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Odean Pope: The Catalyst

Odean Pope (photo: John Abbott)
Odean Pope (photo: John Abbott)
Odean Pope
Odean Pope
Odean Pope
Odean Pope

For a concise distillation of Odean Pope’s worldview, you could do worse than to visit an elementary school in North Philadelphia on one of the first warm days of spring.

On this day in particular, Pope is towering over a classroom of seated first-graders at Grover Cleveland Elementary, tenor saxophone in hand. Behind him, on the chalkboard, a hierarchy has been etched-

Rhythm, Harmony, Melody

-along with the name JOHN COLTRANE, in block capital letters.

Pope has been coming here every morning for a little over a week now; his visiting residency, sponsored by a grant from the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, will be over in another couple of days. Today he’s checking to make sure his lessons have been absorbed.

“Who can tell me the different parts of the saxophone?” he asks. A bouquet of hands springs up, and he lets four or five kids take turns identifying the mouthpiece, neck and body of his tenor. “All right,” he says, moving on. “Now, how many keys does a saxophone have?”

Not so many hands this time. But he picks one. “Um,” says a girl in braids. “Twenty-six?”

“Very good!” Pope says, beaming. “The saxophone has twenty-six keys. If there’s one thing I want you all to remember from my visit, that’s it. Twenty-six keys, very good. OK, let’s do something very difficult. We’re all going to breathe in and out at the same time.”

Now some of those hands are scratching little heads. Pope shows what he means, inhaling deeply and blowing into his horn for a solid minute, fingers running up and down the keys. As he circular breathes, his eyelids flutter and his cheeks balloon and deflate, like the bellows on some Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory machine. The kids naturally crack up; some writhe on their desks, huffing and puffing, while others collapse to the floor.

After the hubbub has died down a bit, Pope gathers his composure to ask what he clearly considers a serious question. “Who was the greatest saxophone player in the world?”

“John Coltrane!” is the answer that comes back at him, in a piping unison.

“That’s right,” Pope says, “and he was raised up right here in North Philly.” He then asks the children to open their folders and find their sheet music. After much fumbling and rustling of papers, they do. Pope surveys the room and nods, satisfied. Each child holds a computer-printed lead sheet to the first movement of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

Pope puts the horn to his mouth and begins to play the piece’s incantatory main motif, beckoning for the class to join in song. A chorus of high-pitched voices arises, some singing, some chanting, all working from the same liturgy: “A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme….”

Odean Pope hasn’t exactly been a household name in jazz during his four-decade-plus career. But at home in Philadelphia, and among a circuit of aficionados stretching from Australia to Japan, that name commands a reverence bordering on awe. Pope gained early renown in the late-1960s as a post-Coltrane tenor terror and an intermittent sideman with bebop’s percussive architect, Max Roach. In the ’70s the saxophonist joined an early fusion group called Catalyst that was influential in musician circles. In the ’80s, when he wasn’t touring steadily with Roach, he was refining the sound and process of an unorthodox large ensemble-as many as nine saxophones plus a rhythm section-that he called the Odean Pope Saxophone Choir.

That last innovation, which will probably stand as Pope’s greatest achievement, was established in 1977. It premiered on record in 1985, with a Soul Note album called The Saxophone Shop. In the two decades since that debut, the Saxophone Choir has released just three more albums, each critically hailed. The latest-Locked & Loaded: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note)-may be the one that finally wins Pope and his music some mainstream recognition. Certainly a lot of people hope so. Joe Lovano, a guest tenor soloist on the album, offers this characteristic endorsement: “Odean Pope is a bad, bad, bad, beautiful musician, man.” Byard Lancaster, a former member of the band who now serves as its road manager, makes an even bolder claim somehow: “I feel that the new Saxophone Choir CD is the greatest CD to come out of Philadelphia, ever.”

