As big a fan of Sonny Rollins as Michael Pedicin is, it would be perfectly fine with him if he were able to stop sharing one of the tenor giant’s signature traits: a chronic discomfort with the sound of his own playing. “I’m never satisfied,” said the Philadelphia-area native, some of whose displeasure is directed at producers and engineers who “just don’t understand the music or how the instrument should sound.”
But with his gorgeous 2011 album, Ballads...searching for peace, Pedicin experienced a joyful breakthrough in the studio on two fronts: steady nerves and perfect sound. And with his full-throttle performance on his beautifully recorded new album, Live at the Loft, he raises the bar even higher. Does Pedicin, who in a wide-ranging career including stints with Dave Brubeck and Pat Martino has recorded 11 albums under his own name, finally have his perfectionism under control?
“I’m more comfortable now playing the saxophone, sounding the way I want, than I ever have in my life,” he says. A tenor man’s tenor man, he is devoted to what he described as the “raw, inside-your-body sound” of the classic players on the instrument. At a time when so many tenorists are influenced by a softer tonality, that makes him something of an outsider—as much of an outsider as a devoted follower of John Coltrane can be.
“There were a handful of saxophonists who influenced me a lot, including Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and Sonny Stitt,” he says. “But from the first time I heard Trane, I couldn’t stop listening to him. What I hear in Trane is more than the musical stuff. He gets to me emotionally and spiritually as well. There’s so much life in his playing.”
Ballads featured no songs from the 1962 Coltrane classic of the same name, but did tap its spare emotional intensity. Live at the Loft is even more of an aural shrine to St. John. Pedicin, who shook hands with him in a Philadelphia nightclub when he was 15 and hasn’t wanted to wash his hand since (“What a wonderful soul he was”), offers a personal survey of songs written by or associated with his idol.
Leading a quintet including a guitarist, Johnnie Valentino, and a pianist, Jim Ridl, he takes “Impressions” at a slower tempo than the famous modal original, à la Brecker's 2002 version with Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove on Directions in Music. He invests “Say It Over and Over Again” (from Trane’s Ballads) and “I Want to Talk about You” (from Live at Birdland) with haunting overtones and creates striking interplay with Valentino.
Then there is the early Trane song, “Theme for Ernie” (from Soultrane), which Pedicin smartly transforms from a ballad to a midtempo tune; the bouncy, Latin-flavored “Like Sonny” (from the 1960 album of the same name); and the raw-boned “Africa” (from Africa/Brass). “If you don’t mind my saying, it takes balls to play that song,” said Pedicin, who flexes his multiphonic skills on it. “It lets us get out of the box for a minute.”
Live at the Loft, which also features bassist Andy Lalasis and drummer Bob Shomo (both returning from Ballads, as is Valentino), may be one of the most intimate jazz albums ever. Mastered by Kurt Lundvall, esteemed Blue Note head Bruce’s son, it was recorded in the Sandi Pointe Bistro in southern Jersey, in a second-floor, 60-seat space Pedicin discovered when he used it to warm up for a previous performance at the southern Jersey shore spot. He liked the feel and sound of the room so much, he helped convert it to a nightclub, supplying posters for the walls himself.
“I feel better playing live than in the studio,” he says. “In the studio, there’s so much room for anxiety and critical self-judgment. You want to redo a track before you get to the next measure. With a live audience, you just play. You’re in your element and in the moment.”
Pedicin inherited his love of music from his father, saxophonist and bandleader Mike Pedicin, an early rock ’n’ roller in the Bill Haley mold who recorded for several big labels, appeared on American Bandstand, made the charts in 1958 with “Shake a Hand,” and commanded a big following in and around Philadelphia. Michael Jr. idolized him. During third grade, he would race home from school to sit on the basement steps and watch his old man’s band rehearsals.
But then he discovered jazz through the recordings of Coltrane and Adderley. As a teenager, Pedicin studied theory with distinguished teachers including Buddy Savitt, a well-known Philly tenor saxophonist, and the masterful Dennis Sandole, who’d also given lessons to John Coltrane. While attending Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, he won various music competitions, and was offered a job by one of the illustrious judges, Stan Kenton. But he wanted to finish school—and not just college, where he overcame the absence of courses for saxophone in the music curriculum, and Juilliard, where there was no program for jazz. Torn between music and medicine, he might have become a practicing physician had he not dropped out of medical school on three separate occasions. He did, in fact, earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 2000 and has a small private practice specializing in helping “creative people get through life in a non-artist-friendly society.”
During the 1970s, Pedicin’s career took an unexpected turn when he was hired for MFSB, the house band for soul producers Gamble and Huff at Sigma Sound Studios. Playing alto saxophone on records by such popular acts as the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, and the Spinners wasn’t what he set out to do, but he enjoyed the work and the steady income it provided.
In 1980, Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label released his first album, Michael Pedicin Jr. “I could never understand why they gave me such a generous recording budget,” says the saxophonist, “but did nothing to promote the album, which was really very original in its intention to integrate jazz with an R&B feel.” He was more amused than gratified when a track from the album, “You,” featuring vocals by the Jones Girls, became a fluke hit in 1982 on a New York R&B station.
The years after that are something of a blur for Pedicin, who toured and recorded with Brubeck, worked the Atlantic City casino circuit (sometimes playing behind singers including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett), and taught music at Temple University and University of the Arts (since 2008, he’s been on the staff of Richard Stockton College in New Jersey). During the early 2000s, he lived in Los Angeles. The sleep-depriving work overload took its toll on him. But “realigning his priorities,” he put together a straight-ahead quintet, toured from 2003 to 2006 with guitar great Martino, and formed the Brubeck Project, a quartet devoted to Dave Brubeck’s compositions featuring himself; two notable Brubeck alumni in bassist Michael Moore and drummer Randy Jones, and pianist Dean Schneider. Pedicin has been on the straight and narrow ever since.
Some artists are so consumed by their heroes that they end up sounding too much like them for comfort. At 64, Pedicin doesn’t worry about that kind of thing. “It’s not an intellectual process, it’s all subconscious, visceral, emotional,” he says. “You put the music out there and hope it will have its own voice. If people say I sound like John Coltrane, how can I mind that? He’s my idol. It's an honor to be mentioned in the same breath.”
As reflected in his sleek, soulful reading on Live at the Loft of “Midnight Voyage,” by his dear departed friend, Michael Brecker, Pedicin is no less devoted to the memory of his childhood friend, who died of leukemia in 2007. “I remember when he was 15 and I was 18, he’d always come see me play. Then, a few years later, it was me going to see him play whenever I could. He was such an amazing talent and a devoted, supportive, sincere friend.
“I’ll never forget seeing him play much later on with Pat Metheny and Brian Blade and John Patitucci. When the set was over, he said to the audience, ‘You know, I can’t even express what I have felt like for the last 70 minutes, playing with these people. It was sheer joy.’ That’s what we all strive for. When it happens, there’s nothing like it.”
“For many years,” says Pedicin, “I felt somewhat guilty being a jazz musician and not devoting myself to healing people as a doctor. People have asked me, don’t you think music has the power of healing, too? To tell the truth, it wasn’t until recent years that I really began to believe that it does. It certainly does for me.”
5/19/13 - The Stockton Saxophone Quartet at the Ocean City Free Library.
5/25/13 & 5/26/13 - The Loft at Sandi Pointe in Somers Point, NJ. Quintet with Johnnie Valentino - guitar, Rick Germanson - piano, Andy Lalasis - bass, and Vic Stevens - drums. more details
5/27/13 - 5/29/13 - Recording new CD. (Release date - September 24, 2013)