by Dan Ferris and Mike Jeffers
Source:Chicago Jazz Magazine

in his own words…Frank Catalano

Precocious Chicago-born sax player Frank Catalano has performed with Miles Davis, Randy Brecker, Charles Earland, Elvin Jones, Stan Getz, Betty Carter, Von Freeman, Tito Puente, Tony Bennett, Les Claypool and Louis Bellson… and he did so while still in high school!

By age eighteen Catalano had his first record contract, with Chicago’s Delmark Records. This led to a string of critically acclaimed recordings. Catalano has been heard by millions of people all over the world, thanks in part to three Grammy-winning and eleven Grammy-nominated recordings with artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child, and John Legend. More recently, he has performed live on the Oprah Winfrey TV show with singer/composer Seal, and had two successful albums: Bang!, on the Savoy label, which debuted at #12 on the Billboard Jazz Charts, and his previous CD, Mighty Burner, which was on the Billboard Charts for twenty straight weeks.

No stranger to adversity, Catalano lost his right middle finger in an automotive mishap. After several surgeries and much effort, Catalano relearned his signature technique, making him one of the most in-demand young musicians today. An entrepreneur, Catalano has patented a device that allows him to control his saxophone via MIDI components.

Catalano is also a spokesperson/clinician/performing artist for companies such as Yamaha, Rico/D’Addario, and JodyJazz, and can be seen in print ads worldwide. Catalano’s songs have been used in the ad campaigns of Motorola, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Budweiser as well as numerous TV and film productions. When not on tour or in the studio, Catalano enjoys composing classical music, baseball and racing his BMW 1 Series in closed-course competition.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was life like for young Frank Catalano?

Frank Catalano: Born in Chicago, basically at Taylor and Western. I was getting ready to go into second grade when my parents moved to Hanover Park, about an hour west of the city. I lived there for most of my childhood years, then went to Streamwood High School and then to DePaul University, and have been living in Chicago since. My dad was into hockey and wanted me to be a professional hockey player––definitely not musical.

When I was in fifth grade, I really got into the saxophone. I had started playing piano when I was three, thanks to my aunt, because she played piano and organ in church. I always loved music and was a pretty accomplished piano player when I was young. I picked up the trumpet, probably played that for about six months, but that didn’t really pan out. I had gotten a cello and a bass––I was kind of little for the acoustic bass. I got an acoustic guitar, kind of the same thing––I liked it, but up to that point piano was my favorite. When I was eight, I started playing saxophone. After the first week of playing it, I was totally hooked.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When was your first organized music experience?

Frank Catalano: When I was nine, I played saxophone at Horizon Elementary School, where I played the song “Rockin’ Robin” with the choir. There was a young drummer, Rob Dubois, who was a year younger than me, so he might have only been seven or eight at the time, and his mom was the music teacher. He had been playing drums since he was two, and he was actually very good. We would rehearse on our own, just sax and drums, and we played at a few coffee shops in Elgin and some other places. The school would actually pay us ten dollars to go play little school get-togethers and faculty functions and stuff. So my first paying gig was when I was nine and I got ten bucks for it. It was very fun.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Musically, a lot happened for you when you were at Streamwood High School. Tell us about the exposure you had to national and international talent.

Frank Catalano: I would say the biggest thing, in addition to sitting in with Von Freeman as a ten-year-old, was playing––since I was eleven, maybe twelve––in the Elgin Community College Jazz Band. They brought in Louie Bellson––that’s how I met him. He really took me under his wing. Randy Brecker, Chick Corea, Dave Liebman––I got to meet all these people when I was super young, and they would say, Hey, this guy is trying, and they would start a kind of a friendship/apprenticeship. Randy Brecker in particular. Not only is he on a couple of my CDs––and I’m on a couple of his––but for a good twenty years now he’s recommended me for gigs.

