Crispin Cioe Featured on the Cover of Saxophone Journal
Saxophone Journal, the industry’s leading saxophone publication, features famed saxophonist Crispin Cioe on its cover. The lengthy profile by Andrew Clark goes into detail about Crispin’s career, his gear, and his musical passions.
We share the text of the article below:
Crispin Cioe is a saxophonist with a resume that reads like a Who’s Who of Popular Music that spans about thirty-five years of gigging and recording. Crispin has built a career as a first-call sideman, co-founder of a successful horn section called The Uptown Horns, and now as a bandleader with his new group Cracked Ice. Their debut CD is called Soul Noir and it features Crispin’s modern twist on the classic soul genre. His writing and playing pay tribute to this important idiom of American music in a way that pushes the envelope forward without losing that classic soul feel. For Crispin, this band and this CD are a culmination of a life’s work in music playing with the top performers of our day.
Let’s talk about your gear first. What horns do you play?
I play all four horns. My tenor, alto, and baritone are all Selmer Mark VIs. The tenor and the alto are late number Mark VIs and the baritone is a very low number. The soprano is a Yamaha with a curved neck. I also have a Gemeinhardt flute. I have a couple of other horns but I never play them. Tenor and alto mouthpieces are both original Guardalas. I believe they are both Super Kings but I can’t totally remember.
Is that back when Guardala had that shed in his backyard?
That’s right, the shed in Hicksville, Long Island. That’s where I got my original ones. I may have traded and gone through a couple of alto mouthpieces. I also have other old Guardalas that are back ups – Super Kings, silver-plated. On baritone, I play a Ria 10*. My soprano mouthpiece is a Yanagisawa. On tenor and alto I play Plasticover Ricos, 31⁄2 on tenor and 21⁄2 on alto. On baritone I play Rico 3. On soprano, I play Plasticover 24. On alto and tenor, I use Harrison silver-plated ligatures and I have a bunch of them; a whole box of old ones. The two I use I have played on for a long time. On soprano, I use the ligature that came with the mouthpiece. On baritone, I actually got a Harrison ligature for the Ria, which I like.
Roberto Romeo of Roberto’s Woodwinds in NYC does all of my repairs. He’s an old-school perfectionist. He took over that store from Saul Fromkin. I started going to see Saul when I first got to New York. Saul was amazing because he had the great stories about working on Charlie Parker’s horn and Stitt and Coltrane. He was in World War II in the Army band. During the war, he ended up fixing guys’ horns while they were traveling around. So he knew a lot of great players because of that. When he came home to New York he started working at Ponte’s Music on 46th Street, which is now long gone. He claims that Parker came in one day with his alto in a grocery bag. Bird told Saul that he needed some work done on the horn. He takes it out of the bag and Saul said he had silver foil from cigarette pack wrappers wrapped around the keys and twisted with a rubber band for pads. He asked Bird to play the horn and of course, he sounded great. So anyway Roberto was Saul’s apprentice and eventually inherited the store.
What mics do you use?
In the studio, I used the Neumann U47, a classic mic. I don’t own one but that’s what I used on the Cracked Ice album. For years I have always had a Sennheiser 421 for live gigs. I just recently got a wireless Roam/AMT. I’ve been fooling around with it at home. I took it to a gig and I felt it needed to be heavily EQ’d out front and I didn’t have time to do that at that gig so I haven’t been using it regularly yet. I also have a DigiTech Vocal 300 Vocal Effects Processor. It’s a pedal board and it’s processing and effects for vocals so it has an XLR mic cable input/output. I don’t use a lot of effects but I programmed a couple of settings that I like as regular sounds, in terms of EQ, compression, etc. Sometimes I use the octave divider but for the most part, you would never know I’m using an effects board. It’s more like I’m using this device to make sure I have a consistently good sound going out to the soundboard no matter where I’m performing.
Do you use wireless mics on stage a lot?
No. I did a long time ago when the Uptown Horns had an endorsement deal with Shure for a wireless unit, but I wasn’t totally sold on how that sounded. So I got the Roam/AMT recently, figuring that I should have a wireless, in case I need it. And I do think the Roam/AMT has by far the best sound I’ve heard yet for a small wireless mic unit. At the same time, I still use the 421 quite a bit. I carry my own. On the biggest tours, I have ever done the sound engineers tend to use 421s on the horns. I have always got the best response to it.
