Growing up and working in a family business that constructs stages for festivals, one of them being the notable Newport Jazz Festival, Cincinnati-based Eric Wurzelbacher became exposed to free-spirited music and a way of life that is the heart of the jazz genre.
Wurzelbacher attended Cincinnati’s prestigious Conservatory College of Music, which comes as no surprise once you learn that he was named one of the top ten saxophonists in the nation through the United States Army Solo Competition in 2012. After graduating from CCM in 2015, Wurzelbacher realized that his passion lay in composing and playing his own music and has been touring and releasing albums with his self-titled group: Eco Quartet (2017), Power (2018), and Maya (2019).
He spent his childhood in the Midwest listening to classic rock and grunge, which continues to influence his jazz music today by harnessing the intensity and deliberate transitions of rock, yet remaining improvisational and, well, jazzy.
Just dropping today is his new single, “Waiting”, a nearly 7-minute long with incredibly complex instrumental lines entirely composed by Wurzelbacher himself. The track comes from the forthcoming Idle Minds, his fourth studio album. The single features interaction between instruments that are quirky, yet tasteful and incredibly technically conscious of the integrity of the genre. With Wurzelbacher soaring on his sax, “Waiting” also features band members Ryan Jones on piano, Justin Dawson on bass, and Charlie Schefft on drums.
We had the joy of talking with Wurzelbacher about “Waiting,” Idle Minds, and the rest of his plans for 2022.
How has your hometown of Cincinnati influenced you as a jazz musician?
To be honest, most of the time I don’t really think of myself as a jazz musician specifically. By virtue of playing saxophone, writing instrumental music, and improvising, I think it’s only natural to categorize it that way. However, my musical tastes and approach have been heavily influenced by this genre.
Cincinnati has been a home base for me for about 10 years; I came to this city to study music at UC. After college, I slowly gathered that Cincinnati wasn’t really an ideal city for improvised music on the surface. However, there is a remarkable amount of top notch players and creative musical groups in this city who have had a direct impact on me. There is a certain grit and humility to this Midwest city (sometimes to our detriment) that I have learned to embrace and let influence my music for the better.
What is it about jazz music that is so enthralling to you?
I truly love all kinds of music. Depending on my mood, you can find me listening to just about anything. By virtue of playing the saxophone, I have found myself gravitating toward other saxophonists to really study the horn and how I want it to sound. In my experience, the most influential saxophonists are typically band leaders in a jazz setting and writing their own music and trying to find that voice. Having said that, that’s a huge part of what draws me to the art… the constant effort to get better and striving to find your sound (resulting in never giving the same performance twice).
I feel myself grow as a person with my music and in my endeavor to be myself as authentically as possible. It’s more than just making noise and playing an instrument, it’s about gaining a better understanding of yourself and the world through one of the few things we have left that you can’t buy… the experience of music, especially improvised and communicative music such as jazz.
Being an entirely instrumental artist, referencing certain inspirations within your music is obviously different than if it were to contain lyrics. Where do you get inspiration for your art and how do you convey it through the saxophone?
I play my saxophone every single day, usually for a few hours. It is honestly a form of meditation for me. I feel off-balance if I only get a chance to play for a bit in a day. The way that I sound on my saxophone is something that I’ve been working on for nearly 20 years. Most of the time I have ideas pop up while doing my routine during the day, usually in the most unexpected way, then I break them down and try to figure out a way to put it in a form of a song that can be understood. Even as a young kid, I never remembered lyrics to songs, but I could sing all of the solos and instrumental breaks note for note.
Music has honestly always spoken to me more than words; it’s a much more subtle form of communication that if you put in the effort to understand it, the reward is often much greater.
So let’s talk about your new single, “Waiting.” Besides your sax, it contains other instruments as well, including keys, percussion, and bass. Did you compose all of the other instrumental lines yourself or did you collaborate with your peers?
