Every so many years I spot player that really has his/her technique, sound, and rhythm down at such a young age. Ryan Devlin is one of those players. Since being a student of Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and studying at UCF, Ryan has continued to hone his skills both as a saxophonist as well as a great musician overall. I am excited that Ryan was open to meeting with me to share his story with what he hopes to achieve as he continues his studies at NEC and ultimately his career in music.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? And how did you decide on the saxophone of all instruments?
RD: I started playing piano at a pretty young age around kindergarten. I was pretty interested in music with my dad playing, so my parents decided to start me on piano. I really enjoyed piano and I took lessons from kindergarten through middle school. In third grade or fourth grade, my dad came in to do a teach-in day at our elementary school and he had me handle the saxophones.
I remember passing the saxophone (which was an alto) along to a bunch of the kids and I really didn’t like one of the kids in the class. So, I told him to put his head in the bell and then I blew through it and it scared him, and even though I did not know how to play, I thought the saxophone was awesome.
Literally the very next day, I came over to my dad and asked if he would teach me how to play the saxophone and he was more than happy to give me some lessons. I basically chose the saxophone since I liked music, I was already playing piano, I knew how to read music pretty well, and I always heard the saxophone playing in the house with my dad teaching lessons as well as seeing him play at Disney World where he played through most of my childhood. I got hooked really fast and my goal was to be better than him. I just kept practicing and eventually it became I just wanted to play to get better. Throughout middle school and high school, I started competing in all-county and all-state.
When I first started playing saxophone, I started on alto and my first saxophone was a Yamaha 62 purple logo which was my dad’s and it was in great shape, which I played literally from third grade through senior year of high school. I took one-off lessons with my dad and college professors in the area but mainly on classical. I really wasn’t much of a jazzer and I made all-state jazz in ninth and tenth grade on bari sax and I had a pretty decent sound and articulation, but I wasn’t a fanatic and really studying it.
In tenth grade, my dad sent me to this player named Alain Bradette who was from Canada and came down to Orlando to play with the Cirque du Soleil in Disney World, and he was a Michael Brecker aficionado. My dad started showing me Brecker Brothers records in high school and I got really interested when I took my first lesson with Alain. My whole world opened up.
After hearing Alain and the Brecker Brothers, I was blown away, and during this time, I didn’t even play tenor. Since middle school, I wanted to be a classical saxophonist like my dad and then it all switched when I studied with Alain and started listening to Brecker. In tenth grade, I switched to tenor as my main instrument and was shedding the most from tenth grade onwards, and really started to take jazz more seriously and wanted to pursue this as my main focus and be a front man and play in big bands.
When I graduated from high school, I auditioned for Berklee and got in with some scholarship but right at that time my dad was let go from Disney so it was not a great time and by the time I finished at Berklee, I would be going into a considerable amount of debt. So, I decided to go to community college first but I really went to “Chad Lefkowitz-Brown University” during this time.
At community college, I was finishing up my gen ed’s and my core music classes. Once I finished these classes, I did a direct connect to UCF after auditioning. UCF was not my first choice, even though it has a good jazz program. What I was focused on during this time was completing my bachelor’s in music, continue running the Orland Jazz Workshop, playing with local players, taking lessons with Chad, and continuing to build my musical resume without going into debt.
While at UCF, I studied with Jeff Rupert for 6 semesters and still studied with Chad, but as Chad started becoming more and more popular these lessons started to taper off. I learned a lot from Jeff and Chad, but what I really learned from Chad was how to practice and get my own stuff done.
In addition to Chad, I did take lessons with Lucas Pino while Chad was touring for a month and he is a great player and friend who I have transcribed so many of his solos (I’d like to call him a modern day Joe Henderson).
ZS: I understand you are graduating UCF and pursuing your Masters in Music at NEC, what do you hope to learn at NEC and why did you choose NEC to further your studies?
RD: NEC and Berklee were pretty big dream schools for me going into high school since my family is from the New England/Boston area and I always wanted to live up there. Also, Jerry Bergonzi is one of my favorite saxophonists on earth and to have him as a professor is one of the main reasons I am going to NEC.
The program at NEC for the way that I practice, learn, and like to work fits me much better than the program at Juilliard, which was another school I was considering. I remember taking a lesson with Ron Blake via Skype and Ron even told me that Juilliard for someone going in the direction I want to go might not necessarily be the place for me. The way I like to learn is to be given a lot of material which is what Chad and Alain provided me during lessons and then I would work on it over working through a more structured approach which is not how I necessarily like to learn.
