Paul Carlon has built a reputation for himself in the chamber-jazz quarter as the bandleader, composer and saxophonist for the Paul Carlon Octet, and as a motivating force of Latin-jazz in the New York City-based ensemble Grupo los Santos. But recently, he has taken on an additional role as the saxophonist and co-writer for The McCarron Brothers. The quartet has become his outlet to indulge his craving for American roots/smoky blues-jazz music, where he has settled into a stride that is well-suited to his neo-classical style. Joined by band mates bassist Doug Largent, drummer Russ Meissner, and guitarist Mark McCarron whose surname letterheads the moniker for this quartet, Carlon absorbs a new sound into his repertoire while remaining steep in classic-bound idioms, and crafting a neo-classical fusion that bridges the modern with the nostalgic.
The McCarron Brothers, who are not related by blood but are connected through their creative leanings, came together out of camaraderie and sheer curiosity to see what improvisations they would come up with while playing off of each other. Carlon recalls, "I had known Mark mostly from playing in drummer Art Lillard’s quartet and big band. I also met Doug through playing with Art. Russ and I had known each other for a bunch of years, since Grupo los Santos used to play every week at El Taller Latinoamericano on the Upper West Side back in 1998-2000. Russ would come by and sit in with us sometimes. Lately, I’ve also been subbing with a band Russ is in called G.R.A.S.S. (Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society). Mark and I had been talking about getting together and doing some playing. I knew his writing from playing some of his material with Art. In fact, I remember playing ‘A Fleeting Sense’ with Art’s quartet, and liking it right away. Mark was the one who sent out the emails and set up the first session, and we all hit it off musically from the start."
He describes about the band’s chemistry, "With us, pretty much every tune is open to interpretation in the parts and in the whole. If one of us has a suggestion about a song or about our part, we make it, try it out and if it works, better it stays in the arrangement. Both Mark and I tend to write detailed parts for everyone rather than lead sheets. I’m getting more and more into writing in specific points for specific solos, rather than everyone blowing and then we take the head out. Mark also does this quite a bit, and has from the time we first got together. I trust my instincts on this when deciding when a solo will happen."
He discusses how working with The McCarron Brothers differs from working with his Octet. "Working with this group is different in many ways from working with my Octet. I’ve been with a guitar-sax-drum set-bass lineup before with Grupo los Santos, but with the McCarron Bros. it’s not only the instrumentation that’s different from my Octet, it’s the musical styles, genres, and inspirations. My Octet is a horn-based, heavily Latin-infused group that features a vocalist, so the energy and flow of the music are potentially bigger, and in some ways more complex. With my Octet writing, I’m inspired by people like Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, los Van Van, etc., so it’s a more orchestral approach. I’ve got more options at hand when I’m writing in terms of having more voices to call upon. Also, my Octet is a vehicle for my writing. The McCarron Bros. is a collective, much like los Santos, so our sound grows out of everyone’s input. We’re inspired by many sources: American roots music, fusion, country, the history of jazz, Headhunters-style funk, and the blues."
The groundwork for The McCarron Brothers tracks began during the jam sessions initiated by McCarron in the Fall of 2006. The band’s name, according to their press release is "The shorthand Largent would write on his scheduler when a session at his Brooklyn apartment was coming up."
The quartet decided on the album’s title to be Way Down In Brooklyn as a way to reflect where this project started and evolved. Carlon remarks, "The concept for the record grew very organically out of the four of us getting together and deciding to record some of the material we’d been rehearsing. So it was driven by playing rather than thinking. It was interesting that as the record date approached, the sound of the music went through an evolution, becoming in a lot of ways more sonic and making more use of electronic effects, particularly in Mark’s playing. Mark began experimenting a lot with a rack of guitar pedals, which was kind of mind-blowing for me because though I’d known him for several years. I’d always worked with him in situations where the music was either older swing styles or straight ahead. Mark is a master of these idioms, and I’d just assumed that that was his bag, but as we went on with the rehearsals last summer, I felt I was witnessing the growth of a whole other side of his playing. As far as our original compositions go, it was on more of a song-by-song basis. One of us would bring something to a rehearsal, we’d play it, and it would evolve. I don’t think we had a particular sound in mind before we recorded. Afterwards we did spend time discussing which songs should be included and which seemed a little outside of what most of the material sounded like. We ended up leaving out a couple of songs we’d recorded."
