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Eric Kloss: About Time

Eric Kloss

Anyone brave enough to join Sonny Stitt onstage knew that he risked public humiliation if he didn’t meet the moody alto saxophonist’s impeccable standards. So when Eric Kloss sat in with Stitt at Pittsburgh’s Crawford Grill, the 12-year-old alto player wasn’t going to get any breaks due to his age-or his blindness. Stitt called “Cherokee” in B-up a half step from its usual key, and a tricky one for anyone playing a reed instrument. Knowing he had to play the melody on the bridge, Kloss’ mind started racing as the song kicked in. “It’s a minor third from B-flat to the C-sharp,” he thought, “and if you go from the B up to the D, and if I know that the concert E that I have to play is a ninth above, I think that’s right.”

He took a deep breath and blew what he hoped was the right note. When his guess proved correct, Stitt grabbed Kloss’ knee and enthusiastically responded, “Yeah, man.” Not only had Kloss passed the audition, the elder saxman became a friend and teacher, dining at the Kloss home and teaching young Eric breathing and fingering techniques.

A couple years later, again at the Crawford Grill, Kloss had a lesson of another type while absorbing the sounds of the John Coltrane Quartet. During a break before the final set, Kloss approached Coltrane as he ordered an orange juice. “It was like trying to touch Jesus’ robe,” Kloss says, remembering the experience 41 years later. “‘Mr. Coltrane, Mr. Coltrane, I’m 14 years old and you really inspire me.’

“And I could feel him looking at me. He said, ‘If you’re a musician, don’t waste any time.’ And he walked up on the bandstand.”

The quick, simple advice has stayed with Kloss in the ensuing years, underlying a prolific discography, work as a bandleader and periods spent as an instructor at three universities. Yet more than two decades have passed since Kloss released his last album, 1981’s Sharing (Omnisound), a duet with pianist Gil Goldstein.

The liner notes to the recent Fantasy twofer reissue of Grits and Gravy and First Class Kloss (collectively titled First Class!) end on a mysterious and somewhat disparaging note that plays up his absence.

Kloss currently lives in a suburb of Pittsburgh with his wife of 20 years, Candee. In recent years frequent bouts with migraine headaches and asthma have kept him from performing with any regularity. He admits that he can only play the saxophone for 45 minutes before his strength diminishes.

But things appear to be on the upswing. He’s been trying to find medical help to overcome his problems and regain his stamina. Lately the flute has become his main instrument since it doesn’t present the resistance of a saxophone mouthpiece. Last summer, he sat in at a few weekly concerts presented by the Pittsburgh Jazz Society. After years away from the stage, Kloss was told he stole the show after sitting in with a salsa band one night. “I said, ‘Man, I was born to do that,'” he explains. “I can’t help it. I mean, look at these hands. They’re long and thin, and they sure ain’t made to hold a jackhammer.”

Born in the Pittsburgh suburb of Greenville, Eric Kloss picked up the saxophone at the age of 10 and knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life playing it. His father, the late Dr. Alton G. Kloss, served as the superintendent of the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind, where young Eric first began taking music lessons. By the time Eric was 12 his father was taking him to jazz clubs where he regularly sat in with local musicians, such as Bobby Negri and Charles Bell, as well as national acts like Stitt.

One Friday night organist Richard “Groove” Holmes invited Kloss to a session that was being recorded at public television station WQED the following afternoon. Holmes later played the recordings of “‘Round Midnight” and “Work Song” for executives at Prestige. “I got a call and they said, ‘Don’t sign with anyone else,'” Kloss says. By the age of 16, he made his recording debut, 1965’s Introducing Eric Kloss, in the presence of organist Don Patterson, guitarist Pat Martino and drummer Billy James.

Organ trios were de rigueur by the mid-1960s, but it was clear to anyone who heard Kloss, who was equally fluent on tenor, that his improvisational gifts would not be limited to the chitlin’ circuit. Don Aliquo Sr., a veteran Pittsburgh tenor saxophonist, remembers a jam session at the Kloss house when the younger player was only 13. “That night all we did was free stuff, and it was really off the wall,” Aliquo says. “But you could hear the magnificent potential in Eric. He definitely had his own style. You can hear certain things in other players that you can say ‘That’s a Parker idea’ or ‘That’s bebop.’ But I don’t recall ever being able to do that too much with Eric.”

Prestige’s Cal Lampley came up with two new settings for Kloss on his third album, 1966’s Grits and Gravy. On three songs, a commercially oriented group that features flute, vibes and female backup singers joins the saxophonist. Despite the backdrop, Kloss still plays with a fire that cuts through the languid arrangements, especially on the title track where some fevered wails overcome the obtrusive vocals.

More impressive, though, are the remaining five quartet tracks, where pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson back Kloss. Each musician had at least two decades on the then 17-year-old alto player, but music bridged the generation gap as their exceptional versions of “Milestones” and “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” prove. “I didn’t feel any fear at all,” Kloss says of the session. “When you have good musicians and you have a certain amount of talent yourself, it all sort of happens.”

