By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

Sept 1, 2020

When I listen to Teodross Avery’s saxophone music, I feel like I know him. When I hear his compositions, they sound familiar (like jazz standards) and when I interviewed him recently, we talked like old friends instead of artist and journalist.   He’s got an easy way about him.  He’s personable and that comes across in his music.  I didn’t feel anything pretentious blowing out of the bell of his horn. His saxophone is honest, pure, emotional and well-played.

He was born in Northern California, (the Vacaville/Oakland area) and he comes from a mid-sized, loving family.  There was little Teo, two sisters, a step-brother, a step-mother and father and his real mother was also in the mix.

“My father played various instruments around the house just for fun; the harmonica and Bongos.  He bought me a guitar when I was just five years old,” Teo shared with me.

“Like a kid’s guitar or a toy guitar?”  I asked him.

“No.   It was a real electric guitar and I thought I was rockin’ hard in those days.  (laughter) I started taking lessons at ten.  But before lessons, I had my real guitar and I was playing while very young.”

The Avery house was always full of music.  His father boasted a huge record collection and young Teodross heard a range of music including West African music, soul, rock and jazz.  At age thirteen, the sound of John Coltrane jolted Teo onto a new musical path.  The young Avery put down the guitar and picked up the saxophone.  Two years later, the impetuous teenager heard that Wynton Marsalis was coming to town.  Always in search of ‘live’ music, he enjoyed hearing the various jazz artists in-person; artists like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Nat Adderley, Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones. Teo was determined to meet trumpet icon, Wynton Marsalis.

“Yeah, he was passing through the Bay Area and performing at UC Berkeley.  I would always go hear ‘live’ music in the Bay area.  I would stake out.  I’d get to the venue early and I’d wait for the musicians to arrive,” he chuckles remembering.

“It was kind of unique, because how often would musicians see a fifteen-year-old kid waiting for them to arrive?  So, they opened the music up to me, which was really cool.  At the time, Wynton was helping out a lot of young musicians.  He always had you introduce yourself first.  Like hi, my name is blah blah and I’m from such and such a place.  Then he’d say – ok.  Pull out your horn.  I want to hear what you have to say on your instrument.  Let’s hear what you got.  Then, he’d critique you and inspire you.  He’d direct you if he thought you had something you needed to work on.  After he heard me play, he told me to talk to his saxophonist, Wessell Anderson.  After playing for Wes, I told them I needed a new horn, since they were helping musicians get better instruments.  They told me they would arrange a new instrument for me and I was really, really, appreciative,” Teodross Avery spoke sincerely. “I was fifteen.”

Doors flew open for the talented young man.  At seventeen he got a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston.  At nineteen, he landed a record deal with GRP/Impulse and cut his first album, using a slew of exceptional musicians.  For two days, I listened to this man’s early work on YouTube.  He was not even of legal age to drink alcohol, but his music had an old soul.  That first album was bebop-tight and fluid.  He was soulful and sounded like a veteran player instead of a nineteen-year-old college student.  I asked him about that time in his life.

“I was playing with Carl Allen and at the time, he had a music copyist who knew a management person (Anna Sala) who knew an A&R person.  That A&R person (Carl Griffin) knew there was a call out from GRP/Impulse Records. They were looking for a saxophone artist. When the copyist heard me on Carl Allen’s record date, he asked me to send them my information. That’s how I got that deal, and interestingly, that music copyist, who’s also a trumpet player, is leading an amazing group today called “The Cookers.”   I’m sure you’ve heard them.  His name is David Weiss.  He’s been in a few groups, but this was a great group with Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Donald Harrison, George Cables, Cecil Mcbee and Billy Hart.  He hooked me up.”

Dee Dee:   You used Roy Hargrove on that first album.  I love that song “High Hopes.”  How did Roy come to be on that album?

“When Roy would come through Boston, I would go hear him and we used to wind up at this bar named Wally’s.  Everybody went there to jam.  You’d go to Wally’s to learn how to play.  It was like Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, back in New York.  One of those places where you went and just played. Our friendship evolved like that and he wound up on my album. I composed nine out of the eleven songs on that album,” Teo Avery flashed back to his Berklee College days.

I reminded Teo that one of the songs I listened to on that album was “Edda”, a Wayne Shorter composition.  I asked him if Wayne Shorter was one of his inspirations.

“Oh sure.  He’s probably one of the greatest composers in jazz.  His music is very strong.  I was also influenced by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Michael Brecker, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock; oh, there’s so many,” he mused.

