Sax Man Chase Baird on Hanging with Brecker, East Coast vs. West Coast, Ditching the Doubles, and More

Introduction

There are more and more talented saxophone players hitting the scene today. With so much talent and fewer gigs, you really need to hone your skills as a saxophonist, but most importantly as a versatile musician. One player I really see making strides towards not just being accomplished on his instrument, but also becoming as a musical artist is Chase Baird.

For those of you who do not know Chase, here are some key details to note:

  • Chase is a saxophonist and composer who can be best described as “part experimental rocker, classical romantic, and hard-bop devotee”
  • Described by Randy Brecker as “the future of jazz music and the saxophone”
  • Born in Seattle and raised in Salt Lake City, Chase picked up the saxophone at age 10
  • In 2003, Chase was discovered and mentored by tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker
  • From 2007-2009 Chase attended California State University-Long Beach and later transferred and finished at The Juilliard School in N.Y.C where he studied with Ron Blake, Joe Temperley, Steve Wilson, Frank Kimbrough, and Rodney Jones to name a few.
  • Chase has had the opportunity to play with such jazz greats as Mike Stern, Antonio Farao, Thana Alexa, Christian McBride, Julian Pollack, as well as popular artists such as Chaka Khan, Matthew Morrison, Jakob Dylan, Chloe Agnew, and Diana Degarmo.
  • Over the past few years Chase has been an active member of virtuoso drummer and composer Antonio Sánchez’s band as well as the multi-generational progressive jazz quartet Venture (featuring vibraphonist Mark Sherman, bassist Felix Pastorius and drum legend Mike Clark).
  • January 2017, Chase performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrating the life and music of Michael Brecker, playing his own original, “Ripcord”–with former President (and sax player) Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton sitting in the front row.
  • Chase recently released his album A Life Between with a band comprised of Antonio Sanchez (drums), Brad Mehldau (piano), Nir Felder (guitar), and Dan Chmielinski (bass)
  • CHASE’S NEW ALBUM: “A Life Between”. I’ve also included the liner notes to (A LIFE BETWEEN) which provides further context what went into putting this album together, as well the challenges and rewards of life in music.  

Interview

ZS: Why did you choose the saxophone?

CB: My dad had been a semi-professional trumpet player when he was younger.  He also doubled on saxophone, flute, Rhodes, synths and percussion in the different bands he worked with. I wanted to play trumpet like him, but he had a really nice trumpet (Bach Stradivarius) and a mediocre alto saxophone (Vito student model), so I was given the saxophone to start learning. I would love to be able to say that I had some sort of passion or interest from the get-go but I really didn’t. My parents asked me if I wanted to take lessons, and I thought, “ok sure”. I was always good about practicing and would practice at least 15 minutes a day but it wasn’t something I was really into. What really got me interested in music was going to middle school and finally playing in band. The feeling of connection with other people while playing music was something I really enjoyed.

I first started taking lessons from a saxophone player named Nick Falcone at the local music store. After studying with Nick, I studied with Alan Braufman for 2 or 3 years. In retrospect, I should have continued to study with Alan for longer, but I have a thing in my life where I tend to want to do things my own way—sometimes to a fault. At the time, I felt that I had assimilated a lot of information from Alan and the next step was to begin transcribing a lot and getting the material under my fingers. I switched to tenor in middle school as it was more of the soloist instrument in big band and I wanted to get more into improvising. I also switched to tenor because the players I was listening to were all tenor players.

The first player I gravitated towards and still listen to is Gato Barbieri. Throughout high school I took one-off lessons from various teachers (including Jerry Bergonzi). At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my family moved to the (San Francisco) bay area and started taking a few lessons with saxophonist Mike Zilber. If I could go back, I wish I would have also taken some lessons from Dann Zinn which I believe would have further helped my playing.

ZS: What are your thoughts on music education and what was your experience studying at California State University Long Beach versus Juilliard?

CB: When I finished high school, I stayed in the bay area for a year and studied at Diablo Valley College. I actually wanted to be a psychology major at the time and wanted to do something completely different from music. After Diablo Valley College, I decided I wanted to study at California State University (CSU) Long Beach because Eric Marienthal was on the faculty and I thought it would be cool to be in L.A. I was at CSU Long Beach for 2 years and studied with Sal Lozano my 1st year and then Eric my 2nd year. I also didn’t directly study with Jay Mason but took a saxophone ensemble with him. After 2 years at CSU Long Beach, I dropped out and eventually moved to New York where finished up my undergraduate at Juilliard.

