Composer, Arranger and Jazz Saxophonist


22 February 2013

Chicago Jazz Magazine (Interview)

Jim Gailloreto is an accomplished jazz saxophonist and composer. With a bachelor’s degree in Music Composition from DePaul University and a masters in Music Composition from Northwestern University, Gailloreto has parlayed his diverse skills into a unique amalgam of jazz and string quartet music. 

He has performed with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Fulcrum Point and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He has also recorded and performed with Blue Note artist Patricia Barber, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, guitarist John McLean, pianist Jeremy Kahn, vocalist Grazyna Auguscik and composer/pianist Fred Hersch. He recently performed a Chicago premier of Marc Anthony Turnage’s Scorched with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and John Scofield.

As a composer he is a recipient of the New Works: Creation & Presentation Program grant from Chamber Music America. He is also the founder of the cross over chamber group Jazz String Quintet, which has performed at the Cultural Center, Millennium Park––Pritzker Pavilion, the Jazz Institute Jazz Fair, Columbia College, Roosevelt University, Alliance Française De Chicago and Bargemusic in New York. His string quartet arrangements can be heard on Kurt Elling’s Grammy Award-winning CD, Dedicated To You.

Gailloreto has four solo CDs: The Insider (Wide Sound) and Shadow Puppets, Jazz String Quintet (Naim Label) and American Complex (Origin Classical).


Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have drawn a distinction between professional music and artistic music. What do you mean by that?

Jim Gailloreto: I think a lot of Chicago musicians have to balance their professional life and their artistic life. Sometimes they do cross over, where you’re being paid for your art, but sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay, unless you would rather not play a gig for money and everything that comes with that. Some people prefer to teach for their profession and do their art on the side. Some people just love to play and make their living playing and find a balance. I consider my groups like Jazzformation and Jazz String Quintet additional children that I’m raising. Actually, I do have a son; his name is Coleman. He’s in college now, and there is a need for me to make money and help him out with his life. I am very proud of who he is and what he is doing. But there is also this need contribute to my other child, the artistic child. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve been really blessed and lucky to have some really cool gigs that pay my bills and allow me to be an artist at the same time. I do a fair amount of show work––I play a lot of the downtown theaters, do recording sessions, I teach. You do a lot of things to stay a musician and keep yourself playing. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: With the limited number of available jazz gigs do you think that’s the future for most musicians wanting to go into jazz?

Gailloreto: I don’t know what the future is, I really don’t. All I know is what I’ve done, what I enjoy. I really need to write music––I have this need, this desire. I need to play with other jazz musicians; I love practicing for my jazz gigs. If I’m on a gig and someone calls a tune I don’t know, I’ll go learn it. And I’ll call a tune that I know and I play with it––try different grooves, try different feels, try different time signatures, play with the instrumentation. Working with Jazzformation has been amazing. The group is guitarist John Kregor, bassist Kurt Schweitz and drummer Andre Beasley. We have been together for about two years. Each of these guys is a master on their instrument and as a group we have, through listening and interaction, developed a sound of our own. John was recently asked to join the Patricia Barber group at the Green Mill. His hiatus from Jazzformation has given us the opportunity to work with other great musicians, such as Neal Alger, Dave Miller, Rob Clearfield, Dave Onderdonk and many others. Working with John Kregor has been fantastic, because he’s a great listener. I’ll ask him to change chords, try new things––I’ll just give him a vague description of something––and he’ll try it. We are now recording a CD. It’ll probably be out sometime early in 2012. You know the Steve Swallow tune “Falling Grace”? It’s a great tune––it’s kind of got a fourteen- and then ten-bar form; it’s an asymmetrical form. I was looking for an introduction for it, and John came up with this really cool chord. That’s what is great about working with a set group––they know what you are thinking before you think it. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have your hands in a lot of pies. Is there a theme that runs through your various styles of music? 

