The Sharp End of the Saxophone – An Interview with Jason Sharp

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Plenty of musicians will tell you that music is in their blood, but not many can claim their blood is in their music. Jason Sharp can. The experimental saxophonist uses a heart monitor, alongside other equipment, in order to trigger various musical elements as he plays, making his body’s response a part of the sound itself.

These methods first found an outlet on Jason Sharp’s 2016 album A Boat Upon Its Blood, and are expanded on this year’s thrilling follow-up, the tumultuous Stand Above The Streams. Alongside feedback specialist Adam Basanta, Sharp sets a course through musical waters that ebb and flow throughout, from strong, choppy currents to gently rippling flows that slowly engulf the listener.

In this interview Jason Sharp tells us more about his techniques, and explains how years of dedicated service to Montreal’s jazz and improv scene helped shape his unique approach…

What first drew you into the world of the saxophone?

Jason Sharp: What really drew me into the world of the saxophone was hearing a solo Steve Lacy concert as a high school student. His music encompassed both classical and jazz traditions effortlessly, fluidly moving between compositional and improvisational approaches and employing a wide array of techniques in such a musical way. It was the first time I had ever witnessed the saxophone as a truly solo voice holding an audience in rapture and the concert broadened my whole appreciation for what the saxophone is capable of.

The bass and baritone instruments you play look beautiful. Where did you get them and how do they compare to your first sax/s?

My baritone saxophone is a Selmer Mark VI from 1957 and I found it in Toronto through a craigslist ad. It was in unplayable condition so I sent it to my favourite repair man in NYC to have it restored.

My bass saxophone is a Conn New Wonder II from 1927. The instrument was also in Toronto and was discovered in the basement of a Masonic Temple by a man who ran a Shrine Circus band out of the temple. The case actually had Masonic symbols spray painted on it. When the circus band disbanded later that year he sold off the instruments including this horn and reserved the sale for someone willing to play it, not just a collector. I actually found it online a week before I got married and had to leave Montreal a few days before my wedding to go see the horn. Leaving my family to go buy a saxophone was a bit of a controversy but it worked out on all fronts.

Both these horns are incredibly unique from the golden era of the saxophone. I grew up playing a brand new instrument and while new instruments have excellent intonation and ergonomics they can sound a bit uniform. As you get deeper into the instrument and particularly in jazz you begin to chase after subtle tonal qualities that are specific to certain makes and vintages of instruments. Once you find something that gets you close to what you are hearing, a pretty intimate long term relationship begins. These two horns are hopefully with me for life.

Elements of your music are triggered using heart/breath monitors. Can you explain a bit about how this works? For instance, if your pulse/breathing rate increases, does that effect the tempo of the track?

In order to perform the music on this record I wear an electronic heart monitor that provides a master clock for both my modular synthesizer rig and Adama Basanta’s feedback speaker system. The fluctuating BPM triggers analogue drums, synthesizers, and sine wave patterns that I mix according to the arrangements with a series of volume pedals. The breath is amplified by the use of white noise filters, feedback and of course my own saxophone playing. The music was written with durational physical periods that are intended to increase the heart rate and also to provide moments of rest. Tempos are innately different every time and continue to fluctuate throughout the performance. In a sense it was meant to amplify and orchestrate the physical experience of solo performing.

Are there any ways of triggering sound through your body that you haven’t managed to perfect yet, or that you’d like to develop?

As a saxophonist I have really just been primarily interested in the relationship that breath has on our physical body. The system that I have in place now is the result of years of trial and error and I feel like I am just beginning to unlock new musical applications with it. I’m happy to dig deeper into that for now.

Your debut album A Boat Upon Its Blood was inspired by a Robert Creeley poem. Does Stand Above The Streams bear any specific literary (or other) influences?

Robert Creeley’s ‘The Heart’ provided both inspiration for the pieces on A Boat Upon Its Blood as well as the structure of the album as a whole. This album was loosely inspired by a phrase in a David Whyte poem entitled ‘The Seven Streams’. It describes standing in a current and imaging a connection to the branches of a larger system in order to attain a broader feeling of oneself. I felt this concept encapsulated this project well with each part being a departure in a new direction while remaining connected to a single source.

