The Spirit of a Sound: Alfredo Colón Speaks

Whether you’re talking about the person or the band, the music you’ll hear inside Alfredo Colón’s Big Head is filled with a wry and subversive humor. This Saturday, August 7, Colón returns to The Jazz Gallery with his home-base group, presenting a mix of new material and old favorites. We caught up with Colón to […]

Alfredo Colon

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whether you’re talking about the person or the band, the music you’ll hear inside Alfredo Colón’s Big Head is filled with a wry and subversive humor. This Saturday, August 7, Colón returns to The Jazz Gallery with his home-base group, presenting a mix of new material and old favorites. We caught up with Colón to talk about the ambiguities of musical emotion and his pandemic deep dive into the music of Ornette Coleman.

The Jazz Gallery: I know you wanted to discuss how your band has evolved. Is your head bigger now?

Alfredo Colón: It’s literally the same size, but I do think it’s gotten a little smaller in terms of big-headedness.

TJG: I see, so you’re losing your big-headedness figuratively. But not literally—you still have a nice large head.

AC: I’m saving up for the cosmetic surgery.

TJG: That’s great. So how has the band changed?

AC: Well, it originally started off with Nick Dunston on bass before he moved to Berlin. We would always greet each other with “hey big head,” which, you know, is a joke. That evolved to “big head, big sound,” and over time the name kind of became a character in my head that I would write about.

So Big Head, he’s a little full of himself. He means what he says and he says what he means. Overall, at the end of the day I think he’s a pretty good dude. His character is maybe an over-exaggeration of a lot of my qualities.

TJG: So what started Big Head’s musical journey?

AC: Well, for a while, any gig I played that offered me some creative freedom was on EWI. And I was like, “Man, I’m a saxophone player. I work on this instrument more than anything else. I should let people know that I play saxophone.” So I really booked the gig just to be like, “Hey, everyone, I play the saxophone.” There’s no electronics. It’s just saxophone-dot-com all day.

I didn’t really have much more of a vision for the band than that. The music kind-of just came together. I wrote in such a way where the music was so open ended that the sound would be dictated by however the cats sounded in the moment.

That was the first gig that I had ever played with Jacob [Sacks], with the exception of my graduation recital. And it was my first time ever playing with Connor [Parks]; we didn’t even rehearse for that first gig—we just sat down and played. There was a vibe present immediately.

So initially it was pretty open music—a lot of the melodies would be six, eight bars, and then we’d make it up from there. Jacob, Connor, Nick, and Steve all play in a really compositional way, so I felt like I didn’t really need to write an ending to a lot of the songs. We’d perform them and they would sound completely different every time, but they always felt like complete pieces. But over time a sonic identity became present so I could finally write in a way that wasn’t so open ended and catered more to the abilities of the musicians in the band.

TJG: What are some of the major influences on the Big Head sound?

AC: A lot of the melodic stuff and the sound I’m going for comes from my heroes, predominantly Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Bunky Green. Attitude-wise, it comes from influences that aren’t along the jazz idiom. Someone like Lil Uzi would be an influence in terms of like attitude—his music is overwhelming in a way. I was listening to him the other day, and I was like, “man, you can hear the blues in Lil Uzi.” I was so fixated on it.

TJG: I’m not sure too many people would pick up on that aesthetic.

AC: I mean, when you go to school, they tell you the blues is 12 bars, there’s the I, IV, and V chords and then you’d have your Bird blues or jazz blues. And they get so into the harmony of what a lot of the cats play that they overlook a lot of the sentiment, meaning, delivery and attitude.

TJG:  Can we talk about some of your tunes? How about “I’m Me (Or I’m Not Nothing)?”

AC: That one’s kind of funny. I wrote that one when I was 19 and I was like, sad. There was a meme going around at the time—shout-out to the Important Videos Playlist—I was really into that playlist at the time. They had a one video where this very drunk British kid is trying to walk into a bush and his friends are trying to stop him. They finally let him go, and right before he lands in the bush, he goes, “If I’m not a bush, I’m not no one.” And then he puts his head in the bush. I thought that was really funny. So I spun that phrase to turn it from silly into serious.

TJG: In the Gallery gig with Rocky Amer, it sounds like you’re melting on that tune.

AC: Yeah, you know I like a screaming saxophone that’s rough around the edges—a sound that’s hairy or itchy.

TJG: Right, I joked last time that you need to get your octave key fixed.

AC: Yeah, I like that sound, and I think when we first spoke I talked about the struggle in the sound. Aside from the influences I already mentioned, someone that comes to mind with that kind of sound is Henry Threadgill. I actually think I enjoy listening to him because I can’t really explain much of what’s happening compositionally. It stops me from worrying too much about “figuring it out” or understanding it on a technical level and only leaves me with feeling the music in the moment. That’s something I like about his playing—it taps into that mystery I had as a kid listening to something like Bebop. At the time I couldn’t explain what those guys were doing but I enjoyed it. With Henry, it captures that same feeling, but it’s so different and it feels almost like I’m peeking into something personal.

