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Monday, July 12, 2010

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Mark Small, Saxophonist and Composer

Mark Small is a saxophonist/composer who resides in New York City. His experiences in music have taken him infinitely further than he had ever imagined when he first began playing the instrument at the age of 13. If it hadn't been for one fateful trip to New York's famed jazz club, the Village Vanguard, Mark may never have followed his musical path. One evening, while attending a show by the regular monday night big band known at the time as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, mark recognized the title of their next number, Hoagy Carmichael's “skylark”, and remembered that he had played this song before. The arrangement he then heard was nothing like he had ever heard before. The arrangement by Bob Brookmeyer and the sax feature played by Dick Oatts opened a whole new world of musical possibility for him. Mark knew from that point that he wanted to play with this band some day.

After studying in his home state of Connecticut and attending the New England Conservatory in Boston (where he had the fortune to study with Mr. Brookmeyer), he moved to NY where he quickly began working in numerous facets of New York's diverse jazz scene. While performing around Manhattan with local jazz players at such clubs as the 55 bar, detour (now defunct), Cleopatra's Needle, and the Garage, Mark became a sought after sideman. During this time, he also entered a number of national and international competitions for jazz musicians, going on to take first prize in the East Coast Jazz Festival Competition, as well as 3rd place in the World Saxophone Competition. Most memorable for him was making the semifinals in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition, placing him among the worlds finest. Meanwhile, he was pursuing his teaching aspirations at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut as well as teaching a number of private students in and around New York.

Mark's break into the touring world came with a call to join Warner Recording Artist Michael Buble's band. His work with Michael has taken him on 3 world tours playing most major theaters and then followed by most major arenas in the US, UK, Australia and Europe. They performed in over 35 countries and on numerous television programs including the "Today Show", "Letterman Show", "Late night with Jay Leno", "Ellen", "The Parkinson Show" (UK), "Junos" (Canada), and the "Logies" (Australia). Mark was a featured soloist on both saxophone and clarinet for the Grammy award winning DVD "Michael Buble meets Madison Square Garden" as well as a live performance for PBS, (which went on to become a Grammy nominated DVD, entitled "Caught in the Act") . His work for Michael has included arranging and re-orchestration as well as performing on saxophones and clarinet.

Mark lead a double life in New York while touring with Michael. He managed to still perform with a number of his favorite bands despite his rigorous tour schedule with Buble. During this time he finally got the call that he had always been waiting for, a chance to play with the now famed Village Vanguard Orchestra. Meanwhile, he continued to perform with the award winning band lead by composer Darcy James Argue called "Secret Society", which has garnered praise for such news outlets as NPR, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. He was able to take his co-lead group called "Bronze" (with saxophonist Walter Smith) into the studio for their debut album on the Fresh Sound/New Talent label. Other opportunities arose such as performing frequently for the Broadway musical "Chicago" and playing saxophone, clarinet, and acting in the award wining short film "The Drummer".

This double life couldn't be sustained much longer and Mark made the tough decision to spend more time pursuing the jazz music that had first inspired him, which meant leaving Michael's touring band in order to be in New York working on his own projects. It's only fitting that his final touring concert became Buble's Grammy award winning "Michael Buble meets Madison Square Garden" and his final performance for Michael was on New York's own "Saturday Night Live". Since then he has been performing at NYC's top shelf jazz clubs such as the Iridium, Bluenote, and Dizzy's Club, where Peachy Deegan heard him perform, as well as the occasional stint with artists such as Aretha Franklin.

Mark continues to play with a number of talented young composers in New York including Nicholas Urie, Asuka Kakitani, Rob Mosher, and Mr. Argue as well as performing occasional with the Vanguard Orchestra, and a collective chamber ensemble called "Anicha". He is currently working on a book about improvisation is and looking forward to getting back to some long overdue teaching. We are pleased to present him as our latest Mover and Shaker!

Peachy Deegan interviewed Mark Small for Whom You Know. 

Peachy Deegan: Of anything you could have played what made you pick the sax and why?
Mark Small: I actually began playing the saxophone to get out of classes.  I had been playing violin (for the same reason) and a few of my friends decided to switch to saxophone when we got the chance to play brass instruments.  I decided to follow them and we joke about it to this day how I was the worst of the bunch.  Then we started to play in jazz band and I loved to play by ear so I really thrived when it came time for the improvising.

We love Connecticut and Boston also and have lived there too.  How would you contrast those two places with Manhattan?
One thing that has always stuck out to that has made New York different than most other cities is that when I lived in Boston, I felt like the city lent itself to being sectioned off by age.  If you were in college, there were places like Lansdowne for you to go to, but you wouldn't end up there if you were older.  There was some place different for every age.  In New York, I find that its less about age and more about what you're into.  If you're into a certain scene, there's a place where people of all ages go to be a part of that scene.  I really love that about NYC

Do you also compose music?
I do a fair amount of writing for myself and other groups.  Some of it has been arranging and re-orchestration for Michael Buble as well as writing original music for a co-lead band with fellow saxophonist Walter Smith, some for a chamber group I perform with called Anicha, and other music that I've performed with my own band here in NYC.  Now that I've left Michael's band, I have spent a considerable amount of time writing new music for my own band which I hope to record by the end of this year for my debut record.  I feel that composing is a natural part of being an improvising musician.  It's improvisation slowed down with time to mold what you've conceived.

What is Michael Buble like to work with?
He was fun and super energetic.  He liked to hang out and play just about any sport you could think of (ping pong was the game of choice when I was last on tour).  He's got this natural voice and if you get the rare chance to hear him sing something unexpected (not on his set list), it's really an experience.  The times I heard him just wing it and sing something like "Stardust" just quartet, that made it worth it.

