Effortlessly, Sam Braysher breathes life into his alto and makes the Great American Songbook sparkle and shine. He brings a light and sure touch, swinging here and bending there, giving each phrase just enough force to lead into/lead away from the piano, which is played with amazing sensitivity and artistry by Michael Kanan (at left, second photo).
On the title song of their new “Golden Earrings” CD, one can hear Sam’s mastery of the beautiful, round tone, not needing to adorn with much vibrato at all; sixteenths during the bridge glide along with no travail; all breaths come evenly with the consistency of an endless sheet of silk blowing in a steady spring wind.
“Way Down Yonder New Orleans” is a hoppy, energetic piece that still maintains Sam’s easygoing, strolling manner. In his Quartet setting, “Jazz Nursery” floats the notes by quickly and he enjoys a counterpoint with the organ. Next, bass and percussion hit it harder, and Sam rises to the occasion, confidently utilizing all registers available. But never overblown, never offering anything but coolth.
When did you first learn sax?
I started having saxophone lessons at school when I was 11. I began playing the recorder at seven, which made starting the saxophone much easier: lots of stuff is transferable between the two instruments.
I was probably 16 or 17 when I first tried the clarinet but only went through a period of proper practice on it when I was at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama studying for my undergraduate degree: all saxophone players there have to take a “doubling” exam on clarinet and flute.
Since the tonal range is similar, what makes you choose one over the other?
The saxophone is very much my first instrument, and trying to improve is a lifelong pursuit. I really enjoy playing the clarinet and being able to double on it is really useful for me professionally, but my level on it isn’t comparable to a serious first-study clarinetist. At this point, practice time is limited so all my focus is on trying to be the best jazz saxophonist I can be.
How do you keep your reeds fresh; and how do you keep them apart for both instruments?
I’m not the biggest connoisseur of all that stuff but searching for decent reeds is certainly one of the banes of my life!
Most important takeaway from your music education?
It’s hard to name just one thing, but I certainly met a lot of great people and made some good friends while I was studying, many of whom I still play with. Since graduating I’ve also learned lots from working professionally and playing with people older and better than me.
What is the jazz scene like in London and are they supportive of artists?
I think the scene is really strong in London: there are lots of great players across a broad range of styles. There’s also a good mixture of places to play: jazz clubs, bar/restaurant gigs, a grassroots scene of musician-run weekly or monthly gigs and, with the city being a financial center, quite a few job-type gigs like functions. London is an expensive place to live, though!
In terms of support for artists, I received some funding from Arts Council England for my tour with Michael Kanan, which was a great help in making the whole thing viable, so I can’t complain! That said, I believe the arts are less well-funded here than in some other European countries, and jazz does seem to get the short end of the stick in comparison to the amount of public money that is put into other art forms.
What is the biggest challenge to marketing yourself as an indie musician?
Finding the time to fit it in along with gigs, teaching and practice. Plus, like a lot of jazz musicians, I’m not the most natural hustler or self-promoter!
How has “Golden Earrings” been received so far?
It’s been nice, thanks. We’ve had some positive coverage here in the UK and I’m now working on trying to get it reviewed in some publications abroad.
What did you enjoy most about production, recording and the release?
I certainly learned lots from going through the process of recording and releasing my first album. Choosing the tunes was fun, and recording for two days in Brooklyn, NY with Michael was a brilliant experience. Then the highlight of the whole thing was probably when he came over to the UK for eight gigs in September. It took lots of arduous admin work to make it happen, but then when it finally did, it was amazing to just focus on playing music with someone of that caliber for a week.
What was your goal in putting together this particular list of songs?
With it being my first album as a leader, I wanted the track list to feature a nice balance of stuff I’m into: tunes by jazz composers, songs by the great songwriters, plus there’s one original by me. I also enjoy trying to find some lesser known/lesser played tunes to interpret, so I tried to go slightly off the beaten track in that respect.
What is your favorite track?
Can I cheat and choose three? I like “Dancing in the Dark” (where Michael plays the melody and I play a counter line), “The Scene Is Clean” (a great tune by Tadd Dameron) and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (a fun one at the end of the album where Michael and I improvise together and then finish by playing a Lester Young solo in unison).
