Tim Warfield is a tenor saxophonist who first emerged into the public eye in the early 1990s, as one of the featured players—along with Walter Blanding, James Carter, Herbert Harris and Todd Williams—on the Tough Young Tenors album Alone Together. As you’ll read below, that album turned out to be something of a novelty, and not the career-kickstarter the participants likely hoped.
Warfield ultimately made his debut as a leader in 1995, with the album A Cool Blue, on the Dutch label Criss Cross Jazz. He’s since made six more albums for Criss Cross, most recently this year’s Eye of the Beholder, and self-released Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas this past winter. All of his records are firmly in the hard bop tradition, with the exception of 2008’s One for Shirley and 2010’s A Sentimental Journey, which were organ-driven albums that explored groove and balladry in equal measure. Warfield tends to work with a few musicians with whom he’s friendly and compatible; these include trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terell Stafford, pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Orrin Evans (on whose Justin Time and Captain Black he appears), bassists Tarus Mateen and Rodney Whitaker, and drummer Clarence Penn.
In addition to recording and performing regularly, Warfield is an artist in residence at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and an adjunct faculty member at Temple University.
What does your new record say about where you are as an artist, and what’s the through line from your debut to Eye of the Beholder?
Ooh, I’ve got somebody asking me hard questions! OK, let me think about this. I guess what I’m saying with this record—for me, at this particular point, well, let’s just deal with the title. It’s always been about the art, but this is the first time that I’ve actually implied that it’s about the art. I’ll start from the beginning, with A Cool Blue. If you look at the history of Criss Cross prior to my record, you’ll notice that they were pretty formulaic in terms of how photos were taken. And A Cool Blue was the first record where that idea changed, per my suggestion. I had an idea of what I wanted visually to go along with the record, I talked to [label owner] Gerry Teekens about it, and as usual, he was quite amenable to change, as long as it had some sort of integrity to it. So even then, it was about the art, it was a complete idea. It wasn’t just about going in and blowing some tunes. It’s never been about, “Oh, these have been my studies at this particular moment in space and time, and so I want you to hear these 10 formulas, or five formulas that I’ve been working on.” It’s never been that for me. It’s always been about the idea of music—jazz music transcending the idea of just being music, and being an art form as well. I always want to keep that in the forefront of what’s perpetuated under my name, as opposed to that being a secondary idea or no idea at all.
What’s your favorite piece on your new album—which one are you happiest with, and why?
“Ramona’s Heart,” probably. That’s a hard question, too, because it’s hard for me to think that way. I try to think about things in balance, the sum of all the parts equaling the whole. No, I don’t think I can do it. I’m not even sure it’s “Ramona’s Heart.” That’s a song I wrote, and I believe the band, collectively, really exemplifies the idea that I was trying to get across, but at the same time I really like Nicholas Payton’s song “The Backward Step” as well, and I like how we played as a collective on that as well. And I probably could say that about all of the songs, so it’s very difficult, because it really is about the whole.
How complete are your compositions—are they just melodies and chord changes, or are they fully structured songs?
With the exception of “Tie-a-Dish,” they were collective improvisations. All of the rest was melody, [then] chord changes. Sometimes chord changes [first, then] melody. Sometimes I write in terms of rhythm first, and try to come up with something based off that idea. The way I think about music has changed quite a bit from when I started.
What’s your goal when you enter the studio? Is each album its own thing, or are you attempting to build a body of work?
Probably both, in all honesty. Each album is its own thing, but you can always hear the relations between my records if you’re astute enough to do so. Even with my organ records, which were deliberately more fun, but still very personal, very much Tim Warfield—like, I didn’t approach the music from a repertory standpoint, though some people might think so. What I did was, I tried to amalgamate my experience that included information that I learned about the instrument, the organ itself, and that aesthetic from Shirley Scott. And then tastefully move it forward, listening to the band and how we play and how we’re evolving, and then bringing music in to acclimate to that idea. So that music, if you really listen to the harmony, and you hear how we approach and how we play collectively, because I do have fairly specific demands in terms of the type of musician that I’m looking for. I want somebody rooted in the tradition; I don’t believe in this “don’t listen to the tradition” or “don’t play the tradition.” That’s like saying, when speaking, “Don’t pay attention to ‘Look, Sally; See Spot run.” If you don’t have that, you’re like, “Well, we’re just gonna come up with something on our own, without a center,” and I don’t really think that’s ever been done. So for me, it’s important to have a center and then move forward and develop something personal. That’s how art works. I think that’s probably how Da Vinci did it, Matisse, Renoir, and I want to try to operate within that same methodology.
