Mike Lee: NEW NEW YORK Interview with Mike Lee
(by Frank Tafuri ... 7/7/00, in Mike's backyard in Montclair, NJ)

Tafuri: You've been busy doing a lot of things; you do a lot of clinician work, touring solo, I guess...

Lee: And some with my band. Hopefully there'll be more of that in the future.

Tafuri: How did you get into saxophone?

Lee: I started taking guitar lessons in sixth grade, and we had to sign up for band in junior high in seventh grade. I signed up for band so I could play guitar in the band, but they said, "Sorry, no guitar in band."

Tafuri: Because this was marching band?

Lee: No, just concert band. A friend of mine was gonna play saxophone, and I wanted to sit next to him, so I said OK, saxophone.

Tafuri: And this is in Cleveland?

Lee: Yeah, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Tafuri: That's it —you just started playing sax.

Lee: Started playing sax, and then started taking lessons about a year after that. The teacher, Al Blazer, was writing an improvisation method [book], which were pretty rare at that time. He was using me as a guinea pig, so he'd send me home with a tape to play along with, and I just fell in love with the whole concept.

Tafuri: What instrument were you playing?

Lee: Alto.

Tafuri: You were a just kid in school, not necessarily wanting to become a musician, right?

Lee: I was into everything else. I don't think I decided to become a musician until I was fifteen or sixteen.

Tafuri: That's still pretty early, I think, for some people. What made you think about actually being a musician?

Lee: The other things I was interested in were writing and photography, and those things were solo pursuits. I'm very into doing things on my own, spending time alone working on a craft, but when I started playing jazz, there's obviously a lot of time you have to spend alone, but there's the other end where you're in front of people and you're performing. That was a necessary part of the equation for me. It really has both intense solitude and quiet practicing, and then sometimes you're playing for thousands of people, so it can be very public too.

Tafuri: Didn't that bother you, if you were into solo pursuits?

Lee: No, I like both.

Tafuri: But having to put your craft on display for review, that didn't bother you at all?

Lee: I don't know what it is. In small groups of people I feel uncomfortable, in social situations of five or ten people. There's always too much going on, and not enough to focus on. But in front of thousands of people, the focus is on the music, and on what's happening there. I know a lot of people list speaking in public ahead of death as their number one fear, but I'm not one of those people. I'm very comfortable in front of large groups.

Tafuri: So you were playing in high school, and you played in the band—

Lee: I played in concert band and marching band and jazz band.

Tafuri: Okay, so they did have a jazz band?

Lee: Yeah, they had an excellent jazz band at Cleveland Heights, and they still do. I did a clinic with them a couple months ago. Some of the older kids asked me to be in a small group for the final concert of the year, doing a tribute to Miles Davis.

Tafuri: What year is this?

Lee: My sophomore year of high school, 1979. Actually, one of the guys now goes by the name Evan Marks, and he's a smooth jazz star out on the West Coast. He has a few albums out on Verve, and he was the guitar player in Fatburger. He actually dated my older sister for awhile. He took me aside and played me Kind of Blue and got me hooked. Before that, I'd just been listening to big band stuff, Maynard Ferguson, things like that.

Tafuri: How did you start listening to that?

Lee: It was just part of talking to other saxophone players, and I had a friend who hooked me up with my teacher who had some Maynard Ferguson albums. What was great about that time was that he hipped me to some Ella and Carmen McRae albums, and I listened to them over and over. To this day, I can sing every last lyric off them. Then they got me into Miles Davis, and I started buying a lot of albums, but I wasn't one of those people who the first time I heard Coltrane knew that it was gonna change my life. It took a few listenings. I think the actual experience of listening to a live performance that made me decide to do this for a living was hearing Johnny Griffin.

Tafuri: That's interesting.

Lee: You know, I heard Charlie Parker, I love Charlie Parker, and I'd go see Giant Steps and Blue Trane [records in the store] for five dollars —an exorbitant amount at the time —and then I would see Untitled for a dollar, so I'd buy that one. And it would be some stuff with Alice Coltrane, later stuff, that was really inaccessible for me at that time. So Coltrane didn't really have that initial impact on me, and I was into Dexter, but he wasn't playing enough bebop—

Tafuri: He was laying back too far...

