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The New Face of Jazz (Interview)

From the, “The New Face of Jazz: An Intimate Look at Today’s Living Legends and the Artists of Tomorrow” [A Random House Book 2010] 

By Cicily Janus – photography by Ned Radinsky 

[Excerpt from book – used by permission from the author] 


Ricky Sweum 


“Music is a lifelong journey of self-discovery and rediscovery.” 


BACKGROUND AND SOUND 


Award-winning saxophonist Ricky Sweum has emerged through the scenes in New York and Colorado as an upcoming master of the craft. He landed on his own two feet with a record deal from Origin Record and tours with the very best in the industry, from solo musicians to Broadway. In the past he has been a member of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop under the tutelage of Jim McNeely and Michael Abene, toured with nationally touring Broadway companies, and performed with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and other greats such as Clark Terry, James Moody, and Terry Gibbs. Recognizing those who have helped him with his initial shove toward the top, Ricky is putting his sweat and earnest belief into everything he does in order to create a journey that will last him a lifetime. 


HIS STORY 


Jazz isn’t a style as much as a way the musicians have learned to play what it is they play. You can’t separate playing from listening; you have the ability as a musician to respond to what’s around you in a way that’s different than every other kind of music. The essence is living, responding, listening, and stretching. Life is about movement and flexibility, and jazz speaks life to me. Focusing music into something greater than the musicians themselves allows their intent to permeate energy to listeners. It has the effect of inspiration within the process of mastery. When I first got into music it was about being excited about something I didn’t understand. This was followed by the realization that music is a set of skills, a craft, a model on how one can conduct their life. With it came this feeling of responsibility to master these skills, but that mastery never comes. At that point, it becomes a continuous process of self-discovery. I’m still blown away now, twenty-five years later, the same way I was on day one. I didn’t even and still don’t know what I don’t know. 


I think the biggest thrill for me is when someone comes up to me and they know nothing about music and yet they’re inspired. Maybe not musically, but the inspiration to repeat whatever process they’re into and create something new that couldn’t be created by themselves is great. You are your only self, and by bringing two, three, or five people more that are equally inspired it creates something that wouldn’t be if you were alone. It’s alchemy of inspiration and passion. Jazz is just one form of this alchemy-a microcosm of creative life in general throughout the whole universe. Even if you play something that’s been done before, it’s not the same-a new, different moment that represents now. For audiences I would hope they appreciate who I am in that moment. This music must be given one’s full attention, a worthy chance. Anywhere throughout music, if it’s a typical place, it takes on the background role, and this negatively influences musicians. They take on a background role and create that moment to the uninspired and passionless performances. It’s a disservice to what it is we’re trying to create. The subtlety of everything that’s trying to happen is completely covered over. The audience, on the other hand, can inspire the performer. 


Jazz is not a style that can be defined, it’s a living, breathing and constantly changing in its own time music. It gets down to the basics of energy effecting energy. Jazz is freedom within restrictions. Fill yourself with passion, desire-a raw energy you can use and create something new. Don’t discard anything because it doesn’t fit the mold you’re trying to learn. Keep it. Save it for later. Music is a lifelong journey of self- discovery and rediscovery. Remain open, as this is allowing whatever is there to be the perfect thing. If you approach what you’re doing in music from that standpoint, you’ll hear the mood and make it fun for the listener and performer. It’s an undeniable force, a visceral experience of combined energies.

Vipassana and Jazz (Blog)


The completion of the 10 day Vispassana Meditation course in 2013, as taught by S. N. Goenka, has had a profound effect on my mind. It is a simple technique that contains the potential to free the practitioner from suffering both mentally and physically, and enables one to experience the present moment of reality free from the delusion of craving and evasion. 


Background 


Since moving to Japan one year ago, I’ve had a strong pull to reconnect with an organized spiritual practice. There’s something special about the spirit here in Japan that strongly inspires me; perhaps its the thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that are omnipresent throughout the country. A couple months ago my wife and I went through a movie watching phase with the topic being Eastern Thought. After a couple weeks of watching many amazing films we came across the American made documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers”. It’s about a maximum-security prison in Alabama that used the 10 day Vispassana Meditation retreat on 20 volunteer inmates. The program had been used with great positive results in India’s prisons and was also successful in Alabama. This inspired us to do some research. 


After the movie, I referenced it’s website and found a link to the main Vipassana Meditation site (www.dhamma.org). I found the closest school to my Tokyo home was in Chiba where they offer classes year round. With summer leave just a month away and course availability open, I signed up (my wife also signed up to take the course 2 weeks before me). 


Having been exposed to Buddhist and Shamanistic thinking since childhood by my mother, new age mysticism from my dad, and then venturing out on my own to learn many of the teachings and practices of Zen, Osho, Yoga, Carlos Castaneda, Stuart Wilde, Dan Millman, Tom Brown’s spirit that moves through all things, NLP, Stephen Hayes’s Kasumi-An Dojo Tendai Mind Sciences, and Richard Bartlett’s Matrix Energetics…just to name a few, I felt like I knew a little about what I might be signing up for, but nothing specific other than what I had learned from the Dhamma Brothers movie (which didn’t go into the specifics of the technique at all). 


Upon being accepted into the course, I received an email with some basic guidelines for what to expect: 

What Vipassana is not: 


It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith. 

It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment. 

It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing. 

It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. 

What Vipassana is: 


It is a technique that will eradicate suffering. 

It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way. 

It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society. 

