New Mexico is blessed with a generous helping of world-class musicians of all types, artists who could play on the world’s finest stages (some do) but choose to make their home here. Stellar reed man, educator, and award-winning broadcaster, Arlen Asher has been on that list for 59 years. Since his arrival here in 1958, Arlen has beguiled audiences with his beautiful tone and his silky lines on an arsenal of woodwinds that he hauls to just about every gig—flutes, saxophones (he once confessed that the bari is his favorite instrument), and clarinet. On May 7, Arlen turns 88, but age has not dimmed his passion for the music. On May 4, this consummate gentleman will celebrate his birthday—and the 83rd birthday of jazz fan and producer Bumble Bee Bob Weil—with a concert in the hall that bears Weil’s name at the Outpost Performance Space. I caught up with Arlen recently to talk about the upcoming gig, which will include pianist Jim Ahrend, bassist Colin Deuble, and drummer John Trentacosta, as well as guest vocalists Judy Christopher and Patti Littlefield. The quartet will reprise the concert at the Museum Hill Café in Santa Fe on May 6, with guest vocalists Susan Abod and Pam Jackson (guitarist Michael Anthony will replace Ahrend). Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Mel: So how did this Outpost gig come about? Did Tom [Guralnick, executive director of the Outpost] approach you?
Arlen: Yeah, Tom said, “Let’s do it,” and I hardly had time to say no—
Mel: —and he had you booked. It would be hard for him to take no for an answer.
Arlen: Well, it’s hard to turn Tom down, considering the guy that he really is. I think he is
almost— He may be unique in the entire country. You may know of some people.
Mel: I know of only one other place like the Outpost: Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz, California, which I think was an inspiration for Tom when he was founding the Outpost. . . . So I know you don’t like to talk about yourself, so in order to sneak into that, I’m going to ask you to talk about other people. You have some very good people on the stage with you.
Arlen: I do.
Mel: Can you tell me a little bit about why you wanted to work with each of these folks?
Arlen: Why I want to work with Jim Ahrend, Colin Deuble, and John Trentacosta? Well, I think they’re about as good as you can find anyplace in the country, and it’s a definite honor to play with those gentlemen. I’ve been working with John Trentacosta for well over 20 years now. Colin Deuble, I have admired his playing from the beginning. I first got to know him just a few years ago, and he is just progressing like mad.
Mel: Isn’t he. Come to think of it, so is John. He’s always been an excellent drummer, but it seems to me that in the last couple of years, he’s just taken it to another level.
Arlen: I think he has, and I think that’s because he’s booked this Museum Hill Café series. He’s been bringing in really class acts, so many people who are so good, and he has to meet that standard himself. I think that’s what has propelled him to a higher level.
Mel: You saw him the other night with Doug Lawrence’s group. [Lawrence, the lead tenor for the Count Basie Orchestra and an Albuquerque resident, appeared in a trio with B-3 organist Dan Trudell and Trentacosta at the Outpost the previous week.]
Arlen: He played probably the best I’ve ever heard him play.
Mel: Yeah, I call him “the Swingmeister” now.
Arlen: Of course, Jim Ahrend. I don’t know how long he’s been here—eight or nine years? I had a very brief rehearsal with Jim yesterday just to kind of get the list of tunes we think we might be able to digest. I asked him if he enjoyed being in New Mexico rather than New York, and he said he is so impressed by the scene here. He said he felt like a guppy in New York, a guppy surrounded by a bunch of piranhas.
Mel: I first heard him accompanying Patti Littlefield at the Rancher’s Club and was really impressed with how he supported her, and then I heard him in a Christmas concert doing a killer straight-ahead take on that music—and wow. So I know one of your special guests is Patti. So why Patti?
Arlen: First of all, she’s good, she’s really good. She’s a good showperson. She relates to the people so much. She enjoys what she does so very much, and she’s fun to be around. I wish I could work several nights a week with her. It would be a real pleasure.
Mel: She’s something else. She goes pretty deep, and she has some really interesting musical ideas in the way she approaches material. Who else?
Arlen: Judy, of course. I feel pretty much the same about her because she has such a strong feeling for what she does, and she’s just good. We’re doing one song for Patti and one for Judy. We’ll be doing the same thing in Santa Fe but with different singers: Susan Abod—
Mel: —Gosh, I haven’t seen Susan for a long time—
Arlen: —and Pam Jackson.
