As a fan of the SNAP Saxophone Quartet, thus far, I have been fortunate enough to speak with three members of the group (Sam Dillon, Andrew Gould, and Nick Biello). In this interview, I complete the circle by speaking with Paul Jones, the remaining member of the quartet who, up until now, I hadn’t had a chance to speak with
I have seen other videos of Paul playing on YouTube, and he was nice enough to meet with me and share about how he chose the saxophone, his journey studying music, and what projects he is working on today.
For those of you who don’t know Paul Jones, here is a short bio to get you up to speed.
- Paul grew up in Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Durham, NH, where he was drawn to the saxophone at an early age. Three other members of his family had played the saxophone before him, but none took the same interest in playing as Paul.
- During this time, Paul attended the University of Maine Farmington’s summer jazz camp where he further grew his knowledge of music under the guidance from such players as Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, Tony Malaby, Bill McHenry, and Donny McCaslin.
- After high school, music proved to be the one thing Paul was truly interested in pursuing, which led him to move to Keene, New Hampshire where he studied with his first real mentor, Scott Mullett. It was at Keene State and under Mullett’s tutelage that Jones discovered the possibilities for a career in music.
- Studying his favorite artists, Jones found mentions of two schools recurring again and again – Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Paul pursued his studies through both institutions, first to Boston for undergrad at Berklee, and later settling in New York City to earn his Master’s at MSM.
- While at Berklee and MSM, Paul learned from such masters as Charlie Banacos, Hal Crook, Gary Dial, George Garzone, Tony Malaby, Phil Markowitz, Donny McCaslin, and Steve Wilson
- Paul’s time tenure in Boston also provided Jones with his first touring experience as part of the horn section for rising star soul singer Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s deeply funky band The Trueloves. Jones also recorded with Sebastian Kole for Motown Records and Ryan Leslie for Universal Records.
- Jones released his album Clean in 2017 which combined a jazz sextet with a woodwind octet and chamber duo, The Righteous Girls
- This album was built around Jones’ core band, a group of distinctive artists who are all leaders and composers in their own right: alto saxophonist Alex LoRe, guitarist Matt Davis, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Johannes Felscher, and drummer Jimmy Macbride.
- After touring, Jones left the road to move to NYC, but if the challenges of adjusting to life in that hectic metropolis weren’t daunting enough, Jones was also diagnosed that year with Type 1 diabetes. The condition is under control but remains, Jones says, “the first priority in my life at all times.”
- Since arriving in New York City, Jones has become a key member of a cohort of young innovators on the modern jazz scene, playing regularly at hotspots like the Bar Next Door and Cornelia Street Café. The loose coterie includes Matt Davis’ Aerial Photograph, Nicholas Biello’s Vagabond Soul with Clarence Penn, Leon Boykins, and Jonathan Parker. He also regularly collaborates and has recorded with the Uptown Partydown, Brett Ferguson, Tory Hanna, The Jack Moves, Adam Lasher, and St. Lucia.
- As a teacher, Jones imparts his passion for learning to his students by using music as a tool to help them grow as individuals. Paul has taught privately at CenterStage, Harrison School of Music, Needham Music, PS-290, and the Rye Arts Center. During the summer he has taught courses in music theory, improvisation, music history, and lead ensembles at camp Encore Coda in Sweden, Maine. Internationally, Jones has given master classes at the Contemporary Music Institute in Zhuhai, China and the Gimcheon School of the Arts in Korea.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? And how did you decide on the saxophone of all instruments?
PJ: I don’t really know how I got into it but I know I wanted to play saxophone around the age of four. My parents actually tried to get me lessons at that time but the educators all said I needed to be ten until my hands got big enough. When I turned ten, I was like “it’s saxophone time!” My aunt ended up lending me my first saxophone and I am actually the 4th or 5th generation of saxophonists in my family but none of them pursued saxophone professionally except for myself. I still actually have my great grandfather’s C melody saxophone. As soon as I got the saxophone, I put it together and tried to get a sound.
I was born in Salisbury Maryland on the eastern shore and then went to high school in Durham, New Hampshire and then spent my summers at my grandparents farm in Maine so I bounced around a lot. Before playing the saxophone, I actually played piano for about two years when I was six until eight and I wasn’t into it, and then in 4th grade I got the saxophone. When I first got the saxophone I didn’t practice that much then and I would occasionally play for fun but I wasn’t very into it.