In essence, it is the exact technique that Buddha used and taught to thousands to free oneself from suffering. And in the true spirit of what he taught, it is a nonsectarian technique that can benefit anyone without infringing upon any current religious beliefs. 


The 10-Day Course 


“You are performing a deep surgical examination of the mind” – S. N. Goenka. 


The course itself was actually 12 days; they call the first day ‘day zero’ because everyone is traveling in and getting registered, but shortly after the afternoon checkin, turn in of all reading and writing materials and anything else that could otherwise distract attention, we jumped into our first instruction, practice, and undertook Noble Silence (9 days of no talking and non physical gestures — we were to make as if there was nobody else at the course other than ourself). They used the 10th day to break the silence in order to transition us back into normality of the world. Each day consisted of 10+ hours of sitting on the floor in meditation, eating vegetarian meals, a one hour discourse, and then sleeping…4am to 9pm every day. 


The first few days were dedicated solely to the practice of Anapana. This is a breath sensation observation meditation that focuses, calms and concentrates the mind. If all you were to do was Anapana, you would find amazing benefits to all aspects of your life due to the increased ability to concentrate on tasks at hand and not let your mind wander and distract you. 


Then we moved on to the heart of the practice…Vipassana. Summed up from my perspective, Vipassana is the technique of experiencing true reality of the present moment as it manifests as sensations throughout the body. The goal is to purify the mind and liberate yourself from the cravings and aversions you have to the present moment. It teaches you to become aware of the habitual mind body reaction patterns that run on the subconscious level by using the simple tool of observation. This detaches you from emotional patterns and allows you to accept reality as it is, as opposed to how you want it to be. 


Most importantly, Vipassana has to be practiced and experienced; it has little practical value as a philosophy or intellectual concept. You gain insight and wisdom only by your own hard earned discoveries. It is not something that can be learned though a book; instead, you learn truth by experiencing reality through your own mind and body, not somebody else’s explanation. All and all it’s an incredible technique that I will continue to practice daily. Definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life, both mentally and physically. Riding the ups, downs and breakthroughs after blockages was extremely fulfilling and inspiring. 


Vipassana and Jazz 


During one mediation, sitting completely motionless and feeling excruciating pain in my legs and back, I think, “I have to stay in this position another 30 minutes, how am I going to endure this?” I think of my Vipassana instruction, “Don’t react, just observe. All pleasant feelings and all bad feelings come from the same place; just observe and know that everything eventually changes.” Breakthrough moment: I suddenly think about my musical experiences with jazz…tension notes, dissonance with harmony, dissonant chords, cross rhythms, the beauty in playing things slightly “off” from center…these are some of the things that make jazz music so wonderful to me. Without tensions in music it would be monotonous and static, never going anywhere and creating dramatic variance. Back to the present moment: I related these split-second thoughts to my immediate pain and realized that my physical discomfort was equivalent to the dissonance in music. I think, “Stop reacting to the pain by wanting it to stop. Instead become curious about it. Remove the label of ‘pain’ and become objective with what exactly is being experienced. Like a scientist in a laboratory who is just noticing and taking notes without becoming emotionally involved with what’s being observed, I became detached and removed from my reactions and just aware of the present moment. Upon experiencing this I suddenly felt my pain, under the microscope of awareness, shift and change slightly…so interesting. It was a Matrix movie moment where I was pulled out of the fake reality and aware of the matrix for what it is. 


Applying this mindset to listening to music 


“There is no bad music, just negative labels you attach to how you think you perceive; if you experience the music for what it is, just an organization of sound, then you can enjoy all the sounds that enter your ears” – paraphrasing of concepts regularly expressed to me by the great NYC jazz improvisation teacher, Richard Tabnik. 


Music is sound vibration being transmitted through the air. Everything in the entire world is also vibration, so in essence we listen to and experience music by feeling it. In this sense there is no separation from the music and the perceiver…they become one and the same. Vipassana teaches us to feel sensations in the body and to observe them objectively. When we listen to music we can experience the sounds for what they are and notice how our bodies are effected by them. Observe the mind reactions both negative and positive, “This is terrible”, “I don’t want to listen to this anymore”, “I like this”, “I want to hear more”. Find the place of balanced detachment where you are aware of these reactions, and you are perfectly content for them to exist without being pushed to one side or the other through craving or aversion. 


Remove the instant labeling that the mind wants to give to the music you’re listening to…”This guy sounds like Joe Henderson”, “This solo isn’t as good as the last one”, etc…The lists of mind chatter are endless and always interfere with the actual present moment of sound reality. Find the place where you feel the music in your body and experience the sensations objectively. Subjective mind gets in the way of true experience. A whole new world of listening can open by lowering the volume to the subjective mind. 


Sit with Dissonance 


To become familiar with the multitude of tension notes in music and build objective tolerance to their dissonance, play simple chords on a piano: Root, 3rd, 7th (the basic structure of the chord), and then systematically add tension notes one at a time. Start with Root, 3rd, 7th and add a flat 9th. Next do Root, 3rd, 7th and add a sharp 9th. Then add a sharp 11th, and then a flat 13th. Then try all the possible combinations such as Root, 3rd, 7th, flat 9th and sharp 9th. Root, 3rd, 7th, sharp 9th and flat 13th, etc… The most important thing is to play the chord, let it sustain for a long time, and let your ears soak in the sound and subtle differences in tension qualities…just sit with it without reacting. Become intimately related with each variation and feel the vibrations. In the cosmic reality of music there is no difference between the intervals of a major 3rd (very pleasant sounding to most ears) and a minor 9th (very unpleasant to most ears)…there are both simply vibration. 


