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Composer John Adams, right, at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music with Marin Alsop, the festival's artistic director. Photo by rr jones/Cabrillo Festival.

John Adams' new Saxophone Concerto has a subtext. He's been a jazz fan for most of his life and the concerto reflects his love of great jazz saxophonists: Johnny Hodges, Eric Dolphy, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Desmond. It also reflects his fascination with a couple of seminal jazz albums for saxophone and strings: "Charlie Parker with Strings" and Stan Getz's "Focus."

In advance of Saturday's West Coast premiere of the Saxophone Concerto at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, where Marin Alsop will conduct, I sat down with Adams at one of his favorite restaurants, near his home in Berkeley. I knew he liked jazz, but was surprised to hear him bring up Sun Ra -- and to hear him sing Charles Mingus's famous bass riff from "Haitian Fight Song."

During a 100-minute conversation, the composer, 67, described his own jazz experiences, going back to the early 1960s when he saw the Duke Ellington Orchestra perform at a lakeside dance hall in New Hampshire, owned by Adams' grandfather. He spoke about the challenges of composing the new concerto for soloist Timothy McAllister, about their gradually zeroing in on a saxophone sound and style that worked. He also talked about upcoming projects and his ongoing (and thus far frustrating) search for a topic that might inspire him to compose a new opera.

I began our conversation by asking Adams about a story from his autobiography, "Hallelujah Junction."


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Q John, I was reading over your book and this funny story you tell from around 1968 or '69: You were living in Cambridge and one of your friends put together an impressive collection of jazz albums. So you borrowed a crummy old tenor saxophone from a Harvard band room and tried playing along with some of your friend's Coltrane albums -- without much luck.

A (laughter).

Q Were you any good at the saxophone? Did you have an improvising knowledge or skills?

A You know, I was a very good classical clarinet player. I played all the concertos, played them with orchestras. And I was occasionally called in to substitute with the Boston Symphony when I was an undergraduate.

But I never actually learned jazz. My dad was somebody who played in big bands, but he read off charts, and he didn't really know how to improvise. And it just wasn't a part of my training. So, you know, the skills of jazz improvisation, I didn't become aware of until I was in college, and, as you know very well, it's a really highly developed art form. So I could do it -- I could blow on "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine" and things. But the kind of just extremely quick response to chord changes and substitutions that a really great jazz improviser (has), I just never had time to develop. But it doesn't mean I don't appreciate it deeply.

Q Did you play saxophone when you were a kid? I know your dad taught you clarinet.

A No, I did not play the saxophone as a kid. He taught me the clarinet, and he had an old alto around the house. But I didn't actually pick up a tenor until I was in college, and I borrowed one from the Harvard band, which was an absolute piece of junk. So I actually never owned a saxophone.

Q You must have grown up listening with your dad to Ellington and swing bands.

A Absolutely.

Q How old were you when you got into Miles and Coltrane?

A Oh, when I was in high school, I discovered it all on my own. And, you know, I lived in a rather remote village in New England, and I wasn't hanging out with kids (who were listening to jazz)....

Now I remember that I went to a summer music camp where there were some kids who were into jazz. I distinctly remember the first time that I saw a Bill Evans album. Because a pianist -- he was a Korean pianist from Juilliard -- had a copy of this album "Conversations with Myself." It was a blue album, and I remember seeing that and being curious about it.

And then I really loved Miles Davis, that Gil Evans period, particularly the first album. And incidentally, interestingly enough, on my 50th birthday I re-created that album, or several of those albums, with a big band in Amsterdam. We did a concert at the Concertgebouw with "Sketches of Spain" arrangements and "Miles Ahead" arrangements.

Q What do you mean you "re-created" it?

A Well, somebody got a hold of the original charts, and we found a wonderful flugelhorn player who did the solo parts.

Q You conducted?

A Yeah, as much as you can conduct it. Because you have to conduct off the beat, which is more like clicking your fingers.

Q Have you heard the new "Sketches of Spain" recording by Nicholas Payton?

A No, I know Nicholas Payton. I don't know it. God, what a great conception that album is, the original.

Q What else turned you on, growing up?

A I think I told a story in my book about the Ellington band visiting my grandfather's dance hall, which he did on several occasions in the '60s. And my parents took me there.

My grandfather had a medium-sized dance hall that was in this beautiful location on the shores of Winnipesaukee, and all during the '30s, '40s, '50s and into the early '60s, he had big bands come there in the summer, and people danced. People came, the women in their cocktail dresses and petticoats, and -- I don't know if you know my album, the one that has "The Dharma at Big Sur" and "My Father Knew Charles Ives." Well, the picture of my dad on that cover of that album is a close-up of a photo of him with a swing band that he played with at that location.

Q It's that photo of him in the Ed Murphy band, right?

A Yeah! Probably a contemporary version of that would be some garage band that's got a gig in the summer.

Q So I know you liked Johnny Hodges (Ellington's famous alto saxophonist). What do you find yourself most responding to in terms of the saxophone, whether it's the old guys like Hodges, or '60s players like Dolphy or Wayne Shorter or Coltrane.

A I like all of them. I think it's just a wonderful instrument. It's extremely expressive, and it's nimble and has a very wide bandwidth of expressive potential.

Ironically, the classical approach to the saxophone, for me is really borderline obnoxious. I really do not like -- I have an almost gut negative reaction to -- the style of playing it that was developed particularly in France; classical sax playing with a wide uniform vibrato. But, you know, the sax in the hands of a great jazz artist is an incomparably wonderful instrument.

Q And when you talk about the influence of those saxophonists as lurking under the surface of the Saxophone Concerto, what does that mean? Is your love of jazz and the saxophone a direct influence on the concerto? Or is it more indirectly related to mood and sound and feel and expressivity?

A Well, a lot of those things -- they're not conscious during the creative act. I mean, you have something, and you might acknowledge an influence. It might be Stravinsky or folk music or whatever. But when you're actually creating something, at least I don't want to have those consciously on the table. I write the music that comes out of me.

So I think one of the things that I aimed at in both "The Dharma at Big Sur" (essentially a concerto for six-string electric violin) and in the Saxophone Concerto was to give the feeling of improvisation, but to actually write everything out. And I've always said that I thought that classical music is at its most vibrant and vital when it's in touch with the common language, which is what makes Bartok so interesting and makes Mahler so interesting and Stravinsky so interesting.

Because they're always kind of plumbing a popular language, whether it's Russian folk songs, or in the case of Copland, '20s jazz. I don't think the Saxophone Concerto is consciously jazz in feeling. I think "City Noir" (Adams' work from 2009) is far more consciously a jazz-inflected symphonic piece. But the concerto's really a vehicle for the instrument.

And the one thing I was concerned with is that the player not play it in that awful classical style. Which was a challenge for Tim, because he knew what I wanted, but he was brought up in a very strict classical tradition. And I think, over the course of the year that he's been playing it now, that he's loosened up.

Q With his PRISM Quartet, he's been collaborating with a lot of jazz musicians.

A I didn't know that.

Q Yeah, PRISM just put out a CD with a bunch of saxophonists: Greg Osby, Dave Liebman and some others.

A Oh, I didn't know that. Well, maybe it's the influence of that. (Laughs) I mean, he's played "City Noir" with at least, I'm going to guess, at least 20 different orchestras. I keep saying to him, "Are you sick of it yet?" "Oh, no, no," he just loves it.

Q Where has the Concerto been played? It was premiered in Sidney.

A Yes.

Q And was the new Nonesuch CD from a live performance in St. Louis -- recorded "live" in concert?

A Yeah. The way things are done these days, like San Francisco Symphony -- you record two or, if you're lucky, three performances, and you take the best of each, and then usually you have a patch session of a half hour, which is not much time. But you try to accomplish, in the patch sessions, passages that were very difficult to do.

The concerto has been performed in Sidney, Baltimore, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and I think that in the next month it'll be done, of course, at Cabrillo and then in Brazil.

Q Is Marin (Alsop) doing it in Brazil, too?

A Yeah, she's doing it there (in São Paulo, where Alsop is music director of the São Paulo Symphony). They're one of the co-commissioners. And then it's being done at the Proms (in London) this summer.

Q As Tim McAllister got into the concerto, did he have any suggestions? Did you have to make any adjustments in what you'd demanded of the instrument?

