Although I mainly play tenor saxophone, I still pick up the alto from time to time and like to listen to various alto players such as Kenny Garrett, Baptiste Herbin, Jaleel Shaw, Will Vinson, Immanuel Wilkins, Nick Biello, Braxton Cook, and the list goes on. Today, I was fortunate enough to meet up with saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, whose career has been on a steady upwards trajectory for some years now with performances at major venues and festivals worldwide alongside some of jazz’s most prominent “A-listers”.
- Alexa Tarantino is a jazz saxophonist, woodwind doubler, composer, and educator.
- Tarantino was recently named one of the “Top 5 Alto Saxophonists of 2019” by the JazzTimes Critics’ Poll and is 3-time nominated as a “Rising Star – Alto Saxophone” by Downbeat Magazine’s Critics Poll from 2020-2022.
- Alexa has performed worldwide as a leader (Alexa Tarantino Quartet) and as a side-woman in a wide variety of ensembles and genres including the Wynton Marsalis Septet, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Cecile McLorin Salvant Quintet, and OGRESSE ensembles, ARTEMIS, Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Generation Y and Big Band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and the DIVA Jazz Orchestra.
- Firefly, Alexa’s third record for Posi-Tone Records released April 2021 hit #6 on the JazzWeek charts. Her previous album, Clarity, peaked at #9 on the JazzWeek Charts and landed at #54 for JazzWeek’s Top 100 records of 2020.
- Tarantino’s other projects include her quintet that she co-leads with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian called “LSAT.” LSAT presents original compositions highlighting the unique combination of baritone and alto saxophone, as well as their own interpretations of favorites from the jazz repertoire.
- Tarantino continues to visit several colleges, high schools, and summer jazz programs across the globe virtually and in-person as a guest clinician, including the Rockport Jazz Workshop (MA), of which she is Founder and Director. Cape Ann Jazz Workshop, currently in its ninth year, expanded in just four years from a five-day program with seven students to a two-week program with 120 students. During the global pandemic, Tarantino co-founded A Step Ahead Jazz workshop with pianist Steven Feifke. Their Summer Jazz Online featured guest artists including Wynton Marsalis, Jeff Coffin, Sherrie Maricle, and others.
- She holds a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies from The Juilliard School and Bachelor’s degrees in Jazz Saxophone Performance and Music Education from the Eastman School of Music. Tarantino is a graduate of Hall High School’s award-winning music program in West Hartford, Connecticut and currently resides in New York City.
ZS: What interested you in playing the saxophone, and if you had to choose another instrument, which one would that be?
AT: I started playing the piano and the saxophone around the same time. I fell in love with the saxophone when I was in fourth grade, after seeing a young woman named Erica von Kleist perform at the local high school jazz concert in West Hartford, Connecticut. West Hartford has a well-known public school jazz program, and I was fortunate to grow up there.
I started on piano first since my paternal grandma was a pianist. I probably would have stayed playing piano if I didn’t decide to pursue the saxophone, which also led to me learning clarinet and flute.
I started taking saxophone lessons right away. We had a jazz band in fourth grade, so I got right into jazz music early on, even though many saxophone players start out learning classical repertoire. Before fourth grade, most of my general music and elementary band learning was focused on ear training and methods such as Music Learning Theory and Orff. These methods had a big impact on me, and they’re probably the biggest reason why I have really strong relative pitch despite not having perfect pitch. I’ve always felt that my ears were strong in that sense, and that helped me close the gap between my ears and my fingers on the instrument.
In eighth grade, I auditioned for the high school jazz band. This high school had not just one, but a couple of jazz bands, and depending on which band you were placed in, you would have access to different competitions and festivals. It was around my freshman year when I realized that I really loved jazz music and wanted to pursue it as a career.
I started slowly dropping other non-music courses in high school as I finished the requirements for courses like science and math. I wasn’t as interested in those subjects as I was in music. Instead, I filled my class schedule with things like being a member of the second jazz band, where I would play or write arrangements with that group. I also joined the freshman band as a clarinetist, and then I would go play in the concert band as a saxophonist. Finally, I took an independent study with one of my teachers in private saxophone study, composition, and arranging. By doing all of this, I turned my high school education into almost a pre-college type of experience. I’m really grateful for that.
At Hall High School, I had two band directors, Haig Shahverdian and John Mastroianni. Both were saxophonists, and John Mastroianni was my primary teacher. He taught me everything I know about jazz, jazz styles, woodwind doubling, conducting, and composing.
For college, I auditioned at several schools. I was debating whether to double major and go to a liberal arts school like McGill or NYU. I wanted to be involved in other areas in addition to music, since I really liked teaching and languages. However, during my senior year of high school, I realized that I really wanted to go to a conservatory and focus on jazz saxophone. I chose Eastman because I believed it would be the best place to get a great education and a place where I knew I would get a lot of practicing done, away from the distractions of New York City.
I highly recommend Eastman. Classical saxophone was a required part of the curriculum, and I studied with classical saxophonist Chien-Kwan Lin. It was hard work, but it was really rewarding, and I think it made such a difference in my fundamental playing and understanding of the instrument. From there, I studied with Charles Pillow, one of my heroes. I remember seeing him play with the Marie Schneider Jazz Orchestra and various pits on Broadway. He really put it all together for me and helped me figure out my sound, flute playing, and some double reeds.
After my first year at Eastman, I added the music education degree, since the department was so well-known and acclaimed. I didn’t add this degree as just a backup, but because I really enjoyed teaching and wanted to have all the tools necessary to be a successful educator.