In conclusion 


Vipassana meditation will be of huge benefit to my life as a jazz musician, family man, military professional, educator, record label operator and beyond. It is a simple pragmatic tool to help deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday life and to become a more calm and happy person. Only having scratched the surface of the discipline, I’m happy to have entered the stream and am excited to continue along the path.

String Theory (Interview)

By CICILY JANUS, Published: November 11, 2009 at All About Jazz [read at AllAboutJazz.com]


The fog has lifted off of the coast of Seattle with the rise of Origin Records. As the fisherman of jazz today, they’ve cast their nets and pulled in a catch of fresh, raw and bold talent. Their latest catch: saxophonist Ricky Sweum.


Pulling Your Own Strings, which came out in mid-August 2009, has received some of the highest accolades from today’s best musicians including Dave Liebman who quotes Ricky as being a “burning tenor player with technique and ideas to spare…well worth checking out.” Other musicians who praise his album include Walt Weiskopf, Saxophonist Bill Evans, Bassist Rufus Reid, Pianist Marian McPartland, and James Moody who said it was a, “pleasure for my ears.”


But what catches the ears and places them in full attention is his sound. There’s candy with each sound bite. His playful style is obviously related to many distant jazz family members.


The influence of Dexter Gordon and Michael Brecker can be heard, with a dash of Leibman on the side. His hipster caché can be attributed to many of those grandfathered influences. Yet the tone and rhythm of his attitude can only be granted from his inner core.


The day in and day out of the life…touring the country with a big band, being a father, running his own gig scene in a small-ish town has grossly changed his tune and his story. Breaking across the expected norm, he’s pulled his own strings to contribute a unique weave to the cloth of modern jazz. Every tune is original, fresh and outstanding.


All About Jazz: Where were you or what was your school of thought when you were recording this album?


Ricky Sweum: I like the basic Buddhist principle, which I believe applies: We must always realize that we have choices instead of falling prey to whatever action that’s happening. We should be aware of the different feelings that are arising within us and choose to act in a way, at all times, that is peaceful to others.


One of the themes in my life for a period of time was the idea that I had to be content and happy with what is. I had to not feel like something has to be different or that it could have been done better or that I had to go back and relive that moment and think about how it could have been better…I have to, instead, just own what is.


AAJ: Do you feel this way about the album? That it is what it is? That you own it?


RS: Yes I do. I didn’t feel like this initially. Not at all. I spent the first few weeks after the recording feeling like I was going to have to put it in the trash and redo it. All of us felt really bad about it.


We had this excitement of going into the studio after we had been playing tons of gigs over the summer (of which I had digitally recorded every single one of them and listened to them) which gave us great confidence to go into the studio. We were used to creating these magical moments and then listening to them right away. It puffed us up, made us think that we deserved to be in the studio…but when we did the session we were all driving back from Denver and we put the rough mix in the CD player and all just felt terrible about it.


AAJ: Was it the recording session itself that made you feel this way? Or was it something else?


RS: Yes. I don’t know if it’s the experience of performing live in front of people who are feeding off of your energy and music and your solos…finishing a tune and getting applause and that instant gratification of the memory of what we just did. This is a great feeling.


But while we were in the studio it felt like it was representative of us on a night where we were only there 70%. And this feeling, after the recording, lasted for a good month. But listening to it almost a year later, having the distance, we all feel that it’s a wonderful representation of our talent. We all love it.


Going through that initial disappointment was huge. I didn’t think it was as good as I hoped it would be and I was worried because I had already committed to the mixing process and hired a Grammy Award-winner to do so. I thought, okay, I need to commit to this and be with it and that’s when my attitude shifted. I guess we find what we look for. It’s as easy to dwell on the negative things as it is to dwell on the positive.


2009 “Pulling Your Own Strings” (Origin Records)

AAJ: You’re signed to and distributed by Origin records. What would you say was your biggest challenge in the process of hiring and finding the right label for your album?


RS: I had it in the back of my mind, once everything was laid down in the studio, or even before that really, I hoped that the album would be picked up by a label. I’ve done a number of recordings in the past that have all been self-released and they were great but I only sold a couple of them, gave them away mostly to friends.


Having the label was something that seemed to be missing in my musical development. It was one of those things I think a lot of musicians need to have in their lives. But for me, I’d been feeling that I needed it for a long time even though I went through such a long stretch where I didn’t feel like I was ready to put forth the effort to have something on a big label.


That being said, you can, as an artist or musician, spend a lifetime in a practice room preparing for something. If you’re always looking to improve, you can always have the excuse that you’re not ready, especially in music where there are always going to be an infinite amount of things to work on. For me, I had to have that missing step, that validation. I didn’t have anything under my own name. Obtaining it became this big unknown…I had to figure out how to break into it.


AAJ: How did you break into it?


RS: Over the last few years I’d been following Origin Records because I had some close friends who had their own records through Origin. I thought maybe, if they were doing it, that I could do it as well.


A good friend of mine, I went to high school with, Toby Koenigsburg, who is now a professor at the University of Oregon, went through this stage a little earlier than I did. That feeling of having to prove yourself and your world not just to yourself or your friends, but to prove to everyone that you’re serious about your music. It’s just one of those rights of passage when you’re taking yourself to that next level. You can’t just prove it to yourself, you have to do it for the world.


One of the ways I’m doing this is by having something commercially released on a label. That was one of his goals through his tenure track and he did it and had great success. I knew from his experience and the experience of some of my other friends that this label was what I wanted. Plus I had never really had this many personal connections that were tied to a label. It also happens to be that Origin also puts out really great material. It’s been twelve years since I first heard about Origin records and they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve.


When the mixing and the mastering of the album was completed I felt like it was a really great product that was worthy of being listened to by the smaller independent labels. Then I made a list of all the labels that might be interested in me. Origin was always at the top of my list. I’m just thankful that they were the ones who showed the most interest.


AAJ: You said you hired a Grammy Award-winning engineer to do the mastering and mixing of the album. What did you learn by going through the post-production process with someone of that caliber?


RS: It’s such a different world. A lot of what’s habitual for me as a musician is that I’m focused on the sound, rhythm and the melody. I worry about the interaction with the other guys and the rises and falls in the context of the music. But when it’s all finished the mixing and the mastering is a whole different way of listening to music. My ears just don’t usually live there. For me, the whole process was a great experience to live in for a while. I learned how to listen to how things actually sound. I didn’t have to worry about rhythm and the things I would normally listen to and for and I could free myself from having to hear the music in ways I typically hear it. Instead I’m listening for subtle colors and brightness and darkness and the relationships between balance levels. Bob Dawson, who did the mix is a master. I felt amazingly confident in turning the project over to him with a list of different things I wanted to have fixed. Not only did he take care of the list he took care of his own list.


AAJ: How much of a hand would you say the average musician has in the post-recording process?


RS: It depends. You can be involved as much as you want. I wanted to produce as much of it as I could but my training doesn’t lie in that area. It truly was a learning process throughout. It’s just not where I normally live. But these guys make the big bucks for a reason. I once heard it described to me that you have to find an engineer that has golden ears. They live in that place all the time.


I tried at first, thinking that I would have a much more hands-on approach to mixing, having some guys from the Air Force band do some initial mixes. But our experience levels were as such that we would get to the point where we thought, okay this sounds better but not perfect and none of us had a clue as to what to do. That’s when I knew it would be worth going to those golden ears.


With David though, I thought I would be able to just drop it off and let him do the work like I did with Bob. But he wanted me to be there. He wanted to know what I wanted to get out of it and what I was hearing. He wanted me to bring in reference CDs that I’ve listened to. I’ve listened to some of them hundreds of times and I realized that I had taken for granted the things I heard that really made them different from each other.


For example, I love ECM records but when I started to really listen, I thought everything sounded like it was in a concert hall and there was lots of reverb. So I had to rethink what I would want for my project. Then I listened to a Chris Potter recording and it had no reverb at all. It sounded very crisp, like it was done in a small room. So it seemed that this CD was going to sound like it was either in a small club setting or a large concert hall. It was all very subtle yet significant.


I was almost done with the whole process when I played him one more. It was one of Michael Brecker’s CDs. There was something about the sound of Brecker and where it sounded coming in from the mix. He listened to it and then cocked his head and said “I’m glad you played that for me. It puts the tenor in a different space.” That’s the word he used! It was like the tenor sound was like a bubble over someone’s head, roundish…and after I heard him say it was in a different space, talking about that CD, the sound was then more like a little laser beam in a smaller area, instead of here and there. I learned that this part of the process was about putting the sound in a different space and a whole different concept. It was an amazing experience to work with someone who devotes their lives to hearing music in different spaces.


AAJ: How do you feel about the recording now, having gone through this part of the process in such an intimate way?


RS: It’s just comforting to know that this project has been touched by these two great listeners of music. Everything on here is original and I’m able, when I listen to it now, to focus on the actual music.


AAJ: What influenced you during this process?


RS: This was the first time the group had hit the studio and we weren’t used to it at all. We were in separate rooms when we were used to playing very tight, close to one another, and playing acoustically. But when you’re in the studio, you’re separated by closed doors and the lifeline you have is just a pair of headphones. It took a couple of hours that day to really feel comfortable with it. It was definitely awkward for me. Initially it felt like a job we had to do. We had to stay focused and come back to that little instance of separation. From the moment you go into your mind and you’re feeling that resistance…as in something that doesn’t feel ideal you have to change.


I had to realize that this was the situation we were in. Instead of reacting negatively, we just decided to own it and make music. I took my shoes off and started swaying back and forth and getting into the music. Music is such an audio experience and yet for me, early on, some of the most significant music that influenced me were recordings I’ve made live, on my own. Concerts, bootlegged…they enter this different dynamic. Instead of being something you hear, I was there, seeing it. I was feeling whatever you can feel from being a live person who was watching them physically interacting with each other and then how they interact with the audience.


Those were really significant to me because I could go back and listen to the whole recording and remember the whole experience as opposed to just remembering and hearing a sound. Sometimes I feel that music is too sterile otherwise. Yet I get goose bumps when I listen to music like this. Not only is the music great but to experience that energy in a live situation reconnects you to what I love about music.


AAJ: Where did Pulling Your Own Strings come from?


RS: I wrote the tune, Pulling Your Own Strings the first year I was at William Patterson. This was the first time I really had a “band.” We got together and said, okay, let’s see what can happen if we play together as much as we possibly can.


William Patterson is a great school to go to because we had all those fantastic players but for me, the schooling didn’t really begin until after the classes were done. Every evening you could go there and people would have these Jam Sessions. It was a great atmosphere. You could go room to room and jam with different guys. But with my group, we almost made ourselves exclusive. We felt drawn to do something more than just the typical jam session mentality. Also, when you’re in school you’re often placed by your teachers in the different ensembles. This also means you’re not always placed with the people you really want to play with.


We used our intuition and said there’s something really special about playing with this particular group. We all felt this way. Night after night after night we got into the whole collective. I’m sure it’s not new to get into the collective improvisation thing, but sometimes, in jazz, there’s a great new idea that comes along an dit dies with that person other than having others pick up on it and recognizing that it is really special. For us, it became less and less about hearing the arrangement and having us solo one after another. We made sure everyone played collectively, improvising the whole time. What came from this was me taking the time to write and contribute to that ensemble with my writing. I would get these riffs together and piece it into tunes. Pulling Your Own Strings came from that time in my life as well as a lot of the other tunes on this album. I guess over time since then I shelved a lot of them.


Once I entered the air force down in San Antonio, I put another band together called, Eat the Sun. There were some truly decent players and some exceptional players and once we began playing the tunes resurfaced. I loved this tune and when I started to play it again for this, I knew it would be my favorite tune on the album. It also reflects what I believe in.


I believe we have a certain amount of control over our own destiny. But like a marionette doll that’s controlled by the strings, our human bodies are like that doll. There’s this force so much greater that’s actually controlling everything. Some say it’s God but to me, to use the word God is a cop out of responsibility or saying I just don’t understand the nature of reality. I’d like to say that God takes care of everybody but I’m deep seeded in my belief that we’re not separate from God. We at least have some sort of communication with that power. To take it even further, we are that power ourselves and yet to be fully in control of that, you can’t have your ego in the way. If you sit around in a box in a room and do nothing, I believe nothing will happen to you. If you decide, in turn, to do great things, in turn, great things will happen to you. Our will to have things happen is a very powerful and under used tool in most people’s lives. This is my visual imagery behind Pulling Your Own Strings.


AAJ: Why the wait between your schooling and the air force and more to put out this record?


RS: Maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision. I went through a period of time in New York where I didn’t play as much. It wasn’t a conscious decision to focus on something else, I just happened to get into other things. Marshall Arts, Nature Studies and a fresh relationship really took my mind off of the “me” mentality and also from focusing on what I wanted to do. I just didn’t feel good enough to be a jazz musician doing my own thing in New York.


There was this standard of an almost perfectionist level that got in my way, and still does…all the time. I don’t want anyone to hear me sound bad ever. Even now.


AAJ: Do you think that holds back a lot of artists, especially young artists?


RS: No. When I was younger I had this fearlessness. A reckless abandon. I would jump into positions I wouldn’t do now. I wasn’t afraid of things. Somehow I grew afraid of and I guess I need to figure out what happened along the way.


But when you go to school you have a support group of all the people you’re playing with on a daily basis. You can put a band together and say, let’s go get gigs and everyone’s collectively in it together. So if you fail, everyone’s cool with it…and half the time no one shows up to the gig. At least you’re not worried then. But when I left that comfort and went to New York I became like that dog that curls up in the corner after it gets yelled at enough times. I trained myself early on to fear certain musical situations.


AAJ: What do you do, as an artist, to overcome that fear?


RS: If I want to call it fear I can, but if I want to call it a standard…or a personal standard that I’ve set on myself, I feel it’s fine and safe. It’s safe for an artist to say, “I’ve got something I’m working on and I don’t want anyone to see it until the painting is finished.” That’s fair. But really, I guess it’s a fear of the critic. But the older I get, the more years I spend saying this is how music is. It’s not just music, it’s a way of life. It’s a guidance. How you approach music is how you approach life. It ‘s a religious principle and becomes who you are. It’s about being less concerned with what other people have to say and realizing that this is just part of the fun of the dynamics of relating to other people. It’s how other people feel about you and feeling good about what they say. You can do what you want with what they say. Maybe they’re right, maybe what they’re saying is true but then you have the choice of letting it influence you or change you. But I have to be first, resolute in my own feelings. I have to know what I truly believe in and that this isn’t going to change me. I’m going to stay true to myself. Even ten years later, I have to have something representative of me, all original, all my own doing, from being able to pull my own strings and know that the power of doing so was something I made happen.

Listenin' with Lenny (Interview)

By Lenny Mazel for the Pikes Peak Jazz Notes Newsletter, January 2011. www.ppjass.org 


With no prior knowledge of what is being heard, a local jazz artist comments on musical selections chosen by 25-year veteran of jazz radio Lenny Mazel. This month’s guest is: Ricky Sweum [saxophonist, bandleader, composer, educator] 


Joe Lovano 

“Fort Worth” (from From The Soul, Blue Note, 1991) 

Lovano, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. 


I know what this is.  Nice bass intro.  It’s a trio recording.  Pretty sure I had this when I was in high school.  Oh, wait a second, this is not who I thought it was.  This is Joe Lovano.  “Fort Worth,” I think, is the name of this tune.  I’m not sure who the bass and drums are, but I love this stuff.  Kind of reminds me a little bit of that trio stuff that Joe Henderson did, like State of the Tenor.  Yeah, you hear that right there, like what the heck is that?  That’s the most amazingly free playing.  I love the way Joe Lovano, he has this sense of swing that I don’t really hear in anyone else’s playing.  His sound is unique, and yet his sense of swing defines him.  It’s like he feels time in warp speed.  It’s amazing.  It’s definitely something I want in my playing.  I like Ornette Coleman a lot, and this is like the continuation of Ornette, continuing to develop things that Ornette brought to the scene, as far as this freeness of playing.  This whole thing is just a one-chord vamp, and yet he’s doing so much with one chord, and he goes in and out of playing super free, and then just swingin’ real hard with it.  Awesome stuff. 


