Bestowing a Gift: The Lush Sax of Carlo Muscat

There are ways to cover songs that take the material to new places, infusing a new climate altogether. Sax player Carlo Muscat has gathered tunes by some of the biggest names in jazz (Coltrane, Mobley, Rollins, Shorter) and pressed them gently but firmly into a new form. The result is Diversion, released November 2021.

The way he breathes into Coltrane’s “After the Rain” makes the journey soft and heartfelt, playing off the glow and shimmer of the guitar to create a sweet sensitivity. The counterpoint between the two instruments continues in the lively “Valse Hot” that densifies the conversation with the entrance of percussion and a hearty solo on bass. “This I Dig of You” is fast on its feet, light, sumptuous and swings deep. Personnel on this album includes Carlo Muscat (saxophone), Simon Martineau (guitar), Mauro Gargano (bass) and Philip Maniez (drums).

He performed Coltrane’s “Central Park West” as a duet with electric bassist Dean Montanaro to such stunning effect as to be indescribable. As a leader and sideman, Muscat gives his all, collecting vibe, feeling and mood to play with humanity and affection.

How did you first learn about jazz?

It’s kind of weird that I had absolutely no idea what jazz was before I decided I wanted to pick up the saxophone. I asked my parents if I could have one, but I also don’t know what sparked that interest. I was introduced to a wonderful world of jazz music by my teacher, Vinny Vella, who would not only show me how to play but would also take the time to share his thoughts about many of his favorite musicians.

My first jazz CD was Best of Big Bands and I believe that it was crucial in providing some initial direction I needed to grow and appreciate the world of jazz.

Where did you receive your early music education?

Before playing the saxophone, I learned the violin. This period also included an introduction to music theory. The violin didn’t interest me; however, the theoretical background I gained over these initial years definitely helped me to move along much faster once I picked up the saxophone. After that, I continued to learn the theory only through saxophone lessons, which made a lot more sense to me. 

What was the most impactful thing you learned in your music training that you follow today?

The importance of patience and understanding; how much time it takes to improve (which is A LOT). My personality is one that tends to want to move fast, to do think as quickly as possible once I’ve decided. It’s good for most things, but in music, discipline is much more important. Another thing is the importance of learning as many things as possible on the piano, regardless of what your instrument is. A bit more than ten years ago I decided I wanted to start writing my own music, which meant I had to figure everything out on the piano. I taught myself to play all kinds of chords while writing my music.

For about a year, I was spending more time at the piano than on the saxophone; however, since I could now visualize all the changes on the piano when playing the saxophone, my improvisation took a huge leap. I also believe that it depends on which senses you tend to tap into when playing music. Naturally, I’m very visually oriented so this method works perfectly. Take the time to understand yourself and it will help you be more efficient in your practice. 

What themes (ideas) inspire you when you compose?

I often find myself moving towards concepts of space. I also like to write music about both historical and fictional characters; it’s a lot of fun to use music to shape their personalities and tell their story. That being said, anything could inspire me to write. 

How would you characterize your particular style of playing?

I wouldn’t know how to define it as a particular style; to me, it’s simply jazz. My ‘style’ is mainly characterized by the musicians who influenced me over the years, and I use these influences to create my own approach to sound. I try to avoid using words to describe the music; it’s always the sound that defines it.

What musical ideas do you like to incorporate in your music?

I try to be as instinctive as possible and limit my thinking. Once enough time has been spent on practice, the musical ideas will flow by themselves.

I try to write anything that comes to me without putting much thought into it; once that first part of the process is done, I can start to refine it. My goal is always to not place any limits on the ideas at the start of the process.

What do you like most about the small (quartet) ensemble?

I like how each and every instrument has its role; there is no overlap when the musicians understand what their contribution to the music is. Each instrument fills a particular space in the spectrum and is free to create within that space. When done correctly, it all comes together as one sound. 

How have the other musicians on this CD helped you reach the sound you wanted?

In general, my compositions are only the start of an idea and I’m not even sure what they will sound like until they’ve been recorded. Working with such great musicians feels like another part of the composition process, but in this case, I try to limit my input as much as possible. I only explain the very basic aspects of the tune and avoid influencing the other members.

This freedom gives them the opportunity to bring their own ideas and voice to each piece and makes the recordings even more special. So, in reality, all other musicians help out simply by being themselves, and that’s exactly the sound that I’m looking for.

Why the title WOOL?

I believe I got this title from a book I was reading when I first moved to Paris in 2013. I wrote the tune and didn’t have a title for it, so I chose this name and thought it would be quite sarcastic because the piece is extremely hard-hitting and up-tempo, nothing to do with wool.

Talk about Diversity – what inspired it and what was the biggest challenge in production.

Diversity was mainly inspired by the 2020 protests and the Black Lives Matter movement; I wanted the project to be a small contribution to the support that thousands of people were giving all over the US by helping people discover the immense impact African American musicians have had on this music. I proposed the project to the US Embassy in Malta which was generous enough to sponsor the production.

The main challenges were understanding when the project could be carried out because the pandemic was still causing so many problems throughout 2021. It was supposed to happen in March and then got postponed to the end of June. The album was recorded in an Airbnb house in Montreuil (just outside Paris); the guitarist on the album, Simon Martineau, brought all the necessary equipment to record, and we managed this in two days. It wasn’t possible to make any major edits since we were playing in one room and no booths, so it’s basically a live album. I mixed and mastered the album myself over the following two months. We will be playing a launch concert with the original band in Paris on 10th March 2022, at Le Barbizon. 

Were any of the tracks especially difficult to compose or produce?

Diversity doesn’t feature any of my original compositions. It includes some simple arrangements of famous pieces by the musicians who have most influenced me over the years. In general, since we did everything by ourselves, the whole album was quite a challenge to produce. 

What’s the most experimental thing you’ve ever done musically?

The album Explorations which was recorded in Paris in 2016 with a group of Maltese musicians. It’s an experiment in mixing influences from other genres and is the only project that features an electric bass rather than a double bass.

For more information visit www.carlomuscat.bandcamp.com and https://www.carlomuscat.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) 2022 Debbie Burke

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