I first heard of this great new contemporary sax player when he toured the UK with smooth jazz legend Peter White.
That was in 2012 and now it seems his name is popping up everywhere! I caught up with Elan in between tours for a chat about his career and how he got started.
N: What was it like growing up as an aspiring jazz musician in Barbados?
E: Well, I went to Queen’s College Secondary School and started piano lessons when I was about 10, then sax when I was 12. The whole education system down there is based on the British system because we were a British colony until 1966. So all my music exams were with the Royal School of Music!
N: And from there you went on to study at Berklee in the USA?
E: Yes I was fortunate to get some funding from the government of Barbados, so I really didn’t have to take out any loans or anything, which was great. Berklee is a very rich experience, not just the faculty but the whole environment. Musicians go there from all over the world and there is such a wealth of talent. We learned from each other, listening to records together, trying to transcribe famous solos together like Coltrane on“Giant Steps” and Charlie Parker on “Donna Lee”.
I majored in music education and ended up teaching for about 10 years before I launched my solo career as a recording artist.
N: I imagine that the influences from all the other people there are almost as important as the education you get. Plus the connections that you make are so important in leading to other things.
E: Definitely, Berklee is all about the networking. Chances are that someone sitting with you in the classroom is going to be touring or working with a national artist before they even get out of Berklee. A lot of people end up getting called for tours and don’t even finish Berklee. It’s amazing when you look at the music industry and see how many Berklee graduates are being successful as songwriters, producers or artists.
N: I love the music that you make. Did you discover a passion for contemporary jazz when you were younger, or was it something you came to later on?
E: Well I didn’t have much access to straight-ahead jazz back home. We didn’t have record stores that sold it. Jazz wasn’t played on the radio and YouTube wasn’t invented yet! So, the only access to any kind of instrumental music was contemporary jazz which I would hear on the smooth jazz TV station “B T Jazz”. I would hear artists like Najee and Spyro Gyra.
When I was growing up we had a big jazz festival in Barbados every January. I would go every year and watch great saxophone players like Najee, Kenny Garrett, Boney James, and Kirk Whalum.
I actually saw Grover Washington Jnr at the festival too. That was one of the shows that had the biggest impact on me. I could tell that he wasn’t just playing contemporary jazz. I could hear bebop lines in his improvisation. There was something else going on.
It was the same with Najee. There was a little more depth in his improvisation. So that really influenced me and encouraged me to want to go to Berklee. I wanted to study jazz and bebop because it really peeked my curiosity for the genre and for that vocabulary.
N: What a great way to discover music! If you’re learning these days it would be a completely different thing – there’s so much more available, everyone has access to everything through the internet. You’ve done a couple of recordings with Kirk Whalum now – that must have been an amazing experience!
E: Yes I actually ended up coming back on the plane with him from Barbados, and I played him some of my music. He really liked the direction I was going in.
A couple of months’ later I sent him a song from my Gospel Jazz project and he was gracious enough to play on there with me. I sent it to him in Tennessee and he recorded it and sent it back to me. Kirk is an amazing player. He has great depth and knowledge of the history of jazz and the history of saxophone. He can stand up next to many of the sax greats that play straight-ahead jazz.
N: You mentioned that you wanted to learn more about straight-ahead jazz at Berklee. How did you go about doing that?
E: Yes – most of the horn players at Berklee tend to follow the same trend which is to get a real book of jazz standards. You try to learn the melodies of the most popular jazz standards like “Donna Lee”, “Giant Steps” or any song from the Miles Davis album *Kind of Blue*. We would try and transcribe the solos. Then we would all practice every night trying to play these songs as fast as we could. Most horn players generally follow that trend.
I ended up going more towards contemporary jazz once I finished Berklee. It’s hard not to get into bebop at Berklee because it’s a big part of a horn player’s education.
N: You taught for a while after Berklee. What inspired you to leave that and start doing your own thing?
E: I actually got a teaching position while I was doing my teaching training, in my senior year at Berklee. So luckily I had a teaching job waiting for me. At one of the schools where I was doing my observations the teacher was retiring, so I got placed on graduation.
