By Sabina L. Lilly
A Denver, Colorado native and Oberlin Conservatory graduate, saxophonist Max Bessesen has called Chicago home for almost three years. During his brief—and quickly rising—post-college career he has performed and recorded with an array of artists in a variety of genres, with firm roots in jazz.
Max’s first CD as a leader, Trouble (Ropeadope Records), is set for release on September 4th, 2020. What a perfect time to catch up with this dynamic young saxophonist!
CJM: Talk about your early exposure growing up in Denver, Colorado—was your family musical?
My parents are music lovers who have a big record collection and took my sister and I to see live shows from the time we were very small. While he never pursued it professionally my Dad plays guitar and had a band that would come over with their families to practice on Sunday afternoons. I have a lot of early memories of good food, other kids to play with and all these big people playing instruments. I remember thinking “that looks like fun!”
CJM: How did you come to play the alto saxophone? Do you consider yourself primarily an alto saxophonist?
My middle school had these posters from the Apple company that said “think different” with various famous people on them. There was one with Coltrane outside my homeroom and all the buttons on the horn fascinated me. We had no band program per se so when the other kids started getting into music they channeled their interest into the guitar and other rock instruments. Because my dad and my friends all played guitar I wanted to do something different so I asked for a saxophone. My parents were generous enough to give me some lessons and I practiced every day without prodding. I really revered music from the beginning.
I started doubling on all the woodwinds later on but alto is still home for me; I can’t tell you why exactly, it’s just who I’ve always been.
CJM: Was there a specific recording or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
Records have always been really important to me so it’s hard to point to just one. After he rented my first horn my dad played Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz on the car ride home. There’s a moment about ten minutes in where Ornette starts suggesting heavy swing in the midst of near chaos. I remember that made us laugh and smile at each other.
I also had an amazing high school band director, [tenor saxophonist] Keith Oxman, who has played with everybody in the bebop world. He had this big cabinet of classic jazz recordings that he would loan out to students for free (this was before streaming). When I was a freshman he gave me A Love Supreme and it was a little too much for me. Then he tried Art Blakey’s Caravan but I was put off by the blazing tempo of the first track. His last attempt was Charlie Parker with Strings and if there was “a moment” that was the one. I was totally hooked. On Fridays I would empty my backpack into my locker to load up on CDs. As soon as I got home I would burn them onto my parents’ desktop and listen all weekend long.
CJM: For how long have you lived in Chicago, and what brought you here?
I moved to Chicago right after returning to the United States in the summer of 2017. I was looking for a city where I could gig a lot, find time to practice, and cultivate my personal artistic voice. I had a pretty deep network from Oberlin and a hookup to teach for Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic so the immediate prospects of survival felt a lot more concrete here than anywhere else, too. Since moving I have been fortunate to form more amazing musical relationships than I ever imagined before I got here. This is a special place with a deep musical history and unique community that I cherish more than any other aspect of my artistic life so far.
CJM: Who are your significant teachers and/or mentors?
The band director I mentioned earlier—Keith Oxman—gave me the rare gift of a pure, uncompetitive love of this music and I’m grateful for that every day. I had a few private teachers growing up who helped me get the instrument together including Bob Rebholz who is a really nice saxophone player in Denver.
In college I was lucky enough to study with the legendary alto saxophonist Gary Bartz who could relate firsthand experiences of playing with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and a whole host of other greats. Gary really showed me how wide and deep the legacy of Black American Music is. He’s done it all, with everybody, at the highest level and I still make a point to check him out every August when he comes to the Jazz Showcase.
CJM: Can you talk about one or two artists of any genre, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your playing?
Growing up many of my biggest heroes were musicians from Colorado. People like Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston, and Ron Miles made me feel that I could live somewhere besides New York and still make great music. When I was sixteen the citywide jazz combo performed at the Auraria Jazz Festival which is held on the campus of Denver Metropolitan State University every year. Some clinicians came up after we played to give advice to the band. I had played a melodic but fairly restrained solo and one of the teachers asked me to play “with more fire.” I felt alright about what I had done but I obliged and played the same piece again with more density and intensity. Seeing that I was capable of this, the clinician moved on. I remember Ron Miles sitting quietly behind the judges’ table without commenting on the exchange.