While I was at Long Beach, I felt that if I wanted to be a top call studio musician, I would need to further shed flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, etc. and I realized that there are really only about 10 studio guys doing all of that work at this point—it’s a tough scene to break into. I felt I could invest 20 years in Los Angeles shedding all these instruments and playing someone else’s music, or I could to come to New York and give it a shot doing my own thing, which is what I had always wanted to do.

Thinking back, I had my frustrations with both programs, but always had a great interactions with the individual faculty members. I felt at Long Beach, my training as a saxophone player was more solid than my experience at Juilliard. Juilliard placed a lot of emphasis on improvisation and historical styles, but there was not as much emphasis on sheer proficiency. I think this has to do with the faculty at CSU Long Beach being studio musicians; there was a strong focus on technical precision—studio players tend to favor precision over artistic individuality. (For example, L.A. studio saxophonists tend to want equipment that facilitates near-perfect intonation, whereas N.Y. jazz saxophonists tend to opt for equipment that makes them sound unique.) At Long Beach, I remember studying classical saxophone pieces from the Marcel Mule book with a tuner set to a drone to really dial in my intonation. Jeff Jarvis (the head of the jazz program at CSU Long Beach) really pushed for ensemble playing where everything was played in tune, as a section, and with perfect dynamics. This honestly is not something players in New York think about on the same level as players in L.A., because what is required for professional studio musicians.

ZS: Which saxophone players influenced you?

CB: I was influenced by players like Gato Barbieri, Stan Getz, Bob Berg, Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, Kenny Garrett, Sonny Rollins, and especially Michael Brecker (whose solos I started transcribing a ton of around age 13 or so), but there was a time and place where I was into almost everyone.

ZS: How were you introduced to Michael Brecker? What was that experience like?

CB: I had gone to a master class with Jeff Hamilton, and Jeff made a point of saying “who do you want to meet?” and I said Michael’s name and Jeff said, “Well Michael was a guest of mine at the Hollywood Bowl and now you know me so that is really only one degree of separation from me.” Jeff was trying to make a point that, “musicians are more accessible than you think, reach out to your heroes and connect with them.”

I ended up not meeting Michael through Jeff Hamiliton, but through contacting Michael’s manager Darryl Pitt.  I had made a short recording at the time that my parents then helped me put together with a letter. We sent it to Darryl Pitt, who then forwarded it to Michael. At a certain point, I remember Michael calling my house which was pretty incredible. I wanted to take lessons with Michael but he didn’t want to teach so we ended up hanging out when he came through Salt Lake City and I spent an afternoon with him.

Brecker was very unique in the sense that I am sitting in the presence of a master and I think he knew it at some level too but he did not feel it himself. When I told him that I listen to him, Coltrane, and Joe Henderson, he sort of shrugged his shoulders and suggested “Why listen to me?” His vibe was more like “listen to Coltrane”.

ZS: What do you find most challenging about being a musician today?

CB: The sheer unpredictability of getting any gig. You can try really hard for something and it doesn’t pan out, then something else completely wonderful falls into your lap—it’s tough to feel like you have much control over the trajectory. It’s also feels like you’re doing a lot of different types of gigs and getting pulled in all directions. It can be very difficult to keep your relationship to music pure in the context of having to do things you don’t want to do or deal with aspects of the community that you don’t like. You have to survive and work which means you will bump into things you don’t like, and it can sometimes feel difficult to keep the joy of playing music.

While I’m fortunate to work with some incredibly talented and open minded people, those people are surprisingly hard to find—I think the jazz community as a whole can be a very judgmental and, ironically, I feel it’s often not very conducive to free-flowing expression and creativity. Just trying to find people that you match with musically can be very difficult since there are so many different sub-genres and ideas of how the music should go.

ZS: If you could give high school and college players one piece of advice for making a comfortable living as a professional saxophone player, what would that be?

CB: If you can survive playing professionally, that is a huge accomplishment in itself. You have to get into it knowing that it is an inherently difficult field and compensate for that through diversifying your skill set. So, being able to play a variety of styles on the saxophone really well and hopefully enjoying playing those styles and connecting to them. I would also suggest learning music technology and production as soon as possible—get a working understanding of a DAW, like Logic, early on. In this day and age, I think there’s a case to be made for being a multi-instrumentalist and having the ability to play keyboard, bass, guitar or something that will allow you to do more work on pop and commercial gigs.

