Q&A with saxophonist Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff (The Texas Horns) - plays music and makes people want to dance

"These days, things politically seem SO BAD that our music offers some relief and solace and alternative. Maybe we need less ‘big’ and ‘mega’ and ‘corporate’ and more ‘little’ and ‘local’ and ‘friendly’."

Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff (The Texas Horns):

Let The Lone Star's Good Times Roll

Comprised of Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff (tenor sax), John Mills (baritone sax) and Al Gomez (trumpet), The Texas Horns are one of the most in-demand horn sections for both recording sessions and on tour with some of the biggest names in the roots music world. Now, they get a chance to strut their collective stuff on their own album of blues, soul and roots music by Severn Records, "Get Here Quick" (Release Date, May 24), backed by an all-star group of supporting musicians. Special guests on Get Here Quick include singers Curtis Salgado, John Nemeth, Gary Nicholson, Guy Forsyth and Carolyn Wonderland; as well as guitarists Ronnie Earl, Anson Funderburgh, Johnny Moeller, Denny Freeman, Derek O’Brien and Jonn Del Toro Richardson. Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff is an American jazz and blues saxophonist, arranger, and record producer living in Austin, Texas. Kazanoff has been nominated for multiple awards in the category of Horn Instrumentals, including an Austin Music Award in 1988, a Grammy Award for Delbert McClinton's Live from Austin in 1989, numerous Blues Music Awards, and a Blues Foundation Award in 2016. Living in Chicago in his early twenties, Kazanoff was influenced by and played with jazz and blues musicians Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, James Cotton, Magic Sam, Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters and Otis Rush. He joined the house band of Austin blues venue Antones in 1982, where he has performed for 35 years. Kazanoff continues to play with local Texas musicians including Jimmie Vaughan, Marcia Ball, WC Clark, Red Young, Miss Lavelle White, and Anson Funderburgh.

The Texas Horns "Get Here Quick" by Severn Records, (Release date, May 24), album's cover photo

In 2016, Kazanoff produced and played tenor sax on R&B singer Ina Forsman's self-titled debut album. Other productions include Australian blues artist Fiona Boyes' Lucky 13 in 2006, WC Clark's Deep in the Heart in 2004, and Pat Boyack's record Voices from the Street, also in 2004. In 1997, Kazanoff started a three-piece horn section, The Texas Horns, with Al Gomez and John Mills. In 2015, The Texas Horns released their first album, Blues Gotta Holda Me, on the Vizztone Label. Described as "a horn-driven, blues-drenched celebration," the album includes WC Clark, Marcia Ball, Johnny Nicholas, Danny Levin, and Anson Funderburgh. The Texas Horns have performed with American bands such as the Allman Brothers, and are featured at international festivals. Affiliated for many years with important Blues Record Labels like Blacktop, Alligator, Ruf, Rounder, and, Blind Pig, and Antones, Kaz continues to record and produce music.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Jazz Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

A big Question! Blues and Jazz is Afro-American music. So, it comes from a VERY different place than western European influenced music. It’s much more about rhythm and dance and community and participation, and improvisation. Maybe that’s what got me into it in the first place. Something about the music reached out and grabbed me much more directly than any other kind of music when I was young. I was lucky to be able to hear a lot of black music when I was young, either on records or best yet live. It had a spirit about it that just wouldn’t quit. I couldn’t get enough of it and still can’t. Really this music has guided me along throughout my life. I am at my happiest when I am playing Blues and Jazz. Sometimes I have to make decisions based on money or family or other things. But this kind of real-people music is what has taken me on my life path.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does "Texas Blues" mean to you?

I learned truth and beauty! Truth in how you relate to your fellow men and women: No need for politics or corporate stuff! The older blues musicians that I knew mostly grew up in poverty but they had a wonderful dignity about them which came from treating people right. Their truth was their wonderful community, and they celebrated that every time they played a club full of friends and fans. What they did for their community was to let EVERYONE join in the celebration. You didn’t need to pony up big $ at the door, or know someone, or have a ‘connection’. Blues is people’s music, and basically what I learned from the blues was how to be with people through music.