Pope has less momentous thoughts on his mind as he strides down the front steps of Grover Cleveland and into mid-afternoon sun. Lunch, for one thing. He turns the corner onto North 19th Street and approaches his car, a Chrysler New Yorker with maroon velour upholstery. (Only later does it occur to me to christen this vehicle “The Popemobile.”) We climb in and set a course for his favorite diner in suburban Glenside, a 20-minute drive.

“I try to reflect on my life in terms of how blessed I was to be raised up in Philadelphia,” says Pope, turning onto North Broad Street, “and to have shared bandstands and concert halls and recording studios with some of the greatest musical minds this world has produced.” He goes on to list a roll call that includes Roach, Coltrane, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson. “I feel a tremendous need to share that information with some of our young people so we can have a continuum,” he continues. “I’ve been doing this now for about the last quarter-century, teaching in universities and schools. With this particular group, I wanted to work with some of the young, young people. When they’re between seven and eight and don’t have a knowledge of what the music is about, it’s pretty interesting.”

When Pope was that age, he lived in Ninety Six, S.C., a colonial town that was the site of battles during the American Revolution. It was in Ninety Six that Pope first heard the enveloping sound of a Southern Baptist church choir. “My mother, she was a schoolteacher, and she played the keyboards,” he explains. “My father, he was a great baseball player, plus he played the trombone and the drums. So I was raised up around music, in a sense. We moved to Philadelphia when I was 10. I started thinking about what direction I wanted to go in. I played the keyboard and the clarinet before the saxophone. After a period of time, I asked myself: What can I do to establish that big sound that I heard at a very early age? I experimented with string quartets, all different kinds of instruments. And then I was reading an article and someone said the closest sound to the human voice was the saxophone. That’s when I started focusing on nothing but saxophones.”

Pope attended Benjamin Franklin High School on North Broad, just after Golson had passed through its halls. The bassists Jimmy Garrison and Spanky DeBrest were alumni; likewise Bill Cosby and Philly Joe Jones. “They had a great music program,” Pope recalls of the school, “so that’s where I really got interested in playing music. Later I studied with Ron Rubin, the principal woodwind player in the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I was able to study with [drummer] Kenny Clarke in Paris for a few years; he taught bebop concepts, and rhythmic concepts, and harmonic concepts and melodic concepts. I also studied with [pianist] Ray Bryant for a while. And I worked on some things together with the bassist Jymie Merritt and the great pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali. Then being able to study with Max, from ’79 up until ’02, was like going to one of the highest institutions in the whole world.”

Pope himself was an institution, in a local sense, even before that long apprenticeship with Roach. At the dawn of the ’70s, he was involved with a Philadelphia cultural initiative called Model Cities, tutoring underprivileged children. In that sense, not much has changed; public records show that nearly 85 percent of the children at Grover Cleveland are eligible for free or reduced lunch in the National School Lunch Program. (“We don’t have a music program at this school,” says Dina Valentino during Pope’s visit to her class. “We had a music teacher last year. She left. I don’t know what happened.”) Louis Taylor, a member of the Saxophone Choir who also performs in the band on the Food Network’s Emeril Live, remembers meeting Pope when he was 12 years old; Taylor credits Pope’s workshops, which he attended through high school, with sparking his interest in jazz.

At Model Cities, Pope mentored dozens of aspiring young musicians like Taylor; electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma is another of his success stories. As musical director of the program, he handpicked several additional instructors-pianist Eddie Green, drummer Sherman Ferguson and bassist Tyrone Brown-who were accomplished young players on the Philadelphia scene. (Together they constituted the rhythm section on Desperado, a 1970 Original Jazz Classics album by Philly guitar hero Pat Martino.)

