Born into the sonic assault and excitement of Brooklyn, NY, Cal Payne first expressed his passionate love of music as a vocalist at age 4. However, the jarring effects of adolescence made singing a frustrating challenge, and he became drawn to express himself as an instrumental player. Clarinet first occupied his hands at age 12, and then tenor saxophone at 14 and alto sax several years later. Keyboards joined his already impressive collection of skills at 18, with bass guitar and soprano saxophone not far behind. As his skills and talent grew, so did his passion and instinct, and from a young age it was clear that he was a thoughtful and passionate musician.
Among several qualities that distinguished him then, and continue to set him apart now, is a fascinating hybrid of technique and style due to his never having taken formal music lessons. The unique optimism and perception of music that is found in self-taught players marks his approach to music with an attention to what music can do and how many ways it can be approached. The result is a bold and unconventional improvisation style that goes for the guts and doesn’t hold back or play it safe, yet not at the cost of his connection with his audience. His performances are known to be accessible and evocative for the listeners while complex and challenging for those who seek to learn and perform with him.
After several years of developing and sharing his music in live performance, Cal Payne has set his sound down on record in The Cal Payne Project. This debut album presents the energy and vision of Payne’s fusion sound and certifies his credentials as a tireless, impeccable performer. The Cal Payne Project features a diverse group of musicians who have been playing with Payne since 2004, including his long-time musical partners Steve Crumpton on bass guitar and Michael Burke on acoustic and electric guitars, and with drums/percussion from Mark Manczuk and piano/keyboards from Jerome Korman. Together they literally played through the storm, blazing through their recording sessions amidst the dead of Winter snow storms at Bennett Studios in Englewood, New Jersey under the guidance of multiple Grammy Award-winner Dae Bennett. Son of the legend Tony Bennett, Dae’s credits include his father’s recent Christmas album and comedian/banjo aficionado Steve Martin’s 2009 Grammy Award-winning bluegrass album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. The strength of this exceptional creative team and Payne’s innovative composition and improvisation style made The Cal Payne Project a striking debut.
Now with The Cal Payne Project released, he has his sights set on the stage, and on his future, from his home base of New York City. Whether on record or in live performance, Cal Payne is a singular musical experience. Not only singular in being inventive and open to the possibilities of how music might inhabit a moment, but singular in focus. Singular in intent. There is one reality there, one truth. Cal Payne really is all about the music.
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft, Cal.
I've loved music since I was very young and was singing as early as 4 years old. I started playing clarinet at age 12 and moved to sax in high school at age 14. I took to the instrument immediately and never looked back. I added keyboards and bass to the mix at age 18. So there was never a seminal moment that pointed me in this direction. Technically speaking, I've been doing this all my life, even before I made the conscious decision to do this as a career.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
I love to travel, spend time with my wife, and I'm an avid runner (just ran the NYC Marathon on November 7 of last year!). However, playing sax is probably the number one thing for me. Playing both relaxes and energizes me. It is when I think I'm at my best. It doesn't matter if I'm playing with my band or sitting in with others and it doesn't matter the style of music as long as it "moves" me.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
There are numerous challenges, but I think the greatest is promotion... finding your audience and getting the word out to as many of them as you can. I think many artists have problems with the "business" side. It's always been difficult for me as an artist to view my music and band in "product marketing" terms. How do you place a price tag on something that inspires or touches the soul? The very notion is contradictory but necessary. Fortunately, my wife (manager of my band and love of my life) deals with the product marketing end which helps A LOT.
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
The funny thing is that I really had no idea what I wanted to be when I was young. It was something I actually struggled with for some time. I was always a good student but I didn't really have a passion for anything except music, which doesn't really fit into the standard career paradigm. I developed an interest in biology in high school and decided that pre-med made the most sense. So I studied pre-med biology in college until I came to my senses and realized that I was really a musician.
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY, but I've always been drawn to Manhattan as well because of its diversity and creativity. I didn't grow up in a musical family, but I've been surrounded by the sights and sounds of New York throughout my life. Whether it was checking out bands of all levels in the Village, jamming with musicians at numerous spots throughout the city, or gigging with my band, New York has always provided an endless source of both inspiration and learning for me.
What other artists out there do you love?
I listen to numerous styles of music including Jazz, R&B, Rap/Hip Hop, Rock and Classical. A short list of artists I love would be Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Return to Forever, Al Di Meola, Grover Washington Jr., Stevie Wonder, Sade, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius to name a few.
What does your future hold?
The goal is to reach out to as many people as possible and turn them on to what we're doing and what we're all about. For now, we've focused our gigging to the NY tri-state area but I would love to expand to a national audience and perhaps Europe as well.
We're also talking about doing a live album to compliment the studio CD ("The Cal Payne Project") which we have just released.