TJG: And you’re gathering this screamy influence from places outside of jazz too, right? Like, I know you’re a big punk pop fan…

AC: Yeah, I mean, a lot of finding my voice involved embracing a lot of the stuff I liked growing up. Like, I used to listen to The Strokes a lot. Julian Casablancas’ voice is so rough around the edges. It’s the struggle in the sound thing all over again.

TJG: It sounds so much more serious out of a horn though.

AC: Yeah—but it’s really the same thing.

TJG: Let’s talk about another one of your tunes, “Our Simplest Office Clerk.”

AC: The title to that one comes from a video game. Probably one of the worst video games I’ve ever played: “No Thing.” It’s essentially Temple Run, but the graphics are very low quality 3d, retro video game vibes. As you progress in the game, there’s a robot voice telling you a story. And the protagonist is referred to as the “Simplest Office Clerk.”

His life is pretty mundane, repetitive, and monotonous, but the game is about his adventure when he’s given a really important task.  At the end, they refer to him as the “Very Important Office Clerk”. I think we all feel like that sometimes, like we’re doing the same thing over and over again.

TJG: When you finish playing that tune is that a completion of the mission?

AC: Yeah, so the head is really short, and then there’s a big piano solo. There’s really nothing on the sheet music—it’s just slash marks, and then I tell the band to slowly crescendo into total destruction. From there, it goes into silence.

TJG: As an office guy, that song to me sounds like someone who’s had enough and goes into their boss’s office and goes insane.

AC: It’s open for interpretation. I mean, you don’t tell the cats everything. You want them to put themselves into it.

Sometimes you play with some cats, and they’ll tell you the whole story behind their piece and how you’ve got to play this very specific role in telling that story. That’s a valid way to go about it, but I really love leaving some spaces where the musicians can fill it with how they’re feeling at that very moment. We all get to tell our story.

There was actually a beautiful moment: when we were recording for my Jazz Coalition commission, I threw Rocky in there, and he played in a way that was different from anybody else. He played that tune in a way that sounded really triumphant, and it became a whole new piece. The plan was for the piece to crumble but he made it sound like we were going through golden gates, and then there was a clear resolution to the tune. Not telling the cats everything lets them turn it into something else, which I encourage.

TJG: And can you talk a little bit about having these different cast members? Obviously, Aaron Parks and Jacob Sacks are very different piano players. How do you guide those two differently? And how do each of their styles affect your playing?

TJG: I feel like I can’t speak on playing with Aaron as much as I could with Jacob just because I’ve spent more time playing with Jacob. I’ve only played with Aaron once. I think of Jacob as a kind of a mad hatter. He’ll guide you somewhere but he’ll also surprise you along the way.

Aaron’s got this thing where he leaves so much space that you can’t bullshit with him. There’s a certain bounce to him that’s undeniably Aaron, which is very familiar to our band because we all grew up listening to him. There’s a push-pull element to his playing which is fun to navigate, but he also answers your phrases in a really distinct kind of way that I can’t really put into words.

TJG: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I perceive Aaron as having a much brighter sound on the piano. And Jacob’s sound is more dense, or blockier, isn’t it?

AC: Yeah, Jacob can get in between the spaces into all the nooks and crannies while Aaron leaves wide gaps for you. Both are really cool in different ways. They make you play differently. I have Connor and Steve [Williams] or Nick as my familiar cast—a safety net of sorts. I know how to interact with them. Jacob and Aaron are both people that I don’t interact with musically as much. It’s a balance playing with this band—you get some safety and some danger on the same stage.

TJG: How about the addition of Kalia Vandever to this gig? It seems like you have a thing for hiring trombonists.

AC: Trombone actually took me a while to grow to love. A lot of the trombone I heard while I was coming up came out of the modern big band sound, which is very much not for me. Rocky was really the first person that made the instrument exciting for me. I’ve known rocky since I was like 15 years old, and he always had something different on the trombone. Through Rocky, I’ve found out about a lot of other trombone players that I really enjoy, namely Kalia, and then Zekkereya El-magharbel.

TJG: Do you feel like their uniqueness, or the uniqueness of the trombone itself is what draws you to them?

AC: I think it’s an instrument that blends well with so many other instruments. It’s got such a warm, rich sound and sits in a beautiful range. The timbre also fits so many spaces, so you can give them completely different roles. They can switch roles really quickly, and blend beautifully with both rhythm section and wind instruments. I feel like they can serve as the glue in the music to some degree.

TJG: How are you planning on writing for Kalia and what are you looking forward to hearing from her?

AC: Kalia is amazing—she can really do it all. I think she has some of the best rhythm I’ve ever heard. But then, she’ll also outline harmony in such a clear, and creative way that also maintains the essence of the melody. I feel like Kalia’s playing is very melody-driven, and that’s one of the biggest elements of her playing that connected with me.

TJG: So what else went into preparation for this gig? Were you planning for the whole pandemic?

AC: There were a good few months where I just didn’t do anything musical. I didn’t play from April to like, June—I was pretty much just hanging. I think that was a lot of cats’ experience.

TJG: Was that on purpose?

