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Follow the Stick: An Interview With Sam Sadigursky
(Published: October 21, 2015)

by NPR's Alex Ariff

Sadigursky discusses his new group, his new album on BJU records, and his move over to the world of clarinet

AA: So first off, Follow the Stick... Can you tell me a little bit about the name of the group?

SS: Follow the Stick is musician's slang for following a conductor, but the clarinet has a lot of (mostly) derogatory nicknames having to do with the word stick, mostly due to its unforgiving nature as an instrument: the licorice stick, the agony stick, etc., so it's a bit of a play on words. But really I just liked the sound of those words, their directness and the strange suggestion of dictatorship, which is of course so counter to music-making, and I wanted this to sound like a real band, so I figured the first thing that any band needs is a name.

AA: You've played clarinet a bit on several of your past albums, but this is your first album that exclusively features the instrument. You described this record as sort of your "coming-out" party as a clarinetist. How has it become more prominent to you in the past few years?

SS: It was a natural evolution in many ways, both practically and creatively. I played the clarinet from a young age - my father is a classically trained clarinetist and accordionist from the Soviet Union, who now plays mostly Klezmer and Eastern European folk musics. I actually remember interviewing him on a tape recorded for a 5th grade project and asking him what some of his dreams in life were, and I remember him talking about learning to play jazz clarinet, something he's always loved. But about four or five years ago something really clicked for me with the instrument - I wanted it to be more than a sideshow for me and I've since put most of my energies into it since.

AA: I know that recently you started to play it much more prominently in some groups that you're a part of, yes?

SS: Indeed. For a few years, starting in 2007 or so, I was playing clarinet and bass clarinet with Gabriel Kahane, an amazing singer/composer/songwriter, and then Darcy James Argue, who I've been playing with for ten years now, started to write clarinet parts for me more and more, to the point where I would say my parts are now mostly clarinet, and I've been lucky to have a few big clarinet features that he's written for me. I've also played in quite a few South American groups the past decade, and several of the bandleaders I play for started to have me on clarinet more, people like Pablo Mayor, Lucia Pulido, Sebastian Cruz, and Emilio Teubal.

Also, I make much of my living playing clarinet in synagogues, accompanying cantors, which has been a great fit for me, really taking me back to a lot of the music that I heard growing up, but also flexing my skills as an improvisor. Playing in these big, beautiful spaces every week has really helped me develop my sound on the instrument.

AA: This was also a bit of a coming-out party for you as an instrumentalist too.

SS: Yes. I did five albums of Words Project material, where all the material was based on poetry and text, and it sort of allowed me to hide in the back behind the singers and the material. There's not that much stretching out on those albums, since I was always so conscious of this larger compositional scheme, being faithful to the text and not have the music ever overshadow it in any way.

AA: The clarinet was once a prominent instrument in jazz, but has since become a bit of a niche instrument to the genre. Why do you think this is?

SS: Yes, it's quite fascinating. I think much of it can be attributed to the relative quietness of the instrument, which without amplification can be tough to hear above a modern rhythm section. Also, the demands of bebop and post-bebop jazz are really tough on the clarinet, much more than on saxophone. I could practice clarinet ten hours a day for the rest of my life, and I still don't think I'll have the speed and flexibility that I had as a 16-year-old playing the saxophone. I learned a melody like Donna Lee as a kid and I think I could play it on saxophone without ever practicing it again, but it'll kick me a%^ every single time I try to play it on the clarinet. It's just the nature of the beast, but it's also something that I love about the instrument, how limiting it is, and what a little devil it is. It forces you to think differently - it's very asymmetrical register-wise, so things that would be no issue on the saxophone are really thorny on the clarinet. Somebody once told me we're shaped more by the things we can't do than the things we can do. Obviously, every clarinetist is trying to transcend the instrument and do things they didn't think could be done on it, but you also have to realize that it's not a saxophone and find the things that can be done on it.

AA: This probably explains why there's such a small crew of dedicated improvising clarinetists out there.

SS: Yes, it's kind of silly, in fact. There are hundreds of amazing saxophonists moving to NYC every single year - there's no way to even keep up with how much talent is out there. But I can count the number of jazz clarinetists on a few hands, really. It's quite astonishing.