Another reason I decided to go to NEC was since joining Boston Sax Shop as an artist, this would allow me further work with Jack and I have already been doing a lot of behind the scenes ad work with BSS.
ZS: How have you adjusted to COVID? What have you found to be most challenging as well as beneficial?
RD: With being in Florida, we opened up pretty early. So for the last six months, it has been basically normal but with people wearing masks and then limited seating at concert venues. Where I benefited besides practice time is taking my social media more seriously and trying to make more videos of me practicing ideas and running a SYOS weekly masterclass series via Instagram Live before transitioning to fully Boston Sax Shop.
In addition, I have been working with Jack and Derek over at SaxSpy with video editing. I was also thinking of making my first album ever since I got to college and I wanted to release one before I graduated. How this album came about is I had been friends with the owner at The Timucua Arts Foundation, and it turns out during Covid, I started golfing a lot as well as him. The owner reached out to me via Facebook to see if I would be interested in golfing with him, so since the beginning of Covid we have been golfing once a week. During one of our outings, he told me that Ulysses Owens Jr is coming to town and he needs a horn player to sit in during his masterclass, and if would I be interested – to which I said, of course!
At this masterclass, I got to meet Ulysses and I think he overall liked the way I was playing, communicating, and my demeanor and he offered to play a gig with me and told me if I had a gig down in Orlando to please reach out. I told Ulysses that I was interested in doing a record and Ulysses said just reach out and he would be down.
In addition to the masterclass, I ended up sitting in on Ulysses gig at Timucua and then about a month later I texted the owner at Timucua and told him I would love to do my album at Timucua since it is a great setting and had a great sound system. The owner said no problem and that he would mix and master the album for me, and Ulysses was available to play. For my album, I already had some tunes written but during that time I was going through a lot with the grieving process of losing my mom and I was writing with a lot of those emotions in mind and what I was thinking about during Covid, and that is why I called it Thoughts On The Matter.
The album came out so smoothly with booking a date at Timucua to having Ulysses play on my album, and then I just finished writing the rest of the tunes over a five-month period and did it all in one take. If it wasn’t for Covid, I probably wouldn’t have recorded my first album.
Currently, The Blue Band Blue and Timucua is having me do a residency which has really helped me grow my audience. I would say Covid has helped me more then it has hurt me.
ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned playing the saxophone that you have passed on to you students? What do you find yourself practicing these days?
RD: As for as lessons, I have focused on practicing quality over quantity. I learned this lesson from Chad and during my early years in college I did a few five or six-hour days. I realized that if you get a solid one and a half to threee hours of focused practice every day, then there is not a huge need to do ten, twelve, or thirteen hours of practice time.
What I like to do is set a goal for myself every day or week that I am going to get this concept, transcription, or lick down whether it’s short term or long term. When I started doing that more consciously while taking lessons with Chad, it really helped me focus on not just getting better at the saxophone, but also at effectively learning material.
Right now, I am working on studying alot of 60’s Trane and 70’s Grossman stuff. I am also listening to a lot of Hal Galper recordings with the Brecker Brothers in the 70’s, so any Brecker Brothers album from 1977-1983, I am really checking out. I am really trying to learn more of the 60’s Trane language and 70’s Grossman language.
ZS: What projects are you currently working on?
RD: I am working on doing more teaching via private lessons via Zoom and Skype. I have an organ project I am doing at Timucua in June which is a tribute to the Larry Young Unity album. With Ulysseus, I have been working on my communication on the bandstand to free up my playing and letting it be more communicative.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
RD: I am a little bit in the middle. I think having good quality mouthpiece and reeds is more important than having a good quality horn. If you have your own perception of sound, then that is what you are going to sound like more or less on any equipment with some nuances.
Whether it’s the BSS R series or S series mouthpiece, they are going to play differently, but at the end of the day I am going to sound like me. I want equipment that makes it as easy as possible to sound like me. If you’re in high school and have a Yamaha, there is no reason that you have to search for a Mark VI. With that being said, if you have the money and if you really feel the Mark VI gets you closer to your sound, then do it.
- Soprano: Yamaha 62 Purple Logo Rousseau Model
- Alto: Selmer Reference 54
- Tenor: Selmer Mark VI (105,xxx)
- Baritone: Yamaha 62
- Soprano: Vandoren M/O
- Alto: Vandoren M/O
- Tenor: B.S.S Superlative ligature
- Baritone: Berg Larsen metal ligature