This extended Q&A is supplemental to “Junkyard Brass: An Interview with Chris West,” discussing the multi-instrumentalist’s introduction into jazz, his longtime mentor Jeff Coffin, and his forthcoming 2014 releases.
You began playing trumpet in your youth, and studied both flute and clarinet at Belmont, but what is it about the saxophone that continues to inspire you?
Yes, I started playing trumpet, however, I wanted to play the saxophone, and had for as long as I can remember. When I entered the band in 5th grade, my dad asked me what instrument I wanted to play. I knew I wanted to play the saxophone, but at the time I didn’t even know what it was called, so I told my dad that “I want to play the instrument that’s shaped like this,” and drew a basic outline of the sax with my finger. He said that’s the saxophone. So that’s what I decided to go with (with full support from both of my parents), however my dad played the trumpet when he was in high school, plus, all of my friends had decided to play trumpet. So at the last minute, I changed my mind to trumpet. So I played it for two years. Then when I entered middle school. I decided to do switch to saxophone, and it’s been my main instrument ever since. Saxophone has always felt very natural to me. I’ve also always been drawn to the sound.
You’ve toured internationally with artists ranging from Johnny Reid to the Dynamites. At what point in your life did you decide that music was going to be your trade, so to speak, and did you ever guess that these sorts of gigs would be in your future?
I decided that I wanted to do music as a career (or at least be more serious about music) when I was a junior in high school. I participated in a school jazz band program called Grammy In Our Schools. It was a big band made up of high school students from middle Tennessee by audition. I was 2nd chair tenor. My experience in that band made me realize how exciting and rewarding playing music, especially improvising, could be. I had my first solo with that band, and learned my first blues scale. It was at that point I decided to take lessons, and that’s when I met Jeff Coffin, who was my first teacher and mentor.
As far as guessing what kind of gigs I would be doing, I really had no idea what the future held. I wasn’t 100% sure which direction I wanted to go in music. I loved playing, recording, writing and arranging, theory, etc. I also really enjoyed played around with other instruments. I knew I wanted to study jazz, and that was my foundation, but wasn’t set on just being a jazz saxophonist… that was the main thing I wanted to do, but not the only thing. As I’ve grown, my passions have developed as well as changed, as have my expectation of the future. So I guess there are certain gigs I would have never guessed I would of done as an adult when I was a college student (and some that I still can’t believe I’ve done… both good and bad… lol), but they became more of an option as I got older. For example, I’ve toured/gig with a few country artist[s]… I would have never seen myself doing that when I was in college, mainly because there wasn’t a lot of sax in country and most of my friends/connections weren’t in the country scene. But as I got older, those opportunities started to present themselves.
To be honest, I started writing in college, and have continued to do so, so the material has just accumulated. When I started my first album, Jazzmanic, I had already written most of the material on that album, as well as a lot of the material from the Surprise Trilogy. When I decided to record the first album, the main dilemma was what direction did I want to go… did I want it to be more straight ahead jazz, or more funky/acid jazz, or a combination. I had enough material to do a full album in either genre. I decided to do more of a funk jazz album, but knew I would put out a straight ahead album next (and straight ahead isn’t even an entirely appropriate label I think). So in the in between time, I wrote more, practiced and developed more as a player, toured around the country, went to grad school, and worked and saved money to do the next albums. I think my evolution as a player/musician in that time was based on a combination of my practice, schooling, and life experiences. I was lucky to get to study with Don Aliquo at MTSU as a grad student, and I really felt I took it to the next level, so to speak, as a player. I feel that Don really helped me to learn to enjoy practicing. Up until that point, it was something I just had to do to get better. But seeing Don’s approach helped me to be more creative with my practice. I am fortunate to have had three great teachers growing up… Coffin, Aliquo, and Jeff Kirk at Belmont. All three are very different players, and teachers, and I was able to pull from each of their teaching methods to help develop not only my playing, but also my teaching method.
Do you gain more fulfillment from recording or performing live? Do you have any albums in the works?
