Featured Musician - June 2014  

Blake Lyman on Tenor
Blake Lyman

Name: Blake Lyman

Instrument: saxophone, composer.

Early Years/Education: Born and raised in Sacramento, California. Mom had me taking piano lessons when I was young, and we’d fight all the time about my not wanting to practice. One day, when I was eight, she asked, “Why don’t you want to practice the piano?” I replied, ”I didn’t pick piano. So she said, “Great, you pick something.”

I don’t know why I chose the saxophone, but somehow it caught. In elementary through high school, I was in a band program. I learned a lot, had great teachers, and my first teacher in elementary school tried to get me to improvise. We were in the classroom and the power went out, and while we were waiting for my ride, he asked me to improvise around “Jingle Bells.” I guess he thought jazz was where I needed to be. I was in concert band mostly, and certainly the stuff for saxophone in the jazz band settings were more exciting.

Chicago: I think I’ve always wanted to do music, but I didn’t want it to be my full-time profession. So for undergrad I went to the University of Chicago and got a degree in economics. I played music around town when I was there. Chicago has a good scene — jam sessions, gigs, etc. I was in a university ensemble once a week. There was lots of “outside” [jazz] stuff happening there. The director of the university’s band was a member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).

Tenor sax (legend) Von Freeman had a jam at “The New Apartment Lounge” that started at 2:00 am in this bad neighborhood. The first time, I showed up at 8:00 pm, but Von didn’t get there until 10 or 11. He showed up with the band and started playing. You’d never know he was around 75 at the time. He played his ass off. That jam brought out everybody; he was the nicest guy, very welcoming and encouraging. There was another jam happening at “The Velvet Lounge,” led by tenor (giant) Fred Anderson. Nothing in there was close to velvet, it was the prototypical dive bar, but the music was great, interesting stuff. Anderson was one of the “outside” guys, too, but he only wanted to talk about Charlie Parker.

I graduated at age 22 and decided, “If I’m going to do music seriously, I’ve got to do it while still young.” So I went to graduate school at Cal Arts.

Portland: Like most men, there comes a point in your relationship when your (significant other) says, “I want to move home.” Thank God she said Portland! I graduated from Cal Arts (California Institute of Arts) in June of 2007 with my MFA, and in July moved to Portland.

To most people in Portland I’m a tenor sax player, but before that it was alto. I always wanted to try tenor, and I decided if I’m going to do it, I must commit to it. One of the good friends I play with here is (alto sax player) Noah Bernstein. I met him the first night I switched to the tenor, so he knows me only as a tenor player. We met at a jam at Produce Row, and I had just gotten the sax. “That’s a nice horn,” he said. He’s on my quintet album, and I’m on his album, too.

Musical Influences: As far as improvising and learning how to play, it’s Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Garrett and John Coltrane. In terms of being a musician, being a composer and really thinking about where I want my music to go, was Miles Davis, John Coltrane, David Bowie, Prince, and Steve Reich. Now, it’s Dan Deacon, David Lang and Kneebody.

Blake Lyman

Most Satisfying Experience: Played at the Monterey Jazz Festival a couple of times. Every spring they’d have a high school jazz band competition and select an all-star band. I did that twice. We did a tour of Japan in the summer, and we played at the festival in September. We had guest artists each year. The first year it was Roy Hargrove, and the second year Wynton Marsalis. Being involved with that whole experience was huge for me.

I went to Rio Americano High School in Sacramento. We played at Lincoln Center. At Cal Arts, we played at the Disney Concert Hall. They were having a festival of minimalist music, and we played the Terry Riley song, “In C.” It was the largest performance of “In C” that ever happened. We were one hundred and fifty musicians.

Favorite Recordings: Miles Davis - “At Newport 1958”; Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane - “At Carnegie Hall”; Sonny Rollins - ”Saxophone Colossus”; Kenny Garrett - “Triology”; David Bowie - “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”; Steve Reich - “Music for 18 Musicians” (My favorite piece of music — he reconstructed music with this piece.) I also like the music of Marius Neset and Bang On a Can.

Discography: Blake Lyman Trio — “Anthology, For Now” (2012); Blake Lyman Quintet — “Eponymous” (2013 PJCE).

Gigs: Friday, July 11, with Andrew Durkin’s Industrial Jazz Group at TaborSpace; August 16 &17, at the Portland Jazz Composer’s Ensemble Festival, Post 5 Theater in the Montavilla neighborhood.

Current Project: I’m working on a website called “Shed This,” where people post what they’re practicing and share it. It’s still in development. The idea is, you post music and a little bit about it, and someone can download the file and add it to a practice list. They can also track their practicing. It’s for any instrument, any style. You will be able to find it at www.shedthis.com

Future Plans: I really love playing with the quintet that’s on the album (“Eponymous”). I’ve got a lot of music I’d like to get out. Akila Fields will replace Andrew Oliver on piano, Noah Bernstein is on alto, Arcellus Sykes is on bass, and Sam Foulger on drums. One of the things I like about this group — and the trio, too — is trying to figure out different ways to use the same instruments in a new way. Usually, the drummer keeps time, the bass player is walking, the keyboard or guitar is comping, the horns are playing melodies. That’s pretty much what it’s been since jazz began. You can’t really have the bass play the melody and the saxophone walk, but what can you do? How can you re-configure this whole thing and make it really work? How do you mix it up and keep it true to itself?

Other: I’ve lived in Portland seven years, and in that time there’s been six jazz clubs close. The Cave, Vinideus, Doc George’s Jazz Kitchen, Ivories, Blue Monk, and Shaker and Vine have all come and gone. The pessimistic view says — jazz clubs can’t last here. The optimistic view says — people keep doing it. Maybe what Portland lacks in financial support for jazz they make up for in passion.


-- by Rita Rega