Tenor Titan Joel Frahm’s Story Plus Musical Philosophy, Practice Techniques, and More
Besides being one of the nicest people you will ever meet, Joel has a real passion for music and it clearly shows in his playing. I had the opportunity to meet Joel probably 8 or 9 years ago when he was based in Brooklyn to chat about music as well as gear. Joel had quite a selection of modern and vintage mouthpieces as well as a few really nice Mark VI’s which no matter which horn or mouthpiece Joel was playing, they all sounded great. I have received quite a few requests over the past few years to interview Joel for BSWE so he can share his journey and what he has been working on lately. Finally, after some time and aligning schedules, Joel was nice enough to sit down and share his story and what’s coming next. For those of you that have not had the opportunity or chance to check out Joel, here is a short bio to get you up to speed.
- Joel grew up in Racine, Wisconsin and later ended up moving to West Hartford, Connecticut as a high school freshman.
- In West Hartford, Connecticut is where Joel became part of the acclaimed Hall High School jazz band and developed a passion for jazz where he discovered the music of jazz greats such as Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver and Wayne Shorter.
- After high school. Joel attended the Manhattan School of Music and graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance.
- Since then, for more than 30 years, Joel Frahm has lived in New York City working in jazz clubs, collaborating with other musicians, and honing his craft.
- He has worked alongside Betty Carter, Kenny Barron, Freddy Cole, Dianne Schuur, Kurt Elling, Jane Monheit, Bill Charlap, Brad Mehldau, Matt Wilson, and Cyrille Aimee to name a few.
- Joel has played as a leader or sideman on more than 100 recordings and has appeared at jazz festivals in the United States, Europe, Israel, Canada and South America.
- Joel has worked at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation program; the Sant Andreu Youth Jazz Orchestra in Barcelona, Spain; the Dave Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California; the Center for Jazz Studies at the Israel Conservatory in Tel Aviv; the Czech Jazz Workshop in Prague; and the Siena Jazz Workshop in Italy.
- When Joel is not performing, he can be seen teaching jazz classes in clinics at the University of North Carolina, the University of Connecticut, New York University, Wichita State University, the University of North Texas, Baylor University, Colorado State University, Furman University, the University of Toronto, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Manitoba and others.
- Joel now resides in Nashville, where he continues to play the music he loves.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? And how did you decide on the saxophone of all instruments?
JF: Those are fairly vague memories but I do have a memory begging my parents to play piano when I was five and they tell the story that they went to a Christmas party at a friends place and they were playing the Vince Guaraldi Christmas record. My parents said that I went to the piano and tried to pick out melodies from the record and that I showed some sense of an ear. So my parents ended up sending me for piano lessons and I took lessons from about five until I was eleven or twelve. Like most kids, I really didn’t like to practice and did everything by ear so I really didn’t learn to read very well which drove my piano teachers kinda nuts. Then, my best friend in eighth grade named Giovanni Washington Wright played the alto saxophone and I thought it was cool that he played the saxophone, so I went up to my band director in Racine Wisconsin and I asked if I could play saxophone in the junior high jazz band. My band director said sure but he could use a tenor player so he gave me a student tenor saxophone and said go to the coat closet and see if you can figure it out.
The jazz part of playing the saxophone really didn’t come till my family moved to Connecticut when I was in high school. We ended up moving to West Hartford Connecticut where my dad got a job at the Hartford Courant as a reporter and that is where I met Brad Mehldau and got into this really great jazz program in Connecticut. A lot of the kids there including a saxophonist named Patrick Zimmerli, who was about 2 years older than me, was the guy I patterned myself after since he was a really good player even then. Pat and his friends were already listening to players like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and Charlie Parker to name a few. On my sixteenth birthday, the big band did a really nice thing and got together and bought me six jazz records. Once I heard Charlie Parker, Miles, and Art Blakely, I became pretty obsessed because the music hit me so hard and it became the real pleasure in my life going to the record store and finding a new record and dropping the needle on it.