Warfield playing with Orrin Evans, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Obed Calvaire:
You had more or less the same band on all four of your albums from 1995 to 2002. Was that a working band, or just the guys you wanted to play with?
You know, it’s funny, because many people probably don’t think it was a working band, but it was, and I have bootlegs to prove it. We didn’t necessarily play in New York City, we played other places like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, St. Louis. But everybody was already in other groups, so what happened is I actually called those personalities within the very first gigs that we did, so at the time we were the Terell Stafford/Tim Warfield Quintet, or the Tim Warfield/Terell Stafford Quintet, depending on who got the gig. And then what happened was, it just kind of naturally segued into my band. I was the one who solicited the personalities, and a lot of the music was other people’s ideas—I would occasionally resource from some of the other musicians in the band, but for the most part it was my group, and at the end of the year, I’m the guy that got the tax forms, so it became my band pretty quickly.
And then you did the two organ albums, which had almost the same band on each. Was that a working band, too?
They’re still working bands. I go back and forth between them. I did a Christmas record, self-produced, and used the same group, except instead of Nicholas Payton it was Terell Stafford, and Stefon Harris played vibraphone, and then there were two vocalists, and Daniel Sadownick played percussion. So as you can see, I have a family that I work with, and I try to expand that family. I’ve been working with some younger people, as well, on some projects, and I try intermittently to get work for all of them.
One thing I like about you is, you’ve never done a “Young Guy Plays The Music Of Dead Guy” album.
Well, I may end up doing one before too long, but if I do, I’m gonna try to make sure it’s…I don’t think I’ll ever do the music of John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk or something like that, but there are certain things within the tenor tradition that I’d like to do. I know that I want to do a ballad record. I’m just sitting down now, trying to figure out, do I want to do it with just my rhythm section, or do I want to figure out how to conjure up some money and do it with strings, but differently. So I know that’s something I want to do, but I doubt that I’m gonna do any tribute things anytime soon.
You always have either Nicholas Payton or Terell Stafford as a horn partner—how do you think those guys complement your playing style?
Oh, we’re simpatico. In our thinking—first of all, I obviously was in Nicholas’s band for quite some time, and the closer we became, the more I realized that he had experiences—he knew about things he wasn’t even supposed to know about. Because he had to be seven or eight years old, but I was like, “How do you know about this video?” or “How do you know about this jazz program?” Understanding that this is pre-YouTube when we first started talking about this stuff. “How do you know about JazzStage on PBS, and you saw the Woody Shaw concert with Carter Jefferson and actually remember it?” It was these sorts of things that made me realize that we had a lot of musical experiences in common, so when we played together, it was very easy—our sounds fit into each other. And then with Terell, it’s even more intimate, because our friendship and our musical friendship happened simultaneously. And so we have been practicing together, he taught me things—some of my saxophone playing is based off of the concept of the trumpet, from learning so much from him and Nicholas, but Terell and I have had a lot of talks about the idea of wind. So I have embouchure techniques that I teach that are pretty much trumpet buzzing techniques. So we did a lot of playing together and hung out together a lot, so we’re always like one when we play together. You’ll hear some of my isms in Terell, and you’ll hear some of Terell’s isms in me, and it’s the same thing with Nicholas. Our approaches are still very different, because of the instrument that we play and how we think, but it’s actually a great marriage with both of them.
Warfield with Terell Stafford, pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson:
What players did you grow up idolizing, and whose influence do you think took the longest to work out of your system, or integrate into your own style?
Wow, that’s a hard question. I have a lot of influences, and they go beyond the saxophone, and I’m still studying, so the history of jazz, I would say, is my influence. There are some that might be more obvious; if you’re a surface listener, I’m sure you’ll hear Coltrane or maybe Wayne Shorter, maybe you’ll hear Hank Mobley, though I didn’t really study that much Hank Mobley, but I did study some key records for quite some time. There’s Charlie Rouse, there are a lot of contemporaries as well, like Gary Thomas, Kenny Garrett, Billy Pierce is and has been a big influence on my playing. But I’ve also learned a lot of Freddie Hubbard verbatim, Woody Shaw verbatim, I’ve learned McCoy Tyner solos—anything that I like, I sit down and try to figure out, can I make it applicable on the saxophone? So really, it’s difficult for me to say, but I can say that a foundation for me in the early years was Dexter Gordon, and particularly Junior Cook, but it wasn’t necessarily because I was like, Oh, this guy is the man and this is the sound for me, it was because as a kid I liked Horace Silver’s music and he was the tenor player on most of the records that I had. There’s not as much logic when you’re younger, you just get to it how you get to it. But that’s why I have so much Junior Cook vocabulary. And then as I was coming up, there was an organization in this area that I’m now on the board of, the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz in Harrisburg, PA, and I got exposed to a lot of music through them. I saw Dexter Gordon quite a bit, and I was in love with his sound—I just thought he was the coolest person ever. So he was one that I tried to emulate. But obviously, he’s so personal, it’s very difficult to do. And currently I’m actually listening to Wardell Gray, and trying to play that style, which is so much different for a lot of different reasons, it’s challenging to me and it’s taking a minute. I’ve been studying more of the romantic tenors the past couple of years. I believe if you’re going to be a tenor saxophone player, and you don’t have that in your playing, you don’t understand that aesthetic—whether you choose to actually utilize it or not—if you don’t understand that, then you’re kind of missing what it means to be a tenor player. And there’s all kinds of colors in your sound that you’re going to miss as a result of not embracing that, or attempting to understand that. If we’re artists, it can’t just be about our harmonic methodology, that’s pretty trite, in my opinion. It has to be about the colors that we can create on the horn, as well as how we choose to then play the notes that we choose. So Wardell Gray, the shapes that he plays on the instrument are much more intervallic…he’s like the missing link in modern tenor playing. It’s Wardell Gray, then Dexter, who’s the beginning of modern tenor playing. Wardell, sometimes he’ll play very intervallic shapes, and then sometimes they’ll be very linear as well. And so it’s been interesting just trying to navigate and teach my muscle memory to do some different things, and get that texture or sound quality to my instrument as well.
What are your memories of the Tough Young Tenors album? Did that feel like a marketing gimmick at the time, or was it something you were excited about, or some combination of both? How did you get recruited into that, and how do you think you played?
I don’t know how I got recruited for most of the stuff I’ve done. I’ve always felt like the odd man out, ’cause I’ve always done my own thing, so there was definitely a very specific idea that was going on with the personalities on that record, and if you listen to that record, you can hear that I played very differently than everybody else. And I was very thankful to be a part of it. What I remember about the record is that—well, there were a couple of things. What was supposed to happen was, someone was supposed to get signed to Island/Antilles. That’s what we were told. Of course, that didn’t happen for anyone. That was fine. What I remember most was it was a really nice production, very well organized by Billy Banks, the musicians were all great musicians, they all could play. Everybody was deeply rooted in the blues, probably more than I was at the time. I could tell that was an aesthetic that they were studying, and at that time I was studying harmony, so it was a very fun session, but that’s the only time we ever played. We never did a tour, we never did a concert, and that record became a cultlike record at the time, which was very interesting. And I like it, I actually talk to Herb Harris—I just did a recording for him which was bizarre but fun at the same time. He was like, man, I want you to come in and record my music. I was like, Well, that’s some pressure; you’re gonna be in the studio and you want me to play your tunes? So I just did that. That record will probably be coming out this year. It was an interesting record; it was a fun record to do. What I remember most about it was that it was fun, that someone was supposed to get signed but nobody did, and that I had an opportunity to network, listen to some people’s concepts, and make some new friends, many of whom I’m still friends with today.
You’re an artist in residence at Messiah College in Harrisburg—what does that entail? You’re also adjunct faculty at Temple University—what do you teach there?
I teach at both schools. There’s a big difference in what goes on at Messiah and what goes on at Temple. Being adjunct, I’m at Temple every week. Aat the moment, I’m a small ensemble coach. I have two ensembles, and I do private saxophone instruction. At Messiah College, I am there less as an artist in residence, and what I do teach is concepts in improvisation. I teach people how to think about improvising, and that opportunity is allotted to anyone who is a registered student at Messiah. They don’t have to be in the music department. If they want to come in and understand what this music is, they just have to come over to the music department and say, I would like to take a lesson with Mr. Warfield.
That sounds like something I talked about with Charlie Haden some years ago. He teaches at Cal Arts, and he said he doesn’t teach music theory or anything—he teaches his students to look at the stars, and improvise.
Your albums have all come out on Criss Cross—would you care to discuss that relationship? Does Criss Cross pay royalties? Do you sell many records?
I don’t care to talk about the economics of it. Not what I’m making on the records—I gotta keep that quiet, because I do know everybody’s making different amounts. I know that very specifically, after having a conversation with Clarence Penn. So I don’t necessarily want to do that. What I can talk about—actually, there’s a whole lot I can talk about, because whether I want to admit it or not, I’m becoming an old guy, or an older guy, and I definitely fit in as a veteran at this point. I just did a “jazz legends” concert recently, and I definitely wouldn’t accept that title, especially given the gentlemen I was playing with, they were such great saxophonists, so I was like a hopefully soon-to-be legend, but “veteran” I can take very easily.
I’ve been listening to jazz, in all honesty, probably from the womb, since that was the music my mother and father loved to listen to and it was the primary music played in the household, in conjunction with some gospel, some classical and some R&B and whatever was on pop radio at that time, which was a very fertile time for music, with a lot of songwriters who really understood the mechanics of writing songs, like Barry Manilow, the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach, et cetera. There was a lot of great music with really strong melodies and intelligent harmonies, intelligent lyrics, so that’s what I grew up in. I consider myself to be blessed. And I realized that even then, that I actually grew up during the fusion era and even the ECM period. When that was first introduced, that was when I was first starting to get deeply into music, and I had all of the Blue Note and Impulse! Records, thanks to my father, and there was this new trumpet player being discovered name of Wynton Marsalis, so there was a whole lot going on. There was still Musician magazine, people don’t even know what that was anymore, and Jazz Times was only a newspaper. So I’ve watched a lot of things go on, and I’ve realized within the idea of the industry, there are always enforced trends, because the industry is not interested in the art of the music. So artists must work on positioning to keep their integrity and not fall prey to enforced trends.
It’s tough to figure out how to do that. It might mean that being signed with the major record labels might not be as beneficial as they think it will. When they say, “We want you to do this project, and if you don’t do this project, we’re not gonna support the project you want to do. And now that you’ve done this project, and it hasn’t sold any units, we’re going to drop you. Even though it wasn’t your idea, it was our idea.” These are all things I’ve actually seen happen. So it’s important to understand that one of the things I’m most concerned with is this idea of enforced trends, and someone thinking that someone else’s idea is their idea, and playing that idea to the point of creating a homogenous voice, and then, when you listen on the radio, you can’t tell who’s who. ‘Cause still at this particular point, how we’re heard is through the radio and through the Internet, and some TV, if you have MusicChoice. But people are listening for a personality, they’re not necessarily listening for you to play the latest, hippest thing that everyone else is playing. And that doesn’t really do you a service if you haven’t figured out a way to evoke a true personality from that.
As far as economics are concerned, things are very different. Things have been very different since 9/11. 9/11, for anybody who hasn’t figured this out, is the reason things are different generally speaking. There’s been a regime change no matter what subject you’re talking about. People that supported this music when I was coming up in my teens are now in their 70s, some getting close to 80. So whether you’re talking music or politics, there are now these struggles in terms of value systems, etc., on music, on politics, on whatever you want to talk about, as things change and people embrace new ideas.
Pre-9/11, the jargon between artists’ reps and venues was, “Does your record company provide tour support?” The new verbiage is, “Are there any grants associated with the project that you’re creating?” So it’s the same idea, but a different story, and I see that on many different levels. Even musically, I see us reinventing ourselves. In terms of fashion, I see us reinventing ourselves, as I see myself wearing skinny ties I swore I’d never wear again after high school. So the more things change, the more they remain the same. I think if younger people want this to work, they have to reduce their amount of fear and stop playing like each other. If they want to get something of depth, they need to reach further back. The further back you look, the further forward you move. It’s just an idea and balance that makes perfect logical sense, and there’s not one example that anyone can come up with to refute that idea. So I think that’s important, because I actually would like them to do well. I try to support them as much as possible. I won’t buy a record if I don’t like it, but I buy records, I listen to guys, I follow them on YouTube, and I see who’s doing what. Sometimes I sneak up, I check ’em out and I disappear, if I have an opportunity to go sit and listen and actually hear someone. Because they’re needed to keep this music alive. They’re absolutely needed. And so one of the things I also suggest is that—and this is where I am in my career—is that they become advocates of the music that they play. There’s no reason to put this music in someone else’s hands, a music that is underexposed, and absolutely misunderstood, and expect that things are gonna be okay as a result of that. It’s our job to educate everyone. And it’s our job to try to shape and mold things—not necessarily the music itself, but the idea of the art form being public. It’s our obligation to shape that, and try to get that to happen. And there’s a sacrifice in that, in terms of, well, I don’t get a chance to practice as much because I’m on this board or I’m the appointed director of this arts organization…but the amount of time I see people spend on Facebook…stop doing that and do something that’s a bit more productive, that will help us as a whole.
As someone who knows Nicholas Payton quite well, where do you stand on the whole Black American Music versus jazz issue? Is a name change the magic bullet that’s gonna make young people care about jazz, or are there other ways of marketing jazz that can make a serious move to growing the audience—playing on different kinds of bills, streaming music, etc.?
