Bebop and Beyond: The Greg Banaszak Juggernaut
The American saxophonist will return to Mumbai next month to play a jazz concert with his band at the NCPA
Every once in a while, sadly not frequently enough, there will be a jazz concert in Mumbai which will rival any in the world. On June 17th at the NCPA in Mumbai, a jazz sextet led by American alto saxophonist Greg Banaszak will play such an evening of jazz.
We know it will be absolutely top drawer jazz — Greg had performed in Mumbai last year in August in two extraordinary concerts and had the audience spellbound. In our opinion, it is a concert one might regret missing.
In 1953, the great altoist Charlie “Bird” Parker had recorded an astounding session Entitled Bird with Strings in which jazz standards and ballads had been performed with an orchestra and string section. These are among the most beautiful jazz recordings ever. Greg Banaszak came to Mumbai in 2015 and along with the Symphony Orchestra on India [SOI] conducted by Piotr Borkowski and played selections from those original sessions, a project so daunting, jazz musicians have not emulated them. Their two concerts, one at the NCPA and the other at Prithvi Theatre, were quite awesome.
This time, Banaszak returns for his India concert with a quartet of extremely interesting musicians from the US. Three of the four are trained classical music performers and also play jazz. One of the four is a Hollywood movie star, having played a jazz pianist in the recently released film, Miles Ahead, based on the life of Miles Davis.
The American quartet of musicians will be accompanied for the Mumbai concert by drummer Benny Soans and bass player D.Wood. Greg Banaszak had played with Soans at a private concert in Mumbai last year and thinks highly of the drummer. He has asked specifically for Soans to play in his band. D.Wood, who has been a Mumbai resident for the past several years, is also American. Wood is a graduate from the Berklee music school in Boston and has played with a host of big names in jazz.
We interviewed the musicians in the band and unearthed some very interesting aspects of them and their music.
Greg Banaszak: ‘We play music that reaches every member in the audience’
Sunil Sampat (SS): Welcome back to India, Greg. We have wonderful memories of your masterful “Bird with Strings” concerts in Mumbai in 2015. You paid your tribute to Charlie Parker. Who are your other musical influences?
Greg Banaszak (GB): I always gravitate musically to the Blue Note masters, so to speak. My mentor Jackie McLean, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley etc. That being said, we always try to play music – in Cleveland, Warsaw or Mumbai – which will reach every member of the audience. You will see that in June. For the Mumbai audience we will play an original composition, “The House that McLean Built”. I’d like to dedicate that performance to the people of Mumbai.
SS: How did you take to the saxophone?
GB: As a ten year old, I heard Phil Woods on the radio playing Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”, a swinging version, and wanted to play whatever that instrument was; I didn’t know it was a saxophone! Since then Woods has been a friend and guide. He wanted to hear about my Mumbai concert last year but sadly he passed away before I could talk to him about it.
SS: We understand that your pianist, Theron Brown has acted as Herbie Hancock in the just released movie ‘Miles Ahead’ based on the trumpet great. Have you played with Brown for long?
GB: Mr Brown is an exceptional talent and we have played together for some time, along with long time musical partner trombonist Christopher Anderson and vocalist Andrea Schnitzer. Theron Brown has some classical skills as a virtuoso pianist and I truly believe he represents the future of jazz. There are no walls or musical barriers about him!
SS: And your other band members?
GB: I have known Christopher Anderson for over 25 years. He has played alongside so many greats – Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Steve Davis etc. He has been influenced harmonically by the McLean school and a style all his own.
Andrea Snitzer has a voice that is beyond description. She is one of the few talents whose voice has an opera singer’s quality and yet steeped in the tradition of the blues and gospel music – the soul of jazz. Her stage presence and voice are a captivating combination.
SS: We remember your playing “Donna Lee” at breakneck speed for over 15 minutes in Mumbai last year at a private session. You were accompanied only by Benny Soans on drums. Do we expect a repeat?
GB: I am not sure about a repeat but I am glad Benny will play with us in Mumbai. He plays every beat right from his heart. He is a formidable drummer and a wonderful person.
SS: You have always mentioned the impact of Jackie McLean on your playing. Tell us about this influence….
