The Long-Awaited Alec Haavik Interview: Part 1

Alec Haavik has been our Featured Artist here at Layabozi for some time, now. You probably already know all about his killin’ saxophone playing and composing already, and that his band plays most every Thursday at JZ Club, and that he also features in that fine institution’s Big Band, Blue Koi Collective, and others. This interview has been in the works for a while also. The second part has just been finished and will be coming your way tomorrow. Here is part 1:

Layabozi: So I know you were living in New York before you came to Shanghai. How did you end up here?Alec Haavik: Well, that’s kind of a long story, actually. It started way back in college, where there was a foreign language requirement. I wanted to study something as different from English as I could so I chose Chinese. Right away something really clicked between me and the language, and I got really into it. I went to Taiwan for a semester of my third year at University, and it was really a big experience for me. It was the first time I’d really been out of the US and I was shocked by how different everything was.
LYBZ: Did you play music while you were there?
AH: No, I was mostly just studying Chinese. I didn’t really like being there at the time, and actually when I left I didn’t think I would come back. But after I was back in the States for a while I missed it.
LYBZ: So after you finished College you went to New York?
AH: No, first I went to Boston because it’s the closest big city to Maine, where I went to College.
LYBZ: How was the scene in Boston?
AH: Oh, it was great. I was working in a coffee shop and playing as much as I could. I was in a few rock/indie bands. The first band I was in that got signed to an indie label was called Lars Vegas, a very artsy rock band with a beat poetry and avant-garde jazz influence. I found a cool video on YouTube of theirs (from just shortly after I left that band).
Then I was in a band called Jayuya, started by some young visionaries from Puerto Rico. One of the guys from that band is still going strong with his own project called Zemog El Gallo Bueno

