One of the really fun parts of doing interviews for Jazz Review, besides the huge salary and private jet, is the chance to speak to some of the most amazing musicians working in the field of jazz and this is a real case in point. Miles Donahue has been called "one of the best kept secrets in jazz" by the Boston Globe and "a player whose strong personality asserts itself without hesitation" by Jazziz. Let me join in the fray here, this is simply one of the best saxophone players today, bar none. The playing is sublime and at the very same time, very emotional. Composer, arranger, musician and educator, Miles Donahue is sort of an enigma. How can someone who plays at this level be a well kept secret?
Born and raised just outside of Boston Massachusetts, his father was a trumpet player. The young Mr Donahue listened to the likes of Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and John Coltrane as well as another Bostonian, and alto sax player, Charlie Mariano. In fact, it was the sound of Mariano that Donahue was "so infatuated" with that when he was forced to change from trumpet to another instrument in college because of some minor dental problems, it was the alto sax that he chose because of the sound he had heard Mariano produce. (Mariano now in his eighties lives and still plays "beautifully" in Europe).
The late bloomer title refers to the fact that even though Donahue has been a working musician most of his life, weddings , lounges and different kinds of functions, he did not really knuckle down and enter the jazz scene until he was 35-years old, and did not start playing "real" gigs until he was nearly 45-years old. The time spent was not wasted, however, and the experience shows in his flawless performances. Miles Donahue is the consummate musician, be it on the trumpet, saxophone or the keyboard, and as a composer, he has few real competitors.
JazzReview: Do you prefer to do your own material as opposed to others?
Miles Donahue: I enjoy playing standards and rewriting them to some extent. I just prefer to try and have something to say that is original as a composer.
JazzReview: What inspires you to compose? Are you someone who just looks about you and finds someone or something that works or does it need to be something more?
Miles Donahue: When I write, I tend to write then re-write. It takes me a while to compose. I tend to be very deliberate when I work. Very few of the songs come very quickly. I remember that I wanted to do a song for Bill Evans, who was another influence of mine, and I finally did do one called "Simple Pleasures" on an album called Simple Pleasures, that I did for an Italian label, Ram Records.
JazzReview: Do you worry about comparisons when you compose or as you say you re-write standards that maybe better known by other artists?
Miles Donahue: You mean when I arrange a song? Well, there are certain numbers that I do not mess with. I enjoy taking songs that were not meant as jazz numbers and re-harmonizing them, such as "Close to You," the Burt Bacharach song that is on the CD Bounce. That is always interesting to do. The first thing is that I have to find a melody that I find charming, then take it and work it into a jazz number so that when you play it and people are listening to it, they know that there are parts that are familiar. They can readily name the tune. That makes it fun. They have heard [it]somewhere before, but they cannot place it right away.
JazzReview: Can you do this to anything?
Miles Donahue: No. I have spent a lot of time doing this and I think that I have pretty much run out of songs to do. I think that I have done about 35 of them.
JazzReview: In addition to being a full-time musician, arranger and composer, Donahue also managed to find the time to author a song book called "The Jazz Workbook" for the legendary Mel Bay publishing house. "The Jazz Workbook" is unique in that it teaches single note instrumentalists how to hear and play through chord changes, a one-of-a kind teaching aide. Did I also mention that he has an album that was done with a full orchestra? This one has more of an Irish- Riverdance slant to it and is about as un-jazz an album as it could be. Mr. Donahue has a very impressive resume to say the least. Remember, this is a well kept secret, this player is, but I still cannot figure out how that is.
At the time of this interview, Donahue had just released to CD's back-to-back--one titled In The Pocket and another Bounce, both released on his own label Amerigo Records. With the exception of only one recording, Donahue has had complete control of every recording he has released. In 2003, he undertook and enormous recording project called Standards: Volumes I-IV, recording and releasing complete volumes of tunes from the Great American Songbook.
JazzReview: Since I am musically inept, I cannot imagine how it is to compose music. Is it difficult to do, especially when it may be on assignment?
Miles Donahue: It does take some time. Usually when I start my day, I will work on whatever song I am working on for like a half hour or so, or maybe an hour. It is hard to force yourself to be creative, so I go to another part of my property and focus on something else for a while, then come back to it. I feel as though it is better to write a few good songs. I am not impressed with someone who can write a thousand songs. I am more impressed if they can write twenty really good ones. Most of the songs I have written have all been done close to the age of fifty. Bill Evans wrote earlier in life when he was in college. For me, it felt as if it was meant to be later in life. I needed to learn how to play piano in order to make a living, so now all the songs I compose, I compose on the piano. So everything works out for a reason.
JazzReview: But that is a real luxury that jazz players have, right? As long as you can still play, you can just go on and on.
Miles Donahue: The creative process is a funny thing. It would have been nice if it had been a little earlier in life, say about ten years ago. But hey, it happens when it does. Now I am 62-years old and I can still play. I look forward to my next recording and whatever lies ahead.
Miles Donahue is by far a world class player, composer, arranger, author, educator and gentlemen. He has possession of one of the finest and temporarily, underrated sounds in all of jazz. His recordings cannot be listed in order of favorites because they are each one a classic by themselves. To hear them, and I think not to do so is to cheat oneself, is to hear what real jazz or just real music is supposed to sound like. Listen to these recordings. Listen often and listen carefully because in an age of disposable music, this is the real thing, composed by a master, and played by one. Pay attention. It does not get any better than this.
The secret is out and we, the jazz fans, are the better for it.