Joel Frahm, with Brad Mehldau 

“Get Happy” (from Don’t Explain, Palmetto, 2001) 

Frahm, tenor sax; Mehldau, piano. 


This is Joel Frahm on tenor, and Brad Mehldau on piano, and the tune is “Get Happy.”  That’s just awesome.  I bought this CD when it first came out.  I’d been a long-time fan of Joel Frahm since seeing him on a regular basis while living in New York.  I used to see him play with Matt Wilson’s group.  Joel Frahm is this absolute burnin’ straight ahead player but on the verge of doing a bunch of modern stuff, as well.  I went through a huge phase when I was into Keith Jarrett, spent years listening to him and all these other players based out of a Keith Jarrett thing, and Brad Mehldau is one of those young guys that is just kind of keeping that torch alive and doing a lot of things with music that even Keith wasn’t doing.  Love both these players, and then they put a CD out together of duos.  They actually went to high school together.  That tune we just heard is kind of straight ahead, but even in that context, a bebop sort of context, you can hear how on the drop of a dime they can go left field, and just kind of go wherever the winds blow them.  Both of those players have that ability.  This particular one showcased their bebop chops, but you can also hear where they’re taking music to new places.  Good stuff. 


Gene Ammons 

“Easy To Love” (from Jug, Prestige, 1961) 

Ammons, tenor sax; Richard Wyands, piano; Doug Watkins, bass; Ray Barretto, conga drum; J.C. Heard, drums. 


The tune is “Easy To Love.”   Definitely older than the last two more contemporary recordings.  I’d have to place it maybe late 50s.  I love that element of swing that the congas bring.  Bebop master, that’s for sure.  Beautiful, husky tone.  I would guess Sonny Stitt.  Gene Ammons?  OK, thus the huskier tone.  I’ve got a record of Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons together.  They sound pretty similar, well, their sound is not similar, their style is similar.  Gene Ammons has the huskier sound.  Well, that was awesome.  I’ve got to check this one out. 


James Moody 

“That Old Black Magic” (from Young At Heart, Warner Bros, 1996) 

Moody, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Todd Coolman, bass; Billy Drummond, drums. 


I was going to say Thelonious Monk, but the drummer just did some stuff that I never heard any of Thelonious Monk’s…what the heck?  The piano player is playing “Evidence,” no, “Misterioso,” and I can’t think of the name of this tune, but it’s probably the one “Misterioso” goes to as a contrafact.  Oh, this is “Old Black Magic.”  The tenor player has a nice smooth sound, not as smooth as Stan Getz, kind of coming out of a Stan Getz thing, but it’s definitely not Stan Getz.  Reminds me of George Coleman at times, but probably one of those guys I don’t have any of his recordings.  An older player, definitely, but who’s kind of kept up with the times.  He’s got a lot of hipness in him.  I’m going to guess James Moody.  We recently lost Moody.  I’m kind of sad about that.  I got to perform with him once when I was in Gerry Gibbs’ band down in San Antonio, Texas.  He was very, very, very filled with energy, and incredibly supportive to all the younger kids that were in the band, and he’s passionate about everything.  The cool thing about James Moody is that not only is he an incredible saxophone player, but he’s a great flute player and singer, as well.  When I was putting out my CD I sent him a copy of it, and he was actually one of the few guys that  listened to it, and was real supportive, had some good things to say about it…and we shared the same birthday, March 26. 


Ernie Watts, Pete Christlieb & Rickey Woodard 

“Blues Up And Down” (from The Tenor Trio, JMI, 1997) 

Christlieb, 1st tenor sax solo; Woodard, 2nd tenor sax solo; Watts, 3rd tenor sax solo; Gerry Wiggins, piano; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Frank Capp, drums. 


I love this.  I can’t tell you what the name of the tune is.  We’re listening to Pete Christlieb right now.  I don’t know who that guy is, he’s kind of coming out of Pete Christlieb a little bit.  And that other guy, I know who it is, I just can’t think of his name, he has such a unique approach, he has his own thing going on.  It’s just one of those blowing tunes.  It’s always fun when you get multiple players of the same instrument on a recording because then you can just really hear how different each one approaches, or the similarities.  For me the best part about that recording is Pete Christlieb.  I’ve always been a huge fan of his, ever since I was a young kid.  I grew up in Oregon and he was living in the L.A. area, and he would pretty much annually make a trek up north doing tours, so I got to see him play live a number of times, and made recordings of those gigs, and those recordings have been some of my most transcribed solos, so those were hugely influential to how I sound, and I actually got to study with him a bit up at the Port Townsend Jazz Camp. 


Ben Webster 

“Lover Come Back To Me” (from Soulville, Verve, 1957) 

Webster, tenor sax; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Stan Levey, drums. 


I love this stuff.  Out of all the old-school players, Ben Webster’s got to be one of my favorites.  You gotta love that tone, and the way that he phrases melodies, his vibrato.  I’m going to guess that this is what he did with Oscar Peterson, and I’m not sure what tune this is.  Ray Brown on bass?  Oscar is one of the most swingin’ piano players ever.  Everything he plays is perfect.  It’s like a perfect combination of bluesy characteristics and bebop characteristics.   I totally loved that.  Ben Webster, I mean, how can you not want to play the saxophone after hearing a sound like that?  It’s so cool to realize that everyone  has such a unique sound, and yet some more unique than others, and Ben Webster is one of those guys that just really does it for me personally.  His unique qualities just make me happy. 