Lee: I was real into Dexter, but still, it hadn't ignited for me; then I heard Johnny Griffin. He'd just put out an album called Return of the Griffin, where they play "Autumn Leaves" and stuff. That was it. Me and a bunch of friends went to see him.

Tafuri: Where was that?

Lee: Cleveland State University Auditorium. That was pretty impactful.

Tafuri: He still sounds great. Have you heard him when he comes in May every year to New York?

Lee: I haven't heard him in a while. I sat in with him in New York, at Sweet Basil, maybe thirteen, fourteen years ago.

Tafuri: So was that a big deal?

Lee: It was a big deal. I don't know what got into me; I was unusually aggressive. I went and asked him if I could sit in with him, and he said, "no, I don't normally have people do that..."

Tafuri: You showed up at the gig with your axe?

Lee: I was sitting up near the band —he was like "no!" I guess people don't normally ask. I would never do it now, so I can understand why it was a strange thing for a young guy to come up...

Tafuri: He was impressed with your ballsiness, I think...[laughs].

Lee: He got done with his solo on one tune, and by this point I had moved up to a table right next to the bandstand. He came up and kinda under his breath he went "Where's that young cat that wanted to sit in?" He starts going towards the bar where I had been, so I follow him back to the bar, and he's looking at the bar asking the people sitting around, "Where's that guy that was sitting here?" I tapped him on the shoulder and he goes "Oh, there you are man, all right, get your horn out."

Tafuri: So what'd you play?

Lee: We played "Good Bait" —

Tafuri: From a Cleveland native —Tadd Dameron!

Lee: Right. I'd just learned the tune, so it was a total score for me —I was like, all right, I know that! So we played that, and he leaned over and said "Man, I love your approach." I said "Thank you very much," and I'm getting off the stage, and he says "Oh no, don't go anywhere." All of sudden, his foot goes 1-2-3-4, and we were playing "Cherokee" about the speed of light. [Laughs.] We did the whole thing —

Tafuri: A cutting session, baby!

Lee: Oh, man! He played two choruses, I played two choruses, he played one chorus, I played one chorus, then half a chorus, then sixteen, then eight, then four, then two, then ones, we played together...

Tafuri: Wow! Did you ever hear Dexter and Johnny, that great recording from Carnegie Hall?

Lee: No...

Tafuri: That's pretty wild, man. So nothing more ever came of that? Did you get written up in the paper?

Lee: No, it was a Sunday night, the review was from like Tuesday night. It was pretty fun. Actually, I ran into people for a couple years after that that recognized me —"oh, you're the guy."

Tafuri: That's great!

Lee: I don't know if I was famous or infamous.

Tafuri: How'd you feel after that?

Lee: Oh, elated. It was a total thrill. It was unbelievable.

Tafuri: So this was while you were in college?

Lee: No, this is the first time I moved to New York. I must have been about 22 or something.

Tafuri: So you went to CSU....

Lee: Right, for a year. Then I transferred to University of Cincinnati.

Tafuri: When were you at CCM?

Lee: '81 to '83.

Tafuri: When you were at CSU, were you in like a jazz studies program, or something like that?

Lee: I was a saxophone performance major. I wanted to be a jazz saxophone player.

Tafuri: And you felt like you needed a college education to do that?

Lee: Well, I needed a place where I could kind of incubate my skills, and practice. There was still a lot to learn —I took arranging classes and theory classes.

Tafuri: So did you play up there in Cleveland? Did you work with any bands?

Lee: Oh sure. Especially when I moved back, after I went to Cincinnati for two years, and I came back.

Lee: In Cleveland, Neal Creque, and Lamar Gaines, and Eddie Backus, so many great musicians, and there were not really any young horn players at the time, so I just worked with all these guys. It was an incredible year, the one year after I left Cincinnati before I moved to New York.