I got my Yamaha endorsement partially because he recommended me. Getting to know people and sitting-in was great, but the biggest thing was getting to play in the Elgin Community College Band. You wouldn’t think that it would be a hotbed of jazz, and it wasn’t exactly. But when Louie Bellson came down to play––and he was from Moline––it changed my life. Maybe because he was Italian and I was Italian––he really took a liking to me, and my mom and him became friends. I was thirteen or fourteen, and he was flying me out to California, where he lived, to play gigs with him. He really was a father figure of sorts. He was a great musician who was helping me learn through playing gigs with him and really putting in a good word for me. I don’t think that happens too much anymore. I hope it does, because I feel lucky to have been a part of it. But most of that generation of classy musicians have passed away now.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you choose DePaul?

Frank Catalano: I got a scholarship, so financially that made it an easy decision. I had a scholarship to USC, but my mom didn’t want me leaving Chicago. I was playing in Charles Earland’s band, and they already had a lot of regular gigs going on in Chicago, so I thought it made sense to go to DePaul. I liked the school, the teachers, the location, and I was already playing a bunch of gigs in the area. I just thought that it made sense. I really had a good time there. I’m glad that I had my piano lessons with Larry Novak! [smiles]

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever have a sit-down with your folks, when it became apparent that music was going to be your career?

Frank Catalano: That’s a really good question, and in all the interviews that I have done I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that. My parents got divorced when I was very young, so, quite honestly, it wouldn’t have been me sitting down with them together.

My dad would take me to sit-in with people when I was very young. Eventually my mom did the same thing––my mom took me the night that I met Charles Earland when I was in high school. So they were both very supportive and whatnot, but when I actually said, “I want to do this for a living,” my dad was like, Are you sure? My mom was like, Definitely not. I was the first one in my family to go to college and I had a scholarship. My mom figured since I had good grades I could be a lawyer and do music on the side, but I knew that music was what I wanted to do. I had already been playing a lot of gigs and been encouraged by enough well-known people saying, Just keep doing what you’re doing. She was eventually okay with it. My dad was like, “Do whatever you want to do, as long as I don’t have to pay for school.” I think parents can dictate what the kid is going to do if they’re paying for school, but I was basically financially on my own. They could make suggestions, but they weren’t footing the bill. My scholarships weren’t for math or science, either; they were for music, so it was pretty easy to say, “I’m going to school for music.”

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you were in school did you have a penchant for drafting or mechanical drawing?

Frank Catalano: It’s funny that you say that––I always loved drawing and art as a little kid. My grandpa was a really good painter, and he painted a lot of murals in the city. Although he wasn’t a very well known artist he was very skilled. I always thought it was cool. I never had any formal lessons or studies, but I always had an interest in it. Before I picked up the saxophone I did draw and enjoyed it. I always looked at it as a way of expressing myself.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What were some of the seminal moments during college?

Frank Catalano: I didn’t know what to expect in college. My mom left high school when she was sixteen, and my dad joined the marines before he was finished with high school, so they weren’t even able to give me advice about my junior and senior years of high school, let alone college. I would have liked a little more guidance. It was kind of like, Don’t get arrested and good luck. I just made sure to get my homework done. I was playing five nights a week and getting paid to play.

I was going out of town to play with Charles Earland on weekends, so there weren’t any financial problems. And I was getting my homework done, even though sometimes it would be with a big lack of sleep, but I didn’t mind. I have always been pretty self-disciplined––you have to be from a practice standpoint. I didn’t have many difficulties with college life.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So your most significant music mentors were outside of college?

Frank Catalano: Oh, totally. I knew Randy Brecker since I was thirteen, Mike Brecker, Dave Sanborn, Louis Bellson, Von Freeman, Eddie Harris––I was talking with them on the phone, or seeing them regularly. They would have me open for them when they could and they were giving me really good advice. When I look back I don’t know what I would’ve done without those people.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How would you describe your sound?

Frank Catalano: I hear other people describe my sound, and I agree with some of it. My favorite sax players when I was eight, nine or ten were Von Freeman, Dexter Gordon and Mike Brecker––those three, in that order. I try to have that big fatness of Dexter Gordon, a little bit of the looseness of Von Freeman and a little bit of the edge and control of Mike Brecker.