My parents had me take lessons in the area and remember having a teacher that was older and scared me so I only studied with him for a little bit but then I had a cool teacher when I was in 7th grade who was fun to hang with and motivated me to play. In 9th grade, I moved to New Hampshire and in high school, this is where I was introduced to Jazz. I remember I had a good teacher named Andy Gallagher for a few years in high school and he got me improvising. Andy gave me the [Charlie Parker] Omnibook and I did not do a very good job at practicing it at all, and mostly we would just jam because I wouldn’t practice.
It wasn’t till senior year of high school where I started practicing a lot. I was fortunate in that my mom enrolled me in summer camps and one in particular in Maine called the Maine State Jazz Camp. The faculty at the Main State Jazz Camp was insane. Some of the faculty there at that time was Donnny McCaslin, Bill Mchenry, Tony Malaby, Ethan Iverson, Jeff Williams, Reid Anderson, Pete McCann, Christine Correa, Paul Lichter, and the list goes on.
For instance, the Bad Plus hadn’t released their first record yet that really blew them up. Dave King came up and did a concert with Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson before they were the Bad Plus which was great to see. Years later, when I was working at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York, Tony Malaby was playing and he actually remembered me and our hang at the camp. I went to that jazz camp two years in a row which involved a lot of playing, hanging out, and live concerts which were way over my head but a lot of fun.
During my senior year of high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and I wasn’t big into school but I always knew saxophone was going to be part of it. I really had no direction in high school and for the most part was high all the time so I didn’t go to music school to start off. There were some things going on in my personal life that drove me to being high instead of focusing on school. My mom threw me into college and I am always thankful for her taking care of my schooling and making sure I had teachers and went to school.
I started college at Keene State College in New Hampshire which is a small traditional college and it was the best place I could have gone to start my life. When I got to Keene, I knew I was smart but I wanted to figure out how to effectively learn. I took my literature and economics courses and really started to study them but I was in the music program as a music major because I liked playing saxophone. I remember doing my audition and playing Countdown terribly and I could not play changes at all but it got me into school since not a lot of people could improvise there; which placed me as the lead alto player in jazz band and 1st alto player in concert band. I remember practicing Bach cello suites since my teacher was a classical saxophonist and remember being in the practice room and the lights were incredibly bright and that is when I realized, I could not get better in my current mental state so no more smoking weed when I practiced and I started to go to therapy and started to practice very seriously.
During this time I met my first real mentor named Scott Mullet who was from the area and went to Berklee in the 70’s and was in Woody Herman’s Big Band. Scott would play every other Tuesday in town and everyone told me that I needed to study with Scott and I began studying with him. This blew my mind for the first time really listening to jazz and experiencing it in person. I studied at Keene for 2.5 years and knew I wasn’t going to graduate from there.
My sophomore year of college I got into a wedding band, I had my quartet, and I was in a funk band, and I was gigging pretty regularly in town. Into the fall and spring of my sophomore year, I had at least one gig a week which was great but when my friends were graduating, I had no one to play music with which was a real drag. I talked to my mentor and remembered looking at my favorite albums and while reading through all the linear notes, I noticed all players attended The New School, NEC, MSM, and Berklee, and since I wanted to do what they did, I think I need to go to one of these schools if I can.
I remember being really intimidated by New York at that point and Scott went to Berklee, so I asked him to go to breakfast and shared with him I wanted to apply to Berklee, and Scott told me I should totally do it. I remember applying to Berklee, I got in, found an apartment and I transferred from Keene to Berklee in the middle of my junior year of college.
I started at Berklee in January of 2004 and I started college over on purpose. I knew I needed as much practice time as I could get to catch up and the practice time was the main reason I was ok that it would take me an additional 3.5 years to graduate college. While at Berklee, I literally practiced music all the time and started getting some gigs in the area with wedding bands. I wasn’t that good at being on the scene like the Wally’s jazz scene in Boston.
When I attended Berklee, Godwin Louis was already Godwin Louis and he was already amazing and Walter Smith III had just graduated and Christian Scott and Esperanza Spaulding could be seen in the hallways still playing with various groups. These ultra heavy players made it pretty intimidating so I did not get really into the jazz scene. In retrospect, running into Jason Palmer and other players, they were very cool with having me around so I should have been more aggressive and open to making mistakes.
It had taken me six years to get through undergrad and I knew I wanted to take a break. I knew I wanted to get my masters and go to New York but I wanted to tour and figure out how I could make that happen so I could get some experience. Throughout college I was always gigging where I could and one of my ideologies of getting better was learning on the band stand.