AC: No, but I think we all kind of needed a break from something; I was just overwhelmed from work, and then there was nothing, so I embraced the nothing for a while.

Then June hit and I suddenly had the urge to get back into some music I hadn’t listened to in a while. I was listening to a lot of Joshua Redman. He’s my childhood hero but I hadn’t heard too many peers talking about him in recent years. It was nice to get back into searching for stuff on my own without sifting through dozens of recommendations. It was just me and all the time in the world.

There was also the realization that not everything is for me, at least not right now in this very moment. A lot of the musicians adjacent to my circle are very into contemporary classical composers and new music. I always felt bad for not connecting with that stuff the way they did,and kept forcing myself to listen to it constantly. Eventually I realized I should just sit down with the stuff I really love for now and not force it. I’m going to keep checking it out until I find something that really resonates with me.

Aside from Joshua, one of the guys I really did a deep dive into was Ornette Coleman. Later, when I sat down and started writing again, it was clear that I had checked out a lot of his stuff—like I was taking a new compositional path that I originally had not been able to.

TJG: What was it about Ornette? What new came to you about Ornette during the pandemic? What was the revelation?

AC: So prior to the pandemic, my last performance actually was playing Ornette’s birthday. They have a birthday party for him every five years, and this was the first one where he wasn’t with us. I was invited by Jamaaladeen Tacuma, a bass player who played with him in the 80s. It was a great honor to be around all those cats. A lot of those present that day were former band members and musicians who were adjacent to that crew when Ornette was around. There were also a ton of saxophone players there that were touched by Ornette in some way.

It was wild to be in Ornette’s apartment. Right before we played, there’s a big hang, and they were calling tunes that I had never even heard before. One I’m actually playing this one on the gig—it’s called “In All Languages.” They taught me how to play a lot of these tunes in his studio. I got to learn so much from as close to the source as possible and that’s a memory that I’ll cherish forever. Finding out about all these deep cuts that I had not heard of before from the people he played with was super special and it got me deep into researching him during the pandemic. I remember not really spending too much time on Ornette when I was in school. He was briefly touched on during jazz history lessons and was kind of dismissed as this weird guy. He’s as big as someone like Bird or Trane in my eyes.

TJG: So I asked you to send me videos of what you were checking out and you sent me a 12 minute clip of Ornette playing “Turnaround” at the North Sea Festival from 2010. Can we talk about how he plays the melody here?

AC: So this goes back to what I was talking about. This is the blues! In this context it’s not a fixed thing that loops, but it’s undeniably the blues!

TJG: It also sounds like he’s changing his sound throughout each line, which is something I’ve noticed in your playing. And the melody is super rubato, isn’t it? It feels almost out of time.

AC: He’s just playing with it! Ornette would constantly go back and forth between playing in and out of the grid. You actually get that feel in some folk songs too—sometimes you’ll hear this big downbeat on the first beat of a bar, and the more you listen to it, the more you realize there’s a huge, huge argument leading up to that moment.

As far as changing my tone, yeah, that’s a parameter that I play with a lot. Going back to the school thing, they teach you so much about harmony and building tension through harmony. Outside of private lessons, I hardly heard professors talk about how we shape our playing through sound alone. I want to have moments where it’s like a quiet scream; I want a loud scream; I want to speak at a speaking volume; I want to sing—all in one solo. I want to have all the elements of human speech in my sound at all times. I want to use the parameter of timbre as a way to build a solo instead of just using harmony or melody. Because it’s there—it’s available to me.

I’ve been realizing that a lot of the music that stuck with me the most has the sound of being bigger than the individual. It’s the sound of someone connecting to a feeling that we all can connect to in some way or another. And this Ornette performance—it sounds like yearning, like he misses something or someone. And we’ve all felt that in some way. To capture the sound of something so big, you can’t do it with notes alone. I don’t even know how to put it in words because there’s no one way to do it. It’s like, have you ever been to a really good performance and it was emotional, and you feel the air kind of settling down at the end of it?

TJG: Yes, sure.

AC: I’m searching for that, and I think you need to have something human in the sound for it to happen. You know, I’ve seen players play circles around the horn, and they do all these acrobatics, and at the end I’m like, “Wow, that was really cool,” but being impressed was the only feeling I felt, versus something like this Ornette performance. There’s no acrobatics. It’s just melody. And for me personally, listening to it gives me the feeling of something bigger than Ornette and bigger than me. It’s the sound of the feeling.

TJG: I know I’ve asked you this before, but if your playing is a reflection of you, why are you so angry?

AC: It’s not anger! This reminds me of the first time I checked out late Coltrane or Albert Ayler. The first time I heard it, I was like, “Why is he so angry?” I obviously wasn’t ready for those records at the time. But I went back about five years later, and I heard what sounded like intense joy to me—it sounded happy! Sometimes you’ve just got to let out a happy scream.

Alfredo Colón’s Big Head plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, August 7, 2021. The group features Mr. Colón on saxophone, Kalia Vandever on trombone, Jacob Sacks on piano, Steve Williams on bass, and Conor Parks on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.D.T. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members), $20 for livestream access ($5 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.