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Meet a Musician: Saxophonist Casey Cranford finds inspiration in improv jazz

Meet a Musician: Saxophonist Casey Cranford finds inspiration in improv jazz

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Casey Cranford has played saxophone for several local groups — most notably Big Something, but also for Brand New Life, and his own band that he leads, Casey and the Comrades.

So, when he sets out to create new music, he often finds himself bouncing ideas off other musicians.

“That’s where it starts,” he said. “Then, there’s the process of hammering it all out, rehearsing the songs. It takes a while before something becomes a song.”

Recently, Cranford spoke about his various creative partnerships, about the musical therapy sessions he’s conducted, and why he loves covering “In Time” by Sly and the Family Stone.

What got you interested in music?

Going through my dad’s records, listening to what my older brother was listening to. My dad had a lot of James Taylor, but also listened to some classical ballet music. My sisters were ballet dancers, and we’d always be going to those and seeing concert performances. I always felt some sort of power through music. And probably my best subject in school was music.

I went to Grimsley High School, played in jazz band, marching band and concert band. And started playing in bands outside of school around the age of 16. Went to UNCG, not for music, though I did take some music classes and played in the university band.

Who are some of your influences?

I was listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” when I was younger, and was actually just listening to some of that today. So that brought me back. There’s also James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. And sifting through my dad’s records as a teenager, I found Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, that sort of edgier classic rock. And soon after, I got into jazz — Miles Davis, Coltrane, some of the more free jazz players. Fast forwarding a bit, I really got into Bjork and Kate Bush later on in life.

Also, my peers, the bands I’ve played with, like Big Something and Brand New Life. I’d say the local music community that surrounds me are huge influences.

How would you describe your music?

What I do under my own moniker is organized, instrumental, exploratory music. It’s somewhat organized. It’s not completely off the cuff improv. But there is a lot of improv involved in what I play, even when I’m playing in an organized group where we play the same songs. I feel I’m still somewhat improvising a lot of what I do. I don’t play a written solo night to night, it’s always a bit different. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll funk world, but on a more instrumental level.

What’s your creative process like?

Often, when I’m composing, it will come to me in my head. I will hear the melodies or baselines in my head. Lately, I’ve been trying to sing them out, sing out the melody or baseline into my recorder and then transpose that to an instrument, present it to whoever I’m collaborating with, whether it’s Big Something, or my band the Comrades. That’s where the collaboration is huge, bouncing ideas off other musicians until we agree on a form.

I’ve been doing more in-studio writing. In the past, we’ve kind of run our songs on the road and kind of tightened them up that way. By that I mean we’ll play the songs live a number of times before we get them right and change them along the way some. In the studio, we can kind of do it differently. We rehearse in the studio, play back what we recorded, and if that doesn’t seem right, we’ll go back and change what we think needs to be changed until we’re satisfied, which sometimes takes a while. Some music I write, I take very seriously. Some music is a bit more fun, casual. But on the more serious stuff, it takes time.

If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?

Realistically, I would really love to play with Kamasi Washington, saxophone player from L.A. I actually had the pleasure of playing with him once on a cruise festival. Would love to reconnect. Also, I love to hear him play. And, I think my music would fit in.

Do you ever sing karaoke or sing in the shower, and if so, what do you sing?

Oh yeah, I love karaoke. Obviously, we can’t do much of it now because of the pandemic, but when I am in the mood, karaoke is the most fun thing. It’s fun to see people go up there, and hear their voices.

I regularly do ‘80s New Wave stuff. There are some Kate Bush songs that I like to sing, and some Talking Heads, stuff that’s not crazy complicated vocally. Sometimes, I’ll hear a song on the radio, and think, ‘This right here will be fun to do in karaoke,’ but then I’ll usually forget whatever it was by the time I sign up for a karaoke session.

Also, I like to do the Meat Loaf song, “I’d Do Anything for Love.” That’s a great one.

Can you tell me about the musical therapy that you’ve conducted?

A lot of my learning experience was playing weekly therapy sessions, all improvisational music, with a friend who had Down syndrome. It just continued to grow, and we’d bring in more of our friends who were into improvising, and try to get him into his mode where he was happy. It was definitely fun for him, and for us as well. I would love to get back into that. Music is powerful stuff.

What’s your favorite song to perform?

I was just listening back to some old shows of mine, and one that I really dig playing, energy-wise, is an instrumental version of “In Time” by Sly and the Family Stone. I play the vocal melody on saxophone, and there’s a big funk jam in the middle, and some pretty tight chord changes, and some pretty slick hooks. It’s got a lot of what I enjoy pulling off when I’m doing a song.

What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?

We were playing a festival in Virginia, and our drummer got tackled by some girl. I think she was tripping on drugs of some sort. She pushed him off the drum set. All of a sudden, I heard the drums stop, everything stops, and I looked back and our drummer is on the floor, looking shocked. There was no security there, really, but it took three or four people to get her off the stage. She was grabbing on to wires, trying to hold on, looking at me, saying, “I just wanted to play!”

What’s next for you?

Big Something just put out a record, and it seems to be well-received by our fans. My band Casey & the Comrades, we put out a record also, “Kidz these Daze,” a couple of months ago. Sadly, we weren’t able to tour for it. But we are doing a livestream from Ovation Sound in Winston-Salem, the studio where we recorded the record. That will be Dec. 29.

And, I’ve got a trio in Greensboro that’s playing some original music right now, which is fun. It has my friend Daniel Yount, from Brand New Life, and a guy named Sam Fribush, who plays keyboards.

— As told to Robert C. Lopez, roberto.lopez79@gmail.com

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