Interview with Andrew Neu: The brain executes music in different ways
Interview by Simon Sargsyan
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Andrew Neu: – I grew up in a musical family outside of Philadelphia. My father is a retired engineer and an amateur viola and trombone player. My early years I pretty much only heard classical music around the house. My older sister is a flute and piano player but it was my big brother, Peter that introduced me to jazz, big band, R & B and pop music. He’s a professional trumpet player and a music teacher. I am the proud product of a public school music education program.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the your musical instrument?
AN: – As the youngest of a musical family there was no question that I would play music. I wanted to play trumpet but my brother was already playing that. I started on clarinet and eventually added saxophone in order to play in the school jazz band. Piano and flute lessons soon followed. I actually taught myself to play trumpet for a while. Those skills all help me as a writer. I graduated from Temple University where I studied classical saxophone with Marshall Taylor and jazz sax with Larry McKenna.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
AN: – I think that the discipline of training as a classical saxophonist allowed me to control the instrument in terms of sound, pitch, dynamics and altissimo. Once I had that control my ears took over and formed my sound. I spent a long time unsuccessfully trying to emulate my favorite players. Eventually I gave up and just tried to create the best sound that was natural for me.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
AN: – Whether you’re playing Bach, Basie or (James) Brown the groove is omnipotent. It’s critical to play stylistically appropriate to whatever genre you happen to be playing at that moment. I practice with either a metronome or different patterns on a drum machine. Often I’ll working on a sequence and displace the beat or group it in duples, triples or any rhythmic combination. i.e. taking a four note pattern and grouping it in triplets.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
AN: – The old adage is to practice a pattern in all twelve keys. Although I always strive for that the reality is that certain lines just naturally sit better in some keys. Rather than simply transposing a pattern I try to find a way to make it idiomatic for the range and limitations of the saxophone. When I shed standards I like to transpose them into different keys and meters. On my new record we have a version of Body and Soul as a samba in 7. After immersing yourself in the 7/8 groove it no longer sounds odd.
I think like a lot of young musicians my first introduction to playing jazz was in the school jazz band. I was always fascinated by the scores. I can remember borrowing scores to study from as early as middle school. I composed and performed my first big band charts in high school. I’ve always embraced sitting in a great section as much as being a soloist. It’s a different skill and experience. I always shared my arrangements in the big bands that I was playing but I finally began rehearsing my own big band in LA back in 2011. The band we took into the studio was already very familiar with my charts and were able to add another level of insight into their performance. I’m currently touring with singer, Bobby Caldwell. We just returned from Japan.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
AN: – I always try to stay tuned into the other brilliant musicians out there but at the same time I want to be focused on my own sound as an artist. I have been blown away by the last records by tenor players Doug Webb and Gary Meek.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
AN: – I’ve always found that the most inspiring musicians have elements of both. I admire musicians that have clearly demonstrated the discipline and hard work that goes into perfecting their craft. On the flip side I’ve learned to embrace the idea of simply allowing your instincts to take over. Just play and see what happens. If your skill on your instrument is high you don’t need to think about HOW to play something. You just play it! I also apply this to writing. Although I think it’s a good idea to have a finished lead sheet of the tune you’re arranging I don’t map out the entire chart before I write. I try to allow the piece to lead me in the direction it needs to go. I also try not to compose in a vacuum. Whenever I’m adding a section of music I try to back up and hear it in the context of the rest of the piece.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
AN: – You never know who’s in the audience at your shows. I was playing a big band concert in Central New Jersey that I remember not going very well. I wasn’t happy with my playing and the sound was awful. As it happens the wife of soul jazz singer Bobby Caldwell was in the audience. We chatted after the show and I got a call a couple of days later from Bobby to do a gig. After subbing for a few years I began to tour with him full time. We’ve recorded several albums together and I’ve arranged and conducted his performances and recordings with big bands.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
AN: – As a young student of music you need to immerse yourself in making music. Perfect your craft. Play music not just gigs. The musical experience in a college music program often doesn’t reflect what you’ll find out in the real world so embrace it. Sitting in a 100 piece orchestra, rehearsing a Bill Holman big band chart, fine tuning a sax quartet, jamming in a practice room without a plan are experiences that are priceless. Regarding the business end, show up on time, dress a little nicer than you need to, be ready to adapt to any musical or logistical situation without an attitude. Sometimes the best players are sitting at home while a more reliable player gets the gig. Be both!
