What is it that drives Walt Weiskopf? It’s all about the music, all about the sound.
He’s reached a large audience in ten years of touring with Steely Dan. He’s written a half dozen books on jazz improvisation techniques and methods, and he’s taught at the Eastman School of Music, Temple University and New Jersey City University, where he now heads the jazz program. We find the real key to his work, though, in the huge catalog of recordings as a leader, overwhelmingly featuring his own compositions and arrangements for aggregations that range from quartets to nine-piece ensembles.
Ask him what he tries to evoke with his writing, and he’s disarmingly forthright: his focus is on the musical expression itself—the melodic lines, the harmony and the rhythm, interwoven and all framing the improvisations of the group, with his own stellar tenor sax work sharing the spotlight pretty much equally with the other musicians. Going by the titles of some of his compositions, he’s clearly dedicated a few to his family and at least one to a musical influence (“Like Mike,” for Michael Brecker). And there’s even a full album, Sight to Sound (Criss Cross, 2003), where the professed aim is to tie the compositions with the work of great visual artists, from van Gough to Picasso. But you don’t have to press him hard before Weiskopf will admit that he concentrates almost exclusively on the sound alone.
His recordings have been widely reviewed in the jazz press, where Weiskopf has received a number of accolades for his work. C. Andrew Hovan in All About Jazz called him “easily one of the most mature and fully individualistic saxophonists and composers to come along in the last 10 years.” Bill Milkowski in Jazz Times dubbed him “a major talent… a monster tenor saxophonist as well as a prolific composer and accomplished arranger.” Zan Stewart in Downbeat echoed those comments, calling him “a consummate saxophonist, composer and arranger.” Bret Primack, now best known as YouTube’s “Jazz Video Guy,” once picked out a Weiskopf album as one of the ten best of the year. Other commentary by Hovan provides some notable observations: “Not to take anything away from other jazz saxophonists, but Weiskopf’s musical persona is the complete package. He has an identifiable sound, chops aplenty, great ideas and a strong emotional base that is often absent in other technically gifted players. . . . [He] not only sets a benchmark for jazz that functions within the tradition, but speaks with individuality and emotional attachment.”
The Way You Say It
His recorded output includes eleven albums as a leader for Criss Cross, the jazz label based in the Netherlands, and since 2013, he’s been recording for Posi-Tone Recordfs. His 2016 release, The Way You Say It, is his third for the label. The saxophonist’s last outing on Posi-Tone, Open Road, featured a traditional jazz quartet instrumentation, with Peter Zak on piano, Mike Karn on bass and Steve Fidyk on drums. His first recording on the label, Overdrive, added vibes and guitar. The titles of both albums relate to the setting for most of his work composing and arranging. “I do the lion’s share of it on the on the road. That’s when I have the time, and I’m free of distraction. It would definitely be an adjustment if I had to write the material for a whole record if I didn’t have that time to myself to do it. Otherwise, I never have any down time.”
Weiskopf credits Posi-Tone producer Mark Free with sparking the idea for forming the group featured on The Way You Say It. “We were trying to figure out what to do next,” says Weiskopf about his conversation with Free. “This recording, we knew, was going to be not more than five people and probably not less than four. I hadn’t done an organ record in a long time. And Mark was aware of that. So, we started with that concept.” The last recording Weiskopf led featuring organ dated way back to his second album on Criss Cross, A World Away (1993), featuring Larry Goldings along with Peter Bernstein on guitar and Bill Stewart on drums. For the organ spot on the new record, Free recommended Brian Charette, another accomplished Posi-Tone artist based in New York.
Weiskopf weighted in on fleshing out the rest of the group. “I love the idea of having two lead voices to work with. And I love the vibes. So, Mark said, ‘Well, what about Behn?'”—that is, Behn Gillece, who collaborated with Weiskopf on Overdrive. Weiskopf remembers, “I said, ‘Great!’ All I need is a parameter. Just start me off, and I’ll get to work.” Drummer Steve Fidyk rounds out a quartet for The Way You Say It, and, as it turns out, the instrumentation—sax, organ, vibes and drums—is an uncommon one in jazz. “I hadn’t thought about it until somebody else pointed it out, but, as a matter of fact, there’s only a couple of records with that same configuration,” says Weiskopf.
The focus for the compositions on the recording, according to Weiskopf, is “the way things sound—The Way You Say It. Mark had asked me to write an original ballad for this recording, and I got an idea for it from my wife’s speaking voice, which I love. That’s the title tune, “The Way You Say It,” which has a kind of a double meaning on the old adage, ‘it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it,’ or, in jazz, ‘it’s not what you play but the way that you play it.'”
The album’s opener, “Coffee and Scones,” stands out in particular—a bright and highly infectious melody, likely destined for a fair amount of airplay on jazz radio. The title seems fitting, to the point that you might think it was the first line of lyrics, if there were any. But, actually, the title was partly producer Mark Free’s idea. Weiskopf’s real focus? Again, “I’m just trying to write good music.”
Other selections on the album include “Separation,” one of very few of Weiskopf’s compositions that he’s recorded more than once, and “Inntoene,” titled after the Austrian jazz festival where he’s played several times. All but three of the dozen tunes on the recording are original compositions. Among the non-originals, “Scarlet Woman” is an unusual choice; it’s credited to Alphonso Johnson, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul and comes from Mysterious Traveler by Weather Report. Here, Weiskopf adapted an arrangement he used on trip to Europe, working with the German saxophonist Johannes Enders, among ofthers.
Taking the Lead Otherwise & Elsewhere
While much of Weiskopf’s output consists of studio recordings, a live date recorded in 2008 and released in 2011 is especially notable, Walt Weiskopf Quartet (Capri), featuring pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Tony Reedus, recorded at the University of South Carolina. “I never intended that to be released. I was invited to play there, and Renee and I are old friends. I was lucky enough to get her and Tony Reedus on a record years ago called Anytown [Criss Cross, 1999], with Joe Locke, a star-studded record the likes of which will probably never happen again. And, so, Renee was available, and we took Paul Gill along, and I had been playing a lot with Tony Reedus at the time, whom I loved. And then, about six months afterward, Tony died. I think I was aware along the way that the concert was being recorded. They sent me the recording, just as a courtesy. It obviously wasn’t a studio recording. But the engineer, Jeff Francis, had worked with Sony and was a very experienced guy, and for a raw recording, it didn’t sound bad at all. Tony’s playing in particular was brilliant—absolutely brilliant. So, when I heard that he died, I decided I was going to try and do something with this. Jeff was terrific; we basically mixed for two days to put it together. I’m really glad we did it. The sound quality got some criticism, but it’s the music that matters.”
A standout studio recording deeper back into Weiskopf’s catalog is Man of Many Colors (Criss Cross, 2002), featuring pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Clarence Penn. The group came together partly through another visit that Weiskopf made to Europe, playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague. He shared the stage there with Mehldau, somewhat serendipitously. The festival organizers gave Weiskopf his time slot, gave him a list of other musicians on the bill, and left it to him to find a quartet to play together. “Brad was going to be there, and I had been working with Rick Hollander, a terrific drummer from Detroit who was living in Munich, so it wasn’t too much trouble for him to come. And [bassist] James Genus was there also.” Criss Cross Records producer Gerry Teekens was very impressed with the resulting concert and set about putting a studio recording together featuring the saxophonist and pianist. “Of course, Brad is in a league of his own. So, I said, ‘Sure. You want to try and engage Brad, be my guest, absolutely.’ And so he did. John Patitucci had just moved to New York, and so he was around, and Clarence was available. I thought to myself, ‘Enjoy this while it lasts, because these guys are on a rocket ship to fame in the jazz world.’ And they were. It was great, great experience.”