So what are you doing for work right now?
I always work a lot. My band Cracked Ice is pretty busy right now. We are ramping up the original gigs right now. We did one a couple of weeks ago at Joe’s Pub in New York. Throughout the year we will be doing more, hopefully, up in Boston, too. The group also plays all kinds of private events, corporate parties, and receptions. We book maybe thirty, forty, or fifty of those a year. The thing about this band is that it really is a band. It really is fun with those kinds of players entertaining people. I absorb all of the business nonsense so they don’t have to deal with that. Some of these musicians are players who wouldn’t necessarily be doing this kind of work. The guitarist, John Putnam, is in the pit band in Legally Blonde on Broadway and everybody else does a bunch of other stuff, too. In fact, our keyboardist, Charlie Giordano, is out on the road right now playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, subbing for Danny Federici, who’s been ill. I also still do gigs with the Uptown Horns, which is myself and Arno Hecht on saxes, Bob Funk on trombone, and Larry Etkin on trumpet. We do sessions, occasional touring, and parties with our band.
How many dates are you doing a year overall?
Well, I don’t know off hand. I go out sometimes and work on the road with Sam Moore. I was in Japan with him a couple of months ago at the Blue Note. Last year I did a bunch of work on the road with Bette Midler. The other kind of work I do is sessions. The Uptown Horns just did some work with Al Kooper for his new album, and I just did some solo recording work with my friend Angel Risoff, who’s a great classic R&B singer.
Did you record your new album in your own studio?
I wanted to get a pretty natural sound and I wanted it to sound like a band. So after I wrote all of the songs we rehearsed for a few days. I went into a great studio in Stamford, Connecticut called the Carriage House. It’s a vintage scene, an old barn, he has old mics and old amps, but everything is really kept up. It’s already set up for doing bands. Sonny Rollins did one of his recent albums there. Mike Brecker recorded there a lot. They have an old SSL automated board but it goes into ProTools. That was my compromise with analog and digital. I recorded through this vintage gear into this great board with excellent tube equalizers and then into ProTools. Next, I went to my engineer’s house and did all of the rest of the overdubs and mixing in ProTools. And I have gotten really good feedback on it. People like the sound of the CD.
I know a lot of people like to argue about two-inch tape and I agree that it sounds great. But in the end, you will have to put the music into digital to press CDs so it is inevitable that you will wind up in the digital realm.
A couple of years ago I did an album with some old friends from Boston called Duke and the Drivers. They asked me to work with them and they wanted advice about recording in New York. I hooked them up with Joe Blaney and he is well-known for his analog approach. So they actually recorded that album simultaneously on two-inch and ProTools and it was so cumbersome. And although I think the record sounds fantastic in the end everybody agreed that it was too much to go through. You really don’t get that much of a difference. So it was that experience that led me to believe in the way I came up with for this CD.
It sounds very authentic and the production choices were excellent. There is a great balance between the natural, acoustic sounds and some judicious processing with the reverb and other effects.
I could have gone completely old school and really made it sound like the past. I just decided that the way I ended up doing it was the honest thing that I wanted to hear, for better or worse!
There are some cool modern twists in the production on the CD. The next to last song has that cool ending where it’s just Susan singing and some rhythm tracks and you hear just the high mids. You wouldn’t have heard that back then in soul music.
In the psychedelic style, they would have but not the soul bands. It was just an idea that I liked.
You wrote every tune except for one cover song. The vocal parts just struck me that someone who actually sings wrote them.
I do sing but not much on the record. I did a couple of back ups. I get a lot of inspiration from singers. My approach on the sax is very much about melody.
Who are some of your favorite singers?
…Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Tyrone Davis. I’m from the Midwest where I grew up in Detroit during the Motown era so there’s a huge influence there. I have also played in a lot of rock and roll bands so there’s another influence there. I used to love those old CTI records where someone like Grover Washington, Jr. would play the hits of the day instrumentally. They would listen so closely to the melody and I thought that was fantastic. For the most part with singers, it’s less technical and more about vocal inflection.
