Vincent Herring: Alto Artistry

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Vincent Herring
By Jacques Lowe

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It was particularly hot in New York that summer of ’83 and this day was more uncomfortable than most.

I had just experienced the extreme displeasure of an Uptown E train ride in a subway car with no air conditioning and I was running late for a rendezvous. As I emerged from the subterranean squalor at 59th Street and Central Park West, frantic and sweltering, I was prepared to break into a full sprint in order to get to my appointment on time. But suddenly a burst of sound stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the penetrating sound of an alto saxophone, a street player, projecting with a kind of raw intensity and sheer abandon that struck like lightning. The band was set up on Columbus Circle—electric guitar, electric bass, drummer with a pared down kit and this bad, bad alto player blowing white heat alongside his shorter tenor playing partner. A crowd had gathered around them, digging their relentless drive as they burned through one blazing bop anthem after the next. Needless to say, I blew off my appointment and hung for a few more tunes.

That was my introduction to Vincent Herring, nearly 14 years ago. I remember being riveted by his penetrating tone, remarkable facility and fiercely aggressive attitude. His solos mugged you. He played everything so fast and furious back then that it was almost scary…the sign of a young man on a mission and very impatient to get there. I sensed that he was either going to become very famous very soon or explode.

I had a brief word with Herring that afternoon, took note of his name and filed it away in my memory banks under “The Next Cannonball Adderley.”

Some 14 years, countless tours and four dozen recording sessions later—nine as a leader and a whole bunch as sideman to such luminaries as Freddie Hubbard, Phil Woods, Cedar Walton, John Hicks, Melvin Rhyne and Nat Adderley—Herring is a contented family man and a consummate professional who conducts himself with a quiet dignity and a certain sophisticated flair both on and off the bandstand, just like his hero Cannonball. In a word, he’s matured, both as a person and as a musician.

You can hear the difference in his playing. Compare the frantic, go-for-the-throat rawness of his maiden voyage Scene One (recorded for Japanese release in 1988 and recently licensed and released in this country by Evidence Music) with his more serene offering The Days Of Wine And Roses (recorded in 1994 for the Japanese Alfa label and released in the States last year on MusicMasters). The growth is evident.

“Scene One is a very immature record,” he maintains. “I wish it never existed. But that was just one raw dimension of me at that time. I would like to think of The Days Of Wine And Roses as a multi-faceted Vincent Herring. It’s more laid back but it covers a passionate, quiet kind of beautiful sound that I love. Not that I’ve lost any fire in my playing because you can still hear it in some tracks on that record. But I think that record is certainly more reflective of my playing today.”

His chops are as imposing as ever. You can still feel the burn in his double time coda to “Body And Soul” on The Days Of Wine And Roses but there’s also a newfound depth in Herring’s playing of late that makes for an overall more satisfying experience for the listener. It’s in his phrasing, the breath between notes, the sly statements and expressive nuance of how he sings through his sax. Vincent further explores this more vocal aspect of his playing on his upcoming MusicMasters release, Change The World, in which he puts his own searing stamp on some familiar pop tunes by the likes of Eric Clapton, Billy Joel and Prince.

“The title track is a song from a silly little movie, Phenomenon,” he explains. (It also just happens to have recently won a Grammy as “Song Of The Year,” performed on the soundtrack by Clapton). “And the way it happened was, one night in my hotel room in Philadelphia, where I was playing with Cedar Walton, I was flipping through the stations and came to one of those music video channels. I was checking it out and thinking how stupid and silly it all was when all of a sudden this song came on and I couldn’t believe it. It was gorgeous. I loved that song so much I began to think, ‘Wow, let me see what I can do with this.’ So I adapted that song and came up with a hip arrangement for it. It’s all about interpretation and putting your personal stamp on something, just like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis did with what were essentially very corny show tunes.”

Elsewhere on the new recording, Herring and company offer jazzy renditions of Prince’s “Strollin’” as well as a Billy Joel medley of “The Stranger/Rosalinda’s Eyes/Zanzibar.” In defense of the poppish material he says, “The thing is, if you have a good song, it’s a good song. I mean, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. And I would like to think that I’m getting closer and closer to being able to really inject my personality into anything I play, whether it’s a pop tune or a country & western tune.”