What would Michael Buble say you are like to work with?
Well, I'm not sure what he'd say right now since I quit his band (he's a pretty competitive guy) but I remember him telling the head of Warners International marketing that I was the best saxophonist he had ever heard.  He would point me out every once in a while to someone like David Foster.    

What TV show has been the most fun to be on and why?
Hands down SNL.  It was fun to be back stage and just see the show happening right there in the studio.  Especially the house band.  Those guys are outstanding

Do you ever do numbers with Jenna Esposito?  If so, how was it and if not, why not?
I've performed with Jenna twice at the Metropolitan Room.  Once with her full band for the Connie show and once as her guest at the Jam session.  What a pro.  I'm ashamed to say I didn't really know about Connie and her music.  Jenna's show really brought me up to speed and was a blast to play.  I'm sure I'll surprise her one of these days by showing up at the Metro Jam again.

How is your book going and what can you tell us about it?
I'd love to not stretch myself in lots of directions and just buckle down and focus on the book.  It will focus on improvisation and what possibilities are open to any level of improvisor (regardless of ability) before you get into style.  I feel that every method of playing music starts with preexisting styles before someone even gets a chance to have fun just making sound and seeing how you can organize that.  Styles and categories are great for selling music but they can be big cages for people who want to see what they can create.  

What do you teach and where?  Do you enjoy it?
I mainly teach woodwinds and improvisation on all instruments.  I used to teach in a variety of places before I began touring.  I had lots of private students in NYC and CT and I taught at Sacred Heart University in CT.  Now that I'm back in the city full time, I'm building up my private studio again.  
I've always enjoyed teaching, especially one-on-one.  I had taught in public school before and although I loved the kids, the situation isn't ideal.  They don't have enough time, there are too many students in a class, and the fighting that can go on between teachers and school boards is beyond me.  It takes a different kind of teacher to handle those challenges.  I enjoy really getting into the individual needs and goals of each student and trying to contribute in a way that they can apply the lessons to other aspects of their life besides music.  For example, if you're organized, be it musically or otherwise it will translate to everything you do.  I feel I grow as a student of music myself when I help others realize what they can work on.  I'm always hoping to have that perfect balance of teaching and performing because they inform each other.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
Of all the really great instructors and people that have made a huge impact on me, it's really difficult to single one out.  They all have such amazing qualities.  This is going to seem strange but I was in Ireland a long time ago, at a small pub in Galway.  It was like any given bar but out of nowhere, everyone began to shush anyone who was talking and the entire place got incredibly quiet.  Next thing I noticed there had been a girl singing what I can only assume was a traditional irish ballad.  She was just someone feeling it in the moment and she sang it with such purity and purpose that it has stayed with me ever since.  Apparently, this is a common thing in neighborhood pubs and I have no idea who she was but it defined how I want to make music.  I hope to create that moving a presence and express myself as openly as that girl did someday.  

What are you proudest of and why?
It's hard to say.  I could say I'm proud of the fact that I've never had to work a day job outside music since moving to NYC or that I finally got to play with the VJO but I think its less specific than that.  I'm proudest that there continue to be times when people tell me that my playing has inspired them.  That would be closer to the truth.  

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
I'd like to lead my own band on an international tour and finally be able to return the favor to all my incredibly talented friends that have asked me to play with them over the years.  I'd also like to play with particular heros of mine like Dave Holland, Al Foster, and John Scofield.

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
The one that sticks out is having made it to the semi-finals of the 2002 Thelonious Monk Competition.  Other awards would include winning 1st prize at the East Coast Jazz Festivals Fish Middleton competition as well as 3rd place in the World Saxophone Competition in Montreux, Switzerland.  Being featured on Buble's Grammy award winning DVD isn't too bad either.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
The bench on the far wall from the entrance, a few feet away from any band playing at the Village Vanguard

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
The strand book store

What is your favorite drink?
I'd say Arizona iced tea (I'm addicted) but if you mean alcoholic night cap, a good Saison Dupont.  I like the Belgian beers.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
WD50, when I can splurge
Kitchenette, when I just need a meal that tastes home cooked.  I make up excuses to myself to go all the way up to 122nd from Brooklyn just to eat at that restaurant

What is your favorite Manhattan book?
You've got me here.  I think I might say "The Alienist" because I like historical fiction but I would also say "New York City in photographs: 1850-1945" because its by my bedside.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?
Well they already beat me to naming a jazz club after myself since there's Small's.  I'd have to go with a music school because they would HAVE to let me teach there.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
Buying a folding bike from someone on the northwest corner of Central Park and then deciding to ride it all the way back to Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn.  The bike path on the west side is amazing.  Next time I plan to do a 2 1/2 ride, it'll be on a full size bike though.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Go show hopping and see some of the best bands in the world.  My max has been 5 shows in a day.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
The first time I got to play with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.  Nothing could beat how aware you feel when you are about to play with the guys you grew up listening to.  Standing up to take a solo with them and facing the audience instead of the countless time you've watched from the other side…there's really no words for it.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
The Hiro Ballroom.  I caught the CMJ festival there once and immediately thought "This room has the best vibe of any place I've seen a concert".  Of course the Village Vanguard is my favorite for jazz but for slightly bigger shows, the Hiro Ballroom should be used way more.
MTA.  Get it together folks.  How do you run out of money with this many commuters?

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
Advantageous Auctions.  It never ceases to surprise me with what is out there passing from person to person.  Just thinking about how specific the things are that people seek out amazes me.  Keep posting them.

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
I really like sailing.  If anyone has a boat and needs a saxophone playing first mate……

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?
or my fan page at

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