Sunday, November 11, 2012

Larry Munoz "Laz Jazz" Interview

Jenny: How did you begin in music and why is it so important to you?

Larry: It was my older brother’s idea to join the band program when he and my sister reached 6 th grade. After I saw them at Jr. High concerts while I was still in grade school, I decided I wanted to give it a try when I reached 6th grade.

Jenny: Why did you decide to become a Jazz musician? What influenced you to pick up a saxophone?

Larry:Seeing a sax solo that I can vaguely remember anymore at one of my brother’s & sister’s Jr. High concerts caught my interest and influenced me toward taking up the sax when it was my turn to start band in 6th grade. By the time I reached 8 th grade and played in the “stage band,” an interest in learning how to improvise started brewing after seeing others doing it. I remember making my first rather nervous and feeble attempt at it during an 8 th grade rehearsal and it was awful. I had no concept of jazz theory at the time, and it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in high school that our band director brought someone in to start teaching improvisational skills after school. Then later I had some private lessons where I learned some jazz theory, and played my first decent improvisational solo with a throw-together band in a shopping mall. It was the same thing that all new improvisers start off with: B-flat blues. Eventually, I ended up teaching myself jazz scales as needed all the way up to this day.

Jenny: Who are some of the musicians that have influenced you as a player/composer?

Larry: This answer is going to be loaded…there may be some surprises within it.
I fell in love with contemporary jazz when I was 18 after hearing David Sanborn for the first time. A couple of years later, I discovered two of my biggest influences: David Benoit as my favorite composer and pianist, and Eric Marienthal as my favorite sax player.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard a tune when I lived in Las Vegas, where I grew up, and was driving in a 1981 Plymouth Champ over 20 years ago. I liked the tune so much it brought tears to my eyes. The tune is called “Shibuya Station” and I was hoping the DJ on the contemporary jazz radio station would announce the artist before I parked, and he did. He announced the artist as David Benoit, and the next time I went shopping for music, I bought his album “Every Step of the Way [which includes ‘Shibuya Station’].” It is still one of my favorites. I used to practice along with it again and again and again as there are times when learning by ear is a good thing (but I am also a strong believer in knowing how to read well and it is a requirement to participate in my project). It has been more than 20 years since my eyes welled up at the beauty of “Shibuya Station,” and I am still hooked on David Benoit’s music.

Eric Marienthal became my favorite sax player after I saw him performing in my 1st David Benoit concert at UNLV in Hamm Hall, after David Benoit’s “Urban Daydreams” album was released. I recall hearing Eric playing for the first 3-4 tunes, and thinking to myself, “I like his sound.” His tone quality is exquisite. But then the band started playing a tune that “pushed the envelope” a bit as you probably could imagine when thinking of jazz. It was a fast-paced tune, and when Eric got to his ad-lib solo, he knocked my socks off. Every fast-paced note came out clear as a bell, whereas most musicians tend to sacrifice tone quality for speed.. but not Eric. So, not only does Eric have, for my tastes, the perfect sound –meaning a bright sound but not “thin” as you might hear some musicians refer to bright sounds. It has a strong fat bottom to it that balanced it out perfectly. Also, Eric is as highly versatile as any musician. He’s primarily known for his “smooth jazz” chops, but he can play traditionally just as well. Eric is a very versatile player, and someday I hope I can jam with him. My dream-gig, in addition to playing my own tunes, is to play with David Benoit and Eric Marienthal (my 2 heroes!).

While I became a fan of contemporary jazz at 18, I went through a phase from age 16 – 18 when I found myself listening to a lot of heavy metal. Yes, you read that correctly. While I was 16 and learning jazz improvisational skills, my favorite band was Judas Priest. Later I was also listening to Iron Maiden, Scorpions, and Led Zeppelin to name a few. There are elements of heavy metal that have also influenced my style on the sax, believe it or not. For grins, I have uploaded a hard-rock song I wrote that is all VST samples for now (including a fake voice that can only sing, “aaahhh” but I do have lyrics for it). I think old-school REO Speedwagon would probably be a good fit to perform it. It’s the last song on my reverb list in case you’re curious ;-)


There is also an instrumental I wrote and named “Doom Sammich Deux” that has a fairly intense heavy metal flavor to it. Keep in mind that “The Journey Begins” is the only tune I wrote that I had recorded with session musicians. The rest are basically demos using VST samples until I can find a way to get funded and have them brought to life with session musicians as well (more on that later…)

Jenny: You are highly skilled and versatile. You play a number of instruments, as well as vocals. Tell us about the different instruments you play on a regular basis. How do you manage to balance performing at a high level with so many instruments?

