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Bob Mintzer

Maintaining a big band based in New York for nearly 25 years, arranger/saxophonist Bob Mintzer is also a member of the Yellowjackets, teaches music, writes books on music and gives back to his community through music.

Mintzer has played and written for Buddy Rich, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Art Blakey, Sam Jones and Jaco Pastorius, as well as Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and the New York Philharmonic. Among his session work, Mintzer has performed with James Taylor, Queen, Steve Winwood and Aretha Franklin. After 23 years with Digital Music Products, Mintzer recorded In The Moment at MCG Jazz on Art of Life Records, in a gorgeous new studio that allows all the instruments room to breath and come to life.

JazzReview: I received your big band CD In The Moment-done with a quartet. How did you decide to do an album with a quartet rather than with a big band?

BobMintzer: As a sax player, we are always looking to play with a quartet. As the lone saxophone player in the quartet, it provides opportunity for lots of playing and lots of interplaying with the rhythm section. That’s something I’ve always focused on, in some capacity.

This particular recording happened as a result of the opportunity to go into a new recording studio. We got together to just play--the same guys who are in the rhythm section of my big band: Phil Markowitz, Jay Anderson and John Riley. We just wanted to play and try out this new studio. It sounded good, so we thought it would be a nice idea to release this quartet record.

JazzReview: Is this the studio shown on the liner notes? That is gorgeous.

Bob Mintzer: Yes, it is.

JazzReview: The sound came up very nicely.

Bob Mintzer: It sure did. We were lucky to have a great engineer, Mick Guzauski, who I’ve worked with before with the Yellowjackets. He also does people like Eric Clapton and luminary pop and blues artists, so he’s a terrific engineer.

JazzReview: That was one of my questions, so let’s go on to Neil Dorfsman and Hal Winer.

Bob Mintzer: Mick did the bulk of engineering, but Neil was also there. He’s also a luminary engineer. He lives in the neighborhood. We were all there to check out the studio and have some fun. Hal Winer is the owner of the studio and he actually set this whole thing up and wound up mixing the CD as well.

JazzReview: Very interesting. There are a lot of complexities to making a CD, isn’t there?

Bob Mintzer: Yes-sometimes more so than others.

JazzReview: Let’s talk about your fellow artists; Phil Markowitz, Jay Anderson and John Riley.

Bob Mintzer: Sure. Phil Markowitz is a terrific pianist. He’s played with Dave Liebman, Chet Baker and Mel Lewis, also [with] The Saxophone Summit Band with Dave Liebman, Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano. Phil also has his own trio that he works with. We’ve been playing together for about 15 years.

JazzReview: So you’ve gotten to know each other’s playing quite well.

Bob Mintzer: He’s been in my big band for 15 years so whenever I get a chance to play quartet, I call Phil because he’s a wonderful musician.

Jay Anderson is a bassist. He’s played with Michael Brecker, Joe Sample and lots of folks. He also plays in the big band and we’ve played together for 15 or so years. We’ve done a couple of quartet records together. Jay is a great musician, bassist and [is] overall great.

John Riley is a great drummer who plays in the Vanguard Orchestra. He’s played with Woody Herman and John Scofield. John Riley and I have been playing together, also, for about 15 years.

There’s some history there, which is why the music sounds as it does, I think.

JazzReview: Do you find you have a working relationship with them that if one is ready to miss a note, the other one is aware and fills in that space?

Bob Mintzer: Yes, after all the time with each other, we’ve learned to fill in and how to complement one another.

JazzReview: It shows on this album.

You wrote a lot of these songs. Also, on your album Old School-New Lessons, those songs are very complex. When I saw "big band," I expected swing and smooth flowing music, but your big band is not swing. How would you describe your music?

Bob Mintzer: Well, it is certainly influenced by some of the older band sensibilities, however, there’s also a more modernistic, jazz-influenced approach--a post-bop, if you will. There’s also an Afro-Caribbean approach [and] also some classical and orchestrational considerations. Basically, I’ve been influenced by all the various genres I’ve played in, which include symphony orchestra, Latin, jazz bands, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, pop bands, Steve Winwood, the Buddy Rich Big Band and with the Yellowjackets. It’s kind of a wide-open terrain. Like you say, it goes well beyond the traditional big band.

JazzReview: These are very complex arrangements. Each time I listened to your albums I heard something different in each of the songs.

