A veteran of the international jazz scene, Max Ionata emerged in the early 90s and has performed with many modern greats including Robin Eubanks, Billy Hart, Joe Locke, Mike Stern, Bob Mintzer and compatriot Stefano Di Battista.
For this episode, we did our interview over email, and Donna read the answers aloud for the audio and video podcast.
Here is the interview:
Donna: So I’m curious as to how you got started in music? Were your parents musical? Perhaps you didn’t start on saxophone – when did you start on it?
Max: In my family, there are no musicians or amateurs, and nobody even in the past was a music lover in general, so probably I can be considered an atypical musician 🙂 because every time I compare myself with some colleague I discover that in their families there was someone who played some musical instrument.
I started playing when I was 8 thanks to a Man that in my little village in Italy decided to put together a marching band. In the beginning, he asked us which instrument we would like to play, but in the end, he gave us the instrument he needed in the band! I was very lucky because I asked for a saxophone and he brought a soprano saxophone. In the beginning, I thought it was a trumpet but I was so excited about the new toy that I was looking forward to blowing into it!
Donna: I’m surprised you started on Soprano Saxophone? That’s hard to keep in tune. Can you tell us about those early experiences and how you handled playing it as a beginner? When did you start playing tenor (and alto?)
Max: Actually, it was a challenge for me at that time, I remember that my family and all the neighbors were a bit stressed because I was practicing a lot just to try to play my first notes!
After a few months, the director of the marching band asked me to join them to play in a religious celebration in my town and I was very excited and couldn’t believe that it was happening! Was I ready to play? No, I wasn’t, he asked me to play just on a couple of very simple tunes and he told me to look at the soprano player beside me that was older than me and more experienced. This thing helped me to develop my playing so fast and after a while, I was able to play almost all the repertoire.
The love for the Tenor sax comes after a couple of years when another boy that was playing a tenor in the band asked me to do an exchange with his instrument. I remember that the tenor sax for me was so long that it was difficult for me to play and march at the same time, I was just 10 years old. I played an alto as well that was my first Selmer saxophone when I decided to do the entrance exam to the Conservatory in Pescara, near my hometown. It was a failure for me because they never admit me to the Conservatory because at that time there was only the classical class and my way to play was a bit unruly.
Donna: Which teacher was your biggest influence when you were young? What was one thing they said that you still do today, if anything?
Max: Living in a little village in the middle 80s meant I didn’t have big influences on music. The main bands were playing folk music or a kind of pop music and the only way to listen to jazz was with the recordings. I spent a lot of time with a few friends transcribing some melodies from the recordings and then trying to play them all together having no idea of how to improvise.
Once in school the music teacher told me I was talented for music but he said: If you want to be a musician you should dedicate your time to study music seriously and you must learn to read music as well. The combination of this with your talent can help you to be a good musician otherwise you’ll always be an amateur. I never forgot that advice.
Donna: What were some of those first records you listened to?
Max: One of my best friends was a guitar player and he loved Mike Stern. That was the period that Stern was playing with Bob Berg and to me, it was love at first sight. We tried to play with other two friends, drums and bass, those melodies and I remember that on the solos parts, we used to playing on a pedal note because none of us was able to play on changes. Later, my first meeting with a teacher that showed me how the scales work in harmony opened up a whole new world to me. Somebody lent me my first Dexter Gordon recording that was “GO” and from that moment on I decided that that was the way I wanted to play!
Donna: You have a lovely tone. What are some exercises that you practice every day, without fail, to keep your tone so even and full throughout the range of the horn?
Max: I think the best way to have a good sound is to practice every day with the full sound without limitations. I mean all of us live in apartments and all of us have neighbors that probably aren’t happy to have a saxophone player next to them and this is a big limitation for us because we always blow into the horn feeling guilty. We must find the best environment to play completely free even just one note but exactly like in a live performance! I always found a way to have my own space to practice and when it was impossible I practiced outdoors. A very useful place is in the woods for example, where the sound is lost in the air.
Donna: So when you play, are you thinking about how you are pushing the air through the horn? Do you have any special breathing or tone exercises (aside from long tones) that you do everyday?
Max: I’ve aged but I didn’t lose my nature. I’m still undisciplined and all my way to play especially all the sound features are absolutely natural I never dedicated myself to practicing the tone. I can say something for sure: I’m never happy about my tone and that’s why I use to change horns and mouthpieces very often! I have a tone in my mind that still haven’t gotten.
Just yesterday I got a “new” horn 😀 a beautiful VI from the ’60s. Probably in a few days, I’ll find out that it’s exactly the same as the previous one.
I’ve been playing a silver 1950 SBA for the last 4 years and this is a Mark VI from the 60s. I meant that this is proof that I’m never completely happy about my tone. Maybe I just feel bored after a while and to be honest, it is beautiful to start a new period with a new friend.
Donna: When did you get started with improvisation? Who was your favorite person to listen to? (I am wondering how much Dexter Gordon influenced you 😉?)
