Name: Jeff Lederer
Occupation: Saxophonist, clarinetist, composer, educator
Nationality: American
Current Release: History Gets Ahead of the Story on Grizzley Music with Jeff Cosgrove and John Medeski
Recommendations: I have a deep interest and relationship with the community known as the Shakers – My band “Shakers n’ Bakers” plays songs received in states of trance by Shaker women during 1837-50; I love traditional Shaker art, architecture and craftmenship – please learn more about them – it’s one of the most beautiful and progressive experiments in human life this country even produced. There are 3 living Shakers in Maine still – I haven’t visited in a while, I really need to do that after pandemic.

If you enjoyed this interview with Jeff Lederer, we recommend visiting his homepage for more information and music. And if you like Jeff's new album, check out our 15 Questions interview with Jeff Cosgrove as well. 

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

Clarinet was my first instrument, starting at age 10. My first teacher was the brilliant LA iconoclast woodwind improviser Marty Krystall and I would go listen to him and bassist Buell Neidlinger improvised free music and tunes at the Century City Playhouse.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

My early saxophone models included some of the typical suspects from Charlie Parker to Johnny Hodges – In the freshman year of college my professor at Oberlin, Wendell Logan, sent me to the library to listen to Albert Ayler’s “Love Cry” and my life was never the same.

I had many years of modelling my sound after many different idols, from Ayler to Michael Brecker and it took me until my 30’s before I figured out that I couldn’t do what they did, so I’d better figure out some shit of my own. Things got better after that.

What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

I was playing in so many different settings in order to make a living in NYC (arrived 1986) that it was difficult for me to figure out what my own voice really was – some folks figure that out right at the start, that wasn’t me – but I think it works either way and I developed some pretty serious skills along the way – I can do a mean impersonation of Lew Tabakin on the tenor sax.

Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results – and possibly even your own performance?

The most important word for me is vibration. The saxophone is a piece of plumbing and it is our main job to get that thing vibrating! That is why I play the instrument I do (Conn New Wonder Series II ca. 1926) – the craftsmen (really alchemists) who poured that metal knew how to put the molecules together so they VIBRATE – I help that process along with my very particular mouthpiece/reed combination but in the end, it is the PHYSICAL aspect of playing the saxophone that is most important to me, and that’s what I practice – I DON’T PRACTICE IMPROVISATION.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

I don’t think too much about the materials for improvisation (ie intervals, harmonies etc) I think about the directions, momentum, the thread of the improvisation and how I can get out of the way of the music as that is happening.

On a good day, I can do that with the song “This Land is Your Land”, one of my favs which I have been playing since Trump was elected, or with a tone row stolen from Schoenberg (whose son was my high school math teacher – true story).

How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?

What’s a “live audience”?

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

As I said, my “practice” routine focuses on the physical aspects of playing; I spend a good amount of time on each of my instruments (tenor / soprano / clarinet, sometimes flute) playing long tones, and very repetitive scale passages I have repeated for decades. If I am not connected physically with my instruments I can’t even begin to think about making music with them.

There is usually some music on my stand – previous to pandemic, and even now there is usually two or three band books that I have to learn for upcoming events. I practice heads, I don’t practice improvisation. All this takes place during the mornings, because after noon, I am taking a nap; Physical exercise has become more important during pandemic, and that’s also necessary for me to do what I do on the tenor sax which I play very physically.

I do not play music in the evenings, unless I have a gig – my brain isn’t nearly as sharp. If there’s writing to do (again, usually because there is a project or deadline, not because there is “inspiration”) it gets done in the morning as well. Teaching is the other thing, and really takes up all the other hours.

Could you take me through the process of improvisation on the basis of one of your performances that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

Not just because this is related to you reaching out on this, but I am pleased with the recording “History Gets Ahead of the Story” I made with Jeff Cosgrove and John Medeski – We play the compositions of William Parker, different than how William plays them. I know William and have worked with him for years in my project in NYC “Visionary Youth Orchestra”, a large ensemble of young improvisers aged 10-18. I don’t play with William really, but I think I know him as a man a bit, and I think I get the intentions of his tunes, both serious and whimsical.

On our session with Jeff and John, there was no rehearsal etc, so I came at it from the standpoint of knowing William a bit, as well as the other musicians in the room and feeling trust that we could create something new out of the structures. There is a nice poem that appears on a forthcoming recording of Eric Dolphy music my wife Mary LaRose is releasing next year – the poem is from a collection of “Bone Poems” by Patricia Donegan, an American master of Haiku living in Tokyo – She says, “when I am dead, steal my bones – cut them up into Chinese carvings – a mountain, a sage, a heart, a leaf – to hang like stars in the sky…” This is how I think about playing the music of other composers and improvising on them. Sonny Rollins gave an amazing interview on this in the NY Times last May – originality is overrated – we all come from something, and turn into something else – hopefully.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

People talk about a state of “flow” – I think that’s real, and again it’s the good physical relationship with the instrument that helps you to enter that stream. Trust with your bandmates helps. If all that fails, there’s alcohol.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?

I run a program in Music Technology – that’s for kids, it’s not a part of my music making. I have my tools (finale, logic for home recording etc) but if you find that stuff leading you to interesting musical directions, then you better re-evaluate your line of work.

Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?

A few years ago I got a commission project out of the blue from the Ravinia Festival for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I’m not going to lie to you, if I didn’t have the Finale MIDI realization in my mind, I would have been worried sick, but when it came time for the first rehearsal (4 hrs before the premiere) the notes came out of the ensemble kind of sounding like I expected, which was a relief.

On the other hand, I have to endure endless student compositions that are so obviously created “copy and paste” in Sibelius, logic etc and that does not serve the music well. Co-Authorship with the tools? Not in any aspect. If Sibelius is writing your pieces for you, you should consider another line of work.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

I think that is a more interesting relationship than with the tools – the spaces we play music in do interact with our creative process – since pandemic, I have mostly been playing out in the woods of Vermont and the outdoor environment has shaped my sound a bit.

I did my first pandemic recording recently with Jamie Saft, Matt Wilson and legendary bassist Steve Swallow – we all set up outdoors. It rained. That shaped that sound, and not altogether in a bad way.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

Sound interacts with other sense memories – the strongest improvisations certainly can have a visual aspect to them, in performance and in listening back too – there can even been “smell memories” with certain improvisations. Good or bad.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I don’t create music with an agenda – it seems a bit pompous to create music with an intention of changing the world in some way, and frankly there are better ways to spend your time if you want to address social justice, wealth redistribution or world peace.

Medeski has been doing some really cool things with speaking up for the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, but that has more to do with the fact that he’s Medeski and people care what he has to say, and they should cause he knows what he’s talking about. But for me, the music tends to be apolitical.

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?

When I am dead, take my bones and make art of them.