[JPL] How jazz outmatched rock for the soul of Odean Pope

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Mon Oct 30 10:21:43 EST 2006


Preaching to the Choir

How jazz outmatched rock for the soul of Odean Pope.

by Shaun Brady

Published: October 25, 2006
According to Odean Pope, it wasn't until he formed the group Catalyst in
1971 that he was sure that he wanted to dedicate his life to playing jazz.
Above and beyond the local acclaim and the collaborative energy with his
three like-minded bandmates, there was one significant issue that pushed him
in that direction: peer pressure.

"When we started putting the pieces together," Pope says of the short-lived
jazz-funk group's early experiences, "there came a point where the community
and some of the people in the neighborhood would sort of give you a down if
you was playing rock and roll. In other words, if you was playing jazz, you
was one of the people, but if you was playing rock, they looked down on you.
And I think that sort of defined our jazz direction."

POP SECRET: Pope has an R&B pedigree, having played with the likes of James
Brown, Gladys Knight and The Temptations.

Not that Pope was unfamiliar with jazz at that point. He had already served
a yearlong stint with legendary drummer Max Roach, a relationship they would
resume a decade later and carry through for the rest of Roach's performing
career, and which Pope now refers to as "like going to the highest
institution in the whole world." But Pope had also logged time in the pit
band at the Uptown Theater, playing behind R&B acts like James Brown, Gladys
Knight and the Pips, and The Temptations.

Pope considers those early experiences essential to the development of his
own sound, pointing to John Coltrane's early experiences playing in Philly
R&B groups. "Duke Ellington expressed it as saying, 'It don't mean a thing
if it don't have that swing.' You could be playing all of these beautiful
notes, and if it doesn't have a feeling, then what is it? Playing with the
great rock and rollers, their music had a feel. Immediately you could feel

Finding one's own individual, unique sound is a theme Pope returns to again
and again. It was of supreme importance in his own development, and it's
something he stresses to his students today. In the late '60s, he spent
several years refusing to accept gigs, merely practicing, writing and
maturing his sound on his own.

The deep, throaty articulation that emerged came from a simple calculation:
Since most other saxophonists at the time were playing the extreme top range
of their instruments, Pope would settle down into the opposite range. He was
influenced by listening not to his peers but to keyboardists, inspired by
range-spanning players like Art Tatum.

"It's very difficult to play the bottom part of the instrument," Pope
explains. "It's kind of boring, because in the developing stages, it doesn't
cut through like the top part."

Pope found his voice not only as a saxophonist but as a composer, forming
his Saxophone Choir in 1977, drawn from memories of his childhood in Ninety
Six, S.C. "It's very mandatory in the deep South: Before you can go out and
play, before you do anything else on a Sunday, you must go to church. So I
was going to church every Sunday, very active in speaking and singing. I
think a lot of my inspiration derived from that experience."

Though he found much inspiration in going to Philly theaters in his youth to
see the big bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and others,
Pope is quick to point out that the Sax Choir shouldn't be considered a big
band. The nine-saxes-with-rhythm-section concept of the Saxophone Choir is
modeled on the big Baptist choir that made such an impression on Pope in
those early years, singing together as one massive voice, then breaking down
into sections for call-and-response vocalizing.

On the Choir's latest CD, Locked and Loaded (Half Note), recorded at NYC's
Blue Note in December of 2004, that wall of voices proved an inspiration to
a number of guest soloists ‹ especially Michael Brecker, already suffering
from the rare blood disorder that would keep him offstage for most of the
next two years, who tears off a fierce solo on Pope's composition "Prince

"Michael was sick when he did that recording," Pope recalls. "He didn't know
whether or not he was going to be able to make the performance because he
was in a lot of pain. My sense about that particular night, I think there
was a higher being there helping him perform."

Pope brings the Sax Choir to North By Northwest to celebrate a new DVD
produced in China as a TV special focusing on the Choir and Wynton Marsalis.
Next month, Pope will play Montgomery County Community College with a
stellar quartet featuring saxophonist James Carter, bassist Reggie Workman
and drummer Pheeroan akLaff.

"I think I've been very blessed to perform with some of the greatest musical
minds that this country has produced," says Pope. "I think my musical
experience has been, in one word, tremendous."

(s_brady at citypaper.net)

Odean Pope plays Fri., Oct. 27, 8 and 10 p.m., $20-$25, NXNW, 7165
Germantown Ave., 215-248-1000, www.nxnwphl.com; Sat., Nov. 11, 8 p.m., $22,
Montgomery County Community College, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell,
215-641-6300, www.mc3.edu.


© Philadelphia City Paper

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