I probably didn’t think of it at the time, but that was who I was listening to and sitting-in with. I never got to sit in with Dexter Gordon, but I did get to see him live on several occasions. So I think of my sound as pretty big and aggressive, and quite honestly in an interview I was told it embodies the “Chicago Tenor Sound.” I can’t say if I agree with that, but it is a big, aggressive and powerful sound. I also try to play with a little bit of edge, because I sometimes like playing more modern stuff.

I like getting to play on stuff with Beyonce and John Legend, I got to play with Seal not long ago. When people ask me to play on gigs that I think are cool and have high exposure I don’t want to turn them down. If you have a really old school sound you won’t get asked to do those things, so I like having a big sound that’s still in the Chicago Tenor tradition, but with a little bit more edge and aggressiveness to the timbre.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You also seem to play with more energy than any of those three players.

Frank Catalano: Sixteen years ago, when Bob Koester signed me to Delmark, he said, “You have the most fire of any player I’ve ever heard.” I appreciated it––it was a true case of someone putting their money where their mouth is. He told me I was the youngest artist he ever signed. That was a long time ago, so I don’t know if there is someone else, but I was the youngest at the time. I don’t think I have ever tried to play “fiery”––I just really love playing; I’m passionate about it. Ever since I had my finger cut off, every time I pick my saxophone up I feel lucky to be playing it.

My adrenaline gets going and I just really enjoy playing. If I had to describe how to play in an energetic way I don’t think I could. It’s like describing how to be the Queen of England: You would have to be eighty-something and be a woman… [laughs] I couldn’t possibly explain it.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: It must have been a very scary moment when you lost your finger.

Frank Catalano: Yeah, I was a junior in high school. I had an old Volkswagen beetle and I went to grab the dipstick––I didn’t turn the engine off, and it took my finger and wrapped it around the generator pulley. It was winter, and my finger was still in the glove. I went inside and called 911. I had lost so much blood that I passed out and cracked my head open when I fell. The paramedics found the glove with the finger in the snow and packaged it up. I was very, very blessed and fortunate.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did the accident affect your playing in any way? For example, the Cubs pitcher, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, developed an unusual curve…

Frank Catalano: It’s funny you should say that––I have some of his baseball cards! He actually became one of my, I don’t want to say idol or mentor, but he was inspirational because he was able to have a great career without one of his fingers. I had to play for a whole year with my finger being pinned up and not working. So even though it was reattached it was basically dead.

It was probably a year and a half before I had a decent range of motion, so I had to use my ring finger to do the work of both of them. So in all the photos of me from the early nineties I’m more or less flipping off the audience! [laughs] That was about the time I started playing with Charles Earland, and I met Nat Adderly and Stanley Turrentine through Charles Earland.

Stanley let me sit-in with him a bunch of times. I would say after Von Freeman, Mike Brecker and Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine and Dave Sanborn were probably the two players I started gravitating towards. Dave Sanborn was a little brighter––“poppy.” Even though I was a tenor I wanted to incorporate more of that “punchiness” into my playing. And Stanley had that slick soulfulness.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You produced three albums for Delmark?

Frank Catalano: Yeah, my first one was called Cut It Out. Louie Bellson wrote the liner notes, and Ira Sullivan played on a couple cuts. Willie Pickens played piano, Robert Shy played drums, Rusty Jones played drums on part of it, Brian Sandstrom played bass. I had been playing with all those guys for a while at that point.

I had met Ira Sullivan at a bunch of the jam sessions around town with Scott Holman. I asked Ira to be on it and he was more than cool. That album got a lot of critical acclaim in the jazz magazines and newspapers. That really helped from a credibility standpoint, especially because this is before digital recordings, meaning you couldn’t just go make a CD––you had to get signed by a record label.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you see a difference between the old school guys and the young lions you’ve worked with?

Frank Catalano: I think if someone is a cool person, they’re a cool person regardless of age. Twenty-five years ago I would usually be the youngest person there, whether it was a gig or a jam session or just hanging out. If you didn’t know the person, you introduced yourself on the break––that’s what I did with Charles Earland. I couldn’t imagine going up and barging in on somebody’s gig.

