Sax Star Troy Roberts On the NY Jazz Scene, Music School, and Practicing Technique
Hailing from the remote location of Perth, West Australia, saxophonist Troy Roberts has received numerous accolades including 3 DownBeat Jazz Soloist Awards, 2 Grammy Nominations, and was the only Australian semi-finalist in the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Since attending The West Australian Academy Of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and graduating with a Bachelor of Music at the young age of 19, Troy has performed around Europe and the US extensively with artists such as Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, Joey DeFrancesco, James Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Christian McBride, Sammy Figueroa, Dave Douglas, Orrin Evans and Kurt Elling just to name a few. After touring for a few years & recording with a wide array of artists, Troy decided to pursue his Master’s Degree at The University of Miami Frost School of Music. In 2012, Troy had the opportunity to share the stage in an international septet comprised of jazz giants Wayne Shorter, Richard Bona, Vinnie Colaiuta and Zakir Hussein for Herbie Hancock’s launch of International Jazz Day at the UN, NYC. In addition, Troy was also part of Hancock’s 2014 International Jazz Day held in Osaka, Japan performing with jazz luminaries such as Gregory Porter, Marcus Miller, Esperanza Spaulding, John Scofield and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Currently, Troy is based in New York City where he maintains a busy performance and recording schedule with some of the greatest jazz artists of today.
Zach Sollitto: Why did you choose the saxophone?
TR: When I was 12 years old, I attended a family friend’s high school graduation, where the schools Jazz Big Band performed a set. I remember being fascinated during the tenor solo, and pestered my parents for what I thought was called a trumpet. After a year of nagging, and a bit of research, my parents bought me my first saxophone.
ZS: Who did you study with while growing up in Australia?
Troy Roberts: My very first teacher was Bill Louwen, whom I continued to study with for many years. A stern yet encouraging man, he instilled many disciplines in my playing, focusing on mostly classical studies and pieces, as well as old Dutch, German and English folk tunes. During my undergrad at The West Australian Academy Of Performing Arts (WAAPA), I studied Jazz saxophone with Jim Cook in the first year, Roger Garrood in the second year, and Graeme Lyall in my final two years. All four of these teachers were huge influences and very important figures in my musical upbringing.
ZS: How is the Jazz scene in Australia compared to the U.S.?
TR: Of course nothing compares to the New York jazz scene, where you can live and breathe music and where resources and opportunities are boundless, which is why I moved here. And although there are many other US cities with thriving jazz scenes, there are also many US cities with little to none. Australia certainly has a healthy and vibrant Jazz scene – mostly in Melbourne, South Australia, Perth, Sydney and Brisbane. There are many great Jazz musicians, lots of great clubs around the country, a few amazing and longstanding festivals, and some great schools/universities with very strong jazz programs. But there are also many cities with little to none. As you may have gathered, I really dislike generalizing, but considering Australia’s significantly smaller population, I think it has a very strong jazz scene. However, in the US cities with strong jazz scenes, there’s something undeniable about this music’s rich history driving its scene like no other.
ZS: When you decided you wanted to pursue music as a career, why did you choose the University of Miami to study music?
TR: I already had a career in music before moving to the US. As an exceptional early entrant to The West Australian Academy Of Performing Arts, I began my undergrad at age 15, and was fortunate enough to fall into steady gigs. Upon graduating, I spent the following 5 or 6 years performing, touring Europe, and recording before commencing a Masters Degree at The University Of Miami’s Frost School Of Music. The school, its jazz program, and its professors all came highly recommended by close friends who had studied there. Upon graduation, I stayed on faculty at Frost for a few years prior to moving to New York.
ZS: After finishing your undergrad at The West Australian Academy Of Performing Arts (WAAPA), what was the reason you decided to get a Master’s in Jazz Studies. Any advice for musicians who are considering getting their master’s in Jazz Performance?
