Workin', Steamin', Relaxin', Leavin'
Melodies jumping like bursts of water from an oscillating sprinkler, Elias Haslanger plays his saxophone with a collected abandon, his hands moving in rapid and efficient strides over every key. His method is a meticulous unpredictability, solo jaunts that run wailing, staggered, and askew into the back line. The directions he takes and the lengths to which he commits to them indicate an unthinking confidence in his support onstage - a rhythm section that inspires this total confidence. His support, the rest of the Elias Haslanger Quartet, comes from some of the best jazz players Austin has to offer: Edwin Livingston on bass, Fred Sanders on piano, and J.J. Johnson on drums. They're all young men, and each already has lengthy credentials. Yet they have maintained and nurtured the progress of this combo, week after week, going on four years now. Plenty of time to get tight.
And get tight they have, as can be heard on Kicks Are for Kids, Haslanger's latest CD, released this month on local label Heart Music [see sidebar]. The album, his third, is a running jump into the next level of playing. It's not just a great local release, it's a great album for any market - 10 songs that should be devoured by jazz fans far beyond the local level. By all accounts, Kicks Are for Kids is a coming of age, a glowing perspective on things to come.
"Of course there are some things that I could have done better, but I think overall it's got a good sound," says the characteristically humble Haslanger.
For a man with so much going on, Haslanger maintains a surprisingly laid-back posture, to say the least. In addition to completing his Master's degree in Music and Composition at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and releasing Kicks Are for Kids, he's preparing for a second trip to Europe to participate in the North Sea Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival, after which he and his wife Amy will stay abroad for another couple months to explore Italy and France. Add to that the fact that he's still playing out five or six times a week between his own combo and the swing band he plays for, the Lucky Strikes, and the tenor saxophonist can't help but be laid back; he's probably exhausted.
Then again, like the rest of his band, Haslanger is young, 28. Born and raised in Austin, he's been playing the saxophone since the sixth grade. These recent events would seem to converge at a very important point in the young musical life of this Austin jazzman, but by talking to him, you wouldn't know it. In fact, he's so outwardly calm that his words take on an almost ominous tone, like a shadow of something larger that brings the meaning out of sharp relief.
"I'm just happy to have the new CD out, and I'm looking forward to going to Europe," says Haslanger. "After the festivals, [me and Amy] are going to start in Verona, check out Italy, go over to Barcelona, and end up in Paris. We're just gonna see what happens."
"He may not come back," says Tab Bartling, owner of Heart Music and the producer of Haslanger's last albums. "That wouldn't surprise me with Elias."
It wouldn't surprise Haslanger, either, who doesn't deny the possibility of he and his wife relocating to another continent. In an interview last summer, Haslanger said that he would be moving to New York after he finished school, citing the low ceiling for creative growth that shelters Austin. School's out now, and while the New York plans have been put on hold due to the savings-raid necessary for the Europe trip, he says he wants to keep all options open.
"The move is definitely gonna happen, just not so soon," he says. "The main reason is that I was born and raised here, and Austin is a fabulous place to live, but for my own growth - and my wife feels the same way - Austin is a place where you can get comfortable and kind of lazy.
"I'm not looking to go to New York to be a star. I'm at a new place in myself in that I'm gonna play music whether I have a record deal or not. The move would not be only for more opportunity, but to experience something different. To be surrounded by different people, different environments. I'd say I'll most likely be around, working, playing, and saving money for the next year, so that if we do have an opportunity to move somewhere like New York or New Orleans we'd have the financial resources to make that a reality. But who knows?"
What Haslanger is talking about is a reality check for any jazz musician who has visions of driving the form to new levels, of playing with the heavy hitters, and of making a name for themselves on the scene and in the history books. It's not delusions of grandeur that forces these musicians to leave home and head for the big city with mental images of their names lit up on marquees; rather, it's a practicality and necessity.
Haslanger has already had a taste of this life, however brief. He spent six months in New York after graduating from the University of Texas.
"When I was up there, I went out almost every single night," recounts Haslanger. "You have to. I saw the most amazing players - Geri Allen, Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson - every single night. I saw more great music in the six months I was there than I have in the six years since I've been back, no lie. There's something about the energy there. It takes hold of you and makes you do it. Though I liked it there for all the players and the inspiration, I needed experience."
Due to financial restraints and the stress of having his wife-to-be, Amy Atchley (a singer-songwriter and former member of Fabu and Hush) here in Austin, he decided to pursue his Master's degree at SWT while playing like mad.
