San Jose jazz saxophonist Oscar Pangilinan is turning heads. He’s continuing the tradition of jazz jams at Hotel De Anza’s Hedley Club Lounge after long-time friend Hristo Vitchev recently passed the torch. He just wrapped up studio work on two jazz albums to be released this fall and he’s putting the wheels in motion for recording his debut album.
Pangilinan is the offspring of engineers and almost went down the same path until a fateful encounter with the saxophone solidified his future and passion in music.
I caught up with him to find out more about his musical background and influences, his recent studio work, and why he thinks Silicon Valley is pushing jazz in new directions.
Was there a moment when you decided you wanted to be a musician?
I’ve always loved playing music. I grew up here in the east side of San Jose and the music programs in school were the only way I could get extracurricular activities since the sports programs were being cut back. I started playing clarinet and as soon as I picked it up, I thought, “Man, this is awesome.” I stuck with it.
For a while in high school I was pursuing an engineering education and I dropped music for about three years. I picked it back up when I was called in on a musical my junior year. One of my friends had passed my name to the musical director. As soon as I came in to the rehearsal, I knew right then and there that the saxophone was for me and that music was what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play saxophone primarily, but I also play clarinet and flute. I play in a lot of big bands in the area. I’ve played in A Touch of Brass, the professional big band down in south San Jose, and I’ve also played with the Daddios in Cupertino at De Anza College.
Between those two bands, I found out the higher you get in music, the more versatility you need to have as a player. I picked up the clarinet and flute again for the times that need something other than a saxophone. You take an instrument like the clarinet and then you come back to it years later with a new perspective, you start thinking about things like sound and tone, you notice different things.
How would you describe your style of music to somebody who hasn’t heard you play?
I play mostly straight-ahead jazz, which is jazz from the late ‘30s to about 1945. In this day and age, as a musician, you can’t just stick to one genre. I also play a variety of styles like top 40, R&B, funk, whatever the situation calls for. My heart and soul are really into straight-ahead jazz so whenever I book gigs with my own quartet [with Brian Ho on piano, Fred Paclibon on bass and Sutton Marley on drums], I tend to stick to that genre because it’s what I know and love and grew up with.
Where’s your favorite place to play?
I really like the Hedley Club Lounge for a lot of different reasons. I’ve performed there with my own groups and other groups. I like the allure, the ambiance, it’s got a lounge feel, kind of like an old jazz club. The reason I love it is it’s probably the only real South Bay jazz performance venue around here.
But now there’s also singlebarrel down in the SoFA district, it’s got that cool speakeasy vibe where you go down these dark steps with a low ceiling like you’re in a basement. And a little further south, Morgan Hill has D’Vine Jazz and Wine that just opened up a year ago, really nice venue.
Who are some of the musicians that inspire you?
My biggest inspiration comes from Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. Rollins’ body of work impresses me. He’s one of those players who plays with a lot of feeling and a lot of soul. One of the first jazz albums I ever
listened to was a Sonny Rollins album, “Saxophone Colossus.” I just remember listening to it the first time going “Man, this guy’s awesome.” Just something in his sound and in his presence.
Same thing for Dexter Gordon in the film “‘Round Midnight.” Gordon has great lyrical ideas when he plays. Rollins is the more technical player but Gordon had this way of commanding your ear and playing songs you’d hear all the time but in a different way. I tend to model my playing and my sound after those two musicians. Sound and feel are the two most important things.
Have you done a studio album yet or are you planning one?
I met this organ player Brian Ho and we’ve been playing a lot together. He just put together a studio album we recorded at the Open Path studio in Willow Glen with Lorca Hart (son of Billy Hart who played with Herbie Hancock) on drums and Calvin Keys on guitar. It’s actually in post-production right now and should be out soon. It’s called “Organic” and it’s going to be Brian Ho’s debut album.
We only did three covers: “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Song for My Father” and a jazzed-up version of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” All the rest are Brian Ho originals. Brian’s a great writer. One of the reasons I like working with him is his creativity that just flows out of him. We’ve gravitated toward each other; a lot of the ideas that he has tend to inspire me and vice versa.
I also just laid down some tracks with the De Anza Daddios. We did an album of big band charts that have never been recorded before. These are songs that a lot of big bands have played but none of them have ever been recorded for a real album. One of them is an early arrangement by Gordon Goodwin, the guy who won a Grammy for his music on “The Incredibles.” It should be out soon. I started playing with the Daddios around 2005 in their student band for about three years and I’ve been playing in their professional band since then.
When are your next few upcoming shows?
I run the jazz jam at the Hedley Club Lounge every first and third Wednesday every month. I coordinate with John Worley, a great trumpet player in the area. We bring together South Bay jazz musicians for jam sessions and “battle royales.” The caliber of musicians here is great, even if it’s a little underground. I inherited the jazz jam from Hristo Vitchev. We worked together for a few years and he’s just a killer guitar player.
What do you like best about San Jose?
I’m a big tech geek so I really dig that so many people here are on the cutting edge of technology. I chat with some friends online who have moved away. I caught up with an old friend when I got my new Droid X and he said everyone in his town is still on flip phones.
My parents used to work for LSI Logic. They would sometimes bring me to their office and I thought it was so cool that all this technology was being born right here. We got Apple and all the tech companies based here. I like being able to say that I’ve been to the Google, Yahoo and eBay headquarters.
Is there a parallel for you with tech innovation and jazz music?
Definitely. I’ve found that a lot of engineers play music on the side. I’ve played alongside guys that work for Apple and Yahoo that are involved in cool projects like the iTunes and GarageBand software. It’s cool because sometimes they’ll ask for my input on what I would look for in recording software that they sell around the world.
In my opinion, the Bay Area and New York are the only two places really incorporating new technology in music. For example, Wally Schnalle, a local drummer who writes for DRUM! Magazine, he just premiered his new project group, Wally Schnalle and Idiot Fish. He’s got an Apple laptop hooked up to an electronic drum pad hooked up to an acoustic kit with MIDI synthesizers on the side. The whole thing looks like a spaceship. It inspired me to explore more electronic music and how to bring it into jazz.