Tivon Pennicott Interview
On the evening of October 19st, I had the pleasure of interviewing at the highly gifted American tenor saxophonist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, also a key contributor to three Grammy Award winning albums, Tivon Pennicott.
In&OutJazz Composer, orchestrator, saxophonist player, multi-instrumentalist, what comes first?
Tivon Pennicott I think in my heart of hearts, I’ve always been a composer well, that’s that’s what I am first. Composer, arranger That’s in my heart. And I love that question because it actually isolates the foundation of who I am. And then of course it’s fun to express myself with these compositions and with an instrument…saxophone, I think I put the most time in it into…but yeah, composer, arranger, saxophonist. Orchestrating, arranging, along all that. So composer first, meaning writing the songs and then the orchestration of that composition second.
In&OutJazz Well, congratulations, this is your first time like band leader here in Europe. Tell us about the tour.
Tivon Pennicott You know, this was, this tour was just to get my feet wet. No pun intended. We were just, the people that I work with, the band members, the management, we just wanted to get our first experience internationally as a leader. So, we put it together, but I was so surprised, pleasantly surprised of the response. So many people showed up in every show. Every show was sold out, if they didn’t say it…there was just no room in any place up until even last night, you know, here in Café Central. So that was a big surprise and I feel it…yeah, it took me, it caught me off guard. I did not expect so much support on my first tour, so. This is all this is always what I wanted to do and this is just the beginning God willing, God willing…
In&OutJazz When you won the Thelonius Monk Competition, would you say that was you’re beginning?
Tivon Pennicott Yeah, I would say that when I was in that competition it definitely got me, it motivated me to compose more music, write more music and create my first album. You know, I released that album shortly after that competition. Lover of nature. Yeah. The first, so the first album was released…, so the Thelonious Monk competition was 2013 and I was fortunate enough to get in the finals and got your second place, you know, and that, which gave me a lot of motivation for writing my music, posing my music…, but what happened was after I was starting to perform as a band leader locally in New York, Gregory Porter came along and he was also someone I wanted to perform with, to play with. So my, my leader, my artistry, my personal artistry kind of paused in 2014-15 when I started to tour more with Gregory Porter. And I made a conscious decision to do that and Gregory Porter took me all around the world for for several years. And so, but I still have that feeling since right after the Monk competition, you know to do my artistry and I feel like it’s time.
In&OutJazz Yeah, I think so because man you play so nice you…like I was seeing the competition when I was a couple of years ago, it was amazing man you and Godwin Louis one of my favorite saxophonist.
Tivon Pennicott Oh nice.
In&OutJazz Yeah. Yeah. Yeah and well, we just want to know how the competition opened the doors for you in the scene.
Tivon Pennicott Definitely, got more, more people knew who I was. Before the competition I was already, I had already recorded with Gregory Porter. I had already recorded with Esperanza Spalding. This is 2010-2011. But as far as my own creativity, you know, I think more of the jazz community knew who I was then and it definitely helped, it definitely helped. I think yeah, I was able to work more and in New York locally and work more in general with my group. Yeah.
In&OutJazz What’s about your band in this tour?
Tivon Pennicott Yeah, man. So Kenneth Salters, we’ll start with him. He was on my first album Lover of nature. Yeah, he was…, we’ve been good friends and New York companions, New York colleagues since 2010. When I met him in St. Nick’s pub, the same place I met Gregory Porter and all those people, Kenneth and I go way back. He’s a brother and I’m so happy that we are still able to create together to play. We have such a connection and it’s gonna be happening for a long time. Dean Torrey, bassist. Playing he has a very unique style of playing. I require monster ears. You have to have great ears. I require that and Dean is the guy where I remember seeing him in a session. Anything that a piano player plays he’s always on it, right on it, you know, and that caught my attention early on, and when I was in New York just after a gig or something and would hear him at a session. Yeah, he was always one of those guys and he learned my music, he was always there, he was always supporting and willing and Dean is a very important person in my, throughout the whole process of my artistry. And the newest person that I’ve met, the most recent is Idris Frederick. I kind of found him on Instagram. Yeah, so as we move into the new days I saw his playing. I heard us what he was doing. I was like, “wow, sounds amazing”. I just contacted him. But here’s a funny story and we can ask him later if he’s okay with, you know, having this out. Idris has been through a lot through his New York experience. There was one point where his house, his whole apartment burned. All he lost, he lost all of his stuff. He lost everything while, when he first moved to New York and he put out a “Go fund me” campaign to kind of help, to ask for support. And I remember seeing this person and I remember donating, you know, donating to him, not knowing…I just knew he was a musician, you know. And it wasn’t till later, after I talked to him on Instagram. It’s like “Oh cool, yeah”. I’m doing my taxes and I’m like, “wait a minute, ‘donation to Idris Frederick’…are you the same guy that I did?”, and he was like, “Yeah. Yeah, that’s me”. And I thought it was personally a full circle moment of me supporting him and in such a low time and then ultimately inviting him to play with me. And he’s, we talking about monster ears, he can really flow, yeah, he can go, he knows he knows all the colors of the universe, and that’s what I need and I need Dean there to follow the colors of the universe and he has colors himself, and I need a rhythmic master on drums to pump the energy, so these people all together is creating this thing and I hope that we can do so many tours together as a group. Yeah.