When were you at Berklee?
Early 1970s for a year and a half. I wasn’t there very long.
Who did you study with?
In Michigan, I went to college at the University of Michigan not thinking I was going to be a musician. I had played clarinet and very little saxophone and not taking it seriously. I was in a jug band in high school with my old buddy James Montgomery. It was after I finished Michigan that I decided to go into music on saxophone. I went for two semesters at Wayne University in Detroit where I played in the concert band and orchestra. I had to play a lot of baritone and that stuck with me. I have played a lot of baritone coming out of that experience. I studied there with Herb Couf. He owned a music store and he had played first clarinet in the Cleveland Symphony. He was the head of the Woodwind Department at Wayne State. He was a really heavy player and a good teacher. After that is when I transferred to Berklee and soon ran out of money and had to go join the real world.
Then I played with some bands for a few years and finally moved to New York. When I got there Joe Allard was still alive and I went to him for a little while. But he was getting too old to teach. He introduced me to Dave Tofani. Joe Allard told me that of all the people he had taught Dave was the one that had the best understanding of his whole thing. So I studied with Dave for a couple of years and I found that to be the most rewarding experience. He went to Juilliard and I think he played with Buddy Rich for a while. He’s got that whole Joe Allard thing about the saxophone where there’s a basic approach and it doesn’t matter what you are going to play. There is a basic thing about tone production and that’s what I was looking for in my lessons.
What kind of things did Dave have you work on?
Every aspect of every possible thing that goes into what makes the sound from the position of the instrument, the angle of the mouthpiece going into the embouchure, every detail of the embouchure to every detail of diaphragm breathing and throat relaxation and position of the mouth cavity and tongue. All of these different details would be put together and you have an “alive” sound, as it were. Tofani would have you play and he’d look away from you and say, “I hear tension in the lips” or something. To me, that was useful information. I know it worked for David Sanborn. So many great players today come out of that approach. It’s really about getting as much sound as you can get into your tone. After a while, each individual player begins to see that they can tailor it to whatever style they want to play. And of course, all of the great players have a great sound. That’s why the older I have gotten the more I study sound.
When I was listening to your lead tracks on the CD my first impression was that you were possibly playing a hard rubber mouthpiece. You’ve got that dark, round sound and it doesn’t sound metal at all. Some rock sax players can sound abrasive and “metally” and that’s cool for certain things. But for this style that you are playing now, I think you have the perfect, classic sound.
Thank you very much. As a studio musician, you have to be able to do different things. But more and more now I feel like just playing the way I play. On this CD my goal was not about showing everything I could possibly do as a player. I didn’t want to stick saxophone solos in there that were going to sound like they were coming from another place. I wrote the songs first and then arranged them according to what these songs needed. I’ve been advised to expand the saxophone presence on the next record but I will do it naturally.
It’s obvious that the band can grow in any direction they want to.
Yeah, but I didn’t want to do a smooth jazz record. I have nothing against it and some of my friends like Jeff Golub and Chris Botti have done really well with that while still sounding great and still very much like themselves. But that wasn’t what I wanted.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that you were doing really well with the Shag Dancers down south. My first professional gig in the 1980s with Steve Smith and the Nakeds exposed me to that scene. We did some Clarence Carter tunes and the people would come out and do the shag. I thought it was really cool.
We are getting a lot of play on this record in Myrtle Beach. It’s like number five on the charts.
I love the vocalists on this CD. The first couple of tracks are so burning and then the fourth track came up and it had me reaching for the liner notes. Your male singer Brent had me convinced that there was a third singer involved. Most guys have one sound and Brent has so much range he sounded like a completely different guy!
Brent was with Tower of Power for four years.
Susan has the goods, too. She sounds like Tina Turner on one song with great pacing. She doesn’t give it all away in the first two bars.
She is definitely very strong in that area between rock and R&B, which I wanted.
Brent and Susan are very complimentary, and that’s a hard thing to do. Look back at all of these decades that this music has been around and there are only a few combinations that have truly worked. It’s a hard thing from a personality standpoint. Finding two people that have the chemistry to sing together and then the chops as well.