Max: I’m a big fan of Dexter and of course Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, Trane and all those giants of the tenor saxophone history. They are the true improvisers, they always took risks during their solos and probably this is the best example we should follow.
I’m mainly a self taught improviser and most of the things you listen to in my playing is what I feel to play by ear but of course I studied improvisation; that is what I teach today at the Conservatory here in Italy. The main teachers for me are the pianists that I play with like Luca Mannutza, Giovanni Mazzarino or Dado Moroni. Piano players have a different perspective than other musicians and they deeply understand harmony and of course are the best teachers for us.
Donna: What is 1 lesson that you teach your students that you feel is mandatory for them to understand?
Max: Often students ask me how they can play well on changes and I tell them that when we improvise we are training our brain and not our fingers. So the best way to learn is to line the difficulty of the tune to our brain’s ability to follow the changes. To learn to play on a fast tempo the first thing we must do is to learn to play on a slow tempo! For example, I ask them to play on Cherokee starting at 50 bpm metronome having the same articulation of a 300 bpm, I mean with even notes – no swing. I was shocked when I slowed down a Stan Getz solo on a very fast tune and incredibly the solo was working great even at that tempo! This means that when our solo works at 50 bpm we just need to practice to increase the tempo day by day.
Donna: That’s a great story about slowing down Stan Getz’s solo.
Max: It isn’t the same as with Trane for example, he has another kind of approach on the tempo
Donna: That’s interesting….how would you approach a Coltrane tune?
Max: The best way is always to blow on the recording and try to follow it.
Donna: Do you have any favorite players that you listen to now?
Max: Of course, there are many great players that I love!
Probably my favorite one is Seamus Blake, he can play everything and he fits perfectly in the music he’s playing from traditional to super modern.
Donna: What is one improvisation exercise you practice frequently, that you would recommend to our listeners?
Max: An exercise that I do often is playing on a tune without the backing track and I try to be as clear as I can on the harmony playing every single chord and keeping the routine for long time. In this way, when I play with other musicians, I feel free to play over the changes and everything seems to be simpler because I don’t have to fill all the space.
When I play a gig, the goal for me is to speak with the audience with an understandable language, if I’m able to do this the mission is complete. That’s why it is important to be able to play well on the harmony even when you play alone.
Donna: How did you get involved in the Swiss double bassist, Dominik Schürmann’s, project, Moons Ago?
Max: When someone ask to me to be involved in a new project usually I ask to listen to the music because often happen that people call you without considering your style of playing and sometime I found myself playing music so distant to me.
Dominik contacted me one day because he listened to something on my Youtube channel and when he sent me some links to other recordings he released, I was very happy because he is a brilliant composer and a great player too. We recorded an album with 12 tunes in just one day like a band that used to play together every day! The other two musicians involved are two wonderful young people: Yuri Storione on piano and Janis Jaunalksnis on drums. This is the power of the music, when everything works well you have just to blow and everything happens.
Donna: Do you have a favorite song on that Moons Ago album?
Max: This is a 12 original songs album. All the compositions are written by Dominik Shurman, the leader and bass player of the album. His way of writing music is absolutely fantastic! 12 beautiful tunes that all have the taste of the great jazz standards with both wonderful harmony changes and melodies. If I have to choose one of them I think I would choose “Ramba Samba”, a beautiful, melodic song that you keep singing once you’ve listened to it.
Donna: What other projects do you have coming up this year?
Max: I did a UK tour of gigs in jazz clubs all over the country earlier this year, and in April, I’m touring with my Danish trio in Spain with Jesper Bodilsen and Martin Maretti Andersen, both fantastic Danish musicians.
In the meantime, I have many gigs here in Italy with a new quartet and at the end of this year, I’ll be on tour with Dominik Shurman to present “MOONS AGO” between Switzerland and Germany.
Donna: How many albums do you have out as a leader? Any plans in the future on recording something new as a leader?
Max: I recorded 12 albums both as a leader or as a co-leader and I’m planning to record a new album with my Danish trio again but I’m still writing new music for it. I would love to record a new quartet album playing standards that I love to play and probably I’ll do it in the near future.
Donna: What is your set up? (saxophone brand/model, mouthpiece moel/brand, reeds, ligature)
Max: I’m working with Selmer Paris for some future projects and this is so exciting for me because all of us know very well what Selmer is.
I made a presentation video of the new entry price Axos Tenor saxophone for them and it was a beautiful experience for me.
Mainly I play with a Super Balanced Action Silver from 1950.
At the moment I’m playing with a mouthpiece that Vincent Toner from London made for me, a kind of old Otto Link with a very special curve that plays amazingly.
7* tip opening.
I use D’addario’s #4 unfiled reeds and a classical BG ligature.
Donna: Where can people buy your recordings?
Max: Amazon, Spotify or the Jandomusic label website: https://www.jandomusic.com/en/releases
Watch the video here:
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