The quartet become a steamy cauldron of ideas during their recording, and much of their material made it onto the group’s debut album, Way Down In Brooklyn like the track "Smoky, which is a track that Carlon started almost ten years ago. He details, "The melody of ‘Smoky’ came to me as I was standing on the 14th St. subway platform (in New York City) waiting for the (#)2 train one night, I think after a proofreading job. From around 1997 or ’98 to 2002, I worked part-time as a legal proofreader, and I would often get ideas for songs while working a shift for some reason. Maybe it was the desire to be somewhere else, anywhere else than in a corporate cubicle. Anyway, I worked on ‘Smoky’ for a while and then forgot about it. I’d been listening a lot to Jimmie Vaughan’s record Do You Get the Blues, and I was thinking of ‘Smoky’ as an organ trio or organ quintet type of tune, in line with some of the songs on that record. Jimmie is one of the great blues guitarists. I saw him live last summer at BB King’s. What a soulful player he is. When the McCarron Bros. got together, I remembered the tune and thought it would be a good fit, and the guys played it like they wrote it from the get-go."
Another track that moved the quartet to record was Joni Mitchell’s "All I Want." Carlon reveals, "This was another of Mark’s ideas. He brought ‘All I Want’ to rehearsal, as well as Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a film)’. Mark has been involved with playing Joni’s music for a while. I’d been familiar with Joni’s more jazz-oriented albums; Mingus is one of my favorites. Though I’d heard its reputation, I hadn’t yet heard the album Blue, until Mark turned me on to it. Of course, it’s an iconic record, a deeply personal document of where she was at the time. With the soprano part, I listened very closely to Joni’s voice as well as the lyrics to try to capture the spirit without just copying what she did. It’s tough trying to interpret a great vocal performance on an instrument, but I’ve always listened to vocalists for inspiration with phrasing, feel, etc."
He reflects about what influences his style of playing. "I’m constantly inspired by figures from jazz history, and sometimes need to remember to look around at what’s happening today I don’t see people like Joni Mitchell or Miles Davis as ‘past figures’. Joni is still very much going strong, and Miles is timeless. All the great tenor players I listen to for inspiration are older players, or are no longer with us. Particularly in the sound department, because that’s the kind of tone I’m trying to get. Players like Ben Webster, Paul Gonsalves, Gene Ammons, and Lester Young. I’m also a big, big fan of Wayne Shorter’s playing and writing, right up to his current bands. He’s on a whole other level now."
Carlon’s style of playing steers him towards classic-sounding saxophones, which deliver a neo-classic tint in his music. He examines, "My tenor is a King Super 20 from the 60’s; it’s a vintage horn I’ve played for about 15 years, and I love it. It’s a beast in some ways, and an angel in others. The King has more projection than the Selmers, and a different sound. Mine has a pretty good scale on it intonation-wise, a nice big tone, and is very free-blowing. I also have a Selmer Balanced Action I don’t play as much. I don’t mess around much with setup anymore. I stick to what works for me. After you play a particular instrument for a while it becomes a part of you, a very important part of your expression. My soprano is a Selmer Super Action 80 Series II, which is a more modern horn than my tenor. When I started playing soprano about 3 years ago I wanted a newer, more modern horn as I knew that it would be a struggle to master, especially with the intonation, and some of the older horns are not as true. Now that I’m starting to get a handle on it I might try some older horns. In general, the vintage horns are still the best. I have tried the Selmer Reference Series and was very impressed; they are very, very good, and in particular the intonation was phenomenal. But there’s something about the older horns, probably having to do with the metal used and the quality of the workmanship."
