Adam Larson, jazz saxophonist and composer: Something Else! Interview

Adam Larson, a 25-year-old Normal, Illinois native, has sat in with Jamie Cullum and Ted Rosenthal even while leading his own group and releasing a series of well-regarded studio projects including Simple Beauty andOverdue Ovation. The jazz saxophonist and composer joined Preston Frazier for a Something Else! Sitdown that delves more deeply into his latest studio effort, his early influences and – as is our custom – Larson’s five must-have albums …

PRESTON FRAZIER: How does your current releaseSelective Amnesia, differ from your prior efforts? What inspired it?
ADAM LARSON: Many things are different about Selective Amnesia. I took a different approach to my band personnel, and it features my working band for the past two years in New York – including bassist Matt Penman, guitarist Matthew Stevens, pianist Fabian Almazan and drummer Jimmy Macbride. This record is my first time being on a label, the Inner Circle Music label, which was founded by alto saxophonist Greg Osby. It’s been great to be associated with Greg, and the great thought and care he puts into the record and helping young musicians. I also recorded the album itself at a different studio, used a different engineer and different people for the mixing and mastering. The sonic quality of this record is unlike any record I’ve ever put out and I’m especially proud of this aspect, in addition to the wonderful job the band did at capturing the essence of the each of the tunes — each of which come from a very specific inspiration as detailed in my self-written liner notes.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did you compose the songs on Selective Amnesia? Talk about your writing process.
ADAM LARSON: My writing usually starts at the piano, and I find that the groove informs the harmony and the harmony informs the melody. This is not always the case but, more often than not, I find that if I write from the piano, this is usually how things evolve for me. The other way I write is, of course, from the saxophone first, filling in the harmony around the melody I decide on. On Selective Amnesia, the tracks “Suitable Replacement,” “Gratitude,” “Disguise” and “Your Loss” were all composed at the piano. The other tracks on the record — “McWendel,” “Vanished Theories,” “Shitpay” and “The Dope Pope” — were composed on the saxophone. “Vanished Theories” was a different process for me, as I wrote the melodic line devoid of any pre-conceived ideas harmonic implication or meter. I wrote the line out without any bar-lines and then went back in after the fact and figured out what meter made the most sense to write the melody in, followed by the chords that would appropriately emote the feeling of the piece.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Was the album tracked live? Did you take more of the lead in the production process over the prior projects?
ADAM LARSON: We recorded the entire record in one day at Sear Sound, Studio C in New York City, on June 6th, 2015. The session was engineered by Grammy-winning producer Ted Tuthill and we tracked from about 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Most tunes we did about three takes of, and a few we did four or five takes. I wouldn’t say that I took any more of the lead on the production, in fact, because all of my bandmates are so experienced and I value their opinions immensely. I looked to them for their honest direction and feedback on how things were going. I had Ted Tuthill mix the record over a period of three weeks in July, and in August I had Dave Darlington master the record. Both Ted and Dave have incredible ears and musical instincts that are a huge part of the impressive sonic quality of the record.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Adam, tell our readers about your musical upbringing.
ADAM LARSON: I grew up in a very musical household. My mother is a trumpeter and in her 32nd year of teaching as a junior high school band director, and my father is a drummer who taught for 11 years as a band director before moving into a career in computers and IT in 1993 when my sister was born. My father and I played together every weekend from the time I was 13 until I left for college at age 18. My first instrument was drums at about age 7, and I quickly became uninterested after I thought the pinnacle of drumming was having the ability to play-a-long with the then-smash hit single “MMMBop” by the boy band Hanson. I was much more interested in basketball and sports. I also played piano from around the same time, until about age 12. I hated piano and decided I wanted to spend more time practicing saxophone. My late grandfather, Jack Larson, had been paying for my piano lessons because it was something that he never got to do when he was a young kid — a kid during the depression — and I remember calling him from the piano in my parents living room and asking him if he would be willing to allow me to use the money to take saxophone lessons and he enthusiastically said “That would be just fine!” I chose the saxophone because I had narrowed it down to trumpet, drums and saxophone when I was 11, and I had no interest in taking direction or lessons from either of my parents and he had a spare alto lying around the house so I thought, “What the hell!,” and started playing in 5th grade.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us about your musical training.
ADAM LARSON: My musical training on saxophone started in 2002 with my professor Larry Harms, who is somewhat of an area legend both as an educator and performer. Without Larry’s incredibly articulate lessons on basic jazz harmony and the mechanics of the saxophone and sound, I would most certainly not have had a fighting chance. I studied with him from 2002-2004 privately, and then participated in his junior college reading band that met every Monday from 2004-2008. That band is still in existence and I attribute much of my ability to read and sight read music accurately to the time that I spent in that band. I spent my time at Manhattan School of Music for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, both of which were in jazz performance. I did all six years of school in a row, from 2008-2014. During that time period, I studied with George Garzone, Donny McCaslin, Steve Wilson and Rich Perry. I also had the unique opportunity to study with non-saxophonists, including John Riley, Phil Markowitz and Mark Stambaugh — for classical composition. I also took a few one-off lessons with saxophonist Ben Wendel and Joel Frahm.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How earlier releases like 2008’s Looking East and 2013’s Simple Beauty come about?
ADAM LARSON: Looking East is actually a record that I put out in high school. I would consider my first real record to be Simple Beauty. This record features my working band during my undergrad, and highlights the strong musical relationships I forged with my peers. It also is an album that was my first serious display of composing, which I had the chance to get better at while at school. My second record, Overdue Ovation, is a much more straight-ahead outing and features veterans Jay Anderson and Rodney Green. Both of these records were self-produced and self-released.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What are your plans for 2016?
ADAM LARSON: I look forward to having my official CD release party for Selective Amnesia [at the Jazz Gallery on Saturday, January 23, 2016 in New York City]. I will be traveling for much of the first part of 2016, presenting at the Jazz Education Network Conference [in Louisville, Kentucky from January 6-9], where I’ll be performing with my group as well as presenting a clinic on music business from the perspective of young musician. I have some collegiate master class appearances that I’m looking forward to, including stops at Temple University [January 20] and Hunter College [March 29], as well as a slew of guest artist appearances in L.A., Omaha, El Paso and Chicago. I recently completed a 17-day tour with my trio of the Midwest [from September 30-October 18], and I think I may try to set my sights on doing a trio record at some point in 2016, although that is still a bit down the road.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What are your top 5 favorite albums?
ADAM LARSON: Of all time? That’s incredibly tough. Here are five that I’m really into right now: The In Sound/Mean Greens – Eddie Harris; Can’t Buy a Thrill – Steely Dan; Unity – Larry Young; Off the Wall – Michael Jackson; and Four! – Joe Henderson.