“The wisdom of the journeyman is to work one day at a time,” begins the Cormac McCarthy quote that graces the inside cover of Brandon Wright‘s new album, Journeyman. On his second release as a leader, the 30-year-old tenor saxophonist offers the fruits of his own journeyman days, a personal sound and beyond-his-years hard bop feel forged gig by gig alongside greats like Chuck Mangione, Doc Severinsen, and Fred Wesley.
Wright himself defines a journeyman as “someone who has learned a craft, finished his apprenticeship, and is now out there refining his trade so that one day he, too, can become a jazz master.”
It’s a modest description, appreciative of the hard work necessary to hone one’s musical identity, but an impressive list of supporters speak to Wright’s rapid advancement along that path. Those include pianist David Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Donald Edwards, the renowned veterans who make up Wright’s quartet for this release. All three are colleagues in the Mingus Big Band, which Wright has collaborated with for the past five years.
Wright first encountered the Mingus Big Band during his senior year of high school and immediately determined that one day he would be a part of this “unstoppable powerhouse of raw energy and excitement.” Seven years later, after making up his mind to stop pursuing his master’s degree to focus full-time on a career in music, he crossed paths with saxophonist Abraham Burton, who invited him to sit in on an upcoming Mingus Band gig. That night at Iridium, he was introduced to Sue Mingus, who invited him to join the ensemble a few months later, where he soon found himself playing alongside Kikoski, Kozlov and Edwards. “When those three guys are together in the Mingus Big Band, I enjoy myself the most,” Wright says. “They create the most excitement.”
That knack for excitement is evident from the opening moments of Journeyman, which gets off to a blazing start with “Shapeshifter,” which Wright penned over the chord changes of Cole Porter’s classic “What Is This Thing Called Love” (and includes a brief nod to Tadd Dameron’s similarly-composed “Hot House”).
Wright is quick to profess his love of the classic Blue Note sound of the label’s late ’50s/early ’60s hard-bop heyday, but is far from a mere throwback. He deftly bridges decades through his transformation of 1990s rock radio hits into the classic jazz idiom, taking Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” at a mid-tempo simmer and making an argument for Brit-pop band Oasis’ “Wonderwall” as a sinuous standard.
“I want to connect with my audience, especially people of my generation,” Wright says. “I think a lot of people who grew up in the ’80s weren’t really exposed to jazz and don’t know what it is. I’m trying to find a way to show them, ‘I’m from your generation, I listen to the same music you do, and here’s my interpretation of these songs which resonate with me and were a big part of my life as a teenager.’”
Wright evokes even younger days on the album’s closer, “She’ll Make Me Happy,” which the sharp-eared will recognize as a song from The Muppets Take Manhattan – though Kermit and Miss Piggy never could swing quite like Wright and company do on their rendition.
He reaches in the opposite direction for Hoagy Carmichael’s time-tested “The Nearness of You,” bringing it up to date not through cosmetic alterations but by approaching it as generations of musicians before him have – with heartfelt, deeply personal expression. “As I’ve gotten older and matured some, I actually find the most satisfying part of a set is playing a ballad,” Wright explains. “When I was younger, I felt the need to show everybody how much technique I had through speed and acrobatics. Now, I’ve discovered that playing relaxed, with a beautiful sound, allows me to get to my most vulnerable state and helps the audience ride that emotional journey with me.”
Emotion is key to Wright’s own compositions, which make up the remainder of the session and reflect his experiences and growth in the six years since he’s moved to New York. The bluesy moan that leads into “Illusions of Light” communicate the pain of a break-up, in this case with a photographer who lends the title its double meaning, capturing both the art of still images and the pain of discovering one’s own misconceptions. “Choices” was written following the loss of Wright’s grandmother, while “Search for Truth” expresses the saxophonist’s frustration with certain dashed career hopes – a loss assuaged somewhat by the tune garnering an ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award.
Wright’s journeyman days haven’t all been painful ones, however – just witness the frenetic tenor showcase “Big Bully” and especially the fiercely funky “Walk of Shame,” evidencing lessons learned alongside legendary James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley. The title comes from the tune’s infectious groove, which inevitably inspires dancing and perhaps a bit beyond. As Wright slyly protests, “We’re not responsible for what happens after the song is played.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Wright would maintain an element of humor in his playing, given that his initial inspiration for picking up the sax was a certain animated second-grader. “I was in second grade when The Simpsons first aired,” Wright recalls, “and there was an episode where Lisa sings the blues and says that she’s in the second grade. I related to her being exactly the same age as me and I just thought it was so cool to play the saxophone.”
Comedy has made a resurgence in Wright’s approach of late, as the saxophonist has been taking improv classes from the training center of the famed comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade (alumni of which include former SNL cast members Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz). “Whether you’re acting or playing music, it’s drawn from a very similar emotional place within,” says Wright, who took a stab at acting in high school before focusing on music full-time. “Improv studies have changed my life as a person and as a player. As an experiment, I applied the rules that make a successful improv scene to how I approach performing in a small group jazz setting as well as everyday life. The results were astounding. Putting on an improv show is the most terrifying thing I’ve done, so any musical situation that I used to think was stressful is now much easier for me to handle. I feel like I have a much clearer philosophy on how I want approach jazz improvisation and can’t wait to explore this further.”
Growing up in Woodcliff Lake, NJ, Wright began playing the sax in school bands and discovered jazz through the inaugural season of “Jazz for Teens,” a workshop directed by bassist Rufus Reid. He went on to attend the University of Michigan and the University of Miami, earning four Downbeat student music awards along the way. Accepted into the Henry Mancini Institute in 2005, he connected with composer Maria Schneider and toured Japan with the Gregg Field Orchestra, after which opportunities began to mount and he made the move to New York.
Since that time he’s played in stunningly diverse settings, including the Mingus Big Band, Chico O’Farrill’s Latin Big Band, and John Fedchock’s New York Big Band; toured with longtime Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen; joined Chuck Mangione’s working band; and has even taken a solo with Bruce Springsteen thanks to his work with E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg.