Masterful Rivulets: The Andrew Rathbun Quintet

Andrew Rathbun CD

In “Character Study,” Canadian-born sax player (now stateside) Andrew Rathbun leads a serious quintet that cooks a multi-course meal and serves it jumping around, ladling mind-blowing flavors on every plate. While his lone sax thoughtfully breathes an undeniably gorgeous melody in “His Quiet Determination” before being joined by the other members of the band, “Turmoil” is its own deceptive cadence by beginning just as mellowly but then diving into a bebop feel (with amazingly layered unity between sax and trumpet) peppered by a jagged rhythm. Never overblowing and in fact bringing out more with less, Rathbun’s sax playing is brilliant in the fast-moving “Etcetera,” a track whose blazing spot-on drums crafts the perfect ride for the rest of the ensemble. Technical ability to the max? Yeah, but way beyond that. An amazing audio treat.

Is Toronto as you remember it a jazz-friendly region? What could be done to improve the music scene?

I have not lived in Toronto for some time, but I do get back there to play (I played the Toronto Jazz Festival two years ago). It’s a great scene, with many wonderful players. There are some top-flight musicians who deserve much more recognition outside of Canada. There is also a large contingent of Canadian musicians, like myself, who are working outside of Canada. 

As for improvements in the scene, I offer the same commentary that you might about most communities: more places to play, better support for the artists by the audience. In Canada, there is a strong tradition of both Provincial and Federal support for the arts, but I would like to see improvised music, in ALL its forms, be embraced by a wider audience. 

Jazz festival you have always wanted to play?


Artist you have always wanted to perform live with?

I would love a chance to play with Bill Frisell. I have always been a huge fan of his. The trio with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian was very important to me. I used to try and hear them as much as possible when I lived in New York. That band always grabbed me, every time, no matter what sort of repertoire they were performing. Obviously Bill was a huge part of creating that sound. 

To specialize in both tenor and soprano, quite the difference. When you compose do you write specifically for one or the other, or just write the music and let it dictate which horn?

I definitely think about which horn I will play based on the piece I am writing. I actually think about that for the entire group; the actual musicians and how they play. I try and work towards their strengths and sounds, who will blend, when we might play a unison line versus a harmonized line, etc.  

Talk about how you formed the quintet.

I chose the musicians in this group for their sounds and approaches, and then how they would fit together. I have been playing with Gary Versace and Jay Anderson for some time, and I have worked with them on other recordings. They are both incredibly special, both as musicians and as people.

Tim Hagans has such a personal and unique improvisational language (he calls it “Daytonality” as he hails from Dayton, Ohio). His vibe is so unique, so personal, and I love being around his spirit. Bill Stewart has been one of my favorite drummers since I first heard him. I always wanted to play with him, and the first time I did, it was surreal. Surreal because I’d listened to almost everything he’s ever played on. He has an infectious groove that is so fun to interact with.  

Your favorite collaboration ever?

There have been a number of amazing collaborations that I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of. I recently did a project of the Debussy preludes with pianist Jeremy Siskind that we hope to have out soon. I have a long relationship with bassist Scott Lee and drummer Jeff Hirshfield that I cherish, and we’ve released two collaborative projects together (Shadow Forms).

But for sentimental reasons, my favorite collaboration was with Kenny Wheeler, who played on my record “Sculptures.” I was a huge fan of his, and adore both his playing and writing. He is one of my most important influences. So to get a chance to work with him was really important to me. 

In the 2007 “Affairs of State” and the 2009 “Where We Are Now” – what makes these projects political? How has American and Canadian politics informed your writing?

Well since I’ve been in the US for so long, my political interests have been focused mostly here. I do pay attention to Canadian politics, and there are many amazing things about Canada that I wish the Americans would pay closer attention to (like Universal Healthcare). 

In terms of informing my writing, I’ve used some the things I’ve read about or investigated as inspiration for different pieces. Something like “Around the Same Circles” was inspired by reading about campaign finance. In the US this is a ridiculous merry-go-round that to me makes no sense. So I channeled some of that into a somewhat additive/circular chord progression which releases into a section that has a lot more angst in it. I feel like my solo has the same sort of energy.

I realize that politics is a fairly obtuse thing to use as inspiration, but it’s something that I feel pretty passionate about. I have an older friend in Brooklyn who was a real inspiration to me. He is a social activist, very well read and very well informed. And he come to his own conclusions rather than merely following his “tribe.”

Favorite part of recording “Free Fall”? Best track?

I really like Jeremy’s track “Spin So Violent.” I also like the piece I composed for it, “Velocity Unknown.”

What new terrain are you exploring in the new CD “Character Study”?

I am always looking for a new way into pieces that I write. One of the pieces is a really high-energy, odd meter excursion that starts out with something you might find in the slow movement of a classical sonata. On this recording the pacing of my improvisations are better and I’m more aware of how they are unfolding.  

How difficult is it to stay technically accurate while keeping a piece moving?

Just one of the many challenges of improvised music! I think my answer would be it is difficult, but you certainly do not want to be thinking about the degree of difficulty in the moment. You just have to “react” and deal. And although I am always interested in developing my technique, my hope is that the listener is responding to the emotional content of what I am playing, the overall vibe of it, rather than its technical prowess.

Today there are so many players who are technically proficient who don’t really grab me. There are other players who have an equal degree of technique, but are less concerned with exhibiting their chops than trying to get their heartfelt ideas across to the listener.  

What was the most challenging song to record and why?

“Turmoil.” Another aspect of the challenge was that we only had 6 or 7 hours to make the record, so we had to be very efficient with our time. If I’d had my druthers we would have recorded the album over two days and taken our time more! 

Do audiences fall in love with a good hook, a good rhythm?

I hope so! Rhythm is usually the first thing people respond to, and of course a great melody goes a long way. It’s interesting you use the word “hook” because I’ve been listening to a great deal of David Binney’s music lately, and man does that guy know how to write an interesting hook! They are not “conventional” in that you are not going to hear a similar gesture on the radio, because they take some serious twists and turns, but they are exactly what a good hook is: infectious and memorable.  

What doors do you hope this new CD opens?

I hope it exposes me to a different audience, and that a wider swath of listeners and industry folks hear it, enabling me to book this band more frequently. 

Other comments?

Thanks for your interest and willingness to support this music. I really appreciate your energy and commitment to spreading the word about the recording. THANKS DEBBIE!

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Andrew Rathbun.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019



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