The Madison jazz musician plays October 14 behind a new album centered on the baritone saxophone.
Naming an album State Of [insert instrument or genre here] can come off as ostentatious, an attempt to appoint oneself the authority or the redeemer of a particular musical field. In the case of Madison saxophonist Anders Svanoe, who titled his new album State Of The Baritone, it’s more about possibility. Playing baritone sax and only baritone on each track, Svanoe wrings grace, a broad tonal range, and stylistic diversity from a bulky wind instrument that most people encounter in only a supporting role. For 12 of the album’s 15 tracks, the baritone is front and center in a conversational trio setting with bassist John Christensen and drummer Rodrigo Villanueva-Conroy. The other three tracks form a short suite of vaguely classical duets between Svanoe and pianist Wendy Ward (who is also his wife). Svanoe’s trio will celebrate the album with a Friday, October 14 performance at the Memorial Union Play Circle, part of a regionally focused jazz series called InDIGenous.
Svanoe—a tall, even-keeled family man of Norwegian descent who teaches music at Beloit College—started out playing alto and tenor sax and a bit of clarinet. He has played with Madison standbys like the Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Band and pianist Tim Whalen’s nonet, but seldom plays shows as a bandleader or puts out music under his own name. Despite the boldness of the new album’s title, he doesn’t really like to draw attention to himself.
"I don't like to be in the spotlight all the time, playing all the time, playing five or 10 gigs a week,” Svanoe says. "I like to take my time when I do things and do it right. I'm kind of like the real ugly fish that's 5,000 feet down at the bottom of the ocean, and when a poor little fish comes by I come out of my rock and eat it and go back under my rock. That's kind of how I feel. I'm like the ugly fish."
He credits the great avant-garde reedist Roscoe Mitchell with getting him hooked on the baritone in the late 1990s. "I used to go over [to Mitchell’s house] a couple times a week, because he lived in Fitchburg," Svanoe says. "And we would just hang out and practice in the late morning. And it could be anything—we'd practice classical music, we'd read Charlie Parker transcriptions, sometimes it would be his music, and at that time I only really played alto and a little bit of clarinet, and a little tenor. I'd played the other horns but didn't own them. There was always a reason—'Oh hey, you're gonna be on this record, so here's a horn.' It was always a necessity kind of thing. So I'm guessing it was something like that, where we had a gig and he wanted some bari or suggested that I use bari, and that's kind of how it started. And my very, very first record, he was a guest on that on one tune, and I used bari on that record, and that was in 2001.
Mitchell and British free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker also recruited Svanoe to play baritone with their project Transatlantic Jazz Ensemble, as captured on the 2007 album Compositions/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, & 3. The album featured several other contemporary jazz heavies, including pianist Craig Taborn. Apart from having those big, eye-opening experiences associated with the bartione, Svanoe has just developed an affinity for the instrument over the years. "I think everybody is more well-suited to maybe one [sax] or another, and since I'm a big guy, the bari's a big instrument, it fits my hands really good, it's just easy to play,” he says. "People always seem to say more positive things about my bari playing than any other horn, so it just seemed to make sense to just go for it."
The baritone has had its champions over the years, people who pushed it out of its background, low-end role—Svanoe cites baritone players like Sweden’s Lars Gullin as inspirations, and even titled a song on State Of The Baritone “Gullin’s Pent Up” in his honor. Still, it has never come close to the prominence that tenor and alto sax have enjoyed as lead instruments. That fact has kept things interesting for Svanoe:
"I also think there's more room there for sort of uncharted territory as far as being an artist goes because there weren't so many bari players," he says. "Tenor's been played almost every conceivable way possible, but I think bari hasn't. There's still maybe a few hybrids that you could kind of craft to make your own thing."
On State Of The Baritone, Svanoe tries to make the instrument his own through sheer versatility. The nearly 11-minute “No More Mr. Nice Guy” gives the album a brash start, with Svanoe firing off guttural bursts of notes as Christensen and Villanueva-Conroy busily skitter underneath his fragmented phrases. The rest of the album is rarely abrasive or dissonant, though it’s recorded in a way that’s meant to feel just a bit raw—the bass in particular comes through with a nice hefty thrum that gives even the mellower tracks a welcome hint of aggression. Svanoe, Christensen, and Villanueva-Conroy have a lot more material recorded and plan to make more, hopefully, Svanoe says, with an even more unpolished feel.
The reference points on the album range from Sonny Rollins—Svanoe was thinking about Rollins’ classic tenor sax-bass-drums trio album Way Out West when he wrote the loping, Caribbean-leaning "Wagon Wheel" —to Erik Satie. Personally, my favorite tracks are a couple of shorter ones with atmospheric, slow-burning melodies: "Dreams" and “Street Light." Still, the outlier here would have to be "Eddie The Monster," named for Iron Maiden’s mascot. It begins with Svanoe approximating the band’s signature galloping rhythm-guitar figures on his sax, to goofy effect. Villanueva-Conroy’s emulation of Maiden’s bash-happy, maurauding drums is solid, but is still kind of hilarious in a jazz setting. Svanoe says he was thinking of either "The Trooper" or "Die With Your Boots On" when he wrote this—he’s been a Maiden fan for a long time but had just picked up a reissued copy of Piece Of Mind on LP.
The three collaborative tracks with Ward, especially offer some of the album’s more avant-leaning moments. On "Angry Redhead" and "Julian" especially, Ward builds up tense, seldom-resolved chord sequences, giving the two a confined but compelling space for improvisation. And as on much of the record, Svanoe flits from low growls to fluid high-register phrases, making it easy to forget that all the sax sounds are coming from one guy on baritone the entire time.