Tafuri: Then what possessed you to move to New York?

Lee: Because I couldn't think of things to practice. I felt unchallenged, and I knew that there was a lot more for me to learn and develop. There weren't enough challenging situations.

Tafuri: Did you know anybody in New York?

Lee: Well, I had taken a couple of lessons with Joe Lovano when he came through and played at the Blue Wisp [while in Cincinnati]. There was a bunch of people that had moved from Cleveland. My first roommate in New York was Alan Farnham. He had been living in Cleveland before that. He moved up a few months before I did, and he called me. It was sort of serendipitous. He called me —I had a U-Haul trailer attached to my car, full of stuff, and I didn't know where I was gonna go. I was ready to go, and he called me and said, "I found a place to sublet, are you moving up here any time soon?" I said, "I'm ready to go." So I came up there. It was Ed Schuller's apartment; he spends a lot of time in Europe, and sublets all the time. We subletted that place for a month in August of '84. I remember, the first night we got there, I unloaded my car and said "Let's go" —we went to the Star Café on 23rd St.

Tafuri: Which isn't even there anymore, I don't think.

Lee: I don't think it was there a year later. [Laughs.] But it was an unbelievable hang, that place. I walk in there, clutching my saxophone so hard I'm about to get tendonitis —just freaked out that I'm in New York City.

Tafuri: I'm surprised you took it with you.

Lee: Well, I wanted to play. Someone bumped into me, and I turn around like "What're you doing?" and I realize it's Woody Shaw. Junior Cook was guiding him in there. It was an incredible scene. I sat in there with probably fifteen other saxophone players.

Tafuri: Part of your backyard like Cleveland was your backyard and Jersey is your backyard. Places to hang and experience things. Each filled with stories like your new CD, My Backyard.

Lee: Well, it's compositions that I've written over the last several years since my last CD came out. The guys that play on it are my buddies —the guys I try to play with as much as possible. Matt Ray is the pianist. He was also the pianist on the previous CD...

Tafuri: I love Matt's playing. He's somebody more people should know about.

Lee: He's an unbelievable talent. He's so incredibly tasteful. His contributions are perfect. I think one of the reasons I get such a positive response to my tunes is the way guys like Matt and the rest of them compose things within the structure that I give them. They hear what I'm after and set it off in a way that I don't have to write every voicing and every little note and kick and hit. They make it a composition. They're all weird tunes —none of my tunes have eight bar phrases or, if they do, the next phrase is three-and-a-half bars. [Laughs.] Matt's quite a few years younger than me; I met him later on when I was living in Cleveland and he was a student at Oberlin College. He's been a great friend and a great collaborator. And then Andy McKee is someone I've just gotten to know since I moved to Montclair.

Tafuri: He's a monster, man.

Lee: He's incredible. I played with him once, eighteen years ago, and I'd called him when I first moved to Jersey, but he wasn't available; he's a very busy guy. Since moving here [to Montclair, NJ], I've gotten to know him and his family —he's been in my backyard many times. Just an incredible musician. I'm really fortunate to have him on this.

Tafuri: And a fine composer too. I was noticing that you've got quite a few composers, actually. I mean, you talk about them improvisationally writing within the compositions you do. Well, actually, Matt writes some good stuff, and Andy does...

Lee: Andy's a brilliant composer; I love playing his music. And, you know, Tim Horner is so compositionally sympathetic to the tunes. It's kind of awe-inspiring. I write tunes, and I like them when I write them. But once I hear what guys like these players do with them, they take on a whole new meaning.

Tafuri: That's what it's all about, right? Dexter Gordon called most of what he played "vehicles," you know, and I guess if it's a good tune it is a vehicle it takes you somewhere and gives you space...

Lee: John Hart's playing guitar. It's the first time I've ever recorded with him, and he's just brilliant. He came to the rehearsal, and said "I'd like to try an acoustic guitar on a couple of these things," so he brought that, and it was a really welcome addition.

