Greg Fishman is back in town.
The master tenor man may be best known for his work in Two For Brazil, the surprisingly versatile Chicago-based duo comprising himself and the Brazilian-born guitarist-vocalist Paulinho Garcia (performing through Sunday at the Jazz Showcase). While Two For Brazil has traveled the world in the course of recording five albums, they remain associated with Chicago – despite the fact that Fishman moved to Phoenix, Arizona a couple years ago, with his wife, pianist and vocalist Judy Roberts, in whose groups he often performs.
Before he left town, Chicago audiences knew Fishman as one of the most accomplished saxophonists in the midwest: he has a startling fluency in mainstream idioms and a particular aptitude for the music of saxist Stan Getz, one of the most lyrical improvisers (on any instrument) in jazz history. Not so many people knew that he had also established himself as a master educator and a sophisticated jazz theorist. Even fewer knew that he had become adept at distilling this knowledge through a highly-touted series of exercise books for saxophonists of varying expertise.
Although he’ll continue to travel back to Phoenix to perform, as well as tour overseas, Fishman is once again calling the Chicago suburbs home, having moved back two weeks ago. (He grew up in Morton Grove, got his B.A. at DePaul, and his Master’s at Northwestern.) First on the agenda are a new duo he’s forming with guitarist Mike Allemana (concentrating on the interplay of saxist Getz and guitarist Jimmy Raney in the 1950s) as well as a new Two For Brazil album planned for the spring.
While settling in, Fishman took time to answer a few questions from your Chicago Jazz Examiner.
Why did you leave Phoenix? More to the point – why move back to Chicago?
You know, I was working four nights a week, and the weather is real nice, and it’s an easier way of life — but I just missed Chicago so much, and I kept coming back, to make recordings, or to teach in my studio, or to play with Paulinho [Garcia]. In fact, Paulinho is one of the reasons I moved back.
I was surprised about missing Chicago, because I’ve traveled so much; sometimes I’ve been away four to six months at a time. But that was always with Chicago as my home base. When we changed all that, and Phoenix was “home,” it didn’t work. One night I was waiting to go on stage and an emcee introduced me as “GREG FISHMAN FROM PHOENIX!” and it just felt terrible. I guess it was some sort of Chicago pride I didn’t even know I had. I thought, “I’m from Chicago; I just live in Phoenix.”
Even more to the point, why move back to Chicago in fracking JANUARY?
Yeah, Phoenix has no snow, no traffic, no parking problems. It’s very relaxing, like you’re on vacation or something. I just can’t be there all the time. The level of playing is not the same, and I felt like I was losing my edge. There’s something about the harshness of the winter, and the potholes, and everything else that just makes me more efficient. I wrote two books in two months in Chicago; that’s more than I wrote in two years in Phoenix.
Your instructional books have become a little industry unto themselves. How did this happen?
When I was studying with [saxophone deity] Joe Henderson in the 80s, he had me write an etude on every tune we worked on. Not to play them on stage — it’s like a slow-motion improvisation, something to hang your hat on, and provide some insight into what you might be using to improvise in the future.
So when I started to do more teaching, I started writing etudes for my students. . . . I had already published transcriptions of Stan Getz’s solos, but the publisher wasn’t interested in my original stuff – so in 2006 I published the first book of them myself. And I got so much good feedback and suggestions; and then these great reviews; and then endorsements, starting with Michael Brecker [the mesmerizing and influential tenor saxist who died in three years ago last week]. I got hired to write for Saxophone Journal and a few other magazines as well, and the books took off.
So now there are a dozen of ’em, and they’re used at a lot of universities, and a lot of the super big guys, like James Moody and Dave Liebman and Phil Woods are endorsing them. I’ve sold like 15,000 books; it’s my main business now. And I’ve met people from all over the world because of these books: I’ve had students fly in from Trinidad, and from Switzerland, and Korea to take lessons.
First of the five albums (thus far) by the Chicag
All the titles of these etudes are Chicago street names. What’s that about?
Well, usually people give jazz etudes really obscure names – something playing off the title of the tune it’s based on – or really boring names, like “Etude #6.” So I thought I’d try something different. The first one I wrote was based on [Duke Ellington’s theme song] “Take The ‘A’ Train,” and I titled it “Irving Park Road”; then I wrote once called “Clark Street,” based on “Autumn Leaves.” And now there are close to 100 etudes with titles of Chicago streets.
Sometimes students will come in from out of town and we’ll be driving around. and they’ll see the street signs and know them from the tunes. It kind of brands my books as a “Chicago tenor” thing – although after 100 etudes, it’s getting kind of obscure. I’m down to Peshtigo Court now.
So now you have what is essentially a commuter marriage? Provided we can call the drive from Chicago to Phoenix a “commute”?
Yeah, I’m always traveling. Judy [Roberts] will be here for the summer, from June to September or so. She works six nights a week in Phoenix, but the season’s down during the summer months. And she still has a ton of fans here.
But yes, it is a commuter marriage – and I’ve been mostly driving, too. The airline thing is getting to be more and more of a pain, especially bringing my saxophone on the plane. But I like driving anyway. And I have this huge data base of customers who buy my books. So I’ll send an e-mail saying that I’ll be driving through say, Denver, or Omaha, next week, and do they want to have lunch – or take a saxophone lesson while I’m there? I’m spreading the lessons out across the west. I’ve become kind of like the Johnny Appleseed of jazz.
Two For Brazil performs at 8 and 10 Friday through Sunday, with a 4 PM Sunday matinee, at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court.