This actually comes back to why I started to feel so at home creatively on the instrument. I feel there's so much more room to explore on it, so much more that hasn't been done. Of course now I'm digging into the clarinet tradition and checking out my Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Hamilton, Buddy DeFranco, but I grew up listening to saxophonists, so I feel it gives me a unique perspective when I try to bring those influences to the instrument and see what happens. If you play Coltrane or Joe Henderson on a saxophone most people have heard it a thousand times from just about every saxophonist of the last fifty years - play some of that stuff on clarinet and it actually still sounds new. To my ears, at least.

AA: Let's talk about the people in your band. The group started of as just a trio, you and Bobby Avey on piano and Jordan Perlson on drums. How did you meet? Had you played with those guys before?

SS: I actually stalked Bobby online and wrote him an email asking to play before we had ever met. I remember seeing his name a bunch and then buying his first record and being blown away. I already had the instrumentation of the group in mind and some of the music composed and was looking for a pianist, somebody who could cover a lot of ground since there would be no bass player in the group, which is a throwback to the early days of jazz, when it was very common to have no bass instrument in the group. Bobby and I played a few sessions and I know he was the guy. He's really the whole package - he plays the whole piano with a real sound, has such a compositional sense, and he's an instigator, totally fearless, something I really value in the musicians I play with.

AA: And Jordan?

SS: I knew that Jordan was on Bobby's record, and had known Jordan for years through his playing with Becca Stevens, so I called him for one of the informal sessions with Bobby. What I didn't know was that Bobby and Jordan grew up playing together in Pennsylvania, so they go back a long time - their hook-up is kinetic. Immediately after that session, I remember taking them out to lunch and basically getting down on one knee and asking them to be part of something more ongoing. Jordan is so well versed in so much music - he can play the hard stuff, but then is one of the best rock drummers I've ever heard - Math Music, the last tune on the album, is basically a big feature for him, and he kills it. I don't even play on it, in fact!

AA: And then the trio became a quartet with Chris Dingman added on vibes at one point, yes?

SS: Correct. I was looking for a bit more color to the group, somebody who could thicken the textures and also give the piano some support during solos, and also support the melodic content as well. I remember getting Chris's first album, Waking Dreams, and really wanting to play with him. After doing a session with him, I knew I wanted him to play on some things on the record. What I didn't plan on was having him on the entire record - there were even a few things in the studio that I thought we'd do as a trio which Chris hadn't ever looked at that I asked him to come play on, so he's sight-reading some of those things believe it or not. It takes a lot of sensitivity for a vibes player and a pianist to play well together, and it seemed to come so easily to him and Bobby. One of my favorite parts of the record is the extended intro they play to Heart - it's heavenly, and they sound like they've been playing together for years.

AA: And how about the added guests on the record, Jason Palmer and Ljova?

SS: Jason plays trumpet on five tracks. I had trumpet in mind for a few tracks, and was so blown away by Jason on a European tour he did with Darcy Argue's group. He lives in Boston, so we hadn't played together before, but I had known about him for a long time. Once we talked about him coming to play on the record, I came up with more things for him to play on. It's rare that I hear a trumpet sound that I love, and Jason's gives me goosebumps everytime I hear it.

Ljova plays viola on just one track, Looks Can Be Deceiving. It's an open sketch with no written melody, just a sequence of chords and a vague notion of how they should be played. Although he's not a jazz improviser, his sense of melody and composition is so great, and I love the sound of the viola, which so often gets overshadowed by the violin.

AA: Finally, let's talk about the material a bit. Are these mostly new compositions of yours?

SS: It's a mixture. Originally I thought I would write all new music for this group, things with a more overt sort of swing associated with the instrumentation of this group, things like Do the Dance for example, but when I started to fish through old notebooks and folders for ideas I found so many old tunes of mine that never had life breathed into them that I thought would work with the group. Having focused on those vocal albums of mine for nearly ten years, there's quite a backlog of instrumental things that I've never recorded. I had a list of about two more records worth of music that I whittled this record down from. But there are also some new tunes, like Deadly Sins and Math Music, were written in the months leading up to the recording session, and might better reflect my thinking today.

There's also a broad mixture of lead sheet oriented one-page tunes and some more involved things that are much more written out and have lots of meter changes and metric modulations and what not.