When Pope and his fellow teachers weren’t working with students, they were developing an identity as a quartet. Catalyst was a collective, as much a product of different aesthetic sensibilities as of the admixture of funk, free jazz, rock and soul. The group made its self-titled debut on Muse Records in 1972, with Alphonso Johnson originally on bass. When Johnson left to join Weather Report, Brown replaced him and the group took on the characteristics of a family. Ferguson, who was then studying Swahili, came up with names for each member of the band, as he recalled in a 1999 interview with the Philadelphia City Paper. The name he chose for Pope, who lived next door on Colorado Street, was Nwali, which he understood to mean “teacher.” (As it turns out, Nwali is the divine creator according the lore of the Lemba, a nomadic Jewish people found in South Africa. Close enough.)

Catalyst became a tri-state area sensation, gigging primarily in North and South Jersey. Muse Records wouldn’t subsidize any touring, and so despite releasing four strong albums, the band never broke through to a nationwide audience. It did, however, receive a retroactive boost when producer Adam Dorn dug into the vault to reissue all of those LPs on a two-CD package in 1999. The results were released on 32 Records as Catalyst: The Funkiest Band You Never Heard. Now out of print, it’s well worth seeking out. “When I listen to that compilation,” says Pope, “there’s still some good music there. That group was way ahead of its time.”

Pope is speaking now from a booth at the diner in Glenside, as he methodically cuts a stack of pancakes into a grid of one-inch squares. Recalling the Catalyst years, he seems determined to stay upbeat. “That’s when things really started to open up a bit, with those first albums,” he says. “There were a couple places in New Jersey where we would work four nights a week.” After the group disbanded in 1976, he continued to play frequently with Green, who became a utility player for Gamble & Huff at Philadelphia International Records, and Brown, who eventually joined Pope on tour with Roach. (Both musicians would also be fundamental to the evolution of the Saxophone Choir.)

The Max Roach Quartet was an especially effective showcase for Pope. It was harmonically open, with a lineup of tenor, trumpet, bass and drums. Pope often joined Cecil Bridgewater in heated frontline duologue, a roving counterpoint of the sort found in Ornette Coleman’s music. And in his marathon solos, Pope explored a tenor vocabulary that was avant-garde in temperament but usually rooted in the blues. He made expressive use of multiphonics, the art of playing several pitches at once on the horn, and circular breathing, a technique that enables playing for extended stretches without pause.

Circular breathing is still one of Pope’s trademark touches, and it neatly combines aspects of his personality: It’s a practice found in both classical and aboriginal music that Pope mastered and then modified for improvisational use. “When I first went with Max, I was just beginning to learn it,” Pope recalls. “I used to just hold one note. Max said, ‘Look, man. If you want to utilize that technique, you’re going to have to play more than one note. Develop that. Develop that so you can play all over the instrument.'”

Pope attributes many such pieces of advice to Roach, and there’s no question that his association with the drummer was enormously beneficial. But it wasn’t always enough; an intermittent schedule made it necessary for Pope to seek out journeyman work. “I was also doing a pit-band thing at the Downtown Theater,” he says. “That was the period of the Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, James Brown. I was in the pit bands; I thought of it as part of being with the music. I worked with [guitarist] Tiny Grimes for about a year; I worked with [organist] Jimmy McGriff for about two years. This is what you did in order to survive.”

There were tough moments during that stretch, though Pope doesn’t volunteer details. In fact, there’s a quick flash in his eyes when it’s suggested that he faced his share of struggles, including a stint as a postal carrier, on the road to independence. “I think anything you do in life that’s going to have some substance is going to be a struggle,” he counters. “There have been times when it was questionable whether I really wanted to be a musician. In fact, I’ve tried all different kinds of things. If you want to be good at being an artist, there’s a certain amount of dues you’re going to have to pay. I felt as though this was what I wanted to do, and I was willing to make supreme sacrifices, which I have.”

Tomorrow is the official release date of my new CD,” Pope says, with due pride. “I’ll be playing at the famous Blue Note club in New York the week of April 4 through 9.” This is standard talk for the bandstand; less so for a roomful of 6- and 7-year-olds. So Ms. Valentino’s class doesn’t seem to know what to do with the information, until one child pipes up to say his parents own Pope’s previous albums. The saxophonist brightens. “Tell your parents to go to the Sixers game on March 22,” he says. “I’ll be playing the national anthem. You know what? Here’s what it’s going to sound like, since you probably won’t be able to go. I’m going to give you just a little taste; if I played it the way I’m going to play it at the Wachovia Center, I’d run you all out of the room.”

