Like a lot of the young lions in the world of traditional jazz, saxophonist, pianist, composer, and band leader — and now host of a jazz radio program on Mercer County Community College’s jazz radio station, WWFM2 — Tom Tallitsch was raised with rock ‘n’ roll.
And while the musician who will be appearing at the Small World Coffee in Princeton on Saturday, October 25, initially identified with rock and its growing range, he knew from age 15 that he wanted to play jazz. It helped that he grew up in Cleveland and later attended school in Cincinnati, two cities with still-vibrant jazz club scenes.
“When I was growing up there was the Bop Stop, the Boarding House, Sixth Street Under, and [prominent] tenor player Joe Lovano is from Cleveland, so I saw him play a bunch of times,” says Tallitsch via cell phone while parked on Nassau Street after wrapping up a Monday evening teaching students piano and saxophone.
“There were players there too, like Mike Lee, whom I studied with; he lives in Montclair now, but he played in the Vanguard Band and the Woody Herman Band. There were a lot of strong tenor players that were rooted in the bebop tradition,” says the 40-year-old son of a teacher mother and father who runs a sales consultancy business.
Tallitsch has moved around a lot: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Hamilton Township, Trenton, and now, since 2009, Jersey City. Yet Tallitsch, who lived in Hamilton Township for 11 years, still has strong connections with the Trenton jazz scene and plays and teaches in the area.
Tallitsch still loves a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, but seems happy to say that “the first album my dad gave me was Benny Goodman ‘Live at Carnegie Hall.’ I had a bunch of Benny Goodman records, and then some Cleveland guys said, ‘you got to check out [late saxophonist] Stan Getz.’ From the time I was 13 or 14 years old I remember telling my grandfather I wanted to be a jazz musician.
“At the time I had bad grades in school and my parents didn’t know what the hell was going on with me. But they would let me go out to these clubs and see jazz people and hang out there, a lot. That’s what I decided I wanted to do. I don’t think I was thinking about money at all. I was thinking about playing my horn; that’s all I wanted to do. I was fortunate there were so many great educators in Cleveland. I just loved it, man. That’s all I thought about.”
Talking about the difference between rock and jazz performances, Tallitsch says, “I love Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, but the driving bebop saxophone of Stan Getz and Charlie Parker or the early Coltrane stuff with Miles [Davis] was the music that appealed to me the most. I loved that guys would improvise on the blues. Then I would go see rock guys in concert, and they would play the same solos that were on the record, note-for-note.”
He adds other loves and influences: electric blues guitarists Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Albert King; the great music on the radio stations in both Cleveland and Cincinnati; and mentors. “I had some great teachers with saxophone, and they would lay these records on me. One teacher in Cincinnati had a wall full of vinyl albums with all the obscure stuff that came out on BlueNote records,” he says.
Tallitsch attended the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and got his B.A. in jazz studies. Now aside from leading his own trios, quartets, and sextets, he also frequently performs with Trenton organist Tom Passarella and old school guitarist and vocalist Bob Smith.
“Each of my bands has a different flavor, and I love playing in the organ group with Tommy Pass and Bob Smith, because they have great ears and know how to get into a groove. Since I’ve been living up in Jersey City a lot of the stuff I do now revolves around writing my own music and playing my own compositions,” he says, noting he recently recorded his sixth album in September. It is his third release for the Los Angeles-based PosiTone, where his label mates include Orrin Evans and saxophonist/arranger Ralph Bowen of the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble.
So is Tallitsch, — whose wife, Carrie Ellmore, is a choreographer and dance instructor with her own studio — slowly making a name for himself in New York?
“When I first came up to New York in the late 1990s, I felt like it was something to be conquered. I’ve realized since then that it’s not, it’s a community. Now, if I see a tenor player walking down the street, I want to talk to him. Every night you hear the greatest stuff in clubs. (Audiences) want to hear original music, but it’s got to be swinging, and it’s got to be cutting edge,” says Tallitsch, who plays mostly tenor saxophone but also plays alto and soprano on his records and an occasional clarinet and flute.
To make extra money he provides music instruction privately and for institutions, including the past eight years at the Princeton Child Development Institute on Cold Soil Road, where he has instructed autistic children and adults on playing piano, reed instruments, and flute.
Of the challenges entailed in working with individuals on the autism spectrum, Tallitsch says it requires a positive outlook and enthusiasm. “If you make it fun and they have some sort of reward, they’ll go for it. Some of the students really can’t even speak, but over a few weeks or a month, you can teach them a full song. I’ve taught a number of my students some standards and how to improvise over the blues.”
Some of his autistic students have great ears and can read music really well, but others cannot hear as well. “I find when I get frustrated with them, it’s something wrong with me; I’m tired or hungry or it’s just not going my way,” he says.
Not unlike other musicians, Tallitsch found himself burning out on Atlantic City gigs and weddings, so he decided to concentrate on his own compositions and leading his own small groups. “I found I really liked teaching and that allowed me to cut out a lot of the gigs that I didn’t want to play anymore,” he says.
His work now includes putting a jazz spin on rock tunes. “It’s a recent thing I’ve been doing, taking a song that is not a mainstream rock song to arrange. It’s a challenge to not play it verbatim but to make it hip; a lot of these tunes have really basic chords. I have a few ideas for my next record, find some more obscure rock tunes, like a Frank Zappa tune, and rearrange that. The people at PosiTone Records really like it,” he says.
Aside from his private teaching and performing activities in jazz clubs in New York City and New Jersey, Tallitsch is an area presence with his weekly radio show on the Internet station, WWFM. His digitally recorded shows are heard every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. “I think I have about 110 episodes. I pre-record them and play jazz that’s come out over the last five years. I play people I know from up in the city and people I idolize and love, heavy cats that might not get the exposure otherwise.”
So are Tallitsch’s club performances like the radio shows? “A little bit, but a lot of times at gigs, we just play. I might speak a little bit about the music, but we want to take people on a journey.”
Given that he’s only 40 and lived in so many places that should be easy enough for this now-veteran jazz man to do.
Tom Tallistsch, Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, October 25, 8:30 p.m. Free. 609-924-4377 or www.smallworldcoffee.com.
Vault in Yardley, 10 South Main Street, Yardley, Pennsylvania. Friday, October 31, 8 to 11 p.m. 267-573-4291 or vaultbrewing.com.
The Modern Jazz Radio Show, WWFM2, Thursday nights, 8 to 10 p.m. www.jazzon2.org.
For upcoming concerts, visit www.tomtallitsch.com and click on calendar for upcoming dates.