Mike Casey, emerging jazz saxophonist: Something Else! Interview

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Mike Casey is, not to put too fine a point on it, an extraordinary saxophone player. I first heard an excerpt he posted on social media and since then have listened to Mike play whenever I can.

His playing is powerful, and he plays with a strength and style which is both engaging and appealing. In his approach, Mike’s style has the appeal of some of the jazz greats but at the same time he has not borrowed heavily style-wise but introduces touches which are pure Casey.

Mike Casey was nominated for the best jazz category in the CT music awards and has played with notables including Charles Tolliver, Steve Davis, Nat Reeves, Duane Eubanks and Craig Harris – to name but a few. In 2015, Mike was selected to take part in the prestigious two-week Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where he had the opportunity to learn from celebrated jazz artists including Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Eric Revis, J.D. Allen, Carmen Lundy, Andre Hayward and Cyrus Chestnut.

He has performed at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, The Kennedy Center in D.C., Minton’s, Ginny’s Supper Club in New York City, Exit Zero Jazz Festival in New Jersey and the Winter Jazz Fest, in addition to consistently performing in the top jazz venues in Connecticut. He also teaches saxophone and jazz to all ages. His project Down at the Bottom, also featuring Corey Garcia, focuses on original music and jazz standards arranged for sax and percussion.

It is always difficult to pinpoint what makes one sax player good and another great but whatever it is, Mike Casey veers heavily towards the great in my books. It is not just me either: His New York debut at the legendary Minton’s jazz club in Harlem in September was a sell out, and his crowdfunding campaign for the release of his debut album (due out in February 2017) went over 100 percent almost immediately. I have been privileged to hear The Sound of Surprise: Live at the Sidedoor in advance, and I can vouch for the depth of the musicality and sheer enjoyment. We are in a for a treat when it is released.

I decided I should find out a bit more about this impressive player – beginning with where he grew up.

“First Sharon, Mass., then Storrs, Conn., and then Hartford. Of the three, Hartford is the one that primarily ‘raised me’ artistically and culturally,” Casey said. “Whilst still living in Storrs, I began attending a performing arts magnet high school in Hartford – which changed my life. I continued to music school [the Jackie McLean Institute] at Uhart, Hartford. I came to music first through my parents. My mom is a singer and, while my dad is tone deaf, both have a great appreciation for music and both are avid jazz fans. They were the ones who first exposed me to jazz.”

On his inspirations: “First, I wanted to play drums – heck, I still want to play drums – but my mom quickly vetoed that, saying it would be too loud. Little did she know that once you get serious about learning the saxophone, that becomes pretty loud – and sometimes obnoxious – too,” Mike Casey said. “My earliest memories of listening to jazz include Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker. My very first professional performance as a band leader was junior year of high school at Cafemantic in downtown Willimantic, Conn. – a block away from the music store where I took my first saxophone lessons.”

On how he feels when he performs: “My emotions when I perform can vary widely,” Casey said. “If anything, the performance is a vessel for the emotions that I’m feeling that day. I definitely wear my heart on my sleeve, though if the band is on fire you better believe there’s a smile on my face! Usually reactions from the audience are positive yet, while they enjoy us, we keep them on their toes. The way my trio and I perform is very unique – hence The Sound of Surprise.”

Mike Casey has found appreciative audiences from Harlem, Connecticut and Hartford. At the same time, “I’m very aware of the other artists on stage,” he added. “It’s an interesting relationship with an audience. On the one hand, we are performing for them but at the same time, they are getting a sneak peak into something very personal.”

On his other musical interests: “I listen to basically everything except metal,” Casey said. “Off the top of my head, non-jazz artists I’m fond of include Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Chamillionaire, Bruno Mars, 2Pac, Al Green, Am Winehouse, Skrillex, Zedd, Biggie Smalls, Alicia Keys, Corinne Bailey Rae, Moon Hooch, Too Many Zooz, Steve Miller Band, Michael Jackson, Jurassic 5 – I could go on.”

On his philosophy of life: “I really believe in the golden rule and I believe music is so much more powerful than people realize. It’s the only form of art that most people don’t go a day without.”

On the difficulties in getting recognized today: “In some ways, it’s a lot easier; in some ways, it’s a lot harder. The internet has simultaneously given everyone the ability to access/connect with an audience and also made it harder to cut through the noise. There’s a staggering amount of media – and not just music – available at everyone’s fingertips, 24/7. In terms of young people connecting to music, I see people my age connecting to jazz music when they are exposed to it. That’s the trick: getting them to experience it in person. There are some developments that are doing a lot of good with jazz education, but I wish there was a more of an effort on exposing non-jazz audiences to jazz without getting them to learn how to play it. This music isn’t just for musicians; it’s for everyone. You don’t need a PhD to enjoy jazz.”

On his plans for the future: “The trio is the main focus right now,” Mike Casey said. “I just did a really cool multimedia collaboration with Sea Tea Improv, a local comedy group here in Hartford. They did an improvised film noire, and I improvised the score. We had a blast. I’m hooked and I love collaborating with other forms of art. I hope to do more of that in the future. Aside from that I have been involved in Marc Cary’s The Harlem Sessions project since its beginnings a year and a half ago. I really enjoy performing with this ensemble and have learned a great deal working with Marc.”

On his other hobbies: “I love chess, binge-watching Netflix comedies, playing darts and enjoying visual art.”

Our talk closed with one more lovely story from Mike Casey.

“Remember earlier on when I mentioned Sonny Rollins was a big inspiration? Particularly Tenor Madness was an album I was obsessed with in middle school. Three years ago, I worked really hard to win an online contest that Bret Primack [the “Jazz Video Guy“] organized to promote Sonny’s latest album. The 10 winners got to video chat with Sonny. Fast forward a year later and it just so happened that the year I graduated from the Jackie Mclean Institute, the college decided to award Sonny an honorary doctorate. When he came to campus, all the graduating seniors – including myself – got a private meet and greet with Sonny. I will never forget it.”

What struck me throughout the interview – and, in fact, how Mike Casey conducts himself generally – is his maturity. For one relatively young, he speaks like an experienced hand and reflects many of the attitudes and values of players far more mature than himself. I have a hunch Mike is going to develop into one of the best players for a long time, and that he will have a long career in jazz.

Although I’ve only heard it in fledgling form, his new album The Sound of Surprise: Live at the Sidedoor is astounding in many parts. It’s an album worth waiting for, and our review will follow next year. For now, Mike is playing, developing and continuing to amaze new people. He has something pretty special, and it only takes one listen to hear it. Mike Casey is one to watch, for sure.

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