For Lenny Pickett, Life is One Long Saturday Night
There it is, every week, at the finale of Saturday Night Live. The cast spills out on stage with Justin Timberlake or Alec Baldwin or Miley Cyrus, everyone hugging and linking arms and making googly-eyed faces at each other as the credits start to roll across the screen. The faces always change, but the song remains the same. Over on the bandstand, a tenor saxophone wails out the show’s closing theme – a gospel-fired number with a strong New Orleans feel, muscular even as the keys rollick into the upper register, an altissimo jetstream that never degenerates into a mere squeal. This is some highly articulated scree, and if it’s only a little taste, it’s consistent and instantly identifiable as the sound of one man who has been playing it for nearly 30 years. So long, in fact, that he is, himself, indistinguishable from its stuttered ecstasies. The sound is as good as a fingerprint for Lenny Pickett.
“It was survival at one point,” Pickett says, taking a break in his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza on a recent afternoon. He’s a tall guy with curly hair and a boyish face that makes him seem much younger than his 60 years. Dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans and black New Balance sneakers, he’s laid back enough to make the archetypal wardrobe of New York cool seem like a set of pajamas. Then again, he’s had a mighty long tenure in the music world.
When he was 18, the saxophonist enlisted with the fabled horn section Tower of Power, and soon found himself on the road, playing behind every rock and pop act of the era. (Like, all of ‘em – check out Wikipedia, it’s sick.). The music was so loud Pickett couldn’t hear himself. “I started playing one octave above the guitar player.” But he roots of his style reached back further. Pickett began as a clarinet player, inspired by the theme on the Art Linkletter show. “Being named Leonard and playing clarinet in 1967 Berkeley was the opposite of cool,” he recalls, so he found a much cooler option. “Something about the saxophone was working. You had Junior Walker and King Curtis on the radio.”
So Pickett got himself a tenor saxophone and taught himself to play it. “I didn’t know the limitations,” he says. “I didn’t have a fingering chart, that was on my own. I started producing sounds that were off the instrument right away.” As he developed a sound, Pickett stumbled into new sonic realms. “It became interesting to me that this physical phenomenon of the overtone series was so evident on the instrument. I was looking at different anomalous aspects of the sound. A lot of the technical things I learned to do on the saxophone came out of ennui. It was a well-spent childhood to sit in close proximity to an instrument and investigate everything on it.”
Pickett started out his career jamming with legends like Taj Mahal in his native Berkeley, California, and much more recently has recorded with Katy Perry while contributing to avant-garde projects such as David Byrne and St. Vincent’s collaboration Love This Giant, a horn-driven chimera that features some of Pickett’s arrangements. Yet, while Pickett is a respected composer whose pieces have been performed by Kronos Quartet and been choreographed to by the likes of Stephen Petronio, he never bothered much making his own albums.
The Prescription (Random Act) is Pickett’s first new release in nearly three decades. It’s a summit meeting with the UMO Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble of Finnish musicians that the saxophonist got to know over multiple visits to Scandinavia. It’s rousing big-band jazz in the tradition, given some skyrocketing punch via Pickett’s super-fluency on the reeds.
Hal Wilner testifies.
“When thinking of Lenny, he appears like an Al Hirshfield caricature – a black and white sketch, eyes closed, playing horn, cheeks filled with air seeming so natural, calming yet powerful,” says the veteran producer and longtime music supervisor for SNL. “For me his playing comes from a line of the very rare (especially now) horn players whose sound leaps out of the record or performance loud, passionate and screaming, elevating the music to the heavens as did Lee Allen with Little Richard, Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, Louis Jordan, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Jimmy Forrest, Alvin “Red” Tyler, Big Jay McNeeley and the sound that Bobby Keys brings to the Rolling Stones and Clarence Clemons did with Bruce Springsteen… and yet Lenny’s playing, while out of a tradition, could not sound more modern.”
SNL has been Pickett’s home since 1985, four years after he dropped out of Tower of Power and moved to Tribeca, where he still lives in the same loft with his wife. Aside from a year-long journey with David Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” tour, Pickett’s preferred to be a homebody most of the time, reveling in a job that “has made it possible for me to do more things than anything else ever could have.” Given all the megawatt celebrity guests over multiple generations of American pop life, it’s surprising that Pickett hasn’t been overly wowed by the glitter. But, then again, he’s been at it since before most of the moment’s pop stars were even born.
“I’m not very taken by celebrity,” he says. “I’ve become immune to much of the experience. I’ve spent days in the presence of some of my biggest heroes, making music with them. It ends up being like it is making music with anyone, trying to find commonality and musical communication.” Rarely, though, Pickett gets thrown for a loop.
“Prince recognized me,” he says. “I was watching him rehearse with his band. He played a guitar solo on one of the songs. Every time he played the solo it was more amazing than the previous time. The solo that he played on the broadcast was incredible. Apparently, he is a big Tower of Power fan. I was offstage and he came over to me and sang the chorus from ‘What Is Hip?’ and played the guitar part. It was pretty cool to have Prince play for me. He’s a very mysterious guy.”
The two can certainly speak the same language. Like the Minneapolis funk polymath, you could say that Pickett is an exponent of the gutbucket avant-garde, deeply nurtured by the old school yet guided by a spirit of adventure that propelled him through a fruitful succession of musical encounters. “My stepfather was a jazz musician, he was in and out of prison,” he says, recalling a very colorful and unconventional childhood that led him, eventually, to drop out of high school in 9th grade and all but turn pro. “There’s a lot of people who play jazz in prison, so he always had a band. I met a lot of the guys he associated with, they were mostly in on drug offenses. He was an armed robber, but he was a solid bebop trumpet player.”
Pickett summons up memories of spinning “’50s Clifford Brown recordings and a lot of Blue Note stuff from the ‘60s, all the Lee Morgan stuff, Horace Silver. The Impulse! Coltrane…” Open format FM radio had begun, and the young Pickett found ways to haunt Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, where his backstage access led to meeting Frank Zappa and John Lee Hooker. “All sorts of different music gravitated there,” he says. “So it started to happen pretty early on.” Pickett’s mother was divorced from his father by the time he was six. Though she took clerical jobs, his mother got by “selling weed, coke and everything else” while becoming familiar with all the personalities on the counterculture scene. “She knew all the bikers. She was friends with the politicos. She dated [free speech activist] Mario Savio briefly. She dated dangerous people and she lived a kind of dangerous life. She was kind of a marvel.”
When he was 13, Pickett ran away from the home of his father – who held custody – and did three months in juvenile hall, followed by a stay with a foster family. A sympathetic counselor helped him out, and he was able to navigate his way into his mother’s custody. His musical career was about to begin.
“I’d found something that worked for me,” Pickett says. “With music you can express things without words that would be dangerous if you put them into words. It’s a great way of conveying experience to people without telling them what’s going on.”