At the end of the day they announced the recipients of the “outstanding performance award” and my name was called! Ron presented me with a plaque and a smile. It was one of those moments that solidified my identity as an artist and made me feel like “I can make music my life!” I played some melodies that I heard in my mind’s ear and felt in my heart and it earned me the praise of a musician I deeply admire. Even if it’s not the most popular thing to do I always try to gauge my success by the amount of meaning I create and not the number of notes I can play.
CJM: In 2016 you were the first jazz artist awarded a grant from the Frank Huntington Beebe Fund, which allowed you a year of travel and music study. Can you tell us about it?
That was the most lonely, meaningful, and educational year of my life so far: I lived in Chennai for eight months studying daily with a guru of South Indian classical music named Karaikudi Subramaniam. Then I spent a couple months in Ghana where I learned about the traditional West African drum/dance/drama from several master drummers and played traditional atenteben flute with Dela Botri. The last two months I lived in Havana and studied Afro-Cuban drum and dance and Caribbean popular saxophone with Javier Zalba. Javier plays bari with Buena Vista Social Club and still keeps in touch via email despite having restricted Internet access on the island.
It was a really special time in my life that defies quick explanation. Living in India made me question everything about my place on the planet and got me thinking about sound and culture from an outsider perspective. Ghana gave me a firsthand experience in Northwest Africa which is the origin of all my favorite music . . . And Cuba was just so much FUN! If you’re interested in more details I kept a blog on my travels that can be found on my website [see link below].
CJM: Your first CD as a leader, Trouble, is scheduled for release on September 4th, 2020. How did that recording come about?
I had been playing gigs around Chicago with [bassist] Ethan Philion, [drummer] Nathan Friedman, and [pianist] Eric Krouse for almost a year when we did an impromptu recording session at JoyRide Studios in the summer of 2018. I was pleased with the results but the session was pretty short and didn’t quite yield a full album of material. I decided to book a little tour out to Denver for the next summer and record some more tunes with one of my heroes, Ron Miles. We played some magical performances along the way and I’m looking forward to sharing the results in the fall!
CJM: How would you describe your compositional style and process for Trouble, and in general?
Every aspect of my life inspires my music and Trouble was no exception. In most cases it doesn’t happen in a linear way but I tend to collect ideas for anywhere between two weeks and two months without developing them too much. When they float through my mind I’ll sing them into my phone and try not to get too attached to them. Then when some free time comes around I will take an afternoon or (if I’m lucky) a full day to sit down to develop those ideas.
Saxophone is a pretty regimented thing for me but composing is just the opposite: I just try to relax and put myself into that frame of mind where the ideas come. Going for a run, visiting an art gallery, and taking a shower are often the best places for me to string these ideas together. For the final stages I usually sit at the piano but I try not to write anything down until the very end. Once it’s on paper I think about it in a different way and it gets harder to move everything around and subtract ideas. Deadlines always help too!
CJM: What performances, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
I’ll be releasing my first record as a leader, Trouble (Ropeadope Records), with Ron Miles, Ethan Philion, Nathan Friedman, and Eric Krouse on September 4th and touring the Midwest and East Coast in support of it.
My collaborative quartet, Echoes ([bassist] Evan Levine, [drummer] Chase Kuesel, and [vibraphonist] Matt DiBiase), will release its third album, Lasting (ears&eyes Records), on October 10th and has a couple performances in the South and East Coast in support. We also have a few festival dates this summer including the Westsylvania Jazz & Blues Fest on May 23rd, The Park City Pad on August 3rd, and the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts on August 4th.
I’m in the final stages of producing another record called the year of no winter that documents the time I spent in India, Ghana, and Cuba. I made it almost entirely myself using samples that I recorded abroad. That one comes out early next year.
Other than that I’ve got a few new projects materializing including a quartet that integrates electronics into some compositions of mine. That group will play at Elastic Arts on May 18th and again at the California Clipper on July 1st. I have another band, Things to Come, which focuses on music by great alto players from the last fifty years which will perform at Montrose Saloon on May 27th.
For the latest news, follow Max on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or visit maxbessesen.com.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at firstname.lastname@example.org.