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.
"A lot of jazz people think they have to understand every note, know every note," he says. "They talk about it in such a way that it can turn other listeners off. I try to tell people: Just listen to it. You don't have to think about it, you don't have to like it. Just let it hit you and feel it. If you like classical music--Stravinsky, say--you're not going to analyze all that. There's no way you can do it. In a graduate course, perhaps, but not as a listener. That would ruin your enjoyment, for starters, even if you could understand everything that's going on. So drop it. Just enjoy it. It's the emotion that grabs me first about any musician--the passion. You hear a level of communication that's so real, that's from so far inside. It's only later that I might notice, damn, he's a monster technically. But what gets your attention first is the purity, the beauty, the absence of ego. Coltrane, for instance. He worked all his life to become his music. It was his transportation to the whatever."
En route to finding his own whatever, Zangrando spent eighteen years in the shade of a palm tree. Not the most likely venue, perhaps, for an aspiring jazz musician. Or for a physicist conversant with field theory and the quirks of quarks. But just the place for a very smart guy confused by life. After flying direct from New York to Maui ("I didn't even stop in Honolulu!"), he grappled with a mid-life crisis that, like a lot of events in his life, arrived early. "I was thirty," he recalls. "I was trying to have a life with a family. I restored a Victorian house, because I knew if I wanted a house, I would have to build it myself. I said I had to be responsible and make an effort to do other things. I tried to avoid what I really had to do--which was play music."
Eventually, the urge proved undeniable. Within a couple of years, Zangrando became the first-call saxophonist for every business conference, awards banquet and cocktail party in the islands. In the isolation of Hawaii, he also found a handful of talented, like-minded musicians who had fled far out into the Pacific from some of the same terrors and traps. With them, he played jazz. When a lovely young woman named Samagra signed up with him for a flute lesson, in 1981, he found domestic peace. She became his second wife.
Two years ago they came to Boulder, to a sunny, saxophone-filled house hard by the Flatirons.
"Because you start to wonder," Zangrando muses, "'I've been on this little island for eighteen years. Can I play?' You sort of know, but you start to question yourself. There's a whole world out there, and here's this little microcosm where you live. Can I go out there and interact with musicians? Can I find that feedback loop with a good audience? I was missing all that. So I decided to check back in with the mainland.
Zangrando's year and a half at El Chapultepec proved a mixed blessing. It began as a piece of good luck, just three days after he landed in Boulder, and ended with a bit of bandstand friction. But he strengthened his chops, re-energized his work and redirected his priorities. For now, Zangrando will play selected gigs, study composition and harmony with the superb Boulder-based jazz pianist Art Lande and, for the first time, write music of his own--woodwind sextets and octets in a modern classical mode, then some deceptively simple jazz themes capacious enough for open-ended improvisation.
He'll continue practicing all those horns, new and old. And he'll listen to music--everything from Stockhausen and Stravinsky to the Coltrane-inflected British baritone saxophonist John Surman and on to the 1972 recording considered one of the most brilliant examples of "free jazz" in the history of the music: bassist Dave Holland's "Conference of the Birds," featuring avant-gardians Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers on saxophones and flutes and percussionist Barry Altschul striking almost any solid object you can name.
"To some people, it's cacophony," Zangrando says. "To me, it's so natural and beautiful that I never get tired of listening to it. I suppose if I could do anything I wanted, anything I wanted, it would be like the music on that record."
Meanwhile, there's a world of music roiling around inside this extraordinary musician's head. The timeless Coltrane anthems his father first played for him. Harry Carney ballads from the glory days of the Duke Ellington band. Complex, sinuous solos of his own creation that come to him in the hours after a job--only when he lies down, exhausted, on his bed. And, yes, there's the music that results when the instincts of the artist collide with the knowledge of a scientist.
"There's no question that there's a spiritual side to physics," he says. "Studying physics taught me a way to look at things. A way to think. A way to experience things. In sound, the emotional content is one thing, but it's very easy for me to visualize sound as a strata--many, many, many layers. In many different ways. Within an ensemble or within the tonality of an instrument, the harmonic content of an instrument. Every time you play a note, you have many frequencies, some more accentuated than others...When you're aware of that and practice manipulating the sound of the saxophone, you can put in some harmonics and take out harmonics, actually change the shape of the tone, which changes the emotive quality of the sound. We're talking about one note here."
He pauses and smiles. "Of course, at the moment of performance, forget it. Pure feeling translates into that note."
And that is how Albert Einstein sometimes still climbs onto the bandstand with John Zangrando. "I think he could have been a great jazz musician," the saxophonist and fallen-away physicist says.
Maybe even one who could disappear into rapture.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.