A No, because I'm a wind player. And furthermore, the saxophone can do anything! The issue with the Sax Concerto is the sound. And when we first did it, he was playing very forcefully, because I told him I wanted an Eric Dolphy sound -- and also, Sydney Opera House is so big, you think you can't be heard, anyway. But I listened to the recording of our performance and realized it was just too raw and too unpleasant a sound. And over time, we've found the sweet spot.

Q He was playing more "out," more stridently?

A At the beginning, yeah. Now he plays it like he does on the recording.

Q Is Tim a Dolphy fan?

A Yeah, he knows all of that stuff. That's a whole world, the saxophone world. You know the things called "clinics" -- ever heard that expression "clinic"? He goes around the world doing clinics.

Q One of your inspirations for the Saxophone Concerto was Stan Getz's "Focus," with the Eddie Sauter string arrangements. And when I was first listening to your new concerto -- it's hard to put my finger on it, but there's something similar about the intensity of the mood. It kind of made me feel the same way as "Focus."

A Well, my concerto's a bit highly caffeinated!

Q So who's your favorite jazz saxophonist?

A You mean historically?

Q Who do you love the most?

A Oh, God, that's really impossible. It's like asking do I love Bach more than Beethoven. I mean, I can tell you that from the old style, I love Johnny Hodges. And I love Eric Dolphy. But I also love Phil Woods. And, as shocking as it may sound, I really love Paul Desmond, who for a long time was considered kind of square, but he had a beautiful, beautiful sound and was a great musician. I'm sure I'm forgetting somebody. Cannonball Adderley. And of course (Charlie) Parker.

Q I'm curious about whether you introduced your son Sam to jazz, or if he kind of re-energized your own interest. (Adams' son Samuel Adams, 28, is a composer who for years played jazz bass.)

A You know, I did one thing with Sam, which was basically like just putting the drop into the pool that was ready. It was like a germ into the petri dish, or something. What I did is I bought him a CD when he was about -- I'm going to guess, 15 -- called Keith Jarrett does "Standards in Norway."

I didn't even think he ever opened it. But I didn't know he was in his bedroom listening to it hour after hour after hour. Then he went to a summer music camp and -- actually, even before, he was really a little kid with a tiny double bass that sounded awful. But he went to this summer music camp up in Cazadero (in Sonoma County), and he came back playing these licks from -- I think it was Sun Ra? No Charles Mingus, that's what it was.

(Adams begins singing Mingus's propulsive bass line to "Haitian Fight Song.")

And then he just got -- you know, we have a fantastic jazz school here in Berkeley (the California Jazz Conservatory), run by Susan Muscarella. And he went into that over a period of three years and met friends, including (pianist) Julian Pollack. And by the last couple of years he was in high school, he was playing jazz all the time. He doesn't play anymore, which is a shame -- it's really hard to keep up the bass if you're not playing a lot. Because your hands, you need blisters.

Q Talking about young composers -- with Sam, are you at a point where you have independent paths as composers? Does he ever ask you for pointers? Conversely, you were sitting behind me at Davies Symphony Hall when Sam's "Drift and Providence" was premiered a couple of years ago by the San Francisco Symphony, and I remember your joking afterward that you were going to ask him for orchestration lessons. Do the two of you talk composition back and forth?

A Actually, now it is (like that). Like most teenagers, especially ones who have the same interest as their dads, he didn't want to talk to me for a long time. But that's very common.

And then at the age of 25, for some reason we'd suddenly become OK again. But I think he's comfortable enough with his own identity now that he can show me a score. He showed me a score that he just finished for the National Youth Orchestra, which is going to be done all over the country. And we talked about some notational things. You know, he studied acoustics at Stanford, electronics, things like the compression of sound.

And so his awareness of orchestration reflects (those studies) in a really unusual way I just never thought of. So actually, seriously, listening and studying his scores, I've learned things....

Q John, it doesn't seem very long ago that you first began mentioning this "idea" you had for a Saxophone Concerto, and now here it is, a finished product. You're prolific. Are there any other pieces you're working on?

A I'm writing what might turn out to be the longest violin concerto in history. I'm actually calling it a Symphony for Violin and Orchestra, and it's called "Scheherazade.2."

It was inspired by images of women, largely being oppressed or abused or violated, that I saw in the news -- I'm sure we all saw. Not exclusively in the Middle East, but a lot of images, like, for example, the one in Tahrir Square and the Iranian women who were shot and women in Afghanistan. But right in our own backyard, as well, like (in) Texas.