Of his other recordings, Weiskopf is hard pressed to single others out. “I always say it’s kind of like your children. It’s hard to have a favorite.” He is especially grateful to Criss Cross producer Gerry Teekens to give him the opportunity to record leading larger ensembles, including two nonets (Siren , Song for My Mother ), one octet (Day In, Night Out ) and two sextets (Simplicity , Sleepless Nights ). Over the course of conversation, talking about his musical influences, Weiskopf mentions another recording, one that’s actually outside of his own output: Renee Rosnes’s For the Moment (Blue Note), winner of Canada’s Juno Award for Best Jazz Album in 1992. Weiskopft doesn’t perform on the recording, but it features his composition “Thinking to Myself,” with the lead voice played by the great saxophonist and composer Joe Henderson, whom Weiskopf counts an important influence, especially in his compositions.
In the Vanguard and Steely Dan
Weiskopf’s long association with the iconic pop group Steely Dan and its leaders, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, started out with the band’s last recording, Everything Must Go, (Reprise, 2003). “I ended up on some horn section dates, and I think they might have been curious about me. For the title tune, they conceived of it as having—for a lack of a better description—a Coltrane-ish sax introduction. So we recorded that, I guess, in the fall of 2002. It never occurred to me that I would tour with them. That was kind of outside my whole arena of experience. I had never done anything like that before. Then in 2003, I got a phone call, in maybe January or February about the coming summer. Since then, I’ve done—it might be ten tours. It’s been great. I also was lucky enough to work with Donald on another project called the Dukes of September. We did a terrific concert for Great Performances, the PBS series, with the Dukes.” In addition to Fagen, the group included Michael MacDonald and Boz Scaggs, and the Great Performances concert was also released as a DVD (429 Records, 2014).
“I’ve learned a ton. I can’t even tell you. It’s nice that at the age of 43 I could start really as a kind of a nascent, blank slate with that kind of thing. I really didn’t know much about how to do it, how to play a solo in that context. It’s a unique pop band, in that they love jazz. They came up as jazz fans and jazz musicians. And to have four jazz horn players—might be the only band that ever had that. And in soloing with them, they’ve never said, ‘do this, that or the other.’ They let everyone find their way. It’s like a big band in many ways, but, of course, in a pop setting. I consider it a huge opportunity and a great challenge. I can’t say enough about it.”
In addition to Everything Must Go, Weiskopf also recorded with Fagen on his 2012 recording, Sunken Condos (Reprise). The saxophonist is struck by the contrast of making these albums and his experience with jazz recordings. “It’s entirely different. The way they grew up making records, they have the luxury of a lot of time. When we did the improvised solo on ‘Everything Must Go,’ I must have done 50 different takes, no exaggeration, over the course of two days. And from that they took what they wanted. Jazz musicians will put an entire album together in six hours. On a rare exception, they might have two days in a studio.”
Another ongoing association for Weiskopf is with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra—not as a member, but as a regular and frequent substitute in band for about the past twenty-five years. And he appears on their 2011 Grammy-nominated album, Forever Lasting: Live in Tokyo (Planet Arts), including a two-tenor sax feature with Orchestra regular Ralph Lalama on “You Tell Me,” a Jim McNeely composition. “It’s been a great opportunity,” says Weiskopf. “I feel a certain kinship. I know that music in a way that most musicians who are not in the band know it. They have been very loyal, even though I’m not often available. It was great to have the opportunity to go to Japan with them. It’s funny, it’s been one of my lifelong goals to be on a record with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and lo and behold, that worked out. It was terrific.”
Weiskopf’s old friend Lalama figures into the story of how he got his start as a professional musician, working with the Buddy Rich Big Band when he was 21 years old. “I moved to New York City in 1980,” he recalls, “and it was suggested to me by elders of mine back where I’m from in the Syracuse area that I should try and get on one of the major big bands. To me that seemed so insurmountable. But whenever Buddy’s band would come into the city, I would try and go, and introduce myself, the kind of thing that I’m horrible at doing and probably would never do now, but at the time I was just determined to do it. And within a few months, a couple of the guys heard me play at a jam session, and it was rumored that I might be in line. At that time I was playing alto sax. I didn’t even have a tenor. I went out and bought a tenor, because I had heard from Ralph Lalama that he might be leaving. So, I played my first professional engagement on tenor with Buddy Rich.”