Bob Mintzer: These songs are complex, but there’s also a very concise rhyme and reason to each of them. In terms of form, they are very classical in form and shape. You know, I guess complexity is really in the eye of the beholder.

JazzReview: It is. I couldn’t fathom trying to match two notes to make sense together-knowing which instruments work together and what notes to assign-all way beyond me.

On your website you state, "Each arrangement was crafted in such a way that there was a sense of composition to each tune without having the writing being too cumbersome." Would you like to talk about that?

Bob Mintzer: In my way of thinking, composition in music is used as a vehicle for playing. That’s precisely what I intended to do in this quartet situation--write songs where certain guidelines were established that allow each player to be free to express himself or herself, without being burdened with a lot of information in the writing. I tried to have the percentage of composition be less so there was ample room for improvisation and interplay.

JazzReview: That was one of my questions-do you feel you achieved the freedom and authenticity you set out to create for this album?

Bob Mintzer: Yes, I do. It just clicked. We recorded a lot of music in just four hours. It was pretty effortless. I know how to play with these guys, and they know how to play the stuff I write. We all know how to play together so it went quite well.

JazzReview: Four hours is quite amazing for a project.

Bob Mintzer: Well, that’s how we use to record. When I played on the Buddy Rich Band, we just played and that’s what got recorded. As a matter of fact, I’ve been playing big band for 25 years, and most of those were done in six, seven or eight hours.

JazzReview: That’s amazing when you think of what they do today-tape over tape---and things are done so electronically.

Bob Mintzer: Yeah. Nothing wrong with that either, but I think live jazz playing...there’s something about capturing that initial impression. There’s a certain freshness and spark when you grab first impressions. If you get players who you play with consistently and know how to play together, then it works.

JazzReview: We have to talk about the Yellowjackets. Once you’ve become one of them, it stays with you for life. And, the fellows in that group have the reputation of being some of the nicest guys in the business. You have been with them for such a long time.

Bob Mintzer: Seventeen years.

JazzReview: That has to influence what you do in your own creations.

Bob Mintzer: Uh.., it has influenced me in every way. It’s a wonderful organization to be a part of. They create incredible music.

JazzReview: How do you manage to transition from playing big band to playing quartet?

Bob Mintzer: In my big band, we try to create that same intimate setting you find in the quartet. We’ve been together so long, it isn’t so hard to do. And in my writing, I try to maintain that approach by making sure there’s an intimate small band sensibility happening at all times. The larger horn section is an accompaniment to that.

JazzReview: Oh, I see! Will you tour with this album or will you go on to create another album?

Bob Mintzer: You know, there’s only so many hours in a day. At this point in time between doing what I do with the Yellowjackets, doing big band stuff, teaching and writing, there just isn’t that much time for touring. I do a lot of guest conductor, big band solos with bands all over the world. I find it hard right now to fit in a lot of quartet playing--maybe at some later time.

We play occasionally. I know we’re supposed to go to Shanghai in China next September, but things do come up every now and then.

JazzReview: Are you looking forward to that?

Bob Mintzer: I am. I just enjoy playing, period. There’s just so many projects one can do, you know. It’s easy to spread myself too thin. Playing with the Yellowjackets occupies about 5 months out of the year. That kind of fulfills the quartet role for me. Id’ very much like to play with my own quartet as well, because it’s in a different zone and I enjoy that also.

JazzReview: Didn’t you do a tour as the Yellowjackets to Africa a while back? How was that trip? Did you enjoy that?

Bob Mintzer: We played the Cape Town jazz festival. It was very inspirational and moving. I love going to South Africa. It’s a new dawn in there. They’re coming out of years of oppression and apartheid. There’s a lot of hope in the air over there, and music and the arts reflect that.

In speaking with everyday people over there, I think there’s a big sense of relief that apartheid is over and they have more opportunity to get themselves together than in the past.

JazzReview: When you sit down to write, where do your ideas come from? Do you get them in the middle of the night? In the shower? In a quiet corner?

Bob Mintzer: I think it’s a little of each. Sometimes you get ideas. Sometimes you place yourself in front of an instrument or in front of a computer, start throwing notes around and see how they sound. More often than not, I’m thinking about the group and the people I’m writing for. One consideration, for example, is if I wrote a fast swing song last time, this time I’d try to write something to contrast with that. I listen to a lot of different music and sometimes something will move me or serve as a spark for a composition--not taking the specific notes from a piece, but [I] get the feel and the essence of piece and build on that.

