An Interview With Saxophonist Sherman Irby

03/03/2016 06:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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If you have ever had a chance to catch Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra "live", it's a good bet you have seen the larger than life presence of Sherman Irby upfront in the saxophone section. He is the one who envelopes his alto saxophone with a grizzly bear embrace, making the instrument look almost toy-like in his hands. A superb musician who has a soulful, fluid sound and an innate sense of swing, his bellowing laugh and cheerful personae are just two other reasons to enjoy this affable personality.

Irby grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where gospel and blues made up the predominant music of his early childhood. Making the leap from a teenager playing Gospel in the Reverend James Cleveland's band to a front line player in the JALC orchestra jazz is a tale best told by the man in his own words. I interviewed Mr. Irby by phone on February 5, 2016 while he was touring with the JALC band in Europe. He spoke to me while he walking the streets in France just after a gig.
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NOJ: Sherman, thank you for calling and interrupting your busy schedule while touring in Europe, I appreciate it.

First let's start with where you grew up, Tuscaloosa, Alabama arid what got you interested in music?

SI: Well I grew up with Gospel and blues being the predominant influences that I was listening to in early childhood. By ninth grade I was influenced by two teachers who both played trumpet. One was a big Miles Davis fan and the other a Freddie Hubbard follower so that was a good foundation for jazz.

NOJ: What about the Muscle Shoals sound did that influence at all?

SI: Not really that music was further North and so it really wasn't an influence for me. One of my high school teachers, Dr. Thompson, his brother played in Muscle Shoals a lot, he was a saxophone player, but only heard him once. I played with the reverend James Cleveland (known as the King of Gospel) when I was in high school so that was a strong pull on me early on.

NOJ: What made you choose the alto?

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Grover Washington Jr's Mister Magic

SI: I heard Grover Washington. My aunt had the Mister Magic record and 1 looked at the cover and 1 liked it. Grover Washington was everywhere at that time. You could hear his playing Winelight on "One Life to Live" or "General Hospital" and he would be playing in the background. I just decided "the alto please." I started to learn all his solos when he played songs and all of that, but when I heard Bird that changed my whole vibe.

NOJ: When was that?

SI: That was in the eleventh grade. I heard him on the college radio station. University of Alabama had a radio station that would play jazz like at one o'clock in the morning. I heard Bird play the "52nd St. Theme" "and that just blew my mind. I never heard the alto played like that.

NOJ: So your first influence was Grover then came Bird. That is sort of a reverse history.

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SI: Yeah, because of the time, those sounds are what pulled me in. That is what you heard like David Sanborn who was also a big influence of mine back then. When I got to see Grover, I told him how much of an influence he was on me.

NOJ: He was great. He was mainstream, but more than mainstream, he bridged the gap.

SI: Oh yeah he was the real deal. I love him.

NOJ: You got into Bird, what about another altoist like Cannonball Adderley. I know you did an album, Work Song--Dear Cannonball?

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Sherman Irby's Work Song-Dear Cannonball

SI: Yeah, I mean who doesn't play alto and love Cannonball Adderley. Cannonball is the man. I like the swing feel that he plays. The way he uses harmonies, especially after he played with Miles and 'Trane and the band. They just started trading and learning from each other. The way he approached it was very interesting.

NOJ: So he came from Florida, but you never heard him growing up?

SI: Not at all. That wasn't until college when I got a chance to listen to his recordings.

NOJ: What about Jackie McLean?

SI: I heard Jackie McLean when I was in college. I heard him in I believe it was Piedmont Park (Atlanta). I remember he donned the stage; he had a white suit on. I think Freddie (Hubbard) was supposed to be on the gig with him, but Freddie didn't show up. He played the whole gig by himself. Cedar was playing piano, Billy Higgins (on drums), I don't know who it was on bass, it might have been David Williams. Hearing him play that alto, I had to meet him afterwards, and his son Rene was so cool with me. We walked around town together,he told me a bunch of stories, and we had a real understanding. Jackie gave me a book with his warm up that I still use, that I teach kids today. A warm up that really changed my sound.

NOJ: So Jackie did influence you?

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SI: Oh yeah sure.

NOJ: So now I'm hearing Grover and David and Cannonball and Bird and Jackie. What about outlier altos like Lee Konitz?

SI: Yeah I heard Lee a little bit later. See I like Paul Desmond. In high school that is what I affiliated with jazz until I heard Bird. I liked the way Paul Desmond's sound was, I mean I studied classical saxophone, and there was something about his sound. He used a vibrato more like Donald Sinta and Eugene Rousseau who I listen to a lot. So I dug him. Really and truly during and after college my main influences were trumpet players- Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham and Donald Byrd. Donald Byrd was first, and then Kenny Dorham and Dizzy just kind of took over. They had such command of harmony and rhythm and soul. I had to get some of that.