Teo’s next project came in 1996, when he released his “My Generation” album.  His first album was bebop influenced and straight-ahead.  But this next release blended genres.   He enlisted the talents of Mark Whitfield, John Scofield and Peter Bernstein on guitar, Charles Craig on piano, Greg Hutchinson on drums and Rodney Whitaker on bass.

“I’ve been knowing Rodney since those days of going to hear Roy Hargrove.  I heard him perform with Roy.  He and Greg Hutchinson played so well together.  They just locked. I was like, I gotta have these guys on my record,” he recalled with excitement in his tone.

On one of their songs he featured “Blackthoughts” from “The Roots” group, a popular house-band featured on the Jimmy Fallon Late Night TV show.  Avery also did a very cool arrangement of Janet Jackson’s hit record, “Anytime, Anyplace” on this album.

“I grew up playing jazz, but I grew up in Hip Hop too.  So, I like to bring those elements out,” he explained why he included a Hip Hop rapper and a pop/R&B hit song on that particular album.

Teo continued to record.  In 1998, he released “Teodross Avery & the 5th Power, New Day, New Groove.”  Years later he released, “Post Modern Trap Music.”

In between recording and composing, the young saxophonist and budding composer graduated Berklee and moved to New York City.  While attaining his Master’s degree in Music from the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, he found his way to producing soundtracks for movies like “Love Jones” where he actually played a musician and performed on stage (1996) and they used his original music in the movies “Beauty Shop” and “Brown Sugar.”   As a musician who blends styles and genres, he found his way onto the first gold-record album Amy Winehouse released, co-writing a song she sang called “Brother” on her “Frank” project.

Teodross Avery found himself on tours and in studios that put him in contact with a number of iconic entertainers including Aretha Franklin, Mos Def, Roy Ayers, Lauren Hill and Leela James.  On the jazzy side of the coin, his horn embellished bandstands with Ben Riley, Hank Jones, The Roy Hargrove Big Band, Lewis Nash, Donald Harrison, Bobby Watson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, to name just a few.  I asked Teo who made the biggest impressions on him.

“Oh, that’s so hard to say because each person has strengths that are different from each other.  You might be on stage with somebody who’s selling lots of albums and they might do two things really well, that you’re observing.  Then you might be on the road with someone else who really isn’t as big of a star, but they might do two other things better.  Everybody has something to offer and if you’re there to be observant and to play and be supportive; if you’re there to learn, then every opportunity is an opportunity to grow.  Sometimes you learn what to do and other times, what not to do,” he shared.

“Lauryn Hill has this ability to make emotional music that resonates with a lot of people.  She knows how to talk about things lyrically that people tap into, especially women.  She knows how to really connect in a very emotional way. I learned about that from her.  On the flip side, you have somebody like Leela James.  She’s all about that soul and making you feel real good with that gospel soul-funk.  So, there’s a time when you need to sit down and focus on being soulful.  That’s what she showed me.”

Dee Dee: What made you take the teaching position at California State University Dominquez Hills?

“It was in 2010 I had done everything I wanted to do in New York and I was seeking a way to come back to California.  So, it was really like a good time to go back to school and get my doctorate.  When I was done with that (2012 to 2016), I started looking for jobs.  This one came up here in L.A. My wife and I were expecting a child and we were already in Los Angeles and we didn’t have to move to another State.  It was just the right time.   I didn’t want to be that musician who was gone away from their family.  I’ve been on the road and seen musicians being away from their families and away from their wives at very critical times. I just couldn’t let that happen.   I couldn’t raise my child like that, not being around.  I saw my dad being a good parent and I wanted to give that to my child,” he explained.

“Currently, we’re teaching completely online via Zoom.  I feel like I’d rather be safe than sorry.  Who wants to take a chance on catching COVID19?  After all, I have a family.  I’d rather wait it all out,” he spoke about the pandemic that’s currently ravaging our California state.

In 2016, Teodross Avery received his Doctorate degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Southern California (USC).  Dr. Avery is currently the head of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Music at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH).

