For the last 20 years Fred Vigdor has been touring the world with the amazing Average White Band. I saw the band perform recently in England and caught up with Fred after the show to talk about his career.
How did you get your start in music Fred?
I grew up in Connecticut in the USA. My Dad was a semi pro musician, working around town on weekends. He was a bass player. When I was about eight, we visited with some relatives in Chicago and I guess my uncle had played saxophone at some period in his life, because there was one in a case laying around. I opened the case and I thought it was the coolest thing! I told my Dad I wanted to learn how to play. He made me learn clarinet first!
So I started taking some private lessons and it was a few years later when I got to high school, that I finally switched to sax. I was lucky that we had a really top band program at my school. Our jazz ensemble won all sorts of competitions, and a bunch of the students from my school went on to be pretty successful musicians.
Who were the first guys you heard on recordings that really caught your attention?
Well, I guess I knew who Charlie Parker was in High School, but I didn’t really check him out seriously until much later. The first sax player that really knocked my socks off was Tom Scott. I never sat down and tried to learn one of his solos, but I listened to him so much that I just absorbed that vocabulary and style. I guess it became part of my core sound.
Tom was the first Pop Sax player that really brought all the different elements together into pop music. He could play jazz and was a more polished player than someone like King Curtis and he had a very distinctive sound. I wore out those LA Express records.
The same for David Sanborn when he came on the scene. He was groundbreaking and he changed the way so many alto players had been playing up to that point. It’s one of the reasons that I hardly ever play alto anymore. It’s so hard to play contemporary alto and not sound like David!
What about your teachers at that time, were they a big influence on you?
Well, when I was in High School, I convinced my father to let me go to a week long jazz camp with the Stan Kenton band. The Kenton band did these clinics all over the States during the summer and this one was about 3 hours drive away in Maryland.
The camp was a great experience for me because I heard all these other amazing players around my age, which made me realize that I had a lot of work to do! I also got to hang out with the Kenton Band musicians for the week, which was another kind of education. There were also visiting guest teachers, which was how I met Lou Marini.
My band director had also come along to the camp for the final concert. He met Lou and invited him to come up to our school to do a special guest clinic and play with our jazz ensemble.
Back then, Lou was probably one of the busiest session musicians in NY and he wasn’t doing much teaching at all. Somehow though, my Dad managed to talk him into teaching me and I started taking the train down to Manhattan for lessons. I used to pay Lou $10 for a lesson! He was like “Look man, I don’t need the money but if I don’t charge you something, you won’t take it seriously”.
Sometimes I would come down for a lesson, but Lou had taken a last minute booking for a recording session, so he would just bring me along. So I would tag along to a record date or a jingle session, or a rehearsal for Saturday Night Live - whatever he was doing. He introduced me to this whole world of musicians whose names I'd been seeing on album credits. That era in the New York scene was amazing. I met guys like Steve Gadd, Lew Soloff and loads of others. They wouldn’t remember me, but as a high school kid that was incredible for me.
Lou introduced me to a lot of other aspects of playing the saxophone. He was the first teacher to talk to me about practicing long tones, would you believe! He taught me different ways to practice a piece of music to really get it under your fingers. One trick, which seems obvious now, was when practicing an étude, to vary where you start. In other words, one day start with the last measure, then play the last two measures, then the last three, and so on. By the time you get to the beginning, you'll have it nailed!
Lou is an amazing player and has one of the most individual, identifiable styles. Really, he was the biggest inspiration for me as a player and as a teacher. He's been in James Taylor's band for several years and we try to catch up when JT comes to Atlanta. He’s really been very supportive, although when we hang out now, I still feel like a geeky teenager.
So what was next for you after high school?
I went on to study at the University of Bridgeport, which was a beneficial experience, primarily because of the friends I made there. Dave Weckl was a student at the same time and we both ended up joining a fusion band called “Nite Sprite”. That band became a bit of a local phenomenon in the New York-Connecticut area - mainly because of Dave. Even back then, Dave was amazing and working so hard on his craft. Every drummer in the area would come to see him.