My whole concept on this album was the male-female vocal duet. In the 1990’s I did some film score things for independent films. What I got into during that period was focusing on songs for soundtracks. There was underscoring but I used the songs for that. I did a film called Burnzy’s Last Call. The entire film was shot in a bar in downtown New York. So when the director showed me the rough cuts I thought that the whole soundtrack could be songs playing from the jukebox in the bar. They didn’t have enough money to license well-known songs so I wrote and co-wrote a bunch of songs. The concept was one-hit wonders you’ve never actually heard. I wrote songs with Debbie Harry, David Johansen, Graham Parker, Lou Christie, and The Smithereens – a wide range of people I knew. I think you can still find that album on Amazon.com. After doing some of this work I realized I could write inside a given style really well. But I needed to think about my style. So on this CD, I didn’t co-write with anybody. I wrote a lot of songs for this CD and tried to pick the ones that were more personal.
Each one of the tunes on your CD can trace its roots to a classic style or groove in the soul tradition. The first song has that amping bass groove you hear on Rescue Me’ and many other Motown tunes. But the thing that stuck out to me was when you get to spots in the song where you expect to hear a five-chord or something else kind of cliché and you picked something more hip and modern without taking away from the soul feeling. It sounds like you have been writing for a long time.
Years ago when I was more active with the Uptown Horns, we did a bunch of writing together and did a CD of our own. was a blues and R&B kind of thing. It was our band and we brought in a bunch of singers like Peter Wolf, Soozie Tyrell, and Bernard Fowler. In the 1980s & early 1990s, the horns wrote together a lot. I also wrote another concept for myself back in that period when I was thinking more of like the smooth jazz thing but in that era and I really wasn’t happy with what I did. I was always trying to write with other people or just by myself to find out more about writing. And not just technically but what I wanted to do and say as a writer.
I did a TV show years ago. I used to play with Buster Poindexter with the Uptown Horns. In the mid-1990s we had a show called Buster’s Happy Hour on VH-1. It didn’t go for a long time. We did a whole season of shows in like one month. I produced all of the cues and the theme song. But where my life seemed to be leading me all along is finding my own voice and doing my own music instead of the for-hire stuff. And I have nothing against that because I have a lot of friends who do that but I have always have been trying to find out where I could fulfill myself the most with my talent.
It’s a tough situation. You get in the position where you constantly get work as a freelance saxophonist because you have hired yourself out over the years and next thing you know you have eighty gigs with other people and, you can’t focus on your own.
As I have gotten older I have realized that as I kept branching out I also need to be thinking about where this is leading. Like if I kept on trying to do film scores I really wouldn’t be playing the saxophone all that much. So I started thinking about what I really wanted to do. For instance, I was never happy doing club dates as a freelance player and I have nothing against playing people’s parties. Gradually I realized that if I had my own band with my own friends that I really love to work with not only could I make money doing that but also I would be happier and it would fulfill me in a way that it never did before. The idea of playing somebody’s wedding is not negative. It’s only been negative in my life when I was playing in a musical situation that was negative.
So now I have my band playing these gigs and it counts musically for me. And that’s the ultimate goal, for the music to count. When the Uptown Horns toured a lot I always enjoyed working with the artists we hooked up with and the other guys in the horns. And we certainly take a lot of pride in our work. After a while, I could see that if I stayed with that my whole life and that’s all I did it could start to take on negative aspects that would mean that I wouldn’t feel as positive about music. It was right around the time my wife and I had a kid and that’s sort of how I evolved to this point. And I know it’s not orthodox for people to do this but with this band, I wanted to work together as a band doing private parties but also do it as an original project. I haven’t heard of a lot of people doing that but for me it does work. It’s really our purpose.
I’ve tried in the past to do the same thing. I would have this great original band that was killing it on my material and I would try to get some private party gigs to keep the cash flowing and keep everybody interested on a business level and it’s so hard to do.
To be honest I spent five or six years just getting it together on the business side. I got people who said they would be interested in it and it worked on a lot of levels in my life. I feel as excited if not more excited than I ever did. It has certainly kept me focused more on my playing and on the saxophone. There were so many years where my focus was about having my chops up for a session or something. But now it’s my band and my songs and that has been a goal for me to get to that place.