GB: I studied under maestro McLean at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. He was a direct descendant of Charlie Parker and he dedicated a large part of his life mentoring youngsters – including a young 17 year old Tony Williams, and passing on the message of jazz in the proper way. His experience, as you know went from his early years with Miles to playing with The Mingus Dynasty and Art Blakey plus the several groups he led himself. I have benefitted from this McLean Dynasty! I was blessed to be in his presence and try to stay true to his belief that you must try and be the very best you can every day…….
Trombone player Christopher Anderson: ‘Hip Hop Has Taken the Place of Jazz in American Pop Culture’
SS: The trombone is much rarer than say, a trumpet or saxophone in jazz. What inspired you to trod on this path less travelled?
Christopher Anderson (CA): Actually, I didn’t have much choice in making this decision. In school I took music classes. The teacher had me try a few instruments and said, ‘You’re going to play trombone.’ That’s it!
SS: Whom have you looked up to in your musical formative years, trombone or otherwise?
CA: I have had excellent music teachers. I’ve been very fortunate here. As a youngster, I was given a CD of J.J.Johnson, the great trombone player while in high school. He has been a huge influence on my playing. In college, Greg Banaszak has helped me unlock the blues and put me on to Jackie McLean and opened up a new world for me.
SS: How do you view the development of the valve trombone? Do you think it brings a similar feel as the traditional slide trombone?
CA: The valve trombone has a unique sound which is different from the slide trombone. It is fun to play and definitely has a place in jazz.
SS: How do you view your inspiration, J.J.Johnson?
CA: He has not only an incredible tone and harmonic sense but great sense of rhythm. He generates so much energy by using just a few notes. I am trying to pick up from where he left off.
SS: Where do you find the best space in jazz for the trombone – in ballads, swing, bebop/hardbop or elsewhere?
CA: The trombone works well in all of it. The funkier the groove of the music, the more important the sound of the trombone becomes.
SS: Is the great American art form, jazz fully appreciated in the US? There is a perception that people elsewhere – the Japanese for instance are more keen on jazz than Americans. What do you think?
CA: Where jazz used to be at the forefront of pop culture in the US, it is now hip hop, especially with young people. But I find that many people, particularly the young, once exposed to jazz, are beginning to see how powerful it has been in our society. I have founded a society, Open Tone Music in 2010 to expose the youth to the traditions of American music, jazz. Through this we have been able to reach thousands of young people.
Pianist Theron Brown: ‘Hopefully, one day I will get to hang out with Herbie Hancock’
SS: We believe you are playing a young Herbie Hancock in Don Cheadle’s movie Miles Ahead. How did this role come about?
Theron Brown (TB): In the spring of 2014 I was contacted to audition for a part in the film. To this day, I don’t know who suggested my name. The audition results were taken to Don Cheadle and I was offered the role of young Herbie Hancock from the Second Great Quintet (of Miles Davis). I was and still am quite ecstatic and hopefully one day I will get to hang out with Herbie Hancock!
SS: Is this movie and the other biopics on Chet Baker and Nina Simone likely to bring people to jazz?
TB: Absolutely! Jazz is on an upswing. As a culture, we are finally beginning to bring the importance of this music to the surface. I believe Miles Ahead is making people take notice of Miles’ music and jazz as social music.
SS: Tell us about your own piano playing.
TB: I started playing piano at the age of five. My biggest influences have been Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock and Mulgrew Miller. I now have a master’s degree in piano. I hope to travel all over the US and internationally with the message of jazz.
Vocalist Andrea Schnitzer: ‘I Have a Soft Spot for the Blues and Soul’
SS: How did you get into jazz singing?
Andrea Schnitzer (AS): I always sang as a child but I am indebted to my teachers and particularly Greg Banaszak for mentoring and guiding me. I have a degree in music.
SS: Do you sing all types of music?
AS: It is mainly jazz and although I appreciate all genres of jazz, I have a soft spot for the blues and soul.
SS: Are there any jazz musicians whom you look up to?
AS: Oh yes. There are three vocalists I look up to – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday. I find their talents quite incredible and I use these to inspire me. There are instrumentalists I admire as well; Wynton Marsalis, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. The way they handle the complexities of their music is also an inspiration to me.
SS: Is this your first trip to India?
AS: Yes! Except for Greg, we are on our first India tour and greatly look forward to be visiting your country.