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Pete Christlieb: The Tenor Deacon

Pete Christlieb

It’s Friday night in Woodland Hills, Calif. We’re at Fitzgerald’s, the sports bar in the local Hilton that’s occasionally refitted as a jazz room. Tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb is on tap tonight, appealing to a select group of rapt fans and also braving the inevitable table of disrespectful chatterboxes. He dishes out inspiring solos on familiar themes such as “Song for My Father.” The tune could be a lounge-about pseudo-samba, but it instead goes places you don’t expect.

It’s not unreasonable to assume this is the hottest saxophone-playing in any Hilton in the world on this night.

A week later Christlieb can be found in a very different and more attentive setting, giving a master class in the Kenworthy Theater in downtown Moscow, Idaho. Christlieb is a special guest at the education-heavy Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, which makes this sleepy college town come alive one week every February.

Talking to the young audience about his life in music, Christlieb says, “When I told my parents I wanted to switch from violin to tenor saxophone, it went over like an orphanage fire.”

He then plays a steamy version of “Indiana/Donna Lee” in tandem with Russian tenor saxophonist Igor Butman: Christlieb is the clean and burning one; Butman wields a brusquer approach.

When finished, Christlieb offers advice both practical and philosophical to the packed house, dipping into his irreverent-humor bag: “People ask what’s the most important aspect of playing jazz. I say: Play horn. Get check.”

Voila-there is the Christlieb mantra.

The son of a famed studio player and movie-music veteran, Christlieb is a pragmatic-minded musician who is adamant about professional and work ethics. But there’s a lot more to Pete Christlieb’s story, and that comes out as soon as he proceeds to “play horn” here in Idaho. One of the finest living tenor players on the West Coast, Christlieb’s solos tend to come tumbling out like a controlled force of nature, full of bluster and heat.

Yet his reputation seems to be that of a legend hiding in plain sight, without quite the career momentum to push him into a higher altitude of visibility. He was a key soloist in Doc Severinsen’s The Tonight Show band for 20 years, meaning he’s one of the most widely heard tenor-sax soloists in history-albeit in the truncated tidbits of big-band sound before the program cut to commercial.

And then there’s the Steely Dan thing. Christlieb’s crisp, hot, and focused soloing on Steely Dan’s hit “Deacon Blues” is inarguably one of the finest jazz solos ever on a pop song. Still, it was just another day on the job for a musician groomed for the long haul.

A native Los Angeleno, Pete Christlieb has long resided in Northridge, the relatively quiet suburb in the San Fernando Valley that gained fame as the epicenter of the catastrophic 1994 earthquake-“Shaky Acres,” he calls it. He moved to this large spread back with his young family in 1971, after landing the “best gig in town” playing five nights a week in the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show. As it turned out, that gig-though lasting two decades-was the last stand for big-band music on national television.

The Christlieb compound is big enough for newer structures to be built, and there’s ample parking space for his huge dragster trailer that is tagged “Christlieb Racing.”

Sitting at his kitchen table, he speaks of his musical lineage and the significance of his legendary bassoonist father, Don Christlieb, who played for nearly half a century for 20th Century Fox films-more than 750 movies-and was a respected classical player. “He was the man, the greatest bassoon player on the planet,” Christlieb says. “He wrote the book on reed-making, and he worked with Stravinsky, who would come to our house when I was a little kid. I started out on violin, because that’s what I heard all the time in the house.”

Things changed, however, when somebody left a record with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan at the house. “I thought, ‘Wow, they’re making that stuff up?’ Here I had to practice and play the same shit over and over and over again, and these guys were making it up as they go along. They get to play new stuff every time. I said, ‘That’s for me.’ My mother said, ‘Maybe it’s like growing pains or a rash or something that will go away.’ Well, I’m 59 and it’s still here,” he laughs.

Obsessed with jazz, Christlieb played in noted area jazz programs, including Venice High School and then Valley College. Then came the call to go on the road with Si Zentner’s band, then in Woody Herman’s Herd and later with Louie Bellson, whom he still occasionally gigs with today.

