Multi-Faceted Saxophonist Kirsten Edkins on Power of the Mind and Much More


After returning from NAMM 2024, I was approached by Jennine Peter at 82 Rogue about checking out Kirsten Edkins’ new album Shapes & Sound. Kirsten Edkins is a saxophonist, composer, and educator based in L.A., and in this conversation, she shares more about her story, from starting on the saxophone, to studying at Eastman, to returning back to L.A to continue her career in music and educating the next generation of musicians.
For those of you who want to get up to speed on Kirsten, take a look at the brief bio below before diving into the full interview.


  • Kirsten Edkins is a performer, bandleader, teacher, studio musician, and accomplished recording artist.
  • A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Edkins has been a fixture of the Los Angeles music scene for the past fifteen years.
  • She has been a member of several Grammy Award winning bands including the Bill Holman Big Band, John Daversa Band, John Beasley’s MONK’estra, and the late composer, Johnny Mandel’s band.
  • Her television appearances include American Idol, The Late Show, The Tonight Show, and The Voice.
  • She has toured the United States, Canada, South America and the Caribbean. Her first album, Art & Soul, featuring original compositions and collaboration with noted artists (Bob Sheppard, Larry Goldings), reached the top fifteen on Jazz Week’s radio play charts.
  • As an educator, Edkins has taught at institutions like the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, the Bill Green Mentorship Program of the Los Angeles Jazz Society, and the Monterey Jazz Camp. She’s also traveled the country to do guest artist appearances at several colleges such as the Eastman School and Butler University.
  • Edkins draws on her musical heroes, Eddie Harris, Joe Henderson, and Joe Lovano, among others, and combines that inspiration with a desire to use music to empower, enrich, and encourage players and lovers of music.
  • Her latest release, Shapes and Sound (Cohearent Records) continues the exploration of her original voice, compositions, and exquisite craft.

ZS: What interested you in playing the saxophone and if you had to choose another instrument, which one would that be? 

KE: I played a little piano when I was in elementary school and loved being able to just create and experiment with sounds. Simultaneously, my older brother was playing trumpet. In fourth grade, I heard his junior high band play, and they had a sax section which was mostly made up of females and it looked so cool. I grew up in an area of Southern California with a pretty good band program. That same year, I heard this guy named Jason Freese who was a senior in high school. He was unbelievable! I knew I wanted to play sax for sure. Jason ended up becoming one of my teachers and now tours with Green Day.

As I got into high school, I became more and more into playing. I always took music very seriously and loved the process of figuring out how to emulate various saxophonists’ sounds and styles. I also had some classmates who were really into music, so we all dove into studying jazz.

When I was fifteen, I started playing professionally at Disneyland with a band as well as playing with friends. I remember a moment when my friends who were serious jazz students asked, “you’re going to study music right?” and I realized I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The other component was I was teaching elementary and junior high students private lessons and I really enjoyed teaching.

I found out about Bob Sheppard through Clay Jenkins who plays in the Clayton Hamilton Band and is a teacher at Eastman School of Music. When Clay was living in L.A., my high school had a concert with him as our guest artist and I ended up going later to see Joe LaBarbera’s Quintet which had both Bob and Clay in the group. After seeing them play, I lined up a lesson with Bob. Bob was so encouraging and what I learned from him was honing in skills on the saxophone, troubleshooting sound, equipment, and making jazz vocabulary my own.

When I graduated high school, I studied at USC for a year and still took lessons with Bob. For various reasons, I decided to make a change and ended up transferring to Eastman. Clay Jenkins had started teaching at Eastman and after speaking with him, he thought I would enjoy studying at Eastman. It was great getting outside of Southern California for school, since I grew up here.

When I was at Eastman, Walt Weiskopf was the new teacher. Walt would only bring his tenor up from New York. His sound was humongous. Walt was really into just putting on a metronome and that was all you had to play with – which was a challenge!

During one of our lessons, Walt heard I had a tenor, so he asked me to bring it back my second semester. Over a winter break, I had been listening to a ton of tenor players and one track I was listening to in particular was Trane with Milt Jackson playing “Three Little Words.”

