Music Interviews
6:26 am
Sun June 15, 2014

'SNL' Music Director Writes A Finnish 'Prescription'

Originally published on Wed June 18, 2014 3:10 pm

You may not immediately recognize the name Lenny Pickett. But if you've watched Saturday Night Live in the last 30 years, you've heard him.

The curly-haired saxophonist is there, wailing front and center, every week as the host enters the stage. He's been with the house band for nearly 30 years, and the show's musical director since 1995.

"The audience — well, you don't hear what we're doing a lot of the time," Pickett says. "We play through all the commercials. And so we have these three-minute spots where we're entertaining the audience. And you take them on a little journey. To me, that's incredibly satisfying. At the end of the night, when the TV's faded out, we continue playing the closing theme. I always get comments from the audience members when I'm leaving that they didn't know that that was part of the show, and that they really enjoyed it."

There's more to Pickett's career than just SNL. Way back when, he was a member of the horn section in Tower of Power. As a sought-after session player, he's backed up everyone from David Bowie and Elton John to David Byrne and Katy Perry.

And now, with the UMO Jazz Orchestra of Finland, he's released an album called The Prescription — just his second recording as a bandleader. He recently spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about the Finnish jazz scene, the athleticism of playing woodwinds and how a high-school dropout made a career for himself in music.

"I keep finding these places where the community of musicians and people that work with them is really great," Pickett says, "and allows for sort of an uncommon expression to take place."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Live from New York, it's Saturday night.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: You may not immediately recognize the name Lenny Pickett. But if you're a fan of "Saturday Night Live," you have certainly seen him and heard his extraordinary playing. The curly-haired sax player is there, front and center, every week, blowing up a storm with the house band for nearly 30 years. He's been music director of the SNL band since 1995. Way back when, he was with the pop-funk band Tower Of Power. And over the years, as a sought out session player, he has backed up everyone from David Bowie and Elton John to David Byrne and Katy Perry. And now, with Finland's UMO jazz orchestra, Lenny Pickett has released his second album as a bandleader. It is called "The Perscription."

(SOUNDBITE OF UMO JAZZ ORCHESTRA SONG)

MARTIN: And Lenny Pickett joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

LENNY PICKETT: Thank you.

MARTIN: So big band jazz is such an American art form. But you put this album together with a Finnish jazz orchestra, right?

PICKETT: Right. The Finnish people were very appreciative of the Americans at the end of the Second World War to the degree that they loved the music that was around at the time. And you find big bands all over Finland that are incredibly well-trained and well-versed in the music. And UMO is the premier group. They're, like, sort of, like, the national Finnish jazz orchestra.

MARTIN: Who knew...

PICKETT: Who knew?

MARTIN: ...That Finland has such a jazz scene?

PICKETT: And they have the most amazing record collections. Incredibly equipped to play this music.

MARTIN: We're going to get back into your album in just a moment. But before we do - just to ground people in your biography and your past - let's listen to a little bit from the Tower Of Power. This is a track called "What Is Hip?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS HIP?")

LENNY WILLIAMS: (Singing) You want to dump out your trick bag and ease on into hip bag. But you aren't exactly sure what's hip. You started to let your hair grow. Spent big bucks on your wardrobe. But somehow you know there's much more to the trip. What is hip? Tell me, tell me if you think you know. What is hip?

MARTIN: You revisit this 1970s song on your new album. Let's listen to your latest version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS HIP?")

PICKETT: It was an arrangement I had in my repertoire of big-band music. I get asked periodically to go out and visit college bands and bring music along with me. It's something that musicians sort of do to supplement their earnings. And I, you know, had a bunch of music from various big-band encounters with me, and that was one of them. And so when I went out to Finland, I brought that and some other things along with me. It came from a gig that the SNL band did. We played for an Emmy's presentation. And we expanded the band and included some Los Angeles musicians in it and made a big band and so it came from that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS HIP?")

MARTIN: What do you like about working with that many instruments, that many people?

PICKETT: In any situation that I'm in, I'm looking for kind of communication with the musicians and not so much the size. It's more like the spirit of the players and that some form of transcendence occurs. And I'm looking for that experience no matter where I go.