When I started playing, I took some private lessons in Wisconsin and later started taking lessons in Connecticut as well. My first private teacher in Wisconsin was Curt Hanrahan and he was a great educator but then when I arrived in Connecticut, my saxophone teacher was a graduate from the high school program named Larry Dvorin and he still plays and is actually a lawyer now.
After I finished studying with Larry, he told me to study with his teacher whose name was George Ventrelli. George was an older generation player and was a really soulful player. George showed and taught me a lot during these lessons and funny enough always played a King saxophone, which takes me to this story.
So over the period of a month, I noticed there was a wooden case in the corner of his basement and finally after a couple weeks I got the courage to ask him “hey man, what’s in that case over there” George said “that was a gift from a friend, you want to see it” so he opened up the case and it was a pristine Selmer Mark VI from 1954. So George saw me look at it and said “you want to try it?” I took out my Otto Link and the first note I blew was a low Bb and it sounded like this beautiful huge fog horn. George was nice enough to let me take the Mark VI home to further try out and said I’ll sell it to you but I have to take some money for it since it was a gift from a friend. With my parents help, George ended up selling this Mark VI to me for $1,100 dollars which was very kind of him and that ended up becoming my main horn for about 30 years.
In addition to George, I actually took one lesson with Jerry Bergonzi when I was about 17 or 18 years old. Jerry came to our high school and did a concert with the big band so I got to be on stage with Jerry blowing changes which was great. That same year, my parents took me to Boston as a Christmas present and I got to take a lesson with Jerry. Within one hour, Jerry gave me the best saxophone lesson I’ve ever had in my life. He showed me so much that was so useful.
By the time I was a junior in high school, I had a good idea that I was going to pursue music and it was expected of me from my parents to go to college after high school. When I started looking at colleges, I thought “do I really want to study anything else but music?”. I was playing gigs and clubs with Brad by the time I was senior in high school so it really made sense for me to pursue music. I ended up going to Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts my freshman year and Rutgers was great but the player I wanted to study with was Ralph Bowen but he was a grad student on flute at that time. I remember approaching the music building and told them that I really wanted to study with Ralph and they informed me that this was not possible which was very frustrating that I could not access this resource. I did have a saxophone teacher named John Purcell and it was really at his encouragement after about a year at Rutgers that this place is really not going to challenge me as much and there is not much here for me. John told me to take an audition at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) where he also taught.
I went in to the audition and right when I walked in I met Greg Hutchinson in the hallway. My rhythm section for the audition was this great New York rhythm section which was Gary Dial, Sean Smith, and Willard Dyson. As soon as I called the tune and started playing for the jury I knew something was different immediately. I remember walking into the hallway after the audition which went pretty well and told my dad that I am moving to New York to attend MSM.
At MSM, I studied with John Purcell for four years and really focused on my saxophone sound which could be a whole other story. But, before going to MSM, a year before I got there, it was Easter of 1989 and my folks gave me a little money to see Brad since he was already at MSM. I remember why I wanted to go in was Michael Brecker was giving a clinic at MSM which ended up being an incredible masterclass. I remember walking downtown from Morningside Heights towards where Brad was living which was this nasty this little hotel called Sloan House where the New School put a lot of their students. On my way to Brad’s, I ended up getting mugged so I had to ask people on the street for a quarter so I could call Brad.
I remember it started raining and I looked like a drowned rat when I showed up at his door but Brad gave me some money for the trip back and we spent the afternoon together. That night, I went to his gig where he was playing at this place called Augie’s and playing with the Jesse Davis quartet. When I saw Jesse Davis play, I had never heard a saxophonist with that sound and the energy in the room was incredible and really sold me that I wanted to be around this scene. The fact is I wasn’t moving to New York for one teacher but I could tell from the little experiences that I had in New York City, that the energy of the peers around me was going to be high and the level was going to be high.