A Boat Upon Its Blood also featured several guest musicians, whereas apart from violinist Jesse Zubot your only collaborator on this one was Adam Basanta. What was his role on the record?

At the time of recording A Boat Upon Its Blood I was capturing the heart and breath in a fairly primitive way through contact microphones. This system prevented me from playing saxophone as I would normally, because the resonance in my body would often interfere with the signal. I therefore ended up composing most of the music as a trio without my horn, writing notes for the violin on my inhale and the pedal steel guitar on my exhale. Sitting in the middle of the two players (Josh Zubot and Joe Grass) I manipulated my breath to direct the pieces and sculpt the responding triggered synthesizer sounds.

With this record, I had further developed my heart monitor enabling me to play my saxophones as I do normally. I initially conceived of this project as a solo performance and was looking at ways to orchestrate the dynamics of the solo performance experience itself. In my solo practice I often use controlled feedback with my horn and breath. Adam and I were both guest composers at a festival several years ago where I first was exposed to his great work with feedback and amplification systems. When I started to actually write material for this I got excited about the thought of including Adam’s practice to create a broader and more expansive sound world, while remaining homogeneous to my solo work. Connecting our setups via a master clock from the heart monitor presented compositional opportunities in the form of melodic feedback content, textural elements, and developing rhythmic patterns that I would never have been able to accomplish without his inclusion.

Where would be the perfect place/environment to listen to Stand Above The Streams?

Any environment that keeps you in one place listening [from] beginning to end on some nice headphones is my favourite way of experiencing any album. Sitting on a train on a long trip, laying down on the couch at the end of the day, and waiting at the airport on a layover are just a few of my favourites.

The album is split into four parts, but these are divided again on Spotify – is this to try and increase streaming revenue or is there another reason?

On certain platforms this is necessary for albums with few but long tracks to price it as a full album. I do feel though that as a listener of the digital release it is nice to have index markers for navigation through long pieces such as these.

Can you send us a photo of the view from your window?

Jason Sharp window constellation

Montreal is renowned for its experimental music scene. How has living there influenced your career?

Living in Montreal has exposed me to an incredibly diverse musical community that has provided me with fertile ground for exploring my own voice as a musician. My collective experiences of playing in ensembles like Sam Shalabi’s Land of Kush, Nicolas Caloia’s Ratchet Orchestra, Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin Project, Josh Zubot’s Mendham, and recently the Roscoe Mitchell led Montreal/Toronto Art Ensemble have allowed me to meet and collaborate with some amazing local musicians who have become some of my primary influences. Each of these bandleaders have such an unwavering commitment to the realisation of the sounds they hear and its shown me the value of unapologetically chasing after your authentic musical voice.

You’re also signed to the city’s premier label, Constellation, who used to release the work of another circular-breathing specialist – Colin Stetson. Have you guys ever discussed each other’s techniques, or thought about working together?

While I do employ circular breathing often I wouldn’t consider myself a “specialist”. Circular breathing is one of many extended techniques frequently used by most saxophonist in contemporary and improvised music. It is an absolute must if the music you hear has any sustained or drone elements to it. I’m not sure there is much to talk about regarding the technique itself as this is a pretty well established subject but there is a life-time of discussion to be had on the music that is made through exploring the outer reaches of the instrument and the approach to solo playing in particular. Colin certainly has recontextualized these techniques in an incredibly distinctive solo voice and it would be a treat to discuss the resulting music sometime, not to mention hearing our horns together.

What are the top things you’d suggest music fans should see/do/hear in Montreal?

The Suoni Per Il Popolo festival which runs the entire month of June and their associated venues of Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa are probably the main musical institutions that have led to me calling Montreal home. The people behind these institutions have done great things for the musical culture of the city and I encourage anyone visiting Montreal to check out their listings.

Jason Sharp’s Stand Above The Streams is out now on Constellation Records. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Photo: Emily Gan
Interview: Kier Wiater Carnihan

by Editor
March 12, 2018

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