"A Conversation with Brian Patneaude"

By Alexander M. Stern

Courtesy of AllAboutJazz.com

New York’s Capital District - the collective sobriquet for Albany, Schenectady, and Troy as well as Saratoga and a few outlying areas - has produced two major names in jazz: baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Indeed, right up until his recent death, Brignola was Upstate New York’s greatest contribution to modern jazz. With Brignola’s passing, Harris’s move downstate, tenor saxophonist Brian Patneaude seems primed to fill the void.

Aside from being one of the Capital District’s finest working jazzmen (Patneaude was recently honored in Metroland’s Best of Albany issue), Patneaude is also one of its busiest. Patneaude divides his time between his own working Quartet – which has a weekly residence at Justin’s, a local club – Alex Torres y Los Reyes Latinos, a weekly jam session at Schenectady’s historic Van Dyck club with pianist Adrian Cohen, and a spot in the reed section of the Empire Jazz Orchestra.

Patneaude is a busy man indeed, and much in demand. In addition, his quartet, which features some of the area’s top talent, has released its debut recording, Variations, to considerable acclaim. Busy as he is, I was able to track Patneaude down for an interview. We sat on the sidewalk on Albany’s Lark Street, not far from the club where Patneaude plays his weekly Sunday night gig.

As we talked, there was a constant stream of pedestrian traffic, several people stopping to chat with Patneaude. All of them asked about upcoming gigs, about the next jam at the Van Dyck, etc. Patneaude was more than happy to talk to his admirers, and I noted that Patneaude’s considerable recent success had not affected him in the slightest. As I sipped my latte, I turned on my tape recorder and began:

All About Jazz: How did you get started in music?

Brian Patneaude: I picked up the saxophone in fifth grade, just like any other kid given the option of playing an instrument. I played it for a while and wasn’t really into it. It wasn’t fun. It was work. Like most kids, I did other things and just played the sax in school. Once I got into high school, I started to get a little more serious about it. I got into more music that was saxophone based, and I started to think “Gee, this thing can do more than play “Mary Had a Little Lamb!”

I went to the College of Saint Rose, where I got a degree in music education and then did some graduate studies at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music at the University Of Cincinnati. After I moved back to Albany, it just sort of blossomed from there. I started playing professionally, working with a lot of different bands.

AAJ:  Aside from tenor saxophone, what other instruments do you play?

BP: I also play soprano, alto, and bari.

AAJ:  I understand that you used to play drums...

BP: I dabbled. I was in high school. It wasn’t fun to play the sax, but it was fun to bang on the drums. Nothing I would play in public now.

AAJ:  What drew you to jazz?

BP: There were really two things that drew me to jazz. First, it was a music that featured the saxophone. Second, it was more a complex music than I was listening to at the time. In high school, I was into Metallica and other heavy metal bands. Then I started getting into Rush, Pink Floyd, Yes... bands that were a little more harmonically adventurous. The prog rock bands led me to jazz, fusion at first, and I went from there.

AAJ:  Name some of your influences on your instrument.

BP: Michael Brecker, Seamus Blake, Chris Potter, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry, David Sanborn was a really big influence when I was younger, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane... the list could go on and on and on.

AAJ:  You’ve worked in a number of styles and genres. Tell me about some of those experiences and how they’ve affected your development as a jazz musician.

BP: One band I’ve played with is the Refrigerators. They’re a ten piece cover band, I guess you’d call them a party band. I’ve learned about the entertainment side of the music, and the business side as well - what’s required to get yourself out there. Currently I’m working with a 12 piece Salsa/Merengue/Latin Jazz band called Alex Torres y Los Reyes Latinos. [See alextorres.com.]

Working with Alex Torres has been an education as far as Latin music and Latin culture is concerned. I couldn’t have told you the difference between meregue and salsa four years ago, but it’s like night and day to me now. I’ve also learned a lot about the business from Alex [Torres]. He’s got a twelve piece band that he keeps working regularly, whether its at a festival or a club or a school. He’s got the band working and recording and selling CDs.

AAJ:  As a member of the Empire Jazz Orchestra, you have worked alongside veterans like Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton. What do you think you learned from that experience?

BP: That this is a long journey, and those guys have been on it for much longer than I have! I really enjoyed seeing Jimmy Heath, at his age, still enthused about the music and about playing with a bunch of guys he’s never met before. I learned that this music can sustain a person’s happiness throughout his life. I sincerely hope than when I’m his age, I’m still out there doing what I’m doing now.