Tafuri: It makes for a really different sound. I really like, between your compositions and some of the timbres that are in the pieces, that acoustic guitar; it's not something you hear in a jazz group usually. Sounds nice.

Lee: All of the players are really masters of timbre. It keeps it interesting. Otherwise, if it's the same timbre, you just have head/blowing/head. That can be interesting, but I think it makes an album a lot more complete, a lot more listenable to a greater audience, to have all the different timbres. That's why I asked my wife Rebecca [Harris] to play on a couple of the pieces. All day, I hear her beautiful violin, and we've never really collaborated to that extent. I really want to do a lot more of that, and actually organize a group that has a few string players. I've been trying to write for that lately —it's just an incredible sound. Violin's such a beautiful instrument.

Tafuri: And I would suspect she's been in your backyard several times, too.

Lee: She has been out there once or twice! [Laughs.]

Tafuri: Well, speaking of Backyard, you've got a "Message from Home" on here.

Lee: Well as you know, the original take of that had an actual message from my son that he left on my cell phone, right after we recorded this, when I was on tour in Seattle. I just decided it's too personal to leave on an album I'm going to release. I love traveling, and I love playing music, but I love my home and I love my family, and it's an incredibly painful thing to be away from them. It's not painful in a debilitating way; it's painful because this is a lot of my life. I'm very fortunate, but one of the drawbacks is I spend a lot of time away from my family. Having a five-year old leave that kind of a message, there's only one thing you can play after that, and that's straight, down-home blues. Get right to the meat of the matter.

Tafuri: That's been a message from home for a lot of years, the blues. It takes a lot of people a long way home... "Secular Living" as opposed to the monastic life?

Lee: Well, my other CDs, most of the song titles were out of a book called The Course of Miracles, that's a spiritual practice that I'm very into. You know, there are times when I don't embrace it as much, and I'm not focused on that particular way of self-development. So "Secular Living" means embracing the other parts of my life —my family, who I am, and the music. Just kind of living my life. You know, there's a happy part to it, I'm not thinking too much, I'm not overanalyzing things, I'm just living my life. The other part is, there's a mournfulness to it, feeling sort of separated from God, and feeling not spiritually fulfilled.

Tafuri: Interesting. And out of that feeling came this tune?

Lee: Yeah, I think if you listen to the tune you'll hear, there'll be a joyful two bars, and then there'll be a mournful two bars.

Tafuri: Does that have something to do with "The Crooked Halo"?

Lee: It is a similar thing, "Crooked Halo." That's one of the tunes my wife plays on, and she helped me come up with that title. It kind of means, yes, we're trying to lead a spiritual life and, yes, we have high spiritual aspirations, but we like to do it with a little bit of style. You know, you put that halo on a little bit crooked, and there's a little bit of sassiness...

Tafuri: Well, it comes out in the tune. That's for sure. What is "Sidewalk Seven" ... beyond the alliterative aspects of it?

Lee: The tune has a little childhood "nyah nyah" sound to it; it's part of the theme of the album —the back yard and the childhood, the connection between the family life I'm creating now and the family life I experienced as a child. There's something about sidewalks that you're very much in touch with as a child. Playing hopscotch —this tune has a feel like playing hopscotch. And the "seven" is because it's seven bars of two, over and over.

Tafuri: Did you grow up in the city or in the suburbs?

Lee: The suburbs.

Tafuri: How was it growing up? You talk about the connection between your life with your family and your life growing up. What kinds of connections do you see?

Lee: Every stage that my son goes through, it brings back memories. You're seeing the argument from the other side, every different event from the other side. It's really bizarre, really gratifying. It helps me a lot to see a child that's so easy to forgive; it's so easy to see him as perfect. I try to reserve a little bit of that for the grown-ups in the house. [Laughs.] We try to see him, and let that type of complete acceptance transfer to ourselves and to each other.

Tafuri: It's a lesson in living, I guess.

Lee: And, you know, part of it is that, as much as I swore I'd do things differently, there's such a strong pull to repeat it exactly. You're just kind of dealing with that all the time, whether you're resisting it or not, whether you're trying to change certain attitudes that your parents had, and maybe not have the exact same ones. That's kind of the archetype that you're working from. Everything is either going along with that, or resisting it.

