year and a half old, and our wives are friends too. He was happy to have another jazz dad around.
TJG: Alan Ferber fairly recently had a baby too, I think.
AL: Yeah, and Gilad Hekselman did too. It seems like everyone’s having jazz babies. Three out of the four people in my band have kids. At a session eight years ago, maybe one guy had a wedding ring on. At the last session I went to, four out out of five guys were married, two had kids.
TJG: Maybe The Jazz Gallery should have a daycare.
AL: Man. You should talk to Rio about that. We could do a fundraiser for that.
TJG: We’re in the middle of our fundraising campaign right now. Maybe that should be one of the awards. “We’ll watch your kid for a while.”
AL: I would be bidding on that, all day long.
TJG: So, tell me a bit about Can’s playing.
AL: He’s kind of a hidden gem, to be honest. He does a lot of stuff you may not be aware of, and it doesn’t bother him. He’s embraced the sideman role. He teaches quite a bit. In my band, he’s a great foil to the way I play. Meaning, I tend to play a lot of saxophone, most of the time. And whatever I play, he supports it. When he improvises, it’s a contrast to what’s going on. When he comps, it’s sparse and delicate, but delicate in the way that it often makes me stop, think, and consider what I’m playing.
TJG: What do you mean when you say “I play a lot of saxophone?”
AL: All the time I was in school, I heard that I play too much. Play a lot of notes [laughs]. Yeah, I’m energetic. Compositionally, I’m trying to balance that out. I put myself in different boxes that I confront, things where I can’t just put myself in ‘shred mode’ and go for the jugular.
TJG: So what kind of boxes are you trying to put yourself in now?
AL: All the stuff I’ve written for the Gallery has been saxophone first, harmonized second. In 90% of my compositions, chords come first. I’m trying to make my saxophone melodies less crazy. Some of my tunes sound like saxophone gymnastics, and I’ll be the first to say it. I’ve come to a point where I have a book of high-energy tunes. Over the course of a set, I seek to be challenged through harmony, meter, or both. I build more around orchestration. It’s not just, “Here’s a melody, 1, 2, 3, 4, we’re all in.” I ask myself, “How can I take a bare-bones skeleton that starts at the edges and grows into the middle? At what point do I begin to write for myself more?” People who listen to my music often tell me they remember parts of melodies, they find them catchy. People can latch on to what I write. I don’t think it takes away from the music, because it’s all very challenging stuff. You’ve been to concerts before where, even as a musician, you say, ‘That was hard to listen to. I had to be engaged the whole time.” I want to be writing this kind of music, a cross between two kinds of engagement.
TJG: That’s pretty abstract. How are these thoughts coming into your music?
AL: When I was in school and taking more classical classes, I was writing some pretty bare stuff. I wouldn’t play that stuff today, it’s not my wheelhouse. I know what makes me comfortable, and I know how I want to be pushed. I know what will make me grow. I don’t want to be a chameleon. I do want to put myself in any musical situation and do a good job, but if you have a gig playing bebop the whole time, I know there are a million people who can do it better than me. The music I’m writing now, it’s a challenge for me to write from a certain harmonic standpoint. Mixed meter has always been my thing, you know, but I’m trying to building situations for myself where I can be more reactionary, can building compositions with new issues to tackle.
TJG: You’re the primary breadwinner for the family, supporting yourself with gigs and educational opportunities. You can put together the bands that you want, and play the shows you want to play. Do you feel pressure to know exactly what you want?
AL: I feel lucky for that every day. I don’t take it for granted that I play the gigs I’ve dreamed of playing. It’s something I’ve worked hard at every single day. Sending emails to get gigs, being persistent. I’ve had people tell me, in no uncertain terms, “You’re being annoying about it.” But I have a depth of work which I know will sound good, and the musicians I hire always do a great job. So the pressure I feel most often with shows is to be on my game and to get people out. The bulk of my income comes from educational opportunities, masterclasses, and booking. I’m touring in March, and am fortunate to be able to make it work as a sole income provider. I make most of my money when I’m out of New York. While in the city, I try to have one awesome opportunity a month. In January I played at Smalls. This month I’ll play at The Jazz Gallery. I ended up picking up a gig in Williamsburg with Can Olgun, Colin Stranahan, Matt Clohesy playing bass, a great band. Next month, Smalls and 55 Bar. Out of town most of March. April, I’m at Birdland. I’m fortunate. These gigs repeat themselves too. If you do a good job and bring a crowd, then there’s no reason you can’t do the gig again after a certain amount of time.
TJG: Do you have representation?
AL: I do not. This isn’t coming from an egotistical place, but a manager would have to do a better job than what I’m currently doing. A lot of people don’t do masterclasses all the time. A lot of my friends come back from playing on the road and complain about not making a profit. It’s like, I hear you, but there are plenty of things you could be doing. I’d like management only in the hope that it could get me into different venues and festivals, scenes where I’d need someone advocating on my behalf.
TJG: So how do you book educational opportunities?
