Troy Roberts Talks Gear, His Jazz Quartet, and Creating a New Sound in the Jazz World

Date Posted: November 01, 2021

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Saxophonist Troy Roberts shares his story how he met his guitarist, Tim Jago, their latest album, Best Buddies, and how their guitar quartet is inviting a different sound in the jazz world.

How long have you known Tim Jago and how did you meet?

I’ve known Tim Jago since 2002. We were college buddies at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Back then, the undergraduate degree was divided into three programs: jazz, classical, and contemporary. Tim was initially in the contemporary degree. Although I was in the jazz course, I played in a lot of contemporary course ensembles when they needed horns. Back then, Tim was a metal-head – really long hair, low-hangin’ telecaster, and a shredder to match! Whilst on a visit back to Perth after moving to the US, I heard he had switched over to the Jazz course, and his name was popping up on almost every jazz gig in town. I checked him out on my friend Mat Jodrell’s gig at the Perth Jazz Society, and was not only blown away, but hardly recognized him with his haircut and a Gibson (L-5 I think?). We played a lot in Aus during my annual trips home, including the opening of The Ellington Jazz Club, the Perth International Jazz Festival, and the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. So when he also moved to the US shortly after, I added him to my regular working band, ‘Nu-Jive’.

This instrumentation is different from some of your last records (sax + drums, or Nu-Jive's sax + keys + bass + drums). How is playing in a quartet with guitar different for you?

In terms of jazz quartet, guitar voicings are generally more sparse than piano voicings, so that space gives me more freedom than quartet with piano. Now of course, I’m blessed to play with world-class pianists and guitarists alike, all with great ears so I feel free anyway, but I guess guitar quartet feels a lot more open.

Comparing Nu-Jive to guitar quartet is like chalk & cheese really. For example, the guitar role in a jazz quartet is similar to a pianist’s role, and the written material is minimal. But in Nu-Jive, there are many layered parts in the written material. The guitar role here is more chameleon-esque; an equal voice to horn melody, or countermelody voice, comping in ways the keys don’t (rhythmic single-note muted figures, volume swells, strumming), and in some cases, doubling written bass lines.

So the guitar quartet is very much in the Jazz tradition, whilst Nu-Jive, appearing to be completely new and modern, is actually a unique combination of many other stylistic trends (gospel, funk, baroque, Indian-classical, R&B, Venezuelan and Cuban music to be precise). Two different crafts. Both tied together with a deep sense of Jazz etiquette.

All of the songs are originals. Did you create this group to have a vehicle to play your songs, or did you write songs for this group?

Although Tim and I have been playing this music with various rhythm sections around the country, these pieces were written initially for this specific group. The four of us are college buddies from way back, so when I was in Perth during the beginning of the pandemic, we were in a beautifully rare situation in that we were all in the same town at the same time and for a long time, with absolutely nothing else going on!

So we got together to jam every week, keeping each other sane. No project in mind. No upcoming gigs to rehearse for. No ridiculously hard original music to prepare (which seems to be a big part of our sideman careers these days). Just FUN, jamming on standards, which is where it all began for almost any Jazz musician. So when we decided to press record, Tim and I wrote our own ‘head charts’ specifically for this group, to basically put an original stamp on these fun jams.

Troy Roberts and Tim Jago released their latest album, "Best Buddies" earlier this year

The first tune (Chythm Ranges) is clearly a nod to rhythm changes. Are any of the other tunes based on existing songs, or changes?

Correct. ‘Chythm Ranges’ is one of Tim’s, based on ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’, and yes – all of the compositions on this album are contrafacts – new melodies written on existing harmonic structures.

Tim also wrote: ‘A New Porpoise’ (based on Bronislaw Kaper’s ‘On Green Dolphin Street’), and ‘Overlook’ (based on Harold Arlen’s ‘My Shining Hour’).

I wrote: ‘Best Buddies’ (based on Benny Golson’s ‘Stablemates’), ‘Evil Eye’ (based on Matt Dennis’ ‘Angel Eyes’ but also has miniscule melodic references to Mal Waldren’s ‘Soul Eyes’, Burton Lane’s ‘Old Devil Moon’ and a bassline reference to the intro of Gene de Paul’s ‘Star Eyes’), ‘Pho Twenny’, as in April 2020 (based on Gene de Paul’s ‘I’ll Remember April’), ‘King of Hearts’ (based on Cole Porter’s ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’) and ‘Halfway House in C Major’ (based on Cole Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, and melodically reversed snippets of Tadd Dameron’s ‘Hot House’).

And we all collectively came up with the interlude, ‘Zeena’ (based on the interlude section of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘A Night In Tunisia’).

What is the most important thing about a saxophone setup for you?

I’ve had a variety of ‘main horns’ over the years, ranging from my Yamaha YTS-21, to my 1932 Chu Berry, to my current 1951 Super Balanced action – all of which I still possess and play. But my friends all tell me I still sound the same on all of them, so the thing I’ve discovered over the years, is that it’s all in the mouthpiece/reed/embouchure. That’s really the beginning of your sound. The rest of the tube really just ‘guides’ the pitches. Some horns better than others, but it’s still on you to ‘pitch’ the notes from the embouchure/mouthpiece.

For me, it’s important for the equipment not to have an overbearing say on my sound, because I personally can only go so far from there.. Example; a high-step baffle mouthpiece will guarantee me power and ‘cut’, but that’s about all I can do with that.. However, a mouthpiece with a modest to low roll-over baffle allows me to achieve that same power and cut by narrowing the shape in my embouchure, and in turn, by expanding that shape, I can also get a big, warm, round and fluffy sound on the same set up.

It’s important that the equipment yields control to my embouchure, so that I can sound however I need to across a wide variety of styles with one set up.

" the thing I’ve discovered over the years, is that it’s all in the mouthpiece/reed/embouchure. That’s really the beginning of your sound." - Troy Roberts

How did you settle on the V16 set up?

Well, I’m not one for change. When I find something that works, I stick with it for a long time. It doesn’t happen often, but when my mind occasionally wanders with ‘gear flu’, I’m always cured by an hour in the practice room. I fell in love with V16 reeds around 1997. Of course, I tried many different reeds in the beginning, but these had everything I was, and still am looking for in a reed. At the time I used size 4 reeds on an Otto Link 10 – first metal, then hard rubber. That was my set up for about the next 10 years.

After dropping my mouthpiece on a tour around 2007, I got to know John Thomas at Thomas Woodwinds, who salvaged that piece, and also made me a very close replacement, but a little smaller (.125 opening) with which I used 3.5 V16 reeds. I played this lovely set up for the next few years.

Around 2015, heavy road dates had my embouchure fatigued, so I switched temporarily (or so I thought) to a V16 T7 just to give my chops a break, but still be able to shed on my week off. I enjoyed how easy it was to play, without losing one element of my sound/tone/projection. But I also found intonation a lot easier, and discovered what an absolutely perfect match the V16 mouthpiece and V16 reeds are.

I’ve been on this set up ever since, and I feel like my sound is more even across the range of the horn, my embouchure is more relaxed, it’s the best balance of ‘air’ and ‘note’ I’ve ever had, and I have less of that ‘pinched’ quality in my upper register which I always hated in my sound. I love this set up so much that it’s become my soprano (V16 S6 with V16 3 reeds) and alto (V16 A6 S+ with V16 3 reeds) set up too.

You travel all over the world playing saxophone. How do you make sure your equipment is working well?

Mostly sensible preventative measures. I have super protective custom made JL Woodwind cases which have proved their worth, and saved my horns many times over on the road. It doesn’t have to be a custom case, but a seriously protective case (both outside and inside) is an invaluable investment, given our performance is dependent on the condition of our horns.

Over the years, I’ve learned to fix the little basics myself. Perhaps that’s from years of traveling with my student Yamaha which was always falling apart (but still played great!). So out of habit, I still tuck away some cork, glue, blade, tweezers and elastic bands in my suitcase just in case.

I have a leak light at home, which enables me to best communicate with my repair person. And when I am home, I make sure I get my horn to the hands of an expert repair person. Usually Bill Singer, John Leadbetter, or Mario Scaramuzza. But a perfect service/overhaul is kind of useless with a sub-par case. I have a stand by Woodwind Design – one of the most sturdy and compact saxophone stands around, which lives in my case at all times. My horn is either on that stand, being played, or in the case.

I’m also pretty obsessive about equipment hygiene. I clean the reed, inside of the tube, neck and mouthpiece after every practice session or gig to ensure longevity of the reed and pads. I can’t remember the last time I needed a pad changed, and I put that down to this very practice.

Troy Roberts and Tim Jago are two, exciting touring musicians. If you'd like to discover more about each musician, visit Troy's website and Tim's website.

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