Jazz Lives: Saxophonist Frank Catalano Ascends

Jazz Lives: Saxophonist Frank Catalano Ascends

Written by Frank Doris

Last summer I had the honor of playing on a bill with tenor saxophonist Frank Catalano and his quartet, at the Port Palooza festival in Port Jefferson, New York. I’d never seen him before and didn’t know what to expect. For the next hour and a half, we were riveted by the band’s performance, with Catalano spinning line after musical line, an endless river of ideas, blowing with a big, vivid tone and impassioned expressiveness. His bassist, drummer and pianist were equally mind-blowing, playing a varied set from sumptuous readings of standards to post-fusion explorations that would make Miles smile.

I later found out that Catalano has had quite a career, with a Number One album on the Billboard Traditional Jazz chart, and more than a dozen albums to his credit, including a few in collaboration with Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. After the set I met him and asked if we could do an interview at a later date. Roll ’em…

Frank Doris: What made you decide to play the saxophone? And, why tenor instead of alto or bari sax, or, say, clarinet?

Frank Catalano: I loved the way the saxophone looked! I was seven years old and our neighbor was selling an alto sax at their garage sale (way before eBay, ha!). My mom didn’t have the money to buy it but our neighbor let me borrow it. I had a few books and began teaching myself. A few years later when I got a little bigger, I switched to tenor.

FD: Who were some of your earliest influences? You’re based out of Chicago – did you grow up there? If so, how much were you influenced by the blues scene?

FC: I was fortunate to become friends with the late great Chicago tenor man Von Freeman. He started letting me sit in with him at clubs Like Andy’s when I was 11 or 12. I started listening to recordings of another Chicago legend, Gene Ammons, around that time, in addition to Charlie Parker, Coltrane [and so on]. Von’s favorite tenor player was Lester Young, so I have listened to a lot of Lester. I always listened to blues as a Chicagoan because it was everywhere.

I started playing with [organist] Charles Earland and Junior Wells while I was still in high school, and that is how I got signed to Delmark Records at that time. [Record producer] Bob Koester loved both Charles and Junior.

FD: You play flute on “Night Moves” from your early album, Bang! What other woodwinds do you play?

FC: Bang! was my first album for the legendary Savoy Records. I was honored to be signed by them, especially because I listened to all the Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Lester Young Savoy recordings. I think Savoy is owned by Concord now. [Savoy is now part of Concord Bicycle Music – Ed.] I play all the flutes and clarinets but I have slowly been retiring those to focus on the tenor, with a little bit of baritone and bass [saxes] for fun.

FD: I hope you take this as a compliment and not a diss, but your playing reminds me of Neil Young in that you, like him, can just play on and on and on and not repeat yourself. Every musician has their fallback riffs, but what gives you that fountain of ideas?


FC: If I feel inspired, and the music calls for it, I can keep going and it’s so much fun, just like having a great conversation with a close friend. You are the first person to compare me to Neil Young and I take it as a big compliment because I love his music and I also love Lionel trains, and Neil Young has a very large Lionel train collection. Neil Young was a part-owner of Lionel so we share an enthusiasm for that, as well as for music!

FD: When you’re playing, are you thinking about what you’re going to play next, or just letting it flow? It’s been said, “if you’re thinking, you’re stinking!”

FC: Great question! I was lucky to play a bit with drummer Louie Bellson and singer Tony Bennett when I was young, and they were so kind to me. They each said something to me that was a good lesson, and they were looking out for me and trying to teach me. The idea was that it takes a long time to make something difficult seem effortless to the audience. Meaning, a lot of time and preparation goes into the music…many years of honing your skills and thinking about theory and harmony, etc. But…when you are performing the music has to be coming from your heart and soul and just flowing from you, or it will just be a bunch of notes and not music. So, to answer your question more concisely, I try to think about the music a lot when I am not performing, especially when learning or writing new material, but when I get on stage, I just let the music come out of me.

FD: Tell me about the keyboard player and drummer you were playing with at the Port Palooza gig. They were blowing my mind. I know the bassist was a local guy of renown.

FC: Yeah, they are all great! Keenan Zach, the bassist, is wonderful. Randy Ingram is playing with me in December at Birdland in New York and is on my upcoming album. Rick Drumm, the drummer, has played hundreds of gigs with me and retired about five years ago from being the president of [musical instrument accessories company] D’Addario. They make my saxophone reeds as well as guitar strings, Evans drum heads, [and other products]. They are a great company and that is how we first met, almost 20 years ago.

FD: At the gig, you weren’t using sheet music. How hard is it to commit this stuff to memory, or get inside the song until it becomes a part of you? Or, did you have an iPad somewhere where we couldn’t see it?

FC: I never use music on the gig, especially an outdoor festival, if I can help it. I like playing music that I really love and that is in my body. If I really am feeling the music, I find it very easy to memorize. When I get called in last-minute as a side man, like when I played with Seal live on The Oprah Winfrey Show a few years back, I obviously have to read the music because I am sight reading the arrangements in most of those cases.

FD: I hear a real progression in your playing and writing, from your earlier albums like Cut It Out!?! to your latest, Tokyo No. 9. Can you comment about that?

FC: The original music for Cut It Out!?! was written in 1995 and recorded shortly after. I did an album with Von Freeman and then Randy Brecker after Cut It Out!?! Then I did Mighty Burner and then Bang! in 2007. I met my (now) wife in 2008 and I feel like my playing became different (unintentionally) after that. Tokyo No. 9 was Number 1 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz chart and I feel an evolution from the three prior albums that I did for Ropeadope Records, being Love Supreme Collective, G-d’s Gonna Cut You Down and Bye Bye Blackbird, which I did with David Sanborn. I think I am just really in the moment on Tokyo No. 9 and letting more of my early gospel, blues and R&B roots come out.