Anyway, I listened to the first set, and luckily guitarist Dave Bany, who was John Bany’s brother, had me sit-in with him just before Charles Earland was going to go on at Andy’s, so Charles heard me play. Eric Alexander was supposed to be playing with Charles that night and he didn’t show up for the gig. So after the first set went by, Charles seemed kind of mad. So then another set goes by and I was going to be leaving––I was with my mom who brought me.

I felt this big hand on my back: “Kid, get your horn out and get on up there.” So I ended up playing the whole rest of the night. After that, Scott, the owner of Andy’s, started having me in there with my own band. Charles basically hired me for many years until he passed away in 1999. I was like sixteen and in high school when I met Charles.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Playing gigs steadily at sixteen––you must have had a good discretionary income.

Frank Catalano: Yeah, it was all profit. You could be making $100 a gig––$500 a week––and you’d maybe buy a few baseball cards. It was pretty great. I felt really stoked about that. That is one thing that has changed: I get forwarded a lot of jokes from other musicians about the cost of buying a house in Chicago in 1960 was like twenty grand, or whatever, and the average musician would make $200 on a Saturday.

Then, in 1980, the average cost is $150 grand and the average musician was still making $200 on a Saturday, and in 2010 the average house is $500 grand and the average musician is making, like, $125 on a Saturday night. What’s wrong with this picture? So to all the younger musicians who are saying, I want to make a living at music, I say go for it, but do it because you really want to. With these shows like American Idol people have these ideas that you become a musician and get on a TV show and make $20 million a year.

There are people who think, I’m going to be a music producer or a singer and make millions a year. I don’t want to say those types of people are ruining the music scene, but these types of people aren’t coming into the music scene with a genuine love or passion or energy; they’re coming in with an attitude of What’s in it for me? I think those types of people can be kind of cancerous to music in general.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re currently with Savoy?

Frank Catalano:I’m still signed to Savoy, and that’s been a really good situation for me. I don’t really know, but Blue Note and Savoy, I would guess, are the two most old school, long-lived jazz record labels. Both of them had for a while been kind of dormant, and both were revived twenty-some years ago.

It’s also been great for meeting other artists––kind of like years ago with Delmark, when I met other Chicago musicians. Savoy is a legendary label––very, very helpful. My Bang! CD, was on the Billboard charts for a while. Very well received––not just in the U.S.––pretty much all over the world.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You invented an instrument. What’s it called?

Frank Catalano: I always just called it “bell keys.” With it, I’m able to play the keyboard using my right hand and the saxophone with my left hand––almost enough notes to be a one-man horn section because of the way that I programmed the keyboard. It’s basically a shockmount system, and you put a little MIDI keyboard controller onto it. I was playing with some rock bands and they were having me play keyboards as well as saxophone, so I thought, Well, what could I do all in one?

I almost sold it to Yamaha. But after they looked at the numbers they said, Instead of us buying this––because it will cost millions to promote it and the only person who will be able to properly play it is you-–we want to hire you to do clinics, be an endorser and play-test stuff. So the saxophone that I play all the time is a silver Yamaha saxophone with a brass neck. I actually helped design the neck so that I could get a bigger sound out of it without wrecking the intonation. I also helped them with the soprano sax that’s coming out in a couple months, the z-soprano.

In 2005 I started working with them on that to develop a really great soprano. I always give them my ideas. That stems from having spent a month in my mom’s garage developing the first prototype, and then tracking down a patent attorney. When I was told the legal fees for a patent would be about $20,000, I found an attorney, Bob Kemp, who was reasonably priced and was cool.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have an apparent interest in baseball.

Frank Catalano: I like baseball. I have a lot of old baseball cards, I played Little League baseball for a long time and I have always liked baseball. I like going to games, going to Wrigley Field and whatnot. I pretty much have a whole set of 1933, 1934 and 1938 Goudey baseball cards that have Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio; a whole set of the 1949 Bowman cards, that has Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson. Some people like paintings. Most of these cards were kind of line-drawn and then colored in, or they’re black and white photos that were colored.