Also beauty: Even in the most impoverished situations, a shack out in the fields, a logging camp, and fish-fry, a rent party, blues people managed to create the most beautiful music! This music is not written, its improvised and created communally by the players and the fans. There are so many kinds of Texas Blues! I don’t think it is any one thing. But it goes back a LONG way and maybe some of the very earliest blues came from Texas. Most of the time Texas Blues means the musicians I am playing with at the time: Lavelle White, Jimmie Vaughan, Anson Funderburgh, and so many other great Texas players.                   (The Texas Horns / Photo by Chris Caselli)

"I guess my biggest fear is that younger people won’t have the beautiful direct experience of music that we all got from being in a small club (or living room) and dancing our asses off to a great band. I hope people don’t lose how music can be communal and together and friendly."

What were the reasons that you started The Texas Horns and how do you describe band's songbook and sound?

The immediate reason why we started The Texas Horns was for a gig! I had played The Ottawa BluesFest in 1997 leading the horn section of the great Canadian singer and guitarist Colin James. Somehow, I hit it off with some of the original board members of the festival, particularly Mark Monahan, Connor Grimes, and Bob Provick. During the fall after the festival, Connor called me and asked how they could get me back to Ottawa. I had been thinking about putting my own horn section together, and when I told Connor that he said, “let’s get your horn section up for the Bluesfest next July” We have been playing the Ottawa Bluesfest as the ‘house horn section’ (and now a featured act too) since then!

Our sound is really blues-based. We have done some rock and roll stuff occasionally, but what we really like to do is play blues. And I mean ‘blues’ in the broadest way, so we love the horn sound in Bobby Bland’s music, but also with the Memphis Horns, and with Louis Jordan. And of course, Ray Charles and Fats Domino. When we made our 1st CD, “Blues Gotta Holda Me” which came out on Vizztone, we wanted to pay homage to some of the blues that we grew up with. Now with “Get Here Quick” we are still in the blues tradition and our sound is still The Texas Horns, but we are trying to be more original and creative with the music. Now it’s more that we are not just doing the horn arrangements, but also writing the songs. This means that we are closer than ever as a horn section, and we are able to really explore our creative side. John Mills and Al Gomez bring their own creative roots music spirit to our horn sound: John brings such a diverse and masterful musicianship: he is well-versed in jazz and pop and soul music. Al too, but Al also brings in the beautiful conjunto and San Antonio sound. Maybe what is special about The Texas Horns is that we bring in the influences of such a diversity of Texas music, from Fathead Newman to Mexican Polkas to Gatemouth Brown to Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Are there any memories from "Get Here Quick" studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The best session memories are how incredible it was to be in the studio with such excellent and creative musicians. We have worked with the players on the CD (and with Stuart Sulllivan the engineer) for years now. This meant that the musicians contributed A LOT to the songs and the sound of the group. For one session, we had planned to have Derek O’Brien on guitar but at the last minute his Mom got sick and he had to go to Dallas. We called Johnny Moeller and he came to the session knowing almost nothing about the songs, but he added so much to the music with his slashing wild sound. Our main drummer, Tommy Taylor, also added a huge amount to the sound of the CD. And like Chris Maresh who played bass on many of the tracks, these musicians were comfortable enough with us to where they felt they could make suggestions about how the music would go. Denny Freeman came in and just transformed “Love is Gone” as we rehearsed the song in the studio.  What I remember most about the sessions was enjoying how all the musicians together created such cool music!

"Blues music is revolution. Back in the day, blues was not the ‘normal’ way of making music. It’s something really different from white European music or culture. It’s an alternative. It’s a different way of BEING. It’s not about money or power or class or social norms. Its radical."

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? What is the hardest part of "Horn Section"?