After moving there I ended up meeting guys like Chris Potter (ended up being roommates at MSM) and Ryan Kisor and immediately there were a lot of people I was playing with that were really great young musicians.
ZS: Who are some of your favorite saxophonists and has this changed over time?
JF: It has changed over time. I still have sentimental favorites but when I first started it was just Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker. Then it evolved because people introduced me to new players. When I first started transcribing, I was at Eastman’s School of Music summer camp when I was 17 and Tom Christiansen was my teacher which was great.
Tom told me to start listening to Sonny Rollins and had me transcribe “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” including the melody. So I started doing that and then after that I transcribed Freddie Hubbard on “Birdlike” and then I did Hank Mobley on “Au Privave”, so I went through a period of time where there were a lot of influences like Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, and Coltrane.
Who I became really obsessed with before heading to NYC was Johnny Griffin on “Rhythm-a-Ning”. The next year I was home after college and I had a 60 year old student who made me cassette tapes of Stan Getz and I never knew Getz could play that way.
It has changed over time and my listening has gone backwards and forwards. I would say now my tastes have almost gone even backwards and I love listening to Lester Young and Louis Armstrong. I really like listening to more melodic material recently because I feel there is so much music where guys aren’t focusing on melody and more on the technical aspect.
ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned growing up playing the saxophone that you have passed on to your students? What do you find yourself shedding these days?
JF: A lot of the first lessons were the important ones. My band director in high school (pretty tough guy) taught me that I always pass on to my students is the idea of breaking down a problem into little parts. I have always strove for fluency until it is feasible under my fingers.
Back then if you were reading this chart, learn through it phrase by phrase and repeat and repeat it until you own it and I have really stuck to that. I try to impress upon my students that I strive for clarity and I want to make sure that they are listening to the music. You have to have a sense of history and patiently and intentionally listening. I see students of today (not all) are more enamored by a small group of modern musicians but haven’t investigated where they came from.
A big part of this music is the blues and swing, and those are some of the things that attracted me to jazz. Recently, I was teaching a student about rhythm changes and we were speaking about the bridge. I wanted this student to write five bridges of rhythm changes where you only use the diminished scale and one where you just use the altered scale. I thought, I had not done this in awhile so I started working on this as well. I typically sit down with a set of few chord changes and I will break them apart out of the mode and I will start messing with the mode intervallically. I will start to figure out where I want that line to go through a four or eight bar passage.
Also, I will just put on a play-along during the day. I used to do this thing with a Jamey Aebersold play-along in 12 keys on “All The Things You Are” where I would play through it many times until it got stronger and the keys that weren’t strong I would stop, figure things out in that key, and then continue. Today, I take the horn out, know the problem that I want to address in that moment and once I feel good about it then I move onto something else.
ZS: How have you seen the music business change since you started playing the saxophone and where do you see the music business moving in the near future?
JF: When I first got to NYC that was the advent of cd’S. I remember seeing one or two cd’s in high school and it was the new technology and the cd era was really the 90’s. Things changed when people started file sharing music and everyone was burning cd’s. As the way people started listening to music changed it became much easier for anyone to put out their own record with a computer and small budget.
The big difference today is everyone and their brother and sister has a cd out so it’s a huge ocean of music so it can be challenging to stick out. When I started in the 90’s in NYC, it was kind of a special thing to get a record deal and if you got signed you had a budget to record, pay the cats, and the record label would take care of distribution and advertising and that doesn’t happen anymore.
I would say when I first started in NYC, it felt funkier and more organic with more clubs all around and rents were much lower. I could go for a month in 1992 or 1993 in NYC and could play five to six jazz gigs, play a wedding, and teach a few lessons and I could cover my rent. That is certainly not the case anymore. I think it was easier for artists back then than compared to today. I was also the post-Wynton Marsalis generation, so I was influenced by the idea that you wanted to pay reverence to the past to learn about our “forefathers”, or he made it seem attractive to do so.
