Handy with a horn

Renowned American saxophonist Craig Handy brings his mixture of soulful sounds and vibrant vocals to the Super Jazz Ashdod Festival.

November 19, 2016 19:51
Craig Handy

‘IF YOU look at the history of jazz you can see that singers influenced horn players, and horn players influenced singers... There has always been a strong connection. But, don’t forget, the voice is the first instrument,’ says American jazz musician Craig Handy.. (photo credit: VINCENT SOYEZ)

Super Jazz Ashdod Festival founder, artistic director and veteran jazz pianist Leonid Ptashka has been bringing major stars of the genre to the port town’s annual jazz bash since the event first surfaced in 2009. This year’s lineup also features one of the leading lights of the global scene, in the form of American saxophonist Craig Handy. The other offshore guests include fellow American guitarist Ron Jackson, high energy trumpeter-vocalist Joey Morant, Cuban percussionist Francisco Mel, Russian guitarist Tom Dorofeev and the ever-entertaining Carling Big Band from Sweden. There are also some local headliners on the roster, such as veteran bassist-singer Eli Magen, seasoned pianist-trumpeter Adi Renart and adventurous guitarist Jonathan Albalak.

54-year-old Handy has been there and done that with many of the jazz community’s greats, from across several generations. His collaborative bio makes for impressive perusal, featuring the names of iconic drummer Art Blakey, evergreen nonagenarian drummer Roy Haynes, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, to mention but a few.

Jazz players often talk about trying to make their instrument “sing.” Handy has a slightly different take on that mindset, and has added vocals to his horn playing. While there have been some notable artists who have combined the two over the decades – Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and now-79-year-old saxophonist Archie Shepp readily spring to mind – one does not normally associate wind instrument practitioners with singing.

“I have always been influenced by singers,” Handy notes, adding that the two are a natural fit. “If you look at the history of jazz you can see that singers influenced horn players, and horn players influenced singers. There are people like Frank Sinatra, who worked with [trombonist-bandleader] Tommy Dorsey, [legendary trumpeter] Miles Davis was influenced by [vocalist-pianist] Shirley Horn and, of course, [diva] Ella Fitzgerald was influenced by everybody she was listening to, and it was the same with [singer] Sarah Vaughan.”

Handy says it was a seamless confluence.

“There was a big-band connection, so you’ve always had great horn players and great vocalists teaching each other, and influencing each other. I think that’s how the vocalese style in jazz [the addition of lyrics to originally instrumental pieces] really took off. There has always been a strong connection. But, don’t forget, the voice is the first instrument.”

But it was another saxophonist, a titan in every sense, who initially fired the young Handy’s imagination.

“Dexter Gordon was my first influence on saxophone. He was a big-band guy. When he was in his late teens and early twenties he was playing with Lionel Hampton’s big band and Fletcher Henderson’s big band, and he played with Louis Armstrong, so he was very influenced by listening to the singers of his time.

“Dexter’s role model was [iconic saxophonist] Lester Young and, of course, Lester Young had a great association with [seminal vocalist] Billie Holiday. As far back as you go there seems to be a horn player and singer standing right next to each other.”

The Gordon connection was pivotal for Handy’s start in the art form, and for his approach to his chosen instrument.

“I was in the car with my mom – I must have been about eight or 10 years old. I was listening to the radio and I heard Dexter Gordon. It just spoke to me. It was like listening to my heartbeat. I could just feel it in my chest, and I looked at my mom and I said ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

Gordon, who was close to two meters tall, also pointed the way to Handy’s eventual vocal departure.

“He plays in a very lyrical way. People used to tell me, when I played tenor saxophone, that I sang on my horn. I didn’t think of it at the time but singing has to do with phrasing, and if you play an instrument the first thing you learn is not phrasing, it’s scales and arpeggios, and other technical things you that you have to learn how to do before you begin to make music.”

Vocalists, meanwhile, have the opposite – natural – entry into music making.

“As a baby, you start talking at the age of one or two, so you’re already using your mouth. So singers immediately start thinking about phrasing and how to use their mouth. It takes instrumentalists a lot longer to learn about phrasing, because of the demands of physically playing an instrument.”

Handy may have had to take a circuitous route to vocalizing his musical ideas but his principal muse helped point the way.

“Dexter Gordon sometimes used to recite the lyrics of the songs he played, before he played it. He was one of the proponents of the approach that says that, if you want to play a ballad – especially a ballad – you have to learn the lyrics. This was something that always stuck in the back of my head.”

The budding reedman may have been well and truly grabbed by a jazz ace from an earlier era, but he is also very much a product of his own commercial musical times.

“I listened to people like Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind and Fire, and I still listen to the soul groups of the Sixties like The Dramatics and The Temptations,” he says. “My dad was a big music guy, so we listened to everything. He liked jazz so, at home, we had records of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fizgerald and Bille Holiday – all the classics.”

Groundbreaking bassist Charles Mingus was another major source of inspiration.

“Two of the records that had a big influence on me, coming up, were [1970s Mingus albums] Changes One and Changes Two. ...[L]istening to those records was like listening to [feted 1959 Mingus number] ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,’ or ‘Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love’ (from Changes One). I think ‘Ellington’s Sound of Love’ was probably the single most influential that I ever listened to in my formative years.”

That surely stood Handy in good stead when, many years on, he joined the Mingus Big Band, which celebrates the work of the late great bass player. He also got to mix it up with some of the guys who shared a bandstand with Mingus, who died in 1979 at the age of only 56.

“I played with [reedman] George Adams and [trumpeter] Jack Walrath when I got to New York. I ended up playing with a lot of people that had played with Mingus, like [pianist] Horace Parlan, and [trombonist] Jimmy Knepper. I basically played with all Mingus’s sidemen.”

That was a healthy sequitur to Handy’s earlier teeth-cutting time while he was student at North Texas State University.

“There was a club in Fort Worth, Texas, called Caravan of Dreams. It was like a cultural oasis in the middle of a cultural desert.”

It was a warm-up for Handy’s subsequent move to the Big Apple.

“Everyone from New York, who was working their way across the country playing clubs – back then there were a lot more jazz clubs in America – would play there,” he says, adding that he caught the acts of many of jazz’s legends there. “I saw people like Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Betty Carter. It was great.”

That served to set Handy on his way to ever bigger and better things, and he has maintained his evolutionary musical continuum in the three decades or so that have elapsed since his student days. When I spoke to him, Handy hadn’t yet nailed down the repertoire for the Ashdod gig, but assured me it will be fun and entertaining, and should appeal to all and sundry.

“It’ll be fantastic, it’ll be groovy, it’ll be jazzy and it will swing. We’ll definitely have a good time.”

The Super Jazz Ashdod Festival takes place on November 30 and December 1. For tickets: http://ashow.co.il.

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