The recording of Way Down In Brooklyn took place at Soundworks Recording Studio in Astoria, Queens where Carlon practically feels like family there. He explains, "Kamilo Kratc, who owns Soundworks, used to work at Astoria Soundworks, a different studio in the same building that got out of the recording business and is now a rehearsal-only studio. Kamilo bought their equipment, moved upstairs and set up his own studio. Before the changeover, I worked with Kamilo when Ileana Santamaría recorded her CD What I Want at the old Astoria Soundworks. I was the musical director for her band, and played saxophone and flute as well, so I already knew Kamilo and how good an engineer he is. His studio is small but he has first-rate equipment, and Kamilo is one of the best. He’s a very, very good tracking engineer as well as being extremely fast with Pro Tools functions, which is an unusual combination. Often while recording, you’ll have a small edit or fix to do and with Kamilo he’s always thinking ahead, and has already done it or set it up by the time you think to ask him. Plus his rates are very reasonable. He and his wife Sandra run a great studio. I had worked in the new studio on a couple of small projects, so it was a natural fit for the McCarron Brothers."
After Way Down In Brooklyn was recorded, pressed and released on May 8, 2009 via Carlon’s own label, Deep Tone Records, The McCarron Brothers took their songs out for a spin with a release party at NuBlu in New York City on May 8th. Carlon looks back at McCarron Brothers shows with fondness, and a yearning to do more of them. "We had played a few gigs," he expresses, "a couple in Brooklyn including at the old Night and Day, and then one of the last gigs at Cachaça in Manhattan, which is also closed now. It’s always different to perform live, although we did go for a live sound in the studio. With a group like the McCarron Bros., which has developed over time in rehearsal, bringing the same cohesiveness and level of musical communication and trust to a live performance is the challenge. NuBlu was an important step for us, because we had a good turnout and were able to really get into what we do, to get our message across and have it be understood and appreciated by the audience."
He emphasizes, "We definitely want to do more CD release events, and are working on booking some more venues. Basically, any decent mid-sized venue we can find in Brooklyn or Manhattan would work. We also are talking about doing some touring, though we have nothing lined up yet. But we might do some things in the Northeast, maybe as early as this fall."
He projects, "This group is definitely going to continue to grow. I think we all feel that the possibilities are limitless, mostly because we just really like to play together and we are on a roll creatively. Personally, working with these guys for me has been great because I’m getting into playing material I’ve listened to for years but never saw myself playing necessarily, or never developed an outlet for beyond a purely commercial working situation."
Carlon discovered his love of playing the saxophone back to his youth, growing up in Upstate New York. He reminisces, "I must have been in the 3rd grade and I heard a saxophone on the radio. I remember the sound being very mysterious. I wanted to know what it was about, to know how that sound was made and how I could make it, but in the 4th grade they only offered cello and violin lessons, so I started on cello, which my older sister played. I&&&m afraid I didn&&&t much like it; carrying it on the school bus was a drag, and I was only doing it to be playing something. By the time the 5th grade rolled around, I was interested in the trumpet, but the music teacher said my teeth weren&&&t straight enough so I went with the saxophone. I still remember the first day I brought home the rental instrument they&&&d given me at school. I sat in my parents&&& living room and played it, and the sound was like the sound of unknown possibilities. I&&&ll never forget how I felt that day. I try to reconnect with that feeling now, because it was the feeling of freedom."