Later-in the Popemobile, after lunch in Glenside-Pope describes some of the projects he has apart from the Saxophone Choir. Next week he’ll be in California recording a quintet album under the leadership of drummer Donald Bailey, along with legendary trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. (As it happens, Hubbard doesn’t make the session, so Charles Tolliver fills in.) Pope also alludes to his hard-driving trio with Brown and drummer Craig McIver, the rhythmic core of the Choir. (This group, which can be heard on several studio recordings, will be premiering new work commissioned by the City of Philadelphia in September.) And there’s more: “I have string-quartet music, I have big-band music, I have French-horn music,” he says. He also has a history of bringing his arrangements on the road, for workshops with local saxophonists in such places as Finland, Australia and, a bit closer to home, Buffalo, N.Y.

We’re heading south on Broad Street in the direction of Temple University, where Pope has an appointment with a programmer at WRTI, Philadelphia’s mixed-format jazz and classical station. As we pass the intersection of North Broad and Susquehanna, Pope brightens. “I was raised up on this corner,” he says, pointing. “That’s where I used to shine shoes as a boy.”

The moment prompts more reminiscence.

“There were so many places to play in Philadelphia,” he says, reaching back some 40 years. “Now it’s only two or three places where you can really play. But I can name about 10 places on Columbia Avenue, which became Cecil B. Moore Avenue, starting with the 820 Club, Café Society, Crystal Bar, the Webb Bar, the Zanzibar, the Northwest by Northwest. That was just one strip.”

Moments later we arrive at the corner of Cecil B. Moore and North Broad, now part of Temple’s urban campus, and the site of a SEPTA rail station. “There were clubs all around here,” he says, waving an arm toward a Barnes & Noble with a Temple Owls pennant in the window.

Pope takes an elevator up to WRTI’s studios, where Tobias Poole, a longtime fixture at the station who now serves as operating director, is expecting him. Poole is the model of professional courtesy as he leads Pope on a brief tour of the station’s immaculate new facility, which includes a conference-style interview room, a glass-enclosed control room and a handsome performance studio set up for a small audience. “Cyrus Chestnut was in this studio just the other day,” Poole says. “He played this piano here.”

“Ah, that’s wonderful,” says Pope. “Tobias, my new album will be released tomorrow. It’s called Locked & Loaded. We recorded it at the Blue Note in New York. I would love for you to hear it.”

The Blue Note was crowded during the three-night run in December 2004 that yielded the Saxophone Choir’s new album. This surely had something to do with the guests lined up for the occasion: Michael Brecker on opening night, James Carter the next night and Lovano as a closer. It’s a tribute to Pope’s high regard among saxophonists that he assembled such a triumvirate of tenors; it’s a testament to his music that all three delivered knockout performances with the band. But it’s not as unusual a collaboration as it may initially seem. “I first met Joe Lovano in the ’80s, when I was with Max,” Pope recalls. “James said he had a copy of the first Saxophone Choir CD. And Michael said he used to carry the four Catalyst records around when he was going to Berklee. So all of them knew the history.”

Pope had sent the band’s book to each of his guests, with assurances that they would serve as guest soloists, without needing to learn any intricate parts. (Carter insisted on playing some of them anyway.) The best performances were selected for inclusion on the album; there was more than enough material for a sequel, which Pope hopes will be released in the near future. As circumstance has it, the album is one of the last recordings made by Brecker before his diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome. He almost canceled the engagement due to what was then a mysterious pain; hearing his exertions on the album, it’s almost impossible to imagine that he was already ailing.