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
AN: – I absolutely believe that it has always been a consistent business but you get out of it what you choose to put into it. Success doesn’t automatically gravitate to you if you’re talented. I’ve been fortunate to build a career as a performer, writer and educator. I love all of those sides and feel that each skill set informs the other.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
AN: – Working with vocalists like Diane Schuur, Janis Siegel, Bobby Caldwell and Smokey Robinson really taught me about a musical approach to phrasing and the use of space. Backing a vocalist I learned that if their lips are moving don’t play!
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
AN: – I’ve found that my interaction with the jazz community covers all ages. In fact the high school and college musicians I work with are extremely passionate and are playing at a much higher level than I was at that age. Youth embraces the freedom that playing jazz embodies. Jazz musicians can’t ignore their audiences. Dave Brubeck always said that the audience was the fifth member of his quartet. They are the reason that you’re able to play jazz outside of a school setting. The jazz community needs to reach out to people who are not already jazz players themselves. I’m not suggesting that they dumb down their music but elevate the listening level of their audience.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
AN: – Wow! That’s a pretty big question. Coltrane certainly defined a spiritual approach to music. I don’t actively think about the spiritual side of music because I’m just focused on the music. I know that it there and I allow it to guide me. There are things that I do musically that are beyond my conscious understanding. The brain executes music in different ways. Certain things utilize my long term memory and others my short term. It’s like the difference between the hard drive and the RAM on my computer.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
AN: – I’m really blessed that I love my job. Although I have goals to perform, write and record more I love the process. It’s a journey that I hope never ends! My fear is that there might be a day that my skills are either no longer needed or they won’t be good enough. I always try to keep my edge and be ready for the next challenge. That’s what keeps me sharp.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
AN: – Every generation of musicians talks about how great the business “back in the day.” It’s always evolving and we need to embrace those changes. There was a time that free lancers would play a new act at a theater 40 weeks a year. Jazz musicians would play a clubs around the world for a week or two at a time. Lounge musicians would play the Holiday Inn six nights a week for a month. Recording artists would sell the same record on LP, CD and cassette tape. Audiences used to need to leave their home to find music. The artists and the audience are still there. Both sides need to support each other.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
AN: – I want to continue my body of work as a big band composer as well as expanding into larger symphonic jazz orchestra.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
AN: – Absolutely! Jazz by definition is a mix of the cultural influences from around the world. There are more musical fusions now than ever. I’m seeing Afghan, Indian, Asian, Russian and musicians from all over the world playing jazz with their own ethnic twist on it.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
AN: – I’m really impressed with John Beasley’s MONK’estra and Christian McBride’s Big Band. Bob Mintzer has a great new big band record out too. I’m also a fan of Patrick Williams. Great writing and performances.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
AN: – Cannonball Vintage Reborn – tenor, alto and soprano Silverstein ligatures Phil Barone Traditional Contemporary 7* – tenor Theo Wanne Blue A.R.T Mantra custom – alto Selmer C* soloist – soprano.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
AN: – The inspiration of this record is decidedly retro 1960’s. I love the Hollywood version of that era. It may not be reality but I’d love to think that it was. The great music of Quincy Jones, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, Henry Mancini and Buddy Rich really defined that time.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …
AN: – I’ve found that at this time in the music business it’s necessary to be as diverse as possible. I look at that as a positive thing. If had come up at a different time I probably would have been more specialized into one skill set or genre of music. I’ve been able to explore different musical directions as a performer, composer/arranger and educator. That’s what keeps me fresh.