So just from the artistic nature of them I think they are really awesome, and, of course, there’s the players. When you talk about true stars––the way I see people as stars––all those guys that I just mentioned are stars or heroes. I still love baseball, but when a baseball player says, Oh, I can’t sign with you because I’m only making twenty million a year, I go, What the fuck! The 1938 Joe DiMaggio baseball card has a little series of comics around his image.

There’s a little caricature of a guy holding a bag of money and it says, “$25,000 a year––not bad for such a young fellow.” While that was a lot more money than it is now, in comparison that might be about $250,000 in today’s dollars––still a really good salary. Today, the lowest paid major league player is making more than that. So to me it’s cool to know that, because I love playing jazz because I love it.

Those guys were playing baseball because they loved it. It wasn’t all about money or the commercialization or the Nike sponsorship. So I definitely love baseball cards. Other hobbies: I’ve always liked cars and racing four-wheelers. I have a BMW that has got me in trouble a little bit, but I don’t work on cars anymore after what happened to my finger. But I’ll go to the track and race around my car. Music is my work-slash-my hobby ninety-eight percent of the time. But the other two percent of the time I like cars and baseball.

My wife and I go to wine-tastings and travel, and we were able to go on a nice honeymoon. We’re going to Portugal in a couple months on a little vacation. I had my tour of Europe last March, so I was able to play jazz clubs and she was able to come with me. It was a great thing. I feel very fortunate about that. Travel is fun and I didn’t think I would get to do it as much as I have. Years back, I learned that if you toured in Tony Bennett’s band you were in nice accommodations; if you’re in your own band, you might be sleeping on somebody’s floor! [laughs] Last year we went to play Germany’s best jazz club and stayed in a high-end hotel and flew first class. I feel very lucky, and my wife enjoys many of the same things.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What’s on the horizon for Frank Catalano?

Frank Catalano: I have a ton of gigs––mostly with the quartet––for the next couple months at a bunch of jazz clubs. Then, the sax and drums stuff starts in the fall. I have a couple weeks’ worth of gigs with Randy Brecker over the summer. Through Rico Reeds I’ll be with my friend Caleb Chapman, who is in Utah and runs the Park City Jazz Festival and the Crescent Super Band.

I have an endorsement with JodyJazz mouthpieces, Yamaha and Rico Reeds to perform clinics and master classes at schools. In a couple months I’ll be going back into the studio to begin work on the next CD. Some CDs have taken me a year to make; some CDs, like the Bang! CD, were recorded in a few days. So I can’t really gauge how long anything will take.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever sit down and make a conscious decision on the direction you would go?

Frank Catalano: Again, a really good question, and I probably think about that more than I would like to admit. I would say as a really young musician in the late eighties when I was first getting to play with a lot of people, studio music and session music was still viable. To do those sessions you had to play flute and clarinet, and all the saxophones.

Because I liked playing with different people and I liked being the saxophone player, I thought that was what I was going to do. In ’95, when I joined Tony Bennett’s band, I got to play with a lot of legendary saxophone players that had been part of that scene for years, and they were just like, Kid, it’s dead. Don’t do it. One guy had played in the Tonight Show Band for a while, until they disbanded in the early nineties. If anyone was tied into the studio scene it was him, and he was saying, Kid, I used to do two or three sessions a day, and now I do one a week––and I’m one of the first-call guys! So again I received great advice from an older musician––it kind of made my eyes pop.

So I had this opportunity with Delmark to go in the solo artist direction, which I chose to do. And, as I said, at that time you had to have a platform––you had to have a record label. You couldn’t just put your music up on YouTube or Facebook––you had to have a person saying, I believe you and I’ll give you some money. So if it weren’t for Bob Koester and Delmark I would have just been a hired gun or sideman.

So many things have led from one thing to the next. We talked about Mordecai Brown earlier. My idol personally was Joe DiMaggio, and I got to meet him through Tony Bennett. DiMaggio had that kind of vibe that I think people need to bring to their careers as musicians, meaning don’t be the hitter who goes up trying to hit a home run and strikes out the rest of the time. If you go up and get a base hit you’re helping your team by advancing the runners––you’re doing good. So maybe my Delmark albums didn’t sell a million copies, but I got good reviews and met a lot of people. The next one was Pins and Needles.