I ended up teaching for almost 9 years but in 2012 I got a call from Peter White to go on tour with him. Peter does his tour in Northern England every year, playing at Pizza Express in Soho and other venues around the country.
I had just finished my *Love and Sax* album and I had a single on the radio. I knew that because of teaching I was losing opportunities to tour and travel, and I couldn’t really promote my music through sending out emails and YouTube. I had to get out and tour. It got to a point where I needed to make a decision. So Peter’s call really confirmed it for me. I knew that I needed to give it a chance. I had to step out of my comfort zone, walk away from that steady pay cheque and walk into the unknown. So that’s what I did.
N: That’s fantastic, because it’s a big step, but what a great way to start. And, things have gone pretty well for you – you’ve been pretty busy performing, and busy making recordings too?
E: Yes it’s been a domino effect, you know? Peter is such an established and well-respected artist that when people saw me performing with him that just increased my credibility. Not long after joining Peter, my single “Heaven in your Eyes” started doing really well on the radio. It’s from my *Love and Sax* album and features Brian Simpson on keyboards. Shortly after that I got a call from Dave Koz to be featured on his European cruise along with Larry Graham, Sheila E, and Brian Culbertson. I did that 2 years in a row. I also did a summer tour with Jonathan Butler.
“I had to step out of my comfort zone, walk away from that steady pay cheque and walk into the unknown. So that’s what I did.”
When I started getting into the theory of music, I already had a foundation of contemporary jazz, which meant being able to play in a very melodic and smooth way. In Barbados the music is very melodic, very diatonic. Music isn’t dissonant at all and there are always very singable melodies.
So that’s a big part of my playing, my improvisation and my songwriting. I just play simple stuff in a kind of vocal style that anyone can sing along to. So even as I’m starting to expand my vocabulary into bebop vocabulary, and I am trying to push myself as a jazz musician, I am still trying to stay grounded, and to keep a balance.
I think Andy Snitzer is a great example of balance, being able to have technical facilities but still being able to play melody …. Also Eric Marienthal. Both those guys, and Michael Brecker, he’s the master of having balance. Some players are either too technical, or too commercial, but I think Brecker was a great example of someone who had the perfect balance.
N: Was he a big influence on you when you were younger?
E: Not really, I was familiar with his music but I didn’t really have many of his albums. I just knew that he was an amazing tenor sax player. I would watch videos of him playing “Delta City Blues”, doing that that solo at the beginning, doing all these harmonics and stuff, and it was just very inspiring. It always helps you to keep reaching as a player knowing that there are people who have mastered the instrument, and to know that there is so much more to it. It takes a lifetime to really master the instrument – I’m barely scratching the surface.
N: But I bet if we had this same conversation with Michael Brecker he would say the same thing! So when you were back in Barbados and you were getting inspired by these commercial guys like Grover and Kirk, how did you approach it? Did you transcribe?
E: Yes, I would transcribe the few recordings I had. My Dad bought me a cassette tape of Kenny G so I would listen to him a lot – it was the album *Breathless* that had “The Wedding Song”, and “G Bop” on it. I remember rewinding that tape and playing it to the point that the tape got warped. I was trying to remember everything he was playing, especially his improvisations.
There was another record, an Earth Wind and Fire album, Live in Japan, and there was Scott Mayo playing the alto sax solo on “Reasons”. At the end of the solo he did these crazy double time bebop lines, – it sounded like something Kenny Jarrett would play! I memorised and transcribed that solo.So there were just little things I was hearing over the course of the years leading up to Berklee that really opened my ears. So even though I might not have known the theoretical explanation of it, I knew it made sense over those chord changes, so my ear was opening up to these sounds and this vocabulary.
N: That’s really interesting. In a way I think, although what you were exposed to was limited, I think that was really positive because it helped you to focus on what you loved and was really important to you, and helped you find your own voice now. Do you think so?
