You might not expect the principal saxophonist of the New York Philharmonic to have much to do, except when the orchestra is playing L'Arlesienne or a 20th-century work. Yet Albert Regni has no trouble keeping occupied between Philharmonic gigs. "I also play with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet, so I get a lot of experience doing all those different kinds of classical music," he says. "And I also do a lot of studio work, where I get exposed to jazz and commercial music. One day two years back, when I was playing in Garrison Keillor's show when he was doing it in New York, I spent the day rehearsing for that, then I did the show from six to eight, then I rushed from that hall in Brooklyn over to Lincoln Center to play bass clarinet in The Rite of Spring, then from 10:30 to 1:30 I was playing in a club with a jazz group. There are times when I'll be playing Turandot at the Met, and once I've done the first act with the children's choir, that part's finished about a quarter to nine and I don't play again for an hour, so sometimes during that hour I run over and play a piece with the Philharmonic. So, sure, there's not so much to do for the saxophone at the Philharmonic, but when you put that together with all the other things going on in town, you could be playing several different performances in the same evening."
When Regni manages to draw a spare breath, he's usually blowing it back out again as a member (and the sole remaining founder) of the American Saxophone Quartet. Regni's classical work with the quartet and as a recitalist, as well as his interests in classy jazz, are being documented by a new label, Sons of Sound Recorded Music. This operation is managed, produced, and engineered by Jeff Penney, who spends his weekdays on the Wall Street trading floor. Among Sons of Sound's other initial projects are two one-woman musical-theater releases, both with lyrics and music by Ron Melrose. Katie Nutt portrays Mary Magdalene in Early One Morning (SSPCD003), which holds up well as a pop-oriented song cycle. Judy Malloy portrays a variety of characters in the lengthier The Missing Peace (SSPCD001, two discs), an involving, feminist fairytale in a quasi-Celtic idiom. But the label promises an equally strong commitment to contemporary classical music, currently with discs revolving around Regni.
The American Saxophone Quartet's debut on Sons of Sound, Spanning the River (SSPCD002), opens with transcriptions of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti but really focuses on music of the late 20th century: a transcription of Histoire du Tango by Astor Piazzolla, and new quartets by David Matthews (known primarily as a jazz player and an arranger for the likes of James Brown, Bonnie Raitt, and Paul Simon) and Bob Mintzer (a former member of the American Saxophone Quartet, who now plays with the jazz-pop group Yellowjackets). Subsequent releases include a Regni recital called El Amor (SSPCD005) and Gandy Dancer (SSPCD004), the first widespread issue of 1984 sessions by the quartet's original members. Another disc planned for the current ASQ lineup should include the substantial suite Views from a Train by Michael Holober, written for the quartet and clarinetist Larry Combs, and premiered in March. This last item is one of the fruits of The Commission Project, a nonprofit effort of which Penney is an officer. The Commission Project teams a classical, jazz, or pop composer with music students (mostly precollege, it seems); over several months, the composer works regularly with the kids and develops a new piece for them to premiere. About 130 titles have been commissioned so far, with more than a dozen of them in current release.
"Views from a Train is a rather diverse piece that features the clarinet," Regni explains. "It has a long first movement with a quite extended clarinet cadenza that segues into a second movement which is very rhythmic, very energetic. That goes to a very lyrical third movement that features all of the instruments in solo passages, and then to a fourth movement that's very contrapuntal and very rhythmically intricate. With the exception of the first movement, the clarinet is just one of the guys. One of the things I like is to have composers write pieces for another instrument with the saxophone quartet. We've tried to do that all along; on the recording from '84 that's going to be released, there's Calvin Hampton's Labyrinth, with soprano voice and saxophone quartet. We also do a program with a trombonist named Jim Pugh playing a piece that he wrote. I think that having diverse repertoire, with a soloist joining the group, just makes a concert more interesting."
Regni started playing the clarinet when he was nine or 10 years old, and didn't get his hands onto his first saxophone until he was 12. "1 immediately liked it because I could play solos and other different kinds of music I liked, which I couldn't do on the clarinet," he recalls. Regni made appearances on teen amateur shows, and played on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour three or four times as a kid. "So I got a lot of early experience playing saxophone solos, but in college 1 was a clarinet major; saxophone wasn't offered in those days at Eastman. The saxophone was something done after hours, at jazz clubs or playing in some loft somewhere. Then I was given an opportunity to play in the Rochester Philharmonic as a saxophonist, so I got some early experience in an orchestra playing with people like Jose' Iturhi and Erich Leinsdort, a pretty high level of symphonic playing, while I was still a student. I was taught by Jose' Iturbi how to play Ravel's Bolero; I got it right from the hands of the master. Then, after I got a degree in clarinet I went into the army band in Washington, D.C., as a clarinetist. But again I found a way to play saxophone. The vocalist Steve Lawrence was in the service at that time, and I was the saxophonist for a jazz octet we had that would accompany him at various army entertainment functions. After the army I went to New York and started working with the big bands; that was the tail end of when the name bands were still going. Subsequently I played Radio City Music Hall, and through there I made a contact with the New York Philharmonic and started playing saxophone with the Philharmonic in 1963. I've been doing saxophone there ever since, except for a three-year stint in the late '70s when I was professor of saxophone at the University of Texas in Austin.
"In 1981 decided I couldn't get New York out of my system, so I got out of teaching, came back, and that was the beginning of the American Saxophone Quartet. Bob Mintzer (tenor sax), George Marge (baritone), Jack Kripl (alto), and I were the original group. For a couple of years we'd just play after hours, just for the love of playing saxophone quartets. Then we decided we wanted to do concerts, and in 1984 we made a recording which was only released on cassette at the time. We were just beginning to see if we could arouse some interest in having it released on a record or CD when George died, and that bummed us all out, and we all just sat around for a while. We didn't know what to do with the recording, and the group fizzled out after that. Then there was a period of several years when the American Saxophone Quartet was made up of all different people every time it played. Finally, in the early '90s the present group started to evolve. I had become associated with David Carroll, who is the associate principal bassoon at the New York Philharmonic, and who loved playing the saxophone; we needed a tenor saxophone player, so I asked him to play in the group. That was the first solid footing we had since George died, with another person like myself who was interested in playing with a serious, topnotch professional group. David Demsey appeared around 1993; he came to the New York area as a professor at William Paterson College in New Jersey, and I'd known him when I was doing a sabbatical teaching at the Eastman School of Music -- he'd been working on his Ph.D. then. I was very impressed by his work, so when he was in town I asked him to join the group on alto saxophone. Lino Gomez, who plays baritone saxophone, I'd known through affiliations in New York City, and he was the last member to join the group, about 1995. This present group clicked immediately. We all have the same ideas about where we want to go with the group, and the same kind of enthusiasm for performing the music we play.
"It's a very diverse group in that we all have a classical background but we've played all kinds of things, so we're not geared to just one style of music. People don't know whether to classify us as jazz or classical or somewhere in between. I like to think we perform both styles of music at a level that's appropriate to both. At our concerts, we're getting people that come to hear jazz, we're getting people that come to hear chamber music, and we're getting very respected instrumentalists who come to hear what we do as a virtuoso group. I think in general more people are going out to hear a more diverse type of music than they once did. People who go to hear chamber music now will expect to hear something that's less classical sometimes. And there's such a crossover of musicians these days; in their conservatory training now, musicians are exposed to more kinds of music than they were when I was a student. Way back in the '80s it was all classical music. We were trained to go into a symphony orchestra, and there was no other training in the school. None. Now, some 40 years later, the diversity of the music there is amazing, and- people are no longer so stilted in what they listen to."
So matching up with the eclectic Sons of Sound has suited him fine. Regni connected with the label through Ned Corman, the director of the Commission Project, which Penney chairs. "Ned and I were students together at Eastman," says Regni. "He became interested in the saxophone quartet at one point and put me in touch with Jeff Penney. That's when I learned of Jeff's skills as a recording engineer, and between him and Bernard Hoffer, who I've worked with for years in recording commercial and classical music -- Bernie Hoffer wrote the music for the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, so he's been a respected film and commercial and classical composer in New York for a number of years-so between the three of us, we were able to put these new recordings together.
"We would like to record the Holober piece with Larry Combs this fall. Other than that, I've completed a project which should be out any day now. It's called El Amor, with saxophone and string trio; it features works of Piazzolla, which I arranged, and also a composition by Bernard Hoffer, a five-movement piece called Suite after Baroque Styles. It's in the manner of various Baroque composers -- Bach, Vivaldi, Scarlatti -- or saxophone with string trio. There's also a duo by Pierre Max Dubois for alto saxophone and violin called Feu de Paille, which means "straw fire." It's a French expression that means kind of an overnight success, something very startling and exciting, but that goes away quickly. And then it has five arrangements I did of Astor Piazzolla's tango music. I'd never listened that closely or become wrapped up in his music until 1997, on a tour I took of South America with the New York Philharmonic. Just rummaging through the various stores I found his music and recordings, and before long I started dabbling in rewriting his stuff for saxophone. Piazzolla to me is a conglomeration of so many styles. He's certainly rooted in the tango, but there are these wonderful jazz harmonies, and Jewish klezmer music. It just reminds me of a style that could only come out of New York, where he spent his early years. I should also say that for this CD the strings are assembled from my associates at the Metropolitan Opera, except for the violinist -- that's my daughter Marissa, the principal second violin at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.
"Also, the quartet is looking forward to a concert this fall at Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall with saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. We'll be doing some pieces together, and hopefully the quartet will commission something from a Latin American composer. With any luck that will all be recorded." So when, exactly, does Regni get a chance to breathe without his lips around a reed? "Oh, I'm interested in fishing now," he says. "I do that instead of doing Broadway shows like I once did. I'm trying to keep time for my wife. But I'm also trying to make more time for my work as a soloist, to do the kind of music I like to do, and write more arrangements for the saxophone quartet. I feel that I'm at a stage of my life where I've earned my stripes and I want to do the things I want to do. And that means the saxophone quartet, because that's always been a source of great satisfaction to me."
Fanfare September/October 1999 pp.106-112
©1999 Fanfare. Used by permission.
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