I guess my biggest fear is that younger people won’t have the beautiful direct experience of music that we all got from being in a small club (or living room) and dancing our asses off to a great band. I hope people don’t lose how music can be communal and together and friendly. When the music event gets too big, I fear that the end result for the listener is not as strong. I don’t want the power and immediacy of the music to get diluted by anything!

The hardest part of having The Texas Horns is that sometimes it’s a lot of work. But really in the big picture of things, being a part of The Texas Horns is so easy and natural and fun. I remember back in the 90’s travelling with Lonnie Brooks, Philip Walker, and Long John Hunter, after we made The Lone Star Shootout session for Alligator Records. Sometimes the road would be hard, or we would be hungry or tired, but John would say, “hell this beats picking cotton!”. I guess that about sums up my feelings about The Texas Horns: “This is fun!”

What touched (emotionally) you from Stuart’s Wire Recording Studio in Austin and your label Severn Records?

I hadn’t spoken to David Earl much in many years, though I did recordings for him years ago with Big Joe Maher and others. But I always had a lot of respect for David and of course followed his label, Severn, and what they were putting out. I sent David some tracks from our new CD sessions and right away he said he wanted it. Having a record label head react that way, as any musician will tell you, is a magic moment! I knew that what we had created with “Get Here Quick” was pretty special, but it really means a lot to have someone else tell you that!

What characterize your sound and music philosophy?

I want to play music that makes people want to dance and move around and have a good time. I like the challenge of writing and arranging music; the wonderful puzzle of putting horn parts together, and creating good songs and lyrics. But what I Iike most of all is PLAYING. So my sound is earthy and kind of raw, and not really too sophisticated. I don’t think about playing MORE notes. I am not a busy player.  My alter ego is Lez Izmore! I like to play like a singer sings. I don’t really think of myself as a jazz player, because I am really a blues player, but fortunately the two styles really aren’t that different. So I can be pretty comfortable on a jazz gig. I like to play swinging, bluesy music with some soul in it. So that means I can be happy playing everything from old style jump blues, to Western Swing, to Soul and R&B. Sometimes I play Rock and Roll. I can handle music that is pretty complicated because I am a good music reader, but I like the blowing-my-horn part of making music the best.         (Photo: The Texas Horns)

What's the legacy of horn section in Blues/Soul music?

Another big question! I could write a book about that. But really, it’s pretty simple. Afro-American music is based on call and response, and a lot of times the horn section participates in that back and forth thing that goes on.…sometimes with the singers, sometimes with guitar or piano. It’s like Gospel music, where the congregation is riffing around the lead singer (or singers). But it’s also like country blues guitar, where the guitar is answering the vocal with it’s own licks, sometimes with a slide. There are so many beautiful ways to make that call and response thing happen. The Memphis horns perfected that. But it goes way back to Bennie Moten and Count Basie and the territory bands in the 30’s, and even before that in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong was the king. The riffing horn section was at the heart of popular music in the 40’s and 50’s with Louis Jordan and Fats and Little Richard. That was the gold standard for the small horn section. And that has come back in a way in popular Jazz with Gregory Porter. We did a cool tune, “Every Single Beat”, in that vein on Ina Forsman’s new CD, “Been Meaning to Tell You”.

But of course, a horn section can also be a wonderful way to play the melody…thinking of John Mill’s arrangement of the classic “People Get Ready” on our 1st Texas Horns CD on Vizztone. You get the tune, but with the richness of the harmony and the blending of the sound of the different horns.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

