Moving Far Beyond Jazz with Innovative Saxophonist Mike Casey
As many people know, becoming a full-time musician, is no easy feat (with or without a global pandemic). It has become increasingly difficult for even somewhat-established artists to maintain a steady stream of income due to fewer jazz clubs and heightened competition from other musicians vying for a smaller pool of gigs.
Although jazz is not in the same spotlight as it was in the past, it has been refreshing to see more and more musicians creating their own music and bringing life to what I think of as “modern jazz”, such as the music of Mike Casey. Mike is a unique artist dedicated to honing his craft as a saxophonist with a strong foundation in jazz, but also as a composer and producer of music that is stylistically unencumbered by the restrictions of what would be immediately recognized as “jazz” in the traditional sense.
- Mike Casey is a songwriter and producer who picked up the saxophone at age 9.
- Mike attended the Greater Hartford Academy for the Performing Arts in high school, which produced such alumni as Jimmy Greene, Josh Evans, The Curtis Brothers, and members of West End Blend.
- Mike was awarded a full scholarship to attend the renowned Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School of Music (University of Hartford), studying with respected jazz artists such as Abraham Burton, Rene McLean, Javon Jackson, Steve Davis, and Nat Reeves.
- Upon graduating in 2015, Mike was one of 24 young composers to participate in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. studying with an all star faculty of Jason Moran, JD Allen, Carmen Lundy, Eric Revis, Andre Heyward, and Cyrus Chestnut. Shortly after he began playing regularly in Marc Cary’s Harlem Sessions project.
- After releasing his NYC debut as a leader at Minton’s in September 2016, Casey started a crowdfunding campaign for “The Sound of Surprise” which reached 124% funded.
- In February 2016 at the Side Door in Old Lyme, Connecticut, Mike’s trio packed their first major show, recorded it live, and with recordings taken from two 50-minute sets that night, documented 14 first takes which would comprise the material for his 2017 debut, The Sound of Surprise and 2018’s follow-up, Stay Surprising.
- In 2018, Mike collaborated with the audio sample library company, Splice, for their first ever saxophone artist sample pack.
- Yearning to further his education, Mike ventured abroad and pursued Berklee’s yearlong master’s program in Contemporary Performance and Music Production in Valencia, Spain.
- While at Berklee Valencia, Mike was fortunate to study with versatile cross-genre artists such as Victor Mendoza, Javier Vercher, Casey Driessen, Ben Cantil, Gary Willis (Tribal Tech/Wayne Shorter 80s quartet) while working to hone his new skills in Ableton Live, mixing, cross cultural rhythms, production, and experimenting with styles of music from around the globe.
- Bringing the joy of jazz across genre lines to a diverse audience, Mike’s music has passed 7 million streams since his recording career began in 2017.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing the saxophone?
MC: The saxophone was actually my second choice. I wanted to be a drummer and my mom said no because drums are too loud, but little did she know that the saxophone also gets pretty loud. After the drums, the saxophone always appealed to me and I always loved the sound/sonic range of it. I remember wearing out Sonny Rollins’ classic album Tenor Madness and in particular the track “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and “Paul’s Pal”, were my jams. I started out on alto as most people do who were not blessed with great height and have been playing alto thus far for 18 years and tenor for about 8 years.
I started studying music late for where I was living at the time. The norm was 4th grade to start band and I started the summer right before 5th grade. I remember getting to concert band and I was so behind that I couldn’t read music and I remember coming home and crying that day because I wanted to play so bad but I didn’t know what to do. I mean I could hear my way through a lot of the basic method book tunes but what they were doing in concert band was many levels above me – thankfully I quickly caught up.
I had private lessons from the beginning, but I definitely ignored them a lot and kind of self-taught myself for better or for worse. I was not the best student in the beginning, and didn’t like learning the rules of music. By the time I was playing saxophone my family had moved from the Boston area to Storrs, Connecticut and my lessons were in the next town over in Willimantic, Connecticut at a store called Thread City Music. Bill Rood was my very first saxophone teacher and then I moved onto studying with Jeff Taylor at UConn Community School of the arts.
After Jeff, I took some lessons with Chris Beaudry, but then took a pause for a little while because the Hartford Academy of the Arts was becoming so demanding that I had plenty to practice.
When decided to study at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, I studied with Kris Allen for the first year and then my final 3 years at Hartt were with Abraham Burton.
In terms of pursuing music as a career, there were two moments that helped shape my future pursuit.
The first moment was when I was cut from my freshmen high school basketball team. At that time, I was actually more obsessed with basketball than music and although I liked both, once I was cut from the basketball team, I decided to apply to an arts high school in Hartford Connecticut with a strong jazz program and this really changed my life. This was the first time in my life where I was around people my own age who were seriously working to play music at a really high level. The second or third day at school, I decided that was it for me. I was going to play saxophone the rest of my life and make it work somehow. When it came time to apply for music school, my process was a bit different from the norm.
I deliberately did not apply to anywhere in New York for my undergraduate. I chose not to because I felt it was overpriced, I couldn’t afford the debt and I was not ready. I felt that I would get more out of a place where I was being challenged but at the same time was a place where I could push myself outside of school.
