Eli's coming, hide your horn, man
After spending four years in New York, saxophonist Elias Haslanger doesn't need to think twice about his most memorable musical experience there. It came on the night he jammed with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Following an introduction by former Austin bandmate Fred Sanders, Haslanger was invited up one night to the trumpeter's penthouse near Lincoln Center. Met at the door and ushered in by a valet, he found a large, splendidly furnished abode complete with a grand piano and a magnificent view of downtown.
"It was a whirlwind of activity, like being in a fast river," recalls Haslanger, "with the phone ringing and people coming in and out."
"'What do you want to play?'" asked Wynton. "'Do you know "Red Cross"?'"
Along with a drummer, the trio proceeded to jam on the Charlie Parker-associated blues. Next, standard "Stablemates" featured Marsalis on piano. At one point, the trumpeter left the room and let Haslanger stretch out for five minutes or so, then returned to the fray and played while on the telephone. They also experimented with Parker's "Au Privave" and Coltrane's "Giant Steps," a tough tune to master but one that Haslanger had played with Wynton's father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, one night at Cedar Street Courtyard in Austin. The senior Marsalis followed that by putting in an appearance on Haslanger's acclaimed 1998 album, Kicks Are for Kids.
As Haslanger was taking Wynton's leave that evening, 'round midnight, other players were just arriving, the session obviously still young. Marsalis told the saxophonist he sounded great.
"Elias, show up again any time," grinned the host.
Haslanger never took up the offer but savors the night as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially now, back in the Lone Star capital.
The Austin native had been riding high here as the last century ended ("Workin', Steamin', Relaxin', Leavin'," Music, June 12, 1998). His quartet, Sanders on piano, bassist Edwin Livingston, and drummer J.J. Johnson, had been together four years and was working regularly around town. Their Kicks Are for Kids album had made inroads nationally, receiving rave reviews. Having a working jazz band that stays together that long is a rarity in Austin, and success gave them a base of operation in local and regional venues. Eventually, the quartet split up amicably when all but Haslanger moved on to bigger projects out of town. Artistic limitations soon saw the sax-man relocate to New York, where he had attended the Manhattan School of Music for one semester after graduating from UT.
"I flew up on Jan. 2, 2000, right after Y2K," smiles Haslanger. "I found a nice apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in just three hours, and stayed for four years."
Both he and his wife Amy Atchley, a singer he met at the UT School of Music, landed good jobs in midtown. Every day when he got home from work, Haslanger would play his horn and write music, frequenting jam sessions and nonpaying gigs at night in well-known jazz haunts such as the Blue Note, 55 Bar, Smalls, Birdland, and Smoke. He also landed a coveted spot in the famed Big Bop Nouveau Band led by recently deceased trumpet great Maynard Ferguson.
"Maynard had these wonderful stories about Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker," recalls Haslanger. "My music grew exponentially while in New York. You can't help but listen to music in a different way. In fact, your perception of what jazz is changes."
He gives the example of seeing a live performance by saxophonist Steve Coleman, whose street-smart amalgam of funk, hip-hop, and jazz was something he could never fully grasp. "After living in New York awhile, I finally got it," nods Haslanger.
Being on the scene, Haslanger also interfaced with the likes of saxophone titan Joe Lovano, the late pianist Mal Waldron, and legendary drummer Elvin Jones ("We had a long talk about rhythm"). In other words, Haslanger ventured forth to the big city and realized dreams both naive and down-to-earth.
"You experience the lowest of the low and the highest of the high," he acknowledges. "Sure, it's hard musically, physically, and emotionally to be successful there, and it also takes more than just talent. It requires luck and perseverance. Look at Joe Lovano. He played around town for 12 years before that first Blue Note record."
The events of 9/11 also impacted his stay there.
"For me, the twin towers represented that anything was possible," he states. "I came home from work after that emotionally draining day, and the towers were gone. It was life-changing in a dramatic way.
"New York changed my life and my music in every way. Before, music was 80% of my life. Now, it's just another important facet. Now, I'm a more well-rounded person who appreciates life a lot more. I appreciate friends, good food, and of course family."
It was the decision to start a family that prompted the Haslangers return to Austin in April 2004. Daughter Paris Olivia followed this June. Since his return, the bandleader averages between two and four gigs a month, local trumpeter Pete Rodriguez, pianist Andy Langham, and rhythmic mainstay J.J. Johnson his frequent musical foils. All three musicians are featured on Haslanger's fourth LP, Dream Story, which reflects his years back east.
"Living in Brooklyn has a different rhythm than living in Manhattan," he explains. "I wrote the tune 'Street Beat' from hearing hip-hop, specifically Jay-Z, coming out of every shop and bodega as you walk down the street."
Happily ensconced back in his hometown, with a new family, old friends, and a modest Eastside house with an actual back yard, Haslanger's a picture of contentment.
"As a white kid growing up in West Austin, I repeatedly asked myself if I had anything to offer as a musician. Now, I don't feel I have to prove myself anymore. I love to play for the sheer joy of it. I'm thankful for every day."