I think meeting and hearing and sometimes getting to play with the Chicago blues greats, when I lived in Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s, have been my most formative experiences: Muddy, Otis Rush, Big Walter, Magic Sam, Little Walter, The Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, Buddy and Junior. But then also, later when I was living in Boston, meeting younger players that wanted to do that kind of music really changed my life: Johnny Nicholas, Ronnie Earl, David Maxwell, Sarah Brown, Bob Margolin, Ron Levy, and then later when I moved to Texas in 1981, Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli,  and Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan, and Nick Connolly, Anson Funderburgh, and Derek O’brien and Denny Freeman, and Lavelle White, Mel Brown and George Rains, and WC Clark and Clifford and Susan Antone. Meeting Hammond and Naumann Scott with Blacktop Records in New Orleans, was very important for me. I got to make dozens of great records with them for years, though many of them are now hard to find or unavailable. Now I am meeting some wonderful younger players here in Texas and in Canada too, Devan Jones, The Chaffey Brothers and the Split, Monkey Junk, Dave Reid and 3 Times Lucky. And of course associating with John Mills and Al Gomez with The Texas Horns is still a blast! Love meeting and getting to play with Red Young. I am also very fortunate to have been able to produce a bunch of CD Recording sessions, where I have met some wonderful young musicians, Ina Forsman from Helsinki, Danny Franchi from Italy, Fiona Boyes from Australia Rich Del Grosso, Jon Del Toro Richardson from Houston. It seems like almost every week I meet someone new who loves music! I really have a lot of wonderful musicians in my life, and a lot of incredible memories of, and knowledge from, the ones who have passed on.

"I have been reading an amazing author for the last 10 years or so: Christopher Small. This guy really gets what Afro-American music is about, and how it is so unique. “Music of the Common Tongue”."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

I think the wonderful musicians that I have heard and played with who have passed on. Can’t ever be another David Maxwell or Stevie Ray. Or Muddy.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think loudness and compression are two things that I could do without! I am not a big fan of large concerts where the audience is a quarter of a mile from the stage and watching the show on big monitors. I think music should be up-close and personal, and the stuff that gets in the way of that should go away.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the famous Austin venue Antones?

I work with Miss Lavelle White every Sunday at Antones in Austin. She is a work of art. Of course a wonderful blues singer, going strong at 89, but what makes me laugh almost every night is her spontaneous ‘raps’. She will carry on about ‘big titties’ or her childhood in Mississippi, or how she is going to ‘funk you up’. Amazing!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

There are so many musicians from the past that I never got to see and hear in person. Duke Ellington! Spend a day with Louis Jordan or Louis Armstrong. Get to hear Little Richard or Fats. Riding the bus with Ray Charles! But I would also love to find myself at The Five Spot listening to Thelonius Monk! Watching him dance! Maybe suddenly find myself in Sun Ra’s space ship getting ready to land on earth.

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?                      (Photo: Kaz, Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush & Mel Brown at Antones c.1980)

These days, things politically seem SO BAD that our music offers some relief and solace and alternative. Maybe we need less ‘big’ and ‘mega’ and ‘corporate’ and more ‘little’ and ‘local’ and ‘friendly’. Seems like our music presents a different way for people to associate, not based on money or color or power, but more based on the collective good. I know I am dreaming. I am much less interested in ‘top-down’ music than ‘bottom-up’ music. There are still so many incredible local pockets of ‘real’ music around the world. Por Por in Accra, Ghana; Rumba in Cuba. Those beautiful local music-makings seem to offer some hope. Seems like a lot of our lives now are very controlled, and the moments of freedom and community that music provides are so welcome.

Do you consider the Blues, Soul & Roots, a specific music and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Blues music is revolution. Back in the day, blues was not the ‘normal’ way of making music. It’s something really different from white European music or culture. It’s an alternative. It’s a different way of BEING. It’s not about money or power or class or social norms. Its radical. Rock and Roll at its true heart is blues. What we have nowadays that is good (and there is a lot that is not so good), comes from blues and blues people and blues culture. Blues Is also freedom from oppression, poverty, hate, racism, injustice. It’s an alternative to the bad stuff.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

I have been reading an amazing author for the last 10 years or so: Christopher Small. This guy really gets what Afro-American music is about, and how it is so unique. “Music of the Common Tongue”.

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