The Washington Saxophone Quartet celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. To which most Washingtonians respond: ìWashington has a saxophone quartet?î
At least, thatís how it often feels to the men behind the reeds, Reginald Jackson (soprano), James Steele (alto), Rich Kleinfeldt (tenor), and Rick Parrell (baritone). Though the group has toured as far abroad as Beijing, in their hometown the quartet might as well be, well, Chinese. And yet, almost every radio listener in the D.C. area and beyond has heard the groupís biggest hit, which has been playing almost daily for nearly a decade. That would be the theme to NPRís All Things Considered, played in short bursts between stories.
ìBecause NPR is on the Internet now, people all over the world can hear [the song],î Kleinfeldt says. But, as the group is rarely IDíd on air, the constant play has yet to boost the quartetís record salesólet alone awareness of its existence. ìSome people donít even know itís a sax quartet,î Kleinfeldt says.
Gathered at Steeleís McLean house from Arlington, Fairfax, and Wheaton for a Tuesday-morning rehearsal, the menóall in their late 50s/early 60sótake a break from Mozart fugues and Charlie Parker annotations to vent about their near-invisible local status. ìThe further away you are from home, the bigger you must be. If youíre from around hereówherever ëhereí isóyou canít be very good,î Jackson says. ìWeíre big cheese in China.î
The ìboon and the bane of [the] group,î Jackson says, is the time each member has spent in military bands in D.C. Though the military offers what amounts to paid rehearsal time, missing a practice or a gig is considered going AWOL. ìFor about 10, gosh, 15 years, there were a lot of times we did duet concerts and trio concerts because at the last minute somebody would be called to a job,î Jackson says. ìSigning contracts was difficult, because we didnít know who was going to be there.î Currently, Parrell is the only member still in service, and his seniority allows more booking flexibility.
Though they often play in concert halls, the foursome take a populist approach to their task, shying away from the more artsy compositions. ìWeíre always looking for something that can reach the audience and make a connection with people who know music and like to hear something that theyíre familiar with,î Kleinfeldt says, ìbut also sneak in some new stuff that theyíve never heard.î So, in addition to Gershwin, Sousa, and Bach, the band offers Chinese folk tunes and Astor Piazzolla tangos.
ìOne of my professors at North Texas said the greatest compliment that an audience could give a composer was to go out in the aisle and throw up,î Jackson adds. ìWell, if youíre on salary, man, you can do that. But if you gotta go back the next week and please a crowd, itís kinda hard to do.î
Caught between not wanting to pander and not wanting to sicken, the group has the added challenge of pleasing themselves. ìI canít tell you how difficult it is for us to agree on a particular piece of music to play,î Jackson says. ìBecause the issue is not just, ëIs it good music?í…The question is, ëIs it going to be a good program piece? Is it going to be effective?íî
ìString quartets have it made,î says Kleinfeldt. ìI mean, they can play a piece thatís mediocre and people will say, ëIsnít that wonderful?íî óDave Nuttycombe
The Washington Saxophone Quartet performs at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at Grace Lutheran Church, 4300 16th St. NW. $15 (proceeds to benefit Loaves and Fishes). (703) 812-8683; for more information visit wsaxq.com.