Certainly back then the emphasis with players my age was knowing standards and playing straight ahead jazz and having a large repertoire of tunes. You were expected at jam sessions to have a bunch of tunes and if players were stumping you tune after tune, then you were kind of a drag so as a result I learned a whole bunch of tunes. Now when I go to a jam session it’s playing originals versus playing tunes like “Beatrice”.
I still have to be dragged kicking and screaming to add things to my IG because posting a gig on FB is not enough. My last record I hired a publicist and a social media person at least for the splash for the record and that was smart because I have no desire or chops in that arena or not what I do or ever done.
I’m willing to play that game but will continue to farm that out because I have no desire to do that and maybe to my detriment. I see a lot of players who have done it well like Bob Reynolds and Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and those guys are great younger players and have really used and ridden the wave of social media to great success. I admire those guys but that is really not my personality and I would feel like a talking head.
ZS: After 30 years in NYC, what motivated you to move to Nashville? How is the jazz scene or music community in Nashville?
JF: Covid hit, had Covid early on and after that happened all of my work disappeared and the only thing left to do was give Zoom lessons. My landlord was so kind and he forgave my rent for 6 months in Brooklyn and then 2021 came around and he said I can’t have you living here for free and I totally understand.
At the same time, I had kind of been thinking of making a change of residence, it might be fun to see what’s out there. I moved out New Years Day of 2021 from Brooklyn and went to my folks’ place in West Hartford where I hadn’t lived for years. I spent about 7 months trying to figure out where I wanted to go and thought about San Diego but then Nashville seemed like a more affordable and realistic option. In Nashville, I had friends like Jeff Coffin and Rahasan Barber and they told me the jazz scene wouldn’t be the same at NYC but the music scene is really strong. I have gotten involved in the Nashville jazz workshop and the players down here have been keeping me busy.
ZS: What projects are you currently working on?
JF: The main thing is my trio record The Bright Side with Ernesto Cervini on drums and Dan Loomis on bass. We just did a European tour and we are going to do a west coast tour coming up in July. Also, I have been recording more standard material for a local Nashville label and some of that is going to come out pretty soon with a couple digital releases. I have been playing with the incredible drummer Chester Thompson and have been playing more jazz stuff with him. I have been doing educational things as a guest player or hired by a vocalist to do recordings online. The big thing for me artistically is keeping the trio going and working on some big band charts written for my songs because there may be a chance to do some things with the Radio Big Bands. Finally, we have another European tour coming up in October so all of this has been keeping me quite busy.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
JF: I am changing less than I used to. There was a period of time through college where I was so obsessed with reeds, mouthpiece, ligatures, and I was sensitive to it in an unhealthy way. I was shaving my reeds and got into this deep dark hole of tone and there is no holy grail. Now with this SBA and Jack’s stuff at BSS, at a certain point, I said I am going to make a commitment to this equipment and now I am realizing that as long as something plays all over the horn with a nice tone and presence that is basically all you need; especially if you stick with it for awhile you can really reap great benefits when you get inside a mouthpiece, neck, horn, etc. At a certain point I had 50 to 60 tenor mouthpieces which was pretty bad but I ended up settling and committing to this setup and it feels good right now. You want equipment that facilitates everything you want to do but after that it’s pretty much on you.
- Soprano: Borgani (2000)
- Alto: Bundy Special
- Tenor: Selmer Super Balanced Action (Re-Lacquered)
- Soprano – John Thomas (.70)
- Alto – Vintage Brilhart or Matt Marantz NY piece (7 or 7*)
- Tenor – B.S.S E Series (8*)
- Soprano: Boston Sax Shop – 3
- Alto: Boston Sax Shop – 2.5
- Tenor: Boston Sax Shop – 3
- Soprano: Francois Louis
- Alto: Vintage 2 screw
- Tenor: BSS Superlative
- IG: https://www.instagram.com/joelfrahmofficial/
- FB: https://www.facebook.com/joel.frahm.9
- Website: https://joelfrahm.com/home