Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tad Shull - Deep Passion in the Land of the Jazz Tenor Saxophonist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

My introduction to Tad Shull’s big, blustery and boisterous Jazz tenor saxophone sound came from two CD’s he made for Gerry Teekens’ Criss Cross Jazz in the early 1990’s.

When listening to Tad, legendary tenor players like Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Johnny Griffin, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Lucky Thompson come to mind. Not bad company to be in, but make no mistake, Tad is his own man.

As Richard Cook and Brian Morton have remarked in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.: “Shull is a big-toned tenor specialist out of Norwalk, Connecticut. … Having taken the trouble to get himself a decent sound and to learn the changes inside out, he’s not afraid to tackle ungarnished D-flat blues. An unabashed traditionalist, there is plenty of evidence on his recordings that Shull keeps his ears open.”

Here’s more about Tad’s background from drummer Kenny Washington sleeve notes to Deep Passion: Tad Shull Quintet [Criss Cross 1047 CD].

In an era when it seems like all you have to do to record for a major label is to be 20 years old, wear an imported suit, look cute, and have an attitude, it is refreshing to see someone record who really deserves it.

I've played with just about every young 'star', and I've found that if you take them out of their world of vamps, and phrygian & mixolydian modes, and you stick a standard tune or the blues in front of them, you really hear that they sound like beginners. A young musician (who will remain nameless) was playing in an all-star concert with Dizzy Gillespie. Diz called Ellington's In a Mellow Tone, and this musician asked me to hum the melody to him! That was six years ago, and I wouldn't be surprised if he still didn't know it now.

The two main reasons for this are, one, that the record companies are snapping up these players before they get any experience. Between a musician's looks, personality, and record companies' marketing strategies, they turn a young jazz musician into a boy wonder (or, as I call them, boy blunders!). In short, the last thing on some of these record bigwigs' minds is the music. They themselves are not into the music, but only their ill-gotten gains. All this helps to lower the once very high standard of this music. The second reason is that the young musicians themselves have not taken the time to study the history of this music. The average tenor saxophonist today knows almost nothing before Sonny Rollins' Prestige recordings. There are a lot of transitional figures that were around before Rollins. Tad Shull is definitely someone who has taken the time out to check out all musical styles.

Tad was born in Norwalk. Connecticut on October 15,1955. At age 11 his music teachers gave him a saxophone, saying his ear wasn't good enough for any other instrument (imagine that!). Tad says, 'I pictured a sound like Don Byas', though I had yet to hear him, and that's why I stuck with it. A local musician played me Coleman Hawkins' Body and Soul, and some Duke Ellington, a few years later.'
At age 16, Tad studied with Dave Liebman, who was playing with Elvin Jones at the time. Liebman turned him on to the other big-toned tenors, like Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis and Johnny Griffin.

Tad went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied the mechanics of jazz with two legendary figures, Jaki Byard, and Joe Allard. Tad says he owes his whole approach to the horn itself to Joe.

In 1978, he made the big move to New York City. Tad caught the tail end of the midtown jazz scene that was left from the 'forties, playing at Eddie Condon's and Jimmy Ryan's before they closed. He got a chance to work with masters like Roy Eldridge, Connie Kay, Eddie Locke and John Bunch. Tad looked especially to Roy and also Jimmy Rowles not only as musical influences, but for attitudes towards the jazz life in general.

In 1980, Tad toured the U.S. and Canada with the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble, led by Bob Wilber. A year later, he joined the Widespread Depression Jazz Orchestra, where he has held that chair ever since. In addition to playing with WDJO, he has continued to lead his own groups.

I met Tad in 1985 after playing with the WDJO, and was completely knocked out
by his sound and knowledge of the music. What you should keep in mind while listening to him is that this young tenor titan has checked out all saxophone styles. You hear everything from Hawkins to Coltrane. Also, you can hear how Tad was especially intrigued by some angular, more harmonically daring tenor players. I'm speaking of tenor masters like Chu Berry, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Paul Gonsalves, and Lockjaw Davis. These players had a different way of approaching rhythm and harmony. You could never tell what they might play next. From listening to these masters, I can tell that Tad has the same kind of approach. The amazing thing about it is that although he has listened to these great men, he's his own man on the horn.