At first, Weiskopf felt he was in over his head. “I really had next to no experience, certainly on that level. I had just enough, and I practiced, and I guess they saw enough potential in me. Initially, I didn’t have the right mouthpiece to blend with the sax section, and luckily, instead of discounting me out of hand, Andy Fusco, in particular, helped me along. He gave me a mouthpiece to play. I was lucky that I hung on.”
Through his work with Buddy Rich, Weiskopf got an opportunity to work with Frank Sinatra, when the singer teamed up with Rich’s band for a festival in the Dominican Republic in 1982 called Concert for the Americas, the opening event for the 5,000-seat Altos de Chavón Amphitheater. The performance by Sinatra and Rich’s band was eventually released on DVD (Shout Factory, 2010). A selection from West Side Story, “Prologue/Jet Song,” included an extended drum solo by the band leader, along with a strong solo feature by Weiskopf that very much belies his own self-effacing appraisal of his playing with the band.
He remembers the occasion very clearly. “That was a huge experience. If I had known how nervous I should have been—I mean, we were all nervous, we were not experienced in that kind of thing. But it was terrific. It’s all over YouTube now. You wouldn’t recognize me, but I’m there, and I’ll never forget it. It was about 100 degrees and humid, and I think Buddy—he might have almost bought the farm that night. Of course nobody knew, but he had horrible blockages in his heart and had surgery a couple years later.”
Weiskopf later toured as a member of Sinatra’s band. “I worked for him from 1990 to ’94, until he stopped working. And it was absolutely great, every single time. The band had many configurations. We did it with a string section several times, which was terrific. We did his final European tour without strings—a big band, plus guitar, tympani and French horn.” The band played all classic arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May and others from the singer’s repertoire and was conducted by Frank Sinatra, Jr., and Weiskopf later worked with Frank Jr.’s own band on a number of occasions.
Playing Well with Others
Another important association for Weiskopf early in his career was with the Toshiko Akiyoshi / Lew Tabackin Big Band. “After the better part of two years with Buddy Rich,” he recalls, “I decided that I should come back to New York and try and stay there. I actually had an opportunity to go with Woody Herman‘s band, but I was about to get married or had just gotten married and decided that I would not do that, although it would have been nice to have that opportunity. I started making my way in New York, trying to go to jam sessions and play gigs.” It was then that the opportunity came up with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin. “That was perfect. That started in 1983, and thing about it was you didn’t have to go on the road for months and months at a time. It was isolated tours, and we would play New York frequently. We played at a club called Lush Life on Mondays for a while, and then at Fat Tuesdays on Mondays, and the Village Gate on Mondays—all over the course of ten years, I guess. Altogether, I was with the band for 14 years. It was much easier to be a full-time member of that band, because we were only on the road for a few weeks a year. We went to Japan many times, but those tours were maybe three weeks at the outside.”
Working with fellow saxophonist Tabackin had a number of benefits for Weiskopf. “He was certainly an influence as far as my professional ethic. Stylistically, I wouldn’t say he was much of an influence, but he did teach me a lot about playing the tenor per se. He has just a huge sound. And I learned a lot listening to him blow the horn. He has a unique style.”
Other major benefits for Weiskopf from working in the band were the strong bonds he made with fellow the band members who spent long hours on buses together him—including several prominent jazz musicians of his generation, such as Billy Drummond, Conrad Herwig, Joe Magnarelli, Scott Robinson, Gary Smulyan and Jim Snidero. All have appeared on recordings led by Weiskopf, and he’s returned the favor for Drummond, Herwig and Snidero, in addition to collaborating with all of them on other projects. He counts Snidero as an especially close friend; he teamed up with the fellow saxophonist for online multimedia instructional projects, Jazz Improvisation Workshop I and Jazz Saxophone Workshop, produced by the Jazz Conception Company.
