Fred Hess, Metro’s Classical Compositional Director, has begun work on the follow-up to his first big band album, Hold On. At this point the tenor saxophonist’s album is still in its infancy, but Hess is already excited to unveil it. He discussed making music, his experience in the local scene and the jazz scene overall.
IG: What is the new album tentatively titled?
FH: No title yet, I haven’t gotten that far. One day, I spent hours putting in the rough mix on all the tracks for Ninth House. There are around 36 tracks to deal with for each song, so there is a lot more to do.
IG: How do you feel about the tracks on this new album? What sort of mood do they strike for you?
FH: Well, this album is different than the first one because I wanted to make two. And last year, when I made the first big-band album, I was afraid my more compositional music was too hard to play. But [Hold On] came out great. It is about my own arrangement and the last 50 to 60 years of big-band music. The two [albums] make a pair, the last one is reflection and this one deals with the future of big band music and experimentation.
IG: Being the Classical Compositional Director at Metro must play a part in your writing. Did you compose all of the pieces on this new album? Do you use the tenor saxophone as your primary compositional tool, or a different instrument?
FH: I compose with music notation software; the sax has nothing to do with it. I got a Finale program in 1991 and I have been using that ever since. We use that at the school. My doctorate is in musical composition; I can use all those techniques in jazz. One of the things I’ve been trying to do, which again, is back to my interest in being a part of the jazz world, is being a composer and a sax player. My mind is really where I get a lot of things to work from, it sets me apart because I’m not writing songs, I’m working with more compositional materials.
IG: How long have you been teaching composition at Metro and what do you enjoy about teaching?
FH: The composition degree is only about four or five years old. Before that, I was the jazz director. Everyone has to have a title. I watched the composition teachers and I knew I could do it better than them, so I switched over.
IG: Which composers help you to keep your focus and who are some of your favorites, in the realm of jazz music or beyond, classic or contemporary?
FH: That’s always a difficult question, because I’m going to give you the answer that anybody would. I like anybody who’s good! There are so many different ways to play music and so many people who can do it well that I can’t say one guy is better than another.
IG: The tenor saxophone is your main instrument. How long have you been playing it, and what has it brought into your life?
FH: Over fifty years, so it’s been a while. I started out on the trombone but I always wanted to play the sax. I played the flute for a while, but for the last 25 years I’ve been on the tenor. I played flute on my first few albums and have a degree in the flute and trombone.
IG: Denver seems to be a booming jazz town, can you expand on this after experiencing the scene first-hand for almost 30 years?
FH: Well, Denver isn’t as booming as it used to be. The opportunity for people to play jazz is less now, than 10 years ago. There were jazz clubs, but no Jazz programs in the universities. Now [the University of Colorado] has a jazz program and you can get a degree, [the University of Denver] has some. All the good jazz guys here are teaching in these programs, 20 years ago you didn’t have Al Hood teaching at [the University of Denver]. I thought that after I got my degree I would get a job immediately, but it took me five years. I was 50 years old and playing nightly jazz gigs, I wouldn’t recommend that for my closest friend or for my worst enemy. You have to think one week ahead. Now, I’m happy to have a job.
IG: Who are some of the best players in Denver?
FH: The people in my band. They’re the best big band players, at least: John Gunter, on the alto sax, Peter Summer on the tenor, Nelson Hines, on the trombone. He played with Woody Herman back in the ‘80s [and] Matt Wilson, my New York drummer. He won the Downbeat poll last year. As far as pedigree and resume, we have the best.
IG: Is preservation necessary to keep jazz alive or do you find that advancing in every aspect of the music is the key? Are you able to find a balance between the two in all of the work you do?
FH: People thought that big band died, but you know, a big band is still alive. All the schools have big band and people are still writing for a big band because they like the palate.
IG: Since 1998, it seems like you have released an album every year until now. Do you plan on keeping this momentum going and what would your next project entail?
FH: No, I don’t and I will tell you why: This big band one is going to take a while in the studio; around six months of production. So, maybe I’ll leave it at that or go back to a smaller band.