When I graduated from Eastman, Sherrie Maricle, leader of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, reached out to me in need of a lead alto saxophonist for the group. I had met Sherrie years ago when I saw them play at Dizzy’s. Since then, Sherrie and I had kept in touch. Sherrie said the audition would be at their gig at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. I was really excited about this because Phil Woods used to play there, and he was one of my heroes. So, I went and auditioned for the gig, and at the time, I was still living in Rochester, freelancing and teaching. After the audition, Sherrie said that I got the gig, so I joined the band and commuted for any gigs from Rochester.
DIVA got the opportunity to play a show off-Broadway with Maurice Hines, the tap dancer and entertainer whose brother was Gregory Hines. At first, we did touring shows, but eventually, they brought the show to New York.
ZS: Who were your musical influences growing up and have they changed over time or stayed the same?
AT: Although my parents weren’t musicians, I had an uncle who was really into it. When I first started listening to jazz, he burned me CDs of Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, Maceo Parker, and Stan Getz, who were the first jazz players I listened to.
Eventually, I started seeking out jazz on my own, which led me to Phil Woods. I was really into Phil Woods because my teacher studied with him. I was also into Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. At a certain point, I started getting into Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Dick Oatts, and Kenny Garrett.
Of course, being a fan of Charles Pillow, I started checking out Dave Pietro and Steve Wilson, who were also really influential on me. I also loved listening to singers like Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, who impacted the way I learned tunes and the lyrics.
Big bands were also a major influence on me because I came up playing in big bands. I listened to Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Maria Schneider, and Clayton Hamilton, which helped my playing by learning solis and playing along with the records.
ZS: As you worked to develop your own sound and technique, who did you try to emulate the most and what was your process? What methods did you find most fruitful?
AT: I spent hours in my parents’ basement playing along with records. When the Omnibook came out, I would play along and make corrections in the book. I loved the trial and error of playing along with a solo. I also played along with Aebersolds for hours, trying new things and getting inside the chord changes.
I was pretty good at math in school and really enjoyed algebra. There was something about exhausting the possibilities related to harmony, voice leading, chord tones, and extensions of a tune that excited me. I tried to emulate Bird at first, then moved on to Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, and Sonny Stitt. Eventually, I dug into Dick Oatts and Kenny Garrett. I also went back to checking out Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, which came a bit later and more from studying Ellington’s music.
ZS: How did you navigate the music scene during COVID and were there any projects that started during this time?
AT: I spent a lot of time working on my educational content, and that’s where I figured out the types of materials I wanted to offer as a teacher. I loved doing guest artist residencies, but that wasn’t really possible with COVID. I spent time figuring out my educational philosophy and how I could impart it to my students in a way that was enjoyable for both of us. I further mapped out what type of program I wanted to offer to new and existing students. This process helped me set myself apart as an educator, which is what I really gravitate towards.
I started an online membership studio where I work with students online in a one-on-one coaching capacity. During COVID, I decided to hold weekly Sunday night concerts that were livestreamed with my fiancé, Steven Feifke. We did this from our apartment, and we donated a portion of the proceeds to BLM, COVID relief, and closed venues. It was an amazing experience.
ZS: As things are slowly getting back to normal or the new normal, how have you seen the jazz scene change or not in New York City?
AT: Sadly, some clubs have closed, such as the Jazz Standard, which was a big loss for me since I used to see Marie Schneider’s band play there every Thanksgiving. I will say that people are out playing and clubs have started up their late-night sessions, but they may be programming fewer shows during the week, and some of these shows are starting a little bit earlier. Everyone has tried to adapt to what it seems people want now, and I think people still love to go out and see live music. I think as people can support artists again, they want to and are spending money, so things are starting to come back in full force now.
ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe many people don’t know about you?
AT: I really love languages, so I like to watch movies and TV in Italian and French. I am working on reading books in Italian.
ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process, and do you teach your students this process? Besides teaching various students, what tips and tricks did you pick up from your past teachers?
AT: I encourage students to become as efficient practicers as they can be. For example, I might say, “I am going to try this one thing for the next 15 minutes, and this is the goal.” Planning out practice sessions in micro-chunks of time is really important because it’s really easy to let hours fly by in the practice room. You need to be hyper-aware of what you are good at and what you are not. I try to play something in all 12 keys every time I pick up my horn, and the line can be long or short. I generally suggest that it’s super small and digestible so that a student could come up with a line they could play in a major, minor, or dominant key, for example.
The biggest thing I learned from Charles Pillow was how to balance time with woodwind doubling. He said that flute first was better for my muscles, and then I could move on to saxophone. He introduced me to some amazing exercises and classical repertoire that changed the game for me. There was this one flute book called De La Sonorite by Marcel Moyse, and it was amazing. It really helped me with my tone, intonation, and core sound.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
AT: I never change my gear. It’s too stressful for me. Once I find something I’m happy with, that’s it for me. It’s important to find what works for you, and it’s really easy to go down these rabbit holes of gear searching. But I’ve used Vandoren since I was a kid, and I’m now a Vandoren artist. I have to say that after touring for a few years, it’s really helpful to know that if anything happens to my mouthpiece, I can just get another one. I have copies of my setup – one in my saxophone case, one in my suitcase, and one in my other suitcase. For the most part, they are all the same.
- Saxophone: Yamaha 82z II Custom
- Neck: Yamaha E1 Neck
- Ligature: Vandoren M/O
- Reed: Vandoren ZZ Strength (3)
- Mouthpiece: Vandoren V5 A35
- Neck Screw: Variscrews
- Saxophone: Yamaha YSS-675
- Mouthpiece: Vandoren V5 Jazz (S35 Tip Opening)
- Ligature: Vandoren M/O Ligature (Gold-Plated)
- Reed: Vandoren ZZ Reeds Strength (3)
Video & Social Media
- Instagram: @alexatarantino
- Youtube: youtube.com/alexatarantino
- Facebook: facebook.com/alexatarantinomusic