Sax Virtuoso Rick Keller Shares Tips for Better Sound, Rhythm, Improvisation, and More

Saxophonist Rick KellerRick’s Official Bio

Rick Keller continues to explore and develop his musical voice. Both a sought after sideman and an artist, Rick is constantly composing and pursuing his own projects which define his commitment to creative expression. He has been inspired by music from many countries as a result of playing in concerts and recordings including such artists as Kofi Misiso, Trilok Gurtu, and countless other international musicians. The beauty of music internationally remains an inspiration for Rick to compose new music for a variety of instrumentation and styles.

Rick spent 17 years playing as a young saxophonist living in central Europe. His technical and advanced understanding of harmony resulted in an impressive list of credits with both live and recordings sessions. Some of the most notable musicians Rick has performed alongside include: Billy Cobham, Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussain, Al Porcino, Claudio Roditi, George Russel, Charlie Mariano, Bill Bruford, Natalie Cole and many more. Rick’s concert appearances include: North Sea Jazz Festival, Blue Note Tokyo, Bratislava Jazz Festival, Burghausen Jazz Festival, Expo 98 Lisbon, Leverkusen Jazz Festival, and Breslau Jazz Festival.

As a leader, Rick assembled certain musicians to perform his own personal style of music. Much of this music was heard at various venues including: Kiama Jazz Festival Australia, Canary Islands Jazz Festival, La Rochelle jazz festival, and The Basement Jazz Club Sydney.

Rick’s first CD release “One Take” celebrated musicians from around the globe. In 2001, Rick recorded “The Instigator” which is a CD that can be best described as colorful, highly emotional and progressive jazz. World class trumpeter Bobby Shew wrote the liner notes and said “Each tune is extremely unique in harmonic and rhythmic structure as well as lyricism. These tunes are all very challenging but the guys in the band really nail everything beautifully. This is a ‘PLAY MANY TIMES’ CD.”

In 2002, Rick made his U.S. debut in Los Angeles becoming acquainted with the L.A. jazz scene. Rick became apart of a deeply established community of some of the world’s finest musicians. Recent releases featuring Rick on Alto, Tenor, Soprano and flute include: Geoff Stradling “Less is Mo”, Chris Walden “Home of my heart Origin”, John Rangel “Morning Pages”, and Steve Huffsteter “Live at the CafĂ© 322.”

In addition, Rick realized that Los Angeles is the home of several world renowned big bands which became a part of his itinerary. He was the lead alto saxophonist with Bill Holman for 3 years and has been privileged to play with the big bands of Bobby Shew, Steve Huffsteter, Chris Walden, and Johnny Mandel.

For the past 7 years, Rick has played in a variety of live and recorded sessions and in 2009 began touring in South America with Christopher Cross. This new acoustic quartet helped Rick share his passion for lyrical pop style saxophone playing. Among some of the most notable pop/house recordings featured Rick’s inspired saxophone and flute playing on Morehouse records with the Groove Junkies.

Most recently, Rick has been a featured soloist with the Frankie Valli Band. The group tours extensively throughout the year and you can find Rick in major venues throughout the U.S., Australia, and the UK. The two new releases that feature Rick as a section player are: Shoshana Bean’s “O’Farrell Street” and Danny Seraphine’s (former Chicago drummer) band CTA release “Sacred Ground” (March 2013). The “Sacred Ground” C.D. features Rick’s horn orchestrations representing some of today’s most sophisticated and elaborate horn writing/performances in the pop genre.

Today, Rick is a dedicated educator and frequently teaches master classes at summer camps and schools along with individual instruction in the language of jazz. Having completed his performance degree at the famed University of Miami as well as some masters studies at New England conservatory of music, his teachers included: Ron Miller, Gary Campbell, George Garzone and Vince Maggio.

For more Info regarding Ricks latest schedule can be found at .

The Interview

Zach Sollitto: Why did you choose the saxophone?

Rick Keller: My parents made me play the accordion at age 4 and I did not dig it. I really wanted to play the piano but my parents could not afford a piano so my grandmother came over with an accordion and that’s what I started playing. I quit playing the accordion at 7 and started playing baseball. At Age 11, I realized I was not going to be a baseball star or Albert Einstein. I saw my friend playing the saxophone so I decided to pick one up.