Christlieb remembers the first time Bellson heard him playing, with Herman’s band in Las Vegas. “Al Gibbons was the other tenor player in the band, and he sounded like Stan Getz. My influences were more people like Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon and those people. Louie Bellson told me later that when they were listening, Dizzy Gillespie leaned over and said, ‘How come the white guy sounds like a black guy and the black guy sounds like a white guy?'”

Christlieb’s playing sometimes suggests Sonny Rollins’ style, tone and energy as well. “If somebody put Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge on right now, I’d get goose bumps,” he says. “I’d have an anxiety attack. It would be the same if somebody put on the Miles Davis album [’58 Miles] with Cannonball and Coltrane, and Coltrane comes in on ‘Love for Sale.’ Oh man, if I were in the car, I’d have to pull over. It’s a most beautiful thing.”

By the late ’60s, Christlieb was road-weary and enjoying playing locally, on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour TV show and at gigs with Bobby Bryant’s organ trio at Marty’s, on 50th and Broadway, in downtown Los Angeles. “That was the hottest gig in the world when I was a 20-year-old guy,” he says.

Through Bellson, Christlieb landed on the Tonight Show bandstand. Bellson was that band’s first drummer after it moved to the West Coast, before Ed Shaughnessy’s long-running tenure. Looking back, Christlieb realizes that the job afforded “priceless exposure for everybody, especially myself, playing jazz all the time on the show. That’s the reason why people call me a lot to come play with their college bands. They remember.”

During his Tonight Show tenure, Christlieb also worked on countless studio dates as an extension of his public profile, and, of course, sharp musical skills. Calls came for work with Quincy Jones, Dave Grusin, the Singers Unlimited, Pat Williams and countless record, film, television and commercial dates long since forgotten.

Some refuse to be forgotten, though.

Take, for instance, the fateful day in the mid-’70s when Steely Dan called on Christlieb. “Deacon Blues,” from 1977’s classic album Aja, is a great example of how jazz can work in an intelligent pop context. And given the refrain, it’s also one of the most disarming artistic integrations of a soloist-to-song: “Learn to work the saxophone / I play just how I feel / Drink scotch whisky all night long / And die behind the wheel.” That lyric wraps around Christlieb’s vrooming sax riffs-an avowed fan of playing just how he feels, scotch whisky and drag racing.

When Steely Dan co-leader Donald Fagen is asked whether “Deacon Blues” was tailored for Christlieb, he snorts, “Nah. There were plenty of good saxophone players on the West Coast at that time, and we thought that Pete would really burn on it, which he did. That was definitely one take. Pete Christlieb is very proficient, and what he does is always good.”

Christlieb recalls making “Deacon Blues” with a session player’s irony-of doing a fast, efficient session, laying down the killer solo and going home with $300 for a now classic, timeless tune.

Entranced by his playing, Fagen and his Steely cohort, Walter Becker, used their major label clout to secure a generous budget for a jazz project they would produce. Apogee, with Christlieb engaging in dialogue with his gifted friend and ally, tenorist Warne Marsh, was released on Warner Bros. in 1978. It has recently been reissued by Rhino, and Apogee sounds somehow better and more important than it did even upon its release.

As it happens, the Dan factor is tempered by Christlieb’s own fairly sour memories of how the relationship went down.

Colored by his insider’s perspective, Christlieb may be the one listener least able to appreciate the beauty of Apogee, on which the tracks were done quickly, in jazz fashion. Brecker and Fagan were accustomed to long stints in the studio, however, and they wanted to spend longer on the project. “That was a problem,” Christlieb says. “Jazz is of the moment. It’s not something that we just drive into the ground and cut up like cocaine with a razor blade. So that’s where we all parted company. Never saw them again, never talked to them again. They took the project to New York and mixed it. I had no approval rights to anything-the title, the album cover, the selection of tunes.”

After Apogee was released, Christlieb remembers being unceremoniously dumped from Warner Bros., with which he thought he had signed a five-year contract.

