Quantum Sonics

The first time he disappeared, John Zangrando was ten, maybe eleven years old. "I realize now, looking back, that I had experienced not being totally in my mind," he says. "I disappeared. I disappeared, and there was just the saxophone. I remember feeling there was nothing else on earth. There were no thoughts. There was just the sound of it, the vibration of it. My saxophone was everything."

In the four decades since losing himself to that first rapture, Zangrando has rediscovered it, albeit fleetingly, many times--on flower-scented bandstands in Lahaina, in his sunny Boulder practice room, in smoke-clogged noise boxes like LoDo's venerable jazz joint, El Chapultepec. And what he first felt at ten, becoming one with his instrument--disappearing--has long since become his ideal. "The real work," he calls it.

"When the music is really, really happening," he says, "you're barely there, and you're not thinking about the chord changes or any of the technical stuff. Staying at that level or in that connection to wherever the music is coming from is difficult--at least for me. It's not continuous. So whenever you come out of that state where the music is just happening on its own, with all your years of practice, then you come back down into the chord changes and the scales and the nice melodic space, and you're aware of it all. But suddenly that will take you...out again."

John Zangrando, the six-foot-two-inch, 210-pound ponytailed son of an Italian-American tile-fitter from earth-bound Clifton, New Jersey, is not the first creative soul to talk transcendence. Poets have been merging with their words, painters vanishing into color and canvas, since time immemorial. Indeed, Zangrando believes that one of his primary influences, the revered saxophone giant John Coltrane, devoted his life to becoming indistinguishable from his music.

But while most jazz musicians find inspiration in the riffs of Coltrane and Dexter Gordon, how many also credit the theorems of Albert Einstein? Zangrando does, and not because he admires the genius physicist in the abstract or keeps his bushy-haired poster on his wall. For if he'd taken a slightly different turn in the road, Zangrando might himself be chasing sub-atomic particles through the cosmos instead of wrestling with the complexities of "Giant Steps" at a breakneck tempo.

In two years of graduate study at the University of Southern California and New York University, the man who would be his music compiled the requisite 83 credits in theoretical physics and was hard at work on his doctoral research--it concerned the collision of certain tiny particles in a manner that those innocent of high science cannot conceive--when the jazz muse called him back from the lab.

"For me, science was a left turn," he says. "It was all about doing something other than music. By the time I was in high school, I was making money playing in bands, and in college [at Fairleigh Dickinson University] I was working four nights a week in local Jersey clubs, playing mostly pop and R&B. Physics interested me because it was so difficult. Then it actually interested me. It was an intellectual exercise, and the mathematics got more and more interesting as it got more advanced. I admired Einstein not only because he was a genius, but because he was open-minded. His was an extremely creative spirit."

This from a man whose high school math teacher once forced him to drop calculus. "He said I wasn't smart enough and that I was too involved with the saxophone," Zangrando remembers.

Little did the teacher know that this sixteen-year-old, who spent a lot of his time standing under an open window at the Clifton Tap Room listening to the likes of Yusef Lateef, Phil Woods and Roland Kirk, would wind up recording with Taj Mahal and backing the legendary jazz singer John Hendricks--as well as exploring the mysteries of "quantum scattering" in the earth's upper atmosphere.

From the beginning, though, it was jazz saxophone that dominated the atmosphere inside Zangrando's head. By the time John Jr. was eight, his father, equipped with an eighth-grade education and an unfailing ear for music, exposed him to Coltrane, the great bass clarinet experimenter Eric Dolphy and the bulk of the fundamentalist Blue Note and Atlantic jazz libraries. When John entered the fifth grade and was ready for music lessons, he refused a clarinet and an alto sax, holding out for the larger, heavier tenor--the horn that would provide that first rapture and change the course of his life.

Today, at age fifty, John Zangrando owns and regularly plays 25 different instruments. During his eighteen-month stint as leader of the house band at El Chapultepec (it ended in late November), his allotted three square feet of bandstand looked like a pawnshop in a recession. Switching from the bighearted baritone sax (his favorite ax these days) to the ethereal soprano (his second choice) to an array of flutes and clarinets, Zangrando combined--often in the same tune, sometimes in the same chorus--the astonishing sonic leaps and crashing intensity of a dedicated explorer with the lyricism of a knowing romantic. Despite the din of voices and the ambient crash of glassware in the place, you could sometimes even hear him disappearing into his horn. The real work, he calls it.

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