My first saxophone was a Vito Special alto saxophone and the reason I continued to play was I was doing well and my teachers and peers recognized rapid progress and abilities. When it came time in high school to decide what I wanted to do, it was pretty simple because I was struggling in biology and math while music seemed natural. I was accepted into Ithaca College when I was 16 before I even finished high school, but decided to “attend” the University of Miami and study Jazz Performance headed by Whit Sidener. What I heard down at Miami was new and contemporary and I wanted to go after the new trend.

ZS: Who helped you progress as a saxophonist?

RK: I had really good teachers. When I started at Miami, I could not get jazz lessons so I started studying with a graduate assistant who focused on classical music. After studying with the classical grad assistant and just running through old material, I met Billy Ross, (one of Joe Allard’s students) who was the quintessential New York Player. Billy Ross told me I was doing it all wrong. Billy identified that I had a lot of embouchure issues because I never had a teacher that pointed it out. Billy Ross taught me the Joe Allard school of thought which many years later I found out was similar to the Larry Teal’s teachings.

The Joe Allard and Larry Teal embouchure method was never to put your lip over your teeth and that was the way I was taught before and have seen with some of my students. If you want to open up your sound and develop the correct embouchure, you just have to look at a picture of Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Greg Osby, Chris Potter, Joel Frahm and see how they play the saxophone.

After Billy Ross, I had the opportunity to study with Gary Campbell for 2 years. Gary helped me open my ears and mind to symmetrical playing and I was very fortunate to study jazz composition with Ron Miller. Both Gary and Ron have shaped my approach to playing and writing.

ZS: Which sax players top your listening list?

RK: I listened to everybody, the legends as well as the newer cats. I listened to so much different music that’s not always centered around jazz. In regards to jazz though, I listen to Joel Frahm because I am really knocked out by his playing. In addition, about two weeks ago, I found a Chris Potter live solo and I posted it on Facebook as the reason why I practice. Potter was playing on one of Monk Tune’s “Work”, which was not one of Monk’s most notable tunes. Potter’s solo was so imaginative and this is the reason I practice, because I really am very conscious of playing the unexpected.

ZS: What material do you find yourself practicing the most these days?

RK: I always practice tunes (both standards and jazz heads old and new). I practice my 8th and 16th note phrasing as well as practicing playing in time. What is most important to me is playing across bar lines and poly-rhythmically in order to create dialog and interplay with the rhythm section. I will put on a CD metronome and will play a tune or a progression and try and explore rhythmical and harmonic ideas. In addition, I will sing rhythms to myself then deduce how they will be written out.

ZS: What would you say is the skill or attribute that’s helped you the most as a musician?

RK: I found that having an emotional attachment to the music really helps me develop my own personal approach as well as helping my technique. I focus on the technical aspects of playing in terms of getting riffs, articulation, and phrasing down but at the same time I am focused on playing the unexpected and having my own personal approach to the music.

ZS: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?

RK: Practice diligently with focus and purpose. Find a group that you enjoy playing with. Play music and rehearse as much as you can with the group and do it for the love and not always for the next gig. Playing with a great group that you are in sync with will help you stretch your ideas and make you a better player. I would set goals along with a timeline for achieving any given goal. Be patient and willing to put in the time so you can craft your own personal style. Finally, find a scene where you can play as much as possible, I feel there is a artistic push in New York City and can see the progressive movement of jazz in the city.

ZS: What’s the next musical frontier for you?

RK: Not at the brink of anything at the moment. I am just trying to find the time and capital to fund my next record that demonstrates my personal style and artistic intention.

ZS: What’s your saxophone equipment setup?



  • Tenor : Macsax Bob Sheppard Metal mouthpiece and a Selmer short shank refaced by Fred Rast.
  • Alto: Macsax FJlll hard rubber mouthpiece.
  • Soprano: Meyer 7M, Fred Rast custom re-facing.


(all Vandoren)

Please check out the Reed Geek which I use extensively.


Recently signed an endorsement with MACSAX horns at the 2013 NAMM show.

  • Tenor: Selmer MarkVl 167xxx
  • Alto: Selmer Mark Vl 87xxx
  • Soprano: Julius Keilwerth SX90ll
  • Flute: Trevor James Recital ll and a Jupiter Medici Alto flute

Selected Tracks by Rick

1) Not Meant to Be

[audio: NotMeantToBe.mp3]

2) Chill-Pill

[audio: 04Chill_Pill_mstr_saxsonicmusic.mp3]

3) Surge

[audio: Surge.mp3]

To learn more about Rick, visit