AAJ:  How did your quartet get together?

BP: I had known George Muscatello [guitar] for many years. We’d played together in different contexts, and I knew that I wanted to do something with him in a group on a regular basis. I’d managed to get a residence at Justin’s [an Albany club], and I was using a number of different groups. I thought that it would be nice to have a steady band, work out a song book, and do a record. So the first person I thought of was George, and I also brought in another good friend, Danny Whelchel [drums]. George recommended Ryan Lukas [bass], who he’d been playing with for a while. We all just came together and it clicked. It took a couple of weeks of rehearsal and getting a repertoire together, and it’s just grown from there.

AAJ:  How long have you been together as a group?

BP: A little over a year, and in that time we’ve compiled a songbook of originals, to which everyone contributes, and arrangements of standards and pop tunes. And we did a record, which was a big accomplishment.

AAJ:  How did Variations come about?

BP: I knew that I wanted to do a record with this band, and I wanted it to be all originals. So we took the material we felt the strongest about, the stuff we felt we were playing the best at the time, and recorded it in two days. I was fortunate to be able to work with an engineer [John Nazarenko] who really wanted to work with us and to do the project. He went above and beyond the call and really put in the time, especially on the post production.

During the recording too, he really helped set the atmosphere and make us comfortable. There was a little inner turmoil in the band. I wanted to just document two days, similar to the way some of my favorite albums have been done. Some of the other guys in the band–I’m not going to mention any names–thought that we should take advantage of modern technology. Do some overdubs and piece it together, make more of a crafted record. There’s nothing wrong with that, and a lot of people do it, but that’s not what I wanted to do.

AAJ:  Do you think you might do something like that in the future?

BP: Yes. [laughs] It would be a different record. Variations is more like what you might see if you saw the group live. I would like to do a project where we could create different textures, different segues between the tunes. More of a polished product. Not that Variations is unpolished, but more of a production.

AAJ:  Do you prefer performing live or recording?

                             "I would like to see jazz embraced by audiences
                              both young and old, with the emphasis on the
                              young. In order for this music to stay alive it
                              needs to be embraced by a younger generation."

BP: Live, definitely. The energy that comes from the audience is something that you hear about from many musicians and having experienced it, it’s true that there’s no duplicating it. Not having that energy to feed off in a studio situation, it’s more challenging to record. So I prefer performing live.

AAJ:  Variations has been positively reviewed. What is your general opinion of critics and their role in the music?

BP: [Laughs] Obviously, critics are needed to alert the general public to what’s out there. People can’t go out and buy every record. I think there’s a fine line that some journalists cross. For myself, I prefer to read a review that provides a description of the music, maybe a comparison to other albums. The critic might not like the album, and that’s fine, but I want to know what it sounds like. You know, is it in a Miles fifties vein or a Miles sixties vein. As opposed to, “This guy didn’t put his soul into the performance.”

It makes it difficult for a young artist, say someone who’s on his or her way up, to get a negative review. You know, if I’m a jazz fan and I’m considering seeing this artist perform, who I know little about and I read a bad review, that’s already a strike against the artist. And if I do go, the artist is going to have to work harder to win me over.

AAJ:  You wrote two of the pieces on Variations. What method do you use when composing?

BP: Trial and error. I am by no means a composer. I play on the piano, I play on the sax, and if I find a harmonic progression I like on the piano, I’ll pick up the sax and try to play a melody over it. It’s not a cut and dry process that I go through, I just noodle. I have a whole notebook, actually it’s a folder on my computer now, that’s full of lead sheets and ideas that I’ve never finished. I might go back to them and turn them into something at some point.

AAJ:  You participate in a weekly jam session at the Van Dyck. Tell me about that.

BP: It’s been a cool thing. It’s exactly what this area needs for the jazz community to congregate and grow. I’ve met tons of musicians from this area who can really play well. One of the things that makes it special is that it’s at the Van Dyck, with its history and the people who have played there in the past. It’s very well attended, much more so than we had expected. Week after week, more people in the audience listening than musicians waiting to play, which is rare for a jam session in this area. It’s also been an opportunity to work with [pianist] Adrian Cohen, who’s really great.

AAJ:  Tell me a bit about the Albany jazz scene.