By the time Kloss recorded Life Force in 1967, he had released four albums and even scored a hit single with his version of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Fresh out of high school, it seemed like he was ready to join the big leagues. But the day after recording the album in New York, he came home and started his freshman year at Duquesne University. “It was really schizophrenic,” he recalls. “In one way, I was a rising jazz star and in the other way I was trying to figure out, just like all the other freshmen, what you were supposed to do.”

Kloss stuck to the books and eventually graduated from Duquesne, while maintaining his active release schedule. Sky Shadows, recorded in 1968, reunited him with Martino and Byard and features bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The LP finds the group exploring unusual time signatures. “Pat blew my mind because I had all these tunes figured out, standard things,” Kloss says. “He said, ‘Man, you don’t want to make spaghetti dinner music.’ So I went home and revamped the whole thing. I wrote some tunes in 6/4 and 9/8 because Pat just opened it up.”

The five tracks-one by Martino, the rest by Kloss-exemplify the group’s sense of adventure. “You say to yourself, ‘What kind of music is this?’ That was my impression after I recorded it,” Kloss remembers. “That’s when jazz is at its best, when nobody has any point of reference. Everybody has to listen to each other. Everybody has to be on edge.”

Before Kloss began playing saxophone, he had been a fan of Elvis Presley and the Ventures, so when fusion introduced into rock elements into jazz he welcomed the combination. Plus, he was able to work with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette not long after they participated in Miles Davis’ earliest electric excursions. Again, he wasn’t interested in simply borrowing someone else’s idea. “We took [fusion] and put the avant-garde in it,” Kloss says.

His move from Prestige to Muse coincided with an evolution of his music, and Kloss feels his 1970s albums presented more of an accurate representation of his perspective. “I came up in a funny time, because a lot of the players that I was playing with before were 20 to 30 years older than I was,” he says. “And I had listened to their records, and I loved them. It was a tradition and I could play whatever-‘Straight No Chaser’ and ”Round Midnight.’ But I knew that wasn’t me. I knew that I had something new to say.”

The spiritual concepts underlying albums like Life Force and Consciousness! were in full bloom by the time he recorded 1978’s electric Now. “That’s when I started meditating-where you go and meditate for a week. When you come back, you just float,” he says. “In the middle of the night I heard this tune, and the next day I remembered it and put it on tape. I called it ‘Now’ because I could really experience the moment as it was going by.”

Keyboardist Barry Miles joined forces with Kloss for a few albums during the 1970s, and the two of them embarked on several tours, including one to Europe. By 1979, Kloss was living in New Jersey, close enough to New York to secure occasional live shows and studio sessions without dealing with too many big-city hassles.

He frequently came back through Pittsburgh and during one trip he met his future wife Candee, whose singing voice reminded him of Billie Holiday. Kloss asked her to sing some of his songs, and what began as a musical collaboration wound up becoming a romantic one. The two were married in 1983, by which time the saxophonist had moved back to Pittsburgh in hopes of settling down with a steady job that allowed him to play on the side.

Kloss, who taught briefly at Rutgers University, took a position at Duquesne teaching improvisation classes and giving private lessons. Later he joined Carnegie Mellon University, heading the jazz studies department. Pianist David Budway, a Pittsburgh native who in recent years has played in New York with Regina Carter and Jeff “Tain” Watts, taught at Duquesne at the same time as Kloss. He remembers the saxophonist as an unending source of musical ideas, who could frequently be found behind the drum kit during improvisation classes. “Eric’s groups at school, he was teaching them songs like ‘Little One’ [from Miles Davis’ E.S.P.] and I was downstairs trying to teach my kids ‘Billie’s Bounce,’ which I thought was important,” Budway says. “But I could never understand how to get to that level where as an educator you were saying, ‘We’re going to work on “Little One”‘ or ‘We’re going to work on “Nefertiti.”‘”

As he remembers it, Kloss felt like the “back to acoustic jazz” movement of the 1980s was limiting his students. “There was the Miles Davis album called Tutu that was cutting edge, and I wanted to continue on that, but with students,” he says. It didn’t happen “because everybody wanted to learn bebop. And I know most bebop like I know the back of my hand.”

Kloss and his wife co-led the band Quiet Fire for several years, which played songs written by both of them that bordered on fusion, with vocals, and maintained the complexity and detail of his best work. Budway played a couple shows with the band and remembers the music as “harmonically challenging [with] specific voicings, real intricate times and nice melodies.” But when Kloss fell ill, he backed away from performing and parted ways with Carnegie Mellon in 2001.

Now 55, Kloss says he has 20 to 25 years of music in him, and he will do what it takes to let it out. He speaks at length about the spiritual beliefs, which like his music have been shaped over time and keep him looking ahead. “If I didn’t believe in God, I would have given up a long time ago,” he says. “In the face of it, the future really looks bleak, but on the other side of it there’s just enough to provide some hope and things like that.

“Whether I get a chance to make another record or be on the stage or anything else in my life, I’m going to pursue my music to the best of my ability. I’m going to follow the same star I’ve been following all along, no matter what happens.”

Originally Published