Larry:  With my main axes being the 3 saxes I own. The fingerings are the same so that obviously helps. However, embouchures and the support is different for all of them. I have achieved a strong sound on all of them, and did the same back when I played the baritone sax (borrowing one). Not every sax player can do that. Often an alto player cannot achieve an equally good tone quality on a tenor, and vice-versa, for example. My clarinet and flute abilities are notable less than my sax playing, but still good. I try to keep my voice from going stale by exercising it in the car on the way to work (this is definitely not ideal, but it’s the best I can do with the time I have). Since I have a full-time job as a computer programmer, my time to keep up everything I play is limited, so I generally make sure I keep my sax improving above all else and work on my doubles often enough to keep them sounding good. I practice every evening, with 80% of it on the sax and 20% on doubles.

Jenny: What are your main axes? What are your doubles?

Larry: My main axes are soprano sax, alto sax, and tenor sax. I’d add baritone sax to that if I could afford one (the quality horn I’d get would cost about $10K). My doubles are clarinet, flute, and vocals (mostly background vocals but I have sang lead on a few songs I learned for the experience, and I have had some training).

Jenny: What advice would you give to other musicians? Is there a formula you can use to choose the right mouthpiece for each instrument?

Larry: On a general level, if a musician asked me for advice, I’d tell them that, if you truly believe you have a calling in music, don’t let nay-sayers discourage you. You will endure ignorant attempts to do so periodically and you just need to remember that, more often than not, nay-sayers are envious that you have found something to be passionate about and they have not.

I don’t have any kind of formula for finding a mouthpiece that works well for me. My advice on mouthpieces is to go ahead and shop around and be discriminate about what mouthpiece and reed will work best for you by trying out lots of combinations initially, but don’t become what I refer to as a “mouthpiece king.” Owning a ton of mouthpieces to try to find the perfect sound for 10,000 different situations will not make you a better player. That is what practicing is for, and, about 80% of your tone quality has to do with your mouth cavity and how well your muscles that you use for your embouchure are developed. Find a mouthpiece that you like, and, if you start thinking about changing it, it needs to be regarded as a major decision not to be taken lightly; take your time before finalizing a decision like that. Otherwise, you can end up bringing unnecessary grief upon yourself, and it gets very expensive quickly.

Jenny: What are the most important skills a saxophone player should learn in order to be successful?

Larry: Include classical training in addition to jazz and improvisational skills. Go ahead and latch on to every style of music you can get your hands on. Learn to play by ear as well as doing so increases your flexibility, but never lose sight of reading music and, for a sax player, improvisational skills are the most important. Often a sax player’s primary job is throwing in carefully-placed ad-lib fills aimed at complimenting lead vocalists.

Jenny: Tell us about your early years as a musician. How did you develop into the artists you are today?

Larry: Most of my practicing for a long time was geared toward improvisational skills using Jamey Aebersold records. During the years from 1986 through 1997, when I played music almost exclusively for a living, I ended up playing with a country band, then a classic big band, then an Elvis show, some 80s music, a couple of house bands for Norwegian Cruise Lines (the list goes on and on…), and finally from 1992-1997 I played very old standards that catered to the “snow birds” before I decided to pick up another skill to better support my family (more on that later).

Jenny: Have you won any competitions and/or awards or special titles? What was the most important day in your career?

Larry: My most notable title would be the Principal Alto Sax player in the 1985 McDonald’s All-American High School Band. That may sound cheesy because it was funded by the McDonald’s Corporation, but it was a very difficult program to get accepted to. While the program existed, 2 high school seniors from each state, plus 2 from Washington D.C., 1 from Puerto Rico, and 1 from the Virgin Islands were accepted into the program every year. Among the parades this band marched in included Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Fiesta Bowl Parade, and the Rose Bowl Parade. The 1985 band that I was in also played at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and received a standing ovation from a full house. These days, Macy’s provides a similar program.

Jenny: Tell us about your current project "Laz Jazz"? Are there any other projects you are currently working on?

Larry: Laz Jazz is a project that entails what I’ve wanted to do since I was 18. While playing contemporary jazz and especially my original compositions is what I love musically above all other styles, there isn’t much in the way of work to be had playing it. For a long time I fell into the same mind-set as most musicians about playing cover tunes because it is a lot easier to make a living doing that. That reality is one of the reasons I have a full-time job as a computer programmer. Now I can still pursue my dream and support my kids. It is a difficult balancing act and I have found that it takes a long time to get good at it.

Jenny: What else do you do beside playing music??

Larry: I’ve been a computer programmer for 12 years after graduating from DeVry Institute of Technology in Phoenix, AZ (right before it changed to DeVry University) in June of 2000 with a 3.98 GPA.

Jenny: How do you try to be different-as instrumentalist and as a singer?

Larry: As an instrumentalist, I never put much of my focus on stealing licks from other musicians, but rather just let the influence rub off on me naturally. While conventional wisdom within the jazz education preaches copying other licks to help you develop your own style, I have found that *listening* and then coming up with your own licks has made my style more identifiable. I’ve been told that I sound “sort of like” Michael Brecker, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, etc, but never like a clone of anyone (which is a good thing).

As far as singing goes, I have had some training and my vocal range is kind of a high-baritone. It doesn’t really fit the genre I like the most. I have been complimented on my voice a number of times, but I would not compare my vocal abilities with those who sing as their “main axe,” with some exceptions. One benefit I have reaped from my limited vocal training and good ear is, during an ad-lib flute solo, I’m able to sing the notes as I’m playing them (in tune). It’s a lot of fun!

Jenny: What was your first original composition? Tell us about the musicians playing on the recording of "The Journey Begins". What can we expect from your new music?

Larry: My first original composition… hang on, this is going to take a while… J
I remember when I was 17, on a plane flying back to Las Vegas after my first of two trips with the McDonald’s All-American High School band in 1985. The cities we were in were New York and Chicago for the first trip (I think I was flying back to Las Vegas from Chicago). While on the plane, a melody line entered my mind and I remember being torn between letting it fade or finding some way to write it down in case I forgot about it. I found something to write on, drew my own staff, and started plugging in notes. After I got back to Las Vegas, those notes evolved into a big band arrangement, albeit completely untested. I relied entirely on my ear; no piano to mess with any chords.Then, before the 2 nd trip to Phoenix and Los Angeles, one of the 104 members of the band organized a talent show…I asked some of the sax players among to help me try the arrangement out, and only one of the sax players were game. The others I asked were afraid of it, to my surprise. So, for my part of the talent show, my big band arrangement was whittled down to a duet with me on alto sax and an excellent tenor sax player who sight-read the part I had for him almost impeccably. We did find 2 or 3 mistakes in what I wrote. I corrected them, and we had our little duet nailed down in about 15-20 minutes. I had no idea how well the duet would be received, but the tenor sax player said he liked it, which made me feel hopeful. We were the last talent act of the talent show. We played through the tune, and as we were getting close to the end of it, I remember feeling a bit anxious. For me, it was literally a defining moment. Would I get pity applause? Would what I wrote be well received? Would the reaction be luke-warm…We finished our little 3-4 minute duet, and before I finished looking up from my manuscript to get a read on what everyone thought, I heard one of the 104 high-school musicians bellow out, “YEAH!!!” which was followed by loud applause from the other 102 high school musicians, all of the band directors, the chaperones…everyone. They gave us a standing ovation. That was when it became abundantly clear that I will not be the only one who likes my writing. If the first tune I ever wrote had that effect on highly-talented musicians as well as the experienced directors, and the chaperones who were not musicians at all, then I’ve got something to share with a whole lot more people…

These days I remain confident that, if my style of composing finds enough of the “right ears,” the contemporary jazz genre, be it smooth or fusion, is going to get quite a jolt.
The musicians on the recording “The Journey Begins” are:

Tom Mein – Guitar
Tom is at heart a rock ‘n roll guitarist with over 30 years of experience, and this was a bit of a novelty for him. He pulled it off nicely. He does solo gigs and participates in a band called ’56 in the Phoenix area.

Shea Marshal – Keys (B3 sound)
Shea, in addition to playing the keys very well, plays a ton of other instruments as well. He’s also very good as a sax player. He’s in high demand locally.

Felix Sainz – Bass
Felix, in addition to being an excellent bassist, both electric and upright, is a true gentleman. Bass players in the Phoenix area are in high demand and he is one of the better local bassists. He stays busy.

Vinny Damaio – Drums & Engineer
Vinny is among the best drummers I’ve met, and is as good of a human being as he is a drummer. Vinny mixed “The Journey Begins” in his studio and was never shy about sharing his own ideas. He added his own enhancements to the rhythm parts, which is something he did not have to do, but he did it anyway, with good results.

My aim is to make my music different from anyone else’s and still with enough commercial appeal that the target audience will hear it, feel pleasantly surprised by something fresh, and, by the time they are finished listening, they will say “WOW!”

Jenny: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Larry: My biggest challenge with my project entails finding and convincing a target audience who are mostly between the ages of 30-60, that I have a musically unique and commercially appealing talent that they will enjoy. With the right musicians around me, they will like of not love what I have to offer. Equally difficult is my continued hunt for musicians who are willing to participate. Most local musicians understandably make their livings playing cover tunes in any genre they can get their hands on, as I once did before I got my Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems so that I could do a better job of supporting my family. Now, as a husband and father of 3, I am able to apply my musical focus on what I’ve wanted to do since I was 18 years old. I want to make albums with nothing but my own original music and perform them to massive audiences. While it is much easier to find gigs playing cover tunes, my job as a computer programmer keeps me from having to rely on just playing cover tunes to survive. This is not to degrade playing cover tunes. For me, playing cover tunes in several different genres made me a better musician, but, it eventually trapped me away from what I really wanted to do with music. Managing a family, a full-time job, and my project is a very difficult and delicate balancing act, but I am thankful that, even if I leave the Earth without “making it big” with my own music, I’ll feel better knowing that I gave it my best shot.