Gailloreto: Well, I do so many different things artistically and professionally––I’m pretty eclectic in many ways. I’m fortunate that as a professional musician I can play jazz, I can play classical music, I play flute and clarinet, so that has given me a lot of opportunities to make a living. But I’ve also been lucky artistically. I’ve been lucky with my background and my education––my past has put me in front of classical music and jazz. It’s been kind of cool, especially with Jazz String Quintet. I really enjoy writing for stringed instruments, because there’s a world of color inside stringed instruments that I’m still learning about. When I first started writing for strings, I needed a little help, so I called Cliff Colnot, who I’ve known for years. He’s a great producer and a great arranger. He does conducting nowadays, and he’s brilliant at it. But I called him and I was like, I’ve got this piece for string quartet––would you look at it for me? And at the time he was extremely busy, but he made time for me; he spent three hours with me looking at my score. He showed me things that I didn’t know about. I am still benefiting from that today. It is cool to get that kind of mentoring.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your wife, cellist Jill Kaeding, has a successful music career as well.

Gailloreto: Yes, she has done a lot of playing in Chicago. She also does theater work, she does classical. She played for seventeen years with Corky Segal’s Chamber Blues. She and I play together all the time. She has helped me out a lot. She has really guided my writing.
It’s been great.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Let’s talk about your early career. Weren’t you a straight-ahead jazz player?

Gailloreto: Yeah, you know, when I first started out I was kind of a traditional player––swing, bebop, some avant-garde––and as I started to learn about classical music, I started to just develop. I still sort of consider myself as a traditional player, but I’ve gotten very interested in different types of jazz harmonies, different ways of approaching the saxophone, trying to develop my sense of rhythm, using different kinds of rhythm. I got interested in different kinds of African drumming, I listened to Indian music. I was really interested in a lot of different kinds of stuff, and I think that can kind of influence you as a player, if you are into that. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were you influenced by rock?

Gailloreto: I listened to rock a little bit growing up, but what drew me to classical music and contemporary music and jazz was the complexity of the harmony and rhythm. I love rock and roll, but it’s not something I would study––I would listen to it, and appreciate it for what it was. But it isn’t something that would influence my playing that much. I would definitely listen to Chicago and Tower of Power, because they have horns in their music. My formal education was in composition. I got my masters in music composition form Northwestern University and my undergraduate in composition at DePaul University.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you get exposed to jazz?

Gailloreto: When I was in high school, there was a band program that had a jazz band. I was just really lucky to be in that situation where I could pick up an instrument and pursue it. Once I start college I pursued my jazz education through jazz clubs and studying with great saxophonists like Joe Daley and Ron Dewar. All through my college years I played both professionally and with amazing jazz groups. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you grow up in Chicago?

Gailloreto: I grew up in River Grove. A guy named Larry Omens was a saxophonist at the grade school I was at. By the fourth grade I had a saxophone in my mouth. Actually he was the guy that started me on clarinet too. I was lucky to have him. When I got to high school there was a great jazz program as well, so I think that’s where the jazz influences came from, the school systems. I was lucky––a lot of kids don’t have that.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did your appreciation of your school music programs influence you to go into teaching?

Gailloreto: Not really. Well, let me backpedal on that, because I have been lucky. I’ve had mentors, like Cliff Colnot and my grade school and high school band directors, studying with local jazz saxophonist Joe Daley and listening to Ron Dewar and Ed Petersen. These are guys who influenced me, whether they know it or not. If you have been lucky and people have treated you well and have been kind and generous to you, I think you have to pay it forward.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: The law of reciprocity.

Gailloreto: Right. It was done for me, and I really like passing on knowledge. I have some really good students at Roosevelt University, which is really called Chicago College of Performing Arts. But I’ve got some great students––some of them come to my gigs and sit in. They call tunes that they know, and they do great. I think that is important to do.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you come up with the name “Jazzformation”? It has a nice double entendre to it.

Gailloreto: You mean the word? I wanted to call it something besides the Jim Gailloreto Quartet. You know, as far as names go, I thought of it and said, I’ll use it until I think of something better, and it stuck. My other group, Jazz String Quintet, is a five-piece group––string quartet and soprano saxophone––and got started in 1997. A friend of mine, a composer, Peter Saltzman, asked me about a concert and if I had music for a string quartet and saxophone. And I basically lied, because it seemed like a good idea. I started writing based on a little white lie, and ever since then it became an important vehicle for me as a composer and an improviser. And one of the things that is unusual about the group is that all the parts are written for the string quartet. My parts are written out too, but portions of mine are improvisational––you see chord symbols like you normally would. The challenge of the group is to remain true to the string players, so I never ask them to do anything that a string player wouldn’t normally do, based on their education. I don’t ask them to improvise, I don’t ask them to swing their eighth notes. The one thing I’ll sometimes ask them is to not use vibrato, because some of my jazz voicings sound funny with vibrato. But I can’t deny them to rely on their instincts. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you’re the only one in the quintet that improvises?

Gailloreto: Yes, their parts are all written out like a normal string quartet. And the music is challenging for them, because I’m writing complex harmonies––sometimes things you can’t put a chord change on, because I write all the music by ear. It’s tonal music, but the composing takes it out sometimes, further away from tonality. 

Our first Jazz String Quartet CD––Kurt Elling sings on it––came out on a label called Naim. Ken Christensen recorded us for that CD, and he did a fantastic job. We did everything direct to tape in this church in Oak Park: two microphones, string quartet, saxophone, Kurt Elling on vocals, and Rob Amster on bass. On that CD we do a version of “Giant Steps,” we do some Monk tunes, and a lot of originals. The second CD we did a couple years ago, called American Complex, is mostly originals with a few standards thrown in. That CD is special because it features the singing and music of Patricia Barber. She brought something very special to our sound––I learned a lot from working with her. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What does a string quartet add to “Giant Steps” that you aren’t going to get from a standard rhythm section of piano, bass and drums? Obviously it’s a different sound, but what can you say about that sound?

Gailloreto: One of the things I did in “Giant Steps” was to use John Coltrane’s solo orchestrated for strings. That’s what starts it off––you hear a harmonization of John Coltrane’s solo for a chorus and a half. But it’s written for strings. I orchestrated his solo in ways that are string-friendly. They phrase it like string players. A lot of people don’t even know it’s John Coltrane’s solo, because it’s addressed like a composer would write for strings. And after the solo is stated, I take over John Coltrane’s solo in the soprano sax, and they accompany me with harmonies that work well for “Giant Steps”––playing voicings that a piano player would use. For the cello I sometimes use a walking bass line, all written out. In that regard, I tried to emulate some of the things you would normally hear with a jazz quartet. But I’ve composed them and arranged them for the strings, so they are comfortable, and it sounds like a string quartet. Later on in the piece, I move away from the traditional jazz quartet, walking bass line and comping, and I write some new material based on the chord changes. So I deviate from what you would normally hear, and merge into what you would hear in a classical side, but with the changes of “Giant Steps.” So I’m composing melodies, lines, tension, interesting things, and then I will break it down and become a soloist and have them accompany me as a soloist. So it’s a little bit of dipping into the jazz world and dipping into the classical world. I try to go where the music takes me; I don’t try to force something. If something isn’t working, I try it another way; or if something presents itself and I get inspired, I have to listen to the muses––they speak, and if you listen they are usually right, they usually have something good to say, and I try to honor that. It’s one of my favorite things about writing. I could sit there for six hours composing a piece of music and it goes by like that, because I am trying to tap in. It’s like that when I’m improvising and everything is working out––I don’t know how I got there, I don’t know what happened: Is it me? There’s something magical about flow, because it takes you out of the picture as an artist and puts something else in. I think there’s something to that. There is something fascinating about the process: I love performing, I love writing, there’s a need to be in that state of mind.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You almost anticipated my next question. Do you get more satisfaction from your efforts as an arranger than as a performer?

Gailloreto: No, the efforts are very similar. I will say this: it’s been very rare that I will write something and not perform it. If I’m going to invest five or six hours a day writing something, you know there’s a concert in my calendar and a deadline I’m going to meet. I’ve only had one or two situations in my life where I wrote something and I didn’t get it performed. I only write for the sake of performance. I enjoy it. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: There are many musicians who get satisfaction from one or the other, but you seem to require both.

Gailloreto: I practice quite a bit, to keep my craft going––I enjoy practicing. I feel good when I’m practicing and playing jazz gigs––I’m working and I feel complete. When I write, I get so focused on the composition that sometimes I can’t do anything else––my wife never sees me. I’m only writing, not practicing, which is kind of bad, especially when I have a deadline. To finish a composition it has to have momentum, kind of like when you are in a good practice routine, you get momentum––you pick up your horn and you are where you left off the other day. If you stop practicing you kind of go back a few steps and then reboot. So when I’m writing I try not to stop writing, I try to write everyday and get it done.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Why is it so important that your music is performed?

Gailloreto: I compose most successfully and honestly when I envision the performance. To me, that’s part of the buzz I get. I’ll put it this way: if I’m writing a piece of music, I write best when I’m imagining what the performance will sound like.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: In the sense of…

Gailloreto: Sound.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is it your sound, or do you try to project yourself in the sound of the listener?

Gailloreto: A little bit of both, but that’s a whole other subject. I imagine what the music is going to sound like in the space it is being played––if I’m playing the Cultural Center, I know what that sounds like. If I’m recording, I know what that feels like. To me the payoff is performing. You know, I want to play this stuff! I love writing, I get a lot of spiritual energy from it, but, you know, it’s for something else. If I write music and it sits on the shelf, I lose interest––it would be hard to keep that going. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you favor live performance over studio work?

Gailloreto: I like them both. I love playing in front of an audience––it’s thrilling. Recording is hard work––it’s exhausting, because you are trying to be at this peak level the whole time while recording. It’s hard, hard work. Whenever I record, when I’m done, I’m drained. But it’s good––it means you are giving it up, and that means you are putting your energy and mind into it.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you consider yourself an extrovert?

Gailloreto: I’m half and half. I spend so much time alone, practicing and working and writing, but I like being around people. I like playing in front of people. I don’t know if I’m good at being an extrovert, but I’m putting it out there. Sometimes I get on the mic and I’m talking to people. And sometimes, I can’t believe what I said and I think, I shouldn’t have said that! [laughs] So I’m not afraid of being in front of people, of being a performer. I don’t know if there was ever a point I was more nervous than not. I’ve learned to accept who I am as a performer, as an artist and as a person. I know there is room for improvement. And I think about what that would be like, and I work on that. But when you record music––and I tell this to my students, and a lot of my contemporaries agree––if you are going to record, you can’t focus on what is wrong with your playing, you have to think, Okay, this is where I’m at, and this is a record of my playing now. And you have to love it. And if you make a mistake maybe you can roll over it. But you have to think, This is where I’m at, and I’m trying to play my best. I mean you can take any artist and find holes in their playing, or things that other musicians are better at. But ultimately you appreciate that artist because they take their gifts and make this beautiful thing. It’s like a painter who has only red and black paint––if they are a killin’ painter, they will make an amazing thing. Maybe you are a musician and you can only play a blues scale. We know there are musicians who can only play a blues scale who are amazing blues artists. And so what is important? Tools? You have got to have some tools, but what you do with these tools is incredibly important. Charlie Musselwhite is a great blues musician. He has amazing gifts; his music is profound. Keith Jarrett––he has amazing gifts; his music is profound.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You are suggesting that rather than focusing on the things you don’t do well and trying to improve upon them, that most people are far better off focusing on strengths and developing them to their fullest.

Gailloreto: Yeah, exactly! I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who is also a composer, and at this time I was writing a lot of music for Jazz String Quartet. And he said, “How is it that are you writing all this music?” And I know what he was getting at, he had writer’s block. I said, “Well, first of all, stop judging what you do. If you hear something in your head, write it down. That’s it. Don’t fix it.” What’s the next thing? What comes after this? Oh, I hear this! Write it down! Don’t wait for approval or affirmation, don’t judge it, don’t go back and say, That’s not good enough. Whatever comes out is put down on paper. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t go back and edit your work.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You don’t want to restrict the flow.

