Saxophonist Baptiste Herbin On Practice Routines, Students, Gear Obsession, and More

 

Introduction

For those of you who do not know Baptiste Herbin (especially if you’re an alto player), you’re in for a treat. I have been following Baptiste’s playing for quite some time and have been amazed by his extraordinary command of all aspects of playing, from sound, to technique, to harmony, and rhythm.

As a fan for the past several years, I finally decided to reach out and see if he would be interested in sharing his story. I have included a quick biography for those of you who do not already know Baptiste’s background.

Biography

  • Baptiste to date has contributed to fifty recordings by such musician as Keith Brown (Sweet and Lovely, 2011) Aldo Romano (New Blood: The Connection, 2012), Essiet and Jeff “Tain Watts” (Shona, 2014) the Fireworks Quartet with Jean-Charles Richard, Stéphane Guillaume and Vincent David (2015), the quintet “O Brasil do saxofone” with Ademir Junior (2017), in duet with Alain Jean Marie (at Barloyd’s 2018) and Darryl Hall (2019).
  • Baptiste’s has played throughout Europe as well as worldwide (Thailand, United States, Madagascar, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Serbia, Russia, …) with great musicians such as: Stefano di Battista, Robin Mckelle, Julien Lourau, Ed Motta, Donald Brown, Roy Hargrove, Jean Toussaint, Mark Gross, Marcus Gilmore, Stéphane Belmondo, Ralph Bowen, Jean-Michel Pilc, Darryl Hall, Franck Avitabile, Baptiste Trotignon, Billy Hart, Mark Turner, Eric Harland, and Alain Jean Marie to name a few.
  • Baptiste fourth and most recent album Vista Chinesa was just released this year (2020) and is a tribute to Brazil.
  • When Baptiste is not playing, he can be found teaching students as well as master classes around the world.

Interview

ZS: How did you become interested in music and why did you choose the saxophone?

BH: I discovered the saxophone when I was 4 years old. I don’t really know how but I was listening to a French tape called Piccolo & Saxo. It was a tape from the 50’s for children but this is where I discovered the strings, woods, brass, etc. I told my mother I wanted to play the sax, either alto or tenor, but I did not have the taste to begin so I began with piano.

I continued to play piano from 4 until 11, but I was just waiting to start learning how to play the saxophone. At age 11, I finally started to play alto sax which was very exciting. I received my first alto from my uncle which was actually a Mark VI and later on, I bought a Series II. Originally, I did not want to be a professional musician.  In my mind, I wanted to be like my father who was an artist, painter, and sculptor who worked in theaters.

From 11 to 15 I did some classical studies in my village with a teacher but this teacher showed me a little bit of jazz and I began to explore improvising and realized I could improvise freely with not much effort by really listening and using my ears. By age 15, I had decided to pursue becoming a musician. At 15, I also discovered many things like Maceo Parker, and realized I had the ability to easily play (high technical ability) and remember melodies.

While I continued to study and play music, I was listening to a French tenor player named Julien Lourau who I believe is one of the best tenor saxophone players in France. I met Julien at 15 and without hesitation I asked him for lessons, and I began studies on harmony and how to play jazz. Julien gave me the taste to be curious and open to listening and playing all kinds of music. After studying with Julien, I went to Paris and discovered a new teacher named Jean-Charles Richard, who is an impressive baritone and soprano sax player. I studied 2 years with Jean, but it was not like a class, but more of a means to share music and expand my musical mind.

After studying with Jean I went to The Conservatoire de Paris and studied with tenor player François Théberge and other teachers. I stayed just 2 years instead of 4 because I had work delivering food, teaching a few students, and jamming every night, discovering all the guys from Paris.

In Paris, the famous jazz clubs are: Le Duc des Lombards, Sunset/Sunside and Baiser Salé. At Le Duc des Lombards, I was offered a residence to play every month with a different group where I discovered the players that made up my 1st quartet. After recording my 1st and 2nd albums, I began playing with Charles Aznavour who was a very famous French singer. After playing with Charles for over a year, I moved on because I was being called to play as a sideman with many groups such as Jeff Tain Watts’s band from 2014-2015. In addition, I went to New York many times and had the opportunity to play with Mark Gross, Joe Lovano, Roy Hargrove, Ralph Bowen, and many more at various jazz clubs and jam sessions.

ZS: Which saxophone players influenced you?

BH: The first alto player that influenced me was Maceo Parker. In the beginning I did not like the sound of the alto saxophone which reminded me more of the clarinet. I wanted to play tenor at this time, but when I discovered Maceo Parker on TV, I called my mom and said, “Ok mom, I will stay on alto.” I liked Maceo Parker’s sound, which was a type of sound I hadn’t heard on alto before, and led me to listening to more funk, discovering players like Grover Washington, David Sanborn, and Hank Crawford. Later, I moved to Cannonball which showed me the way of jazz and bebop.