That was a great experience for me, and I played in that band for several years. After that, I got recommended for Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s band. Matt was the guitar player with the Blues Brothers. It was kind of weird because I got the call from Matt and I said “Did Lou Marini put you onto me?” - because Lou and Matt had worked together on the Blues Brothers.
“Matt said “no, no… you know Lou?”. That was pretty cool.
I travelled the country with Matt’s band for a year and half. It was my first real “road gig” and proper “paying my dues” experience. It didn’t matter how crappy you felt, you had to get up and perform with energy every night. Those blues audiences wanted to be entertained!
Did you find you had to adjust your playing much to do Matt’s band?
I didn’t really change my style that much. To be honest, I found I had to work harder at playing the fusion stuff with Weckl and “Nite Sprite”. I don’t consider myself to be a real jazz player, although that’s what I practice and constantly work on, because it’s a totally different language and requires a different part of the brain.
I’ve always considered myself an R&B player. That’s the music that really resonated with me, even in High School. Playing R&B is more an emotional thing than a technical or intellectual thing. It’s about connecting with the audience. Luckily, I’ve always found that I could do that pretty naturally, whereas I may have struggled playing over “Giant Steps” or “Stable Mates”.
In my practice I’m always transcribing but I’m not working on Kirk Whalum solos or David Sanborn solos, I’m actually learning Chris Potter or Michael Brecker solos. That’s the stuff that really challenges me.
Michael Brecker is still a great inspiration for me. He’s one of the guys that really transcended different styles and changed the game for sax players. I remember the first recording I heard of his was Billy Cobham’s album “Crosswinds,” on the track “The Pleasant Pheasant”. It was just mind blowing.
Has transcribing always been an important part of learning for you?
Yes, but not literally transcribing, because I don't actually write anything down, I like to learn by ear and memorization, so would you still call that transcribing? I really feel that there are long term benefits to learning solos by ear, that you don't get from reading them out of a book.
There are other benefits to writing down a solo as you learn it - it helps you learn to figure out rhythms and see what they look like on the page, but for me, that process doesn't get the music ingrained like learning a phrase, really mastering that phrase, then moving to the next.
Of course, like most players, I worked through the Charlie Parker omnibook in college, but if you asked me to play one of those solos today, I probably couldn’t remember it.
But, if you asked me to play the Sonny Rollins solo on “Eternal Triangle”, I could play that for you. The reason is, I learned that by ear and committed it to memory. It’s like learning a language. As a child, you don’t learn to speak English from a book, you learn it from listening to other people and trying things out.
It’s the same with pop solos. If I have a student that wants to learn one, I would much rather they learn it by ear, rather than from a book. Even if they don’t get it perfect right away, going through the process of learning aurally is so beneficial for your playing.
I constantly get requests through AWB for the sheet music to “Pick up the Pieces” or “Cut the Cake”. I always tell people that there is no sheet music - I had to learn it the same way as the guys before me, by ear. And the best thing for them is to learn it that way too. It will make them much better musicians for doing it.
The first time you try it, it might be difficult, but when you finish it, you’ll really feel like you’ve really accomplished something. And, the next time will be that much easier!
It’s really interesting to hear you talk about connecting with the audience. When you were getting your chops together, is that something you made a decision to work on?
I’m not a technician. I think most sax players out there doing gigs at my level are much better technicians than me. So I have to use what I have! One thing I think I am pretty good at is knowing how to build a solo. You don’t need to have a lot of technical skill to do that. It’s more about having a sense of melody, space and rhythm. I’m always thinking about the rhythm - probably more than the notes.
When I start a solo, I usually take an idea that one of the other guys in the band just played - perhaps the end of the keyboard solo, or something the singer has done. It might even be just two notes.
Then I’ll use that as inspiration and play something, then I stop and listen. It’s not about playing as many notes as possible. I want to give the audience a chance to absorb what I’ve played and wrap them up in the solo.
I want to leave space and stay in the groove. So I’m listening to the drummer, trying to stay locked with him and trying to build on what I’ve just played.
And when it comes to that aspect of playing, who would you name as your biggest inspiration?