For years it bugged me that Tad wasn't better known. It also bugged me that he didn't have a date out under his own name. I talked to Gerry Teekens, the owner of Criss-Cross, and urged him to check him out. After hearing a demo by Tad, he was thoroughly convinced that Tad had something to say.

This brings us to Deep Passion, which is Tad's first as a leader. The title simply means the feelings that are conveyed when this man plays his horn. His big, round, smooth tone conveys beauty, intimacy and love at all tempos -- but especially the ballads.

The musicians at hand here [Tad, Kenny, Irwin Stokes on trumpet, Mike LeDonne, piano and Dennis Irwin on bass] should meet with any jazz chef's taste buds. Jazz is like making a sauce. If you don't have the right spices it won't have the right flavor. The spices here are right. We get together to simmer and cook a soulful, swingin' jazz sauce….”

Tad shred these thoughts on his approach to Jazz in the insert notes from his second Criss Cross CD In The Land of the Tenor [Criss Cross 1071 CD].

“The best writers on jazz understand that there is only so much words can add to the music itself.   Having to speak on my own playing carries added risks.   I could fall into congratulating myself, or fuss over pet details.   Now, owners of this brand new CD must want to know something about the background of the person they are listening to. The best approach might be to offer something about my attitude towards the tenor saxophone and what it's like to learn to play it.

In terms of musical apprenticeship, I went backwards in time. While I struggled to grab a piece of whatever incredible things my idols were able to do, a part of unraveling the mystery was to find out what each guy listened to when he was coming up — what made him tick.

When I started, Coltrane was not long gone, and like many other tenor players at the time I was caught up in the wave. But it didn't seem as though Coltrane himself, different as he was, could have just sprung up from out of nowhere. Over a period of years, it turned out, Coltrane led me to Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin, then Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, and of course Charlie Parker. Bird himself could not have been Bird but for the rich musical culture he had been nurtured with since day one. So curiosity about Bird then meant checking out Lester Young, and then finally Coleman Hawkins, and Hawk-inspired players like Don Byas and Lucky Thompson.

The more I went back, the more I discovered that the styles of these older men following Hawk were even harder to "cop" than the ones who came later, who I
think relied more on set patterns. There was something "whole" and personal there. Technique they had aplenty. But so does everyone else. It struck me that these classic tenors made technique the servant of an almost vocal, speechlike expression. Every note molded tone, attack, harmony, you name it, into something complete. I think that kind of split-second control over every facet of music at once is what we mean by the term "melody"—and that's always personal.

Thinking about the personal approach of these past masters of the tenor gives me the moxie to keep going in the future. Jazz has already seen many, many tenor players come and go. I keep hearing more new ones that can really play every day. After so much tenor, why still more?  Maybe it's because, in this music where the performer is also the composer, it's an ideal medium for self-expression. The tonal range of the tenor provides a raw, unformed piece of plastic material for each soul to shape or imprint as he likes. The classic tenors showed that the possibilities just overflowed from the bell of the horn, and their descendants proved the source couldn't be drained (ever notice that even bad tenor players "sound like themselves"?). With a hundred years of jazz behind us, it's still hard to believe that newcomers can't add to the choruses already played.

Now that it comes to painting myself into this tableau of tenor history, the job gets tricky.   Naming some of my worthy forebears, and rhapsodizing about jazz individualism, I risk comparing myself with them.   In my case, their breathtaking originality or technical innovation may still be a distant goal. But with so many
tenors listen to, there is a point where you can't help doing things your own way. The problem, as I said up front, is to put into words what that "way" is.

You probably guessed I am not an avant-garde player.   Even though I have some idols who were born before World War I,  I don't see much need to hone safely to "the tradition." How about something in between "trad" and avant-garde, then, say straight ahead? But I think you will hear that I do not sound like other straight-ahead players.

In the end, I can tell you something about what I'm not. But if you want to know what I am, you will have to listen and judge for yourself.”

This video with give you a taste of the sound of Tad Shull’s tenor “in action.” The tune is Kenny Dorham’s Buffalo on which he is joined by guitarist Peter Bernstein, Hammond B-3 organist, Melvin Rhyne and drummer Kenny Washington.


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