When local saxophonist John Savage was a junior at The College of Saint Rose studying music education, he once sat down to dinner with one of his heroes, Yellowjackets saxophonist and composer Bob Mintzer.
The experience not only earned Savage a friend — the two have continued corresponding since that meeting — but helped shape his philosophy on music and life.
“I was tasked with taking him to dinner, and I got to pick his brain — it was great,” Savage said recently while back at Saint Rose for the Municipal Piano Solo Festival, which featured one of his students from Gloversville High School. “I was a junior in college, and I got to sit, just me and Bob Mintzer — he’s one of my favorite arrangers for big band, and we talked about not just music, but life, and everything.
“So it’s all intertwined, and trying to allow your life experiences to come out through your playing, being unafraid to do that, that’s one of the things I try to — it’s hard to teach, and hard to pass on to the kids. They just see, hear, and go, ‘I don’t know how to get here.’ When you explain it to them they understand it, but there’s a fear factor there that we all go through, especially in high school.”
John Savage Quartet
Where: 9 Maple Avenue, Saratoga Springs
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $2
More Info: 583-2582, www.9mapleave.com
Savage’s own music for his quartet is testament to this philosophy, touching upon not only jazz, but the R&B he’s played off-and-on for the past 20 years with local group Cleen Street, and world music and Celtic music influences he’s picked up from his wife and fellow musician, Maggie.
His compositions are inspired by his life too, whether it’s a picture of his brother and his wife taken in Saratoga Park (“A Walk With Angelina” from his latest album, last year’s appropriately titled “Life Stories”), or conversations with his high school students.
“Life Stories,” an album nearly eight years in the making, represents a fresh start of sorts for Savage after some time away from the group he first formed as a quintet in 1999. For the past few years he’s been focusing on his own music again in a quartet setting — his next performance is at 9 Maple Avenue on Saturday night, with bassist Stephen Orsini, pianist Michael Roach and fill-in drummer Andy Hearn.
Savage is a familiar face at 9 Maple, performing there regularly with his quartet, the Marcus Benoit Band and Out of the Box. He also plays with The Refrigerators on occasion, along with ongoing gigs with Cleen Street.
“I’m kind of like a gun for hire a little bit here and there,” Savage said. “[There’s] a lot of great opportunities in the area to play, and as long as I can fit it in the schedule and make it work.”
The Gloversville native became interested in music at age 5, inspired by his guitar- and piano-playing uncle.
“When I was growing up, we were living upstairs from my grandparents, and my uncle was still in high school,” Savage said. “And he was a piano player; he played piano, guitar. I’d go listen to him, and probably I was a bother I’m sure, being 5, 6 years old, but I always was interested in music.”
At age 12, he picked up trombone at school, but soon switched over to saxophone. “It was cool; it looked cool. There was something about it, the sound of it,” he said.
“I really hadn’t started listening to serious jazz stuff, but I’d always played with records, horn sections and things — groups like Chicago, Tower of Power,” he continued. “I put those on at home and played along with the melody with them.”
He started out on alto saxophone and, as a sophomore, landed a spot in the Gloversville High School jazz band, where he was first introduced to jazz. When he began school at Saint Rose he switched to tenor sax, and that’s been his main instrument ever since. Savage eventually got his master’s in jazz studies at Saint Rose as well, studying under saxophonist Paul Evoskevich.
Players as mentors
“The neat part about [Saint Rose] was that all the sax players that were here already kind of took me under their wing, like family,” Savage said. “One of the things I liked about being here was no matter what, whether they were older, younger — I was lucky to get into the jazz band here as a freshman; that was an honor and I just got lucky with it.”
In 1995 Savage took over from his former teacher, Norman Clo, as instrumental music teacher at Gloversville High School. Four years later, he released his first album as a band leader, “A Brighter Day,” and formed the first version of his quintet. He has since released two more studio sets, including 2003’s “Through it All” and “Life Stories,” along with a live album and a Christmas album, and is currently working on a fourth studio album that he hopes will take a shorter amount of time to complete than the last one.
“I took a break from it for a while, [because of] some life changes that occurred,” Savage said. “Just about two years ago, I decided it’s time to get doing my own stuff again, out live, and Judy’s been gracious — [co-owner] Judy Sirianni has been great at 9 Maple and very supportive. We try to do an amalgam of not just my stuff, but getting some standards but different takes on them, having musicians that are willing to take chances and do that, but also are not afraid to play original material.”