E: Yes, I get compared a lot to different people, I guess that’s a good thing? I guess I’m just growing into my own style… not necessarily sound-wise because I think your sound always changes depending on your set-up, how you are feeling, and where you are playing. But with my ideas, and the liberties I’m taking, and in my writing I’m establishing my own identity.
N: Absolutely, I love your music and the way it sounds. Tell us about your creative process when you are writing your albums. How does it start? Does it start with a melody, or a chord change?
“I’ll get an idea, either a bass line or a simple phrase or motif, or a chord progression.”
E: Both actually! I’m a dreamer, I get most of my ideas when I am half asleep or falling asleep. I’ll get an idea, either a bass line or a simple phrase or motif, or a chord progression. So it varies, I like to mess around with a bass guitar or a piano. When I travel, I’m writing on the bus or train or on a plane, I tend to write when I’m in a relaxed state, looking at nature, I hear things, then I record it. That’s the hard part, I try to get it down as soon as possible so then I can develop it.
N: Do you do a lot of the early production stuff yourself? Do you have your own studio at home?
E: Definitely. I’m pretty picky when it comes to production. I’ve been a little more open to bringing people on board in the last couple of albums, but I like it done my way. I’ve always tried to arrange my own music. I took a couple of songs to Jeff Lorber, and he said “But I am not really the producer here, you already picked the keys for the songs, and did the arrangements, and picked the musicians, so I’m more like the engineer!” So I said, “Okay! That’s fine!”
N: I was listening to you play “Bridgetown To Beantown” with Jeff Lorber from your album *Tropicality*, you’ve got some great playing on there.
E: Yes it was great working with Jeff, we knocked it out in one take.
N: When it comes to practising, what do you like to work on day- to-day to maintain your technique and your tone?
E: I’m always experimenting with my set-up, with mouthpieces, reeds and ligatures, because I’m never really satisfied. I feel like it’s not an instrument you can just pick up, like a guitar or a piano where you can sit down and the sound comes out. There are a lot of variables, so I’m always looking for ways to make it easier to play and to overcome the challenges like climate, humidity, the room, things like that.
I try to focus on my weaknesses – for me the quickest way to get better is to be open about your weaknesses, to acknowledge what your weaknesses are and to be willing to make the changes to strengthen them.
I’m not a very strong sight reader, so I’m always working to improve that. I find that sometimes I’m more dominant on my right hand so I work on my left hand palm keys. Also I spend time on smoothing out the transition from the regular range to the altissimo range.
I’m mainly self-taught so I have some flaws in my technique. The key thing for me is to be aware of these weaknesses and shortcomings and to do what I can to strengthen them. I know what my strengths are, so if I work on my weaknesses it will make me a better all round player.
N: That’s great advice. I think too often people only practice the things that feel good, but that might not make you a better player! So it’s great to hear you say that. If you have a really limited amount of time and you can only practice one thing, what is the thing that you go to?
E: It varies. I go through stages. Right now I’m really conscious of my articulation, I think sometimes I over-articulate too much and it gets in the way of my ideas. I was talking to Bob Reynolds about this recently. Bob is a saxophone player who was a couple of years above me at Berklee and he is now playing with John Mayer. He gave me some great advice – he said “just take your tongue out of the equation and let your fingers do the work. Get with that metronome on 2 and 4 and take your tongue out of the equation.”
So that’s what I’m focussing on right now, everything that I’m playing I want it to be as in time rhythmically as possible – I want my rhythm to be impeccable! I know it will never be perfect but I want everything I play to be as I intended it to come out, rhythmically.
N: So what’s on the horizon now?
E: I’m actually working on some new music, I have about 3 songs completed and they pick up where the *Tropicality* album left off. I’m sticking in the vein of music of Barbados that is reminiscent of the music of the Caribbean. That is a big part of my sound.
I’m also really busy this year both touring with other artists and organising my own Barbados Jazz Excursion event. This year I brought down Jeff [Lorber], Gerald Veasley and Javier Colon. It was an amazing few days and I’m looking forward to our next one in 2016!