Eric Alexander 

“Pursuance” (from Chim Chim Cheree, Venus, 2009) 

Alexander, tenor sax; Harold Mabern, piano; John Webber, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums. 


This is someone doing one of Coltrane’s tunes off of “A Love Supreme.”  Is that “Pursuance?”  Didn’t sound like Coltrane to me, though.  That sounds like Eric Alexander.  I love the way he plays.  He’s always been a big influence.  When I moved out to New York I went to William Paterson.  Eric had just graduated a couple of years before I got there, and the heat that he generated at that school was still burnin’ hot when I went there.  Used to go watch him play quite a bit, and occasionally he’d let me sit in, so he was always real good to me.  I haven’t heard this.  He’s stretchin’.  One thing I like a lot about Eric’s playing is that he’s very rooted in the tradition, like playing bebop, very much a keeper of the flame, and yet he can play like this, he can go into a Coltrane bag and he can bring all this modern stuff into the mix, and a lot of just pure bebop players can’t play this way at all, and yet he can go anywhere.  Great solo, it’s nice to hear him stretch.  So many of the recordings I have of him are just a couple choruses, then he’s outta there.  That’s one of the longest, freest solos I’ve probably ever heard from him.  Cool. 


Houston Person, with Ron Carter 

“Blueberry Hill” (from Just Between Friends, HighNote, 2005) 

Person, tenor sax; Carter, bass. 


“Blueberry Hill?”  He keeps doing stuff that I feel like it’s familiar to me, like I might know who this is, if I heard just the right thing.  It’s mostly about his sound that’s the unique part of his playing.  I like listening to this, it’s really cool hearing a duo of sax and bass, just a counterpoint of two instruments.  It’s fun listening to it.  It’s just swingin’ stuff, but I think you stumped me on who it is.  You got me on that one. 


Harry Allen 

“Caravan” (from Plays Ellington Songs, RCA, 1999) 

Allen, tenor sax; Bill Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums. 


This tune is “Caravan.”  Real smooth sound.  He’s playing some Ben Webster in there, and he’s got the smoothness in his phrasing that reminds me a lot of Stan Getz, but they’re stretchin’ like crazy.  It’s gotta be more modern, but it’s someone who really loves the old-school players.  This rhythm section is playing very well together.  That’s pure Stan Getz right there.  I probably don’t know who this player is, but this is someone that I would like to get to know better, because I really liked what I just heard.  Well, that was cool, that’s some good stuff.  That was a lesson for me. 


Lester Young 

“Almost Like Being In Love” (from With The Oscar Peterson Trio, Verve, 1952) 

Young, tenor sax; Peterson, piano; Barney Kessel, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; J.C. Heard, drums. 


This, to me, sounds like the Prez, Lester Young, and this is not early, I think this was later in his life, probably the recording he did with Oscar Peterson.  This tune is “Almost Like Being In Love.”  I love this because it has a sense of  listening to a big band play because you’ve got the comping piano, but you’ve got that background of guitar that’s just strumming away there like a lot of the old big bands would comp behind soloists that way, but it’s nice to hear it in the small-group context.  I love Lester Young.  I got into him much later, I was into Ben Webster way before I was into Lester Young, but I had a teacher in New York who pretty much insisted that I get into Lester Young.  He kind of had to force me to do it, but once I did it I just fell in love with him.  He’s one of the true innovators as far as influencing other players to create change, like Louis Armstrong, it’s debatable whether jazz would even be here without his influence.  And I think it’s arguable that Lester Young had that same impact on jazz, at least with some instrumental players, particularly early Lester Young when he was on the scene back with all those old-school tenor players with real husky sounds, like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, and all of a sudden you’ve got Lester Young who comes around and he has a very different approach to the way that he plays the saxophone.  It’s a much smoother, straighter tone, more velvety, less huskiness.  There are some early recordings of Charlie Parker where he’s playing tenor, and it’s fun to hear the Lester Young solo, and then you listen to the Charlie Parker solo, and here Charlie Parker is coming up listening to people like Lester Young, and it’s arguable to say that Charlie Parker plays the way he does because of Lester Young’s influence.  It shows that people like Charlie Parker, a huge influence in the bebop community, listened to guys like Lester Young, so people like myself, we’ve got to do our homework.

Best.Saxophone.Website.Ever.com (Podcast Interview)

NOVEMBER 15, 2010


Ricky Talks Intonation, Embouchure, and Improvisation on BestSaxophoneWebsiteEver.com


He talks about his experience as a professional musician along with giving advice on developing as a saxophonist.


The following topics were covered:

– Evolution from a New York jazz musician to current position in the Air Force Academy Band

– Deciding on a career in music

– Detailed intonation and embouchure tips

– Approaches to listening and improvising

– Developing your career as a professional musician

Music Is The Weapon (Interview)

JUNE 4, 2011


Local jazz luminary Ricky Sweum exits Colorado Springs on a high note

By Bill Forman (from the “Independent Newspaper” June, 2011).


Think of it as a pre-emptive strike. Ricky Sweum, the bright young tenor player who over the last five years has established himself as one of the most creative forces in our local jazz scene, is transferring to Alaska. Due to recent changes in Air Force Academy policy, members of its Falconaires Big Band will no longer stay in the Springs on permanent assignment. So rather than risk the luck of the draw, Sweum asked to be transferred to the USAF’s highly rated jazz band in Anchorage.


