All Things Saxophone, Performing, and Personal Life with Joe Lulloff

Interview conducted by Rebecca Scholldorf and John Hylkema



It’s a real privilege to be able to teach at your own alma mater, Michigan State, after going to college there and studying with one of the greatest saxophone teachers alive, Jim Forger. Now that he’s the Dean it’s great to be able to go back and teach. I’ve been there for 26 years now, and at Illinois for 7 years before that, which is a great school. I think saxophone finds itself at so many great programs throughout the Midwest particularly because that’s where all the band programs originated. This goes back to Leonard Falcone at Michigan State and William Revelli at Michigan, Mark Hindsley at Illinois, John Paynter at Northwestern; all of these programs have spawned the interest of serious saxophonists and wind instrumentalists. The reason we find ourselves in the Midwest are because of the bands and the musical communities that exist particularly around our major city centers like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and other places. I think saxophone has really found a place in our current musical spectrum because we are starting to find a lot of saxophonists that do well in competitions, a lot of quartets do very well in what’s offered throughout the classical realm.

We’re starting to see a lot of wonderful pieces written for our instrument by some well-known composers, and even some not very well-known composers. These sort of compositions are really challenging us, tapping into our expression not only as individuals but as artists to challenge our virtuosity. I think saxophonists have been able to respond to the composers very well. It’s very exciting for me and my students at Michigan State to be in this type of culture. As teachers we are trying to develop certain types of cultures for our students, I think our mission is to pay it forward by providing a motivational learning environment with tools in which our students can succeed. From a performer’s side, you’re teaching when you perform. I know that when I’m performing there are students out there listening to us and gaining insights on how to interpret a certain piece or how to shape a specific phrase, how to articulate, and how to handle yourself on stage. It’s a great responsibility to be involved in this profession and to work with these wonderful musicians, and my son is one of them!



Where is your son studying now?

Jordan is at Northwestern University, he’s now officially my “grand-student.” I actually have a couple of great-grand-students now and I’m very proud of that. Jordan was at Michigan State for his undergraduate and now he’s studying with Taimur Sullivan who’s my former student. Taimur’s three of four years during his undergraduate were with me at the University of Illinois until I moved to teach at Michigan State in the late 80’s. Then Taimur came to Michigan State and did his master’s degree with me. Of all things, he was actually a high school student of mine! It’s really special for the Lulloff’s to see that kind of continued legacy. We’ve done that another time too, Jordan’s high school teacher was Jonathan Nichol, who’s also a Vandoren artist. Jonathan was my student, since he did his master’s and doctorate at Michigan State and now he’s at the University of Oklahoma. It’s really cool to see these types of things happen. Jordan’s also studied with my wife Janet who’s a terrific saxophonist and he’s doing really well in the Chicago area. He’s got a quartet called Nois for Illinois and they just got into Fischoff along with a lot of other great things. They specialize in newer music and are really stretching the boundaries with that. They’re pushing the limit with what a saxophone quartet does. The traditional saxophone quartet was Marcel Mule and his quartet that I’d listen to when I was a student. Daniel Deffayet and the American Saxophone Quartet, the Indiana Saxophone Quartet and a few other groups like that were all huge. I remember the New York Saxophone Quartet were something I grew up with. They were playing most of the traditional French repertoire and a good amount of new pieces, but certainly nothing like the realm that we have today with all these terrific new compositions.


Lulloff

With your Capital Quartet, do you find influence from the past or do you try to incorporate what’s going on today as well?

Today’s Capital Quartet is much more different than when it started in ‘91. As military saxophonists you just want to get together and play some gigs! When I joined they were starting to branch out and do new music. Since I joined in 2002 we’ve developed our orchestral pops program and are going out looking to develop new programs with orchestras. We also have some commission projects, which I can’t really talk about yet, but there are some big projects coming up soon with orchestras. On the recital series side we’re starting to reach into the transcriptions a lot of the modern students are playing. Most of things we are doing though are actually written for us. We’re trying to branch out with our repertoire in combining classical and jazz.

We also do a lot of educational clinics such as the Las Vegas Saxophone Day, the Southern California All-State Conference, a conference up in Rhode Island with NEMC, and we did an educational-type of clinic in Quebec too.


Have you been doing a lot with the American Saxophone Alliance?

Absolutely, I’m heavily involved in every national conference and even a few of the world conferences. We plan on going to the next up and coming conference in Croatia and we were just at the previous one in France. There’s also been a lot of recording we’ve been involved in.

Begins talking about the Capital Quartet ...

We’re not sure about doing CD’s much anymore, we’re actually considering just doing individual downloads. I find that if you ask a lot of students these days how they’re listening to their music, like my son for instance, it’s all downloaded onto their computer. It’s unfortunate for the music industry but that’s how we have to keep up. I’m personally starting to do a lot of YouTube videos, I’m going to be putting a whole series up along with some some recordings on a new website I’m creating this summer. So those are a lot of the things we are involved in; a lot of recording and educational outreach. If an orchestra or band, particularly from a university calls us, we will go out and do that. We’ve also been doing these residencies about three times a year. We’ve done a couple up in Michigan as well as one down in Arizona. Our last one was in November at Arizona State University. There’s a lot of venues down in Phoenix! We’ll also be doing a Michigan residency in October. In addition to the residencies we’ll be doing a lot of community concert series.

"Playing in a quartet is like a marriage, there’s a give and take, you have to yield a lot, and really know more about that other person, it’s a huge relationship. You really have to be able to play your part on auto-pilot." - Joe Lulloff

When preparing to tour overseas, are there certain measures you take to prepare yourselves physically and mentally?

Yeah, that’s where the residencies come in. If we have a concert at a saxophone conference then that’s an opportunity to try certain things out before performing in front of the top professional saxophonists in the world. At the Brevard Music Center, where I teach in the summertime, we’ll have some type of rehearsal retreat where we’ll do two or three days of just practicing. Those two or three day residencies help us greatly. Before we get to those rehearsals each of us will make a huge part of our preparation being able to perform our individual parts as if we were performing them on a recital. You can have the technique prepared at the highest level, but when you have a new piece that’s being put together there are three other entities you have to “dance” with. Playing in a quartet is like a marriage, there’s a give and take, you have to yield a lot, and really know more about that other person, it’s a huge relationship. You really have to be able to play your part on auto-pilot. For me, I kind of will memorize my part, or at least know the music well enough to be able to focus on other aspects of the quartet instead of just my part. You want to be connected with your ensemble members and have your eyes out of the music.



So for the new pieces you’re performing you don’t have a recording to reference, you just have the score, correct?

Correct. I mean, there’s MIDI recordings but they don’t do the music any justice. There’s certain things about MIDI that help a little like the tempo and maybe a little bit with the interplay of counterpoint, but as far as any type of blend or a group sound I’m not really a fan of MIDI. For me, studying music is a lot of score study and a lot of singing. I also listen to a lot of other pieces written by the same composer. It helps you get to know their background of individual writing. It’s just like any other type of in-depth research, it’s always about coming prepared as well as possible. We know that we will have to take one step back for every two steps forward.



I’d also love to talk to you about this new Steve Bryant concerto I’m doing. This is a composition that’s taken the classical saxophone community by storm a bit, people love Steven’s wind band compositions. Kevin Sedatole, the director of bands at Michigan State, approached me a couple years after he had been at the school. We’ve done a lot of great musical projects together like John Mackey’s saxophone concerto, along with having a lot of fun on tour playing at the CBDA Conference. We were getting ready to go down to Indianapolis for a performance and Kevin said to me, “You know, if you were to have someone write a concerto for you, who would you like to commission that?” I told him that this was something I hadn’t thought of and I inquired why he asked. A friend of Kevin, who became a friend of mine, named Howard Gourwitz is a lawyer and former saxophonist out of the Detroit area. He had been expressing interest in bringing up a project in the saxophone community. Howard is a very unique and special person, he does a lot of philanthropic work and a lot of activity for both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. He’s also a professional sports agent for many NHL hockey players like (Nicklas) Lidstrom, Steve Ott, and others. He’s done quite a lot which includes supporting commissioned works such as Mackey’s Asphalt Cocktail, which was premiered by Michigan State’s band and Kevin Sedatole. This concerto that Howard wanted to be written was connected to my playing as well as some connections with family and friends. I was absolutely blown away that he thought of me and I thought that it would be a fantastic thing to do, because I absolutely love Steven Bryant’s writing.

The concerto was premiered in 2014 and has received 10 performances in the last 2.5 years that I’ve done. I’ve performed it with the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble, of course, along with the University of Oklahoma, Dallas Winds, the Navy Band, it’s been performed in Europe at the World Saxophone Conference too. I’ve been really proud of this piece and what makes it unique is that Steven Bryant, being a saxophonist, writes from a very understanding perspective. It’s a very virtuosic piece, but the unique thing is that it combines some jazz improvisation along with a fully improvised cadenza in the second movement. I absolutely love collaborating with a composer for a commissioned work like this so, if the composer is willing, I love to get together and even have a coffee while talking about the music! So we got together in early 2014 for a weekend, I went down and played through a bunch of stuff and Steven said, “Why don’t you just improvise for a while?” So I sat down and improvised, and now he’s got all these improvised tracks, I hope he doesn’t share them! (Chuckles) He ended up writing the cadenza based on some of this improvised music. A lot of the thematic material throughout the second movement is also based on my improvisation. So when you look at the score and see what’s written in it, it’s what he (Steven Bryant) transcribed from these (improvisations).


There’s three improvised parts throughout the piece and then he gives the option in an extended section with band accompaniment to either improvise or play my solo that’s written out. The first two phrases of the concerto are my improvised solo. The neat thing about the cadenza he wrote out is that I told him I didn’t particularly like it, which is why I got to improvise it. When we published the work I actually had my students transcribe the improvisations which ended up being a fun little project for them. They would transcribe the recording session of it and, as we speak, I also have a student transcribing the Navy Band session before it gets published through Steven. When you look at the concertos in the saxophone world, we don’t have one that really encourages the performer to find their own voice from a jazz perspective, because that cadenza is probably two minutes of improvisation. It’s really cool because the third movement has a little bit of an open improvisation too which can become very virtuosic. At the very end of the piece in the music it says, “The performer should take off in a jet pack”! (Chuckles)

We have to start paying the music forward whether we are teaching it, commissioning new pieces, playing it, along with our actions and how we carry ourselves. It’s very important to support one another and collaborate more. In terms of how saxophonists have developed, we’re starting to see a lot more of these collaborations; whether they’re quartets, commissioning projects, kickstarters. We need more people getting together and working together. I want to be a part of all those types of things. We have a lot of collaborations at Michigan State. We have a lot of students doing a commission with composers. Every master’s and doctoral student has to have a commissioned project on their recital or somewhere in their degree program. That can be with a student here at Michigan State or it could be a student from one of their past institutions.

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