When Walt Weiskopf first formed what would become known as his European Quartet in 2017, he had no reason to expect it would last. But it didn’t take long for Weiskopf, a veteran of many European tours, to form a strong bond with his gifted bandmates—and be thankful of their dedicated efforts to “get me over there.” As reflected by the European Quartet’s terrific new album, Diamonds and Other Jewels, that bond has gotten only stronger.
The band, featuring pianist Carl Winther, bassist Andreas Lang, and drummer Anders Mogensen, all Danish stalwarts, has become his “home” unit—the one he returns to from his long-term role as a cog in the Steely Dan band.
For Weiskopf, whose tenor playing combines the earthy power and invention of his heroes John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins with an easy, vocal-like delivery all his own, Diamonds and Other Jewels represented a long-awaited return to the recording studio. Like many working musicians, his opportunities to perform and record were limited in the Covid era.
As he writes in his liner notes, he and his bandmates were as geared up to perform again as “broncos ready to bust from the pen” when they returned to the road in 2022. He says he had no plans of returning to the studio when they began the tour. But after writing new songs during a train ride from Belgium to Germany and adding them to previously written ones, he had enough strong material for an album. The excellent Tonart Studio in Köln, Germany, became available. And thus, Diamonds and Other Jewels was born.
The tunes are all Weiskopf originals, except for a heartfelt rendition of the great standard, “My Old Flame,” recorded as a tribute to his longtime friend, colleague, and mentor, Andy Fusco, who died in 2021.
“I generally avoid playing iconic ballads,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have dared to record this one. But I’ve played it enough over the years to feel comfortable with it, and I thought it would be a nice tribute to Andy. I learned so much from him, and this tune was one of his favorites.”
True to its title, Diamonds and Other Jewels includes a variety of “gems,” including the blues-lifted “Black Diamond,” and “Blood Diamond,” a piercing statement on man’s inhumanity to man. That song and the cutting, hard-driving “Spartacus” are rooted in his interest in Roman history. “Incantation” is his freewheeling adaptation of the jazz classic, “Invitation.”
And then there’s “Thad Nation,” an alternately pensive and robust tribute to the great trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Thad Jones. “I was introduced to Thad’s work when I was very young, but I didn’t understand it at all,” says Weiskopf, who would go on to play sporadically in the legendary Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra at New York’s Village Vanguard. “I was constantly amazed by Thad’s writing and orchestration. Over time, I felt a connection to Thad’s music in a lot of ways.”
Walt Weiskopf was born in Augusta, Georgia on July 30, 1959, and grew up outside of Syracuse, New York. His father, a physician by profession, was also a serious classical pianist. Both Walt and his younger brother and pianist Joel Weiskopf were classically trained, but both made a name for themselves in their twenties in legendary big bands (their first professional gigs of note)—Walt as a saxophonist with Buddy Rich in 1981-82 and Joel as a pianist with Woody Herman in 1983-84.
“I don’t remember how I got the idea to get into jazz,” says Walt, whose early musical interests were not so much piqued by the more commercial-leaning Al Hirt and Herb Alpert records his mother would bring home. “That music is not what spoke to me at the time, but I didn’t know how to describe what did.
“I was maybe thirteen when I first heard Miles Ahead by Miles Davis +19,” the trumpeter’s historic first collaboration with Gil Evans. His head already full of the sounds of Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, and John Coltrane, he began working on jazz in earnest at age 14 and never looked back. At 16, he began playing alto saxophone in a local big band alongside the great tenorist J.R. Monterose, who became his first mentor.
Walt subsequently attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he acquired a B.A. After moving to New York in 1980 and making a name for himself in jam sessions, he was drafted into the Buddy Rich Big Band, to replace his friend, tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama. Having moved to New York with just his alto, Weiskopf bought his first tenor saxophone for the gig with Buddy.
In 1983, Weiskopf began a 14-year association with Toshiko Akiyoshi, touring and recording with her jazz orchestra and small group. In the late ’80s, he began playing with and writing for his first quartet including his brother Joel, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Jeff Hirshfield. In 1989, he released his first album as a leader, Exact Science, with that band.
Weiskopf’s sextet album Simplicity (1992), featuring Conrad Herwig, Andy Fusco, Joel Weiskopf, Peter Washington, and Billy Drummond, began a long association with Criss Cross Jazz, for whom the saxophonist released 11 albums including Song for My Mother, Sight to Sound, and Man of Many Colors. Brad Mehldau, Jim Snidero, and John Patitucci were among his other distinguished sidemen. More recently, Weiskopf enjoyed a brief run of standout albums on Posi-Tone, including Overdrive and The Way You Say It, the unique instrumentation of which includes organist Brian Charette and vibraphonist Behn Gillece.
The self-titled debut of the European Quartet, recorded in 2017, drew high acclaim. In JazzTimes, critic Bill Milkowski tagged Weiskopf “a monster tenor saxophonist as well as a prolific composer and accomplished arranger.” While that album featured only two compositions by the leader, the count grew over succeeding recordings including Worldwide, a travel-themed album including “Back in Brazil,” “Back in Japan,” “Russian Roulette,” and “Entebbe.”
“I was looking for a thematic approach,” he recalls. He had written and performed “Scottish Folk Song” during the late 2000s, as documented on a live album featuring Renee Rosnes on piano. Thoughts of recording it again brought other “road” tunes he had written to mind, as well as ideas for new ones. He topped off the album with Tadd Dameron’s “Soultrane” and Quincy Jones’s “Theme from The Pawnbroker.”
The European Quartet’s subsequent albums include Introspection and Introspection 2.0, both of which mix originals and standards. In 2021, the band also released a three-song Christmas EP, A Little Christmas Music.
As outstanding as this output and all of Weiskopf’s efforts as a sideman are (he is especially great on Billy Drummond’sDubai), Weiskopf is best known to many fans for his work with Steely Dan over the past 20 years—before and after the untimely passing of its genius co-founder Walter Becker in 2017.
For Weiskopf, the Steely Dan gig has never been a matter of dressing up songs with flashy solos—the role many jazz musicians have played in pop settings. “Both Walter and Donald [co-leader Fagen] were jazz fans from the get-go and approached the jazz aspects of their music with that mentality,” he says. “I never had any pushback from Donald and Walter along the lines of ‘play more inside.’ It’s really more like playing in a big band than a pop band. A lot of their music is about blending in with a section as much as it is contributing solos. My big band experience helped a lot.”
Weiskopf also performed with Fagen on the “Dukes of September” tour and PBS broadcast with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. And, in another world entirely, he played in the orchestras of Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra, Jr. “Playing with Sinatra was such an inspiration,” he says. “Hearing melodies sung in a way that a horn player would play them, I learned so much. I think so many jazz musicians have been inspired by Sinatra.”
Another important aspect of Weiskopf’s career has been jazz education. He has taught at numerous schools including the Eastman School of Music, Temple University, New Jersey City University (where he was Coordinator of Jazz Studies), and the New School. His numerous books include Intervalic Improvisation, Around the Horn, and Understanding the Diminished Scale published by Jamey Aebersold, whose Summer Jazz Workshops Weiskopf has been part of since 1991.
After nearly 40 years in New York and New Jersey, Weiskopf and his wife Marcie moved to Virginia, where she is originally from. “I had a great time in New York,” he says. “But it was a good move in that I was able to retire from teaching and working commercially. It enabled me to focus more on practicing and composing. Things have worked out just the way I wanted them to.” •
Walt Weiskopf European Quartet: Diamonds and Other Jewels
Street Date: August 19, 2022