Putting the wind in his sails

At 65, saxophonist Stephen Horenstein is still pushing the envelope.

Stephen Horenstein. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Stephen Horenstein.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Stephen Horenstein has traveled a long road to get where he is today, spending almost all of the last four decades exploring improvised music.
Now the 65-year-old, Boston-born saxophonist and composer has received official recognition for his artistic efforts: On Wednesday, he attended a glittering ceremony in Jerusalem ahead of the closing concert in this year’s Israeli Music Festival program, at which he received the 2013 Prime Minister’s Award for Jazz Composers.
Since making aliya in 1980, he has maintained a front-grid position in innovative musical endeavor here, teaching at Tel Aviv University and at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance.
In 1987, he founded the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music – an enterprising vehicle for musical exploration among budding young musicians – which he runs to this day.
He got an early start to his eventual career.
“My mother was a classical pianist, and my father was a gifted singer in the style of Cab Calloway, moves and all,” says the composer. Calloway was a singer and bandleader who enjoyed great popularity in the 1930s and ’40s, principally due to his scat singing style and entertaining dance routine.
Horenstein had to wait a while before he made it to his favored instrument, though.
“When they gave us these lists of instruments for us to choose in fourth grade, I checked out saxophones.
I have no idea why I was drawn to the saxophone,” he recalls. “But they said I was too small, so they gave me a clarinet instead.”
Eventually, paternal intervention set the youngster on his chosen road to instrumental exploration.
“One day my dad found me crying, and he asked me what the problem was. I told him I wanted to play the saxophone, not the clarinet. The very next day he came home from work and pushed a Buescher alto saxophone into my room. My dad was okay.”
It wasn’t just the intricacies of playing the instrument and producing its sonorities that interested young Horenstein. “At an early age, I started to get into the quality of the sound, and all these records that enhanced stereo 3D sound and all that. I think it was only later that I started to listen to saxophone players. The first saxophonist I heard live, in Boston, was [alto player] Charlie Mariano, and later [fellow altoist] Cannonball Adderley. And of course, I later got into people like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.”
He initially played alto, but his first serious mentor initiated a move to the larger tenor model and unwittingly got the student to put in some overtime.
“When [trumpeter and free jazz movement leader] Bill Dixon met me, he asked me if I played tenor.
I had one at home, so I said yes, and I had my mother put my tenor on the bus to Bennington College in Vermont, where I’d moved after undergraduate school,” Horenstein explains. In fact, he’d had precious little hands-on experience with the tenor.
“Bill was sort of a Zen master who would do things in very odd ways to get you to go beyond your capabilities. I had a phenomenal opportunity, so when he said, ‘Do you play tenor?’ – I did play a bit – I disappeared for two weeks and came back a tenor player.”
That sharp learning curve successfully navigated, he enjoyed a decade-long tenure at Bennington College, became a faculty member in double-quick time and embarked on a challenging and rewarding odyssey under Dixon’s aegis. Shortly after Horenstein gained a half-decent mastery of his tenor saxophone, Dixon threw his young student into the deep end.
“He told me he was doing a piece for the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra in New York, and I said I’d love to come to see what he was doing. He said, ‘No problem,’ and he gave me a few exercises to do.”
Unbeknown to Horenstein, this was a premeditated move. “He said to me, ‘You never know, bring your tenor along to New York,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’” It was only when Horenstein arrived at the concert venue that he realized he had been duped into a sink-orswim predicament.
“I got to the room, and my mouth dropped. I saw all these legends of black American music there. Bill says to me, ‘Get your horn out, this is your seat.’ I sat down, and to my right was [leading bebop and avant-garde jazz saxophonist] Lee Konitz, to my left was [free jazz saxophonist] Dewey Redman, and Bill says to me, ‘You’re the section leader.’... It’s like the American Indians, when they have a famine – I think the Navajo or one of the main tribes – they would throw a baby into the stream, and if it didn’t struggle, they’d say they couldn’t count on him in times of famine and they’d just let it drift away. Bill just threw me into the frying pan.”
A couple of years later, another formative – and potentially disastrous – experience came along when Dixon took Horenstein with him to perform with a band at a prison.
“I thought I’d just sit in with the group and play a few licks,” he recalls, “but I get pushed out to the front of the stage and have to play solo to around 900 maximum-security inmates. I just shut my eyes and played like I’d never played before. I tell my students today that I felt like I’d broken through the prison walls. All the prisoners were on their chairs dancing and shouting. It was an amazing experience.”
The encouraging audience response notwithstanding, he was not best pleased at the time. “After the gig, I walked up to Bill with darts in my eyes, and he just smiled and said to me, ‘That’s the way you should always play.’” THOSE RITES of passage, says Horenstein, have stood him in good stead throughout his professional career.
When he made aliya – prompted by a remark from fellow Bennington faculty member and Pulitzer Prizewinning author Bernard Malamud – he quickly became involved in all kinds of envelope-pushing projects.
His first major project here came about when he overheard a conversation between Israel Museum executives in 1981 and, with a liberal degree of chutzpah, offered his compositional services for the museum’s “Seven Dances for a Garden” music and dance event.
In the three-decade interim, he has imparted his freeflowing musical ethos to several generations of young musicians in Jerusalem and elsewhere, principally through the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music and through his work with the Rubin Academy’s Lab Orchestra. He has composed and recorded a long list of original music, and given workshops and courses in the United States, Europe and Thailand.
At 65, and with the prime minister’s seal of approval, he shows no signs of slowing down or taking it easy.
There are all kinds of events lined up to mark the 25th anniversary of the Institute of Contemporary Music, and later this month he will play in an unusual musical slot with the Butterfly Effect Ensemble at France’s Festival D’Ile de France: He and American-born percussionist Jeffery Kowalski and pianist Lior Novak will perform a live composition to accompany a screening of the 1920 horror movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
For Horenstein, it has always been about pushing the envelope, and doing his best to communicate that to the public.
“The true artist travels the thin line between the precipice of the ivory tower, and his solitude, while on the other hand relating to the caring or social side of the music, and conveying that,” he says. “I suppose you could say it is a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” •