But it's just a kind of whimsical idea of a Scheherazade who is empowered, differently empowered than the original. The original had to sort of use her storytelling wiles to escape this -- this horrible story. But this Scheherazade actually -- she gives it back. For example, there's an imagined movement where she's tried by some religious court. So the title of that movement is "Scheherazade and the Men with Beards."

I don't have a really clear narrative. But there are just sort of images here and there, like a night flight or imprisonment or a love scene. And at the very end, the word is just "Sanctuary."

It's instrumental, and I'm only giving these titles in a way that a tone poem might. It's nothing very specific. But the idea is a woman who is empowered under this kind of pressure. So the orchestra's a kind of masculine aggressive principle, and the violin is the feminine power.

Q Are you writing it for a specific soloist?

A I'm writing it for Leila Josefowicz, who is pretty spunky.

Q How long is the piece?

A I'm sure that it's at least 40 minutes, and it's going to be a challenge. Because, you know, the concerto's usually the 20-minute piece in the middle of the program, and you have to be very very prestigious -- like the "Emperor" Concerto or the Brahms Piano Concerto or the Beethoven Violin Concerto -- to take over the larger spot of the program. But that's what I wanted to write. So it'll be done -- the first performance is with the New York Philharmonic next winter, and then I'll do the European premiere with the Concertgebouw (the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam)....

The hardest thing in the world is writing a violin concerto. I know. It's harder than writing a string quartet. Really. I can write an opera; that's a lot of work. But it's not kind of frustrating like writing a violin concerto is, because the instrument is so counter-intuitive. I mean, just hold your hand like that and see where your fingers fall. So I have a little template at home that I have taped to a T-square, but, even then, things that seem like they would be no sweat turn out to be just awkward.

I recently conducted this old chestnut concerto by Eric Wolfgang Korngold; I did it with Gil Shaham.... I was so impressed with this piece, because the violin writing is so absolutely hand in glove, and everything sounded great. Everything made him sound fabulous. And it seems like half of the stuff that I write turns the violin into this tight, awkward thing, so I'm constantly having to go back and forth with the violinist to find the natural thing.

Q OK, so Scheherazade is forthcoming.

A And then I'm writing another string quartet for the St. Lawrence (String Quartet, based at Stanford University). I love them. I really love them.

Q Is the San Francisco Symphony recording "Absolute Jest"? (This refers to Adams' Beethoven-inspired work for orchestra and string quartet, from 2012.)

A They already have recorded it..., but it hasn't come out yet. They're waiting for a B Side. The B side is going to be Grand Pianola Music, which MTT's doing in January.

Q Anything else in the works?

A Well, I'm still tossing around ideas for a theater piece.

Q Didn't you tell me at one time that you'd considered writing an opera based on Robert Caro's LBJ biography?

A Well, I might have. Steven Stucky wrote an LBJ oratorio.

Q Do you think you'll write another opera?

A I hope so.

Q Do you have any topics in mind?

A I'm kicking around a couple. I don't know if you read that article in the New Yorker a couple of months ago about the Waco (Texas) siege. Did you read that? Well, it was so interesting that I got on a plane and flew down there, to Austin, and I met up with a wonderful novelist down there. We drove out to Waco, and we were given a 70-minute kind of intense explanation of the Book of Revelation right there.

Q Who gave it to you?

A One of the Branch Davidians. I decided in the end that it was just too awful a story. There was just no -- there was no lightness or anything in it.

Q Who was the novelist?

A Denis Johnson.

Q "Tree of Smoke."

A Yes, and he also wrote "Jesus's Son." So we're still talking about possibly doing something. It's really -- I can't understand why it's been so hard to find a topic. I think about it EVERY day. And once a week, you'll find something, and it just seems to shrivel up in my hand the more I think about it. Amazing.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

John Adams' Saxophone Concerto

West Coast debut at Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
Martin Alsop, conductor; Timothy McAllister, soloist
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 9
Where: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium
Tickets: $32-$55; 831-420-5260, www.cabrillomusic.org
Also: The festival concludes in a program with works by Assad, Daugherty and others at Mission San Juan Bautista, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 10