Blowing into town

US saxophonist Joel Frahm and his quintet perform nationwide in the Hot Jazz series.

Jazz 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jazz 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joel Frahm, the next star turn in the Hot Jazz series (December 3 – 8), has taken something of a circuitous route to get where he is today. The 42-year-old saxophonist started out at age five on classical piano – with some bassoon endeavor in his formative years as well – before settling on the tenor saxophone as his preferred vehicle of artistic expression.
A geographical shift also helped move Frahm’s musical evolution along. When he was a teenager, his journalist father received a job offer from the Hartford Courant newspaper in Connecticut, and the family relocated from Wisconsin to the East Coast . It proved to be a fortuitous decision for young Frahm because as he ended up attending Hall High School, which had a very good jazz program. One of his classmates was the now celebrated pianist Brad Mehldau, and he and Frahm soon began to play together.
Frahm, Mehldau and the rest of the jazz students seem to have been a tight bunch, and the saxophonist recalls the rest of the school’s youth big band pooling their limited financial resources to buy him six records for his 15th birthday. The unexpected musical windfall included releases by trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, pianists Horace Silver and Cedar Walton, and saxophonists Phil Woods and Charlie Parker. Outside school hours, Mehldau and Frahm began to perform with older professionals at venues in and around Hartford. Frahm recalls making a few bucks from each gig, and the next day going with Mehldau to the record store to spend all their hard-earned cash on jazz vinyls.
Parker in particular was a strong influence on the teenager’s early musical odyssey, and Frahm later got the chance to feed off the rich experience of some of the veterans of the discipline. After graduating from high school in 1988, he attended Rutgers University for a year before transferring to the Manhattan School of Music and subsequently joining the Jazz Ahead workshop, run by stellar vocalist Betty Carter.
Meanwhile, Frahm also began to gain some valuable street-level experience of playing all sorts of venues around New York, teaming up with the likes of veteran trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and organ and keyboard player Larry Goldings, as well as hooking up with old classmate Mehldau as a member of the pianist’s early 1990s quartet. By the mid-1990s, Frahm had become a fixture on the New York jazz scene and was a regular at important venues like Smoke and Smalls.
Over the years, Frahm has spread his musical talents across a wide range of genre and mentions pop and rock acts such as The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers and Paul Simon in his roster of influences.
To date, he has released five CDs under his own name and has performed sideman duties on dozens more. His most recent recording, Live at Smalls, features contemporaries guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bass player Joe Martin and drummer Otis Brown III, while the 2007 effort We Used to Dance saw the saxophonist team up with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Victor Lewis, all of whom are a generation or more older than Frahm.
That ability to follow several artistic avenues in tandem has stood Frahm in good stead over the last couple of decades of musical endeavor and will probably do the trick on his Hot Jazz tour here next week. For his six-date Israeli circuit, Frahm will join forces with four Israeli fellow professionals – saxophonist Amit Fredman, pianist Nitai Hershkowitz, bass player Gilad Abro and drummer Shai Zelman.
Joel Frahm and his quintet will perform on December 3 at 9 p.m. at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem. On December 4 at 10 p.m. at the Zappa Club in Herzliya (doors open at 8:30 p.m.). On December 5 at 10 p.m. at Heichal Hatarbut in Modi’in. On December 6 & 7 at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively, at the Tel Aviv Museum. And on December 8 at 9 p.m. at Abba Hushi House in Haifa.