Woodwind instrumentalist, Mark Hollingsworth has one of the most outrageous and thrilling journeys that you may ever read about as narrated by him. Hollingsworth goes into depth about how he came into his own musicality after being a studio musician for a litany of recording artists from rock ‘n’ roll’s Alice Cooper and U2 to smooth crooners like Tom Jones and Luther Vandross. Hollingsworth latest solo album Chasing The Sun is the follow up to his debut album On The Mark and lives up to one code as he tells, "Louis Armstrong was known to say, ‘There's only 2 types of music, good and bad.’" All Hollingsworth aims to do is simply make music that sounds good.
Though the music industry labels Hollingsworth’s new album as smooth jazz, he maintains a more unconventional stance about his music as he elucidates, "Before there was ‘smooth-jazz,’ there were artists like David Sanborn, Yellowjackets, George Benson, etc. Over the years, people in the industry have gone back and renamed this kind of music ‘smooth jazz.’ Unfortunately in recent years the industry's interpretation of that term has actually excluded some of the very artists who were responsible for it's evolution. Increasingly, the industry has narrowed the definition of what smooth jazz is to the point where there's very little tolerance or room for experimentation or new blood."
He intels, "Labels always come after artists create a style anyway. I think Chasing The Sun actually defies categorization in some ways. The album includes Funk, Gospel, Blues, Disco, Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, Cajun and a few things I haven't quite figured out yet! Ha! My first priority with this project was to ‘sing’ as enthusiastically as I could and not worry about what style of music people might call it."
Hollingsworth may not concentrate on making music that fits a particular style but he strives to make music that has style. His parents both played the clarinet and his father was a high school band teacher which piqued Hollingsworth’s interest to pick up instruments as a toddler and start figuring out how to make them ‘sing.’
He chronicles, "We had a piano in our living room growing up and I remembered being typical of a little kid and fascinated by banging on the keys. My poor parents!" he mutters. "I also remember my dad, a high school band director holding a trombone up for me ‘cause I was way too small to hold it myself, maybe 4 years old. I then took the biggest breath that I could and blew into the mouthpiece to make exactly no sound other than air,’ he grimaces.
"I realized I really wanted to play when I was about 12," he recalls. "I had been studying piano for about 7 years and sax for 3 or 4 and was taking lessons on both but pretty much hated practicing. One day my father said that he was tired of trying to get me to practice piano so I could quit. I was excited, but about 6 months later, I started to realize that I missed the piano. I asked if I could start taking lessons again."
He portends that playing the saxophone, "Oddly, it was an accident. They tested everyone in 5th grade for musical aptitude. They brought me in and asked if my parents had played an instrument. Both of mine played clarinet when I was young, but I wanted to play that trombone my dad would bring home once in a while. The guy asked me what I thought of the sax. I think they just needed a sax player for the band," he conjectures. "I said, ‘I dunno.’ He held a tenor sax up for me and said blow. I blew and it made a horrendous noise. He said what do you think? I said, ‘I dunno.’ He said. ‘Great!! You'll play tenor sax.’"
He admits, "I did connect better with the sax somehow though. I made quicker progress on it than piano and found that having to breathe into an instrument made the experience more personal."
After high school, Hollingsworth pursued his desire to find a niche for himself in music by going where many of us go to find ourselves - college. "I originally had a scholarship to study engineering in college. I decided about a month before classes that engineering was going to be too predictable and too easy, as strange as that seems. It was too late to change schools, so I went ahead and attended a small private college in Indianapolis, Butler College, which also had a decent ‘legit’ music school. Fortunately my private teacher happened to be the top local woodwind session player. He went to school with Michael Brecker. My teacher actually sat 1st chair because Michael's reading chops weren't that strong at the time."
He continues, "Anyway, after taking lessons for a couple of months, I distinctly remember my teacher asking me, ‘Mark, what are you doing here? You should really be at a school like Berklee.’ I knew nothing about Berklee, but ended up getting a scholarship for the next year."
Next stop for Mark was Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts as he recounts, "My time at Berklee was pretty tough for me. I didn't really have much support from home and had to work part-time jobs most of the time out there. I lived in the Back Bay by the school, which was a pretty marginal neighborhood back then. There were hookers down on the corner of my street and the apartments were run-down and full of cockroach’s etc. My regular schedule was to get up at about 5am and walk over to the gym to lift weights before classes. I'd be in school from maybe 9am to 2pm, then go to work maybe 3pm to 9pm, come home and do homework and practice ‘til about midnight. I felt like I was trying to make up for lost time in music since I had previously been on a path to be an engineer."
