By Larry Englund
Larry Englund hosts the weekly radio show Rhythm and Grooves for KFAI Radio Without Boundaries. This is his lightly edited version of a live on-air interview from July 3, 2010. bb
Pat Mallinger is a multi-reed virtuoso who is very active in Chicago, playing in various configurations around town and leading the late-night house band at the Green Mill.
In 2000, he and his quartet played the 25th North Sea Jazz Festival in The Netherlands and released a recording of the concert as Moorean Moon.
Mallinger is originally from St. Paul and returns once or twice a year, when he usually plays a gig at the Artists' Quarter. This time around, he was promoting his third CD, Dragon Fish (Chicago Sessions, 2009), an elegant musical conversation between Mallinger and pianist Dan Trudell. He stopped by Rhythm and Grooves on Saturday, July 3rd. We played some cuts off the new album and talked.
Larry Englund: You grew up in Saint Paul.
Pat Mallinger: Indeed, I grew up in West Saint Paul and I went to Sibley High School and before that to Grass Junior High, which had a reputation for a fine jazz program.
LE: Was it in junior high that you decided you wanted to become a jazz musician?
PM: Yeah, it was kind of funny. It was about 7th grade. Exactly 7th grade. I remember I wanted to be a dentist for about a minute, and then the bug hit me and I quickly decided I would switch from being a dentist to being a jazz musician.
LE: You went on to school at North Texas?
PM: Actually, I went to the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire for a year and then transferred down to Denton for North Texas State.
LE: They have a wonderful jazz program there.
PM: At the time, it was the second largest jazz program in the country. It still is pretty large.
LE: You’ve had a career that’s taken you around the world, literally. Sometimes on ships, I understand.
PM: Exactly. Right after school, I jumped on a ship for about a year and played with some great musicians. I went to Boston after that and was with a bunch of friends. They were on the ships together, so we kind of formed a group together and jammed everyday. For about four years I jumped on the Artie Shaw band and the Woody Herman Orchestra and went the road awhile and then moved to Chicago. So I’ve been in Chicago almost 20 years. This November will be my 20-year anniversary of being in Chicago.
LE: You’re very active in the Chicago scene, with a weekly gig at the Green Mill leading Sabretooth.
PM: Sabretooth has been there for 17 1/2 years. In fact, someone was asking if Sabretooth was taking a break. I said no, Sabretooth doesn’t take a break. In the 17 years we’ve been doing this, we’ve been there each and every Saturday night. We start the late shift at midnight and go to a quarter to 5. 12:30 til quarter to five.
LE: So you sleep in on Sundays.
PM: If I can. My family is pretty helpful with that.
LE: You have a new recording out. It’s a wonderful recording that’s really a duo with Dan Trudell.
PM: I met Dan in my second year at North Texas. He came from Wisconsin as well. Ironically, we were born a day apart, hence the title of the CD, Dragon Fish. Dragon coming from the Chinese calendar for 1964, and Fish because we’re both Pisces. That’s where we got the name.
LE: How did you come to compose and record the CD?
PM: Chicago Sessions, a relatively new label out of Chicago, approached me about a year ago. Their mission is to record local artists and original music. They asked what I’d like to do, and I thought for a minute about my quartet with Billy Carrothers. I thought there would be some logistic issues with that, so I asked what they thought about a duo recording. I had recently done a couple of duo performances with Dan and a couple of people put that in my ear. They thought it would be a good idea. When I mentioned it to Nick Ipers of Chicago Sessions, he was thrilled with the idea. I call Dan and Dan thought it was a good idea as well, and so Dragon Fish was born.
LE: The idea was to do original music. You came up with some. Did Dan come up with ideas as well?
PM: There are two tunes that Dan and I co-wrote. "Adventures" is one of the tunes we co-wrote specifically for the album. It’s our tongue-in-cheek rock tune. [Laughs.] If there can be such as thing as a rock tune done as a piano/sax duo.
LE: The way you interact is so seamless, it’s obvious you have been playing together for a long time.
PM: Really continuous since college, North Texas, where we first met in 1984.
LE: How did you go about composing Dragon Fish?