This is a tough one. It’s hard to say if one gives me more fulfillment now. Growing up, it was mostly performing. I was heavily into improvisation, and that was where I got most of my fulfillment. But as I got older, recording has become more and more fulfilling, mainly the compositional element. Now, they’re neck and neck, and it might lean slightly more in favor of recording. I LOVE recording albums, and that’s something that I feel I will always do, whether it’s recording a solo album, recording an album with a band I play with, and even arranging or producing for someone else’s album, I’m always working on something. So, to answer the next part of the question, yes, I have a couple of albums in the works. I am about to finish up an experimental big band album, hopefully I’ll be releasing it towards the end of the year, and I’m also in the pre-production stages of a JunkYard Horns album, and possibly DVD.
I think the main difference is that Halfbrass for me has boundaries. When we create new music, we try to keep in within the style of New Orleans brass band (both traditional, or modern), but at the same time, making it unique with our sound. (Although there are exceptions to this.) Also, Halfbrass isn’t my band per se, it’s collaborative. It belongs to the five of us. Sometimes we write together, sometimes we’ll bring in songs individually.
When I write for the JunkYard Horns, I don’t try to stay within any boundaries as far as melody and harmony. That’s not to say that it doesn’t fit into any category, so to speak, but I just write with no restrictions, so what comes out is my natural sound. I love having the opportunity to write both ways; I’m not saying one way of writing is better than the other. I enjoy having boundaries to write in… it’s a challenge to stay in those boundaries, while at the same time, trying to be unique. And having no boundaries gives me the opportunity to experiment compositionally.
…Jeff Coffin has served as something of a mentor for you. How did you first meet and are there younger players now that you’re getting involved with as something of a mentor, yourself?
I met Jeff when I was a junior in high school. My high school music department had a fund raiser and the school jazz band opened up for a group called The Nashville Jazz Machine, which was a local big band made up of some of the top players in Nashville at the time. Jeff had been in Nashville for less than a year at the time, and he was playing tenor with The Jazz Machine. The night before the concert, they had a rehearsal at our school and I was invite to come and listen. Jeff had a solo in one of the songs and when I heard him play, my jaw dropped! Not only because he was amazing, but his concept/approach to improvisation was very similar the direction I wanted to go. I talked to him that night, got his number, and called him a few days later to set up our first lesson. Our lessons weren’t just in music, Jeff had a way of incorporating life lessons with music, in ways that helped me develop my approach to playing, and my musical concept/approach all together (not to mention, it helped me develop as a person). I was fortunate to have met him and studied with him when I did. Since he was new to town, I don’t think he was teaching a lot. I was one of his main students, so he put a lot into those lessons. Sometimes our lessons would last over three hours long, and they never got boring. Also, his roommate at the time was Chris Brown (local jazz drummer, not the singer), who was amazing himself. So some of my lessons were just me, Jeff, and Chris, jamming for an hour or more.
I have had several students throughout the years, and some that I do feel like I played an important role in their musical development. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say I am a mentor to anyone, although I would hope someday someone views me as such.
What music is coming out of Nashville right now that inspires you to experiment more?
I think there is a lot of very exciting, inspiring music coming out of Nashville. Jeff Coffin is definitely an inspiration with all that he’s doing with the Mo’tet and his other projects, Rahsaan Barber is also doing a lot of great things in Nashville with his Jazz Music City label, as well as with his solo projects, and other projects he runs that I’ve had the honor to be a part of, such as the Megaphones, and the Jazz Music City All Star Big Band. Jim Williamson runs a big band in town called the Nashville Jazz Orchestra which has some of the best jazz players in town. The Nashville Jazz Workshop is always doing great things in the jazz community as well. There are several other jazz artists such as Oscar Utterstrom, Evan Cobb, Don Aliquo, Jamie Simmons, Edwin Santiago, Rod McGaha, Bruce Dudley, etc. There are so many to name, I know I’m leaving a lot out. Also, Nick DeVan and the guys at GED Soul are doing some great things in the funk/soul scene! There’s so many great things coming out of Nashville, I almost hesitated to list any out of fear of leaving something (or someone) incredible out… which I know I am doing.