LYBZ: So you were basically a sideman in those bands, right?
AH: Well Jayuya was really a band in the rock style, so it was more of a cooperative thing, and even though Lars Vegas had a leader, we all contributed.
LYBZ: It seems like your band here, The Friction Five, has some of that rock organization, obviously as well as musical elements from rock, funk, and so on. But still you’re definitely the leader. You write most of the music, right?
AH: Yeah, I definitely learned about how to be a good leader from those rock bands, as well as from being more of a traditional sideman in other people’s bands. Being a good band leader is a lot like being a parent. The band is going to look to you for certain things, and if you don’t take care of those responsibilities things can get chaotic. At the same time, if you don’t give the people in the band enough space to be themselves it won’t sound good and you won’t have fun. You’re never going to get exactly what you had in your head on the bandstand or in the studio, and that’s a good thing in my opinion. If you don’t give the band freedom, they’re not going to play as well because they’re going to be worried about getting something you told them you wanted, instead of being able to feel confident and engaged–which is absolutely necessary in improvised music. So I write the music and lead the band, but I ask people to play in my band because I’m excited about how they will interpret my music, not because I want a music robot to reproduce what I have in my head. For the same reason I usually don’t do a lot of takes when I’m making a record. By the time you get to the fifteenth take or whatever, people start to get tired, and most of the time one of the first few takes is the best anyway. You just have to be open to it not being exactly the way you thought it would be.
LYBZ: So back to Boston. Aside from the rock bands, what else were you doing musically?
AH: I was also playing a lot of Caribbean music. One was a Soca band with some guys from Trinidad. We played in the parades at Carnival. I also played in quite a few reggae bands, mostly trombone because they usually already had a saxophone player.
LYBZ: You started out playing trombone?
AH: Yeah, I played trombone all through high school in Connecticut, and the beginning of College. But one day my teacher played me a CD of Steve Lacy and the awesome trombonist Roswell Rudd. He was trying to get me more excited about trombone, but when I heard Steve Lacy playing soprano saxophone, that was it. I knew that was what I wanted to play. I went through a period of intensely copying everything he did: his ideas, his tone, his concept, his writing. Eventually I developed my own sound, but I think it’s a very important part of learning this music to copy someone else’s playing in real depth. That’s the best way to get a handle on what’s going on.
LYBZ: So who was your first teacher on saxophone?
AH: Actually I started out teaching myself. I thought, very arrogantly, that I didn’t need a teacher. Some good came out of it, in that I came up with my own way of doing some things, but there was a lot of…[laughs]…a lot of wasted time where a teacher could have set me straight really quickly.
LYBZ: You started just playing soprano? How did you pick up the tenor?
AH: I eventually found, as many saxophone players do, the lure of the tenor to be too strong to resist.
LYBZ: So other than your trombone teacher and yourself, did you have any teachers who were a big influence on you?
AH: There were a few, actually. I went to Manhattan School of Music for Grad School, and while I was there I studied with Dick Oatts, Dave Tofani, and Mark Turner. I was lucky enough to overlap with Mark when he was teaching there. It was just as he was beginning to get famous, and he lasted two years at Manhattan School. He was on tour a lot so he wasn’t around all the time, but when he was it was great. I really learned a lot from Dave Tofani as well. He’s a self-described devotee of the all-time legendary saxophone guru Joe Allard. Then later I studied with Ralph Bowen, and have come to identify very strongly with his approach to saxophone playing and practicing.
LYBZ: Did you study composition at Manhattan School?
AH: My major was Jazz Performance, but I took a few classes. One that really had a big impact was a class about film music. As a jazz musician you can sometimes get caught up in technique and forget about how the audience will be impacted, but film music is a really directly emotional language, like “this is the scary music, this is the nostalgic music.” We checked out a lot of Bernard Herrmann, who wrote some of those great Hitchcock scores, as well as music for Truffaut and Scorsese and others. We also checked out Wagner, of course, who was kind of the godfather of film music. It really helped me in thinking about composing, to realize how to write stuff that would have an emotional impact on people.
LYBZ: After grad school, you stayed in New York gigging. Were you playing mostly your own music at that time, or other people’s?
AH: Both. I was playing as much as I could in other people’s bands, and I had a rehearsal band for a while, but it’s really difficult to get musicians together in New York when there’s no money involved. People are so busy. It was a good experience though, even though I had to spend a lot of time on the phone.
LYBZ: Here it seems like you’re still doing a good amount of both. You have your band at JZ every week, and you play at least a couple more nights every week there as well. Are you happy with the balance?
AH: Yeah, I really like to do both. Playing in other people’s bands gives you an opportunity to do something different, to contribute in a different context. For example, I was in J.Q.’s band, 5 below, when he used to be at 5 on the Bund. I got to know the music really well, and we were all bringing it to life together, and making musical choices about how to approach it, so I feel like I’ve made a contribution to that band and had a part in shaping that music, even the way it’s played on nights when I’m not actually there.
LYBZ: So how did you finally get from New York to Shanghai?
AH: Well, I had just finished my CD in New York, and I felt like I had to go back to Taiwan to continue what I had started with the Chinese language, and it was a good time to do it. So I went back to Taibei, to the same school I had been enrolled in back in College. I was also playing with Roberto Zayas, who is originally from Paraguay, and that was fun, but everyone was talking about Shanghai and what a great scene it was there. There was at that time a CJW in Taibei also, and the manager there offered me a gig at the one here, and I decided to take it. I was working there and coming to JZ afterwards, and I was totally bowled over by the energy and creativity of the guys at JZ, and also just the high level of the music. I remember one night in particular, it was J.Q’s birthday. The regular band finished, and then J.Q.’s band went up on stage at 2:30am, and kept playing until maybe 4, and then Sugar Mama got up and did an epic birthday tribute to J.Q., and after that people kept playing, and didn’t stop until the sun was up. I knew then that I had to come to JZ and really be a part of what was going on there. So I called my wife, who was back in New York, and we had a long talk about it, and eventually decided to make Shanghai our home.
LYBZ: So you’re here for the long haul, then. How do you see the scene changing?
AH: Well, I hope it grows and gets better and better, but I really don’t have any prediction.
LYBZ: What about the direction of the music? It’s a small, pretty friendly scene, but people’s backgrounds and tastes are all over the map.
AH: That’s true, and there’s not really much radio or anything like to fill that role. The closest thing, really is the DVD markets. A lot of the jazz DVDs are the same from place to place, but the selection is pretty random. It’s not like there are a ton of Miles and Coltrane, or Charlie Parker. For example there’s this really weird John Zorn movie I saw the other day.
LYBZ: The one by the German woman?
AH: Yeah! It’s probably not a movie I would have come across in the States, but it’s all over the place here.
LYBZ: Yeah, I probably would have never seen it in the States either.
AH: Not that it’s a bad video. It’s pretty interesting actually.

Get ready for part 2, discussing Alec’s upcoming project at the Oriental Arts Center, and the influence of bootleg DVDs and Shanghai audiences on the jazz scene, coming your way tomorrow.

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