"On the flip side," he gleans, "I got to study with a legendary sax teacher, Joe Viola as well as take classes from amazing artists including Gary Burton. The competition definitely drove me to move at an accelerated pace too. I couldn't have become a professional without it, but as my friend Dan Higgins says, ‘Graduating from a top music college, is a good start.’ It was just a good first step from which to gain professional experiences."
He advocates, "Working professionally with recording artists and other pros is always an amazing and powerful learning experience. That's been a wonderful aspect of a career in music, I'm always learning new things!"
While in Boston, Hollingsworth says, "Didn't have time" to take in the city’s music scene, "had to work. I did get out to see Brecker and other major players when they were in town though." He reflects, "I was out of place in Boston. I had only started studying improvisation about 2 or 3 years before, didn't know how to read out of a fake-book or transpose on site. I didn't know anyone in Boston when I moved there. I was surrounded by prodigies from around the world, and had come from a high school where nobody really cared about music much."
Though Berklee and Boston were hard on Hollingsworth, he touts, "One of the first breaks was while I was still in my final year at Berklee. A teacher named Rob Rose had a jingle house and hired me to do a few sessions. It gave me a bit of confidence and something for my resume. A few months after graduating I ended up getting a job on a cruise ship playing shows. I worked on different ships for about 2 years learning tunes and getting better on my instruments."
Life is full of challenges and they always seemed to be knocking on Mark’s door. Being a musician on cruise ships allowed Hollingsworth to avoid settling down in any one place but once the gigs ended, he made a choice to head for Los Angeles. "There were only really 2 choices for me," he rationalizes, "I wanted to be a studio musician and New York and Los Angeles were the best places to do that. I finally decided my playing style was probably more like Tom Scott than Michael Brecker and thought that Los Angeles would be a better fit."
He describes, "When I first came to Los Angeles, I was young and naive, which worked in my favor. I found out who all the top studio woodwind players were and called them and essentially announced that I was in town and ready to work. Fortunately, the woodwind players in LA were a very supportive community and everyone I called was very nice. I was still getting my skills together, but the players gave me good advice. I was very fortunate to have been mentored by Gary Herbig. He brought me along on a lot of recording sessions and introduced me to everyone. He was following a tradition of mentoring that unfortunately has disappeared now with the dramatic reduction of studio work today."
Hollingsworth declares, "My first serious break was given to me by a friend from Berklee, Peter Gordon. I had struggled after moving to Los Angeles from the cruise ships for the first year. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of my apartment all year because I had no money for furniture. Peter called one day and said, ‘Mark, would you be interested in touring with Tom Jones?’ I said, ‘Is he still alive?’"
He details, "The opening in the band was for a Baritone Sax player. Peter made up a story and told the Musical Director that I used to play Bari Sax all the time in Boston, but I had to sell it to move to LA. Ha!" he releases ever so cheekily, "of course, I had never played Bari. I borrowed 4 grand, bought an instrument and started working with Tom Jones two weeks later. Instead of sleeping on the floor, I was soon staying at 5 star hotels in Europe."
He recollects, "After I left Tom Jones, I picked up recorders in a very casual way and over time found some other kinds of wood flutes and started experimenting with making my own flutes. Since I made the choice not to play oboe, which might have been helpful in Los Angeles, I decided that ethnic flutes would be another way of broadening my skill base."
He answered the call to play Chinese flutes for an indie film called Xiu-Xiu. "I ended up being called for Xiu-Xiu partly because I was one of the few players in town who had a complete set of Chinese flutes as well as other bamboo flutes which would work. For some reason moving into an ‘ethnic mind-space’ comes relatively easy to me. For me, it's much like moving from playing classical music to jazz. The standards of what makes ‘great’ music are the same across genres. The ability to produce a beautiful and expressive tone and to execute a composition in a truly musical way are trademarks of any great music performed by any great musician."
Maybe it was growing up with a father who was a high school band teacher, but Hollingsworth has no fear of picking up any instrument and figuring out its musical dimensions. He took to the flute and clarinet naturally. "Flute and clarinet would be considered ‘standard’ doubles for a session player or Broadway musician," he mentions. "Even in the few big bands that I saw growing up like Stan Kenton or Thad Jones. Mel Lewis bands would have sax players who would double clarinet and flute. I had started noodling around on flute in high school. I was attracted to it because I had an extensive exposure to classical music and the flute has one of the coolest roles in an orchestra. It is often featured as a solo and often plays on top of the string section. It also sounded so cool when Hubert Laws or Tom Scott would play it. The clarinet took me longer to warm up to, but learned to also enjoy its personalities in classical music and jazz."
He proclaims, "Being a diversified musician was always a big priority for me. I grew up with parents who really appreciated different types of music and if I was going to be a musician then I had to be good at all of it. My premise was that by having a very broad skill base, I could pick and chose when it came time to doing my own music. I figured it was better to leave out musical ideas by choice rather than by ignorance."