NOJ: Where did you go to college?

SI: I went to Clark Atlanta University. I studied under Dr. James Paterson, a saxophone player.

NOJ: I just moved to Atlanta from the Northeast and recently did an interview with Gary Motley from Emory University.

SI: That's my man.

NOJ: Clark has that radio station,WCLK(Clark Atlanta Jazz Radio) that many local people are apparently moanin' about because it changed its format and now plays a formulaic playlist. Are you familiar with that?

SI: it's frustrating. I'll tell you how it was. That was the place for us, guys who were learning jazz at Clark. There was a DJ or he was a program director, his name was Bobby Jackson. Bobby Jackson was originally from the Cleveland Ohio area, he came to Atlanta and had a big influence on us young jazz musicians who really didn't know anything. I used to come by his radio station during his show. He would say to me "take a record." I would pick a record, he would say "read it out loud, read it and now give me the record and I am going to play some tunes for you." "You need to know who Ernie Henry was; you need to know who Donald Byrd was." and so on. I learned so much from that man.

NOJ: Interesting a DJ?

SI: That's right a DJ and I'm finding out there is a lot of musician; out here who have also learned from them in every city that they went to.

NOJ: Since you studied here in Atlanta I know you know that the area has many music schools and jazz programs in the area like Clark where you went but also, Emory, Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech to name a few. But the sad truth is there are so few places for these student musicians to play.

SI: It's so different when I was there; things were starting to breakdown at that time. Russell Malone was there, we talk about it all the time. There were older musicians there who would stay on you and cuss you out. They would make sure you would learn the right stuff. My greatest teacher was Danny Harper; he is still there. He is a trumpeter who teaches at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, but still lives in Atlanta. Danny taught me so much about the music and about what being a jazz musician was all about. about having the integrity to play the music.

NOJ: After college how did you progress as a musician? What was your trajectory?

SI: I had received my degree in music education, but I didn't want to teach at the time. Personally I thought that if I started at a band program like at a school I would probably still be there now thirty years later, because that is usually how it happens. I start working at a parking lot, parking cars and doing valet parking. At night time I was playing in Atlanta and I landed a gig with Johnny O'Neal the piano player. Taurus Mateen the bassist who now plays with Jason Moran, and used to play with Freddie(Hubbard). So he told Johnny about me. He told me to come and play and Johnnie's going to love you. So I came and played and Johnny said "you are part of the band." That was a step in my education. That was in 1992. I graduated Clark in 1991.

NOJ: So that was your first working gig?

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SI: Yeah that was my first true working gig. I left there as the scene had changed, places started closing up. "Jeff's Jazz," that was a great jazz club in Atlanta, closed down. Johnny O'Neal left and I needed work, so a friend of mine called me and told me about the cruise ships, he said he could get me in on that. So I went down to Florida and I started working for Carnival Cruise.

NOJ: Plus you must have been exposed to and played with so many guys, right?

SI: I met so many guys my friend Andre Rice, who I went to college with, he is still with the Basie band. There were a lot of guys there, that's how I met Russell Gunn. I remember when he left to go to New York and join the big band Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. So I used that time to study on the cruise ships. I needed to prepare myself, I wanted to come to New York. I studied tunes, I studied style I worked on my clarinet and my flute. Just trying to get focused and ready, save a little money and be ready for New York. I came to new in 1994.

NOJ: Is that when you came to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?

SI: No I came with no gig. I came here and was completely broke within two weeks. I heard musicians at "Smalls" and I got in and started playing and started to get a reputation.
NOJ: At "Small's" you were playing in the trio and quartet format right?

SI: Yeah trios, quartets, jam sessions everything under the sun.

NOJ: That was more like hard bop going on?

SI : Yeah mostly and original compositions too. We were playing off each other's tunes. It was a real leaning and sharing of information that was going on there. That was 1994 basically to 1995. In the middle of 1995 I joined the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I did some gigs with Wynton (Marsalis) and I joined the band and I did that for two and a half years. Off time I was still playing at "Small's" and other clubs in the area. I then left that band to join Roy's Hargrove) band. That was an experience. That was probably the best musical experience I ever had, especially in a small group setting nothing even to compare to that. In that band we had Gerald Cannon on bass, Willie Jones III on drums and Larry Willis on piano along with me and Roy. There were other variations in the very beginning, Ron Blake was still there, and we had a long period of time when Frank Lacy was with us.

NOJ: What kind of music were you playing then?