AA: What are some of those one-page tunes?

SS: Mule, which settles into sort of a slow sort of country waltz, and 3+2, which is in a really slow ⅝ meter, and is probably one of the most melodic things I've written. I was reading a book by Nathan Englander at the time called The Ministry of Special Cases, which is about Jews in Argentina during the period of the dirty war there. I've never been to Argentina, but I've always loved the music and been fascinated by the Jewish community down there, and I couldn't get that book out of my mind while writing the song. And Heart, which is actually the oldest tune on the album, is just a lead sheet, totally out of time and also really melodic, although the two-chord rock vamp towards the end is a recent thing that I added to it.

Those one page tunes are so important for me. In some ways, they're the hardest things to write, but I love having material that I can just throw out at sessions without having to talk through it or rehearse anything. Getting to play them with so many different people over a long period of time allows these songs to evolve in such an organic way.

AA: There's another tune that has an Argentinian tinge on the album, Deadly Sins. Was that intentional?

SS: Definitely. The opening melody was a little fragment that I dug up from an old notebook. Most of the tune is based on variations of seven beat meters, hence the title - it modulates from 7/8 to 7/4 to 7/2 in various ways. I'm totally infatuated with Guillermo Klein's music, and definitely had it in mind when I wrote this. Guillermo is such a master or finding interesting things to do with meter, which are actually deceptively simple most of the time. There's a really slow tango element in one of the sections, and a minimalist section in the middle with the same melody that's gradually displaced three times, which is something I had never done before.

AA: How about Fast Money and Austerity Measures, both of which have titles that seem to be ripped from the headlines.

SS: Indeed. For somebody who is as bad at making money as I am, I'm fascinated by economics and the working and failings of the financial system.

I wrote Fast Money on an old piano in Prague while staying there for a month in early 2009, just as things were really hitting the fan internationally. It's got this big, bright gospel intro that somehow seemed to capture this feeling of shooting for a quick buck, something that I think we're all after, but an ideal that often comes with long-term consequences for people. That big piano intro actually opens the record.

Austerity Measures is something we're still hearing about every day, at the moment with the situations in Greece and closer to home, Puerto Rico. It's this sort of flat, very dry piece which keeps rising, but never quite reaches any sort of peak, with lots of space in every bar, and a lot of simple major triads. Everytime I played it with groups the word I would use for describing the approach to playing it was "austere", so the title arose naturally from that.

AA: And finally, your arrangement of String of Pearls, which was originally a big swing hit by Glenn Miller.

SS: Yes - at one point I wanted to do a whole album of this sort of modern take on old swing numbers from the 30s and 40s, but except for this one I never really saw that through, though it is still at the back of my mind. There's not much to the original tune, but it is catchy. I basically just use the melody, but take a more angular, very dissonant approach to it - it's very repetitive, and hopefully despite some fancy mixed meters in there it has sort of a hypnotic quality. Jason Palmer is featured prominently in the middle of it, on a really open one-chord vamp, and he takes no prisoners.

AA: Any plans for what's next?

SS: Hmmm... I was sort of making this album under the gun. My wife and I were in the process of buying a house a bit north of the city and expecting our second child a few months later, both of which have been quite the one-two punch in terms of life changes. Planning this recording, I sort of knew that if I didn't do this thing before all that hit, it wouldn't happen for a long time, but I've always likes deadlines, so it all worked out.

So it might be a little while before my next venture as a leader, but besides this album coming out in the fall, I have a bunch of sideman things I'm really excited about. Darcy James Argue has a new multi-media production called Real Enemies that we're doing at BAM and previewing around the country before that, I'm playing another sort of large-scale production with Fred Hersch, who has long been a hero of mine, doing a short tour with Jamie Baum's Septet, and also recording a beautiful chamber project of Matt Holman's that also features both Bobby Avey and Chris Dingman, coincidentally. Also, the same week that my album comes out, Dan Kaufman's album Familiar Places is coming out, something I was really proud to be a part of and hope people check out. So, as they say, stay tuned.

Alex Ariff is a radio producer and musician living in Brooklyn, NY. His work includes Jazz Night in America, Playdate with Matt Wilson, and The Checkout.

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