TR: I feel pursuing a Masters in Jazz Performance is time well spent. I can speak only from my own experience in that it was a lot of time playing music and being challenged in many helpful ways, such as sight-reading in a high-level big band four days a week, working toward many high profile small group, big band and orchestra performances, and learning to present an intelligent and well written paper. Perhaps the years between my undergrad and masters brought to light how much time that life’s responsibilities take away from time immersed in music. So I really appreciated being 100 percent occupied by studying music again, honing in on my craft and trying to get my playing to the next level.
ZS: Do you prefer leading your own group or touring as a sideman?
TR: I am very fortunate in that my sideman schedule is comprised of some of the greatest musicians in the world. I am also blessed to lead my own band, performing my original music to new audiences around the world. These are two vastly differing experiences, both of which I love.
As a sideman, you first and foremost need to play your parts and interpret the music, which can mean anything from following, contributing or even leading the music at times. Essentially you’re hired hands, chosen to bring a bandleader’s vision into fruition, and hopefully chosen because of the way in which you do this. I have been a sideman in a wide variety of musical situations under an even wider array of bandleader personalities, and I’ve learned something from each and every one of them. I always look for the lesson in every situation and quietly store it away for future reference.
With my own projects, I hire people whose musicianship I admire, whose personalities are fun to be around, who respect my music and thrive to bring my vision into fruition. I want my musicians to take liberties and express themselves within the compositions. I had the pleasure of performing with Wayne Shorter at Herbie Hancock’s first International Jazz Day in 2012, where I’ll never forget Mr. Shorter saying, “I don’t like giving speeches, I prefer dinner table conversation”. I want my musicians to shine, and for us to converse. Leading my own band also comes with a lot of responsibility aside from composing and performing my music, ie; coordinating five people’s schedules, booking shows, flights, hotels, ground transport, backline instruments, etc.. Not everyone’s personalities are conducive to being both a good sideman and bandleader. I think I’m doing OK though. I am certainly enjoying both.
ZS: What material do you find yourself practicing the most these days?
TR: It really depends on what I have coming up. Most of my time lately is learning or shedding music for upcoming dates. But when I have time to myself, I work on some maintenance stuff as well as trying to develop new ideas. I do spend time identifying my weaknesses, and appropriately working on strengthening those aspects of my playing. I’m finding myself going back to a lot of basics lately, to both strengthen foundations, as well as find new twists on the familiar.
For example, revisiting major scales with the metronome, and applying new rhythms such as making them all triplets, then starting on different parts of the triplet. Then making cells of reorganized note order, and working it through diatonically in all keys. I make it a point not to use or think of these as patterns, but it makes me hear shapes or ideas on the bandstand that may be somewhat reminiscent. Sometimes they don’t come out exactly the way I heard them in my head, but that’s the exciting thing – they may come out a different way, rhythmically, harmonically or melodically, hopefully resulting in new things to develop, but definitely resulting in fresh things for musical conversation and interaction on the bandstand.
ZS: What current project are you working on?
TR: I’m always working on tour dates for my Nu-Jive band. It’s hard and constant work as I do everything myself for the most part, in addition to my busy sideman schedule. Aside from writing for the next Nu-Jive album, I’ve just finished a very special trio recording which will be released in September 2019.
ZS: What’s your current Setup?
- Soprano: Inderbinen Hand Hammered Raw Brass.
- Alto: Silver Plated 1932 Conn Art Deco Transitional.
- Tenor: Sliver Plated 1932 Conn Chu Berry Transitional.
- Soprano: Vandoren V16 S6
- Alto: Vandoren V16 A6 S+
- Tenor: Vandoren V16 T7
- Soprano: Vandoren V16 size 3
- Alto: Vandoren V16 size 3
- Tenor: Vandoren V16 size 3.5
- Soprano: Vandoren MO
- Alto: Vandoren MO
- Tenor: Vandoren MO
- Manning Custom Carbon Fiber tenor/soprano combo case
- JL Woodwinds Custom Carbon Fiber tenor case
- JL Woodwinds Custom Carbon Fiber alto case
- Instagram: @MisterToyRobot