Gailloreto: Exactly! We are talking about flow. Flow is key. The same thing happens on stage when you are performing––you hit a wrong note and you get lost. Listen, if you hit a clam just keep going, because if you stop and dwell on the intent that didn’t happen, that’s where you are: you are dwelling on a thing that is going to keep you from playing music. We all go through periods where we are in great shape, or you’ve been on vacation and you come back you are not in shape, or whatever. I came back from vacation where I didn’t play, and then I’m on a gig, and I’m in physical pain because I’m using muscles that haven’t been worked. But there is something about the horn in your mouth: you feel inspired; it’s fresh. It’s a very interesting lesson. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What things outside of music inform your playing or your personality?

Gailloreto: I recently had to take a break from this, but I really love doing yoga. I found it helps me relax––it’s good for my body, it’s good for my mind. It makes me feel healthy and connected to my body and the world. I love cooking, I’m fascinated with chess, I’m a liberal––that’s probably what you would expect. When I get busy, sometimes there’s not room enough for a lot of things. I’ve got a son, who is twenty, a beautiful wife, who’s a great cello player, I’ve got friends and family. There is a lot of music in my life, which I am happy about.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Italian cooking?

Gailloreto: Yeah, all types of cooking, I must admit I don’t read recipe books. I look in the fridge and I see how much garlic we have: Okay, start chopping. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s the same as with your music––you improvise.

Gailloreto: I must admit, with food sometimes I kill it, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it tastes amazing, and sometimes my wife is like, What happened?! [laughs]

Chicago Jazz Magazine: As a musical couple, do you set aside a specific time to work on music, or does it just sort of happen periodically?

Gailloreto: It tends to happen mostly with Jazz String Quintet. I wrote a piece that is on our most recent record, and it’s a theme and variations on “Honeysuckle Rose,” and it’s scored for cello and soprano sax. I think it’s one of my favorite compositions. Patricia Barber loves it. When I did a concert with her, I played it––she had never heard it before––and she thought it was one of my better pieces, because of the permutations. You can hear the tune really well, but there’s all these variations, and I put bits of “Scrapple From the Apple” in there, which is based on “Honeysuckle Rose.” I put a lot of things in there that are very cello-like. I am actually thinking about doing more writing for cello and saxophone. But we rehearse together; when I’m writing for the group, we will go over sections we have together. We don’t really just play––it’s usually specific to a concert we are working on.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’ve worked with two of Chicago’s more successful vocalists. Do you gravitate toward singers?

Gailloreto: I’ve been a sideman often for vocalists. I did some work with Alison Ruble. Patricia Barber sings on our newest Jazz String Quintet album, Kurt Elling sang on our first one. I’ve been at the Green Mill with those two more times than I can remember. I like being a sideman; I like not being the featured artist sometimes. I think it is a totally different skill set––although when it’s time for me to take a solo, Patty and Kurt just let me do whatever I want. They encourage me to stretch out and have an artistic experience. Fortunately the people in their band are amazing players. The other thing that I like doing with them is playing their music and providing the support––it’s not about my ego and not about their ego, but more about the music. When I’m with them I try to be musically appropriate. Different artists let you do different things, but when you are accompanying somebody, I’m not going to interrupt while they’re singing. I might play something to transition or to help the singer out––you have to listen to what’s going on on-stage, and know your role. I’m very interested in that. Being a composer has helped, because I have to do that with my music. If I have a melody and I’m writing something to accompany that melody, it can’t overshadow it––it has to be appropriate. I’m fascinated with that.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What would you place in a time capsule to represent your work?

