The next person I want to acknowledge in my Life Builders series is Larry Slezak. Larry is one of Houston’s top saxophonists. He has a powerful command of the instrument that demands the respect of all who hear him perform. For those of you who know me, I don’t offer empty compliments or false praises. When I say he has a powerful command of the instrument, I mean that as a genuine description of his musicianship, not just fluff to fill space on this page. You cannot hear Larry perform without recognizing his strength and confidence.
My Life Builders series is a collection of articles through which I acknowledge those who have contributed to my success in life. Larry Slezak is one of those people who made a difference in my career as a jazz player.
Telling a Story
Before I met Larry Slezak, I had heard people say that when you take a solo, when you improvise in jazz, your solo should tell a story. I heard the words, and even though I thought I knew what they meant, I really did not. It wasn’t until Larry came to San Jacinto College to work with the jazz ensemble (I was a member in the early 90’s) that I learned how to actually make my solos tell a story.
I remember this story like it was yesterday. I had a few solos with the band and Larry heard me play one of them in the rehearsal. When we stopped, Larry told me that I was a good player, that I had good lines and a good sound, but that I clearly wasn’t approaching the solo as a single, unified idea. He said that my solo sounded like a loose collection of unrelated licks and scales.
He was right!
He pretty much summed up my entire approach (at that time) towards solo construction.
Larry went on to say that every solo should tell a story and every story has a beginning, a middle and an ending. When we don’t treat our solos that way, they sound fractured and unmusical.
That was the first time I had ever considered improvised solos as one complete statement. From that day forward I became conscious and conscientious of the big picture of every solo I play. With only a few sentences, Larry inspired change in my playing, change that made a difference in my career because when you play that way, when your improv is not just a bunch of licks strung together, you connect better with the audience and with the other guys in the band. When you do that, you get called back again, and again, and again.
Living Rhythms Recording
A couple years after that day at San Jacinto College, I hired Larry to be the tenor player on my Living Rhythms recording. The personnel of that band included Ed Lowe on trombone, Larry Slezak on tenor and soprano sax, David Craig on bass and Carl Lott on drums. We recorded four of my original tunes; Walking Papers, Simple Side, Rhizopus, and The Egg of a Penguin. The original intention was to use the recording as a demo to get gigs. That was before I understood how that works. You don’t get gigs playing original music. So things didn’t really turn out as I had expected. However, the recording itself was a success and largely in part because of Larry’s powerful playing and mentoring presence.
I often share with my students a story from that recording session. One of the tunes we recorded has a very long form and we all took solos over the form in its entirety. Towards the end of my solo, a cute lick popped out of my flugelhorn and I grunted in disapproval. I think I even stomped my foot. We were recording live, without overdubs, so there was no way to edit that cute lick out.
What made it cute? I have had over twenty years to think about what I thought was so bad about that lick and I think it was because I had repeated myself. I still believed the “never repeat a lick” jazz myth in those days and when that lick popped out, I thought it was the worse thing that could have happened.
After we finished the take, the band went into the booth to listen. When we got to my cute, embarrassing lick, Larry commented that it was the best lick of my solo!
The reason I tell that story to my students is because I want them to learn to be more confident when they improvise. What we like or don’t like is not necessarily what the audience likes or doesn’t like. In that Living Rhythms recording session twenty years ago, the one lick in my solo I disliked the most was the one lick Larry Slezak liked the most. And I trust Larry a lot more than I do myself to be a good judge of jazz musicianship…if you know what I mean. What I took from that experience was a brand new attitude about improvisation. Larry taught me, with just one comment, to be fearless in my improvisation. Don’t be worrying about rules and licks and stuff like that. Be brave. Be bold. Tell your story with confidence.
More Recent Gigs
Now that I am no longer a student and have become more established on the jazz scene here in Houston, I have had many opportunities to work with Larry Slezak on a variety of different gigs. I think my favorite gigs with Larry are when we are hired to play “little big band” gigs together where I’m the only trumpet and he’s the only sax. We do this occasionally with the Richard Brown Orchestra. On those gigs, I enjoy the challenge of matching Larry’s power and stamina. I enjoy that we sort of sync up that way and that the entire gig stays fully charged.
I have always said that the best way to learn from someone is to perform with them. I feel that I learn a little more from Larry each time I work with him. This learning is not only just from the music itself but also from the time we spend talking during the breaks. On one of our more recent gigs, when we had a particularly long break between the rehearsal and the performance, Larry told me the story behind his famous Organ Band. That story was not only educational to me but also very touching. I appreciate that he spent the time to share it with me.
The following is a video I found on Larry’s website: