Tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh and his quartet have just released their third album, The Turn. (Buy it from Amazon.) The group has been together for a decade, and have developed a unique and powerful collective voice. The primary focus is the interaction between Sabbagh and guitarist Ben Monder; he’s a fluid, multifaceted player capable of traditional jazz chording as well as jagged bursts of noise. Behind the two men, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Ted Poor provide a perfect foundation. Poor’s drumming in particular, with its sharp, ringing snare, blurs the line between jazz and ’90s hard rock—he sounds like he’s hired Andy Wallace to mix his sound.
Sabbagh is a unique saxophonist, in general and particularly within the context of the 21st Century New York scene. His playing is slow and deliberate, and his melodies have a straightforward linearity that makes them more memorable than some of his peers’ elaborate harmonic backflips and overthought serpentine meanderings. Nothing he writes ever sounds like homework; at the same time, it’s never rote or reliant on cliché, even when he’s digging deep into the blues, as on the title track.
The album features seven originals and a version of Paul Motian‘s “Once Around the Park.” (Sabbagh and Monder worked with Motian in 2011.) It was recorded live to two-track tape, and has a clear, organic sound—the fabled “four guys in a room” feel. Some of the compositions, particularly “Banshee” and “Electric Sun,” sound like songs in the pop-rock sense; both Sabbagh’s and Monder’s solos on the former track are the most ferocious on the album. Others, like “Cult,” are weirder, venturing into abstract spaces and dwelling there at length. The cover art—a photo of a teenage kid spinning a motorbike in mud somewhere in the French countryside—fits well with the mood of the music. This is modern jazz; it sounds like it was made in 2014, without pandering to the listener via trendy instrumentation or production tricks. Jerome Sabbagh is a patient man, capable of keeping a band alive for a decade and slowly, thoughtfully building a collective vocabulary and showcasing it across three albums—2004’s North, 2007’s Pogo, and this one. All his work is worth hearing, but The Turn really finds the quartet at a creative peak.
Here’s a video of the group (with Jochen Rueckert subbing in on drums) performing “The Turn” at the Jazz Gallery earlier this year:
Jerome Sabbagh answered some questions via email.
Tell me a little about your early life—when did you start playing music?
I grew up in Paris. I started playing music when I was 15. I had a great music teacher, Annick Chartreux, in my high school. She really got me into music. There was a lot of classical music around the house but not really anything else. I studied saxophone for two years at the local conservatory with a classical teacher, then I started studying with jazz saxophonist Philippe Chagne, who was an exceptional teacher and taught me a lot in not a lot of time.
When and why did you decide to come to America? Were you able to find gigs right away, or was it a struggle?
I came to America in August 1993, to study at Berklee College of Music, where I stayed for two years, studying with Joe Viola, George Garzone, Bill Pierce, Hal Crook and Herb Pomeroy. I didn’t gig very much in Boston. I wasn’t ready. I spent all my time practicing and playing sessions. It’s what I needed to do. I moved to New York in September 1995. I thought I would stay for a year or two, and I’ve been living there ever since. Little by little, I started working more. I also kept playing sessions all the time, and listened to a lot of live music. I started writing music, which I think has been really influential in my development overall. I played in a collective quartet called Flipside with Greg Tuohey, Matt Penman and Darren Beckett. We recorded for Naxos Jazz in 1997 and toured regularly. As a sideman, a breakthrough gig for me was playing with Guillermo Klein and Los Guachos, pretty much every Monday for a while at the Jazz Standard around 2000. His music was some of my favorite back then, and still is. I met a lot of great musicians subbing in that band.
Your saxophone style is very unique—you play a lot slower than most saxophonists today. How did you develop that style, and what draws you to that kind of playing?
I try to hear everything I play and it’s harder for me to hear fast than slow. I do like to play fast but I pick my spots. More than anything else, I want to feel like I am really improvising in the moment and I want to be lyrical. Speed has its place but it’s not an end in itself for me.
Where do you see your style fitting into 21st Century jazz, both in Brooklyn and the larger music scene?
I am not that concerned about style, I am much more concerned with trying to really be connected with everything I play. Most of the time, I also write tunes without thinking about what style they are going to fit in. On the contrary, I try to let them develop organically, and accept them for what they are. As a result, I think my music is pretty eclectic. Perhaps that, in itself, reflects the broadening scope of jazz itself in the 21st Century?
You formed your quartet 10 years ago—what do you think each member brings to the collective sound?
Ben has a really unique sound and a very sophisticated sense of harmony. He has the flexibility to do anything and be himself. I think he really connects with the tunes I write and he is a great accompanist, very aware of space. And same as for Joe and Ted, I write this music with him in mind. Joe is a great bass player in every way but, most of all, he is selfless: he always has his own sound, but everything he does serves the collective sound. He is the glue that binds us together. Ted has a great groove and ability to shape the music into a coherent story, whether it’s pretty straight up or exploratory. All these guys are really open and ready to go in any direction at any time, but they are also committed to making the songs feel good and keeping their integrity. I feel very privileged to have been able to lead this band for ten years now.
In many ways, you’re the calming voice that anchors the band; Monder and Poor play with much more force than you. How did that relationship evolve, and is that what you envisioned when you put the band together?
I didn’t plan it that way, and I don’t think I am always the calming voice, although I do try to play from a centered place and it’s true that I want the music to feel grounded. I think we all listen and try to figure out what the music needs, and we balance each other out to give it that.
It’s been seven years since you recorded an album with this group; what’s the oldest composition on The Turn, and what’s the newest?
The oldest composition is “Cult.” This one is an exception, as it actually predates the band: I wrote it in 1999! I always liked it and knew it could work but I was never able to record it to my satisfaction before, although I tried a couple of times. It worked right away with this band. The newest one is “Banshee.”
In what ways do you feel the group’s sound has changed since Pogo?
I like to think that we take more chances now, particularly me. As a result, I think we get to more diverse places in the improvising. I think we are stronger, tighter as a band and our sound is more identifiable.
What’s the significance of the cover art?
No particular significance, other than relating to the title of the record in a visual way. I really liked the picture. In general, I like cover art that doesn’t look like your typical jazz record. This felt more like an indie rock record cover, and I liked that too.
If you could play one piece from this album to sum up the current state of the group, what would it be?
It’s hard to pick one but maybe “Electric Sun”?
Stream “Electric Sun”: