Saxophonist LENNY POPKIN was born in New York in 1941 and now lives near Paris. His trio played at the 2015 Inntoene Jazz Festival, with his wife Carol Tristano on drums (daughter of Lennie Tristano), and Gilles Naturel on double bass. He talked to Alison Bentley after the set about studying with Lennie Tristano (he also studied with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh), and how an audience, which is present at “the moment of creation”, can affect a jazz performance.
London Jazz News: Do you find that the trio format with bass and drums is a good set-up for you?
Lenny Popkin: Perfect, yeah. I don’t discount other settings, playing with other people- it’s just that this one for me… I always seem to do this. The first thing I did was play with a bass player and drummer. Playing with a pianist, or other instrumentalists, or guitar- it’s all fine. But this is the group where… my heart is right here. That’s the way I feel.
LJN: Does it give you more space to express the harmony?
LP: I guess so but it’s not like I can’t do that with other instruments too. I can express harmony, but it’s mostly working with Carol and Gilles- they play great together, so I’m really improvising with them- they’re inspiring me. They make me feel like playing, so whatever I’m expressing is what I’m feeling, and I can’t really compare it to some other setting.
LJN: What was it like studying with [pianist] Lennie Tristano?
LP: Beautiful! He encouraged me and was always on my side, and helped me feel confidence in myself- he was very, very supportive. A great teacher, a great person, a great musician and pianist. I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.
LJN: Do you feel you’re continuing his legacy?
LP: Well, to the extent that I’m improvising. His legacy is being perpetuated by itself. His music is now readily available and people can listen to it and be moved.
LJN: Are there any saxophonists who’ve been a big influence on you?
LP: Yes: Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker and Lester Young. Those are the four that have influenced me the most. I studied briefly with Lee when I was a teenager, and also even more briefly with Warne. I remember what it felt like- I remember the place I got to with them. I would say I was moved by both of them. I wound up studying with Lennie, and he taught both of them.
LJN: You have a very distinctive tone. Is that something you’ve worked on?
LP: It’s the sound that expresses my feeling. That’s the way I express it. It’s not like I worked on the sound.
LJN: In one interview you said music ‘expresses your soul’.
LP: I can identify with that. Music is coming from somewhere. The way I felt it tonight was that the music was coming from my being moved by hearing Gilles and Carol, playing as a great rhythm section, and then I wanted to improvise with them. I wanted to play with them.
LJN: You’ve talked about the public being present ‘at the moment of creation’ in jazz. Was that something you felt tonight
LP: Yes, I definitely felt that. The audience is part of what’s happening because their feeling influences your feeling, and my feeling influences the music- and so they’re part of it. With a painting or a book- they’re painted or written already. This music is happening right in front of them. We’re creating something we haven’t done before, because this music is different than all the other concerts we’ve ever played. They’re present while it’s being created, so in that way a jazz performance is different. I would say, to expand on that a little: a great performer- he’s playing Bach or something- can make you feel that you’re hearing it for the first time, as they infuse their own personal feelings into the notes. But the notes have already existed. So that would be the difference- that here you’re enjoying music that…we don’t even know what it’s going to be!
LJN: I read that you scat sing sometimes too?
LP: It just didn’t happen tonight. I just felt like playing.
LJN: Sometimes saxophonists say that they want to play something they can sing, so I wondered if there was a connection?
LP: Well, that’s true. Everything that I’m playing is something that I hear- it’s not just the fingers going, so in that sense I’m singing all the time.
LJN: This is the second time you’ve played here. How do you feel about the Festival?
LP: I love this Festival. I think I can say it’s one the most wonderful audiences I’ve experienced- they’re out to enjoy. They’re not out to judge. And so that makes you feel like playing and having a ball with them, because I’m out to have a good time too. It feels like we’re all together. That’s something you sense right away- they’re on your side, so it makes you feel very free.