When he was sixteen years old, alto saxophonist Max Bessesen played a jazz festival on the Auraria campus with the East High School Jazz Combo. By that time, he had six years of performing under his belt, including many professional gigs.
“I didn't quite know what I was doing and was still mostly an ear player,” Bessesen recalls. “But I was kind of getting to a place where I didn’t sound terrible all the time. So I played this solo, and one of the clinicians came up and was like, ‘Okay, I like your solo, but I'd like you to play with more fire.' And this would have actually been one of my better solos; I was actually pretty proud of that. And then I played some more notes, and he's like, ‘Okay, I could see that you're capable of this.’ Then he moved on to other members of the band.”
Local master trumpeter Ron Miles, whom Bessesen had grown up listening to, was another clinician at the festival. While Miles didn’t comment on the exchange between the young sax player and the other clinician, at the end of the day he gave Bessesen an award for outstanding performance for the piece.
“The lesson that I really took away from this," says Bessesen, "is this idea of judging my success by the amount of meaning that I create rather than the number of notes that I can play.”
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Fast-forward a decade, and the 26-year-old musician still adheres to that lesson of creating a vibe and making it clear what a song means — approaching music with an open mind and heart and a desire to communicate with people rather than focus on the rapidity of notes. All of that is on display on Trouble, his debut album on the Ropeadope imprint.
Although Bessesen has lived and played professionally in Chicago for the past three years, he and his group (drummer Nathan Friedman, keyboardist Eric Krouse and bassist Ethan Philion) recorded the album at Denver’s Mighty Fine Productions. He even recruited longtime hero Miles to play cornet on the project.
While the songs on Trouble are inspired by Bessesen's musical life since he left Denver in 2012, he found his footing in music studying at East High with teacher and saxophonist Keith Oxman.
Oxman, who has performed with jazz luminaries such as Dave Brubeck, Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt, Buddy Rich and Art Blakey, shared his classic jazz albums with his student. “This is before streaming,” Bessesen notes. “That was the biggest educational thing that I got out of high school — just listening to that music and hanging out with somebody who's done it all with the best in the bebop world.”
One of the records that Oxman shared was Charlie Parker With Strings.
“That [album] went through me like a knife,” Bessesen remembers. “For me, if there was a record or a moment, it was definitely that one.”
After graduating from East, Bessesen attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he studied with jazz heavies Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart. In 2016, he received a fellowship from the Frank Huntington Beebe Fund and went on a year-long trek to India, Ghana and Cuba, which also inspired cuts on Trouble.
The song “Bakkam” is about the neighborhood of Nungambakkam in the Indian city of Chennai, where Bessesen lived for eight months, taking South Indian music theory and applying it to African diasporic music. He transcribed part of a drum improvisation he'd heard and expanded the idea into a larger composition.
“I wanted that piece to evoke the feeling of this neighborhood that I lived in, which was kind of all over the place,” he says. “Lots of really nonstop stuff happening. I used a little piece of what I heard in that environment and expanded it in my own way to give my interpretation of the place.”
While in India, Bessesen learned the standard repertoire of the South Indian classical canon and some technical percussive and melodic exercises. “Then I took those and applied them to the music that I'm most comfortable with, which is jazz," he says.
While India inspired him, he also found his time there challenging.
“From a personal perspective, India was very lonely,” he says. “It was a challenging period, but it was also extremely meaningful. I experienced sound and a culture and humanity from an outsider perspective. India is a very different place than the United States in a lot of ways.
“I've had the opportunity to reflect on the wonderful privileges and amazing things that I've enjoyed from my whole life that not everybody gets, and also the wide scope of the human experience," he adds. "It was a really incredible year. I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
During that same year, he spent time in Ghana and Cuba, which offered additional inspiration. “Like jazz, the African diaspora, or native African population, is really prevalent in the culture, so I tried to connect those styles with what I learned in India.”
While his travels informed much of Trouble, the title track was written for guitarist Zac Nunnery, who had played in Bessesen’s group before taking his own life in late 2018. The lyrics to "Trouble" — which aren't sung but are printed in the album's liner notes — are also reflected in the titles of two other songs, "Mayhem" and "Trials." They deal with the idea of obstacles and challenges in different ways, from friction to meditation.
“Today I think we're going to hang out and play some horseshoes,” he reported during his time away. “It’s taco night, and the weather is just beautiful. And this is all part of the recovery process. I’m finally feeling good enough to be able to go on vacation and enjoy it.”
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Bessesen says the album’s title also refers to the challenges that the world is facing "and the challenges and really joyful moments in my own life these last few years. All those things inspire the compositions on this record.”
Although he isn’t gigging much right now because of COVID-19, Bessesen has stayed busy giving saxophone lessons online. He shows beginning students how to make good sounds and play notes, but says that with his more experienced students, it's really important to talk about what the music means.
“In the wake of this George Floyd stuff, I've been trying to be really intentional with my students [and] educating them about the racial history of this music, which I think is really important and can often be overlooked," he explains. "Because I really do think that jazz has this history of community organizing and peaceful protest, and I think that that's present in all of my favorite musicians.”