Even without that unintentional poignancy, Locked & Loaded is a powerful statement of purpose, comfortable in its relation to Coltrane-“Central Park West” receives a gorgeous treatment, and “Coltrane Time” launches into orbit, via Brecker-but fully expressive of Pope’s own musical identity. At times, the group’s eight harmonized saxophones suggest a single darting instrument; at other times, they hit like a gale force.

“That’s what a saxophone section can do,” reflects Lovano, who plays stirringly on “Cis,” Pope’s valentine to his wife of many years. “This is a choir concept from top to bottom as far as tonalities, but it’s the power of a saxophone section, too. And in the lineage of the music, it takes on all kinds of different shapes and meanings all the time. Each piece is very different throughout the evening with the Saxophone Choir. It’s big, and yet there’s a lot of intimacy also, a lot of trio and quartet playing within.”

George Burton, who assumed the piano chair in the Choir after Eddie Green died in 2004, elaborates on that idea: “Odean writes a lot of harmonies so tightly for the saxophones that I often have to make my chord voicings a lot simpler than what’s actually going on in the music. But anything can happen with him; there’s never nothing formatted. He may take a solo, he may not, but when he does I immediately go into small-band mode.”

At other times, Burton says, it’s like playing accompaniment in a big band. But Pope prefers to think of his ensemble as an almost literal choir concept, which the parallel movement of the horns often does suggest. Most of the saxophonists see it that way, too. “In a big band,” says Louis Taylor, “each of the sections-trumpet, trombone and saxophone-does something different, and it’s harmonized throughout the section. When you’re playing in the Saxophone Choir, every voice is an integral part of the whole, but with its own melody. So if one part is not being played, you’re talking about the entire melody of the song really not being heard thoroughly. So in that respect, you can really hear the difference between playing in a situation like that and a conventional big band.”

Julian Pressley, a longtime veteran of the Choir who now occupies its first alto chair, illustrates that difference a bit more colorfully. “Playing in a big band or in a five-person saxophone section, it’s like being in the bumper cars,” he says. “You ride around in your car and occasionally some nut’s going to come crash into you. In the Saxophone Choir, you go to the biggest, highest, fastest, craziest roller coaster and strap yourself in. It goes way all the way to the top and then comes down like crazy. You’re up in the air flying and then diving down, and when you finally get to the end, it stops and the guy comes to pull the bar up. You’re terrified. But you want to ride again. That’s what playing in the Saxophone Choir is like.”

On the first night of the Choir’s return to the Blue Note, the band occupies a small dressing room up-stairs, looking sharp in black tuxedos but also more than a little cramped. It’s an album-release engagement, but also a double bill with the David Murray Quartet. Onstage, Murray, an acclaimed tenor saxophonist of the generation that followed Pope’s, peers out at the audience. “I know there are a lot of people here from Philadelphia,” he says. “We love Odean Pope and the Saxophone Choir.” Then he dedicates a song to Philly’s favorite adopted son, John Coltrane. It’s an original called “Steps.”

Perhaps partly in response, Pope calls “Giant Steps” in the Saxophone Choir set that follows Murray’s, prefacing the first downbeat with an aside to the band: “It’s going to be right on the edge.” He’s right; it’s a careering, tightly voiced arrangement of the tune, and no punches are pulled. After the song grounds to a halt, Pope makes a point of mentioning that there are CDs for sale upstairs. His stage presence is companionable yet commanding.

“Angelic” is the adjective applied to Pope by Prince Lasha, a saxophonist who first met the bandleader more than 25 years ago. “His Holiness is what I call him,” Lasha kids during a set break. (“I’m Daddy Grace,” he adds, as if his name isn’t striking enough.) Lasha was the fourth guest soloist on the last Blue Note engagement-Pope says his contribution will be documented on the next release-and it was Lasha who brought his childhood friend Ornette Coleman to the club, on the night that Lovano was onstage. As producer Jeff Levenson observes in the album’s liner notes, it was the first time he’d seen Ornette in the audience at a show. Coleman wrote a liner essay of his own for Locked & Loaded, in which he asserts that Pope’s music has “transposed the non-transposed, the rhythm and the harmony and the melody all having equal revolutions to the improviser.” (Note the order of those three elements, which Ms. Valentino’s class could probably still recite by rote.)