At the time, I saw first-hand the Hartford jazz scene – teachers at Hartt (Jackie McLean Institute) really go out of their way to bring you the “life element” of this music…they were not punching the clock. I would go to the local jam sessions in high school and I would see Steve Davis and Nat Reeves taking students on their gigs and hanging out and for me, that was really the old school jazz education…something I could see with my own eyes and wanted to be apart of.
In addition to Hartt, I applied to Berklee, Rutgers, William Paterson, Western Connecticut State, and I almost went to William Paterson but I ended up deciding on Hartt because I had a great opportunity there. I am glad I stayed in Hartford because I learned so many life lessons there and I learned a lot from having the environment being demanding but not so demanding that you couldn’t find time to work on your own voice, sound, and what you wanted to do. I felt Hartt was a good balance between a school vibe and old school hang.
As I mentioned earlier, I studied with Kris Allen my first year at Hartt but actually, he was one of my teachers at the Hartford Academy for the Arts. My sophomore year at Hartt is when I started studying with Abraham Burton but I also got to spend time with all the faculty at Hartt. What I did sometimes was sit in on other students lessons such as a bass or drum lesson. What was great was I would drop in on Nat Reeves’ lessons which were focused on his bass students but he would allow others to sit in and give tips on things I could work on too.
In addition to sitting in, I would go to attend office hours and play in various ensembles which gave me the opportunity to learn from Steve Davis, Nat Reeves, and Javon Jackson through being in their ensemble classes.
I really found the goal/curriculum of Hartt was to give you guidance and some structure but also enough time to search and figure stuff out as a true artist would. I remember starting my trio sophomore year of college and it’s already been over 7 years since we had our first gig….having that time to focus on writing music for that and developing our band sound while being in school was really key for me. I recall my senior year at Hartt before graduating, I did the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Residency at the Kennedy Center which was a 2 week program where 24 artists from around the world would play, listen, and write. I learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons from all of the faculty there (Jason Moran, Eric Revis, Cyrus Chestnut, Carmen Lundy, Eric Harland, Andre Hayward) but especially JD Allen. JD’s perspective and the way he understands music is so unique, and his approach to the saxophone sound helped me a lot.
After I graduated Hartt, I stayed in Hartford for another two years and started heading down to New York more and more. I started playing with Marc Cary at his Harlem sessions project regularly. I balanced playing with Marc and shows in New York City with playing gigs back in Connecticut and teaching students.
September 2017, I moved out of Hartford and moved to the Philly area (still heading into New York often) and then a year after that, I went to Berklee’s year long master’s program in Valencia, Spain from late August 2018-late August 2019.
I wanted to do a Masters in Music but not sure I wanted to do jazz school again. The degree at Berklee Valencia is not a jazz degree, it’s a Masters in Contemporary Performance & Music Production. I felt the program completely helped me out because it filled in a lot of gaps and knowledge that I didn’t have.
While my saxophone lessons with Javier Vercher were mainly jazz based saxophone lessons – and Javier helped me with technique, mindset, and composition a lot – I was mainly learning how to record, mix, master, mic placement, mindset of recording, studying styles of music beyond jazz from around the world, Ableton Live, and global rhythms along with looking at music through a traditional producer lens as in producing other artists’ recording sessions, but also your own from start to finish. It was a very international student body with 40 different countries in one building. It was great to talk about and learn music from around the world, making lifelong friends that I still collaborate with (aside from Venus which BSWE covered here and was recorded at Berklee Valencia in Spain, there is another album coming from this time, along with my remix EPs made during this time and since released collab’s with folks like Bpad & Issaya Rouson that are electronic based).
After finishing up at Berklee, I officially moved to NYC in 2019 after years of regularly commuting in and my trio members being based there for a few years.
ZS: As you have worked to develop your own sound and technique, who did you try to emulate the most and what was your process?
MC: I always found emulating to be difficult for me. Trying to play, for example, a Sonny Rollins solo or phrase that I transcribed and studied verbatim is something that I rarely do while playing my solo. Rather, I am always trying to study the underlying ingredients, decisions, and why someone played what they did. While studying with Abraham, he taught me to really focus on the phrasing when transcribing a solo and again, the decision why and how a phrase was played in relation to the story being told not only by the soloist but the band.
When I was younger, I transcribed a ton of Bird & Hank Mobley, but then as I got older I started checking out Johnny Hodges, Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, and Ornette Coleman. On tenor, I love listening to Trane, Rollins, Ammons, Dexter, Yusef Lateef, Arnet Cobb, and Hank Mobley. I also was listening to as many players as I could and focused on primarily saxophone-based drum trio records.
ZS: What were some of the key lessons you learned while studying?
MC: Working on soloing on one note and story-telling. While I was playing, Abraham got me to focus on dynamic inflections, spacing, phrasing, articulation, all the things that have to do with sound and not melody. Abraham taught me if you can’t do this, what’s the point of adding a 2nd note? That the way one plays a single note should be with enough conviction to grab the listener instantly. That was a major key for me. Another life changing realization for me was when Rene McLean recommended this book by Yusef Lateef called Method On How To Perform Autophysiopsychic Music which was a very key shift in mindset for me as well as his class on “jazz history” which begins in Egypt and gave me a greater appreciation for the cultural side of the music, how music reflects life. Yusef’s book discusses how to play music and how to unite the mind, body, and spirit. There are exercises in that book that have helped me become a much more melodic player.
