Pat Labarbera: An Elder Speaks
by Chris Maskell
Pat LaBarbera is best known for his work on the tenor saxophone. With tenures in bands led by jazz icons such as Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich, LaBarbera has a wealth of experience that he shares with students at Toronto’s Humber College, where he has taught since 1976.
LaBarbera plays frequently with his own quartet in Toronto, which has been together for over 10 years, but he enjoys creating music with musicians he does not often play with – as he will be in the Geggie concert – as it “keeps you on your toes for listening.” Playing with different people also makes the improviser respond differently, LaBarbera explained. For example, “the piano player might comp differently, may voice differently,” and this evokes different responses from each member in the band.
“I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, and played with a rhythm section there, and it was very exciting. Because of the freshness of new people and new players, you respond differently to [them], and you don’t get trapped into old habits. You’re on your toes because you never know what’s going to happen. If you’re with an established group, you feel comfortable and you know certain directions that things will go. With a new group, it keeps you on edge, and that’s what I like.”
LaBarbera explained that he frequently travels to different towns by himself and hires the local rhythm sections there. This is because it is “pretty cost-prohibitive to take your own group on the road in the States, but in Europe, you can go over with a rehearsed band.” Promoters in Europe will pay for groups from North America as “they’re players that they don’t see all the time, the budgets are there, and it’s usually during festival season.”
In the Geggie Series show, he expected the musicians (who also include Montreal pianist Josh Rager and Toronto drummer Nick Fraser) will play “things from my quartet book, and John Geggie has some things that he has brought in also.” Unfortunately, Ottawa’s audience will not be the first to hear this group play together, as they are playing at the Montreal jazz club Upstairs the night before. However, this means that the musicians will be that much more comfortable together to present an evening of thought-provoking music.
After the Ottawa concert, he’s headed to Calgary to play with one of their big bands, then back to Ottawa to play with the Humber faculty big band at MusicFest in May, travelling to the States in June, and then returning to Toronto as part of the quartet opening for Natalie Cole at the local jazz festival there.
Musical Lessons from Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones and Joe Henderson
After playing in the Buddy Rich Big Band for seven years, and with Elvin Jones off and on for upwards of 10 years, LaBarbera was able to absorb many important musical skills and lessons from these legendary drummers and their groups. He also studied with the renowned saxophonist Joe Henderson around 1971, and this affected both his playing and teaching styles.
“From Buddy Rich, I learned a lot about the show business aspect of it, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean how to read a room, how to walk in and find out what you think the band should do, how to pace the sets, how to get general sense of the audience and how to talk to the audience.”
Rich also taught LaBarbera not to overplay.”I’d go in to hear some bands and they’d play for an hour and a half sometimes, and I felt they really should have cut the sets a little bit shorter. Sometimes an audience can’t digest a lot of high-energy music, so you have to learn how to read the room and work the room.” The constant travelling of the road gig with Buddy Rich also taught him stamina, as they were on the bus a lot of the time.
“With Elvin, I think I learned a lot about the inner workings and the sensitivity of music, because it was a small group. With a big band, you learn some things, but you’re kind of limited in your solo aspect because there are many other soloists in the band. Because it is a big band, you don’t have a chance to play and stretch out, so basically your solos are capsulated. As a matter of fact, when I first went on Elvin’s band, the only advice he told me was that I wasn’t playing long enough. He said, ‘You have a band, and you’ve got to take your time to develop [your solo].’ From the small group, you have time to develop a solo and pace it, and so you work on these different levels of dynamic where you can move the dynamic up and build the intensity, and then the group goes with you, and then you can drop it down for the next soloist.”
“Joe was great, the lessons were kind of the way [I taught] when I first started. I just had a student come by, and there was no set time, we would just go. So when I studied with Joe, there was no hourly fee, it was something like 20 or 25 dollars. We would work on one technique. He’d give me one thing, and I would go away for a month and come back. He just said: ‘Put this note in here and play this, now do it from every chord tone, now do it in every key, now no articulation, work on the time…now come back in a month.’ He would play the piano, and I would play the saxophone; he never took out his saxophone during a lesson, he always played piano. I got a lot out of those lessons with Joe.”
Jazz and Music Education Today
LaBarbera also offered some unique insights into how jazz education has changed over the years.
“When it first began, and the way I learned it, it wasn’t a degree granting [program.] When I went to Berklee [from 1964-7], you didn’t get a degree, you got a diploma. They were basically trade schools to train musicians to get out into the field and perform. [We learned] exactly what we were going to face when you got out and played in the real world.”
This is quite different from the education scene today, LaBarbera said. Many schools, such as Humber College, no longer offer a diploma option and only have degree programs. While the course content has changed due to the more academically-focused degree, the level of players entering the schools in first year has increased as well.
“The young kids coming out of high school today are much more advanced than I think I was, and I remember when I first started teaching at Humber, we didn’t have that level of player that we get now. So the young kids that are going into the degree are really well schooled when they come in, they know a lot of the stuff that we would be teaching years ago in first and second year. Of course, we have a strict, solid audition process which means that we only have maybe 15 to 20 slots each year. Some of the other schools, like McGill, they maybe only have only one, two or maybe three saxophones they can take every year. Everyone coming out of high school knows this, so they’re doing the work at home now.”
In his experience, LaBarbera said, when students graduate from their university or college program, many already have an idea of what the life of a musician is like because they have been gigging and teaching while in school.
While jazz musicians are mindful of the past, with their various influences and the traditions of the genre, they also keep focused on future projects or goals. LaBarbera said that he feels he is “long overdue for a CD. I lost the desire to do something of my own three or four years ago. I did a record called Crossing the Line with Randy Brecker, and once that was out, I got involved with a lot of other projects where I was the saxophone player with a lot of different bands. I was doing enough recording, but I kind of let my own stuff go by the wayside.”
“That’s something I’m looking forward to doing, probably another CD project, and it will probably be sometime after the end of this year.”
This upcoming Saturday will be a rare chance for audiences in Ottawa to hear Pat LaBarbera. With his years of experience and excellent musical ideas, he is a pleasure to listen to regardless of the setting he is playing in. In the meantime, listen to his Juno-award winning album from 1999, Deep In A Dream, and you’ll hear a true Canadian master of the saxophone at work.