The deepest learning happened on the bandstand, where you had to figure out how to swim in that thrilling current of swing.
Saxophonist Tim Armacost is tenor player that proudly sits in the tradition of the classic hard bop masters. He plays with a full round sound and is able to call on a vocabulary that draws on bebop, hard bop, and more importantly experience.
Perhaps part of the last generation of musicians currently performing to have honed their craft on the bandstand rather than the classroom, Armacost is a consummate improviser with his own story to tell.
With an impressive discography as leader and countless sideman appearances under his belt, the saxophonist has just released his new album, The Inevitable Note, not on CD but digitally and on LP!
Nick Lea had the opportunity to talk to Tim about the new recording and quintet, and his decision to return to vinyl to release his music.
Firstly, can you tell us about your latest album, The Inevitable Note?
Thanks, Nick. Happy to!
This is the music I wrote during the pandemic lockdown. When we first stayed in, in March of 2020 – it was supposed to be for two weeks….and of course that stretched eventually into two years. I had just started writing my book for Sher Music (The Jazz Saxophone Book), so I was happy in the beginning to have some time to focus on that, despite the horror of what was happening around us in New York City.
As the pandemic stretched on, the book got longer, too, which wasn’t a bad result in the end. With my time focused on that and no gigs for the foreseeable future, playing the saxophone, which I had done virtually every day for 40 years, was all of a sudden not as much a part of my everyday routine.
For the first time in my career, I put the horn down for a month and didn’t play at all. I’ll never forget the feeling of playing at a jam session for the first time after that month. Some friends started an outdoor session where we could play in an open space, and it was so emotionally stirring to be communicating with musicians again after 4 months of isolation.
I picked up the horn the next day to practice, and was delighted to hear myself think, “Wow, I still love this. I’m so glad I’m feeling inspired to practice again.”
So, despite the larger context of a lot of pain, sickness and death, I felt real joy at still being able to do what I love, even if mostly in isolation. So, I tried to just follow the inspiration and create some things while we all waited for the pandemic to ease up.
Interestingly you have chosen to release the new album digitally and in a physical format on LP and cassette, but not CD. What are your thoughts in doing this?
In the couple of years before the pandemic hit, I started to notice sales of CDs tapering off pretty significantly, even in Japan where there is still a strong tradition of gift giving and souvenir collecting.
At first it felt like a generational shift – the kids were listening on their phones to Spotify and Apple Music etc, but us dinosaurs still bought CDs….but I really registered the shift one night, I think it was at Smalls in NYC, where I asked on the mic, “Does anyone here own a CD player?” And no one raised their hand.
So, I made a joke about how you could buy our CDs and use them as coasters. On another night there might have been a few people who said yes, but that was the moment where I thought, ok, the CD era is over. It’s time to figure out how to do this differently.
Following along about the same timeline as the rise of streaming, there appeared to be a new interest in LPs and analog sound. Which makes sense – if you mostly listen to music on headphones, or through a computer, the first time you hear an LP on a good sound system, it’s going to change your life. The music sounds better, more alive – and also there is beauty in the sound itself.
I’ve been around just long enough for my first couple of recordings to have been LPs, so for me it’s a gas to return to the analog format, which I think is perfectly suited to acoustic jazz. So, we decided to spend energy on the LP and on the streaming services – kind of a nod to the future and the tradition, which is how I think of myself as a jazz musician anyway, so it’s all making sense and fitting together.
This is a great line up of musicians for the album, and I understand that this is a new group. Was the group put together specifically for this recording, and how did you go about selecting these particular musicians?
I have long associations with everyone on the record. A lot of my attention in the last few years has been trained on finding interesting ways to reinterpret standards with NYSQ (New York Standards Quartet). It started to feel like time to make another record of original music, so over the last little while I’ve been trying out different combinations of musicians – mostly of my peers – on my gigs around New York.
We did a quartet hit with Rudy, Kenny and Jim, and that felt great, so we did a few other things together and it started to feel like a band. My original intention was to make a quartet record and have Joe play as a guest on a couple of tunes.
I sent an original and a standard over to Joe to have a look at, and he came back with some questions and ideas, and was bringing so much joy and energy to the music, I decided to see about adding him on a few more. I started arranging things with the vibes in mind, and that opened up some more musical space to explore…. and in the end, I just asked Joe to play on the whole project. Best decision I’ve made in a long time. The group feels dynamic as a quintet, and I’m loving the results.
The music on the album has a nice variety to it, yet a nice solid group feel in the presentation. Can you tell us about the song choice for the recording?
Most of my records have been collections of things that I’ve grown to love over time and put together when a recording was taking shape. This is the first time I’ve written an album’s worth of songs and arrangements all at once with the purpose of recording them together.
