One would be tempted to refer to Andy Middleton and Sheila Cooper as the dynamic duo. During the late summer of 2006, the couple moved from Gotham City (New York City) to Austria with their seven-year old daughter, Calli. They write masterful compositions, Middleton is an accomplished tenor/soprano saxophone player and Cooper is a critically acclaimed vocalist and alto saxophonist.
Just a few days before celebrating their first Christmas in Vienna, Middleton took time to speak with me on the telephone. We discussed his new teaching position at the Koservatorium Wien (Vienna Conservatory), the jazz scene in Europe and the new records Cooper and Middleton will soon be releasing.
Middleton was a veteran of an estimated forty-five European tours while he was still living in the United States so while settling into a new home was an adjustment, understanding the music scene was not. He figures there are only four European countries in which he has not performed, those being Greece, Denmark, Sweden and the principality of Liechtenstein.
Selling a home in Brooklyn, your cars and many of your possessions would be intimidating to most couples, but that is exactly what Middleton and Cooper did last August. Middleton is enjoying the growth and security that accompany being a professor teaching jazz theory and composition. He is also relishing the bountiful jazz scene in Austria and neighboring countries.
Middleton says, "One of the things most North Americans can’t know from their own experiences is that arts in general in Europe and particularly here in Austria have a very broad base of support among all groups of the populace."
Middleton has discovered that the American government’s support for the arts pales in comparison to the situation in Austria. "Importantly for artists like me," says Middleton, "there is a lot of government support. In the United States support for the Arts, particularly under the Bush administration is a target. (The arts) have suffered a lot. Here, no matter what kind of (government is in power) there is deep support for the arts. That translates into money. A lot of the small towns in Europe and (specifically) in Austria have a budget where they can bring in international artists to do concerts," he says.
Middleton has discovered that jazz music is one of many facets of the arts community that receives the full endorsement of the average Austrian. "People come out and (support) all kinds of music. There is big support for jazz. The big concert hall here in Vienna has a full schedule of classical music, but they also make a big deal about their jazz presentations. The clubs here in town present music of a high caliber seven days a week. Vienna is a small city with a little more than one million people, but it seems as though there is a solid core of musicians here who have the support of the public in spirit and (in terms of) financial support," he notes.
A jazz musician in Austria might find himself/herself performing in an intimate underground, cave like atmospheres with brick walls and the audience seated within breathing distance of the performer. On the other hand, you could find yourself crooning from a high quality stage in a modern club with a top of the line lighting and sound system. The club may have theatre style seating and a professional sound engineer. At the top end, you have Vienna’s showpiece Porgy and Bess. Middleton describes the venue as, "a very nice and intelligently designed place."
You get the sense when speaking with Middleton that life could not get much better. "I have a good time playing music with anybody because playing music is a joy. To play music with people who really hear music the way that I do and to play compositions that have a shape that we are really moving somewhere is my goal, and I think I am achieving that with the people that I have been recording with and playing with," he says.
"As I mature as a musician, I recognize that being true to myself is more important than being new or different, or revolutionary or whatever. What somebody else wants to call it is up to them," Middleton says while discussing what label to apply to his music. "My job, my goal and my priority is to be true to what I hear at the moment. Surrounding myself with musicians who are like-minded is really important," he says.
Within the jazz community, Andy Middleton’s music might be considered somewhat eclectic. "I feel like I have a number of facets to my musical personality," he observes, "If you listen to Nomad’s Notebook with Ralph Towner and Dave Holland, that is more atmospheric jazz. It has (lots of) color. Playing straight ahead jazz is something that I enjoy doing for sure. My most favorite things are to play original music or my own music. The swing feel with open-ended harmonic context is very fertile for me right now. As a player, I also feel like I can fit into many different contexts as a sideman. "
Middleton attributes some of his growth as a musician to being married to Sheila Cooper. "It is absolutely helpful. We are quite different musically in many ways. Sheila has a lot better memory than I do and she knows a lot more songs. We can offer different experiences to each other and we actually do that all of the time. We bounce ideas back and forth in terms of the business and the practicality of things. We have shared so many experiences as musicians that there is a feeling of closeness that comes from that in our relationship," he says.
The husband and wife duo have assisted each other with the production of each other’s CDs and often will perform together. Middleton says, "Sheila is a singer and saxophone player who tends to play music from the standard repertoire. I am more of an instrumentalist and play my own compositions. We like to play together, but it is always more of a meeting in the middle kind of thing. In general, it is a positive and supportive environment for both of us."
Those musicians include members of his New York based octet. In addition to himself on tenor/soprano sax, the octet features Cooper on alto sax, Scott Wendholt (trumpet), trombonist Alan Ferber, Darcy Hepner (bass clarinet), pianist Henry Hey, Matt Pavolka (bass) and drummer Owen Howard.
On the strength of a grant from Chamber Music America, an organization dedicated to promoting both classical and jazz chamber music, Middleton is completing the final two arrangements for a CD featuring the octet’s music. The ensemble will then head into the studio.
Middleton’s other new project tentatively titled The European Quartet Live features a much more intimate ensemble consisting of Tino Drado on piano, bassist Paul Imm, drummer Alan Jones and of course, Middleton as the sax man. The four players originally hooked up in 2005 while on a two-week European tour. The new recording is scheduled for release in the spring. It will appear under the German label Qrious Music.
Sheila Cooper recently completed recording a duo project with renowned pianist Fritz Pauer. The release date will be announced soon.