In an added blow to the local jazz community, bassist Jason Crowe is transferring to Japan, while drummer Henrique De Almeida will enter civilian life as an instructor at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. The three musicians did their last gig together at Cucuru Gallery last month, playing material from Sweum’s stunning 2009 debut album, Pulling Your Own Strings.


Like his fellow West Coast native Ambrose Akinmusire, Sweum belongs to a new breed of young jazz musicians who recapture the adventurous spirit of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman and channel it into something entirely original. This Friday, during a special farewell show, he’ll swap solos with two other tenors: Denver’s Keith Oxman and the Springs’ own Brad Eastin. After that, he’s off to New York City, where he’ll record his sophomore album, before relocating with his family to Anchorage.


Needless to say, he will be missed.


Indy: So you’re going to Alaska, your bassist is going to Japan, and your drummer is going AWOL to teach at Berklee. How did this all come about?


Ricky Sweum: Well, maybe not everybody knows this, but about a year and half ago, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force started looking into his Air Force — as he should be — and investigating how things are run. And the band came under his scrutiny. He wanted the bands to have a lot more movement, just like other areas of the military that are able to move around.


One of the special incentives of being in a premier band is that you can spend your entire career in one place. And the way regional bands operate is that you only stay in the same place for a short time.


Indy: How does a band go from premier to regional, or vice versa?


RS: It almost never happens. The only two premier bands were here and in D.C. Since the inception of the Academy in 1955, it’s been a premier band. And so that just went away.


Indy: What’s the overall rationale behind moving people around?


RS: Well, I’m guessing here, but what makes sense in my brain is that, being a member of the military, I mean, our bottom line is we fight wars. And when people fight wars, people die. And so if you have a particular job and you die, the culture of the military needs that job to be filled quickly, and still performed at the same high level that your predecessor was performing it at. This liquid, very flexible, move-here-to-here-tohere-very-rapidly culture is the one that most military mindsets operate in.


Indy: So do Air Force musicians get flown overseas to do gigs?


RS: Yeah, a new part of our mission is that we’re sending bands over to the war zone area, playing music there fulltime. So 365 days out of the year, we have a band over there. We usually only go three to four months at a time, and as soon as one of our groups comes back, we’ll send over a band from another part of the country. And so we’re always sharing the responsibility.


Indy: Have you been sent overseas, or do you expect to be?


RS: It’s sure to happen eventually. It just hasn’t happened to me yet.


I think it just speaks to the power of music. A joke that we use around the squadron is, it’s fighting the war on terrorism one note at a time. That’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I strongly believe what I hear from friends who’ve been over there.


They’ll use the band to get into areas that are maybe not so favorable towards Americans, because they’re used to seeing people carrying guns around. And when they send people playing music in there, it can build trust, because we all speak this universal language of music.


Indy: How did you hook up with the Air Force Academy to begin with?


RS: I was 29 and I’d been living in New York City for 10 years, because that was where all the creative music was going on. My goal there had always been to be able to support myself and a family as a musician, but the only way that I was able to really make that happen was to leave New York with these touring bands. I did the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra for a while, and I did this Sound of Music Broadway show tour. That’s how I ended up meeting my wife; she was in the cast, and we actually played Colorado Springs.


When I saw the ad for the Academy band, I called the number, and Brad Eastin was actually the first guy I talked to. He was in charge of auditions, and he sent me the whole packet of information. And so I’m reading the requirements — proficient in all styles of improvisation, big band reading, sight reading — and I’m just like, this is a great fit.


Indy: Still, you must have known that, in terms of creating original music, you’d have to do that part on your own.


RS: Yeah, it’s very much a studio-musician job that I have at the Air Force Academy band. We’re asked to play all different styles of music and to perform, at a very high level, written music under the direction of someone else’s vision. And I just contribute to that the best I can.


But for me, as that New York creative musician, I’ve got to get outside of that and have my own projects going. So yeah, there was a fair amount of me that knew there would be different requirements for me than what I was wanting for myself in New York, living the life of a creative jazz musician.


Indy: No heroin, for instance.


RS: [Laughs.] Yeah, right. Well, it’s amazing, at least in my experience in New York, how clean it was. At least with the people I hung out with.


I mean, we’re a more knowledgeable generation, as far as how to be healthy. There’s a whole lot of paradigm shifts that have happened in the last couple generations, which have transferred into the life of a typical jazz musician. So I think that stereotype of Art Pepper or Charlie Parker, where heroin takes over their life, you don’t really see that as much today.


There are a lot of people that feel they have to experience hardship and pain in order for there to be value in their music. But the way I see it, I’m in my late 30s right now, and it’s almost impossible to not have a certain degree of suffering that you pass through. So you don’t have to force immediate suffering on yourself. Life is hard and challenging, and so it’s a matter of overcoming that, and experiencing that hardship with an open mind.


Indy: So how do you see the jazz scene here developing in the years to come?


RS: You know, you have so many professional musicians here from the Air Force Academy band. And there’s actually an Army band out of Fort Carson now that moved in last year at some point. And you’ve got the Philharmonic people. So there’s a lot of professional musicians.


And yet I don’t see — this is my own opinion — I don’t see enough people moving outside of those organizations to create their own thing. And so I see Brad as one of the longtime leaders who’s done an amazing job at really helping keep the music scene alive here in Colorado Springs. And he’s gonna continue doing that.

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