Tenor saxophonist Jack Brandfield, like many in his field, saw in quarantine an opportunity – to re-envision his record, I’ll Never Be the Same, which he and his trio will perform at Forte Jazz Lounge on Tuesday, May 18th. He had originally planned to do the project in his home state of New York after graduating from Michigan State University in 2020, but when the pandemic hit, he decided to stay in East Lansing. He contacted bass legend Rodney Whittaker, whose jazz program was one of several factors that had first drawn him to the university, and guitar professor Randy Napoleon, and asked them to record an album with him that summer. They agreed, and I’ll Never Be the Same was released on April 2nd, 2021 with Gut String records.
Though his mentors Whittaker and Napoleon appear on the record, his touring bandmates are guitarist Aiden Cotner and bassist Stanley Ruvinov, former classmates of Brandfield’s from the same music program at Michigan State.
“We’re gonna bring some energy, that’s for sure,” says Brandfield. “It’s gonna be swinging. I’m so excited.”
Brandfield has been playing saxophone since he was about eleven years old, but it was attending La Guardia High School for the Arts that set him on a path to play jazz.
“Being from New York was really fortunate,” he says, “because there’s so many great musicians there, and I got the chance to meet a lot of them.” He speaks highly of his time working with the Jazz Lincoln Center Youth Program, where he spent his Sundays playing in their big band and small group combo and working with prominent musicians. “It was an amazing experience,” says Brandfield. “I was around kids my age who just really loved jazz.”
He describes going out to well-known jazz clubs in the city in his later teens with friends, as they began to work their way into the scene and network with seasoned musicians and, as he puts it, “catch their vibe on the bandstand.”
As he developed his own style, he came to have a deep affinity for the Great American Songbook, which is not a literal book but rather, as the nonprofit The Great American Songbook Foundation describes it on their website, “an enduring canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards that began in the early 20th century and continues to be written today.”
Says Brandfield, “I started learning those songs on my sax, and that’s what got me to the practice room every day. I would pick a new song to learn, and every time I would learn a new song, it’s like – when I was a little kid and I had a new Pokemon card. In high school and early college when I picked up a new song, it was like ‘I have another song in my pocket!’”
“So that’s been my thing, is interpreting the American Songbook in my way. …Aidan and Stanley, they’re both like me, they both love American Songbook, they love straight-ahead swinging jazz, so it’s going to be really fun. You will never catch me playing a gig and not be swinging. That is the essence of jazz. ‘Swing’ is an adjective to describe music, but it’s really a feeling, it’s an emotion, it’s a vibe, it’s an essence. I know people who love jazz, who are not jazz musicians, and I would describe them as being a swinging person. They just have that essence. If you feel jazz, you have that inside of you. And I try to bring that feeling every time I play onstage.”
The album release tour begins in Florida, where Brandfield has begun graduate studies at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and will take the band up the east coast through Savannah, Charleston, and Columbia; then to Chattanooga, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. “I’ve known about Forte Jazz,” he says. “I’ve heard people talk about it as a great club in Charleston. “Some towns we were going to, I had to reach out to people and say, ‘Where should we play?’ and look up online. But I thought we should go to Charleston and my mind just said ‘Forte Jazz’. If you ask me who told me about Forte I couldn’t tell you.”
Brandfield has done educational tours as well, giving masterclasses and workshops with middle and high school bands and working one-on-one with saxophone students. “Those tours were always really fun for me. Teaching what you learn and passing on the music – it’s why I’m playing. Because people decided to do that for me. It’s never too early to start to do that.”
The powerful influence of musicians past is at the heart of Brandfield’s work. “I’ve been lucky to work a lot with older musicians,” he says. “They really care about you and that you are putting care into the music. Jazz is such an oral tradition; and making community, and being part of a community, is at the core of jazz.”
As for the future of the genre, Brandfield muses, “I try not to guess too much. But the thing I always think is, I go back to the idea that ‘swing’ is an emotion, it’s an energy, and it’s such an excitable emotion and energy that I just don’t think people ever stop liking it.”