The Choir sounds solid as ever in its return to the club, and the absence of guest stars opens up solo opportunities for Taylor and Pressley, tenor saxophonists Terry Lawson, Seth Meicht and Elliott Levin and baritone Joe Sudler, in addition to the rhythm section of Burton, McIver and Brown. Pope conducts the group with sharp flickers of his wrists, along with a few spoken exhortations. He plays on only two tunes, “Terrestrial” and “Trilogy,” imbuing his solos with circular breathing and multiphonic coloration.

“The early roots come through,” muses Brown at night’s end, referring to his long association with the saxophonist and composer. “You know, Pope reached a point where he felt he was too influenced by the legacy. He pretty much gave away his record collection and stopped listening to other people, so he could focus on his own music. He was really looking to find himself.”

This brings to mind a comment of Pope’s, from that afternoon in Philadelphia. “Every day I pick that horn up, I strive to be myself,” he said. It was an admission of the sort that any number of players might make, but Pope gave it a palpable intensity.

His music for the Saxophone Choir, at its finest and most mysterious, gives off a sense of that striving. And his playing can still suggest feats of strength, some ardent challenge to the very limits of the physical world. “Sometimes I can play a note that’s so high, it sounds like a…,” he says, leaving the simile unfinished. “It’s a note above the altissimo range. I hit it a couple of times with Max. It’s a note above all the altissimo. Sometimes if I have a good reed I can do it. So these are the kinds of things I’ll be reaching for.”

Listening Pleasures

“I usually listen to a lot of classical music,” Pope says at the Buckingham Hotel during the Saxophone Choir’s week at the Blue Note. “I listen to a lot of piano players. I listen to a lot of singers-Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington-because I like to get the singing approach to my music. As well as drummers: Max Roach would be the first one, and then Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes. Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts is one of the killer younger drummers.”

Pressed to name some recordings in his recent rotation, Pope first offers the latest from Haynes, Fountain of Youth (Dreyfus). He also mentions a compilation of ballad performances by Charlie Parker, though he can’t remember the name. I bring up the singers he mentioned, and he singles out some favorite tracks. Here they are, along with some suggestions on where to find them:

Sarah Vaughan, “My Funny Valentine” (The Definitive Sarah Vaughan, Verve)

Billy Eckstine, “Jelly, Jelly” (The Legendary Big Band, Savoy)

Frank Sinatra, “Witchcraft” and “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” (The Very Best of Frank Sinatra, Reprise)

Dinah Washington, “Cold, Cold Heart” (Dinah Washington’s Finest Hour, Verve)

Pope’s favorite Max Roach albums are To the Max! (Blue Moon) and Bright Moments (Soul Note), which feature himself and Tyrone Brown. Prompted for a favorite performance by Coltrane, he says: “One of the ones I really listen to and like a lot is ‘Say It (Over and Over Again),'” from the album Ballads (Impulse!).


“I play a Selmer Mark VI-the 6300 series, one of the old ones,” says Pope. “I bought this horn in 1960. I also play the oboe, the piccolo, the bass clarinet and soprano, all Selmers as well. I usually keep either a flute or a piccolo by the bed, so if I get an idea I can get up and jot it down. I used to try to remember ideas in the morning, but that never worked.”

When asked about specific notation software or other compositional aid, Pope shifts the conversation in the direction of musical ideas. “I work with the third and the fourth systems,” he says. “From the third system it’s major thirds and minor thirds. And the fourth system is perfect fourths, inverted fourths, augmented fourths. The other thing I work with a lot is the contemporary sound, like three against four, five against eight, 6/4 time, 5/4 time, 9/4, and 11-tone scales.” Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).