Eric Wyatt: The Brooklyn Sound

How the unsung sax master grew up inside NYC jazz history

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Eric Wyatt at Brooklyn's Prospect Park (photo by Salvatore Corso)

Unlike most musicians, Eric Wyatt was born into the jazz life. The tenorman’s father, the late Charles Wyatt, was also a tenor player, and Eric grew up around Charles’ friends, a who’s who of the music’s history. There was the time Wilbur Ware came by their Brooklyn home at 3 a.m., looking for a place to crash. And the instance when Eric was able to start taking lessons at Brooklyn’s New Muse Community Center, even though he had missed the deadline for enrollment; Charles was acquainted with the person in charge, Reggie Workman. And, of course, there was Charles’ deep friendship with Sonny Rollins, who was “like an uncle,” Eric says.

“And I never forgot him coming [over] because he brought this big crate of fruit, cherries. Big crate,” remembers Wyatt, 57, at a Burger King near his current home in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “I have two brothers and two sisters, so it was like when this guy came over and brought all these cherries, we could eat as much as we want. … We thought he was cool.”

So Wyatt found himself on a specific path at a very young age, but he traveled it all by himself, from his debut album, 1997’s soul-jazz-supplying God Son, to a vibrant pair of recent postbop releases, 2014’s Borough of Kings and 2017’s Look to the Sky. Along the way, he’s collaborated with everyone from drummer Al Foster to Rollins trombonist Clifton Anderson, all the while developing a strapping yet stately sound on tenor that recalls John Coltrane. His music might not draw from the wide swath of sounds that many jazz musicians borrow from today—hip-hop, world, electronic, classical, the avant-garde—but not because he doesn’t understand those styles, or is afraid of them. On the contrary, he merely knows himself. He’s the guy who, as a 10-year-old, got to cut the line to meet Miles after a gig at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. He’s experienced the tradition firsthand.

Growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Wyatt was exposed to various instruments but eventually settled on alto saxophone, after which he and his trumpeter brother became “like the local horn section in the neighborhood, in a lot of funk bands.” After briefly abandoning music for basketball, Wyatt wound up at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, then Lehman College in the Bronx, the latter school offering a renowned jazz-ensemble director, pianist Stanley Cowell. “He was a great instructor, man,” Wyatt reflects on this early-’80s tutelage. “I learned about who he was and his tunes, ‘Equipoise,’ the label he had with Charles Tolliver, Strata-East, and all that. But he was a great instructor. … I was an alto player; I played in the ensemble, did most of the concerts.

“I think I learned from him about the seriousness,” Wyatt adds, “because I’d already been around serious guys, from my dad, but I just learned that this music was serious, man—not to be taken lightly.”

Another early teacher was multi-instrumentalist Arthur Rhames, who played sax and piano with drummer Rashied Ali and guitar with the funk ensembles Slave and Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame. Wyatt initially had to pay for sax knowledge from Rhames, but the lessons eventually became part of an exchange—free tutoring if Rhames could borrow a horn. The lessons were also part of a larger social experience. “We would have a routine,” Wyatt recalls. “First, we’d lift weights and work out. Then we would practice; we’d play with Jamey Aebersolds. We’d record it. Then I would make falafels. We’d eat and listen to [playback].”

If, for Wyatt, the 1980s were about building up, the ’90s were about moving ahead. In ’92 he switched to tenor; when his father died in ’89, he left behind a horn that once belonged to Rollins, and it’s been Eric’s main ax ever since. In ’97, Wyatt dropped his first LP as a leader, God Son, its title a nod to Rollins calling Eric his godson. It was also during this decade that Wyatt earned a reputation for taking younger musicians under his wing. When trumpeter Keyon Harrold, who appears on Look to the Sky, relocated to New York in 1999, he quickly hooked up with Eric. “First of all, Eric Wyatt, he is a jazz corporal,” Harrold says. “He is that guy that when people first move to New York, you go see Eric Wyatt. He was the mayor. When I first moved to New York, I went to play with him with Robert Glasper and Marcus Baylor. … You went on the scene, and if you wanted to learn what tunes people were playing, you go hit with Eric Wyatt.”

It took a long time, though, for Wyatt’s reputation to move beyond his fellow musicians. His profile rose in 2014, when he released Borough of Kings on the L.A.-based indie Posi-Tone; for years before that, his albums had been either self-released or put out by foreign labels. Though Wyatt moved to the Whaling City Sound label for Look to the Sky, several aspects connect the LPs: similar personnel, with pianist Benito Gonzalez and the drummers Shinnosuke Takahashi and Kyle Poole in the mix; a staunch dedication to the acoustic jazz sounds that reigned in the ’60s; and tunes either composed by or associated with John Coltrane. Sky includes “Afro Blue” and “My Favorite Things”; Kings features the Trane original “Countdown,” with a rocking new arrangement. “The reason I recorded ‘Countdown’? ’Cause one day Sonny Rollins was talking to me on the phone and asked me, ‘Do you play “Giant Steps”?’” Wyatt explains. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Do you play it in 12 keys?’ I said, ‘Not now, but I will.’ He don’t call you and tell you what to do. He says something, and you have to be smart enough to realize what he’s saying. Then he said, ‘Do you play “Countdown”?’ I said, ‘A little bit.’ He says, ‘OK,’ and then he changed the subject. And I was like, ‘Oh, fuck. I gotta learn “Countdown.”’ And not only am I gonna fucking learn it, I’m gonna record it. I’m gonna make sure you know I know it.”

Save for the funky Borough of Kings track “Can He Come Out,” on which Wyatt plays wah-wah sax, the leader doesn’t really veer from straight-ahead jazz on his two most recent albums. And his personal stamp comes not stylistically, but in terms of enthusiasm. Jazz is more than a genre on these releases—it’s life or death. “I came up in New York, man, where Freddie Hubbard used to walk around,” Wyatt says. “Joe Henderson. Art Blakey. I was around these cats. Cedar Walton. I was around, seein’ these guys. Clarence ‘C’ Sharpe. Barry Harris. That’s the New York that I was a kid in, and I remember that. And you don’t be fuckin’ around out here. You gotta play. This stuff they doin’ today, I’m not knockin’ ’em. I got that.”

Duane Eubanks, who plays trumpet on “Can He Come Out,” also sees Wyatt’s hometown as having informed his saxophone playing. But to Eubanks, a single borough holds the key. “He embodies the Brooklyn sound,” Eubanks says. “I think there’s a Brooklyn saxophone sound that he might have helped to develop. Guys like Dewey Redman, in Brooklyn. And I think Eric embodies the Brooklyn sound and that Brooklyn work ethic, ’cause he pounds pavement. He worked hard. They call him the King of Brooklyn, but he worked really hard to become the King of Brooklyn. And he had to work extra hard to get out of Brooklyn, to be heard in Manhattan. And now he’s being heard all over the world.  He’s doing great.”

Recommended Listening:

Look to the Sky (Whaling City, 2017)

Borough of Kings (Posi-Tone, 2014)

God Son (King, 1997)