Mel: I don’t know her.
Arlen: We did this album Another Spring [released in 2002, with pianist Jim Trost—“Bill Evans reincarnated,” says Arlen—and bassist Rick Fairbanks], and she’s featured on four of the tunes. We’ve been good friends ever since.
Mel: So the Santa Fe gig is at the Museum Hill Café?
Arlen: Right. On May 6, if I can make it.
Mel: Well, age has its limitations, doesn’t it. But I remember Wynton Marsalis talking about Armstrong, and how his playing changed as he got older. Marsalis acknowledged that Pops couldn’t do what he did on the bandstand with King Oliver in Chicago in 1925, but he maintained that Armstrong’s later playing was more interesting because while there were fewer notes and in a narrower range, they were freighted with more meaning. I wonder what age has done to your playing and how you accommodate it.
Arlen: [rueful laughter] Well, I’ve slowed down. Ideas, I think I’ve probably gained a little bit working with the guys I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I’ve been so lucky working with the people I’ll be working with on Thursday night, and so many others. It’s simply an osmosis if nothing else. It’s an osmotic process to have their talent seep in a little bit. I wish I could have had the sense to absorb more of what they had to offer. I’ve been so doggone lucky in all regards.
Mel: I know you’ve had a rough few years, with the passing of family members and serious surgery yourself.
Arlen: It’s made a real difference—the loss of my wife and my son—in my approach in general. I try to keep busy as much as I can to try to hopefully put that in the background just a little bit.
Mel: Can you put that in your horns?
Arlen: You’ll have to tell me when you hear. I don’t know. Some things—arthritis—make a difference. I can’t move as quickly as I used to. I was never very quick anyway.
Mel: That reminds me. In an earlier interview, you told me that you were interested in developing a liquid sound.
Arlen: I remember reading some liner notes of [alto saxophonist] Paul Desmond, who was probably getting rather ill at the time, that say, “I believe I’m the slowest saxophone player in the world.” I can relate more to that now than I could then. Mark Weber told me once: “Your playing is kind of like skating, skating on ice, gliding.” Of course, I don’t know.
Mel: That’s a good description, I think. Who among your predecessors influenced you in the way you developed your own sound.
Arlen: Well, the usual. Johnny Hodges. Benny Goodman, of course, and Artie Shaw. I’ll be doing an Artie Shaw tribute in June with Michael Anthony [June 10. Red Channels: Music of Blacklisted Composers]. I’ll just be playing clarinet. It’ll be really weird just taking that one instrument to a gig. I’ll feel like I’ve lost them all.
Mel: Really. Where’s all my stuff?
Mel: Well, you know what I think of your ballad playing. Ballads are so hard. There’s no place to hide. You manage to communicate beautifully in ballads, and that’s the first thing I heard in your playing when I heard you play the first time.
Arlen: Other influences, of course. Well, there are so many. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, back in my kid days. Then it progressed to Stan Getz and John Coltrane and people I can’t even think of.
Mel: Well, that’s a pretty good list right there. It sounds like Johnny Hodges on that saxophone is one of the more important ones for you.
Mel: So what tunes will you be playing?
Arlen: Well, to yet be decided, but I’ll be playing, I think, Cole Porter’s “I Love You;” “But Beautiful” as a ballad; “Black Nile,” the Wayne Shorter tune; Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing;” and an Oliver Nelson tune called “Hoedown.”
Mel: That’s a good list. I don’t want to give away your whole set list. Anything else you want to say?
Arlen: I think there are probably things I’ve forgotten. I think the big thing is I’m so grateful to have the opportunity. I’m almost too tired to do it, but I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to play both places.
Mel: Folks should know that tickets for the Santa Fe gig are all but gone, and the Outpost will likely fill, as well. So act quickly. Let me also remind folks to check out the great jazz program you and John host every Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. on KSFR 101.1 FM. See you next week.
Arlen Asher Birthday Celebration Concert
Thursday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets: $20, general admission/$15, members and students
For more info and tickets, go here or call 505-268-0044.
Arlen’s Happy Birthday Bash
Saturday, May 6
Doors at 6:00 p.m., concert at 7:00 p.m.
Museum Hill Café
710 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe
Tickets: $25, general admission/$20, Santa Fe Music Collective members
For more info and tickets, go here or call 505-983-6820.
© 2017 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.