Steve Cole on Melody, Improvisation, Business, and More

For Steve Cole, becoming one of the biggest players in contemporary jazz was no coincidence, as this guy’s certainly paid some dues. Any artist who manges to sell hundreds of thousands of albums and score four #1 R&R Smooth Jazz hits is likely to be a force to be reckoned with. Steve is no exception.

Believe it or not, he’s also an accomplished classical saxophonist who’s studied with Fred Hemke among others. Outside of the classical music world, some of the heavyweights who have shared the stage and studio with Steve include Junior Wells, Boz Scaggs, Larry Carlton, Jeff Lorber and lots more.

Steve finds himself among a very select group of musicians ever earn the privilege of putting out an album of music that sits atop the backdrop of a full orchestra, and his latest release is downright beautiful. In addition to the full orchestra, the album, titled Moonlight, has Steve joining forces with the likes of Russ Ferrante of the Yellowjackets as well as Steve Rodby of Pat Metheny fame.

To top it all off, Steve serves as a professor of music business management at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota while also hosting his own radio show.

The Interview

Doron Orenstein: When learning a new tune, what is it you do to arrive at an interpretation of the melody that’s completely personal to you?

Steve Cole: This should be a fairly natural phenomenon, and relates directly to an artist’s goal of finding his or her own voice. This is a process that takes quite some time, but the payoff is huge. If your goal is to sound like someone else (ie. Coltrane, Brecker, Sanborn, etc…) then it’s going to be very difficult to arrive at an interpretation of melody that’s completely personal. It’s only at the point where we discover our own voice, our own approach that we ‘re able to arrive at that very personal and distinctive interpretation. That’s what I’ve always been striving for, so I guess that’s what I draw upon when I approach melody.

DO: Your approach to playing the sax is extremely vocal in nature. Who were some of the singers who influenced your playing the most?

SC: It’s a long list…Sarah Vaughan is someone who I started listening to at a very young age (my Dad’s favorite). I just love the richness of her voice and the depth of emotion that she’s able to portray in her interpretation of melody. I also wore out the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman album. Ray Charles is another vocalist that has really influenced my playing, and of course, Luther Vandross.

DO: Hearing you improvise, I’m immediately struck by the melodic nature of your solos, as they seem to consist of lines that one could imagine an R&B singer singing. Being that so many of us saxophone players are anxious to cram as many notes as possible into our solos, even when playing R&B, what have you done that’s allowed you to keep your solos as tasteful and appropriate as they are even though you could burn through them if you really wanted to?

SC: First of all…thanks! I’ve always approached improvisation in a very compositional way. It offers a great opportunity to tell a story and really build a relationship with the audience. I think of it as composing a tune, inside of a tune. There are many players out there that approach improvisation very academically. While we all must master the language of music and the theory behind chord structure, voice leading, etc, a solo does not always need to be the time where we prove to ourselves how much we know, or how complex our understanding of harmony is, or how fast we can play. There is so much more opportunity that we often miss. I simply try to tell a story when I improvise. In a ballad, I strive to make the solo as beautiful and engaging as I possibly can. In something funkier, I try to really get to the heart of things, create a build, tension, release. Best thing is, use the fireworks sparingly, and musically. If you come out of the gate, guns blazing, it’s cool for a minute, but where do you have to go? I keep that stuff in reserve and use it to really push things over the top.

DO: You’ve earned quite a few distinctions in the realm of classical saxophone. How have your classical studies influenced your playing?

SC: I think that the work ethic that I learned as a classical player really helps. In my training, my teachers focused on sound, precision, and artistry. Also, the classical repertoire for saxophone is quite extraordinary. It’s beautiful, complex, and much of it requires a true mastery of the instrument. However, the thing that was most important from my classical training that I draw upon every day is the concept of sound. A beautiful sound should be job 1 of every saxophonist. I often lament when I hear great players who have not spent much time developing their tone.

DO: What were some of the unique challenges in doing an album with strings?

SC: It was an interesting process because, as saxophonists, we like to play songs in certain keys. The saxophone, at least we perceive, sounds richer when the melody rests in the middle range of the horn. However, when you’re playing with strings, you have to consider the range of the other instruments and how the ensemble will sound in that key. So one of the main challenges was to jump outside of my comfort zone and play songs in a range that at first was not terribly comfortable, but make it sound, nevertheless, beautiful.

Another challenge has do do with the compositional quality of the arrangements. The arrangements on this album are not just background string pads. The strings are a character throughout the record. At times the counter melody is just as important as the melody. That delicate balance has to be approached very carefully to make sure that the artist has room to bring their artistry and distinctiveness to the music. Arrangers oftentimes loose sight of whose record it really is. Fortunately, Mike Cunningham, the arranger on this record was truly sensitive to making sure that there was room for me to be expressive while assuring that the compositional quality of the arrangements was not compromised.

DO: Who are some of the sax players who are really blowing you away these days?

SC: I’m listening to a lot of Lester Young, Cannonball, and Coleman Hawkins lately – probably because of the type of record that I made. Mostly listening to ballads. There’s just so much subtlety in their approach to the melody and how they improvise – all very different, but so much to learn from them. I’m also really into Sanborn’s new record with Joey DeFrancesco. On the more contemporary side, Kirk Whalum is still my favorite.

DO: As a professor of music business, do you have a few tidbits of music business wisdom that you could throw out there to musicians looking to make a full-time living out of their craft?

SC: This business is changing, and it’s so important to understand that we are all entrepreneurs. The business has gotten much more accessible, but it requires all of us to not only have mastery of our craft, but also be fluent in the language of business. We are all able to derive some significant revenue opportunities from the new democracy that is the music business today, but we must be innovative in our marketing, value proposition, and promotion. An understanding of copyright principles, finance, new media marketing strategy, and entrepreneurial dynamics is now required of us. Also, we all need to be absolutely current on what is happening in the entertainment and media industries. Innovation creates opportunity, and it happens every day. We need to be prepared with the right skills to take advantage of that.

To learn more about Steve, hop on over to his website at