Having returned to Austin from New York in the Spring of 1993, Haslanger has since gained the experience he was looking for. He has played constantly here in Austin, blessed with a good band and a steady stream of local gigs. There have also been significant changes in his playing and his overall vision. For this and many other reasons, the time seems right for another go at New York. One of those reasons is Fred Sanders. Piano player in Haslanger's quartet and Leaning House recording artist in his own right, Sanders is himself leaving town.
"New York, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, we're not sure yet," Sanders said recently on his way into The Mercury for a Hot Buttered Rhythm gig.
Say it ain't so, Fred!
"I gotta, man," he said, smiling his way through the door and making a gesture of mock-strangulation. "Know what I'm sayin'?"
What he's saying is not lost on any in the jazz community looking for bigger things. Sanders' musical roots are sunk deep into New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where he studied with Alvin Batiste and played with folks like sax player Wessel Anderson and guitarist Mark Whitfield, both of whom have made themselves known to the jazz elite. Sanders is also purported to be traveling to New York in the near future to work on an album by longtime New Orleans cohort and friend, bassist Roland Guerin. A move to the city where he would have access to these people seems a natural course.
And he's not the only one.
"J.J.'s leaving Sunday," says bassist Edwin Livingston, who, along with Sanders and Johnson, is also a member of local group Hot Buttered Rhythm. "He's going to Woodstock to record with the Sexton Sextet. With a deal of that level, these things can take a long time. And Hot Buttered Rhythm is going on tour for July, for most of the month. We're going to D.C., Philly, the Montreal Jazz Festival. We may not see J.J. until D.C. Brannen [Temple, leader of Hot Buttered Rhythm] got a gig with Robben Ford. Lots of things are happening."
It's entirely possible that, very soon, all of the Elias Haslanger Quartet - as well as many keystone players in the up-and-coming generation of Austin jazz - could be leaving town.
"If that's the case, I'm going too," says Livingston. "And there's only one place to go."
"You got it. That's where you gotta go. I've got some friends up there; I'd just try to play - to make myself known."
Jazz fans in Austin should be distressed, but really, we can expect nothing less. If there's to be a mass exodus of the so-called young lions, it's because Austin has been lucky enough to be the home of a fair wealth of experienced, veteran players, young guys on the scene, and students coming up from a jazz-oriented music education program at SWT that has gained a great deal of respect over the last decade or so. This combination has helped build these guys into players who can, and probably will, be a strong presence in the larger world of jazz outside Austin.
"I'm kind of leaving it up to God," says Haslanger, typically calm and philosophical. "Nobody's ever promised another day on this planet, and I try to live my life accordingly. If it so happens that Fred moves, or J.J. moves, or Edwin moves, I'll do what I have to do to keep playing. If I have to get another band together, I will. But it will be difficult to replace someone like Fred. It takes time for that rapport. I'll look for clues in the future to tell me what to do, but until that time comes, I'm happy to be playing with him. Like I said, my wife and I are going to Europe for a couple months, we may even move there, it's an idea. We're keeping all options open."
Haslanger makes no bones about the value of the time he's had with his quartet, and expresses no bitterness over the possibility of its dissolution.
"Just being able to play with the same group of guys for that long has been a real blessing," he says. "We know each other well. Nights when the communication is just on, it's the most fun I've ever had. I feel real lucky to be able to be in this unit, with Edwin, J.J., and Fred. I've learned tons from them. They all have their own incredible musicianship about them, in their own separate way. It's been a real learning experience for me, and I hope to continue to do it. I think we've established a pretty good band sound."
Kicks Are for Kids is a great straight-ahead jazz record that reaps the benefits of a great "band sound." The compositions show the meticulous attention of a student as well as the easy flow of a seasoned club player, and every song is rife with outstanding instrumental performances from everyone involved - one of whom was Ellis Marsalis.
"Growing up in the Eighties and listening to jazz, Wynton and Branford were major, major influences on me - I grew up listening to them, just worshipping them," says Haslanger. "If it weren't for them, I don't think I'd be as interested in jazz. They were young guys who were very outspoken, saying, `This kind of music on these kinds of instruments and this is what it's about, and if you don't do it this way you're not doing it right.'
"A lot of people kind of turned their noses up at that, but obviously there were a lot of younger players, and a lot of the young bad cats now - like Nicholas [Payton] and Wes and that whole New Orleans clan - they took that very seriously, and I was one of them. The whole Marsalis clan was just big on me and my music. Ellis is like the patriarch of the modern jazz scene.... I appreciated that he could [play on my album] and we got some really great music out of it."