Hollingsworth had to face up to his inexperience during a recording session with the late great Luther Vandross when the seasoned Vandross knew better as Hollingsworth chides himself with, "A good lesson for me was to learn that I didn't always know as much as I thought I knew. Years ago I worked on a Luther Vandross album. I was doing a few overdubs and played some sax and some flute. Luther was great and easy-going, but knew what he wanted. Toward the end of the session, he said he wanted to try overdubbing alto flute on a track they had previously recorded with an orchestra. When they pulled up the track, he said he wanted me to double the French horns in one section. I voiced a bit of doubt about whether the alto flute would be heard with four French horns blaring. Well, we tried it, and of course, it was a brilliant move! Luther wanted to soften the harshness of the French horns and the warm airiness of the alto flute worked like putting butter over it."
The important lesson for Hollingsworth was seeing where he went wrong and to take that knowledge with him when he began recording his own albums. He shares, "I had always had that vision of being a studio player and solo artist like Tom Scott was. When I was young, I had many powerful experiences listening to music and I wanted to be able to create those kind of powerful experiences for other people. I figured the best chance of being able to make sure that happened was to have your own band playing your own compositions."
He concedes, "I had always wanted to do a solo album, but unfortunately I never had that moment when a record producer came up and said, ‘Hey kid, we want to make you a star.’ If a big producer wasn’t going to make a solo album happen for me, I thought I’d pursue a path where I’d learn the skills I’d need to write and produce my own albums. That way if a producer came along, it would be great and provide a shortcut, but if not, I could eventually learn to do all that a producer would do."
He denotes, "I had always done some writing here and there, but had little formal training. So I studied songwriting and later orchestrating and film scoring with a great teacher here in Los Angeles I learned to use a multi-track recorder and bought a mixer and a good mic etc. I also started really learning to use a computer in production. Becoming a competent writer and producer has provided an invaluable arsenal of skills, which have helped me thrive at a time when the music industry itself has been in decline. This new album, Chasing The Sun really brings ALL of these skills together in a big way. The great thing is that though this path took longer, I also understand that this album is truly the best representation of who I am, because I didn't rely on someone else to make it happen."
He expresses about his debut album, "On the Mark happened because the timing was right. I had the skills and I had the right people to work with. James Wirrick, who co-produced gave me the solid anchor I needed to see it to completion."
He conveys, "On the Mark really got started because of the musicians I worked with when I toured with Greg Adams. James Wirrick played guitar and wrote and produced with Greg for several of Greg's albums. James and I became friends and used each other to play on tracks we produced. We started writing together and soon started planning for the album. We worked very well together and we both shared a similar vision of what the album should sound like. We produced that album in the same way that many smooth jazz albums are produced today. We started with ‘mock-ups’ of the songs using samples and loops. Then we overdubbed one instrument at a time starting with drums. We would replace a mocked up part with the real player leaving only some of the samples or loops in the mix. Working with James gave me the confidence to know that my first album would turn out to be a quality project."
He discerns, "On the Mark was conceived as a smooth-jazz album. I wanted to express myself within the context of the smooth jazz style. This may seem like a restriction, but it wasn't a bad thing at all. In fact sometimes having some restrictions on the multitude of choices you could make can be very good for creativity. I wrote several of the songs by myself and the rest with James, but I have a special connection to all of the songs. I generally started the songs that we wrote together and brought James in to help when I got stuck or simply get a new perspective. He's a very musical guy and it was great to work with someone I could trust musically."
He explains about the songwriting process, "Writing is something a person could be excellent at even if they went for a couple of years without writing. I tend to go through periods of intense writing, but then I may not write down anything for days and sometimes weeks. It seems there are always ideas spinning around in my head, so in that sense I am writing all the time. Musical ideas for me are like regular thoughts that fill the background of everyone's mind. That chatter of sentences that a non-musician may tune into sometimes and try to tune out others happens in my head with sound."
He attests, "Compositions can take minutes or years. I think of them as little children in a way. Ideally they all mature at their own pace. Hopefully, once they are initially formed, I can step back a bit and sense what each piece ‘wants’ next. Of course when you do have a deadline, you may have to drop an idea that is taking too long to mature, and come back to it for another project."
Hollingsworth confirms that music technology also played a role in the songwriting process. "I use pretty much all the technology available today. Pro Tools and others are staples of modern production. I have definitely adapted to the new age and own most of the sound collections and sound editors. Fortunately I have a good aptitude for mastering new tools like these. It's a lot easier than learning to play the saxophone," he correlates.
