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Q&A: Doug O’Connor talks music industry experience, previews visit to OU

From the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to Carnegie Hall, saxophonist Doug O’Connor has shared his talents around the world. On Wednesday, O’Connor will be making a visit to the recital hall in Glidden Hall, 3 Health Center Drive, for performances alongside pianist Jeremy Vigil at 4 p.m. and at 5:30 p.m. to celebrate the release of Baljinder Sekhon's new album, Alchemy, which he helped create.

The Post sat down with O’Connor to discuss his career, how he’s endured the pandemic and his upcoming performance at Ohio University:

The Post: How did you first get into music?

O’Connor: I was a band kid. I played music in school bands. Actually, (I) wasn't that interested in it for a while until I took lessons. I played clarinet. I was the worst clarinet player in bands for about four years. Then, on the verge of quitting, I started taking saxophone lessons, and it just kind of accelerated. Well, the more time I spent on it, the more interesting it got. Pretty soon, I was just looking forward to making music all the time. I'd say I was probably 14-15 when this was going on, and my parents were really supportive. They encouraged me to study music in school, like college. (I) got an undergrad in music performance. After a gap year, (I) went and got a master’s and doctorate. I've loved it ever since. It's been a really, really great career. But that's how I got into it — by being terrible at clarinet and eventually picking up an instrument where I could play jazz. 

TP: Why is the saxophone your main instrument of choice?

O’Connor: I think part of it is that when you're a kid in middle school bands, if you're one of 18 clarinet players, you don't get as much of a sense of responsibility or power, whatever it is. But if you're playing baritone saxophone, you're the only one in the group with that voice. Not just that — there's the opportunity to play jazz as well. I hadn't really thought about this before, but now looking back, maybe that plays into why chamber music is kind of my favorite thing: one on a part, playing in ensembles, but you get sort of the best of both worlds. Your voice is alone in a sense. It's like being a soloist, but you're with others, so you have to play and work as a team as well in the sort of super-high speed communication that is playing in a musical group.

TP: What’s been the most rewarding part of being a musician?

O’Connor: I guess the relationships with the people. That's always been what's rewarding about it to me: you're sharing this intimate experience that is ephemeral. It doesn't exist outside of that moment. It can't be captured or recorded very well. When you're at a concert, there's something special that's happening for everybody there — hopefully, the audience, but certainly between the musicians on stage when things are going on. That's just a thrill. I guess I'm a thrill seeker.

TP: You’ve already achieved so much in your career. What do you hope to achieve in the next five to 10 years of it?

O’Connor: I'd like to develop some of my own music. I've been working with a jazz saxophone quartet called “Off on Four.” We have one performance with hip-hop artist Kunem. That involves sort of working with Ableton, like hip-hop backing tracks and live looping and microphones. Imagine four big, loud saxophone players, like big, bad saxophone jazz sounds in a quartet. Then, you've got some of the electronic music components that are so popular in music today, like hip-hop. It's just a fantastic lens. I'm really, really excited about it. So, sort of bringing technology into the live performance fold in my own way and being creative with that.

TP: How has the pandemic affected your trajectory or any plans you’ve had?

O’Connor: Actually, this concert at OU might be my first recital performance since the pandemic began because things have been so up in the air coming out of the pandemic. Coming back to the recital hall, the intimate space of creating chamber music between two or three people, is something I have really, really missed. I think the pandemic has really caused a lot of people to think about their own lives in those questioning kinds of tones and where they prioritize their resources and their intention and, for me, it certainly did that as well. It gave me a lot of sense of purpose of, ‘OK, let's get this recording out. Let's get the CD out.’ But a lot of it is also setting the stage because I feel like what's about to happen is the great reawakening of concerts, where once it's cool again and everyone feels safe. You're just going to get this surge of activity. Part of the reason for all of that hunkering down during the pandemic is to be ready: sort of building my chops, learning more music (and) honing my art, my artist statements and who I am as a performing artist out in the world. 

TP: What can the audience expect at your performance Wednesday?

O’Connor: There is a bit of a purpose or a theme to this visit. We have an album that just got released on Innova records. I've been working with this composer Baljinder Sekhon, who now teaches at Penn State University, for about 10 years since we were in school together. He's basically been writing music for saxophone and commissioning his music, championing it, recording it, getting other people to perform it. Ten years later, we're able to put out this album of all saxophone music by Baljinder Sekhon. One of the most important pieces on the album was recorded. Well two of them were actually recorded with the help of a faculty member there (at OU): Jeremy Vigil, unbelievable pianist who I got to know while we were spending a time up in Rochester together. This is something of a CD promotion tour. We're celebrating this music. We're performing those two pieces on the album, in addition to a brand new one that was just composed for tenor saxophone and piano combination that’s not seen quite as often in concert halls. It's nice to have a concept piece for tenor and piano and the intricate contrapuntal chamber framework that Baljinder is so good at. 

TP: Is there anything else you would like to add?

O’Connor: The “Sonata (of) Puzzles” was sort of the final key to the album, and we had to record this in August last year, sort of during a really questionable phase in the pandemic. We did it at Ohio University, and the maintenance team at Ohio University was incredibly helpful in a way that I want to give a shout out to. Basically, there is a large boiler room making a lot of noise in the recital hall that we wanted to record in. Someone from the team came over there, shut it down properly for us and helped us get a much higher quality recording with less noise. There's a pandemic, people were a little worried, we're wearing masks and we're trying to not spend too much time in close quarters and we had the help of even people on the maintenance staff at Ohio University ... help us get a good recording.


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