I would struggle to mention just one guy, but of course, again there's Michael Brecker. He recorded a great version of “Pick up the Pieces”. It was a huge concert that all the Atlantic Records artists did with the AWB rhythm section at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977.
Michael’s solo is the centrepiece of the track -it starts from nothing and goes into the stratosphere. That’s a great example of building energy.
Maceo Parker is another great artist for building solos. I saw him live last year and it was a revelation. Nobody plays like him. His use of rhythm is incredible - he plays like a percussion instrument. That’s something that’s important to me.
I’m always thinking about my rhythm when I’m soloing. Plus, I’m conscious of leaving myself space to develop. Some of the solos in the AWB show are a real “slow burn”. You can’t start at 11, or you’ll have nowhere to go!
So thinking about rhythm, plus the shape of the solo and its intensity is so important. You need to take your time and tell a story.
Another guy is Kirk Whalum. He can play jazz - I’ve heard him play “Giant Steps” - but he’s also one of the most accessible players around. He really sings through the horn. He’s one of those guys that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck with three notes. Kirk is a very simple player, but that’s what helps him connect with the audience, who often don’t even know why they like what they're hearing. I know he’s a very spiritual guy and he really sounds like he’s connecting with some other source when he plays. And it works, it's transcendent.
How did the AWB gig come about?
Well, I’ve always been a fan of the Average White Band. You can’t be a sax player and not have played “Pick up the Pieces”. The band was based in the New York - Connecticut area, and I knew the drummer, Pete Abbott and the keyboard player, Eliot Lewis, from doing gigs around town.
As it turned out, Roger Ball (one of AWB's original saxophonists) was a neighbour of mine! He lived just down the street and we were buddies. We had played some gigs together in various situations around town.
Roger had written a horn chart for the track “Oh Maceo” on the "Soul Tattoo" album, and he recommended me to bring in my horn section to do the session. I had no idea that he was thinking about retiring.
My friends in the band put in a good word for me and next thing you knew, I got a call to do a list of dates. There was never an audition process. They just called me and said “We’ve got these gigs, have you got your passport? Here’s a list of songs and a tape….and you have to play piano!, and do you have a harmonizer?”
We did two rehearsals and then we were off. That was 20 years ago!
It’s been a great experience and has enabled me to meet lots of my heros - guys like Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Gerald Albright and Tom Scott. We’ve also played shows with Al Green and Earth, Wind and Fire. In 2004 we did a tour with Michael McDonald, who has always been one of my favourite artists. I got to go on tour as his sax player, which led to my playing on his "Motown II" CD.
The cool thing about playing with AWB is that every night is different. We really do change things up in the set to suit the audience. Particularly when we go from one country to another. In England, for example, there are certain songs that we “have” to play in the set or else they won’t let us leave the stage. For the States, it’s a different bunch of tunes. If we play “Let’s Go Round Again” in the States, people just stare at us, but if we don’t play “Schoolboy Crush” or “Cloudy” then we’re in big trouble. Those songs were huge back home.
I’ve really enjoyed listening to your album “Easier than it looks”. How did that project come about?
For years, AWB fans had been asking me about bringing out my own album, but it’s never been a priority for me. I was always happier being the sideman, rather than running my own thing.
So it took me forever to get some tunes together and get the momentum to make a start.
My only goal was that I wanted to make a recording that I could hand to anyone and not feel the need to make any excuses or qualifiers. I wanted it to speak for itself.
A friend of mine, Mo Pleasure is probably the most amazing musician that I know. He's played guitar and bass with Ray Charles and was the musical director for Earth Wind and Fire and Boney James where he played keyboards. He’s currently Bette Midler’s musical director. We both live in Atlanta and knew each other from the New York scene.
I started putting together some little melodic ideas for the album, often just an “A” section or a chorus. I just sketched them out in Garage Band and took them to Mo. He would say “Oh, you mean like this…?” And he would sit down at the piano and work it out with me, putting down some piano, then the bass parts. We were just screwing around originally, but it quickly started to come together.
