It is impossible not to like Frank Macchia. The sax man could not grate anyone the wrong way even if he tried, which may explain why when he asked five other world renown saxophone players to join him on the recording of his latest album, Saxolollapalooza, none of them expressed any hesitation about coming on board for the project. Macchia has a proven track record as a talented bandleader and gifted saxophonist in his own right, but even he admits that there were challenges in corralling saxophonists Eric Marienthal, Bob Sheppard, Gene Cipriano, Sal Lorano, and Jay Mason along with drummer Peter Erskine for the recording sessions.
"That was a problem!" Macchia asserts, "Eric, Bob and Peter, in particular, are touring and performing all the time so I basically called everyone and got them on board for the project, then I narrowed the record and rehearsal time to 5-6 different dates. Thank God for email because we basically communicated through email which days were good or bad and I finally honed it down to a final date."
The concept which Macchia thought up for Saxolollapalooza was to show how six saxophonists and a drummer could make traditionally sounding, big band-swing tunes like "Shortenin’ Bread" and "Air Mail Special," sound equally superb when a different format is employed. He discusses the impetus behind Saxolollapalooza, "Well, after my last two CD’s with orchestra and sax solo, I felt I needed to do something fun, less serious material and I realized I had a bunch of this material unrecorded and sitting in a footlocker of music I had written over the years. I hope this CD shows my sense of humor and gives listeners an idea of how much sound six saxophonists and a drummer can make."
The drummer that Macchia recruited for the project is Peter Erskine, whom many folks may remember as the drummer for Weather Report. Macchia recalls, "I've been listening to Peter's drumming since I was a teenager, first with the Kenton big band and then Weather Report, and everybody else in the world that he's played with. I was writing a lot of New Orleans second line-style grooves for the CD and Peter lives here in Los Angeles and I knew he'd be the perfect drummer for this project. I just called him up and mentioned the other sax players that were signed on to the project and he seemed happy to do it. Peter's drumming is so musical and throughout the recording session he not only provided great playing, but he made very helpful suggestions as far as musical and recording ideas. He's such a well rounded musician and has worked as a producer and composer as well that he made my job running the session so much easier. He's just a great guy!"
Macchia conveys that the ideas that he used for the arrangements took root in him years before. "They were pretty much my arrangements. In rehearsal, we changed a few subtle things with dynamics and slight form changes, but I had fully written out arrangements going into it. In fact, some of the music had been written many years ago when I lived up in San Francisco. Soon after I wrote some of the arrangements, I moved to L.A. where I got immersed in film and television music, so they sat in a footlocker of music for over a decade."
Macchia’s interpretation of the classic tune "Down By The Riverside" entwines layers of saxophones into snaking patterns and harmonious tones as he explains, "That was one of the arrangements I wrote many years ago, and the idea was to build it slowly each time the tune went around--first starting with a simple piccolo and bass clarinet duo, then a whacked out flute choir, then the sax section emerges, solos, then building through key changes and further permutations to the melody until the final screaming chorus. I think that it's one of the most fun arrangements on the album and I've received a lot of positive responses on that song. I really love messing with folk songs."
Other tunes are more sedate, causing tingling sensations in the listener like the ballad "My One And Only True Love," which Macchia remembers, "I wanted to feature Gene Cipriano on baritone sax with a ballad. He has such a gorgeous sound and plays with such heart, and that song is one of my all time favorite ballads. His cadenza in the middle was a first take and he just blew us all away with it. ‘Cip’ is one of the truly nicest people I've ever met, and I was honored to have him playing my music. He's like a history of American recorded music, as he's recorded with just about everyone in the world!"
The title of the album Saxolollapalooza alludes to the saxophone’s role as the big event, or lollapalooza as has been commonly referred to as a big event in pop culture. Macchia reveals how he came up with the title of the album, "The original name I had for the CD was Unsafe Sax but I thought that might be too politically incorrect, so the next name that came to me was a take off of all those big rock concerts and tractor pull events they have which are typically called ‘lollapalooza,’ which I guess means a big event. As the idea of the CD is that it's a bunch of sax players just having some fun honking on their horns, I thought Saxolollapalooza was an appropriate title."
The music on the album feels familiar as many of the tunes are, but they are painted using a different palette from what has been customary. Macchia admits about turning to his musical influences for inspiration in his arrangements, "That happens whether you're conscious of it or not, but I think I was bringing into this project some influences such as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Duke Ellington with his voicing style for his sax section."
Macchia is counting on touring for the album, but cites, "The problem right now is I had enough material for a CD, but not really enough to do two-to-three sets at club venues. I'm writing some more charts and I hope to be playing live sometime later this year with the group."
He reflects, "I always hope that people will enjoy my music, but I never set out to do anything other than enjoy the process of creation and exploring."
The concept for Saxolollapalooza is vastly different from his previous albums, making each one of his discs its own entity. He remarks about how his mind works, "I have found that as of the last several years I get a concept and work with until I feel I've played it out, as far as creatively. Back in the late 1990's I created a series of five CD’s called Little Evil Things, where I co-wrote short horror stories and then composed a score for the stories in an audiobook format. After five volumes, I felt I had said all I wanted to with that format. Then I got the idea of doing programmatic jazz compositions based first on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and the animals I encountered there, then just exploring creating jazz compositions of different animals (his albums Animals and Mo' Animals). After that, I wanted to explore creating jazz music for orchestra and saxophone without using a rhythm section (his albums Emotions and Landscapes). I feel that I explored all those ideas and have now set off in exploring woodwinds and drums and we'll see where that will lead."
Regarding concepts which he desires to explore for future albums, he comments, "I'm currently sketching ideas for a ‘mini’ big band doing arrangements of American folk songs, but in a very non-traditional way."
His proclivity to explore concepts and configure them into musical form is also satisfied by his work as a composer and saxophonist for music scores in films and television shows. He has worked with it all in Hollywood, from animations to action adventure, sci-fi fantasy, comedies, and tragedies. He expresses about this line of work, "I enjoy all genres, but I particularly enjoy dramas as I can work on more emotional ideas. I also really enjoy horror as I have a penchant for non-tonal and aleatoric music and horror allows for very dissonant music!"
Frank Macchia takes his role as a music composer very seriously. He is heavily involved in virtually every aspect of the music process including the use of music technology. He observes, "The technology has allowed a lot of people to be creative as they never were before, which I think is a good thing. I think if someone has a great idea it will come through whether they're schooled or not, but having said that, I do think there's a lot of music out there now that doesn't move me very much. I do take advantage of the technology. I have a home studio and work extensively with Digital Performer, Sibelius, Finale, and I mix many of my projects myself. I'm also very involved with the engineer and we talk extensively about the recording set up, microphones, and gear to be used. I think it's a powerful thing to have knowledge over how your music will be recorded and mixed and not to just let those decisions be turned over to someone else. I also go to my mastering sessions and sit with the mastering engineer to discuss balance and tonal elements of my music."
Macchia does not seem to find satisfaction in the fame that he can garner as a brilliant music composer, but rather he finds fulfillment in making arrangements that move audiences whether to tears or elation or laughter. He confides, "I'm very grateful that I've been able to make a living doing music, which brings me so much joy. That's pretty much all I hope to do."
There is nothing about Frank Macchia to dislike, but there is plenty about him that folks may admire and even envy. He has a great deal to offer, and luckily he has found the right medium to provide him with an infinite amount of opportunities to show what he has. His creativity is only limited by own his imagination, and presently, he keeps finding new ways to explore the saxophone, pop culture and musical expressions.