Why do you like the lesser-known songs from the Great American Songbook, and how are they different from the ones that get so much play?
I don’t think there’s a particular musical reason you can pinpoint that unifies the lesser-known ones. I just think the Great American is such a wonderful and expansive resource, and I enjoy the process of hunting down ones that are a bit more obscure than the ones that we hear jazz musicians play all the time. That said, numbers like “All the Things You Are” and “Stella by Starlight” are well-known for a reason. They’re beautiful songs and great jazz musicians will always find ways to make them sound fresh.
How did you and Michael Kanan meet?
I met Michael on my first trip to New York in 2014, although I already knew his playing from some recordings. We kept in touch and played a bit informally when he was in London a few times in 2015 on tour with Jane Monheit. I then took part in a summer school run by Jorge Rossy near Barcelona, which Michael teaches every year alongside people like Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ben Street, Chris Cheek and Peter Bernstein.
I had one of the gigs with Michael filmed, and here’s a video Watch here.
How did you make the decision that you’d mesh so well together?
Michael is a real expert on the American Songbook (I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert myself but I’m very interested in it) and I think we are fans of a lot of the same musicians. He’s an incredibly nice person and was a joy to work with throughout the whole process.
What technique or style does he bring to the table that is a contrast to and complements you?
Michael is renowned as a world-class accompanist, so playing with him is a real treat: he’d complement most people’s playing! He’s very swinging, has a beautiful touch and he plays great changes on all those beautiful songs he knows.
What other countries have you performed in?
France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Ireland.
Venue you’d most want to play?
The Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, NYC: a truly iconic room that has hosted performances and recordings by countless greats of this music. The Sonny Rollins Trio recordings from the Vanguard are some of my absolute favorites.
How do you characterize your particular style?
I try to play in a thoughtful and inventive way. My influences include Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, Lester Young, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins, so I hope that their influence can be heard along with a dose of my own personality. I play a range of stuff stylistically, but I’m especially interested in interpreting standards at the moment.
What new techniques, time signatures, etc. would you want to develop further?
All of the greats were incredibly strong when it came to the fundamentals. I still feel I have work to do in that respect, so a lot of my practice routine is taken up with fairly elementary stuff like sound, feel, learning tunes, transcribing solos, playing at different tempos and in different keys.
How did you get on BBC3 and what was that like?
I had a publicist, Emma Perry, working on generating some press for the album. She did a fantastic job and the interview with Emma Smith on BBC Radio 3 was one of things that she made happen. You can listen to it here.
It took place just before my album launch and tour with Michael, so I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to plug them on a jazz-focused program on national radio.
How do you get people who say they don’t like jazz to keep an open mind?
Jazz is an incredibly broad term, so if someone thinks they don’t like the genre, you never know what might have led them to that notion. They might not have heard Miles Davis or Stan Getz or Sarah Vaughan!
In my experience, most people respond positively to live jazz if it is played well in a nice and welcoming setting. In my own music, I tend to feature fairly short solos and varied textures and arrangements, so that things are engaging for the casual listener.
Do you think a spirit of competition in music is as valuable as collaboration?
A spirit of competition has probably historically been an important part of jazz. For example, the legendary “cutting contests” that used to take place between the Harlem stride pianists. That said, ultra-competitive environments (such as some jam sessions) are often not that conducive to good music being made, so I would say that a spirit of collaboration is more helpful for everyone.
Plans for your band or writing new material this year?
I’m doing some trio gigs (with bass and drums) in the UK in the spring and I’m also trying to arrange some gigs in Europe for Michael and me. It would be great if we could play together again soon!
What do you want audiences to know about you?
I’m a 28-year-old alto saxophonist from London. I recently released my debut album, which is called “Golden Earrings” and is a duo recording with the wonderful New York-based pianist Michael Kanan. It’s out on the Barcelona-based label Fresh Sound New Talent and is available through my website or in the other usual places (the FSNT website, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify etc.).
Thanks for having me!
Photos courtesy of and with permission from Sam Braysher. Top photo © Dave Hamblett-Vortex; second photo © John Rogers.
© Debbie Burke 2018