My junior to senior year summer at Berklee I worked on a cruise ship in Alaska and that was a whole experience. My last year of Berklee, I was booking my own jazz performances at a little cafe as well as worked at a restaurant as a food runner which I didn’t enjoy but I gained so much experience.
Eventually, some friends said that they were going on the road with this soul band and they asked me to go. It was Eli “Paperboy” Reed & The True Loves, and he had just released his second album which did quite well so he had management, PR, and a booker setup so we hit the road. We toured the U.S., Europe, and Canada and were on the road off and on for the next 9 months. It was a lot of fun but I barely made any money which made it challenging and although I liked playing horn lines it wasn’t fulfilling enough for me so that is when I decided to quit the band and move to New York. Before heading to New York, I got back into the wedding band I was playing with back in Boston, and got a temp job in an office which allowed me more time to practice.
When moving to New York, I decided to audition for Manhattan School of Music (MSM). I luckily had recording time available from touring so when I went to make my audition tape, I recorded it at a full-on studio. Part of how the MSM audition worked out was they required some original material which I had since I was leading my own group at this small coffee shop in Boston. So, I submitted a tape and I got an audition.
I did not apply to any other schools at that time such as City College, Rutgers, and William Paterson since I felt the MSM program was very serious and I wanted to be in New York. I felt MSM was not an extension of undergrad but a whole other program and the people I was going to meet at MSM were going to be great.
When I went into my audition, I had never played with a New York rhythm section and the different harmonies and chords being fed to be from the pianist and bass player made it a really enjoyable experience. Even though I was an alto player in undergrad, I actually auditioned on tenor after being called earlier that year to play some wedding band gigs but specifically on tenor versus alto. After the audition, I found out I got in but did not receive any scholarship money even though I received perfect scores with no comments except for “great” from the judges.
Even though I didn’t get scholarship money, it was my dream school so I took loans and still owe loans today which is a very real issue but more importantly I believed that I would figure it out; how to handle the debt which I have been doing. During that time, I became Type 1 diabetic so health insurance is a very real thing for me and being diabetic is one of the most expensive health conditions you can have because it is chronic and requires a lot of medical equipment. I am still working on the money thing as a musician and working to stand up and turn down a gig if the pay is not where it should be and over time it has actually made me more money.
ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned growing up playing the saxophone that you have passed on to your students? What do you find yourself practicing these days?
PJ: I learned from Scott that playing music like this is a lifestyle and it’s a career so it’s your job but also embracing your community will open up opportunities and bring you a lot of joy. I really like going to see people or friends play and really enjoy hanging out with musicians of my generation. A great example of this is why would Donny McCaslin take $75 dollar gig to play at 55 bar? It’s because he is excited to make music and play with his friends.
I am working on scales and always practice them in one chord quality or chord type (major scales or melodic minor) and now I am practicing in one key (A Major, A Minor, A Minor Major, A Alt 7th, etc) a day. This has helped me think about chord scale sounds. Practicing each scale starting on each chord tone creates some funky shapes. I am also practicing songs a lot and playing solo saxophone and learning repertoire. Learning songs like “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”, “Time After Time”, “Driftin'”, and other jazz standards that are just different has been a lot of fun.
ZS: Who are some of your favorite saxophonists and why? What have you learned by listening to these players?
PJ: Some of the main players for me are/were is Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Jerry Bergonzi, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, John Scofield (a little bit), Hank Mobley, and Stanley Turrentine (who really knows how to play the blues). I’ve recently been going through a huge Sonny Rollins phase the last year and a half. A friend sat me down and said I really need to get my language down and he told me to transcribe Sonny Rollins on “Pent Up House”, “I’m an Old Cowhand”, “Without a Song”, and his solo on “Eternal Triangle”, and I did them in all 12 keys. This has changed my view on everything and I really didn’t get Sonny Rollins until I transcribed his solos.
I found Sonny Rollins is so improvisational, and in the moment, he came up with his own unique thing which is just incredible. I still want to transcribe “St. Thomas” and then I want to transcribe Trane on “Mr PC” in all 12 keys. Doing solos in all 12 keys really opens up your ears.
ZS: How have you seen the music business change since you started playing the saxophone and where do you see the music business moving in the near future?
PJ: The internet seems unstoppable and I don’t see any way of avoiding it. But that also depends where you are and who you are at that point in your career. For instance, I am doing a pretty big marketing push since I put out four records from 2015-2020 and releasing them was something I really wanted to do.
