Sam Gendel – Satin Doll
Number of Tracks:13
From the Album:Satin Doll
Available Date & Time: Mar 13 2020 09:00:00 EDT
“If all the saxophones in the world evaporated one day, I would be sad for a moment,” says Sam Gendel, matter-of-factly. “And then life would go on.”
It’s an interesting thought from Gendel, the LA-based, world-class saxophonist, because it rings true on two different levels. Firstly, the fact that his musicianship extends way beyond the saxophone. His collaborations with artists as diverse as Vampire Weekend, Blake Mills, Ry Cooder, Moses Sumney, and Sam Amidon attest to this; it’s as much Gendel’s creative approach as his technique that is unique, and makes him a sought-after musical conspirator.
But secondly, Gendel plays and processes his instrument in such a way that it sounds as if the saxophone were indeed melting before our very ears: drawn-out like treacle, harmonized and otherworldly, or floating wispily away. “Does the world need another jamming sax?” asks Gendel, with a laugh. “No. It doesn’t.”
Accordingly, we now have Gendel’s debut for Nonesuch, Satin Doll—an album that both reinvents nine of the most beloved jazz standards, and redefines the sonic possibilities of the saxophone for a new era. “I think I may have created a sound on the instrument that hasn’t really been heard yet,” he says, lightly, adding, with a cheerful shrug, “I’m just me, doing my little thing.”
Listen to the album, and you’ll discover such mind-melting treasures as a woozy take on Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Mercer’s 1953 classic “Satin Doll” that shimmers like a sonic heat-haze, its fractured, languorous bossa beats slowed to the pace of a rubber ring floating in a swimming pool. Elsewhere, a joyful, reeling version of Hermeto Pascoal’s “O Ovo,” which practically cartwheels into earshot; and an incredibly intimate take on Alex North’s “Love Theme from Spartacus,” set to micro-beats and muffled squeaks that suggest diner booths being slid into.
“These are chopped and screwed versions of old songs,” says Gendel, “out of full respect for the originals, but making them our own.” The best visual symbol for the record is, he says, the lowrider—as in, the customized cars you see cruising the parks and strips of California and beyond. “Chicano culture is really where this all stems from,” he says. “I grew up around it, and I always found it beautiful—that someone would take an overlooked vehicle no one would ever think would have anything beyond its face value, and turn it into the most striking piece of art.”
You can see it in the video to Gendel’s version of “Afro Blue,” which features a cartoon lowrider cruising across sun-bleached, muzzy footage of Hama-Rikyu Gardens in Tokyo. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Gendel’s deliciously warped, electronic reading of Mongo Santamaría’s 1959 Latin-jazz classic—clearly inspired as much by the new as the old. Gendel’s own driving soundtrack ventures into realms of pop and hip-hop radio station Power 106, featuring artists such as Migos, Future, and Young Thug. “Young Thug is a visionary artist—it’s a kind of abstract, painterly sound,” he notes, as if describing his own music.
Gendel himself was raised in California’s Central Valley, close to the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the wonders of Yosemite National Park. An outdoorsy kid whose parents played jazz and Joni Mitchell records around the house, the first album Gendel owned was a cassette of the Space Jam soundtrack, which, he says, he wore out from playing so much.
As affable and mellow as you’d expect a jazz-leaning Californian musician to be, Gendel is, in his own words, “a pretty slow-burn”, and his big musical epiphany arrived in his late teens—newly autonomous, with his own car, hanging with friends away from home. The musical connection fizzed into life; Gendel was having fun, thinking, “This is a playground where I can actually get good at something.”
Gendel started playing the sax at eleven, when he was given the choice of joining the school band or the orchestra. “It opened up, little by little, and then I just woke up one day twenty years later and I can’t believe I’m still playing this thing,” he says, “It’s bizarre.” How does he relate to the saxophone now? “It’s a hunk of metal that got shaped in the right way?” he says, laughing. “Truly, it’s just a tool. I do love it, I like the way it expresses something within me, that I’m able to pull out of it.”
If Satin Doll hits with a certain immediacy, that’s not surprising—the album was cut in two-and-a-half days, like an old-school jazz record, and “everything you’re hearing is live performances by three people in the same room,” says Gendel. “No headphones, no click track, no Ableton. Red light on, record, silence. Move on.”
Gendel’s trio comprised bassist Gabe Noel and electronic percussionist Philippe Melanson—both long-time associates of Gendel’s, but who hadn’t met each other until recording began: “The track ‘Satin Doll’ is the first take of the first thing the three of us ever played together,” he says, with satisfaction.
The common element in their musical approach, says Gendel, is a shared sense of humor. “That defines it, because from there, it takes away ego and any judgement or method. It makes us so open to the moment, every time we play.”
While the musicians may not have taken themselves too seriously, Gendel’s goofiness falls away when he talks of his love for the original songs. “This album is completely sincere,” he says. “It’s not a joke, there’s no irony. When we play ‘Stardust’ That’s me thinking about Lester Young, straight up. Every song has meaning for me—it’s coming from a personal place but hopefully in a way that’s relatable. It’s popular music, after all.”
Unusual pop music, but pop music, nonetheless. The second day of recording took place outside the studio—the trio performed at a friend’s wedding rehearsal dinner in Westlake Village, at the Four Seasons hotel. That’s the version of “Afro Blue” you hear on the album, today: “People were flipping and we got all the little kids dancing,” says Gendel.
The experience was so fluid and fast that Gendel says there weren’t any sonic touchstones for the record: “I wanted to make it so quickly so that every movie and every book and every song would come through—so it feels like a culmination.”
Certainly you can trace the outlines of his inspirations on the record; his version of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” features the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s reworking (albeit sung by a synthesized voice bank), bringing together his dad’s love of jazz and his mom’s love of Joni. But it’s also a version that sounds like nothing quite else.
Pigeonhole this music at your peril. You may be reminded of a Duke Ellington quote (one that Gendel is fond of): “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” Asked who he imagines listening to the album, and where, Gendel laughs: “Anyone and everyone and everywhere.”
As to the future, for this dissident musician who happens to play virtuoso sax? Gendel takes a moment to consider Rick Rubin: “The dude doesn’t even have to wear shoes, or touch anything,” he marvels. “He just floats around, and that is enough. I want to be laying on a couch with my eyes closed and just think something and then it happens sonically. I will never give up the tactile experience of playing music and improvising, but there’s somewhere I’m headed.” One senses, of course, that Gendel will do it precisely on his own terms.
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