A wise saxophonist: an espresso with Chris Collins

Image Credits: Andrew Potter

October 1, 2019

A wise saxophonist

Chris Collins is a professional jazz woodwind player who has toured throughout Japan, South Africa, Europe and North America as the leader of his own ensembles and as a featured soloist. Cited as holding a singular place in the jazz scene of Detroit, he is also a Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at Detroit’s Carnegie I research university — Wayne State University, and the President and Artistic Director of the Detroit Jazz Festival (the largest free entry jazz festival in the world). We interviewed him.
> Emanuele Campiglia

How would you describe your playing and/or your music?
I try to capture the history of the jazz language with particular attention to the Detroit jazz language. I’ve always perceived it as a combination of bebop, Rhythm & Blues, gospel and even a touch of the avant-garde. So as a player I try to embrace those languages while still searching for an original expression of me as an improvising musician. My aim is to be different, musical and communicative at the same time.
What is more important to you between improving your playing and improving your music? In your opinion, is there a link between the two?
I think there is a link between the two. On one side, one must be a highly competent technician on the chosen instrument learning harmony, rhythm and melody too. On the other hand, you need to know how to put those technical elements together to produce artistic and expressive music. That way your music reaches out and not only touches the musicians that play it but also the audience.
How do you work on compositions and arrangements?
As a composer, I’ve always believed that the melody of a composition is king. So I’ve always worked from a melodic perspective first. Then I look for what I call the “second melody”, which is the bass movement. And then the harmony presents itself quite easily once those two parts are underlined. I’m also experimenting with different cultures in music too, especially when it comes to defining rhythms. But everything starts with melody in my mind.
When did you develop your interest in jazz music and in the saxophone?
My first exposure to jazz came thanks to the records my father listened to. He loved jazz and all kinds of music. He also loved to collect jukeboxes, in which I found lots of instrumental jazz recordings that fascinated me. It all started loving those sounds, then I started playing the clarinet and the saxophone trying to emulate them.

When did you decide to pursue a career as a musician?
I really like this question because I think everyone should try to be creative in their lives, not necessarily with music. That’s because every form of art opens up very unique emotions and parts of your mind. I didn’t really think of a career as a musician until I was 17 or 18: I had finished high school and I had to decide what to do with my life. I had some interest in science, but then I played an audition at the Wayne State University for the Jazz Program, which was one of the earliest in the country. The director of that program granted me a scholarship to the university, which was essential since my family couldn’t afford it. That scholarship made me realise that what I was doing was on the right track and at a level that suggested that it could be something to make a living out of.
How do you choose the musicians to work with?
Generally, I chose the ones that bring a unique level of skill and creativity to the project. But you also need musicians able to live on tour and to travel a lot. You can be the best musician ever but you need to cope with tour life and its logistics too.

Which artists of the past have influenced you the most and which musicians of today are particularly interesting to you?
The list is incredibly long. The artists I really love are the ones that managed to express the legacy of jazz in a very personal way, like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and many others. These musicians are always distinguishable when playing, and their unique tone is always found in their music.
What is your main goal as the Artistic Director of the Detroit Jazz Festival?
I try to take the Detroit Jazz Festival mission forward, which encompasses propagating the jazz traditions, educating everyone about the importance of music. To do that, the Festival is free entry and it hosts artists really representing jazz traditions.
Why did you choose to work with the Quarna Musica festival and what is your role there?
Initially I was travelling to Quarna Sotto to be more acquainted with Rampone & Cazzani and their wonderful saxophones. But then my family and I fell in love with the community of Quarna Sotto and the Festival invited me a number of times to perform there. I’m very happy to play at the festival once in a while and to share the music I love with the people I love.
What is the dream you would like to come true?
World peace (chuckles). I don’t know, everyone says it’s a joke but there is some truth in that. I have seen how connected we can become through music, even if we do not speak the same language or we are not from the same culture. We can all become a closer family on this planet. It might sound a little bit too philosophical, but it is only at this moment that this group of people are on this little marble, so why not make the best of it? Why not share your skills and talents with others?

An espresso with Chris Collins Jazzespresso Jazz Magazine – copyright 2019

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Jazzespresso è una rivista, un sito web, una rete che connette le anime del jazz di tutto il mondo. America, Europa, Asia, Australia e Africa: notizie da tutto l'orbe terracqueo in una pagina tradotta in cinque lingue. Un punto di riferimento multiculturale in inglese, cinese, spagnolo e italiano per gli amanti di questa musica in tutti i paesi del mondo. Per gli amatori o i professionisti che vogliono essere aggiornati su quello che sta succedendo in tutto il pianeta... rimani sintonizzato!

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