Nick Zoulek’s music for saxophone alone has the sound of togetherness


BG Independent News

Nick Zoulek’s music for solo saxophone involves working with many people.

The saxophonist-composer builds his work on collaborations with dancers, artists and filmmakers. From those collaborations grew the music that will appear on his first CD, “Rushing Past Willow.’ The recording of his original compositions for solo saxophone will be released on the Innova label later this summer. Videos of some of the pieces can be seen on

While the recording will be music only, Zoulek, a student in the Doctor in Musical Arts in Contemporary Music program at Bowling Green State University, wanted to capture the passion that led to the creative process.

The videos juxtapose the sound of Zoulek’s saxophones, alto, tenor, and the elephantine bass, with images of light sculpture by Erwin Redl, animation by John Simmons, who works under the name Simsies, and dancers.

“The music came first,” Zoulek said in a recent interview. “But it was inspired through so many visual memories, so many collaborations and improvisations, I wanted to capture those moments.”

The compositions all grew from the practice of improvising that has been a central part of Zoulek’s playing dating back to his lessons in high school. He remembers that toward the end of his lesson his teacher would pick up his saxophone or sit at the piano and just say “here we go.”

“I didn’t realize that was unusual,” Zoulek said. “I was very fortunate to have had teachers who were well versed in free improvisation and at the same time the classical and jazz traditions.”

As a student of jazz, he learned “bebop change running” and transcribed solos by jazz masters, and played jazz gigs throughout his undergraduate studies.

Zoulek, 28, grew up in Menomonee Falls near Milwaukee. His family was not musical. His father worked in the family heating and plumbing business and was assistant fire chief, and his mother worked in health care. “Just a hard working family,” he said. “That’s something I’ve always admired.” His brother, Tim, is an artist and one of his collaborators.

Zoulek was exposed to the avant garde fringes of jazz early on. As a junior high student, he was searching the local library’s collection for recordings of saxophone and came across Anthony Braxton’s seminal solo recording “For Alto.”

“At first didn’t understand it,” he said. But still he found it “cool and interesting.” The record is a compendium of extreme saxophone sounds — growls, squeaks, wails — called extended techniques.

He also discovered those saxophonists who came after Braxton, Ned Rothenberg and John Zorn. Later at a local record store known for its quirky stock, he discovered “Visions in Metaphor” by John Sampen, now his teacher at BGSU.

Hearing that as well as the instruction from Matt Sintchak, his teacher at University of Wisconsin Whitewater, encouraged Zoulek to pursue the adventurous path he was headed down. “Somewhere mixed with improvisation, a classical background and multimedia, that’s where all this comes from.”

At first, he said, he sought to imitate Braxton and other saxophonists. “The sound really resonated within me. … If you play it so long, it becomes part of you, and your identity becomes invested in these songs.”

In high school, he began to work on mastering the technique of circular breathing. This allows a horn player to play seemingly endless lines without taking a breath. Really what they are doing is storing air in their cheeks, which become “a secondary pair of lungs,” then squeezing it out while taking more air in through their noses.

The technique took years to master. “Even two years ago I couldn’t do it for two minutes without turning into a sweaty mess.”

Now circular breathing is an essential element of his work. “You really have to be in shape to do it,” Zoulek said. “It takes a different kind of concentration. It becomes meditative. You have to invest your full self. Your identity, your memories, your reflections go into this.”

He continued: “Saxophone has a long tradition of using extended techniques even from beginning. … Some people might coin it as a novelty, but it’s an expressive language. There are sounds that the horn naturally makes, idiomatic sounds. … These are the sounds the instrument does naturally, and it’s just a matter of mixing those sounds with other tools like circular breathing.”

Zoulek studied in France from 2011–2013. “That’s when the classical thing really took the reins,” he said.

The European approach to improvisation is different from the more jazz-oriented American approach, he said. He remembered a workshop with French bassist, vocalist and composer Joelle Leandre. The room was full of people of varying levels of instrumental proficiency. All were interested in improvisation, Zoulek said.

Leandre had musicians, who’d never met before, go up on stage and improvise together. It was an exercise in communication, Zoulek said.

“As human beings we read social cues and body language,” he said. “What’s beautiful about improvisation is you’re working within that cultural syntax. We call it free improvisation, but it’s really not free at all. … It works within those confines of those cultural traditions.”

For Zoulek, improvising is as crucial a part of his practice routine as playing long tones. “With every piece I learn, there’s a period where I try to improvise in the style of the piece. I think it helps you capture the style of it.”

Zoulek mined the material from his improvisations to create the compositions for “Rushing Past Willow.” They are intense structures, relentless as they work through the permutations of the material. He shapes the fragments like a jeweler cutting a diamond.

“Some of them are incredibly strict and written out,” he said of the compositions. Others are mobile “cells” of notes that give the performer flexibility as to how to play them. He using different forms of notation and “ways of navigating.”

“There’s certain element of freedom, which is important given where they’ve come from,” Zoulek said.

Originally he considered self-releasing the session, and set up concerts including an April show at the ClaZel in Bowling Green to coincide with the release. But others advised him to offer it to record labels to see if there may be interest. One was Innova, home to many of the artists he admires and who inspired him. The label “felt like a natural home.”

The label set the Aug. 28 release date. In the meantime, Zoulek wanted to post the videos to celebrate the forthcoming release. He’s also performing a number of concerts, often with those he’s collaborated with over the years.

He’s hoping a fall concert marking the release of “Rushing Past Willow” will include a live performance with the dance troupe he worked with at Lawrence University.

In April, he performed with several of the videos projected behind him.

He sees “Rushing Past Willow” as an ongoing project with more music to come. He also plans to record an album featuring compositions by others.

And at some point other saxophonists will have the chance to perform his pieces. They will be published, he said, in conjunction with the CD release.

“There’s a line of people excited to play them,” Zoulek said. The prospect of hearing someone else playing promises to be “a beautiful experience, but one I’m a little bit frightened by.”

“These things are so personal,” Zoulek said. “My hope is they’ll find something of themselves to put into it.”

(Originally published on

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