Wow, that’s a real difficult question. I don’t want to be a soothsayer and say this is the way or this is not the way. The one thing I will say about this, and I’m not just saying this because Nicholas Payton is my friend—he’s a very, very intelligent man, and I think many times underestimated intellectually because he’s so quiet. So when he decides to speak, and he’s been quite verbal, I think it might be a shock to people, the level of conviction and love he has for the music. But I do know, or I’m going to surmise, that his reasoning for this is a result of a dynamic that he’s observed within the industry. And I think it’s really important to understand this: There’s a lot about the history of America that we’ve kinda swept under the rug, and instead of really addressing the issues, so we can move forward again, we say “Well, this doesn’t really exist—come on, come on.” We’ve tried to sanitize it. And I believe that that’s a big mistake, because the energy and how we’ve dealt with past history still permeates through everything we do today.
So there are a lot of things that aren’t said that I believe just need to be said. Now, maybe there’s a way to say them, but I believe they need to be said. Like, here’s something to think about—the idea of a value system. Everyone has a different value system based on their experience, in terms of what they’re taught and their experiences environmentally. So clearly, the history of this music—it’s understood how this music came to be. So I can see where it would be a bit distressing when you have so many people saying, Well, you know, this music didn’t come from the idea of slavery. That’s not why this music exists, as a result of slaves and how the music evolved from that point forward. But you have so many historians saying, well, that’s not what this is or blah blah blah. When clearly there’s enough in the history books that already shows that. That can create some sort of ill feeling. And rightfully so. Particularly when what’s really being addressed is someone’s heritage. ‘Cause when I look at jazz music, this is a part of my heritage.
Now, back when no one cared about jazz music, I have Jet magazines that have jazz charts. They had R&B charts, they had blues charts, and they had jazz charts. And all the music was related, and the musicians—when you listen to the Motown stuff, all the black musicians who played jazz were doing session work with a lot of the Motown acts. Now what I do is I kind of relate this to a value system. And understand when I say that this isn’t an issue of malice, this is an idea that people need to sit down and think about.
There aren’t really very many African-American producers in jazz, or promoters, or writers, so really, I’m subject to the value system and viewpoint of someone who has not ever had the experience I’ve had. Just as an individual, growing up. There are a whole lot of things people don’t know about me, just because no one’s ever asked. I’ve been arrested because I had a bandana on, and I was in the hotel that I was staying in after doing a concert! And clearly I was arrested because I was black. And I don’t make a big thing about it—it took me a minute to get over that, and deal with that. Like, I literally had to go back to the city in the same clothes, the next morning, and just walk around the police station. Because I just refused to allow my system to embrace all that they’d put on me the day before.
So what I’m saying is, there’s a whole idea about the music that I think is still not understood, and now that we’ve kind of gotten into this whole process of teaching the music—I’m not really sure how much African-American input there was, I know that there was some, obviously, there’s David Baker and some other people, too. But when you sit down and look at what it is systemically, the best way I can describe it is, how do you have a system of teaching a music that is clearly strongly syncopated, for obvious reasons, but meanwhile, when you go to schools and study, there are no real courses on that in depth. Well, it’s because of the values of the people who set up the system—that is not necessarily a focal point. Clearly, the focal point is harmony. But there’s a balance that makes those two ideas sympatico. And so I think it’s issues like that—and that’s mild. I’m being very mild; I could talk about industry stuff that I’ve seen, and that I know matter-of-factly, but that’s never been my energy. I’m not really trying to create any dissension. But I do really believe in the truth. ‘Cause what do they say? It’ll set you free. And that’s how I intend to be.
So there are other examples, industry examples, that clearly right now, when I listen to the music, I hear a lot of music that is improvisational but it’s not jazz. It’s more pop music, if anything. It’s like a new pop music, and so when you see all these groups at jazz festivals, it raises a question. Like, does the industry really understand anything about the music? And then the other question it raises is, does the industry care? And I already know the answer to that.
So what you have to do is, just like I find personalities I like to work with, I try to find personalities in the industry that I think are objective thinkers. So that you can talk about issues and you can work on developing your art. And I’ve done that with my relationship with Gerry Teekens. Gerry Teekens has never [interfered artistically], other than saying “I’d like you to play a blues, maybe something fast”—and he didn’t even say that to me the last couple of times. He really allows me to do what I do. Because he clearly understands the art. I can’t say that for some of the larger labels that I worked with previously. It many times was about some sort of hook or gimmick that had nothing to do with the personalities who’d made the record. Or if it did, it was something very surface. But it’s about money. That’s what it’s about.
Stream “Let It Snow,” from Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas: