Alexa Tarantino is an award-winning, vibrant, young jazz saxophonist, woodwind doubler, composer, and educator.
She has appeared with a wide variety of ensembles and leads the Alexa Tarantino Quartet. Firefly, Alexa’s third record for Posi-Tone Records released April 2021, hitting #6 on the JazzWeek charts. Her previous album, Clarity, peaked at #9 on the JazzWeek charts and landed at #54 for JazzWeek’s Top 100 records of 2020.
She holds a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies from The Juilliard School and Bachelor’s degrees in Jazz Saxophone Performance and Music Education from the Eastman School of Music. Alexa is Founder and Director of the Rockport Jazz Workshop in Rockport, Massachusetts and Co-Founder of A Step Ahead Jazz with pianist Steven Feifke. In February 2021, Alexa launched her new virtual community-style jazz education platform, The Alexa Approach.
What was your initial inspiration to play the saxophone?
I was initially inspired to play because of the legacy and quality of the jazz program in the West Hartford public schools, where I grew up. I saw a young woman play the saxophone in the high school jazz band and that is what set me on the path. This is why it’s become so important and meaningful for me to mentor young female saxophonists. Of course, once I dug deeper into the music, my inspirations were Phil Woods, Cannonball etc.
What was your early experience like playing the saxophone? Was it difficult or did things just come easy for you?
The value of hard work and a strong work ethic were instilled in me from a young age. I didn't grow up in a musical family, so I remember feeling like I was constantly playing catchup. I tried to absorb as much as I could to get to the next level. Now, I certainly appreciate that my parents instilled those values in me, and it didn’t matter that they weren’t musicians. I spent all my evenings and weekends practicing. My professors at Eastman, such as Chien-Kwan Lin, helped to propel that focus and drive further also.
What were some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced? Have you ever thought about quitting?
I think the only time I’ve ever had thoughts of quitting was in COVID. It wasn’t necessarily about quitting but more about “Was that the last time I would play in Europe, walk out on stage for a massive crowd, experience an encore, etc?” It was difficult to stay inspired and motivated, and also worrisome to entertain those thoughts that perhaps the jazz scene or my career had reached its peak. In the end, the music always brings me back. Listening to the records I first fell in love with, watching a student have a breakthrough, or learning a new tune have all helped to stay grounded during this time.
What have been some of the highlights of your musical journey so far?
Relationships are the strongest part of our careers. It’s amazing to be a part of this campaign with Chien-Kwan Lin and Jimmy Greene, both have been teachers/mentors to me over the years. I first met Andrew Hadro at Litchfield Jazz Camp when I was a student, and he helped to welcome me into the Vandoren family when I moved to New York. I met Wynton Marsalis in high school and now I am fortunate to perform/tour with his ensembles. I once introduced myself to Philip Bailey of Earth Wind and Fire, to thank him for a scholarship I received which he had funded, and he invited me to headline a festival with him that evening. All of this is to say that above all, meeting and playing with great people is the highlight!
If you could share some advice with your younger self, or other young musicians just getting started, what would it be?
Ask as many questions as you can! Don’t worry about what others are doing - we are all at our own points in our journeys. Seek out mentors who will support and challenge you at the same time. Absorb as much information, practice time, transcription, and live performance as you can. Try to stay encouraged anytime you “fail” or play a wrong note…that’s how we learn!