Behind-the-scenes data aside, Apogee is an impressive session. There may be some vindication for Christlieb, however, because the CD reissue includes three tracks he had wanted on the original album but which were left off, including pianist Lou Levy’s sophisticated “Lunarcy” and a deliciously hot and intricately intertwined version of “Love Me.”

While Apogee may bring some bitter memories, Christlieb has nothing but good things to say about Warne Marsh. “The uncanny thing about us was the fact that we worked together and could listen to each other play and respond quickly. At certain points in our improvisations together, we would end up improvising in harmony. I don’t know too many people who play together who achieve that kind of oneness.

“First of all, one has to be willing to let this happen. It’s not like a sword fight in a pirate picture. When most tenor players play together, it’s like a fight to the death. That’s the way I see a lot of tenor player duets. Same with Zoot [Sims] and Al [Cohn]-there’s night and day. They were both very lyrical, but at the same time Zoot had this absolute happiness about his phrasing and playing. It was joyful and exhilarating. Al was Mr. Melody. Zoot was bopping and Al was painting melodies.”

Christlieb drew on his frustrations with Warner Bros. to fuel the creation of his own Bosco label in the early ’80s, long before artist-run labels were commonplace. Again, his father’s influence came to bear: the bassoonist had started his own label, releasing a series of Hindemith recordings he deemed worth documenting.

Without much distribution or publicity to speak of, Bosco yielded four Grammy nominations from its seven releases. Bosco’s first album, Self-Portrait, is the most eclectic and probably the best album Christlieb has made. Amid more jazz-colored compositions, he found a place for his father to add a bassoon part on “Vu-Ja-Day.” He’s just now in the process of starting a Web site ( and plans to reissue Self-Portrait on CD, among other projects.

More recently in his scattered discography, Christlieb released the ambitious For Heaven’s Sake (CARS), recorded in 1999. It includes arrangements by Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman and others, and experiments with big band, medium-size band and some hip choral touches. Christlieb calls it “my favorite album I’ve done,” and adds, given the CD’s diversity, “it came out like [Self-Portrait]. I just can’t make up my mind what I like to do, but I like to do a lot of different things and make it interesting for people. Fear of boredom-that’s what I have. It’s boredom phobia or something.”

For many years, Christlieb has also been making his way northward to Seattle and elsewhere in the Northwest, playing with Phil Kelly’s big band and saxophonist Bill Ramsay and showing up at Centrum’s Bud Shank Jazz Workshop in Port Townsend, Wash.

The most satisfying creative experience Christlieb has had of late, however, was a trip to the Netherlands last year to play with the famed Metropole Orchestra. He appeared as the featured soloist in Bill Holman’s concerto “Pete’s Suite” and as a last-minute fill-in for the ailing Bill Perkins (who subsequently passed away) on several sleek straightahead charts by the veteran Dutch composer-arranger Rob Pronk.

Christlieb leads me back to his office to sample a CD-R of the concert, which he hopes will be released, possibly on his own soon-to-be revived record label. He offers some blow-by-blow comments over the music. After one strong high note on the recording, Christlieb says someone in the Netherlands told him, “‘Nobody hits that high E like you do.’ I said, ‘My father told me a long time ago that God hates cowards. If you’re gonna hit that note, don’t fuck around.’ I made it a point to knock the ball out of the park, like Babe Ruth. Boom,” he laughs. “First pitch, right over the fence.”

The Metropole encounter has led Christlieb to think about approaching the “pops concert” circuit, where he could be a soloist. It would also, ironically, bring him back to the proximity of orchestral and classical music, his beginnings.

Dusk is falling in Northridge, on the sprawling property that Christlieb jokingly refers to as the “Plunderosa.” Leading me out, he says he recently paid off a 30-year mortgage on the place, and that decades of session work have left him with a pension so he “can afford to play $80 gigs if I want to.” He pauses, slaps his arm: “Mosquitoes are biting. Gotta move. Let’s eat,” he says addressing his three hungry dogs. They all turn away and saunter back to the big house.

Originally Published