In 2019, Dr. Avery recorded a tribute to one of his music heroes, “After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane.”  On this release, he returned to his bebop roots.  This year, (2020) he has continued his love of straight-ahead jazz with the release of his latest album, “Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk.”  Once again, he uses an all-star lineup of musicians to interpret Monk’s amazing compositions.  He has divided the album in half, featuring one group on the first five songs including Willie Jones III on drums (who also produced this project for his label, WJ3 Records), Anthony Wonsey on piano, Allakoi “Mic Holden” Peete on percussion and Corcordan Holt on bass.   Then Teo changes the band for the next five tunes, with the addition of DD Jackson on piano, the final five compositions are interpreted in a very abstract way.  He keeps Holt on bass, but adds Marvin “Bugalu” Smith on drums.

Teodross Avery fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk when he was just fifteen years old.  His dad used to play the genius pianist and composer’s music all the time.  Teodross recalls:

“I used to listen to Monk’s album, ‘Monk’s Dream’, with the volume on ten on my dad’s huge speakers.  I began to hear how important the swing rhythm was to Thelonious Monk’s music.  It became clear to me that Monk wanted his complex melodies and harmonies to affect the musicians and the listeners alike with non-stop swing rhythms.”

Without a doubt, Dr. Avery has put together a group of musicians who swing hard and non-stop.  He also brings (along with the historic sound of Monk’s group), his own perspective and arrangements that add a kaleidoscope of colorful shades, beauty and brilliance. Right from the very first song, “Teo” I am intrigued and absolutely intoxicated by the energy and creativity of this varied ensemble.  “Teo” is a wonderful Monk composition, inspired by the composer’s appreciation of tenor sax-man and longtime producer, Teo Macero.  Folks were likely to hear Monk and his band of merry men play this tune often at Minton’s Playhouse in New York while Thelonious was the house pianist in the mid-1940s.  Every composition on this album is the work of this piano genius. When Avery interprets “Ruby My Dear” he surprises me with the funk drums at the top and the smooth, Latin, rhythmic vibe he inserts.  When the melody arrives, like a beautiful woman making her grand entrance after the party has started, it both pleases and astonishes this listener.   This arrangement is dynamic and fresh.  It will make all the party attendees swivel their heads towards the ballad’s entrance.  Teodross Avery’s arrangement could have been influenced by the fact that this tune was penned for Monk’s girlfriend at that time, a spicy, Cuban-born beauty named Rubie Richardson.   The piano of Anthony Wonsey is the sparkle, like jewelry around the song’s long, lovely body.

“Evidence” vividly showcases Willie Jones III on drums.  This, of course, is a standard jam session jazz tune that drummers love to dig their sticks into.  Willie Jones III does not disappoint.  The
Teodross Avery Quartet brings a classic, hard-bop menu to the table.  It’s just what my taste buds needed to begin this early Saturday morning.  Like “Evidence,” the classic tune, “Rhythm-a-ning,” allows Teodross Avery to swing and race at top speed on his tenor saxophone.  He has a tone and attack that exploits the best in whatever he plays.  Corcoran Holt is stunning and convincing on his bass solos.  His up-tempo precision attack throughout, features his swiftly-walking double bass that locks into the drums and makes the perfect basement for this quartet to jam inside.  A melodic mixture of improvised piano notes scurry beneath the sensitive fingers of Wonsey.  This is an exciting and serious representation of master Monk’s work and explores the talents of these awesome musicians.

DD Jackson sits down to the piano to introduce us to “In Walked Bud” in a very inventive and blues-laden way.  He has a totally different style of playing than Wonsey, but is no less dynamic or brilliant. He brings something new and inventive to the tune.  The drums roll, like a two-ton truck barreling down the freeway, underneath this spontaneous ensemble.  Teodross Avery is magnificently present on his tenor saxophone.  Mr. Jackson takes a serious solo that makes me sit up and pay close attention.  This is the way jazz is supposed to make you feel.  Marvin “Bugalu” Smith parts the curtains and demands our consideration during his drum solo, full of spunk and fire.  “In Walked Bud” never sounded so good!

We get a breather on “Ugly Beauty,” the only waltz Monk ever wrote and it’s sweetly presented, yet still with those powerful drums edging the band on.  Teodross Avery plays beautifully on soprano saxophone this time, sounding like a wild, beautiful bird.  He glides, dips and flies over our heads and makes me look up.  This music lifts me.  DD Jackson answers some of his conversational horn lines on piano, as though they are having a private conversation.  His fingers move rapidly; humming bird or butterfly wings dusting the piano keys.

Every song and each individual production on this album of great music is worthy of a replay.  I spent a couple of hours listening, so I could soak up every nuance; every drop of colorful creativity.  Teodross Avery is masterful as a woodwind player, but also as a bandleader, arranger and musical inspiration.