Stephen Gauci, NYC Jazz Record Profile

Stephen Gauci Profile, By John Sharpe, The New York City Jazz Record, October 2018

The profile of saxophonist Stephen Gauci, already a strikingly original voice with a sizeable discography, has risen meteorically over the last year thanks to his presentation of not one but two ongoing concert series: the Bushwick Improvisers Series and the Happylucky no. 1 Series. A native New Yorker, Gauci caught the bug when his parents bought him a jazz record featuring early ‘50s bebop. “It just sounded so familiar to me, like I had spoken this language before.” He had the good fortune to connect with the legendary Charlie Leeds, from Louis Prima’s Orchestra in the ‘30s, as his first saxophone teacher. “Because he was a big band player, back in those days there was one mic in front of the singer, so you had to have a huge sound. So Charlie from the first lesson he was very adamant that you’re
going to have a big sound. That developed my whole sound conception. It really stuck.” That luck continued when Gauci met former Dizzy Gillespie bassist Chris White while at college. “He did two things that changed my life.” The first was to tell him to audition for William Paterson University, where Gauci went on to study with saxophonist Joe Lovano. The second was to direct him to a jam session at Elsie’s, a tiny bar in East Orange, NJ. “It was the most amazing players. It was all these hardcore bebop guys, a lot of middle-aged black people, and I would be maybe one of the only white kids there. And that’s how I really learned how to play jazz. You would go up on the stage and play a standard and they were good, but if you made a mistake, if you lost your place, you got your ass off that stage.” From there it was a long process to arrive at his current avant jazz conception, which involves a lot of overtone manipulation and
multiphonics. After college he gigged around before arriving in Seattle, where he met another seminal
influence, bassist Michael Bisio, who taught him how to play free. When he arrived back in New York in
2000, Gauci refocused: “Everything became very free and open.” That resulted in a sequence of strong albums on Cadence Jazz, CIMP, Clean Feed, Not Two and Relative Pitch. But a growing disillusionment with the music business led him to stop releasing records in 2014, although he continued playing. But it was the feeling of impending mortality, brought home when a good friend died of a sudden heart attack, which gave him the impetus to reappraise his situation. “I just went over every aspect of this music thing. And the first stop with that is I’m not going to spend my time asking people for gigs anymore. So I started my own. I walked around and I found this place. My concept for the Bushwick Series, it’s meant to be a hybrid between a regular concert series and the jam sessions I used to go to in East Orange, where lots of musicians came and were just hanging out all night.” If taking control of his career was the first imperative for Gauci, then another factor was how his playing was changing. Partly that was due to the gradual worsening of a profound hearing impairment that dates back to childhood, although Gauci refuses to let this define him. “What happens is it changes the way I hear the music. The effect it’s had on me is that every sound that dims for me, there’s another sound that gets louder. But the sounds that get louder, they’re not sounds that most people, even most musicians, are really aware of that much because they can hear all the other stuff. When I’m on stage I can hear all the music. But what I’m
talking about are the inner sounds. And the people that play with me, over time, they know what these things mean. They know how to react to them.” Gauci’s regular quartet with guitarist Sandy Ewen, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Kevin Shea plays Bushwick at 8 pm every Monday night. “Part of it was
that I wanted to play with those guys and part of it too is who can do this every week. That’s the reason I do it on a Monday night as well. If I did it on a Friday night it would be hard to keep people.” As the Bushwick Series has taken off since June 2017, Gauci has added sets, so there are now six shows stretching from 7 pm until past midnight. “Everybody wants to play and they don’t care what time they play. Word’s spread and it’s become more of a scene than just a gig. The thing that really surprised me with the Bushwick Series was that people hang out all night long. People like Billy Mintz, Tony Malaby and William Parker, they keep coming back, even though there’s very little money to be made there.”
While it was sheer determination that birthed the Bushwick Series, serendipity played more of a role in setting up the Happylucky no. 1 series. One of his students was also the owner of the Happylucky no. Gallery in Crown Heights, which already presented some jazz. “When she saw what I was doing with the
Bushwick Series she asked me if I wanted to take over and do something with it.” That also involved the donation of a baby grand piano, which transformed the Wednesday evening series. “I started booking bluechip pianists. We’ve had Sylvie Courvoisier, CooperMoore, Matt Mitchell, Russ Lossing, Angelica Sanchez, we’ve had a lot of great pianists there.” For Bushwick he tries to say yes to everyone within
reason, such that the schedule is full months in advance. But with Happylucky no. 1 he has been presenting only one artist each Wednesday in the autumn and spring series. He explains: “I have to think
will people come out to see this person? Because there’s not just me, I have to consider what the gallery owner would like.” Then while the gallery proper was closed over the summer, he presented a slightly different format, featuring himself in duet with Cooper-Moore each Friday and Saturday with another artist completing the bill. Every set from both series is videoed and posted on his website, so that people
know what he’s doing. Issuing records is also part of Gauci’s urge to document for posterity. “This is all part of a five-year plan. For a while I was only focused on making sure that I don’t lose the venue. And now that’s pretty solid, the next phase is the record label. I’m going to start releasing on the Gauci Music label, two CDs probably every two or three months, centered on the Bushwick scene. And then phase three is when I’ll focus on touring out of New York City. As I’m releasing the records I’m going to be sending these records out to people where I might like to tour. This way I’m priming
the soil. Essentially when I tour I’m bringing people a little taste of the Bushwick scene. Really, what else do I have to offer? “If this goes on long enough, I really feel that in 20 years I’ll be an old man and there will be quite a few players saying do you remember the Bushwick Series because that’s where I learned how to play. This is very important to me. It’s the main thing above everything else. It’s not about me. My whole mentality now is that I help myself by helping others. This is a community thing. I don’t exist outside of this community.” – by John Sharpe, The NYC Jazz Record