Another close collaborator for Weiskopf is his old associate from the Buddy Rich band, Andy Fusco. The two were co-leaders on one album, Tea for Two (Criss Cross, 2005), and they joined together for a tour and two recordings led by Steve Smith, the versatile drummer known for his long tenure with the rock band Journey, Steve Smith’s Jazz Legacy: Live on Tour, vol. 1 & 2 (Drum Legacy, 2012). “We had a ball doing that,” he says. Whereas Weiskopf emphasizes original compositions heavily for his own recordings, Smith’s band focused largely on jazz standards, giving listeners an opportunity to hear Weiskopf on such staples as “Airegin,” “Two Bass Hit,” “Moanin,'” and “Night in Tunisia.” (His concluding cadenza on the latter tune, on volume 2, is one notable highlight.)
The one individual musician with whom the saxophonist has the closest association is his younger brother, the pianist Joel Weiskopf, whose career has included work with Woody Herman, Stan Getz and Quincy Jones, and who himself has recorded five albums as a leader, including Where Angels Fear to Tread (Steeplechase, 2016). Joel appears on eight of Walt’s recordings and also serves together with him on the faculty at New Jersey City University. Rather than a sibling rivalry, the saxophonist describes their relationship as colleagues and co-conspirators, who made a lot of great music together. The last recording the two worked on together was Tea for Two in 2005. “It’s always great with Joel. We kind of realized, though, that we maybe had to branch out and play with different people, which we have done. But we still work together, and I’m sure we will again.”
The two have also worked together as composers, writing a four-movement piece in honor of their father for his 80th birthday. “Waltz for Dad,” from that collaboration, appears on the saxophonist’s 2013 recording, Overdrive. Their father, a full-time physician and part-time pianist, provided a very musical environment for the brothers growing up in DeWitt, in central New York State, outside of Syracuse. (They moved there from Augusta, Georgia, where Walt was born.) “He was always a fairly high-level pianist. We grew up hearing beautiful piano music in the home. He played Chopin, Liszt and Brahms, you name it. He still plays today. Ironically, he never played any jazz at all.”
The mother in the family had a role in introducing young Walt to jazz, although very indirectly. “I had the idea from a young age that I wanted to play jazz, but I didn’t really know what it was. I asked my mom to bring home some jazz records from the library. She came back with an Al Hirt record. I listened to it, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. There was another record she brought home with one, though, a terrific record that I listened to a million times.”
The album was David and Lisa: Original Soundtrack and Jazz Impressions (Mainstream, 1965). “The A side was the original soundtrack, and then the B side was ‘Jazz Impressions of David and Lisa’ by Victor Feldman. Later on, of course, I learned that Victor Feldman was with Miles Davis, and, obviously, we know the iconic tune he wrote, ‘Seven Steps to Heaven.’ On that recording with Miles there’s a solo he plays on ‘Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,’ which I absolutely love. He was a huge influence on me, and an early influence.”
Another Miles Davis work was a further point of entry to jazz for Weiskopf. “My Funny Valentine was one of the first records that I bought on my own. I was maybe 14 or even younger. I thought that all jazz was big band music. When I bought that record, I assumed that it was a big band recording, too. And when I listened to it, I didn’t get it at all, but I kept listening to it. That’s obviously a huge influence, and still is. Years before I had any idea what it was I was listening to, I loved that music.”
After his early exposure to jazz through recordings, Weiskopf thrived as a musician under the tutelage of an inspiring high school band director, Ron Nuzzo, and he had some early opportunities to play jazz locally at Casa di Lisa in Syracuse.