His mentor, George Garzone was a major influential figure in Carlon’s life. He remembers, "I studied with George when I was not far along on the path of being a committed jazz musician. I think I was around 20 years old. What he had to teach me was in some ways far beyond my understanding at the time, but it was amazing just hearing him pull out his horn to play examples for me, or sometimes we would trade 4’s or 8’s. His sound, feel, and ideas were a great model to aspire to. Mostly what I learned from George was harmonic adventurousness. He wanted me to get a solid foundation in harmony and theory, but he also really encouraged me to go outside the basic changes, and he put a taste for chromaticism in my ear that is still with me. Another thing he got me into that I’ve been putting some more time into lately is multiphonics, developing the ability to play more than one note at once on the saxophone. I used to go hear him play with the Fringe at the old Willow club in Somerville, a neighborhood of Boston. Those were mind-blowing shows. The Fringe really knows how to stretch the boundaries."
Carlon still enjoys checking out the talent that is out there, and is sometimes even spurred on by their playing. He observes, "Well, in the past few years there have been some amazing newer players establishing themselves, particularly in the Latin field. Musicians like Samuel Torres, Edmar Castañeda, and Pedrito Martinez. I also like Pedro Giraudo’s writing for his Jazz Orchestra. He’s a great composer." He adds, "I’m inspired by people I work with, or who work with me, like trombonists Ryan Keberle and Mike Fahie, pianist John Stenger, bassist Edward Perez, and vocalist Christelle Durandy."
Since relocating to New York City from Upstate New York in 1991, Paul Carlon has spent much of his time performing live and hanging out at local jazz clubs. He recounts, "In the mid-90&&&s, I spent a lot of time hanging at the then newly-opened Smalls in NY. During a period of about a year and a half to two years, I&&&d go to the late-night jam sessions anywhere from two to four or five times a week, staying up til 7 or 8 in the morning, hanging and listening to other musicians and generally getting the sh*t scared out of me by all the talent and energy happening there. I listened to older musicians who were playing there like Frank Hewitt, Jimmy Lovelace, Charles Davis, Harry Whitaker. These were the older heads we all looked up to. And still do! Frank Hewitt, an incredible piano player, had a regular gig at Small&&&s with Lovelace, Ari Roland, and Charles Davis that I would go to every week for months on end because they were the masters of the language of bebop and of swing. Joe Magnarelli would be there a lot, and then there was the circle of younger musicians I was hanging with, like James Hurt, Sherman Irby, Alvester Garnett, Greg Tardy. These were all brilliant musicians from whom I learned a lot."
He points out, "James Hurt in particular was someone who had a huge impact on me, with his unorthodox harmonic sense and structure. I had a quartet at the time with Hurt, John Benitez and either Dana Murray or Alvester on drums. It was crazy because these guys were so good. I learned more about music, the real make-you-work-hard-and-sweat kind of learning, during that period of my life than at probably any other time. I also learned how to hang at competitive jam sessions, and how to just do your own thing under pressure. It was like a crucible, and when you came out the other side, you&&&d been changed by the experience."
He notes about the New York City air, "Musicians in New York generally are out there, playing all kinds of music in all kinds of bands. You’re going to work with people from all over the world, and at some point will learn music styles you may never have been exposed to. Another thing is that the talent pool here is so large and self-renewing that you’re constantly challenged. There’s an urgency here that’s unique to New York City. As a Japanese musician friend of mine put it years ago, ‘Even the players who are novices play as if their lives depended on it.’ Plus, I think there’s a seasoning process as you get older and go through the process of finding a way to stay here and keep being active as a musician; it’s not so easy to keep being positive, keep hustling, keep being curious about learning new things when you’re constantly scrambling to put together enough gigs to get by."
Paul Carlon gives meaning to the term "multi-dimensional player" as he feeds his craving for American blues with The McCarron Brothers, chamber-jazz with his Octet, and Latin-jazz with the Grupo los Santos, and all of them nourish his need for making improvisational pieces. There is no way to pin Carlon down to one melodic form, but all of them share one common factor. They all express Carlon’s fertile imagination, and his attraction to classical muses. His music links the modern with the nostalgic, and emerges a melodic form that has relevance in contemporary times.