I remember transcribing Trane’s solo and trying to hear his sound and emulate it and all of a sudden, it just clicked. At the same time, I was also listening to a lot of Rich Perry. This is when I made the switch and found the tenor as my voice. I still play alto on gigs but my voice is tenor.

My final year, I studied with Ray Ricker. Ray Ricker was Walt’s and Bob’s teacher at Eastman. He also taught a bunch of Los Angeles players that went to Eastman in the 80’s. Ray didn’t play during his student’s lessons, but he was very good at pointing out musical concepts and phrasing. It allowed me to hear things in a different way. Studying with Ray was the only time I worked on classical saxophone.

Once I graduated from Eastman, I headed back to California and started freelancing as a player and teacher. If I had to choose another instrument, I would probably choose cello because I love the timbre. I feel that tenor and cello are pretty similar in terms of the thickness and range of the sound. I also like the physical nature of playing an instrument and not having weight on your body sounds kind of nice haha!

ZS: Who were your musical influences growing up and have they changed over time or stayed the same?

KE: My first introduction to saxophone was Kenny G, believe it or not. Another jazz player I listened to and transcribed was Eric Marienthal. He was a local player and I heard him while in elementary school. In junior high, I also got exposed to the “light” big band music such as Glen Miller. I wish I had heard Ellington and Basie earlier because I know I would have liked it. But these bands happened to be what I heard initially. It was a light introduction.

High school is when I heard classic jazz. Cannonball and Coltrane were one of the first albums I owned. Then, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. Right after Cannonball, I was introduced to Kenny Garrett and Steve Wilson who I really loved and tried to mimic them in high school and college.

Hearing players play live was so much more captivating than just listening to their CD’s. I remember hearing Kenny Garrett with Kenny Kirkland. Even when I played alto primarily, I was listening to tenor players. Trane, Joe Henderson, George Coleman. Later, fell in love with Rich Perry, Joe Lovano, Eddie Harris. Generally, anyone inspired by Joe Henderson. Because I think he’s so fun. I still love listening to all of them.

I’m a huge Gregory Porter fan. I get goose bumps hearing him live. I also love listening to Tivon Pennicott. In the past several years, my husband has exposed me to many other genres. I missed a lot of pop music growing up, so I’m doing some catching up these days. I especially love bands with lead female singers like Lake Street Dive and Yola.

ZS: As you worked to develop your own sound and technique, who did you try to emulate the most and what was your process?

KE: I would try to literally sound like my heroes. So not just learn the solos but “how did Trane get that real direct sound?” and listening “note by note” to figure out what I had to do physically to access that sound. I’d pause on one note and keep rewinding to imitate. Taking for example, the start of the note –

“How did he get that sound?”

“Oh, I can get that by keeping my tongue against the reed?”

“Oh, that time he played an A it was a different tone quality, how can I get that sound?”

Besides just listening, I would try to put into thought what made these players different. Like if Joe or Trane played the same tune, how would they approach it? The pacing, keeping to the mood of the tune or not, how melodic they were, what notes would they gravitate to. Then, I’d bring that into my own playing when practicing a tune.

When playing a tune I would ask questions such as “What or how would Joe Henderson or Trane play over these chords?” or “What if I try both at the same time, or try a different way?”

ZS: When it comes to playing in big bands, to network television, to playing in your own group, do you prepare differently for each, and what do you enjoy about each?

KE: The great thing about trying to emulate other players is you’re never going to be them. But you are learning other tools to use in various situations. For example, on stage you could be competing with the frequencies of the bass or drum cymbals. Perhaps, a dark sound is not carrying through, so I could think about accessing a brighter sound based on how I am moving my air. Perhaps, I experienced that sound when I emulated Trane or heard Pete Christlieb get a tone that seemed to cut. All that work trying to be familiar with your instrument allows you to move around and play in different settings.