That made it possible to try out the Ellingtonian method of imagining the musicians on the record as I worked on the tunes. Two of the things I love about this record are: the fun and excitement we all brought to being back in the studio together after the extended lockdown, and the way the music and the band feel like a perfect fit. Can’t wait to get out on the road and see how things evolve.
How did you get the title for the new album? Is there a particular meaning behind The Inevitable Note?
This is a bit challenging to explain in writing – but ‘The Inevitable Note’ refers to the arrival in a melody of a note that has to be the next one you hear. Many popular songs start with a pair of phrases that sound like a question followed by an answer. The first phrase has a certain shape and ends with a note that suggests an open question.
The second phrase mirrors the shape of the first and ends on a note that answers the question – that’s the inevitable note – the one that resolves the tension and gives you a feeling of satisfaction. I made a short video about this to go with the chapter in the book about it. If you want to see it demonstrated, you can tune it in here:
As well as the group on the new album you also have several other bands including a trio and a chordless quartet/quintet. What other projects are you currently involved with?
I met an artist recently who, like me, has a touch of synesthesia – the association of unrelated senses. For example, for me, the key of G major is red, Bb is yellow, and so on. She’s called Mary Shah, and does amazing work in watercolor, among other things. I invited her to come paint at one of my gigs recently.
We both loved the experience, and we’re working on creating an installation where we influence each other’s improvisation in real time. The gig is on the Smallslive.com archive for January 13-14, 2023, and you can have a look at Mary’s work at www.rickwesterfineart.com.
Interestingly, I’ve gotten involved in some amazing big bands lately. This is something that ebbs and flows in my schedule. I am proud to be associated with five amazing composers right now, all of whom are either getting ready to record or are celebrating recent releases.
They are Scott Reeves, John Yao, Anita Brown, Yutaka Shiina and Emilio Solla. Emilio’s last two projects, Half Time, and Puertos, were both nominated for Grammys, and Puertos won the Best Jazz Album at the Latin Grammys two years ago.
It would be great to get some more information about how you got started on your musical journey. How did you become interested in playing, and why the saxophone and jazz especially?
it’s all about family for me. My mom is a classical pianist, so I got the spark from her. My dad loves music and is the one who played jazz around the house as I grew up. He loves bebop – Parker, Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt, and also had a bunch of Ray Charles records I remember hearing a lot.
They took me to a Benny Goodman concert when I was 7 or 8, and I decided to play clarinet that night. My older brother Scott played trumpet in our high school big band, and it was clear as a bell to me that I wanted to follow him into that band. Unfortunately, we were just far apart enough in age that we didn’t get to play in that group together. My little brother started playing alto saxophone while I was learning clarinet.
He started out-blowing me pretty fast, both sound-wise and facility-wise, which prompted me to pick up the larger tenor. Classic sibling rivalry. Both of my brothers went in different career directions but still play great. When I saw that my grandfather was still playing the cornet at age 85, it hit me that I could just keep doing this my whole life. The last time we played together was when he was 96.
Q: There is a fascinating page on your website, Tim’s Desert Island Recordings (https://timarmacost.com/desert-island/), where you select some of your favourite albums. Who would you say have influenced as a saxophonist and composer?
I could write a whole book on this subject…. maybe I will! For our purposes here I’ll say one really important thing I’ve learned or stolen from a bunch masters:
Sonny Rollins – melodic development
Hank Mobley – elegant harmonic lines
Charlie Parker – rhythmic imagination
Freddie Hubbard – long strings of notes, all perfectly placed in relation to each other and the time
John Coltrane – harmonic freedom
Bobby Bradford – melodic invention in real time
Tom Harrell – phrasing
Dexter Gordon – laying back the time
Harold Land – using advanced harmony and the blues in the same line
That’s a start….
Wayne Shorter – imaginative, unpredictable use of harmony
Tom Harrell – creating songs with an atmosphere
Duke Ellington – melodic logic – lots of inevitable notes to be found here
Kenny Wheeler and Emilio Solla – balance of simple, clear melody with modern advanced harmony
Coltrane – creative use of traditional/functional harmony
As other’s have influenced you in the past, I note that you are keen to impart your knowledge through your involvement in jazz education. How did you become involved in teaching, and how do you think jazz education has changed since you started your career?
I had the great good fortune to have two outstanding teachers in Charlie Shoemake and Bobby Bradford. Charlie taught improvisation language and harmonic theory using transcriptions from the masters. He is thorough, organized and has a keen sense of what you need to do to get to the next level. Bobby is a free player who taught more by example, and I’m still trying to invent melodies with the fluidity he demonstrated 40 years ago when I was in college.
I moved to Amsterdam after graduation, and after about a year, was offered a guest teaching job for a semester at the Sweelinck Conservatory. At the time the school leaned more to the free side, but was interested in having someone teach the tradition, so my two teachers pretty much prepared me perfectly for that gig. It turned out to be a good fit, and I stayed on at Sweelinck for 5 years.
When I moved to New York, I took a break from teaching to focus on performing, and Jamey Aebersold drew me back into it when he hired me to teach at his summer jazz workshop. I loved doing that and found that I had a knack for coaching ensembles. (I taught almost exclusively individual lessons in Holland).
A little while later I decided to go to Queens College to study composition with Michael Mossman. A few years later they asked me to take over the bebop ensemble at QC when Professor Howard Brofsky passed away. I’ve been teaching there for almost 10 years now.
As for how things have changed – the biggest difference I see from when I started out is that there are more schools and fewer gigs. The schools are helping to train whole generations of musicians and exposing a lot of young people to the music, which is positive and good for the world. The downside is that the lack of playing experience makes it much harder for musicians coming up now to feel the human side of jazz communication.
I practiced alone in the practice room like everyone else, but I could go out every night and either listen, sit in on a friend’s gig, or go to a jam session. The deepest learning happened on the bandstand, where you had to figure out how to swim in that thrilling current of swing. When grumpy older musicians talk about the younger generation playing with too much head and not enough heart, that’s what they’re talking about – the experience of figuring out how to make your time feel fit with the other people who are already swinging their butts off.
It goes much deeper than just getting the notes to match the chord changes. I do think there is a large group of musicians around the world who are devoting themselves to learning how to play authentically, and in a general sense I think the music is alive and well.
You have also written a book, The Jazz Saxophone Book. What inspired you to write the book, and do you have plans to publish more?
I approached Chuck Sher in January of 2020 about writing a short book about melody. I was delighted that he was interested, and as the conversation developed, he encouraged me to fold the melodic ideas into a chapter in a longer book. I ended up talking about much more than just saxophone issues – which made it a better book, thanks to Chuck’s guidance.
Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book lives on my piano – and I see it in many musicians’ collections, not just piano players. My book is called The Jazz Saxophone Book, but it’s written with the goal of being useful to anyone who wants to get better at improvising.
After sitting down to write the book most every day for two years, I’m really happy to be back doing what I love the most, playing live in front of an audience. So, at the moment I’m concentrating on that. When I’m ready to tackle another book project, I’ll get to it. I have two other ideas when the time feels right.
As well as tenor, you also play the soprano saxophone. For the gearheads can you tell us about your saxophone set up?
Finally, an easy question!! I am an outlier in the saxophone world in that I have had the same setup for 40 years. I got a very good piece of advice from my first jazz teacher, Doc Ross. He told me the names of a few brands to try, but didn’t tell me anything about who played what, or what I was supposed to sound like. Instead, he told me to try everything, take my time, and choose the mouthpiece and horn that felt right with my body.
I liked the rolled tone holes and the big sound of the Couf Superba I tenor, so I saved up an entire summer to buy that when I was seventeen. I tried everything and landed on a Berg Larsen 105 over 2, stainless steel mouthpiece. It’s not that easy to play in the altissimo register, but it sounds beautiful and warm at the bottom of the horn, so I decided to go with that. The one thing I’ve changed over the years is the ligature.
Tried ‘em all, and at the moment I’m using a gold plated one from Ishimori that I like a lot. Started out playing Rico Royal 3 1/2 reeds, and was proud to join Rico as an endorser 20 years ago. D’Addario now owns the brand, and they’ve been great to work with as well. So now I mostly play the D’Addario Blue Box 3 1/2 – the successor to the Rico Royal, and occasionally switch out to the Jazz Select reeds.
I play a Yamaha 62RS soprano that I bought in 1985 sight unseen, (Long story, fantastic result), with a Bari 68 mouthpiece, and on soprano I use 2 strength reeds – D’Addario, naturally, and a Francois Louis ligature.
For doubling I play a Haynes C flute, Trevor James alto flute, Buffet clarinet, and I just bought a Royal Polaris bass clarinet last year, with which I am engaged in a prolonged wrestling match. The clarinet has the upper hand at the moment, but I am determined to emerge victorious.
And finally, plans for the future?
Bunch of them….. right now, I’m working on a tour for the quintet in the US in September. I’ve already written a couple of new arrangements to add to The Inevitable Note repertoire. That’ll give us some variety on the road and is the beginning of preparing another recording for this group.
We’ve had a few gigs with the latest iteration of the Chordless Quartet, with Gary Smulyan, John Patitucci and Al Foster. We added Tom Harrell for the first recording, which is in the pipeline now for release early next year.
NYSQ was pretty close to making our first album with a big band before the pandemic slowed everything down. That will be our eighth recording overall. Now that things are moving again, I’m hoping to see that through to the finish line soon.
IN Trio also has a new recording coming out shortly – so it’s pedal to the floor, trying to get as much done as possible!
For more information visit Tim Armacost’s website.
You can read our review of The Inevitable Note here.