Again, it didn’t sell millions of copies but it did okay and got decent reviews. Now, five or six CDs later, I’m on the Billboard charts, selling quite a bit and whatnot. Every day when I wake up I think, What can I do today to get a base hit?

Maybe I’m not going to headline the Montreux Jazz Festival every day, but who can I call, who can I respond to, and where would I like to play? People assume that your manager does that. Well, I have a manager and a really good booking agency, but they don’t do stuff on their own. Even though they’re great, they need a direction and they have other clients. You are your own best advocate. So that’s one suggestion for someone who wants to be a solo artist––you just have to make the conscious decision that every day you’re going to do something to better your career.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was the vision you had back then for your solo career?

Frank Catalano: At that time I just remember getting complimented so much for being a fiery, high-energy saxophone player. And I thought about the “poppiness” that Dave Sanborn brought to the alto. What if I could bring those things to the tenor, like the split tones, and some of my demo videos of that are on the Rico Reeds website.

I could actually be doing something that no other tenor player had done before––I could keep that big sound, but with the fiery energy. Usually tenor players have to have a poignant pointy sound, like Eddie Harris. I kind of felt like I could do something that no one else was doing. With every album and every gig I tried to do that. By the late nineties, many critics were saying the most spirited tenor player is Frank Catalano.

I particularly remember the New York Times saying I was “spirited.” Charles Earland was known as the “Mighty Burner.” And he said to me, “One day you’ll be the Mighty Burner.” And before he passed away I wrote the song “Mighty Burner” as a dedication to him, and people were saying that it was really burning. So everything I did from 1995 to 2005 had to do with the idea of seeing how far I could push the envelope of being a high-energy, big-sounded saxophone player.

My focus started to change in 2004––I got to record a drum and sax duo album with Elvin Jones. He passed away six months after that. We were both Yamaha endorsers and I was really excited to do this. The record label I was on at the time actually went bankrupt and I bought the album back, and it’s either going to come out this year under Savoy or a company called Hotwax. I have the John Coltrane-Rashid Ali album, Interstellar Space, which came out seven years after John Coltrane passed away. As I mentioned, my very first gig was with this drummer, Rob Dubois, when I was in grade school. My first album was Bookended, with me and Rusty Jones––sax and drums––and I always loved playing that way. I kind of let that go for ten years. Then I found there’s so much stuff within that idea of playing a single-line melody instrument with the percussion––it’s a more open and spiritual vibe. There’s so much that can be done with it. So I’m trying to focus on that as my core––me and the drums. I’m trying to have a rapport with the drummer in a way that sometimes negates the piano, bass, guitar, and sometimes ties it together, truly tying in harmony and rhythm instead of keeping it separate. Sometimes people don’t get what I’m doing, and that’s okay.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So with your saxophone-drums music you’ve made a conscious decision to take your music full circle back to your grade school years.

Frank Catalano: Yeah, seriously, full circle to the grade school days and to my very first CD. I remember people saying, Do you really want to have just sax and drums? Maybe just do one song like that and put it in the middle of the album. I was told that! I’m proud at this point to be able to do albums in the way that I really want. I can say, This is what I want to do as the artist, and I’m going to do it.

With the Mighty Burner, DownBeat called me “John Coltrane energy for the twenty-first century.” That’s really what my goal or focus has been. John Coltrane’s last CD was released posthumously, Interstellar Space. It was the idea of the energy and the free “movingness” of him and the drums. But I also got to play on a couple of Charles Earland’s albums, including Johnny Hammond’s last recording session, and I love the soul jazz/acid jazz vibe.

How could I tie those two things together––the John Coltrane energy with the soulful, fun, funky side? That’s been a major area that I’m trying to work within. So, to take it a step farther: How can I deconstruct it and actually take out some of the comping and the other stuff and have it be a little more spacious, but not lose that energy? So it’s a different direction, but it’s still not a one-eighty––it’s just a little different, with my own spin on it.