My favorite part about a big band is being around so many horn players and getting inspiration from fellow sax players. Plus, coming into contact with rhythm section players. In a small group setting, I like writing songs and getting to explore my voice that way. Writing a song is slowing down your mind and deciding what notes and vibe do you want. It’s a cool process and helps you as an improviser. When I write songs, I want a melody to be captivating, catchy, and sometimes weird.

When it comes to playing in the pop realm, I really do love it because there are amazing musicians in Los Angeles and it’s nice for a little change. I did a Steely Dan cover band for ten years. It was so fun because I had listened to Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter, and then my two former teachers, Bob and Walt, play in that band.

ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process, and do you teach your students this process?

KE: My practice process has changed a lot since when I was younger. When I was young, I was told that the amount of time was very important. Being a great student, I used to practice four to five hours a day and continued doing so through college and for a couple years after.

Through life experiences, I have changed this approach dramatically. I’m about quality over quantity. The old school way was to learn under pressure and even a harsh tone. I had a couple teachers who took this approach. But neuroscience proves that this is, in fact, ineffective. Though you may get temporary results, you are hardwiring a harshness that really limits you in the long run.

We learn best when we are kind to ourselves. Open minded. Harshness has no creativity, and we are artist after all. From teaching countless people for a couple decades and seeing the process of learning through their eyes, the highs, but also lows, it’s clear that you can’t separate what’s going on in your life, mind, and art. I see a direct relationship between the talk that is going on in one’s head and how it feels to play and progress.

It’s not positive thinking. The fact is, it’s really hard to tolerate not being where you want to be. You have to hear what’s working and what’s currently not.

So, who doesn’t get frustrated? However, if you can sit down the mindset of a “beginner”, even if it’s something I’ve worked on countless times or even years, you end up learning way more. It makes the process much more interesting and helps you be more creative.

ZS: Is there something you would like to share with the saxophone community that you believe many people don’t know about you?

KE: Just trying to bring self-awareness which will add to your musicianship. The more I have grown as a person and with more self-awareness, the more it has helped me better define my voice on the instrument. Another thing I think is very important is to learn more about basic psychology.

A lot of us artists are sensitive, and we internalize the things around us. It’s important to learn what’s good to internalize and what’s not.

As a bandleader, I’m currently working on being more aware of the audience. It’s common for the emphasis can be put on musicianship and being fluid while improvising. While important, I think it’s equally important for us to think of how to serve the people we are performing for. In my opinion, we need to grow our audience and our music isn’t just for us. I’ve learned this more in recent years.

ZS: What current projects are you working on right now?

KE: I recorded my latest project Shapes & Sound for a new label. The label is Cohearant Records and it’s owned by a renowned mastering engineer, Kevin Gray. Kevin does all the re-mastering’s for Blue Note, and he had built this studio which was a replica of Rudy Van Gelder Hackensack studio. It was all recorded “live” in one room with no headphones or overdubbing, all analog, and it came out last year on vinyl and did very well. I am doing more with my own band, and we’ve had four gigs in the last couple months. I am doing this really cool project in L.A with the Pacific Jazz Orchestra. It’s basically a big band plus strings. A couple months ago we did a concert with Ben Wendel and Ledisi. I have a couple camps I’ll be teaching at this summer with one of those being the Monterey Jazz Camp.

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

KE: I think the wrong equipment can hold you back. It’s not so important that you are throwing out money all the time to find the perfect mouthpiece, saxophone, ligature etc. I personally think reeds in some ways are the most important piece of equipment. I had sinus surgery during the pandemic. Afterward, I had to change my setup on every horn I play! I throw this out because I never knew how much our sinus cavities and facial resonance matters.

Also, I had a narrower view of certain sizes of reeds and mouthpiece openings being a “gold standard”. Post my surgery and the 1.5 years it took to adjust after, I realize there is so much more going on our individual physicality that even we are aware of. Therefore, trying gear can be helpful, but you can’t make harsh judgements towards others on what’s good and what isn’t product wise. We are all different. Plus, as we all know, the sound is in your head, and recording yourself is the best learning tool.

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