Indeed, his renditions of those familiar tunes take great liberties both harmonically and rhythmically while remaining true to the inherent melody. And the ballsy sound of Herring’s alto sax—alongside Carl Allen’s swinging drums, Joey Calderazzo’s piano and Michael Goode’s bass—is the unifying factor. “I feel as though I’ve developed a musical vocabulary that may not be 100 percent mine but the percentage is high and it’s getting higher every day,” he continues. “I’m influenced by different people. I’d like to think that I’ve developed a personal sound. I don’t want to sound cocky or anything but I do feel that I have some kind of identity on the alto saxophone at this point.”

It was through years of studying, shedding, jamming and gigging—everyone from Lionel Hampton and Lainie Kazan to Abdullah Ibrahim and Arthur Taylor, from David Murray and McCoy Tyner to Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes—that Herring was able to arrive at his own identity on the instrument. Part of his education involved those long days and nights playing on the streets of Manhattan in the early ’80s.

“When I first came to New York…wow!,” he laughs, reflecting back over those kamikaze hits on 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue or up at Columbus Circle. “Man, I sure got into a lot of trouble in those days but my goal was to learn how to play music. We played on the street for the experience of learning songs and interacting with a band…invaluable experience. You play all day, you go home at night and you practice. You try to learn some new songs, come out the next day and try to incorporate some of those things you were working on while trying to maintain the discipline and the logic throughout the different songs that you were doing. And you have to be creative playing all day on the street and trying not to play things that bored you. So it was a very good growth period for me and it was actually fairly lucrative at times. But at some point you know that playing on the street is a dead end and you can’t do that forever.”

Today the fully seasoned saxophonist follows a very simple philosophy that governs his career. “I want to enjoy my life,” he says. “Music is very important to me and I play music for very selfish reasons, because it gives me self-fulfillment. I enjoy it more than anything and I don’t want to be put in a position where I have to play this music even though it’s a rotten situation. I’ve done that over the years though I prefer not to do that. You meet a lot of musicians in New York…great players…who are really burned out on music and have become negative on music because they end up doing all these club dates…weddings, bar mitzvahs, whatever. They end up getting really dark. What happens is it takes away a certain kind of life and spark and passion that they have for playing music. I saw that happen to a lot of great players, where playing music gets to be just a job. They might as well be flipping burgers. In fact, I would prefer to do a day gig than be put in a musical situation for a long period of time that I did not enjoy. And so as a result I get to the point to where I don’t take certain types of gigs anymore.”

With that healthy philosophy, Herring has managed to preserve a positive spirit in his music. He conveys it through his horn every time he hits the bandstand. You can feel his sense of conviction and exhilaration on his 1994 live at the Village Vanguard session, Folklore (MusicMasters), or on his sideman projects like Cedar Walton’s The Composer (Astor Place) or Freddie Hubbard’s MMTC (Monk, Miles, Trane & Cannon (MusicMasters).

“Working with people Cedar and Nat Adderley and with Phil Woods in his new sax project…these are things that keep a smile on my face and keep me excited to practice and keep me looking forward to concerts and gigs I have coming up. That’s what’s important…to keep that kind of feeling.”

As partners in Big Apple Productions, Herring and his upstairs neighbor and favorite drummer Carl Allen have been responsible for exposing a lot of promising new talent. Under the banner of Manhattan Projects they have introduced such players as Nicholas Payton and Roy Hargrove to Japanese audiences under the auspices of Alfa Records. They have also produced sessions for Pharoah Sanders, Dewey Redman, Phil Woods, John Hicks, Lee Konitz, Cyrus Chestnut and others.

“We often hear about new players,” says Herring. “I have my scouts around who call me up and say, ‘Hey man, there’s a new tenor player in town. You really ought to check him out.’ So we put up some money do demos and shop them around, trying to get some of those young players recording deals. So I try to keep in touch with who’s out here, what’s going on. And I try to go out and hear as many old and new players as possible because you can find inspiration and be humbled in a variety of settings.”

