I’m very critical about sound,” says Odean Pope, whose big warm tone has distinguished his tenor saxophone playing for more than 30 years. “Sound quality to me is like the voice of Teddy Roosevelt or Malcolm X or Paul Robeson. If the quality is there, whatever you do under that umbrella is going to sound good.” Pope’s robust tenor has been most widely heard in the Max Roach Quartet, on stage and on such recordings as Pictures in a Frame, Chatahoochee Red and Easy Winners. But the 61-year-old, South Carolina-born musician has embraced a variety of styles under his expansive and personalized umbrella of sound. A Philadelphia resident since the age of 12, Pope cut his musical teeth in a pit band that supported such soul singers as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations. He was a member of the funk ensemble Catalyst in the 1970s, and carried a similar sensibility into his trio with electric bassist Gerald Veasley and drummer Cornell Rochester. He has garnered acclaim for his pioneering Saxophone Choir, and recently began experimenting with African and jazz tap percussion in his ensembles.
Pope’s unique musical voice may be best heard in the current working trio—with bassist Tyrone Brown and drummer Craig McIver—that recorded EBIOTO (Knitting Factory Records), and the stark duet setting with pianist Dave Burrell, captured on Changes & Chances (CIMP). These contexts highlight Pope’s idiosyncratic cross-rhythms (from three against four to twelve against eight), his judicious balance of composition and improvisation (“For the trio I write a sort of parallel motion that has each instrument play a major role at different times”) and his trademark circular breathing technique. “I like long phrasing,” he says. “When I started playing with Max, he gave me the freedom to play as much as I would like. With circular breathing you can work with one little element of a chord and expand that in so many different ways, but the basic concept is improvisation, that’s what keeps the music really fresh and alive.”