He perceives, "It can be a double-edged sword though in that the technology and these ‘toys’ can actually be distracting. It's pretty easy today to put up a couple of loops and paste together some other elements and have something that ‘sounds’ like good music. The trick is to really focus on the underlying song and arrangement. My goal is that my songs should sound good and have musical integrity whether there's a ton of production or it's just me and a piano player."
For his latest release Chasing The Sun, Hollingsworth outlines that his motivation for the album came when, "I was inspired by a concert where I worked with Quincy Jones several years ago. He had written a piece for orchestra where I had an improvised tenor sax solo. I loved playing in a great concert hall without amplification, standing in the middle of an orchestra which would normally never have a sax, and improvising on top of this incredibly rich and complex timbre. There is usually no improvising in an orchestra either. The power of what Quincy did was in taking advantage of the strongest qualities of 2 musically contrasting paradigms and merging them together to come up with a more powerful whole."
He parlays, "Another part of what inspired Chasing the Sun was a result of what happened with On the Mark. There are moments in the first album that step out from the narrow definition of smooth jazz. For instance, the tune ‘Prairie Rains’ starts off by featuring a bamboo flute against an exotic groove and moves to soprano sax. Some of the elements which may not normally be a part of smooth jazz were the very same elements that seemed to get the best reaction when we played live."
He adds, "I hate to say it, but I really wrote these songs for myself. I can't say that I wasn't thinking about an audience, but the audience I had in mind were people like myself, and like the audience we end up playing for live. They seemed hungry for new energy, and I was totally motivated to provide that energy with this album.
He asserts, "Being narrowly confined musically runs counter to the way I was brought up. I was encouraged to embrace diversity. My ambition has always included finding a way to fuse the best elements of each style to create an original and powerful new statement. Chasing The Sun is the result of a lifetime of ‘chasing’ this dream. The new album was a chance for me to let go of a lot of restrictions and experiment with pushing the envelope in many ways."
He furnishes about the song "Spirit Of Adventure" from Chasing The Sun, "I wrote and produced this entire album by myself, so I had no collaborators on this song. This song is actually where my concept for the direction of the album as a whole coalesced."
He provides, "I thought I needed to start this song like the album as a whole by ‘thinking outside the box’ so I used a technique I learned from film-scoring. I grabbed my book of tone-rows, which is a kind of esoteric compositional device. I randomly opened the book and grabbed the first note I saw followed by the next 3, and that became the first full chord that the organ plays. The next chord was created by the next 4 notes of the same row. For some reason, it seemed a rebellious way to start composing for my new album and I liked that idea. As the song developed I really felt like I was an explorer traveling through unfamiliar terrain and when I came to a fork in the road, I always chose the road less traveled. In my mind I was hiking a mountain or some exotic terrain and hoping to share my excitement with what I was seeing and experiencing with the listener at my side."
Of course, playing these tracks live requires a great deal of finesse sans the studio equipment. Hollingsworth projects, "Generally in the days leading up to a show, I'll really focus on my tunes and exploring new ways of playing them.
After a lot of experimenting, I have found that the most important thing I can do before a show is to nurture the right energy within my self. I always do a meditation or prayer before a show and in the days leading up to it. I really want to make sure that my energy is focused on providing the audience with that same kind of magical experience I had when I was a kid listening to music that gave me goose bumps. I think I have been more successful in doing that by focusing on my own energy and attitude before a show, rather than worrying about getting a few more minutes of practicing in."
He proffers about upcoming shows, "We're hoping to book more dates with the New Year and hopefully get momentum going by the spring when many of the festivals really get started. Of course because I grew up in Chicago, I'd love to play with my band there, but frankly I'm always excited to play in front of an enthusiastic audience. I'd love to play in Europe again because the crowds tend to be so knowledgeable and appreciative, but I'd also like to get to Japan. It seemed that everyone I knew was going there in the ‘90s and it just never worked out for me, so it seems like now would be a good time!"
Hollingsworth has so much kinetically generated steam to propel him forward that when his music seems to sit still, he uses acting to indulge his restless energy. "Though I have appeared in some TV and film, I don't consider myself an actor. What I have done has been to ‘pretend’ that I'm a musician on camera, which obviously isn't too much of a stretch. I do have other passions which include photography. As much as I love music, it is very healthy to have other outlets for creativity and release. Of course it's most important to have ‘a life.’ This kind of career can easily become all-consuming but it is ever important to take the time off to nurture relationships and just be a human being. The last thing I want to do is be so narrowly focused on music that only musicians can relate to what I do."
Hollingsworth’s current album Chasing The Sun has the pleasing textures of smooth jazz and then there are qualities which you cannot quite pinpoint what they are or figure out where they came from but you know you like it. His mixture of ethnic, orchestral, and traditional elements makes for an album that draws from people’s collective consciousness and from Hollingsworth’s own imagination, and undoubtedly adds something new to jazz music’s palette.