SI: I hate to put a label to it, but mainly hard bop but anything from bebop, to hard bop and even some funk to it at the end. It was mainly a vision that Roy had, kind of based on what Cedar Walton was doing, everybody was kind of following that mood at the time. After that I was fortunate to join, at the end, Elvin Jones' band. He had Carlos McKinney on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, Mark Shim on tenor and sometimes Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone. Then I started to do more things on my own. I was with Blue Note records for a while. I was doing gigs and started playing with Papo Vasquez and his Mighty Pirates Troubadours, another completely different experience. Papo is one of the Latin Jazz all-stars. He played with everybody from Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation's Orchestra to Tito Puente for many years. He has done all kind of stuff. He is a true master; he plays trombone in the band. When Duane Eubanks left I took over his spot. I played with Elvin at his last gig at Yoshi's in California. That was in 2004.
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NOJ: Did you guys record anything with Elvin?

SI: No. We were supposed to go to Japan and come back and play the Blue Note in New York and he passed away before that. He was my heart. He used to like to pick me up all the time, the biggest guy in the room he liked to pick them up.

NOJ: You are a big man and when you hold that little alto you like smother that horn. You remind very much of Cannonball with the way he almost bear-hugged his horn. You have a lot of soul coming out of that horn.

SI: Thank you.

NOJ: Tell me about your experience with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?

SI: It was something else. There is nothing else like it in the world. We played music from all different styles. You find out how great this music is by playing all the different scores we play. You get to understand how great a musician Don Redmond was, you get to realize how killing Benny Goodman's band really was. You understand the writing style and artistry of Duke Ellington and what he was able to accomplish in his life. You understand the history of the music arid how it relates to what we were doing in the nineties and how it relates to the future. The more you study the past the more you understand where you have been and where you are going. It's been the biggest education for me, not only are you playing with the best musicians in the world-most all of them have been leaders in their own right- but we all come together to do this. Most of us actually arrange and do a great deal of the music for the band.

NOJ: So it is more organic and less repertoire?

SI: Yeah it never stops. Right now I am trying to finish my ballet (based on Dante's Inferno) that I started in 2013. We performed the first act in 2013 and now we are looking at finishing the next two acts and performing those. Ted Nash is putting out another big project he did called "the Presidential Suite." There is a lot of things like that that propels the music for yard while still swinging and deep in the blues. It is like an experience of a lifetime to be able to do all of that.

NOJ: What is it like to play in a big band as a section player as opposed to play as a solo artist in front of your rhythm section in a smaller format?

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SI: In the big band you are playing the music as it is written in front of you, but you are communicating with people all across the bandstand and finding your place within it. It is like life, you are on this big Earth and you are part of it and what you do affects everybody else. You're trying to find your space within that but to groove with everybody else so we achieve a common goal of Peace and Love. It's that kind of feeling. So you are part of a community of people just trying to go in the same direction and it's hip. The economics has made it harder to hear this sound and develop this. It is a shame that that has become an issue. I am glad that we are able to do it and we are starting to inspire more and more people to start groups and do more big bands. It's good for the music. The music was started with it -- the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington- before all these small groups got going it was the big bands that started that sound. We need that now so I am glad I am part of that now.

NOJ: I just did a piece that featured three big band albums and demonstrated how they were ushering in a new era of big band music. It's interesting to see this despite the economics.

SI: The music was built and flourished during the depression, so we can make things work when there isn't a lot of money. We have to have the verve to do it.

NOJ: Right now we are speaking to you and you are in France with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Is this a European tour?

SI: Yes, we are on a six-week tour that will take us throughout Europe and then we are on to Australia and New Zealand.

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NOJ: That is quite a whirlwind and then you come home and will be playing with your own group at Dizzy's in New York?

SI: I am coming back on the thirteenth of March. Then I have a week off and then we play Dizzy's March 24th through the 27th. I start the gig on my birthday March 24th. I will be forty-eight so it should be fun. I'm trying to slow down this year.

NOJ: Who will be playing with you on that gig?

SI: Eric Red will be on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, Willie Jones s III on drums and Vincent Gardner on trombone. It is a band that I started doing the music of Art Blakey. We did a three-night stand at Dizzy's about three years ago. It is an unusual style because its alto and trombone and I like the way it works. Vincent has that thing so it works. I'm going to stick with this band, we call it "Momentum" and we are going to keep it going.

NOJ: Are you writing more? You mentioned you're still working on your ballet.

SI: Yes, I am doing a lot of writing, actually I'm going back to my room now and continue working on the ballet. For the gig in March I am going to write most of the music for that featuring the band. With the big band I am finishing the ballet which is based on Dante's Divine Comedy. We performed the Inferno already and I am working on Purgatory and Paradise. We are talking about releasing the whole finished work in the next two years.

NOJ: I let you get back to your hotel and off the streets. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you.