Gailloreto: If it were one particular effort, I would say the music I’ve written for Jazz String Quartet. That body of work, and the recordings that accompany it, reveals who I am, both as a composer and player. It also exposes things that have influenced me. If I had to pick one, I’m proud of this piece I wrote called “American Complex.” It’s a four-movement piece, and was the result of a grant I got from Chamber Music of America. It opened up me as a writer to what the string quartet could do, different musical forms and different ways of approaching music. There is that. I also love that “Honeysuckle Rose” arrangement––it’s revealing, in a way; and that’s special too, because it’s with my wife.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: And if you were to pick a performance that best documents your performing?

Gailloreto: That’s a hard thing to say, because I’ve done so many performances. That’s a tough one to answer, but I like what I’m doing now. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What projects do you have that are unfulfilled at this point?

Gailloreto: I hate to talk about things I haven’t done yet that I’m planning––it kind of takes the energy out of doing it. I’m not done with the Jazz String Quartet. A lot of people don’t know this, but we were slated to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival, but my wife fractured two fingers, so we had to cancel. But we are going to be performing the three pieces I had written for that performance for the Chicago Composers Collective at the Green Mill sometime is March, and then we’ll have a concert at Lewis University in April. So I plan on writing more for the group. I’m interested in trying some new stuff for a different ensemble. I don’t know what that is yet, but I might be working with an operatic soprano, on some music. I think it’s going to be a crossover thing, and I think it is going to be for the Jazzformation quartet. That’s all I know. I haven’t started writing––I’m waiting for things to clear up for me. It’s been way too busy.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: There have been a lot of attempts at merging jazz and classical music, but has anyone ever done what you’ve done with it?

Gailloreto: Not really. I was talking to Neil Tesser about this, because when he did my Jazz String Quartet liner notes, he was looking into it––trying to find out where this would fit in. Lee Konitz did some music with string quartet, but it’s not quite the same thing, the difference being I’m actually writing complex parts for the strings, it’s not just pads. The string quartet with jazz is not like Charlie Parker With Strings––it’s not sheer accompaniment, because the strings have their own involvement. I have a lot of linear components in my music. It winds up being very complex and challenging for the group. I think it’s pretty unique. 

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So we can legitimately call your music groundbreaking.

Gailloreto: It seems unique, but it seems fitting. Yeah, I don’t know what it is––something about writing for strings opened up the world.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you think that will be your legacy?

Gailloreto: I try not to think about that too much, although I like creating. I think it is really worth putting your music out there in the world. And today it’s so easy to do––you don’t need to have a label. I had something happen to me as a result of that. The first CD I put out was called The Insider. It had John McLean, Larry Kohut, Eric Montzka and Steve Million. I did a kind of a trippy arrangement of “Four Brothers,” the Jimmy Giuffre composition. I guess “Four Brothers” is best known from the Woody Herman band––a very cool composition. I did this weird rearrangement of that, with unusual bass pedals and a weird blowing sections. And when the CD came out, I would get reports from where it was being played. And when somebody would buy my record I would get an email of who bought it. I got this email that Juanita Giuffre had bought the album. So I thought this could be really good or really bad. At the time Jimmy was living in California with his wife, Juanita. Jim Wilke has a radio show in California, and they were listening to his show and heard my rendition of “Four Brothers,” and liked it. He bought two discs, actually. And he wrote me a letter that they were listening to it and they really liked it. I wrote them back. It was a touching connection––bittersweet, because Jimmy Giuffre was in the late stages of Parkinson’s at that time and died maybe a year after that. But the fact that you put something out there, the composer hears this, realizing his music has affected somebody else––that’s got to feel good.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Making a positive difference to others is about the best we can do.

Gailloreto: Yeah, put it out there and see what happens. You never know who’s going to hear it or where it’s going to go or who it’s going to inspire––where it will take a person. That’s the interesting thing about being in music and having people hear it. I think about that with my students––my students come out to hear me play, and sit in and try to do what I’m doing. And that’s what I’m doing––my teachers are living through me, and I’m living through my students. There’s something very profound about that. That’s the coolest thing about being human––you can have an influence. Hopefully it’s a good influence and you put the good word out there.



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