BP: Like any mid-sized city, there is a jazz scene. It’s a vibrant scene with lots of people who do different things. There are a lot of musicians who play in other kinds of bands – Latin bands, wedding bands, Irish bands – who also play jazz. I think if some people had the choice, they would play more jazz, but it makes more sense financially to do the more popular gigs.

There are a lot of clubs in the Capital District that feature jazz. Down here in Albany there’s Justin’s. The Larkin still has jazz shows occasionally. The WAMC Performance Art Center has some nice shows. In Schenectady there’s the Van Dyck. In Saratoga there’s One Caroline Street and Nine Maple Avenue. In Glens Falls there’s Wallabees. So there’s a handful of clubs in the Capital Region, and all of them have music on a regular basis. There are a lot of people out there making that music, so you do the math.

AAJ:  Would you consider moving to New York?

BP: I wouldn’t consider moving there to break into the scene. If I did move there, it would be to get into a more competitive atmosphere and get my butt kicked. I have no qualms about saying that. I’m very happy where I am. There’s a very high level of musicianship here. And I’m making a living doing what I love, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

AAJ:  What are you listening to right now?

BP: I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s Water Babies and Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes (from the Underground). I think the reason I went back to those is that Adrian [Cohen] just started a new quintet with that instrumentation: Tenor, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. I’m trying to get some ideas for voicings for the horns. I wouldn’t mind writing a piece or two in that vein. The Black Codes album, especially, has some great writing and great playing; great interaction between the players. I think that’s the direction Adrian is trying to take, if I may speculate on his direction. [Laughs]

AAJ:  What musician or musicians do you feel are critically underrated?

BP: In the Albany area there are a handful of musicians a generation or two older than me that deserve as many accolades as can be laid upon them. Folks like pianist Lee Shaw, guitarists Chuck D'Aloia, Jack Fragomeni and Cary DeNigris, saxophonist Leo Russo and drummer Dave Calarco to name a few, have been slugging it out in the jazz trenches for many many years and truly deserve to be recognized for their efforts.

AAJ:  Where do you see jazz going in the next five or ten years? Where would you like to see it go?

BP: Where do I see jazz going? I have no idea. Where would I like to see it go? I would like to see jazz embraced by audiences both young and old, with the emphasis on the young. In order for this music to stay alive it needs to be embraced by a younger generation. My hat is off to folks like John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, Medeski Martin & Wood, and Soulive who have shared their jazz influenced music with a much younger audience who then in turn are curious enough to check out other jazz artists. I have seen this happen first hand working in the music department at Barnes & Noble and I hope the trend continues.

AAJ:  What role do you think the internet plays, or should play, in the distribution and promotion of jazz?

BP: I think the internet is a great way to discover new music that you might not have a chance to hear otherwise. It's a great way for upcoming artists to distribute their own music around the world. My own experience has been very positive - Through the internet I've had people purchase my CD from all over North America and Europe!

AAJ:  What are you working on right now?

BP: Right now I am working on new material for my quartet's second album. I've written a handful of new pieces and (drummer) Danny Whelchel has contributed several new compositions to our songbook that I'm anxious to record. I'm also working on some new collaborations with several other upstate New York artists... I'll be doing an upcoming performance with bassist Jon Cohen's “Erftones” project (erftones.com). The band is a fusion-based trio that Jon's been leading for many years. Apparently Kurt Rosenwinkel played guitar is the group at one point.

I'm going to be recording on an upcoming project by a local hip hop artist named Dez. He's part of an upstate hip hop movement called Pitch Control Music (pitchcontrolmusic.com) and while I'll confess to knowing next to nothing about rap, I've always been impressed by Dez's freestyling whenever I've seen him perform live. He approaches music with a mentality similar to that of a jazz artist, spontaneously composing using whatever is around him. I'm also rehearsing with pianist Adrian Cohen's brand new quintet which I believe I mentioned earlier.

AAJ:  Where would you like to be a year from now?

BP: I'd like to be performing with my quartet in more venues outside of the Capital Region as well a releasing that second CD!

AAJ:  Is there anything I haven’t brought up that you’d like to talk about?

BP: I've developed a website called albanyjazz.com to highlight the jazz community in this area. There are so many players who make their home in and around the Capital District that many folks aren't aware of. I wanted to give the community an online hub if you will, somewhere where people can read more about the musicians, find out where they are playing, read a bit about the different venues that present jazz...

The site took off slowly but recently, thanks in part to the weekly jam sessions at the Van Dyck, it's seen a huge increase in traffic. It's a bit of work to maintain but it's worth the effort.