Tafuri: There's no middle ground?

Lee: A lot of it's simple, too —watching him swing on a swing and remembering how fun that was.

Tafuri: Pure joy. That's great. You've got another one here that sounds a little off-kilter, too: "Just North of Normal."

Lee: Well, that's kind of a play on words. As you may not have noticed, on your way here [to my house] we crossed Normal Avenue.

Tafuri: Ohhh, all right...

Lee: Yeah, I live just north of Normal. I think I live just north of normal in a couple of different ways. And the tune is anything but normal —it's incredibly hard to play. I've been trying to play it with other rhythm sections since we recorded it, and again, these guys handle it incredibly well.

Tafuri: You make it sound easy, that's for sure.

Lee: But it's not.

Tafuri: Well, it's like you were saying being a traveling musician and being an artist, and being a husband, having a home, having to cut your lawn and trim your trees, and feed your dog, and having to tour and write music--

Lee: —and practice!

Tafuri: Oh yeah, there's that, too. How about the vacation side, it sounds like "Sandals and Seashells"?

Lee: Well, that's a calypso, kind of a folk tune with a calypso beat to it. Sandals and seashells are things that I didn't think about from the time I was about eight until my son was going to beaches and doing that stuff. It has a very Caribbean sound to it, and it reminds me of those things.

Tafuri: Beautiful title: "Her Hair, Full of Glamour..." with the British spelling!

Lee: Yeah, I can't remember the rest of the quote. It's a quote from a Fitzgerald work. My wife and I were visiting my parents, and she was trying to find a magazine that had the right haircut for her, and she found this quote, and said "rather than a photo, I want this quote to describe what I want."

Tafuri: And she took the quote to the beauty parlor?

Lee: Yeah.

Tafuri: Alright! [Laughs.] That's a great idea!

Lee: That's also a tune she plays on. It's a very pretty kind of ballad; it's a romantic song for her. She did get a very nice haircut. [Laughs.]

Tafuri: It's interesting they're all your own tunes, and then you do "Stardust".

Lee: Right. You gotta do "Stardust."

Tafuri: Why?

Lee: It's one of the greatest compositions ever written. I love playing ballads —I feel most comfortable playing ballads.

Tafuri: Why do you think that is?

Lee: From the time that I was listening to Dexter Gordon and transcribing solos—

Tafuri: —they're easier to transcribe [laughs] —

Lee: —easier to get the notes, but what I noticed when I tried to play along with the solos once I had transcribed them, was that if I wasn't playing right with them, just right, I was always in front.

Tafuri: Yeah.

Lee: I never laid back too much with him. What I would do [is] I would play his songs and his ballads, and try to play every note with him. It was such a willful experience —I had to will myself to wait.

Tafuri: To relax?

Lee: Yeah.

Tafuri: And then there's a Bird tune. Talking about your backyard, we took pictures in your backyard, we hung with Casey [Mike's hyperactive retriever] in the backyard, and then you're "relaxin'" at the state mental institution? It's probably just a cool tune, right?

Lee: It's just a cool tune. I can't claim it has any special significance, other than that we wanted to play something loose after all the hard tunes.

Tafuri: Of all the tunes you could have picked, how did "Relaxin' at Camarillo" happen?

Lee: I always play that tune. I don't know, I just like it. It's a blues form, although not a typical blues in flavor like the other blues we do on the album.

Tafuri: It's a cool tune. You don't hear it that much anymore.

Lee: Joe Henderson had a great recording of it a few years back.

Tafuri: Actually, I remember that.

Lee: I think he's actually recorded it a couple of times. I just love it.

Tafuri: And "Sinuousity"?

Lee: It's a pretty simple tune. It's has a snake-like, creeping bass line and melody. I have John Hart play the Melody fairly straight, and I play around with it and harmonize it. There is a lot of room for the two of us to play off of each other at the beginning and end of the tune.

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