Getting Schooled/By the Book
Weiskopf didn’t venture far from home for college; he attended the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester. He finished his bachelor’s degree there in just three years. Not one to boast about himself at all, Weiskopf quickly sets aside the idea that his speedy finish reflects any special ability on his part. “I felt that I had gone as far as I could go, and I looked at the requirements and realized that if I just doubled up on the academic courses in final year, I’d have enough credits to graduate. I had a lot of elective credits in jazz, but I was a legit major; there was no jazz major. And it was kind of a money issue. I was going to have to go into debt if I stayed for the fourth year. I figured, why do that if I can finish? I felt it was time for me to move on if I could. So I kind of did two years in one. Afterwards, they made a rule, of course, that you couldn’t do that anymore.” Much later, Weiskopf returned to school to earn a master’s in clarinet performance at Queens College of the City University of New York, studying with one of the fathers of clarinet pedagogy, Leon Russianoff, and this led to performances on the instrument with the American Ballet Theatre and the American Composers Orchestra, among other ensembles.
Weiskopf collaborated with one of his Eastman professors, Ramon Ricker, co-authoring Coltrane: A Player’s Guide to His Harmony, the first of several books by Weiskopf published by Jamey Aebersold. Here again, Weiskopf is very modest about his work. “I really didn’t have any kind of aspirations to write a book, but when I was practicing those Coltrane chord changes and trying to understand what his process was, I began to write stuff down. Ray Ricker was really generous with his time, and we partnered on another book after that”—The Augmented Scale in Jazz.
Weiskopf’s books—which have been hailed by jazz masters such as James Moody and Michael Brecker—have developed out of his own personal study. “In each case, I was codifying what I was practicing at the time. Somebody once suggested to me that you could practice triads over a particular chord change, so with that idea, I began to think, where I could take this and how could I organize this? So that turned into my book, Intervallic Improvisation. And I found that to be especially useful in teaching students and explaining to them what exactly bebop is. If they understand what a major scale is, you can explain to them that triads are extracted from scales, and if you understand which scale goes with which chord change, you can play material over a tune that sounds less linear than just playing a scale.
“For Around the Horn, again, I heard somebody say something that rang a bell for me. A friend was talking about modulating each mode of the scale, and it made me remember being at a jam session a long time ago, when I first moved to New York, looking at a chart and seeing a major seven—sharp five chord and realizing I really didn’t know what that was. And I was embarrassed to ask anybody. Years later, I understood finally, that’s the third mode of the melodic minor scale. A lot of times when you teach things, it keeps you honest. You really have to understand them in a way that you hadn’t previously understood them, or that you just blew off or glossed over. I began writing things down, taking them to the nth degree. So that, again, is just what I was practicing at the time; I began to organize it and write it down.”
On the Jersey Side of the Hudson
Weiskopf has been Coordinator of Jazz Studies at New Jersey City University (NJCU) since 2014, taking over the reins from Ed Joffe, who retired then after directing the program since 1992. Located in Jersey City, N.J., across the Hudson River from New York City, the school offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz performance. Recent graduates include trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, who has performed with Christian McBride, Alicia Keys, the Count Basie Orchestra and many others. Another notable alumnus, Richard DeRosa , is director of jazz composition and arranging at the University of North Texas. NJCU faculty member and trumpet instructor Nathan Eklund completed his master’s at the school; he has recorded with Phil Woods, Richie Cole, Spyro Gyra and others, in addition to performing with several New York big bands. Another trumpeter, Vinnie Cutro, a much earlier NJCU alumnus, went on to join Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton and Horace Silver. Other NJCU alumni have worked with a long list major jazz names, including Ray Charles, Jimmy Heath, Maynard Ferguson, Roy Hargrove, Marian McPartland, Claudio Roditi and Nancy Wilson. Over the years, the program has brought in many prominent guest artists to perform with and give master classes for student ensembles, including Benny Golson, Charles McPherson, Joe Locke, Steve Davis and Bob Mintzer. An NJCU alumni band, led by faculty member Richard Lowenthal, has been performing together annually since 2013 at Jersey City’s Exchange Place Pier. Their 2015 concert paid tribute to Clark Terry, who did a New Jersey concert tour with the school’s band in the late ’70s, and featured Wynton Marsalis as guest soloist.