I brought this song in to the band pretty much as a complete idea. Sometimes I will bring in songs that are just small ideas and there’s a lot of collaboration (which usually end up being my favorite songs). However, for this one in particular, I composed all the parts.
I actually composed this song on piano, not saxophone. I always try to leave room and encourage my bandmates to add their own interpretation. My thought is that they are much better at their respective instruments than I am, so why wouldn’t I want to their input? Obviously the piano solo was completely improvised by our pianist, Ryan Jones, and we put a gnarly fuzz effect on it as well (suggestion of our sound engineer, Brandon Coleman). For the drum parts, I will usually just describe the feel I’m hearing in my head, hand them a piano part and let them do their thing.
“Waiting” blends a few genres, adding some influences of rock and roll and blues to the traditional jazz sound. What drove you to make this stylistic decision?
One of my biggest musical influences is rock, more specifically grunge. I grew up listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin and classic rock from that era, but when I discovered grunge (specifically Soundgarden), I felt like this was a different form of expression in rock that felt more personal to me (most likely because of the generational gap).
For this song I feel like I tapped into some unmarked territory. This song for me, meshed grunge and jazz in a way that I would like to experiment more with. These stylistic decisions came from just being honest with myself. I identify with rock and grunge on a very personal level, so it would be silly to not include it in my compositions in my opinion. At the end of the day, it’s just a lot of fun as well.
“Waiting” comes off your upcoming album Idle Minds. Could you talk more about the record and the production process?
Idle Minds is primarily a compilation of songs that were written during the pandemic. We recorded all of these songs live back in April (with very minimal over- dubbing and a few effects added). My rule of thumb in the studio is 3 and out. Do three takes of the song and then move on. After the third take, you start to recycle ideas and overthink what you’re doing to the point where it’s not worth it. This is the tricky part about recording live, improvised music; it’s such a psychological game.
After tracking everything in just two days, I met with our gracious sound engineer, Brandon Coleman, countless times to really perfect what I wanted it to sound like. I can not be grateful enough for his patience with that… meeting late at night, checking how it sounds on multiple speakers and headphones, tweaking the tiniest little things that most people may not even notice. This was happening all while he was expecting a baby at basically any point as well. We ended up with a product that I’m super proud to put my name on.
Again, connecting with music without lyrics is a bit different then a really poetically-written ballad. What do you hope listeners of Eric Wurzelbacher will take away from your music?
My goal in general for writing music is to give listeners an outlet to feel better, whether that’s happy, empowered, or enlightened. I especially want to people to realize that we should embrace all genres and styles of art. There are amazing things being created by all kinds of artists. I learned a lot from college, but it also made me slightly narrow-minded and judgmental as a musician, until I realized how much I was missing out on and how silly of a perspective that was.
Music’s main driving force should always be emotion, not technicalities and academic knowledge. Of course, this is not to say these skills learned in academia are not useful; they are extremely useful in communicating what you want to say artistically. I just believe music should be approached with the utmost humility and desire to put good into the world. I want people to be positively impacted after listening to this album.
How do you know when a song is finished? Do you catch yourself re-recording certain tracks or tinkering with particular parts of songs?
Ask anyone of my bandmates and they will tell you that I’m constantly editing songs. One particular song off of this album (“Deception”) was originally written with a bridge, which ended up becoming its own entire song (“Loyalty”). We would play it every show and see how it felt and how the crowd reacted, then go back to the drawing board. I guess my answer is, when I have a live experience with a crowd being enthralled and moved by the song, then I know it’s complete.
Aside from Idle Minds, what might fans expect from you in the coming year?
Fans can expect some very different things… I’m drumming up many ideas including vocalists and spoken word in some of my songs. I also would like to incorporate more different kind of world instruments, as I feel this can really give a song life. I’m constantly thinking about different ways in which someone listen to a song of mine and immediately be transported into a different (hopefully better) mindset.
Photos by Brandon Coleman