And do you still have time to take a quick string of dates with someone as a freelance guy?
Yeah, my days of long touring are probably over because those things don’t happen as much anymore. I still go out and I’m not against it. I’m going down to Florida with James Montgomery soon to do some gigs. He’s my oldest friend in music.
It’s just so funny that we both know him. I met James around 1990 and since that moment I have become friends with like a thousand other players in the world. He’s the nicest guy and everybody knows him and loves him. And he has so much positive energy on stage.
He’s been that way since he was thirteen. I talk to him every two weeks if I’m not working with him. We’re old family friends.
I read through your bio and I was drooling with envy. You had the whole Motown influence and then that early punk era with Iggy Pop and Wayne Kramer from MC5. It’s funny because I have always felt like the only saxophonist who likes punk rock. It was great to find out that you were into it from way back then.
You know Steve McKay? He was a guy I went to college with and he played saxophone on all that Fun House stuff and he’s back with Iggy now.
He played all of the parts on Five Foot One’ and those tunes? I never knew his name.
He was in the art school at the University of Michigan when I was there. We were friends way before I started to think about playing and he was playing with Iggy when Iggy was in a blues band in Ann Arbor. Years later when I started playing saxophone professionally Steve and Wayne were very encouraging to me to get into it. That era of music, the proto-punk thing, I just happened to have been there so it was just very natural. Iggy used to sit in with the band I was in the Radio King & His Court of Rhythm.
We haven’t talked about your influences as a saxophonist yet. Who are your heroes?
I actually think that musicians in our generation tend to be influenced by a lot of different styles. I love great jazz players but I also love great R&B and rock players. So for me, it’s Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris, and equally Junior Walker. Especially Junior, because I used to see him all the time. To me, he didn’t get the kind of recognition as a saxophonist that he got as a pop star. I like King Curtis, definitely Mike Brecker, and Dave Sanborn, especially when they first came on the scene. I’m a big fan of my friends Dave Woodford and Bob Malach. Woodford is one of the greatest rock/R+B sax players on the planet, and Bob Malach, who grew up playing tenor sax with Mike Brecker in Philadelphia, has made several incredible solo albums. I like Ronnie Cuber on baritone. And then more obscure guys like Eli Fontaine in Detroit and another guy there named Larry Nozero; guys I heard a lot growing up. Both of those guys were on a lot of early Motown records. And Bean Bowles, the baritone player on those records. For a long time in the early Motown days, all of those solos were baritone solos by him. And he was a great player. I found out more about him later. He played with Bill Doggett in the 1950s. He was in the horn section on Honky Tonk and all of those songs.
Those baritone solos on the Motown records are so exuberant. It’s not the easiest instrument to solo on with the range that you’re in to cut through the mix and say something.
That’s why I love Ronnie Cuber. As I told you before I played baritone from the beginning. I love Serge Chaloff. And I forgot to mention Grover Washington, Jr. The way he combined the soul influence of that era with jazz was really great. I was also into Wilton Felder for the same reason. The earliest Jazz Crusaders albums were jazz albums. But then they got really famous when they started making pop records. I always love saxophonists that combine the jazz influence with R&B and rock.
It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve done plenty of gigs where a guy who is strictly jazz player shows up and they are all done in four measures. They have played every note they know and they’re putting reharmonizations on songs like ‘Mustang Sally.’
I think that is what makes people like Mike Brecker amazing is that they are always able to do the right thing. When he did pop music with James Taylor and Carly Simon it was right inside the pocket. It was true with King Curtis in his era. That tradition started after World War II when R&B hits were based on sax solos. Those were jazz players that got into it behind Illinois Jacquet.
What a fascinating era. Guitar players were playing rock and roll, the rhythm section players were still playing swing and there were the saxophonists sitting on the bridge between them. The saxophonists had been playing blues gigs but also playing these new rock and roll gigs and still knowing a lot of bebop. I always cite the Buddy Holly hit True Love Ways as a great example of a kind of bebop meets rock ballad saxophone solo.
I don’t know who played on that but King Curtis and Buddy Holly are from the same town and they knew each other. I know that because Bobby Keys, the saxophonist with the Rolling Stones, is from the same town in Texas as well.