One example is to take a scale and focus on endless melody, so if you are in G7, just move up and down with no skipping (C, D, E, F, or F, E, D, C) but then do the opposite by playing the scale but only skipping (C, E, G, B, D, G, E, C, A, etc.), so you can’t play two notes that are next to each other.
ZS: How have you adjusted to COVID from a musical as well as business perspective?
MC: From a musical perspective I am doing less long tones. I am really focused on creation and less learning per se in the traditional sense (not doing a lot of transcribing or technique exercises right now). It’s been a stressful time so I really need music to be more of a creative outlet for me now…it’s just pouring out of me and I’m focusing on letting that flow.
I have been spending more time writing, and recording from home for other artist’s projects as well as spending a lot of time mixing music that I recorded before Covid to get ready for next year. This has been a great year for collaborating remotely with artists from all over the place, which has been really a lot of fun and something that I was planning on doing this year. It’s been really fun releasing these collaborations throughout 2020. I’ve been enjoying teaching lessons over Skype lately more than usual (though I’ve been doing Skype lessons since 2014).
ZS: When it comes to the music business being taught in college, what are your thoughts on how schools are preparing students or even yourself post-graduation?
MC: I think in general music colleges need to improve drastically in this area. From speaking with many of my peers about this who have gone to many different schools, it seems that many schools are not really equipping graduates on how to survive and grow in the short term of their careers post-graduation within jazz education currently. While guest speakers and masterclasses on these topics can only help, it seems like a structural, systemic change might be needed. A rising tide lifts all ships and I feel that an increased focus on this early on will help all musicians advocate for fairer treatment and pay. We have to work together to increase our collective value and education can play a key role in this. Arthur Taylor talks about this in Notes and Tones…the more things change the more they stay the same.
If you are a current college student reading this, it’s not too late. My best advice would be to ask your teachers specific questions about their experiences in the music business. The curriculum for the music biz may not exist at your school yet, but personally I learned a lot from asking my teachers specific questions about this consistently and then acting upon what I learned or at least visualizing how I might later implement the lesson in my own career later. Often, I found I needed to save those lessons for later. No matter what, essentially what I’m saying is you can make your own curriculum.
ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process for honing your skills, and do you have any tips you recommend for all players from beginner to advanced?
MC: I love shedding with Drumgenius and I would recommend it to everyone. When it comes to learning jazz, I wish that when I was younger I had focused more on storytelling, melody, space, and emotion than I did focused on various licks, concepts, and harmony. To me, everything else serves these “intangibles”, and though they are less exact in some ways, they can be workshopped in specific ways too.
ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe many people don’t know about you?
MC: I used to DJ professionally and I stopped in 2012 to focus more on saxophone. Lately I am slowly getting back into that. I also love playing pool, visiting art museums and enjoy standup comedy. “Episodes” is my favorite recent Netflix show. Every time I release new music, I celebrate with Indian food.
ZS: What current projects are you working on right now?
MC: I just released my 4th album in 4 years called Law of Attraction. It’s my studio debut (after two live albums and a remix album), plus it’s a visual album (in-studio video for each track which can be watched on YouTube, Vevo, Apple Music, or Tidal) and it’s my first vinyl release. It’s inspired by the universal law that “thoughts become things” and features Grammy-nominated Benito Gonzalez (pianist in Pharoah Sanders’ current band) joining my trio on 3 songs, recorded July 2018 right before heading to Spain for the yearlong masters with Berklee Valencia in Omer Avital’s studio Wilson Live in Brooklyn.
Next year, I have a couple stray cuts from that session and a few live things recorded at the Side Door in Connecticut to release as well as working on mixing and mastering all the music I wrote and recorded in Spain at Berklee Valencia between fall 2018-summer 2019 that is in a new artistic direction for me.
I will also be working on doing a remix project for some of these songs and am currently working on some educational materials (more to come!).
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
MC: Equipment is the least important thing when playing saxophone as an artist, once you find what works for you. Personally I have basically used the same setup for the past 8 years on alto and 8 years on tenor. I experimented a bunch when I was younger to find what works for me…and in doing that realized I’m going to sound the exact same way I did 3 months ago once my body gets used to the equipment. The sound is within oneself and the equipment just shades that, or depending on how you think of it, increases or decreases resistance.
- Saxophone: Yanagisawa 991 Tenor & Alto
- Ligatures: Tenor (Bonade) & Alto (standard stock ligature)
- Reeds: D’Addario Jazz Select (Alto and Tenor)
- Reed Case: ReedJuvinate
- Mouthpieces: Lebayle Jazz Chamber (Alto and Tenor)
- NeckStrap: Just Joe’s Neckstrap
- Case: GL Cases GLK Combi Case (Tenor)
- Accessories: Key Leaves Products: Vent Vine & Sax Key Props
To learn more about Mike, head over to his website here