MARTIN: You get moments of transcendence when you're on that SNL stage?

PICKETT: Totally.

MARTIN: Really?

PICKETT: The audience - well, you don't hear what we're doing a lot of the time. We play through all the commercials. And so we have these three-minute spots where we're entertaining the audience. And you take them on a little journey. To me, that's incredibly satisfying. At the end of the night, when the TV's faded out, we continue playing the closing theme. I always get comments from the audience members when I'm leaving that they didn't know that that was part of the show and that they really enjoyed it.

MARTIN: You mention that you play through the commercial breaks on SNL. I want to play a little bit of what you wrote for a particular SNL commercial break, because this illustrates something that has become a trademark of your style. And that's the ability to cover a stunning six-octave range on the sax. Let's listen to a little bit of this track. It's called "Busted Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUSTED AGAIN")

MARTIN: I don't understand how you can make that sound. How do you do that?

PICKETT: You need to get the reed to vibrate faster and faster. And so you move a certain volume of air, and you change the aperture of the opening of the mouthpiece a little bit. And there's really an almost unlimited amount of range. It's limited by how fast you can get the reed to vibrate.

MARTIN: I mean, this is also about breathing, right? I mean, can you hold your breath underwater for a really long time?

PICKETT: It's more about how you move the air than it is about how much you hold. You use the muscles in your diaphragm to push the air out. And, you know, it's a very - saxophone-playing is actually - and all wind playing is actually a pretty athletic activity. It takes a lot of physicality to do it well and to get a good sound.

MARTIN: Do you work up a sweat?

PICKETT: Yeah. Yeah. I work out all the time. I'm a swimmer, and I swim, like, you know, four or five hours a week. And I'm 60 now so I've got a really be careful about how I take care of myself because it's - it is like being an athlete. So...

MARTIN: Besides the sax, you also play the clarinet. And there are some really interesting sounds that you get on that instrument that appear in this funny little piece written by your collaborator and arranger, Rich Shemaria. The piece is called "A Sad State Of Affairs." Let's listen to a bit of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SAD STATE OF AFFAIRS")

MARTIN: So that's crazy. That doesn't even sound like a clarinet.

PICKETT: Yeah. That's a something I figured out how to do when I was a kid. I had a clarinet with a very soft reed on it. When I would tongue it hard, it would pop like that. And then, I gradually strengthened my tongue so I could do it with a normal read. That's called slap tonguing, and it's something that Dixieland saxophone players sort of did routinely. New Orleans players could all do it. Back in the '20s and the '30s, it was - it's a technique that's sort of gotten a little bit lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SAD STATE OF AFFAIRS")

PICKETT: I learned to do these things because of the absence of any sort of formal instruction. Nobody told me I couldn't. I didn't go to high school, and I didn't go to music school or any of those other things, so I...

MARTIN: You didn't go to high school?

PICKETT: No. I didn't quite finish the 9th grade. I sort of bailed.

MARTIN: Because you knew music was what you wanted to do?

PICKETT: Yeah. I practiced all the time. I just spent all my hours in the practice room. I spent six or seven or eight hours a day practicing. And I was pretty sure that's what I wanted to do.

MARTIN: It worked out.

PICKETT: It did. Not recommended. But it did. It did work out. And I think it worked out because it was - I was passionate about it. I mean, it was something I couldn't live without.

MARTIN: And I have wondered, because you're the music director on SNL - there's all kinds of musicians. So many talented people.

PICKETT: It's a really interesting place to work. Such an incredible level of cooperation between everybody. There are people who are working there who have been there since the beginning of television. The lighting director, Phil Hyms, has been directing TV since TV started. He showed me his union card, and it was like from the '40s or something. He's 91 years old now. There's so much history and so much integration of disciplines. And I've been doing this show for 29 years. And these opportunities to find community are rare and really important. The UMO band is a similar thing. They've been around since 1975. And lucky - I keep finding these places where the community of musicians and people that work with them is really great and allows for sort of an uncommon expression to take place.

MARTIN: Lenny Pickett is the musical director of the SNL band. His new album is called "The Prescription." He joined us from our studios in New York. It's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for taking the time, Lenny.

PICKETT: Well, thank you so much. It's been fun talking to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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