I love Bobby Keys.
Bobby got into rock and roll in that era and he was on some of those early Dick Clark caravan tours. He was actually playing with Bobby Vee on one of those tours when the Rolling Stones were on the bottom of the bill. Bobby said he had to wear Bermuda shorts and knee socks and a sports jacket with the Vee band. He met Keith Richards on that tour and they got to know each other. It turned out they were born the same day, same year. They got friendly and Keith told him that he wanted him to play with the Stones. At that point, it was a little bit audacious but Bobby said the next time Keith saw him play he was with Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Keith was hanging out backstage and when Bobby came off stage Keith told him time was now. And that was it. Keith is a huge student of the history of rock and roll. And for Bobby, obviously, King Curtis is a huge influence.
There was one more thing I wanted to talk to you about regarding your CD. The fact that you did all of the horn parts by yourself with no other brass, no trumpet or trombone, is impressive…
I decided one way or another I wanted this to be a self-contained band album. If I was going to start having other people play on it I could go nuts and I could have a huge horn section. At some point as I got closer to the recording I decided I was going to do this all myself. I have been in the studio on sessions where I had to stack horn parts up before. For this CD I voiced it like the alto was the trumpet, you know. I’ve got some good feedback on that decision. What I found was that on some of the tunes there is a bit of a New Orleans sax section sound. Lloyd Price, Wardell Quezergue, Fats Domino. As I listened back to the tracks I thought it was honest and it works. So I will probably stay in that mode for a while.
It’s an interesting choice because when it’s all saxes it sounds more like an organ, you know? Have you ever heard any of those saxophone choir CDs by David Bilger?
Yes, I have. So I thought that will be our sound. Rather than make apologies for it, this is the sound. Also my engineer Larry Alexander helped a lot. I told him I was going to do that so we really worked on making it appropriate in the mix. On the song, New Shade of Blue, the song is coming out of the Albert King vibe. I thought that if I put the saxes all stacked up and voiced right it will be pretty close.
It was refreshing for me because not to slag on our trumpet-playing brothers here, sometimes with the trumpet added in here some of the lines can start to sound “showy.” That’s why always liked the Memphis Horns because their blend isn’t as brassy as other sections.
I love them. To be really honest I do a lot of stuff with Larry Etkin, the trumpet from the Uptown Horns and he loves Wayne’s trumpet playing. I go back and listen to the Otis Redding recordings and they were probably nineteen at the time. There is some tough stuff there technically that is really impressive. Otis was singing them the parts. Their phrasing is incredible.
I also compare them to Cannonball and Nat Adderley.
Good analogy. Mike and Randy Brecker in a different way and a different era had an incredible tightness. One of my favorite things they did in pop music was the Cameo album that had Word Up, which is the song the Uptown Horns played on, coincidently. There are a couple of songs on that album where Randy wrote some solos; great stuff, and played about as tightly as any horns have ever sounded.
They did so many rock albums together. And Michael could always stay in the idiom but still find a way to sprinkle a little bit of himself in!
There is a tape floating around of the Brecker Brothers at Electric Lady Land with Jimi Hendrix. Just jamming together when the studio first opened. That’s when the brothers had that band Dreams together. Michael is just as big a part of rock and roll history as he is of jazz history.
You have plans to do another album?
Yes, I have been writing but I still want to do business with this CD. I want the band to start working more live gigs in the Northeast and Southeast.
What are you doing for distribution for this CD?
I have a distributor down in the Southeast for the shag scene down there and I use cdbaby.com. I have a radio promo guy getting it out around the country and radio stations are picking it up.
So the new modern indie approach is working for you.
For this band, we are just trying to start regionally.
Like the old territory bands.
When we play live it really gets people going. The goal is to get out and groove.
A lot of the new clubgoers have never been exposed to this.
Actually, these days I think there’s a lot of “new soul” music in the air, with bands like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Even Amy Winehouse with that same band backing her up, you know?
Same vibe that you were going for: classic with some modern touches. And now that she has gained so much fame, notoriety, and some Grammys maybe it will give soul music another big boost in the market. Good luck with the new CD!