Born and bred in a jazz-saturated home in Brooklyn, New York, the globe-trotting, big-toned, take-no-prisoners tenor saxophonist Eric Wyatt has been on a lifelong quest to discover and hone his own sound and voice.
You can hear the spiritual and spirited results of the Brooklyn bard’s pursuit of his expressive individuality on his most recent album, a hard-swinging, highly charged CD titled, Borough of Kings (Posi-Tone Records).
Perhaps even better, you can hear Wyatt, a practitioner of what he calls “an improvisational life,” perform live with his quartet on Saturday, June 11, at 8:30 pm at Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club, a warm, intimate venue tailor-made for his warm, intimate, textured sound.
Part of what makes Wyatt run is that his father, Charles Wyatt, was a Brooklyn tenor saxophonist with deep roots in the New York jazz community. Although he didn’t record with them, he was close friends with a host of jazz greats, including Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.
Jazz notables regularly stopped by the Wyatt home, impressing young Eric with their smart talk and worldly ways long before he understood who they were or why their magical music mattered so much to the wide world far beyond his Brooklyn neighborhood.
Rollins became Eric’s godfather, and has remained a lifetime friend and guru and mentor. Sonny even helped launch Wyatt’s debut album, God Son.
Celebrated for his generosity, Sonny once gave Eric’s father a splendid, gold-plated tenor saxophone, which Eric plays on his recordings and live sessions.
When Eric was eleven, a major turning point in his life occurred when he went backstage in the early ’70s with his father at the Bottom Line, a New York jazz club, to meet his dad’s buddy, Miles Davis.
It was a jazz beatific vision that he remembers as if it happened yesterday. At the time, Eric was studying trumpet, but had no idea who Miles was.
“I walked into this room backstage with my father,” he said, “and saw this elegantly dressed, cool guy ensconced on a chair with his arms around two beautiful young women, each one sitting cozily on one of his legs. They were twins, had on black dresses, and each wore a red rose in her hair. I’m looking at this amazing scene, and saying to myself, ‘Who the hell is this guy? Oh, it’s the guy we just saw on stage playing so brilliantly with his back to the audience.’”
Imitating Miles’s famously raspy voice, Wyatt then recalled that the enthroned, charismatic figure asked him: “You like jazz? You play trumpet?”
Still savoring this behind-the-scenes peek into the world of jazz royalty, Wyatt recounted the scene with cinematic sharpness and humor. Wyatt is a natural-born raconteur, and can regale you with countless anecdotes about his jazz-filled childhood.
There’s the one, for example, about riding with his father and Sonny Rollins’s bass player in the Wyatt family station wagon to see Sonny and his band perform at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
“It was sensational. That’s when I learned to pat my feet in 4/4 time,” Wyatt said, recalling his transformative experience at Storrs.
Years later, Wyatt was deeply influenced by his great mentor, the late, multi-talented musician Arthur Rhames, who inspired him to commit his faith totally to jazz, even though he had once been sorely tempted to convert his energies to basketball.
Instead of hoops, Wyatt focused on hopes of finding his own unique voice on tenor, beginning his quest to discover the holy grail of stylistic individuality.
His life’s journey has since taken him everywhere from famous Big Apple venues to jazz clubs in a world atlas-like list of countries, including China, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Greece, and Lebanon.
Wherever his jazz pilgrimage leads, staying true to his sound and voice is the tenorist’s central tenet.
“You’ve got to have your own sound,” Wyatt said. “You’ve got to figure out how to talk in your own style. Then you have to have something to say and say it in the moment. You can copy Trane. You can copy Dexter Gordon or Wayne Shorter, but that’s not going to be you.”
As a way to bulk up his billowing, room-filling tone, Wyatt -- his gold-plated tenor in hand -- has busked countless hours in marathon solo sessions outdoors in Central Park. In pursuit of the ideal sound, he has even descended into Gotham’s underworld, busking with his golden horn on subway platforms, seizing the attention of initially indifferent, bustling crowds with his ever-ready reedy, sensual sound, and Orpheus-like charm.
Creating notes from the underground is hard enough, but playing a cappella outdoors is, he said, the most challenging experience, one he describes as being “ virtually naked” with just your instrument.
“You’re no celebrity,” he said. “You’re just a guy, a nobody, playing a horn in the park, who’s always on the lookout out for a cop who might tell you to stop.”
Reminiscent of Sonny Rollins’s mythic, marathon solo sessions alone at night on the Williamsburg Bridge, Wyatt loves the physical, even the metaphysical benefits of playing outside all by himself. To his delight, he has even been encouraged to go solo al fresco by none other than his legendary godfather.
“When I told Sonny I was playing outdoors in Central Park, he said: ‘Eric, you found it. That’s it, man.’ Sonny’s exact advice to me was, ‘Play to the gods of jazz.’”
What his godlike godfather was advising, Wyatt suggested, was to play by yourself outdoors as if you're playing for a heavenly host of all the jazz greats who have come before you.
Summing up the power and the glory his outdoors regimen has brought to his horn, Wyatt said: “Man, when you go inside to play your horn in a club, it’s like you’re driving a diesel truck.” Tickets and information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.
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