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Saxophonist Adam Larson's new album is a love letter to Chicago

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Normal native Adam Larson has just released the first of a trilogy of albums celebrating cities where he made his mark in jazz.

"With Love, From Chicago" is a nod to the city that embraced him after he moved to New York City. He says for one, a favorable Chicago Tribune review gave him confidence that he was moving in the right direction. The jazz saxophonist who now lives in Kansas City spoke with WGLTs Jon Norton about the album.

WGLT: Explain the Chicago connection on this album.

LARSON: I started playing in Chicago a lot more frequently after I moved to New York. As I got a little bit more established, I was able to start bringing my own projects. And one of the first projects that I ever brought to Chicago, that was kind of a big deal for me, was playing The Jazz Showcase for a weekend run Thursday through Sunday. And I decided to include my mentor, the wonderful saxophone player named John Wojciechowski, on this first round of the club, and he insisted pretty much that I call Dana Hall and Clark Sommers on bass. So that was around 2014, I believe.

And I really enjoyed playing with both Dana and Clark, but I was very intimidated originally, to give them a call just because, as you hear from the record, they're incredible and also being, I guess, 24 at the time, part of me was just a little bit nervous to be playing with musicians at such high caliber. But I've gotten the chance to play with Clark and record my fourth record, “Second City,” in 2017. We become so close that my second son's name is Clark and Clark is actually his godfather. So, the bond to him as a musician is very strong as well as a personal bond.

And playing with Dana over the years off and on, you're going to be very hard pressed to find somebody who brings what he does to the musical component of what you hear on this record. So, my connection to Chicago is just through coming back to the area, living in New York, and playing with these different bands. And quite often, I would always call these guys first. I thought it'd be wonderful to try to capture the trilogy project to try to record three separate trios and cities that have played a pretty big part of my development as a musician.

The album kicks off with is an ode to Africa. It's called “Angolan Babysitter.” This song comes from a plane ride back from a tour of Africa a few years ago, right?

Yeah, we were flying from JFK to our first destination on this five and a half week tour of different countries in Africa on behalf of United States State Department. It's a program that has continued since Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie were doing the same kind of tours for international diplomacy. So, my band got a chance to do this in 2015. Our bassist sat up in the front part of the plane, and the rest of the Quartet was in the back. And he basically befriended a woman who was from Angola who was sitting next to him. He ended up watching and taking care of the child the whole flight so she could get some rest. I just thought that was a kind of humorous interaction to walk up and see my bass player holding a child, at that point you know, we're all very early 20s.

And then the rhythmic component is heavily inspired by a tune called “African Skies” by Michael Brecker, as well as a bunch of amazing rhythms that would take me two lifetimes or more to figure out, that we heard while we're in Africa.

What I hear in this song is kind of cool with the way you and Dana on drums are working with each other, especially toward the beginning of the song, when the stops happen, and you and Dana are kind of doing the same thing.

I would say I'm on the lazier side of things. I gave everybody one blueprint, one sheet he needs to look at. And I don't specify, ‘Play this drum part here,’ ‘Play this baseline here.’ I give them the harmony, you know, the chord changes, and I give them the melody as the harmony occurs, I leave it up to them, because I know that no matter what I write, I mean almost 99% of the time, they're gonna come up with something that is far superior than when I would write as a bass part or a drum part.

What you hear Dana doing is playing along, comping-wise as he plays with the shape of the melody. That's why it feels like we're playing together because, in fact, we are. But he's looking at the melody on that piece of paper and listening to how I'm interpreting that requires a lot of trust and a lot of listening. There are several moments like that on this record. The third tune is called “Kansas to Chicago.” And there's a moment in the solo where we had this connection, where I'm improvising that is not written out. Nobody said play these hits together. And it's very complex. It's much more complex than falling along with a melody. Every time I listen to it. I'm like, “How did he do that? How was the guy inside of my brain?” And those are the kind of moments that I remember listening to people like Josh Redman and Michael Brecker, my heroes growing up, where I listened to those things on record recording, I'd be like, “How in the world did they all play that together?”

Recently on social media, you gave both of your parents a shoutout for helping you develop into the musician you are. Adam, can you explain how working with your father for the number of years you did when he was drumming? And you were “saxing” as a young guy? How did that play out on this album?

When I was younger, my ability on the saxophone to improvise, from a harmonic standpoint, was underdeveloped compared to what I was able to immediately access kind of in a caricature-ish way. We talked about call-and-response as being a big part of jazz communication. And how that translated to me playing with my father — he would play something rhythmically and I tried to play it back to him. As I got older and I developed more harmonically, I became more harmonically sophisticated, I was able to do things that went beyond just playing Jazz, Jazz, Jazz. My dad would play Jazz, Jazz, Jazz; there was a deeper conversation that was happening. But that initial pull towards rhythm as being the thing that I heard, and tried to improvise with, versus harmony first, that's something that I think has played a big role in the bands that I've played with historically. Most of the time, I would say, 90% of the year, I'm playing as a lead leader. During the other parts of the year where I'm playing as a sideman, It’s almost always a drummer who calls me for a gig. That may be an indication that what I'm providing rhythmically is something that is at bare minimum interesting to play with. And I think that that really developed working with my father.

And then there's my Mom, she's in, I think, her 37th or 38th year of leading a high school band (Lincoln, IL). Her standards have always been super high no matter who it is. And especially for her son. I've always appreciated that. She's always been real honest with me and told me, "Here's how to get better." Having supportive parents like that is not something to take for granted and I certainly don't.

You said your Mom is very direct in the advice she's offering and you've told me in the past that your father was the same. Not every kid would willingly take that in, yet you seemed to accept that.

Yeah, I'll be honest, there were times on the bandstand, especially the older I got, the less I wanted to accept certain things. If you interviewed him you'd probably hear a similar thing. When I was younger I was happy to defer to what tunes he wanted to play. I got into jazz listening to The Brecker Brothers, the record called "Back to Back," which was on the borderline of being a commercial record. The beats and grooves were much more aligned to what my 5th and 6th grade brain was listening to on the radio. My dad's music was much more in that style of music and big band. So, two different genres in the idiom of jazz.

When I started getting into other parts of the history ... John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins ... more straight-ahead, traditional jazz musicians, it was interesting how we dealt with each other on the bandstand (laughs). There were definitely times I was not interested in what he had to say and (laughs again) if you asked him I'm sure he'd say the same thing. Actually I took up saxophone because I didn't want to listen to my parents at all. My mom's a trumpet player and my dad's a drummer and we had a saxophone lying around the house. And I thought, "I don't listen to my parents as they tell me how to do this." But for me, I still listen to my parents (laughs) quite a bit. Their opinions I value very much.

So, let's stay with family on this new album. “Tierney’s Song” is obviously about your wife. Is it FOR your wife or ABOUT your wife?

It's for my wife. I spent a lot of time delaying trying to write a song for my wife. It's a big undertaking. You want to make sure that the song is something that is memorable. I have a tendency compositionally to write things that are not complex to the point where they're hard to play or hard to listen to, I would hope not anyway. But there's definitely a level of challenge in there that certainly if I read it from the saxophone, typically, the melody is going to be a little bit more intense. So, I wanted to try to write a song that encapsulated something that was a little bit more mellowed out. I don't know, it might sound cheesy, but it reflects the beauty of my wife and our relationship.

Howard Reich, the retired jazz critic with the Chicago Tribune, gave you a really nice review a few years ago. Are you factoring that into your Chicago connection as well?

Howard has always been favorable of my performances, but also super fair. That review that you're referencing, there are definitely some fair criticisms that I've not forgotten, and I've tried to think about in a way, like, what would I change based on what somebody who I respect is writing a lot. I mean, I've gotten a lot of impactful reviews and insight and critiques coming through Chicago, you know, the Trib is a huge paper. Outside the New York Times, it doesn't get a whole lot bigger than that, I suppose. So, when I think to moments that had really helped me have the confidence to maybe continue on, there are definitely times in Chicago that I feel have done that for me.

Larson’s new album “With Love, From Chicago” is now available.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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