I have a small network of musicians in Atlanta that I really like playing with. Lots of them are in the gospel scene, which is huge around Atlanta. They’re all great, funky players, and most of them have little studios in their homes. So I started sending these tracks out to different guys to add parts and pretty soon it started to sound like a record. I was fortunate that a good friend, who was a massive AWB fan, offered to help finance the project, which allowed me to hire the best guys to play on it, as well as mixing and mastering it.
The CD is really about the music I grew up listening to, and maybe because of that, the end result is somewhat derivative, and you can really tell the influences behind each tune. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It was so much fun to make, and I feel like I achieved what I set out to do, which is to create a snapshot of my playing and make something I am proud of. Even though we didn't make it with any hope of airplay, radio seemed to like it, and that helped make the non-AWB audience aware of my playing.
If you’re really stuck for time and only have a small amount of time to practice, what’s the thing you work on?
Well, I kind of stole this concept from Bob Reynolds, who plays sax with John Mayer. I like to approach my practice every day as if I only have 30 minutes, and it blossoms from there. So I like to break up my practice into 10 minutes of long tones, 10 minutes of technical practice, and 10 minutes of improvising. I think we can all fall into the trap of thinking “I’m not going to have any time to really practice today” and so you don’t do anything - and that can go on for 4 or 5 days. Then every day you let it go, it's harder to get started.
So even if you only set out to do 30 minutes, you can manage it, and you feel like you’ve accomplished something. And most of the time 30 minutes turns into 4 or 5 hours for me!
So, what about side projects, when you’re not out with AWB?
Well, I do Skype lessons with my students, which seem to be the way everyone is teaching nowadays. I also do a fair amount of sessions from my home. Also, Mo Pleasure and I have a group called WaterSign, which has a rotating lineup, depending on whether we’re in Atlanta or New York.
We recorded a live CD last year and we’re in the process of mixing and mastering that for release sometime later this year.
As a result of my coming over to the UK with AWB for the last twenty years, I’ve gotten a chance to play with some great British musicians on a pretty regular basis. The person probably most responsible for that would be my friend, Mark Ede.
I met Mark on one of my first trips over with AWB. He’s a big AWB fan and is really clued into the UK soul-jazz scene. He introduced me to some of the best players in London, and helped set up some shows for me at the 606 in Chelsea and some other venues around town.
It was through Mark that I got to play with great UK musicians like Jim Mullen, Jason Rebello, Tony O’Malley and Ola Onabule. While playing with Ola, I met Phil Mulford. Phil is one of the most in-demand bass players in London, and he hooked me up with Simon Carter, Jack Politt and Terry Lewis, the guys who became the core of my UK band.
I try to come over to the UK a couple times a year and do some gigs playing my material, and Mark has been instrumental in helping set that up. Mark also manages Jo Harman, an amazing singer/songwriter who, over the last few years, has really created quite a buzz in the UK.
Some of the guys in my band also play with Jo and we’ve managed to time our schedules so that when I come to the UK, Jo would guest on my gigs and I would come out and play a couple of tunes on her shows. Mo and I also collaborated with Jo on a couple of tracks for her next album.
So with all of that, combined with AWB’s touring schedule, I manage to keep pretty busy.
Pedal: TC Helicon Voicelive
When I first joined AWB taking over from Roger Ball, he was using a harmoniser. So I started experimenting with gear to do the same. I originally had a huge 5 space rack of gear that was a nightmare to travel with, particularly after 9/11. Now I use the Voicelive which has everything in the one box. It works great to get a horn section sound and I’ve been using this pedal for about 10 years. I’m really excited though that we will be doing a bunch of shows soon with another sax player called Cliff Lyons. He’s a great player from New York and it’ll be a lot of fun to play with another horn player!
More on Fred’s pedals here: http://www.freddyvmusic.com/freds-gear/
Alto: Selmer Mark VI with a Phil Barone Satin Gold Plated Neck / Jody Jazz DV8 mouthpiece Tenor: Yamaha Custom Z / Jody Jazz DV8 mouthpiece
Reeds: Rico Jazz Select Filed.
images © Judith L. Barbosa and Image Art Photography