Frank Catalano
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Frank Catalano


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"Sax in the Suburbs"

Sax in the Suburbs: The Strange –but true story of how Frank Catalano, a globe-trotting saxphone phenom, came to call the North Shore his adopted home.

By: Amber Holst

If you ask 28-year-old jazz prodigy Frank Catalano, the youngest saxophonist ever voted into the "Downbeat Critics Poll," when he knew he was going to dedicate his life to the sax, he'll tell you it was at age 17, shortly after he got himself kicked out of the Kenilworth Country Club.

This was, of course, before Catalano performed for audiences as Far away as China and recorded his fifth album, They Mighty Burner, which debuted at No.11 on Billboard's Top Jazz charts last May.

The "Kenilworth Club incident" occurred in 1996. A buddy Catalano had met - where else but at jazz camp - hooked him up with a wedding gig at the Club, which is where he received a fateful tap on the shoulder.

"I was playing a famous samba, and in the middle of my solo, this guy comes up on stage and taps me on the shoulder," Catalano says. "It's not like I was playing in the corner somewhere; I was on stage, It freaked me out."

Catalano says he tends to play with his eyes closed, so when he realized it wasn't one of his band mates it threw him for a loop. When the man did it a second time, Catalano, in the throes of his solo, lost it. "The guy had the nerve to ask me to play a samba - in the middle of my performing a samba," he says. "I was 17 and had a shorter fuse back then and basically told him if he did it again I'd toss him off the stage. Literally." Needless to say Catalano was asked by security to "mellow out" and never played another gig at the Club.

"I don't have a bad vibe about the place,” he says now. "I just think it's hilarious. That's the goofy thing about music, you need those Kenilworth experiences to really teach you how to handle yourself on stage. I've come a long way”. A long way indeed, considering that Catalano has already jammed with Charles Earland. Ira Sullivan, Tony Bennett and David Sanborn.

But his earliest gigs were on the North Shore. The buddy he met at camp, Mark Sommers, lived with his parents in Lake Forest, and since most of Catalano's sets were in that area, he regularly crashed there, making it his home base. "At the time, my Mom lived out in Hanover Park, and I just didn't feel like commuting," he says." So I sort of adopted the North Shore as my home.

What people don't realize, says Catalano, is that he's been playing pretty much full-time since he was 14, after buying his first sax, a Selmer Mark VI, with money he'd scraped together from neighborhood lawn-mower duties. "And while my coffeehouse gigs at Newport Coffeehouse in Bannockburn didn't pay much," he says, "it was the exposure and practice I gained during that time that really alowed me to hone my craft" and mend his wounds.

At 16, hours before a flight at O'Hare and a scheduled concert at the Grammys, Catalano cut off his middle finger while trying to fix the engine of his '72 Beettlee. "Yeah, not good for a sax player." he jokes.

After reconstructive surgery, Catalano had to re-learn his craft, but by 19, he was signed by the prestigious Delmark label and recorded his first solo album, Cut It Out. Now both a Yamaha and Vandoren spokesperson, Catalano hosts clinics throughout the country and has played for such commercial bigwigs as Volkswagen, Land Rover and Motorola. Despite his hectic schedule, Catalano still finds time to run the after-school jazz program at the Off the Street Club in Chicago's Garfield Park neighborhood and is the artist in residence at College of Lake County, teaching jazz and, of course, a few country club sambas.

- North Shore Magazine

"Chicago saxophonist Frank Catalano grows into his reputation"

More than a decade ago, a teenage Chicago saxophonist startled audiences with the rough-hewn brilliance and energy of his playing.
The question was whether he would build on the promise of his debut or simply fade away, as most prodigies do, whether he could find a way of turning the youthful ardor of his playing into something deeper and more distinctive.
Frank Catalano answered the question definitively over the weekend at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where he celebrated the release of a new recording and launched a lengthy run of Chicago appearances. Though he hasn't lost any of the fervency of his earliest performances, he now conveys an unmistakable intellectual heft and authority. More important, he sounds as if he's on the verge of forging a self-styled, autobiographical musical language.

For starters, it's essential to note the man's mastery of his instrument and its history. While some listeners might find Catalano's playing a tad overbearing or even histrionic, there's something to be said for a player who seeks to thunder -- and knows how to do so.

Catalano's gales of sound, in other words, are not mere bombast, for he packs ample melodic information, rhythmic complexity and musical development into his solos. Ultimately, it's the substance of what he plays that captures attention more than the heroic scale of his statements. That the 28-year-old musician can perform classic bebop, honking R&B, tender 1930s balladry and harmonically adventurous modernism with equal aplomb deepens the appeal of his work.

In a way, Catalano -- who will be playing late-night sets at the Mill for the next two months -- is following in the tradition of the great tenorist Ed Petersen, who played the club regularly until he moved to New Orleans in 1994. Petersen's galvanic solos attracted some of the most adventurous musicians in the city to his sessions and acquired near-legendary status.

Like Petersen, Catalano marries a Herculean sound to a mercurial technique. And though Catalano hasn't yet matched Petersen's level of artistic daring and harmonic invention (few players do), the younger musician clearly is headed in that direction.

During Catalano's Friday night set, he played so fast, so hard and with such heady abandon in "Mighty Burner" -- the title track of his new CD -- as to suggest he was about to careen into a musical syntax of his own making. The high-register squeals and barreling low notes he unleashed in "Burner's Blues" and the Ben Webster-inspired romanticism he evoked in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" attested to the breadth of his expression.

Backed by the mighty Willie Pickens on piano, Matt Thompson on bass and Rick Vitek on drums, Catalano asserted himself as one of the more formidable tenor players in a city crowded with them.

He's ready for prime time.

7/12/2006 - Chicago Tribune - Howard Reich

"Downbeat Magazine reviews the Mighty Burner"

Downbeat Magazine reviews the Mighty Burner

“. . .full throttle front and center, a modal rocker, that suggests John Coltrane energy in the 21st century. . .”

There is a heft to this tenor saxophonist’s sound that tells me he couldn’t say it any other way. Listen to the opener, the title track that places Frank Catalano’s full throttle front and center, a modal rocker that suggests John Coltrane energy in the 21st century. That meaty sound has been around since the 27-year-old started recording for Delmark as a college student.

The main soloist on this live album recorded at Chicago’s Green Mill and Edgewater Lounge clubs (the final track is a studio cut), Catalano uses Mighty Burner as a platform to just plain blow. I can’t remember the last time when I heard an album with only one soloist. Over the course of these six tracks, the method is a similar one: medium-tempo rockers with rhythm section in tow, a blues progression or simple one-chord sustain the framework. Think of it as a suite, a series of tunes that let us hear a bar-walkin’ honker, circa 2005. Apart from Catalano, it’s drummer Robert Gay who’s most prominent.

As if to tell listeners that that initial rock impulse wasn’t just a come-on, the followup “Love Bugaloo” serves as a nifty part two, this time as a blues, same tempo, same vibe, with tons of heart. Staying the course with no attempt to veer off it (there’s some duet work between Catalano and Gay on “Tuna Town”), the tenorist has a lot of nerve, and originality, for simply keeping it simple.

The funk starts to creep in on “God’s Love For Music” as Catalano brings on some electronic keyboard work, courtesy of Greg Spero, regular pianist Vijay Tellis-Nayak donning some keyboard work of his own in tandem with electric bassist Shawn Sommer on the closer.

-John Ephland, DOWNBEAT April 2006

Mighty Burner: Mighty Burner, Love Bugaloo, Tuna Town, Burner’s Blues, God’s Love For Music; Mighty Burner (Maurice Joshua Mix) Personnel: Frank Catalano, tenor saxophone; Vijay Tellis-Nayak, piano; Matt Thompson, Shawn Sommer (6), bass; Robert Gay, drums; Greg Spero, keyboards (5).


- DownBeat -John Ephland


Mighty Burner has been on the Billboard charts for over 20 weeks

Live at Green Mill (with Randy Brecker) 2004
You Talkin' to Me (with Von Freeman) 2000
Pins 'n' Needles 1999
Cut it Out 1998



Right place at the right time? Absolutely. Luck? Definitely. But after Frank Catalano stepped in for a no-show tenor sax during jazz organist Charles Earland's set at Andy's Jazz Club in Chicago (a club the then 17-year-old slick-talked his mother into taking him to) it wasnt luck that made him the youngest solo artist signed to the legendary Delmark label, a tour buddy of Tony Bennett, a U.S. Patent-holding sax innovator or the youngest saxophonist ever voted into the DOWNBEAT Critics Poll.

Catalano, who bought his first sax at 12 with the money he saved mowing lawns, is a member of a small, but exclusive club: young musicians who have experienced and worked with the greatness of people like Charles Earland, Tony Bennett, Von Freeman and Randy Brecker. At only 28, his experience --which includes a degree in classical composition from DePaul--fused with and a raw, natural talent create a saxophonist with missile-speed fingering and a unique styling that has attracted even the likes of Santana, whom he toured with at the ripe age of 18. Stars like John Legend, Jennifer Lopez and Destiny’s Child all have invited Catalano to contribute to some of the top albums of the past 12 months, including Maurice Joshua’s remix of John Legends Grammy award-winning song Ordinary People.

Luck works in strange ways. At 16, while messing around with the engine of a 72 Beetle in front of his mothers house, Catalano severed off his right, middle finger. A career ending move? It could have been. But after reconstructive surgery, Catalano forced his hands to relearn technique, skill and artistry. He triumphed a glistening musician and signed with Delmark to record his first solo album, Cut it Out with trumpeter Ira Sullivan at only 19.

Catalano's tinkering with machines has a more musical bent now. While recording with Ministry in 1999, Catalano was inspired by the bands use of sampling and engineered a unique sampling keyboard attachment for the saxophone. His device was patented on Dec. 11, 2001, coincidently on the two-year anniversary of his mentor Charles Earlands death.

Catalano's performances both live and recorded are electric. His Delmark solo albums include You Talkin to Me?!, which features a tandem tenor session with Von Freeman, and Live at The Green Mill with Randy Brecker on trumpet. Over the past ten years he also has worked with Louie Bellson, Tito Puente, David Sanborn, Betty Carter, John Medeski and DJ Logic.

Catalano's sax-man days began at age 10, after a local music store held an assembly at his school. He chose the sax because to his 5th grade eye "it looked cool and it only cost $4.00 a week to rent." Catalano believes that children come to music for as many reasons as there are children, and is committed to contributing to that process. A Chicago native, he volunteers for the Off the Street Club, running the after school jazz program, and is the artist in residence at College of Lake County.

Catalano is a busy man. His latest release on Bright Records, Mighty Burner, is due out in the U.S. on May 30. Overseas response to the recording has been hot and DOWNBEAT has referred to Catalano as full throttle front and center, a modal rocker that suggests John Coltrane energy in the 21st century."

He is a contributor to WBEZ Chicago and recently participated in the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) in New York, where he conducted a clinic on "Sax and Drums." Frank can be heard regularly at Chicago’s Green Mill. Catalano is a spokesperson and performing artist for Yamaha and Rico and is featured in their international advertising programs.

If you ask Catalano when and how he knew that music and the saxophone were going to be his life, hell pause, and then hell tell you, "Around 17, I guess. People just kept saying that this is where I should be. I was already making a living as a sax player by then. It’s what I do." Lucky thing, for us.