Gearbox

Vincent exclusively uses Vandoren V16s reeds, specifically #3 1/2. He’s been using the same mouthpiece, a New York Meyer 5-medium since he was 11 years old. “I bought it used from a saxophone teacher in San Francisco named David Peterson and he got it from his father Chuck Peterson. It’s a great mouthpiece. Hope I don’t drop it. It would be very hard to replace that mouthpiece, it’s got such a personal sound at this point.” Around the time of recording Evidence for the Landmark label (June of 1990), he switched from playing a Selmer Mark VI alto saxophone to a Yanagisawa alto sax. “Just by chance, I was in a music store and tried out a Yamigasawa and loved it,” he says. “I purchased it and was really satisfied with the way it sounded on recordings but it had certain limitations in a live setting. I felt like it didn’t really project well and the timbre would distort and breakup. So I went back to the company and told them what I liked and did not like about it. Basically, I started working with them to develop a new saxophone that addressed the problems. They finally developed a saxophone which has the sound and projection qualities of older vintage saxophones, but it also has the intonation and the fingerboard of modern horns. So I got the best of both worlds. I almost feel like I’m cheating sometimes because this saxophone is so good. It fits right in your hand, gives you exactly what you’re looking for.”

Listening Pleasures

While he declined to give a list of just three records that he’s been checking out lately, I did notice that as Vincent drove me home from his place in Brooklyn that he popped in CDs of Wayne Shorter’s Atlantis and Freddie Hubbard’s Ready For Freddie. He did also mention that, “I listen to some pop and classical things in my car. Other than that, I’m one of these guys who listens to a lot of jazz. I like things to inspire me and I tend to get that inspiration from other jazz artists who are really masters on their instruments.”

Vincent Herring on “the Keith Controversy”

Keith Jarrett, well known for stirring up controversies with his provocative diatribes about the state of jazz, has done it again. A few months ago in a Sunday Times magazine article by Andrew Solomon, Jarrett reserves his most pointed attacks on the current jazz establishment for Wynton Marsalis: “I’ve never heard anything Wynton played sound like it meant anything at all. Wynton has no voice and no presence. His music sounds like a talented high school trumpet player to me. He plays things really, really, really badly that you cannot screw up unless you are a bad player. I’ve felt embarrassed listening to him, and I’m white. Behind his humble speech, there is an incredible arrogance. And for a great black player who talks about the blues—I’ve never heard Wynton play the blues convincingly, and I’d challenge him to a blues standoff any time. He’s jazzy the same way someone who drives a BMW is sporty.”

Vincent Herring responds: “It was really a shame the kind of things he said about Wynton Marsalis. I thought it was so disgusting, regardless of whether you like Wynton or not or disagree with some of his opinionated statements…and Wynton has said some crazy things over the years himself. But I was very disappointed because Keith Jarrett is a very great musician. And for him to say those kind of things…that’s the kind of person I would never want to be with on the bandstand. It was just so evil, what he said. And I just can’t stand that. One thing that I’ve come to realize is the more you learn about music, the more you get away from those kind of arrogant views. I remember at some point, probably mid-’80s, as I started developing as a saxophone player…I would go to a jam session and a certain player, maybe new to town, maybe not up to my ability, would call a song like ‘All The Things You Are.’ And I’m ashamed to say, I would be one of those guys who would act snobbish and cop an attitude about having to play such an elementary song. And that’s such a bad thing to do. I despise that so much now. I really can kick myself and I detest the fact that I used to do things like that. Because, you know, we’re all students of music out here and no matter how great you are at some point you have to start. I mean, at some part Charlie Parker was worse than me, you know? Everyone goes through that. And to take that kind of arrogant tone with people really bothers me a lot.

“Regardless of what limitations Keith Jarrett feels that Wynton Marsalis has, I’ve worked with Wynton Marsalis and let me tell you…Wynton Marsalis is an unbelievable musician. Incredible! He really is. He sat in with me one time at Bradley’s. It was Carl and Mulgrew and Ira Coleman and myself and Wynton asked if he could sit in. Well, you don’t say no to Wynton Marsalis, so I said, ‘Sure, but I’m playing original music.’ He said, ‘No problem.’ So I gave him a piece of music and he sight-read it, which I expected. And then he soloed without looking at the music...wasn’t difficult but it just shows good musicianship. Then he played the melody going out nearly perfect without looking at the music again. I mean, that fucked me up. I can’t do that. And that just shows you the kind of mind that he has. So regardless of what he may be lacking, he’s an incredible musician.”

Originally published in June 1997

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