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If art is timeless, Joel Frahm is in the right profession. A teenager in the Eighties, the 35-year-old New York-based jazz saxophonist should be most familiar with the electronic music and New Wave that dominated the radio when he was a youth. Musically, however, he's been influenced primarily by pioneering pop from a slightly earlier era. "My parents were teenagers when the Beatles were coming out," he says. "My mother was one of those 15-year-old girls who wanted to marry Paul McCartney. So that music was always on the stereo. My earliest musical memories are probably of Lennon and McCartney, [soul singer] Bill Withers and early seventies singers like Stevie Wonder."
Frahm, who will be in Israel next week with the American-Israeli Sienna Quartet on a five-day, five-gig tour, says he got a well-rounded musical education. "While I was listening to the Beatles, I was also learning classical piano," he says, "so I was getting my ears trained."
The Beatles factor is evident in an album Frahm recently recorded with stellar New York jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. "Yes, we do a version of [Beatles song] 'Mother Nature's Son.' That came about because Brad is also a huge Beatles fan. I remember seeing him do a solo concert and he did a sort of rolling piano arrangement of 'Mother Nature's Son.' I loved it so much I asked him if we could do it when we rehearsed for the record. That's really Brad's creation and I just jump on it for the ride. If you deal in improvised music, it's good to have a really strong melody to work with, and the Beatles always provide that," he says.
Still, he says, jazz musicians can't just take a pop song and run with it. "It can be a little bit dodgy because we [have such strong associations] with the original song. But if you go about the song with your ideas, you can stay clear of ending up with elevator music. That's the danger," he says.
Frahm was born in Wisconsin but moved with his family to Connecticut as a child. In 1989 - as soon he was old enough - Frahm moved to New York, where he earned a degree in jazz performance and composition. He was immediately struck by the vibes and music the Big Apple had to offer. "I remember when I did my audition for music school," he recalls. "I counted off the tune for my rhythm section, and as soon as they hit the first beat I thought, 'Man, this is the place I want to be.'"
In the interim, Frahm has played countless gigs, recorded three albums, and mixed it up with contemporaries like pianists Mehldau and Bill Charlap, drummer Matt Wilson and bass player Ben Allison, as well as senior members of the jazz fraternity including sax player Dewey Redman and the late legendary vocalist Betty Carter.
One of Frahm's first regular gigs was at a New York club called Oggie's, now called Smoke. It was a good launching pad. "Oggie's has sort of become an urban legend, but in the Eighties and Nineties it was a kind of hole-in-the-wall dive bar where many young musicians my age got their start. [Mehldau] played there, as did [pianist] Larry Goldings and [guitarist] Peter Bernstein. It was a really important scene for me because that's where I learned to play."
Now one of the hottest guys on the New York jazz scene, Frahm's recent work with singer Jane Monheit wowed critics and audiences alike and, in 2004, he was named Rising Star in the critics' poll published by prestigious American jazz monthly Downbeat.
Frahm remains unfazed by all the kudos and says he has to go on producing the goods. "All that is very nice to hear, but you've got to keep your head down, keep on pushing and do the art form justice," he says.
While he has no problems keeping time with his saxophone, Frahm sometimes wishes he could play play tricks with time elsewhere in his music. "I used to have dreams of going back to the golden era of jazz, and playing with all those guys back in the Forties and Fifties, but now I wish I could go back just a month. I feel happy being able to play with my contemporaries, like [Israeli bassist] Omer Avital. They're all great cats."
For his shows in Israel, Frahm will play with Sienna Quartet bass player Rene Hart and New York-based Israelis Yonatan Volchuk (trombone) and Yoni Halevi (drums) at the Stricker Auditorium in Tel Aviv on March 21 at 9 p.m.; at Shuni Castle near Binyamina on March 22 at 9:30 p.m.; at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine on March 23 at 9:30 p.m.; at Hemdat Yamim on March 24 at 10 p.m.; and at Shablul Jazz at Tel Aviv Port on March 25 at 9 p.m.