FD: Your music at times sounds like straight-ahead standards playing, at times like 1960s groove jazz, and I also hear influences of funk, R&B and even free jazz.

FC: You have great ears because those are all styles I love! I recorded with all the soul jazz [Hammond B3 [organ] guys like Charles Earland, Johnny “Hammond” Smith, and Dr. Lonnie Smith, so the funk, the R&B is in my body. The early albums of mine with [trumpeter] Ira Sullivan, Von Freeman and Randy Brecker are straight ahead and I love that as well as early swing, thanks to all of my Barrett Deems (Louis Armstrong drummer) and Louie Bellson gigs as a teenager. I used to perform a lot with members of the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians – Ed.] and I love Sun Ra, so some free playing has always been part of my musical personality.

FD: Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is a rite of passage for jazz musicians (and a song I can’t play!) Have you ever tried it?

FC: Yeah, I have played it a lot, especially while attending DePaul University, but it is not a song I have been that excited to play for many years, maybe because in jazz education it gets treated like an etude more than music. My favorite Trane song to play currently would be a coin toss between “Naima” and “Impressions,” but I am sure that will change for me in time, since I love Trane so much.

FD: Tell us about the Yamaha saxes and the JodyJazz mouthpieces and the reeds you use. What kind of sound do you strive for?

FC: I really like my Custom Z alto, tenor and soprano [saxes] made by Yamaha. They are very comfortable to play and give me an edgy sound that I like and really prefer for non-traditional jazz settings. For [playing] outside or [in] settings [where you need power], the silver tenor you heard me playing really cuts! I have a gold-plated Z that has a darker, richer, deeper sound that is better for some other types of music. JodyJazz makes my favorite mouthpieces and I use their DV line. Rico Reeds, now called D’Addario Woodwinds, are great and consistent. I use their Select Jazz line the most, but love the Reserve line too. I am helping play-test a new line for them called Venn right now. I also use a leather Rovner tenor sax ligature that Red Holloway gave me many years ago.


FD: Among sax players, the old Selmer Mark VI is revered. Can you explain why?

FC: Old Selmers are great. They have a very unique core to the sound and voice. I have many old Selmers and as soon as I play them, a smokey 1950s vibe comes about. I purposely stopped using them [though] because I feel the Yamahas are more flexible and let me sound more like myself. My favorite vintage saxes are probably the King Super 20 like Cannonball Adderley used, because they have a unique balance of core and flexibility. Still, for the demanding schedule I have, I prefer the Yamaha Z line.

FD: You seem to like working with guitar players. Why? Any differences in working with them as opposed to piano players, as it relates to filling in the harmonic spectrum and comping while you’re soloing? I have to tell, you, Vic Juris’ playing on Tokyo No. 9 is especially mind blowing.

FC: Vic Juris was my good friend and probably the world’s best guitarist, both as soloist and as accompanist. I was glad I was able to take him with me to Japan and I am thankful for all the gigs we did over the years. I love working with guitarists in a Hammond B3 organ quartet configuration which is usually sax, B3, guitar and drums [plus me]. After Vic passed away [at the end of 2019 – Ed.], I have gone back to working mostly with pianists. Mostly a personal thing out of respect to Vic. High-energy style comping in the style of McCoy Tyner has always been a favorite of mine.

FD: How did you get hooked up with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin? I have to confess, I would never have thought he has such jazz chops.

FC: Jimmy and I have been friends for over 20 years. He loved to go to Chicago jazz clubs and hang out. We met through a mutual friend, Joey, and started doing some playing and we became friends, so our playing together happened pretty naturally. Jimmy is a great jazz player and most importantly, I think we feel time the same way, and also loop and feed energy together in the same way, which is a much deeper universe and spiritual thing and has nothing really to do with any songs or genre of music. I got to play a little bit with Elvin Jones and also [drummer] Robert Shy who was on my Cut It Out!?! album as well as on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Bright Moments album. All three (Elvin, Jimmy, and Robert) have that ability to go into something that can’t really be analyzed or transcribed — but you can feel it.

Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin.

Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin.


FD: Who are some sax players currently playing who you like?

FC: So many great players…Kirk Whalum, Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano, Sonny Rollins is still with us…My student Nick Mutchler is a great young player who is just now hitting the scene.

FD: How has the pandemic affected your career and your attitude towards music and life?

FC: Well, I caught a horrible case of COVID and had a 104 – 105-degree fever for two weeks straight. My wife caught it shortly after me. So…I don’t think I could properly answer this question today; maybe in a few years after my mind, body and soul has processed everything. But I will say that I am so thankful to be on this Earth and will try my best to do positive and powerful things every day that I am allowed to do so.

FD: What advice would you give young musicians trying to make it?

FC: My best advice is be original and hold yourself to a very high standard. Always give the audience the best performance you can, even if you are having a horrible day, [coming off a] delayed flight, and so on. You will be able to steadily get your music out there to people who will appreciate it, and be able to make a living.

FD: What are your future plans for recording and touring?

FC: I will be performing at Birdland in New York on December 2, 3 and 4 and at City Winery in Chicago on December 27. I recently went to Seattle to do some dates at a new spot called Calluna. We have a tour of France booked for April 2022. A short documentary about me, Chicago and The Green Mill [club] just premiered at the Tokyo Lift-Off Film Festival. It was created and directed by Belgium filmmaker Colin Donner and is called Sugar Jazz, so I am excited to see what happens with that. Jimmy Chamberlin and I are going back into the studio in January. So…I think 2022 is going to be pretty action-packed.


FD: Anything else you’d like to add?

FC: I am also the US spokesperson for Drambuie, and my signature cocktail, “The Catalano Sidecar,” can be found in over 100 venues across the country.

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