The Argonaut, Marina del Rey
August 25, 1994
Saxist Sonya Jason is on the rise
Some say you are known by the company you keep. Venice resident Sonya Jason keeps some great company.
At a recent installment of her regular gig at Joseph's Restaurant & Lounge Wednesday nights, a backup vocalist for singer Luther Vandross was in the audience. Jason, an aggressive pop/jazz/funk sax player, invited the singer onto the stage for an impromptu jam session, and the resulting soulfest carried the performance right through to the end of the show.
Or, check out who Jason has playing for her this night. James Raymond (keyboards) plays for world-renowned saxophonist Tom Scott. Bassist Ernest Tibbs plays with velvet-voiced James Ingram. And drummer Trevor Lawrence played with Dizzy Gillespie.
Or know that she just opened a San Francisco concert for rhythm and blues crooner Bobby Caldwell, who had the hit "What You Won't Do for Love" back in the 1970s, before it was covered a few years ago by Go West.
The aforementioned players aren't always her band mates. But her aggressive but not harsh wailing, her musical intelligence and her innate sense of a song's ebb-and-flow draws some of the best talent in town to accompany her during her six gigs a week. If you're a good backup player, you gravitate to where the heat is, where there's a rising talent in the complicated and humbling music business. You go to Sonya Jason.
Jason, a Midwest native and current Venice resident, is about a year into her second release (and first label CD) "Tigress." At Joseph's, she's putting together and sharpening material for a second release on Discovery Records, revisiting songs from previous releases and covering some standards.
The unique thing about Jason is not that she's a formidable player of the alto, soprano and sopranino saxes -- that's expected in this day and age for up-and-comers -- but she writes and arranges, too. And her songs are more than a few chord changes meant to support endless noodling. She writes complete songs, melodically driven and harmonically complex. Yet still accessible.
"I studied the piano for 9 years (ages 4 to 13)," she says during a break at Joseph's. "I didn't start playing the sax until I was ten.
"Sometimes I work out the chords on the piano and then write a melody to fit. And sometimes I just improvise on the sax until I hear a melody. I can approach it from either direction, and they create different-sounding songs.
"But the most important thing in performing is finding the climax to a solo, to a song, to a set. You can play forever, but it might not get you anywhere. So you have to find that climax.
"I learned how to do that by listening to Barbra Streisand," she continues. "She puts a lot of soul into her songs. She has a great concept -- she treats each song as if it were a three-act play. That's what I try to do, too.
"I try not to solo for too long, and the band doesn't compete with me. I think you start to lose an audience when you don't get to the point."
For her next release, she's actually simplifying her songwriting, at least a little.
"If you listen to what instrumental music is on the radio, you'll hear just a few chords," she explains. "Kenny G. uses just a few, and Candy Dulfer does the same. That can be pretty, but it's a lot less than I'm used to. But I'll try it."
Her saxophone idols are some well-known talents -- Gato Barbieri, Phil Woods, David Sanborn, and while studying the sax at Boston's famed Berklee College of Music, the late Charlie Parker.
But the entertainment part of her life she learned on the street.
"I would recommend to anyone to go to school to learn their craft," she says. "They told me that I would see the difference ten years down the line between me and those that didn't go to music school. Ten years down the line, they were right.
"Still, there are things you can only learn by doing. Since my music is instrumental, I think it's important to talk to an audience between songs. But when I started, I was awkward. What makes an audience uncomfortable is seeing that you're uncomfortable.
"I learned that it doesn't matter what you say to them, as long as you say something. You really need to reach out, and generally they'll like you for it."
That's a necessary skill for a musician to master on the way up. "Tigress" has received international airplay, and she's been reviewed positively in Variety, Jazziz and Downbeat. She plays six nights a week and continues to improve.
"I was playing in a Top-40 bar band in Phoenix a few years ago, and I looked around and said, 'I don't want to be here in ten years.' So I self-produced my own tape, worked on my songwriting and moved to Los Angeles three years ago.
"Within my first six months I had interest from recording labels," she recounts. "After a year I had my first contract (with Discovery Records). After two years I'd played all the hot clubs in town and had my first major record.
"I'm a very achievement-oriented person, but (my career) never goes along as fast as I wished it did," she says.
"There are no guarantees. But still, I'd rather do this than sell shoes."