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Max Swan: Beyond The Sexy Sax Guy.

November 11, 2015

MaxSwanOnline04Text by Kyle Bagenstose. Show images by G.W. Miller III. Portraits by Samantha Moss.

It’s a late Thursday night and Max Swan is feeling it in mSOUNd Recording Studios, tucked above Adventurers Indoor Mini Golf in a converted warehouse behind IKEA on Columbus Boulevard.

The 26-year-old Manayunk resident is watching drummer Lionel Forrester through the control room glass. The song they’re working on, like the rest of Swan’s soon-to-be-released album, For Thought of Others, is nearly complete. It’s 99 percent done. What they’re working on is the gravy.

Forrester comes in a little early on one take, and looks to Swan for some direction. Swan asks studio co-owner and stand-in engineer Domenic Prizivalli to press the button that beams his voice through to Forrester.

“Just play man,” Swan says, encouragingly.

Forrester opens up on the next take with extra oomph on the kicks and flourishing fills made up on the spot. One crescendo brings a huge smile to Swan’s face. Swan then raises his hands triumphantly, nodding to Forrester through the glass.

The whole process is an accumulation of the skills Swan has picked up since his graduation from the University of the Arts four years ago. A prodigal saxophone player since the age of 9, Swan has toured with the jazz-funk Dirk Quinn Band and made inroads into the city’s hip-hop scene, doing musical production for artists like Kuf Knotz.

“This album is a time when I feel I’m coming into my own as an artist,” Swan says. “I’m singing, producing, writing, playing instruments.”

Swan’s challenge is in getting the science right. He’s passionate about the saxophone and writing thoroughly composed music, bucking the verse-bridge-chorus-repeat formula most popular music follows in favor of longer pieces with multiple movements. But he realizes neither really fit into what’s popular these days.

“The whole effort of my career so far is bringing the saxophone back to a seriously effective thing that people enjoy,” Swan says. “Not to dispel the ‘sexy sax guy’ idea but because of things like that, it’s a challenge to create a legitimate chunk of music that people can take seriously.”

But Swan has seen encouraging signs. He says assumptions about the saxophone and nine-minute songs usually fade away in front of live audiences. And he’s discovered that vocals – at which Swan proves more than capable – help to make the connection.

“I’m not fixated on making the saxophone a popular thing again,” Swan says. “I’m fixated on making it part of my music. Whether it’s the secret weapon or fixture of the show, it’s going to be there. And I’ve learned that singing really plays a huge part in people’s approval of the material. When they hear lyrics on one tune, they’ll listen to a 15-minute instrumental shred.”

Josh Nussbaum, who is playing guitar for the album’s recording and has known Swan since the two met at UArts about six years ago, says that the challenge of making the music work is what draws him to the effort.

“When I first met Max, I really liked his saxophone playing,” Nussbaum says. “That’s really what made me want to play with him. There weren’t a lot of people taking risks with instruments like saxophone and trumpet. Most jazz school people are into old school bebop.”

That’s not to say Swan can’t play the old ways. In the past year, he’s played at both the Center City Jazz Festival and Welcome America! festival. Swan credits a long line of influential teachers for his prowess on the instrument, including John Thompson of PhillyBloco and Lenny Pickett, the band director of “Saturday Night Live,” whose signature sax opens up each show. Normally unreachable, Swan says he had to use a bit of misdirection to reach Pickett.

“I had been trying to get in touch with him for the longest time. He was the white whale,” Swan says, remembering the time he faked a call to NYU, where Pickett teaches, and received an email address after claiming to have lost it. “I hit him up and he responded, like, right away. I could not believe it.”

Now, Swan drives to New York once a year for private lessons from Pickett, whom he says is a zen master of the sax.

“I go study with him and there’s like eight months worth of personal development I have to do before going back,” Swan says.

Perhaps Pickett sees something in Swan, or at least those like him. In order to keep the saxophone relevant to the mainstream, it’s going to take such artists who can successfully interweave the instrument into music that includes elements of hip-hop, soul and rock. Swan, for one, is looking forward to dropping the album in November and seeing how listeners respond to the accumulation of his skills so far.

“I’m really excited about it,” Swan says. “I definitely have way more personal confidence when asking myself, ‘Did I do my job on it? Did I meet the aspirations I wanted?'”

One Comment
  1. November 15, 2015 5:38 pm

    I’m feeling his vibes! Same goes with Parson James. If you havent heard of him, check him out on Spotify right now! His track “Temple” gives me the chills.

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