During this time, my brother gave me a Charlie Parker album, but I did not understand it at the time. I progressed to listening to Kenny Garrett, Sonny Stitt, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Red. From there, I later discovered Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, and Phil Woods.

For me, Jon Gordon is the best. Jon reminds me of something new, but with aspects of Phil Woods, Parker, and Cannonball. I have also been listening to tenor quite a bit today and checking out Chris Potter and Mark Turner.

When I think of my sound, it reminds me of Kenny Garret, Cannonball, Parker, Dexter Gordon, Coltrane, and Bird combined. Today, my direction has been leaning more towards Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz

ZS: As you have taught many masterclasses around the world, what have you noticed about the players attending?

BH: The questions are the same everywhere: The U.S. I have never taught a master class to date but have in Russia, Peru, Columbia, Brazil, Italy, Spain, and many countries in Europe. The questions that come up are: “how do you play this phrase?”, “how do you achieve this sound?.” I see in every country there is something specific. The skill level of players today I find is very high across many countries. Some countries don’t have a strong music culture at this time, but over time this will change.

Jazz culture in Brazil, France, Germany, and Russia is very strong. I think jazz is not only an American language, but now we can say it’s a universal language with different cultures having a slightly different interpretation of the jazz language. Most times during a masterclass, I play a tune if I have a rhythm section or I’ll play a tune alone. I like to open the class up by asking the class what questions they have. I will discuss topics like how to play a melody and chords, but I don’t like having a defined structure when giving a masterclass (it doesn’t work for me). When I run a masterclass, I want to learn from the students because there is always something I can learn from them.

ZS: What is your process when it comes to practicing and is there any material you practice that you would recommend other musicians check out?

BH: This is difficult to answer because I had a routine in the past, but every time it is different. Sometimes I just want to play standards, sometimes I want to play some patterns or scales and develop them. It is no longer practice for me but simply playing.

The next day I might want to play a tune in every key and then practice learning this tune in every key by memory. Lee Konitz said that he likes to play every day because every day it is different. I found that working on a transcription with something you like and listen to a lot is important because you will start to learn these phrases, but most importantly train your ear and understand what this phrase sounds like over the piano chord with the bass line and the drums.

ZS: What do you find most challenging about being a musician today, and how have you been handling the current changes due to COVID?

BH:  As a musician, continually learning about new players and different types of music can be a challenge to stay on top of (like my students, I also view myself as a student, always learning). I find it can sometime be difficult to separate being a musician as well as simply a human being.

COVID affected my latest album release which was supposed to happen in early May, but I am pushing the show till October. No jam sessions or meeting with friends has been hard. September last year, someone stole my Mark VI alto (now playing my Selmer Reference 54) which was a bad experience but also a good experience in terms of what positive things I can find in this situation.

Now with Covid-19, here is another bad situation, but the positive situation is I am at home now and I have a lot of things I had never practiced before, so now I have no excuses to not work on this material. To be a musician, it is very personal and you are always thinking about yourself, so it’s nice to think about others things like your friends or music from a different perspective. From now until September I have no concerts booked, but I am excited to see if any private jam sessions come up.

ZS: What are your current projects?

BH: My last album I recorded last year was in Rio Di Janeiro in Brazil and it is a tribute to Brazil, the culture, and my friend out there. I went to Brazil eight times and I speak fluid Portuguese. All the musicians are all from Brazil. This project was not to play Brazilian music, but was just to play my music with some influences from Brazil. This album shows the diversity of Brazil and how there are many styles.

Album: Baptiste Herbin: Vista Chinesa

I also did a duet album with Alain Jean Marie who is bebop piano player. I will continue with my project on Herbie which is called Herbin Plays Herbie (see videos below) and I am thinking about producing my 5th album which will be more groovy, soul, and electronic.

Herbin Plays Herbie

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

BH: I have had a lot of mouthpieces, like many players. Since 2012, I have been playing a V16 A5 Small Chamber, and now I am playing the V16 A5 Small Chamber (S+). I was a part of the V16 S+ product development. I was excited when this mouthpiece came out because it works for both beginners and for professionals and is quite affordable.

I try to be comfortable playing all equipment, but Vandoren works best for me. At age 22 or 23 I stopped continually looking for equipment, and focused more on music. Maybe in the future I will discover new equipment, but I can’t fixate on equipment to solve what I am looking for in music.

 Setup

  • Saxophone
    • Soprano: Selmer Super Action 80 Series II
    • Alto: Selmer Reference 54 “Firebird” Limited Edition (no high F#)
    • Tenor: Selmer Super Action 80 Series I
  • Mouthpiece
  • Ligature
  • Reed

Website

https://www.baptisteherbin.fr/

Baptiste in Action