I put out my albums and they did quite well. Actually, when my second album came out it smashed and I hired the right publicist and went to Banff and did an artist residency and was really serious about composition and the idea of the album. I incorporated a lot of different players on the album and workshopped the music around the city and spent hours and hours working at the bar to save money to book time at a studio and hire the right sound engineers. I received positive reviews in Downbeat, Spotify, etc and the next day I was at the bar again and realized no one was coming to shows because Cornelia St Cafe was dying.
Having people come to shows is important because you do all this work to perform your own personal music and if no one shows up, it’s like “what am I doing?”.
The doors that it opened were getting me in good with the traditional old school jazz business world. I attended the 2nd Jazz Congress and I knew a lot of business people there and they were excited to see me. What I realized is every year I needed to put out this monumental album so they had something to write about but it only incrementally moved me further so I could not physically do more work and more emailing and artistically I was burnt out.
The social media thing is the way the world is now and those players that harnessed the social media thing well, if they had a show, the show would be packed. Social media is now music publicity for today, it is not art, it’s not a live show, it is just marketing. The whole quantity vs quality thing I am viewing social media as more quantity vs quality which is the opposite from a jazz musician’s mindset. My goal is to present my world on the internet and not just be a copy. I am hopeful that people will latch onto my world. I don’t know what will happen to the traditional world but the live performance feels very small; more clubs have closed, there are less places to play and that is sad. What you play on social media is very different from what you play at a live show and what grabs someone’s attention.
ZS: Since Covid and before one thing that is not discussed very much is what you should look for in your first microphone. What are your thoughts on this topic?
PJ: So recording is just like another instrument. Each microphone has a color quality like a Yanagisawa or a Mark VI. Pretty much all mics are good but they all have characteristics for the color you want to get. A thing to consider is, the other instrument that is really important is the room. Since our instruments are so loud the sound is going to vibrate off the walls and into the microphone and that is a lot of what is going to make your tone.
Because of this I would push players towards dynamic microphones instead of condensers when they are home by themselves because it has better rejection towards negative space. A condenser microphone picks up everything which is really good in a studio because the walls sound really good. If you are going the cheapest route, use a SM57 but make sure you get it from a reputable dealer because scamming does happen.
A new SM57 I think you can get for $100 dollars but they are thin sounding in terms of they have a small tight sound and have a bump in the upper frequency. So with that being said, I would recommend a dynamic mic and my go to mic for myself is the Shure SM7B but I have a slightly different color palette then most of my peers and most of them really like the Electro-Voice RE20 that is one of the mics Michael Brecker used a lot as well as a lot of podcasters use. It sounds great on saxophone but is a little brighter for my taste. Both mics go for around $400 dollars.
In addition to the room, mic positioning is key. When you place the mic you want to place it at least a foot from the saxophone but not too far and you don’t want to directly place it in the bell. I recommend to keep adjusting the mic and record to find the right spot for the sound you are looking for. Getting the pre-amp level right and mixing it afterwards is not hard to do but having someone show you how to do it is very helpful. I shoot for (-12) on my recording interface which is a good place/my zone. That is not going to be hot enough to release and will be quiet but what you do is bump that sound up in the program. There is an automation software called Ozone 9 Elements and it is an automix and mastering program so all you have to do is put that plug-in on your channel and that is essentially it.
ZS: What projects are you currently working on?
PJ: I am really working on social media right now and very actively trying to present my world. My goal is to create social media content one month and then the next month write music and record music. I want to write a SNAP saxophone quartet record and definitely record a standards project in the next year but it will be a trio standards project at my studio. I would like to make another creative album but that is further down the line maybe a year or two out for sure.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
PJ: I got really into saxophone repair a few years ago because I wanted to find ways to adjust the tone on my saxophone and learning how to take my leaks out was a game changer. Almost all of my reeds work after fixing all the leaks. I was ocd about my gear in the past but now am just sticking to my current setup and making it work. For example, I have never put on a mouthpiece and said “WOW this really works” and for me have realized it takes about 3 months to even a year to feel really comfortable on that horn or mouthpiece
- Tenor: late model Selmer Super Balanced Action (with High F#) with the long neck. I traded my Mark VI alto for this horn.
- Alto: 70’s Conn alto sax & Conn New Wonder II.
- Tenor: Selmer 404 ligature which doesn’t fit properly but I make it work
For more on Paul, click here to check out his personal website.