Saxophonist Chase Baird was a 10-year-old, self-described introvert and “Lego kid” when he decided to ignore popular culture. “I opted to listen only to classical music,” he told Pasatiempo in a phone call from New York City, where he attends the Juilliard School of Music. “I rejected pop culture on principle. I wasn’t really sure about classical music. I guess I liked it on some level.” Today, steered by a desire to find his own voice, Baird is less of an elitist, appearing on stage with vocalist Matthew Morrison (Will Schuester of Glee), jazz jamming at the New York club Smalls, looking to do studio work as a pop musician, and studying classical composition. But he still has his principles.
It was also around the age of 10 that Baird, who brings a quartet to St. John’s College on Saturday, Feb. 22, picked up the saxophone. Baird was surrounded by music from an early age. His mother was a classical-music lover, his grandfather was an amateur singer, and his aunt a classical flutist. But it was his father, a trumpeter who dabbled in jazz and rock music, who set the pop-culture reactionary on a course into improvisational music. “I’d drive around with my dad, who’d play cassette tapes that he’d copied — Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck. He loved The Jazz Crusaders, Miles from a lot of different eras, early Coltrane. He also had newer stuff — Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker.”
The first saxophonist Baird heard was the Argentine Gato Barbieri. Barbieri was known for his impassioned work on the soundtrack of Last Tango In Paris as well as a series of crossover recordings done in the 1970s. “He was so unbelievably sensual and coming from so open a place,” Baird said. “It was just the kind of music that I was starved for, something coming from a spiritual level. I loved him because his sound was so pure and piercing and clear.” But his discovery of Michael Brecker really got him engaged. “My dad had [Brecker’s 1990 GRP recording] Now You See It … (Now You Don’t), and I remember distinctly telling him that I like everything Michael Brecker does. He was the only artist I felt that way about. Even when I was listening to Gato’s albums there were tracks I would skip. But Brecker’s albums I listened to straight through.” Baird said the tunes that attracted him weren’t necessarily the aggressive, Coltranesque sound that Brecker was known for when he emerged as a bandleader in the 1980s. “People thought of Brecker as this shredder virtuoso playing fusion music. I loved his ballad playing, the way those albums were produced, the interaction of the band, the aesthetic of it. I didn’t listen to [the earlier jazz-fusion projects] Steps Ahead and the Brecker Brothers. I liked that late ’80s period, which is more acoustic and has that great balance between jazz and modern sounds.”
At 14, Baird was so taken with Brecker’s music that he began to memorize the tenor solos from the recordings. He can still recall everything about the first Brecker tune he worked out. “It was that second track, ‘Syzygy,’ from the Michael Brecker album. He’s playing along with [drummer] Jack DeJohnette, playing all this amazing stuff during his solo. It took forever to do, three or four months, but I worked out every note. I knew it inside out. I’d tell people the best lick in the solo happens at a minute 46 seconds, and it was true.” Baird later impressed the saxophonist Bob Berg while attending a summer music camp at Brigham Young University. “We were playing this arrangement of [the Jimmy Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn tune ] “All the Way” with a long tenor feature and an unaccompanied cadenza, and I just filled it up with all of Michael’s licks. I wasn’t developed enough creatively to do something organic. It was just straight-up regurgitation.” While attending master classes at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho, he met drummer Jeff Hamilton, to whom he expressed his interest in Brecker. “And Jeff told me, don’t be afraid to try and connect with him. He’s a jazz musician. He’s more accessible than you think.”
Baird’s parents took Hamilton’s advice, sending the saxophonist a letter and a tape recording of their son’s rendition of “All the Way.” Brecker responded by calling Baird at home, leaving a message suggesting the two should meet the next time Brecker came through town. “To me, it was like the biggest celebrity you can imagine calling me. Like, say, Paul McCartney calling. But if it had been McCartney I wouldn’t have cared as much.” Baird eventually got to spend an afternoon with his hero. “He gave me advice about pursuing a career in music. The biggest thing was that he affirmed what I was doing, that gesture of reaching out after hearing what I was doing, that he felt that he heard a potential for something great. And then that night at the concert, he was playing with Herbie Hancock and George Mraz, and he looked out at the audience and saw me and nodded. It was a very small thing, but I felt acknowledged.” Brecker died from leukemia a few years later at the age of 57. Baird has since established a relationship with Brecker’s wife, Susan, and daughter Jessica. “It’s nice knowing them a bit and to feel connected to them, and through them, that person whose music means so much to me.”
Baird spent time in the respected music program at California State University, Long Beach, and was selected to tour the U.S. and Japan as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. He then headed off to New York, where he hoped to establish a career as a freelance musician. He was awarded a scholarship to Juilliard — he’ll finish up there in May — which has given him the opportunity to make appearances with some major jazz artists.
One of them, saxophonist Joe Lovano, gave the young student a chance at “a growing moment,” as Baird described it. “Lovano is such a big man in jazz, and I kept wondering what am I going to play with him? We were doing ‘Charlie Chan,’ a tune Lovano wrote for Charlie Parker, and I knew I’d be soloing with him. I felt a bit intimidated. But I feel that I at least stood my own ground and came up with something different than what he did, something of my own.” Baird also appeared with Hancock at a Juilliard concert celebrating bassist Ron Carter’s 75th birthday at Lincoln Center. “He had his own dressing room, but he came out and hung with the students and talked to us about meditation and what he’d learned about life. He’s so profound as a human being. The impression he made is that we were all equals. His energy is like a hug, it encompasses you and is unconditional. Because of him, I was the least nervous of any concert I’ve played.”
In 2010, Baird released his first recording, Crosscurrent. The disc, containing seven originals and a couple of jazz standards, reveals a certain sincerity and youthful aspiration as the saxophonist carves out his own place. “I’m hoping to expand. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking at pop music, both creatively and economically. There’s no expectation, no pressure to sound like someone else. It’s hard to make it in jazz today. [Michael Brecker] did all those recording dates, hundreds of them, but didn’t release his own album until he was 38. I want to avoid the elitism. I’m more interested in what you can express, both in composing and with the instrument, the soulfulness of it. The truth you find in music has to be deeper than the notes and the rhythm and the style.” He cited the music of Coltrane as an example of the true expressionism that he’s looking for. “He got to a point where it wasn’t about the music, wasn’t about what he was playing but about the intent he was playing with. He was trying to take it to a higher state of consciousness, to find the love and joy in it, and bring that to the physical world. That’s the feeling I’m looking for. Unconditional love.” ◀
▼ Chase Baird Quartet with Mathis Picard, piano; John Tate, bass; Jimmy MacBride, drums
▼ 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22
▼ Great Hall, St. John’s College, 1160 Camino de Cruz Blanca
▼ $25 at the door; call 505-984-6118