A saxman with staying power

By Josh B. Wardrop
Sunday, January 19, 2003

FRAMINGHAM -- The life of a professional musician isn't exactly one rife with stability or continuity. Just ask Framingham saxophonist Willie Sordillo -- a jazz musician by trade who knows, better than most, that a gig is a gig is a gig.

"I play with this one band that backs up a James Brown impersonator," Sordillo, 50, chuckled. "We play at this club in Mattapan. He calls himself J.C., and he's really good -- he's got all the dance steps down...(and) he sounds like him. He even does the bit where he falls to his knees, his wife comes onstage and puts the cape around him and helps him off. It's a lot of fun."

Just an average day in the life of a professional sax player -- one night you're playing the best of Coltrane, and the next night you're backing up the faux King of Soul on "Night Train." And Sordillo, for one, wouldn't have it any other way. From his early roots in jazz, to his 30-year infatuation with folk music, to his decade-long stint in the Latin ensemble Flor de Cana, to his brand-new self-produced CD "Echoing," musical diversity has been the one constant in Sordillo's career.

Sordillo's musical education began in his childhood home of Montclair, N.J., at age 9, under the tutelage of Pop Bethel. Bethel, a former member of the John Philip Sousa Marching Band, was hired to teach Sordillo to play the piano, but once the youngster was exposed to a world of other instruments, the ivories didn't stand a chance. "I really wanted to play guitar," Sordillo remembered, "so I started learning that as well as piano, and in the course of taking lessons, he kept giving me other instruments to try. Eventually, I felt a little overwhelmed and I settled on one: the saxophone."

Jazz wouldn't become a part of Sordillo's life until high school. "At my school, they started a jazz band as a way of luring people into the other bands -- you couldn't be a member unless you also joined the concert band, or such. One day, a couple of older kids pulled me aside and asked if I'd ever listened to Dave Brubeck, and before long we'd formed a combo."

Initially, the group specialized in parties and school functions, but they soon became adept enough that Sordillo got his first professional gigs -- often in clubs where the underage horn player would have to borrow an ID and perform under an assumed name. And so was a career path decided.

Over the next two decades, Sordillo explored many musical paths -- touring as a solo artist, taking part in a cultural exchange tour to Nicaragua, and eventually founding Flor de Cana. The Latin music ensemble shared stages with notables like Tito Puente, Ruben Blades, Richie Havens and Pete Seeger. In 1994, though, Sordillo felt it was time for a change.

"When it became obvious that Flor de Cana was winding down, I really wanted to form a group that synthesized elements of folk, jazz and Latin music," said Sordillo. "But it's difficult to find other players who are comfortable doing it. For the majority of jazz musicians I've worked with, traditional folk wasn't really harmonically interesting for them. On the other hand, jazz can be a bit too difficult for a lot of folkies. And, Latin musicians are used to very specific rhythms -- I think, in a lot of ways, other sounds aren't quite real

to them."

With folk music being so heavily geared toward the telling of a story through lyrics, and jazz concentrating more on evoking a mood through the improvisational instrumentals, being well-versed in both styles can often be more curse than blessing. "It's very difficult to play both," admitted Sordillo, of his dual influences, chuckling. "It's fairly schizo."

Sordillo has solved the problem by operating as a free agent. Today, he said, rather than being tied down to a certain group or musical style, Sordillo changes things up based on the gig. "I've played gigs of all sorts. Sometimes I play with bands that have a set personnel. Sometimes, I'll just get a call from someone I know who needs a sax for the night. Or, I'll put together my own ensemble for a gig," he said. "It all depends on the situation."

It helps, Sorillo said, that MetroWest -- where he's resided for six years -- is a strong community for musicians. "There are a lot of great players out here -- people who aren't just out of school, but who are more mature and more established. It's nice to be in a music scene that's slightly older, where people are more focused on music for the music's sake. It's not cutthroat...we're not all looking to be the next Pat Metheny -- not that we'd turn it down," he laughed.

Besides, Sordillo is well aware of success finding one without being actively pursued. It was several years ago that he received a pleasant surprise while watching an episode of his favorite television show. "I was watching `ER' one night, and during one of the scenes, there was a very familiar piece of music playing in the background. It was this upbeat, danceable song called `Banana,' which Flor de Cana had recorded our own arrangement of for a label called Flying Fish Records. I didn't really think much more about it, though, other than to think how we'd played that exact song about a million times," he chuckled.

Sure enough, a week later, one of Sordillo's bandmates mentioned that the group's lawyer had said that "ER" might have interest in including their arrangement of "Banana" in an upcoming episode. "And, I said, `Ummm...there's a real good chance it's happening, because I heard it last week!' And soon thereafter, a very nice check from the people at `ER' arrived," Sordillo laughed.

Sordillo's new CD, "Echoing," represents a significant musical milestone for the saxophonist -- it's his first solo CD in a long recording career filled with session work and collaborative efforts. "It's the first time I've been the sole leader on a recording," said Sordillo. "This is the first time that I've been able to place my own musical vision on CD -- a chance for me to hear some of my compositions on disc the way I've heard them in my head, or better."

The album features a combination of Sordillo's originals and versions of songs by composers like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn. "Strayhorn's `Blood Count' is a particular favorite of mine," said Sordillo. "It's one of his most beautiful compositions, which he wrote from his hospital bed as he was dying of leukemia. It speaks to me in a very deep way, and it's songs like that -- songs with a strong resonance to me -- that I wanted to present. The idea was to pick songs that affect me powerfully, so that I can pass that onto the listeners."

Like the music of the men he lists as his chief influences -- Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, Parker, Paul Desmond and Miles Davis -- Sordillo hopes that his work will continue to evolve over time. "The musicians who've affected me most are the ones who never stopped growing," he said. "Coltrane was always prepared to alienate listeners in order to move on to that next level. There was always that searching and striving for a new voice.

"What I would love," Sordillo said. "is to have the technical ability to play like Charlie Parker, but not do it," he chuckled.

Willie Sordillo's CD, "Echoing," is available at and Sordillo's next performance is on Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 9 p.m. at the Zeitgeist Gallery, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge. Call 617-876-6060 for information.

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