Before heading up the jazz program at NJCU, Weiskopf taught saxophone and jazz improvisation at the school, from about 1994 to 2000, as he recalls. One especially vivid memory for him is his performance at the school with guest artist Michael Brecker, who is one of his major influences as an improviser. “I’ve probably told this story a million times,” he says. “Bob Mover was on the faculty at the time then, too, and he and Mike and I played a tune together. Mike took a solo on ‘Tenor Madness,’ and he really schooled me on that. It was the kind of thing you have to hear face to face. It taught me a lot. Later, on one of his records, he mentioned me as an influence, and I was really flattered. I never knew him well, but I felt a real kinship with him.”
Weiskopf is enjoying his return to NJCU. “The best thing about it artistically speaking is that I’ve never had a chance to direct a big band before, and it’s really fun. The closest I’ve come is being a guest soloist with other school big bands over the years. And I did that recently, too, with the Airmen of Note, one of the best bands anywhere, a great opportunity. But I’ve never worked with student big bands long-term. We do four concerts a year, and it’s terrific. I really enjoy working with the students and trying to give back a little bit, giving them the benefit of my experience. It’s a lot of fun.” A February 2016 concert by the band featured several pieces by one of Weiskopf’s European jazz contacts, the German bassist, composer and arranger Thomas Stabenow, which were recorded for a 2015 album by the NDR Big Band. Featured performers in the NJCU band included, among others, graduate students Diego Ferriera on tenor saxophone and Nathan Bohatch on vibes.
For Weiskopf, original compositions and arrangements are very important facets of jazz. “I tell students, part of your job as a jazz musician is to write your own material. I honestly believe that, by and large, the success of the musicians we look up to stems from creating their own original material. Even if they didn’t focus on original compositions, they certainly arranged what they played in a particular way. Joe Henderson is a perfect example of a guy who wrote great material for himself. He didn’t write those tunes for anybody else particularly. He wrote them for himself to play. And they stand the test of time. They work when other people play them because they almost have to see them through his eyes.”
Weiskopf describes the jazz program at NJCU as rigorous. “It’s very intensive. Basically, you’re playing all the time. As an undergraduate there are four semesters of jazz improvisation. There are two semesters of jazz arranging and two semesters of jazz history. As a graduate, it’s the same kind of thing—two semesters of jazz history on the graduate level, and you have to write a little more than you do as an undergraduate for the arranging requirements. But it’s heavy playing. You have to play a recital as a junior and a senior on the undergraduate level. It’s not for anybody who’s not interested in doing a lot of playing. Of course, you’ve got to have a certain kind of mentality to be so captivated and compelled to take it to that degree and really get in there and study and play at that level. But there’s something about this music that does that to us. I feel fortunate to be amongst people of like mind who love it as much as I do and really want it. And to the extent that I can, I help them get there. Of course, everyone has to do it on their own. But I know from going through the process myself that talent can only take you so far. You have to be determined. You have to be perseverant and persistent, and organize yourself, and be tenacious. And you can get there.”
It never ends, though. “I’m still trying to get there, myself. Still trying to get better and better.”
In Weiskopf’s drive for improvement and perfection, he draws from the many mentors and influences of his own, always emphasizing preparation and hard work. “I am a firm believer in organizing as much as I can. I’ve done record dates for other people where they just bring in penciled lead sheets in concert key. I would never think to do that. I want people to be as comfortable as they can possibly be. I write out pretty much everything that I want played, even in a small group setting —background lines, ensemble choruses, whatever it is. And I’m gratified when I hear it back. If it’s fun for me to listen to, then I got to believe other people are getting something out of it too. Because maybe it’s just a little bit different. It’s not just improvised chorus after chorus after chorus. There are very few people who can sustain that—where their playing is distinctive enough or at such a high level that it keeps the audience interested. It’s got to be about the composition and the arranging and the treatment, all together with the improvisation, all part of the same fabric.”
In other words, it’s all about the music, all about the sound.
By Bob Kenselaar for All About Jazz