The chemistry, though, was not the same as that of Haslanger's regular quartet, and only two cuts from the grueling one-day session made the album.
"Ellis plays a certain way," explains Haslanger. "He plays more conservatively - he's all about pocket. When someone plays in the pocket, it's really swinging. Fred does too, but he brings more exuberance, a more modern sound. Fred is a young man, Ellis is an older man. Ellis is at the point where he's refined, and Fred is refining, so the difference in approach in those aspects immediately made a big difference. Not only that, but you know the kind of person Fred is - he's bubbly. He brings that and it comes out in his music."
The album was done in two sessions, the first with Marsalis, Johnson, Livingston, and Haslanger, and the second with the same rhythm section, Sanders on piano, and Tito Carrillo on trumpet, a Chicago player who Haslanger met while enrolled at UT.
"Tito and I, it's one of these things where you meet somebody and you have this chemistry," enthuses Haslanger. "There's a spark between us when we play that drives us both to a different level. And ever since I'd met Tito, it was a dream of mine to record together."
This spark combined with the full back line of Sanders, Livingston, and Johnson (who was in an isolation booth for the Marsalis session, but in the same room for the Carrillo session), made the music live. And though the tunes in this format have the traditional edge that's a trademark of Haslanger's straight-ahead style, they take some long looks ahead as well. "Free for Three" dips an eager foot into free jazz stylings, and the title track, present as the first and last song with tenor on the first and soprano on the last, is a hip-hop flavored tune that brings into full light an element new to Haslanger's sound.
"I wrote `Kicks...' right after I saw the Kenny Garrett show [last year at the State Theatre]," he says. "I didn't envision [the tune] to have that kind of feeling, but we had all seen that show. I think it's really cool what's happening now in jazz; a lot of people like Charlie Hunter and Kenny Garrett, they're starting to bring that in. Miles did it a long time ago, but even more contemporary than that, they're bringing that kind of feel into a straight-ahead mix, and having them both, side by side...
"The cool thing about it is it's all acoustic instruments. It gives that different sound. Like when Miles and those cats were doing it, it was all electric instruments, so it sounded like it was more of a rock-fusion type of thing. We use upright bass, drums, piano; it's still funky, but it gives it more of that natural sound, which I like.
"When I write, I just try to focus on getting the melody and rhythm and harmony out, and after that it's up to Edwin and J.J. and Fred to play, to interpret the way they see it. Like "Kicks...," I didn't hear that hip-hop beat. I was thinking more like an Afro-Latin kind of deal. But when I heard it, it was cool; different than what I would have conceptualized it as, but it works, so why not? Things like that happen a lot, where I'll have these songs and an idea in my mind where it should go, but once they hear it, they'll play it the way they hear it. It turns out to be something different, but that's cool."
That natural and common innovation is what has driven Haslanger's quartet to be one of the most respected jazz combos performing regularly in Austin. Their shows, the weekly Cedar Street gig especially, have been strongholds of straight-ahead jazz, a stone in the foundation of this facet of Austin music, and Haslanger realizes the importance of having that outlet.
"For the rest of June, I'll do Tuesday nights at Cedar Street with Arthur Latin on drums. He plays with Harry Connick, Jr. [a gig he got, incidentally, while sitting in with Elias at Cedar Street last June when Harry Connick showed up and played piano]."
When asked if it's conceivable that the Elias Haslanger Quartet has already played its last gig with the original lineup, Haslanger again looks at the larger picture.
"We've made a pretty deep stamp in Austin, playing for four years now, and if it means that we all have to go our separate ways here, so be it. I'm gonna keep writing and playing and practicing and probably figure out some other aggregation to play with, but I haven't thought that far ahead, to tell you the truth. It's just a matter of who goes where when. I know that I've been pretty lucky to have the same four cats around for such a long time.
"It's possible for the immediate future, but I have a suspicion that somewhere on down the road we'll get together and play again. J.J. will be back.... It could be that we do some more stuff in the fall before Edwin takes off, if he does. I don't think there's anything that's for sure yet with anybody. Right now it's like, `This is what I'm planning to do.' For now, we're just gonna keep doing what we're doing."
That Haslanger takes this all in stride is a sign of the professionalism he has already acquired. Jazz musicians, like students, grow and advance to a certain level, and if they have the tools and the artistry, they graduate to the next level. The Elias Haslanger Quartet is composed of players of the highest order and potential, and it's only natural, only appropriate, that Haslanger and company move on.
Elias Haslanger plays the 10th Annual Austin Jazz & Arts Festival at Waterloo Park, Saturday, June 13, 3pm.