PM: Well, I can pretty much trace all or most of my compositions to, funny enough, airline flights. When I’m flying—I don’t know if it’s the altitude, or if it's just being contained in one spot for a certain time with nothing to do—I bring a little manuscript sheet with me that fits in my pocket so I can scribble ideas while I’m in-flight. These ideas ultimately turn into tunes. Dragon Fish is one of them.
LE: When you went into the studio, what happened then?
PM: At Chicago Sessions, they want to record new material. When I talked to Dan about tunes, I basically went through my most recent compositions. The ones that haven’t been recorded. Most of these have been written in the last year. So I gave Dan the tunes and he really shedded these tunes for a good month. We got together a few times to rehearse. He put in a lot of time into learning the tunes. I’ve been told they’re not easy tunes to learn. [Laughs.] I can attest to that because I have to improvise over them.
LE: What do you think it is it about your writing that makes them difficult? Are you just attracted to particular chords or particular progressions?
PM: Yeah, that’s probably correct. Maybe my chord choices, or the progressions. It’s hard to say exactly. The tunes don’t seem too difficult to me when I’m at the piano and working out the chords as I finish them up from my notes from the plane. But when you get on the bandstand or we’re rehearsing them, navigating through the chord changes, that’s when I become aware, these aren’t easy tunes.
LE: Do you approach things differently at that time? Does the meter or tempo change?
PM: Not too much. I’m not a huge fan of big meter changes or hard things to navigate when you’re playing melodies.
LE: Do you sometimes wonder what it would be like to play something slow at a faster tempo or vice versa?
PM: On occasion, but most of the time what I come up with on a flight is what I think in my head is what the tempo and feel should be. When I wrote "Just Give It a Chance," I had in mind a Jobim feel for it. I’m not sure if that’s the way it came out.
LE: You play tenor, alto, and soprano saxes, as well as flute. What are the differences in playing each of the instruments you use?
PM: I approach them differently. I’ve got my influences on tenor, Coltrane and such. Alto, I’ve been influenced by Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker and such. So I approach each instrument slightly differently.
LE: Does the physical difference of each instrument make for differences in fingering?
PM: It does. Each has its own idiosyncracies. That’s probably why a lot of saxophone players prefer to play one or the other. I began as an alto player and picked up tenor in college. Really didn’t play the alto for awhile, but then brought it back into my life. The soprano snuck in there somewhere in college.
LE: Let’s talk about another aspect of your musical life, the Ravinia Jazz Mentor Program.
PM: I’ve been involved with the Ravinia Jazz Mentor program for 17 years now, about as long as I’ve been at the Green Mill. Ravinia started this great program and I was on board since its inception. It was created by Ramsey Lewis. The tradition of jazz education has been imparted through mentorship. For me there was no exception. I was mentored by Brian Grivna here in town, and Eddie Berger was a mentor of mine. Of course, there was my uncle Tommy Bauer, who played with Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller. So, this mentorship program has meant a lot to Chicago public school students. Right now we’re involved in 19 Chicago public high schools.
LE: How does it work?
PM: Basically, we have a mentor on each instrument. Bobby Broom is our guitar mentor, Willie Pickens is our piano mentor. We go into each school and we give performances, clinics, and workshops to each school.
There are two separate aspects to it. We have the scholar program, where we pick the best students out of auditions in October, and rehearse twice a week with them. It’s like a mini jazz camp. Then, at the end of the year, we perform at Ravinia in June with them, and have a big picnic on the lawn. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Ravinia has a big festival on the North Shore of Chicago. We also bring the scholars to jazz camp. We’re going to the Jamey Aebersold jazz camp, so we’ll be bringing them to Kentucky in a couple of weeks.
The other aspect of the program is our in-school visits ,where we give our workshops and reach as many kids as possible and try to teach the about jazz and the love of music.
LE: That sounds like a terrific program, and it’s impressive it’s been going on for so many years.
PM: It’s great that Ravinia continues to support it.
LE: Thank you very much for coming in.
PM: Thank you and your audience.
Photo from Pat Mallinger's MySpace page.