I also would advise young saxophonists to avoid learning to double on flute or clarinet, unless it is something that they explicitly have a passion for.  When I was younger, my teachers told me to learn those instruments so that I could work. Truth be told, I have barely recouped the money I invested in the instruments and lessons—the payoff just wasn’t there for me.  I spent a quite a few hours shedding those instruments—I’m actually a decent clarinet player—but I wish I had invested the time into learning music production and recording.  Again, if it’s a passion for you, go for it.  I have friends who have made a career of it and it can be done.  If it’s not your passion, put your time into learning music technology, synthesis, production or an alternate instrument (like piano, bass, guitar or drums).

ZS: Given the current environment, any tips or tricks you’d recommend for musicians looking for additional sources of income?

CB: In the current environment, e-books seems to be a good option. At the moment, a friend of mine is putting together a transcription book that we are going to release and maybe an educational book down the road. The transcription book is going to be five or six solos of mine. I feel like Chad Lefkowitz-Brown really nailed the e-book concept, and Bob Reynolds did a great job with his online course & community. Having a strong social media presence is really important for promoting yourself as an artist. I use social media but this is something I need to be doing more of ultimately.

ZS: How do you approach practicing and is there any material you have been working on?

CB: Honestly, I haven’t really been practicing saxophone lately. Because of the coronavirus lockdown in New York, everyone is trapped at home and don’t want to bother everyone in the building—my saxophone playing can be loud.  I also was starting to feel a little burnt out on saxophone in the last few months and have been wanting to do something completely different musically, for a while. I’ve been taking vocal lessons and guitar lessons which has changed my perspective; I’m putting most of my time into that at this point and am basically shedding guitar 3 to 4 hours a day. It has me thinking more melodically with less focus on the instrument—saxophone has become more fun to play also as a result.

When I was younger, I used to practice diatonic patterns a lot with a metronome (sometimes for four to five hours a day during the summer break) which really built up my dexterity and speed. These days, when I practice saxophone, it’s a combination of three things: time, pitch/harmony, and facility. I want every exercise I do to be a combination of all three, so that I can maximize my efficiency.  I practice everything with a metronome because I am always working on time—the concept is to unite both technical things I need to work out on the instrument with harmony, ear training, and rhythm.

To practice this concept, I created some Logic files with a bass playing different bass ostinatos (or claves) in odd meters. Over the ostinato (say it’s 5/4), I will start playing a scale pattern that’s grouped in a number different than the base meter—if I’m in 5/4, the over-layed grouping would be in 3, 4, 6, 7 or beyond. I’m basically trying to work out something like a diatonic pattern grouped in 7’s, while keeping track of where I am in the 5/4 and extending the scale practice into the altissimo. The goal is to get used to playing over the bar line in an odd meter, while getting my altissimo and intonation together. I practice this concept very slowly because it allows me to tune each note to the bass. It allows me to work on my sound, ear training, facility, and rhythm all at one time.

ZS: What is your current setup and your thoughts on the importance of equipment?

CB: I believe equipment really makes a huge difference. Different mouthpieces with different facings and reeds and saxophones will all sound and respond totally different. I also really advocate for using larger chamber mouthpieces. The truth is you can’t get the same spectrum of harmonic complexity out of a smaller chamber than you can get out of a large chamber.

Setup

  • Saxophone: Selmer SBA 50,xxx
  • Mouthpiece: Florida No USA (.106-.108”) that was refaced by Stephan Kammerer. I also have a Double Ring that Stephan also refaced and a piece from Bill Evans that is a Guardala-style mouthpiece. I spoke with Chris Potter & Ben Wendel and they both confirmed that .108 tip (7* to 7**) seems to be a fairly ideal opening for most vintage Otto Links, both metal and rubber
  • Ligature: Vintage Link ligature from a tone master
  • Reed: D’Addario Jazz Select 2H un-filed
  • Neckstrap: Rico Strap
  • Case: Bam Classic

ZS: What are your current projects?

CB: I am in a phase where I am exploring a lot of different things so I am not sure what the next project will be. I am very excited about the possibility of writing and playing music with lyrics, so there will be something where I sing and play guitar on the horizon—it will be more pop/rock, but will obviously kind of integrate in my jazz background.  I think there is a lot of possibility for something really exciting and original in that arena.  I am also thinking of doing a video recording where I write something for a string quartet and saxophone—maybe a combination of originals and a cover.

For more on Chase, check out his website at https://www.chasebaird.com

Here’s a short (but amazing) clip of Chase live in action tearing it up over a blues: