Getting caught in the YouTube rabbit hole can be a blessing and a curse. At times, you will be taken to videos of new players you’ve never heard of and are glad you checked out and at other times through countless random videos to where you ask yourself “what am I doing?” In this case, while watching some old and recent Newport Jazz Festival videos, I stumbled upon saxophonist Eric Wurzelbacher.
I had not heard of Eric before, but after checking out this clip (see below) at the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival, I knew I needed to find out more. So, I reached out to Eric and he was nice enough to sit down with me and share his story. For those of you not familiar with Eric Wurzelbacher, see a brief bio below to get you up to speed.
- Rooted in Cincinnati Ohio, Eric Wurzelbacher is described by the Jazz Journal UK as a “foot- tapping mix of hard-bop improve and rock”.
- Eric has been surrounded by the music business for his entire life, but not on the side that you might expect. Growing up and working in a family business that constructs stages for festivals around the country exposed Eric to music and a way of life that he would have never experienced otherwise.
- While attending the College Conservatory of Music (Cincinnati) as a classical saxophonist, Eric was named one of the top 10 saxophonists in the nation through the United States Army Solo Competition in 2012. Through his time in college, he became fixated on composing and freely improvising with other musicians. Eric found his true calling as an artist through this realm, although the search still continues…
- After graduating in 2015, Eric toured Europe for a number of months while playing on cruise ships. Realizing his true passion for composing and playing his own music, Eric has since been touring the country with his self- titled group.
- Eric started making his national mark after playing at the legendary Newport Jazz Festival for the first time in 2019. As a leader and composer, he has released four albums composed of all original music. Eco Quartet (2017), Power (2018), Maya (2019), and Idle Minds (2021), and coming in 2024, Don’t Climb the Towers.
ZS: What interested you in playing the saxophone?
EW: It’s actually kind of a funny story. My brother started playing piano when he was five years old so since I was one years old, I was listening to Bach and Beethoven and was just inundated with music. I was interested in music and tried to play a little bit of piano, but when I reached sixth grade, it was time to pick an instrument in band. My other brother played trumpet so I decided I was going to try trumpet. I remember taking his trumpet since he stopped playing and was going to choose the trumpet since I was a fiscally conscious kid at 12 years old and didn’t want my parents to buy a new instrument.
To this day, I want to thank my band director, Darren Webb, because I tried playing the trumpet and he told me either my teeth were too big or there was something not working with the trumpet mouthpiece so I should try the saxophone. I put on the saxophone mouthpiece, reed, and ligature and made a buzz or note right away and my band director told me you should play the saxophone.
I remember looking at the saxophone and thought it looked pretty cool. I quickly realized that all the recorder stuff I was doing in elementary music translated over to saxophone so I was able to transfer it over really quick. I was really excited to start playing but we weren’t able to bring our instrument home so I snuck it home anyway and for the first week I played with the mouthpiece upside down. I remember we had a German exchange student who lived with us and happened to play saxophone and he told me to turn the mouthpiece the other way and once I did that I started playing the saxophone everyday and became obsessed with it. Me and my brother would play videogames and listen to Zeppelin and Charlie Parker and would always sing the solos. It took me years later to realize how impactful that was which was sitting there playing Super Smash Brothers and singing the Charlie Parker solo on “Now’s The Time” which is pretty weird, but doing that and constantly hearing music made a big difference.
I started private lessons shortly after I started playing because since I was putting so much time on the instrument, band class was moving very slow. My band director recommended a guy named Matt Chandler and he taught me all the way through high school. I had a couple lessons in high school with college professors and a few workshops. Matt was primarily a classical player so he made me get my technical side down which I am grateful to this day because it gave me the facility to play what I want.
Most of the jazz stuff in the beginning was ear-based, so I was teaching myself what felt good. As I mentioned before, I started on alto saxophone in 6th grade for four years and then when I was sixteen, Matt sold me his tenor and I immediately liked how the tenor sounded and fit with me better than the alto.
My sophomore year of high school is when I decided that pursuing music in college was something I wanted to do. I remember there was this event called “Saxophone Day” and I played the song called “Tableaux de Provence” which was a really popular tune in the classical saxophone repertoire. I played two movements, then spoke to the professors who asked about my school plans. They thought I had potential, which made me think maybe I have a shot at music as a career. I knew I never wanted to sit at a desk at a young age and anytime I’ve been at an institution, I’ve felt uncomfortable and knew this was not my route.
Both my parents are self-employed and the freedom of it attracted me. While growing up, I worked with my parents business and I was at live shows all the time. I remember at twelve years old running into Joshua Redman, and seeing how musicians interacted with each other and how they performed gave me an insight I never would had before.
It’s one thing to watch a YouTube video of band playing, but it’s another thing to watch the band come off stage, give each other high fives, and then walk off stage and just have normal conversations.
Since my private teacher was not focused on jazz, I didn’t really feel prepared to audition for jazz bands, but I had my classical material down, and that seemed to be the most reasonable route. I applied to IU Jacob School of Music and CCM. I ended up being accepted to CCM with a scholarship, so I decided it made sense to pursue CCM, but in retrospect, I should have applied to a few more schools. I started taking lessons with James Bunte, and he was an amazing classical saxophonist, and then I studied a year with Rick VanMatre.
After studying with Rick, I studied a semester with Brent Gallagher, who owns a club in Cincinnati called Caffe Vivace, which has started to become quite popular in the area. My last two years, I studied with Craig Bailey, who was the lead alto player with Ray Charles’ band for thirty years, and he came in my senior year. He lived in NYC but moved back to Cincinnati. It took me five years to complete my degree because I was a Spanish and Music double major.
I studied abroad in Chile for half a year, which disrupted my schedule, but fortunately, Craig was kind enough to provide me with lessons my fifth year. I remember Craig rubbed elbows with everybody. One time during a lesson, he was telling a story and couldn’t remember the player’s name in the story, so he picked up his phone, called Mark Turner, and asked him about that one thing and hung up – which was crazy to me, how many players Craig knew.
I played alto and tenor at the same time in college, but alto was for classical, since almost all classical material was written for alto, and then tenor was for jazz. I would get up early and play alto for one or two hours and get through all my routine material, and then later at night, I would play my tenor for a couple of hours. I got my music education degree, but my 2nd or 3rd year into college, I knew I did not want to be a band director. I pursued the music education degree for security, as there’s a common belief that if you choose music, you will be poor. After finishing my semester student teaching, that solidified even further that it is not what I wanted to do. I will say I don’t regret it because it helped me quite a bit with teaching privately.
Right out of college, I started applying for cruise ships and did a cruise ship run for a couple of months. This gig was great for traveling but going back to the same vibe of being a part of an institution, it showed me the truth behind the cruise ship industry, and that was something I did not want to be a part of.
When I got back to Cincinnati, I worked to build up my private studio and gigging. Unfortunately, Covid sort of killed that a little bit, but in recent years, I have maintained a smaller studio of students who are really serious about playing.
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?
EW: One of my major influences was Kenny Garrett with his diction, articulation, timing, phrasing, and composing, which hit me really deep. It did evolve in college at one point when I was obsessed with Coltrane, and I spent a year just transcribing probably ten to fifteen of his solos, which I learned a lot from.
I did practice long tones, but I focused quite a bit more on overtone practicing, especially playing scales with overtone fingerings. I remember listening to an interview with Kenny Garrett discussing “ringing the bell,” and what he was talking about is there is a moment on the saxophone where everything is lined up, and you are hitting the vibrations right down the center, and all these overtones are ringing. So playing consistently will get you closer and closer to this realization.
I have strayed away from books and latching onto an idea that I can understand. For example, diatonic seventh chords. I would play all my major scales, then my natural minor, harmonic minor, and play them as fast and clean as I possibly could. I will go in waves in terms of taking diatonic seventh chords through harmonic minors and hitting all twelve keys. The past year I have taken whole entire solos through all twelve keys, which is quite a project, and even if it’s just an idea in that solo, I will figure it out then transcribe it into twelve keys, which can last me for a month of practicing.
ZS: Who were your musical influences growing up, and have they changed over time or stayed the same?
EW: I have a lot of influences who are not saxophone players. I am just as much a grunge and rock fan as I am jazz. I grew up with a Led Zeppelin box set, and I can sing every Jim Page solo to this day. There was a period in college where I was obsessed with Soundgarden, and loved listening to Chris Cornell.
The energy from these rock groups is unique and I can relate to. I remember when I was twelve, I went into Barnes & Noble and bought a Charlie Parker CD, and I was obsessed with that for a while. Then I started checking out Joshua Redman and listened to many of his CDs before discovering Kenny Garrett in college, which I listened through all of his CDs.
Chris Potter has also been a big influence of mine, and I have gotten feedback from players from time to time that it sounds like I am listening to Chris Potter. I had a lesson with Donny McCaslin about five years ago and love his playing. When it came to classical music, it never really hit me very deep for whatever reason, maybe due to the time period it came out.
ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process, and do you teach your students this process? Besides teaching various students, what tips, tricks, or exercises did you pick up from your past teachers?
EW: When I start practicing, I usually start with diatonic 7th patterns and like to play in the circle of 4ths or sometimes start on F# and play through the circle of fifths. As soon as I start relying on muscle memory I know I need to switch my approach to the same material.
I do a lot of interval practice on 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, and 6ths, in all twelve keys. I then will usually have a ii-V-I line in all twelve keys. I like to load the front-end of my practice with left brain analytical stuff because the law of diminishing returns has taught me that after 2 to 2.5 hours I am not getting much back.
First thirty to forty minutes I am playing my diatonic sevenths in various keys. I am currently working on a transcription of the Joshua Redman Quartet Spirit Of The Moment Live At The Village Vanguard album. It’s one of my favorite albums and there is a tune called “Jig-A-Jug” which is a blues in Eb on tenor and it is quite challenging.
In the past three months, I have figured the whole solo out in the written key and am about 60% to 70% through all the other keys. If I go a couple days without shedding it, it becomes hard to recall some of the material. Something I have found with practicing solos is there is a moment where I am not thinking of numbers but I have the solo in my head and I just let go and let my fingers take it away. You want your playing to become as intuitive as possible.
ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe many people don’t know about you?
EW: One of the hardest things about being in the arts is financial stability. This would be impossible in the Bay Area but since I live in Cincinnati, I was actually able to systematically buy run down properties, fix them up myself by watching YouTube videos, and then rent them out. What this allows me to do is take less and less gigs that get in the way of me pursuing my art. My advice would be don’t be afraid to do stuff that long term is going to free yourself up to pursue your art.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
EW: Don’t be afraid to spend the money for professional gear. That said, when you’re in the realm of professional gear, I truly don’t believe the difference between a $12,000 dollar Mark VI and a $5,000 Selmer Series II (my horn for example) is worth the money – you’re paying for novelty at that point.
I have played on the same tenor for sixteen plus years so I don’t like to change gear, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to trying new gear from time to time.
- Saxophone: Selmer Super Action 80 Series II
- Neck: Selmer Series III
- Ligature: Stock Selmer 2 screw
- Reed: D’Addario Select Jazz 3M filed
- Mouthpiece: Vandoren V16 T8
- Case: Hiscox
- Neckstrap: Oleg
- Saxophone: Selmer Super Action 80 Series III
- Neck: Series III
- Ligature: Vandoren Optimum
- Reed: Vandoren V12 – 3
- Mouthpiece: Vandoren AL3
- Case: Gator
- Neckstrap: Oleg
Social Media & Website:
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ericwurzelbacher/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ericwurzelbacher.music
- Website: https://www.ericwurzelbacher.com/