In&OutJazz Yeah, we hope so, because you sound amazing I was looking at my friends stories in Netherlands because he was in your concert and the band sounds amazing. Yeah.
Tivon Pennicott Oh yeah, that’s fun, the Netherlands, there’s a lot of…, I was teaching at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, and a lot of my students were Spanish, you know, they come from different parts of Spain and yeah. It’s a little Netherlands Spanish connection that’s cool.
In&OutJazz We want to know your experience, like in first person about your album Spirit Garden (New Phrase Records, 2020). how was the process to record, to compose the music? Tell us about that.
Tivon Pennicott Yeah. Well while touring with Gregory Porter each night after a show, I will go to sleep and I noticed like different sounds and melodies and textures just floating in my head, you know, and it was just, it became stronger and stronger over time, and I thought “It’s music, these sounds I have to get it out”. It started to get so intense that I had to figure out how to get it out. And the only way to do that was through large ensemble like some extravagant sound. And so, I tackled it. I just I decided to assemble all the strings together. I had a vision and and a concept, it was all there because I was simultaneously changing my diet and that fueled some of the creative waves in my head when my diets changed, who knows what it was? But it was so strong and I remember I went to Juilliard and I didn’t have much of a budget so I would ask some of the students there, like some of the string players if they would join me and…, yeah, string players. And so I asked if they could join. They would come, and they decided, a lot of them decided to come. My good friend Eugene Park is the concert master. She and I met in New York and she can do jazz and she can do classical on a high level and was able to really lead the string section together. So she helped me with that and I have my right hand man Philip Dizack on trumpet. After spirit, after Lover of nature I decided to go chordless, you know with no piano no guitar. So we did many gigs like that, many shows and while I was touring with Gregory Porter and ultimately the sound of the strings were so strong that I had to combine the sound. Combine Dean’s sound and with the Yasushi on bass and Dominique Sanders on bass and Joe Saylor on drums. That was the group for a while and then combining that with the strings and putting that all together. And it came together for an amazing thing. We did it in a beautiful church, stained-glass windows. We did it on tape analog tape, you know old-school and all in one shot, you know, no, no crazy editing and all that stuff just all in one shot and it felt good, it felt really good. I’m really proud of that project and I’m writing a symphony now. I’m going I’m going more on my I’m writing a symphony.
In&OutJazz Yeah, I saw the photos, the church and the group. Yeah. Well, we have another question… About the about the pedal effects…yeah, because, yeah for me as a saxophonist is like a new thing to see, you start with the rhythm-machine and play the saxophone, do the bass line, and you start to harmonize…and we want to know what made you to do that, you know, to get at that point to to ask yourself. “Oh wait, I need to try with this stuff”.
Tivon Pennicott Yeah, I’ve always been interested in groove music, you know, we’re talking not just I don’t know, things that make you move. Any rhythms that make you move. The roots of Africa which lead into my roots of being Jamaican, my Jamaican heritage, yeah, both of my parents are Jamaican. So we’re talking like reggae, like all the types of grooves, I don’t know, anything that makes you want to dance. And along with that comes some different sounds too that I wanted more than just saxophone. So I can remember trying to just do that. I would be doing a lot of variations acoustically. So I’d be like just playing saxophone normally, but then kind of making all these extended technique sounds, with the saxophone acoustically. So I did a lot of extended techniques with that but I wanted I needed more, I needed more, I wanted some other options. So I just I was searching for a microphone and talking to my guitar pedal…, guitar friends and what pedals they use and I was gonna try to, you know work that out. Thankfully. There are some really important people that helped me put all this together. I found the microphone which is so unique, it goes inside the neck and it’s like direct in sound. That’s the foundation. That’s what gave me the foundation that I can really do this. Intro mic, by Victor Egea, he created that. Then the knowledge of learning how to use pedals as a horn player. Douglas Levin, he got me started on how to use MIDI how, to set the pedal board up from scratch, my options and he has a thing called horn effects, horn effects that really can guide other horn players who are interested in doing that. And so putting that together, this is this is my sound. When I write the symphony it’s gonna be part of my sound, doing it it’s gonna be everything all together, you know. I don’t want to tell too much but that’s what it is.
In&OutJazz Okay, that’s all, thank you very much. Thanks man.
Tivon Pennicott Thanks for taking you are time out on such a rainy day.