JazzReview: Do you mentally picture the other musicians at their instrument while you’re writing?

Bob Mintzer: Yeah. I can hear the way certain guys play. I think imagination is a big part of the writing process. You try to think of a sound or a shape you hear in your head. The hard part is organizing getting it all down, doing the detail work and putting the finishing touches on the piece.

JazzReview: That makes sense to me. On your album, In The Moment, do you have a favorite song-something that really touches you?

Bob Mintzer: Not really. I thought the whole album hung together well. You know, I always feel like I could have played better, but I think it turned out pretty well. I can say with confidence, it’s an accurate representation of where we’re all at-in that moment.

JazzReview: My own personal favorite was "Blues." Your bass clarinet is outstanding on this piece.

Bob Mintzer: That’s kind of an interesting instrument. It’s not frequently played.

JazzReview: Why is that?

Bob Mintzer: It’s a very hard instrument to play. I luckily started out on clarinet so I had a background to work with, but the bass clarinet is a tough instrument--a little more particular in terms of how you blow into it. It’s finicky, fickle. Also, when you push the octave key on a bass clarinet, you go up a twelfth, which is an octave and a fifth. On a saxophone, when you press the octave key, you get the same note, an octave higher. So if you’re not accustomed to playing clarinet, it could prove problematic.

JazzReview: Is clarinet, in general, a more difficult instrument to play?

Bob Mintzer: Only if you haven’t played it. It really depends on what you’re more familiar with.

JazzReview: I see. I’ve noticed clarinet no longer seems to be as frequently played as it was back in the days of Benny Goodman.

Bob Mintzer: That was the sound of that era, and it was a very particular sound. Lately, clarinets and flutes are used as color in the saxophone section, rather than as solo instruments as Woody Herman or Duke Ellington used them. A lead line played on a clarinet was an integral part of the Duke Ellington sound.

JazzReview: I noticed a portion of sales from profits of Old School-New Lessons go to the Manchester Craftsman Guild [MCG] a multi-discipline, minority-directed arts & learning center serving the urban community in Pittsburgh, PA. Please tell me a little about that.

Bob Mintzer: The MCG is an organization started by a man named Bill Strickland, who had a vision to provide tutoring and mentoring of the arts and vocational matters to inner-city people. It started in Pittsburgh and has grown so that now they have music courses, painting courses, pottery courses. . They have tutors for kids in academic areas. Plus, courses for adults. There’s a culinary course there. So folks can come out and learn a trade, learn about the environment, learn about the arts, Part of what they do is; they have a jazz series and they started recording these concerts. This is where the MCG label was formed. We just finished our third CD for them.

JazzReview: I love those kinds of programs. How did you manage to get involved?

Bob Mintzer: I went there with the Yellowjackets and played. We were on their jazz series. I thought it would be a good scenario for the big band to go down, perform and possibly record, so we did that.

We did our first CD down there with a singer, Kurt Elling, who is also on Old School-New Lessons. He did a great job on that piece called "Resolution," which is from the John Coltrane Love Supreme collection. He’s absolutely wonderful.

JazzReview: Yes, he is. I enjoyed that. You also do workshops and teach, plus you’ve written books. Where DO you find time for all of this?

Bob Mintzer: I just keep moving. My mother taught me how to do that. She’s 83, soon to be 84, and she keeps moving. The idea is to keep growing and learning, and the ideal way to do that is to create opportunity and situations where you can stay active and busy doing what you love.

The teaching part I like very much. I enjoy helping and sharing with those who like to learn, and I learn a lot from my students. I like to write music because it also provides opportunities to play. So those go hand- in-hand. In writing the big band music, much of which is published, I get to play with big bands around the world and go to universities and perform for the students there. It’s something I’m passionate about, and frankly, I don’t know how I’d rather spend my time.

JazzReview: Do you have a preference among your interests?

Bob Mintzer: No, I think they all fit together nicely. They’re all part of a larger picture.

JazzReview: Is there anything I did not ask you that you would like your fans to know?

Bob Mintzer: Just mention my Website and I have a myspace page as well: www.bobmintzer.com and myspace.com/bobmintzermusic.

JazzReview: Bob Mintzer is a living legacy-being "In The Moment," giving to others and sharing a craft that lives forever.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bob Mintzer
  • Interview Date: 12/1/2004
  • Subtitle: Peace Round with Bob Mintzer and the Yellowjackets
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