AL: I began putting in the grassroots connections a long time ago. As a teenager growing up in Illinois, going to All State Conferences, meeting band directors, keeping in touch, I started with what I knew. If you’re 18 and a freshman in college, go back to your high school and do a free masterclass. Nobody has to know it was free. When you present yourself to another school and say you did a masterclass on improvisation and composition, give them your fee. From there, it bubbled out. I wanted to get into the college market. There, you don’t have to talk about not playing the 4th on a dominant 7 chord on a Bb blues. You can get into some real stuff. Most places in the country, even in New York, we don’t educate students on how to make a living out of music. It’s a unique vantage I have on venues that otherwise wouldn’t have given me the time of day. Once you get one gig, it’s a stepping stone to a better gig. Once you do a good masterclass, referrals and recommendations go a long way. I’ve done the math behind it, and for me to feel comfortable supporting my family, I need to be doing a couple of those a month, on top of the teaching I do.
TJG: Specifically regarding this upcoming gig at the Gallery, what are you looking forward to seeing happen on stage?
AL: The musicians, playing new music. Johnathan Blake has been kind to make a lot of my recent gigs, and he’s someone I‘ve always wanted to play with, but I never had the right opportunity. I don’t think you’ll ever see this rhythm section combination again. Someone came to my 55 Bar gig in August, and said, “I didn’t know who you were, but I came because Matt Penman, Johnathan Blake, and Fabian Almazan were playing together, and I don’t know if that’ll every happen again. I also happen to like the way you play saxophone.” For me, that’s fine. I don’t care. As long as you’re here, that’s what’s important to me.
TJG: So when you put together the setlist, do you look for places where these guys will have the opportunity to do something unique together?
AL: I’ve never been a fan of going to a show where people play five tunes and never say a word. I always feel disconnected. However, I might play three tunes in a row, because the music will flow back to back to back. I try to be energetic on the mic, talk to people. But the music has a nice ebb and flow to it, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the arc of the setlist more than I have in the past. I know I’ll have some moments to feature Johnathan, and not in an “end of the tune, vamp on some hits, fade out” kind of way. I’ve used that device too many times. Compositionally, it’s on me to make some opportunities for more meaningful expression. Maybe, some drums playing the melody, things I haven’t done before. Johnathan Blake is incredible, he shows up to the gig with the music taped and highlighted, listened to reference recordings, and will just kill it. It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen. The people I’ve worked with like that, those are always my first calls.
TJG: I’m curious, on what the most challenging part of your musical life is. Breadwinning aside, touring aside. When you sit down at the piano, with the horn, with pencil in hand, what doesn’t come easily to you? What have you had to work hardest at?
AL: On a compositional level, I’m asking questions. What’s corny? What’s not necessary? Where’s the line? I’m self-conscious about taste. I care a lot about what other people think. I’m grateful when musicians point things out. Harish Raghavan, I love the guy. He’s opinionated about coffee, wine, music, everything, and I’ve always dug it. One of my first gigs at Bar Next Door was with him and Otis Brown, another random rhythm section combo you won’t see often. Harish was nice enough to drive me out to Otis’ place in Jersey. On the drive back, Harish said, “Can I give you some unsolicited advice? I was like, “Of course. This is what I’ve been hoping for.” He said, “You have a tendency to rush,” and then he proceeded to tell me some things I could work on. At that point, I said, I’m here, I’m the bottom of the totem pole. Defense mechanisms won’t help me. Harish was honest, and I was grateful. I tell kids in high school, you have to put in this much work to see this many results right now. The world is your burrito. Especially if you don’t know your twelve major scales, my God, I’d love to be where you are.
TJG: And in terms of your own practicing?
AL: Feeling like I’m accomplishing something in the practice room is difficult now. When you’ve practiced an obsessive amount of hours, it’s going to take more work to see any difference. Sometimes it’s just maintenance. Usually, I feel like a good rule of thumb is, if you sound like you suck in the practice room, you’re getting something done. If you walk past a cat in school who sounds killing in the practice room, ask yourself, “What is he practicing, exactly?” I’ve always embraced the idea of putting yourself down while you’re practicing, to struggle. Some things I play, they aren’t new, and I’m going through the motions. It’s the worst feeling ever. How much of a disservice is that to the people around you? Johnathan Blake; If I was going to play and not listen to anyone, I could hire Jamey Aebersold. I don’t need Johnathan Blake to keep time, I need him to create. Sometimes I lose track of that. Sometimes I listen back on a gig and say, “What was I thinking? I missed all this great stuff.”
TJG: What a treat, then, to build a situation where you can all play together.
AL: Totally. Having the right venues, enough time, the right band. I’m fortunate. I put myself in positions where I’m the weakest on the stage. In college, my music probably never sounded tighter, because I played with basically the same five people for four years, but I wasn’t the worst one in the band. I wasn’t learning triple. When I put myself in a position with John, with Des, with Can, I’m definitely not the best one on the bandstand. If I’m on stage with Ari Hoenig and Will Vinson, I’m clearly not the breadwinner in that band, and that’s cool with me.
TJG: Adam, thank you for your time. Good luck finishing these charts!
AL: No problem. I’ve gotta split, I’ve got a baby, a wife, and a plumber waiting at home.
The Adam Larson Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, February 24th, 2017. The group features Mr. Larson on tenor saxophone, Can Olgun on piano/keyboard, Desmond White on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.