It’s remarkable that The Prescription marks only the second album as a leader for Lenny Pickett, the renowned tenor saxophonist and E-flat clarinetist who was a seminal horn- section member of the pop/funk band Tower of Power from 1972-1981, and has been a member of the Saturday Night Live band since 1985 and its musical director since 1995. A longtime session musician and arranger who has worked with a wide range of artists from David Bowie and Elton John to David Byrne and Katy Perry, Pickett’s singular instrumental voice is unmistakable. As arranger Rich Shemaria attests: “He’s worked with everyone and he’s an original. When you hear him playing on the radio, there’s no mistaking who this is.”
A 10-song collection of Pickett rowdy-to-waltzing originals, a robust rendition of the TOP hit, “What Is Hip,” and the whimsical Shemaria tune “A Sad State of Affairs,” The Prescription, released by the adventurous Random Act Recordslabel, is a superb collaboration with the Finnish 19-piece big band, UMO Jazz Orchestra. “This is a unique project that has artsy elements as well slow blues, up-tempo swing, funk and eclectic music in the mix—it’s hard to categorize what this album is,” Pickett says. “But it’s got the spirit of all the musicians involved, and Rich is an extraordinary musical arranger.”
At the heart of the album is Pickett’s six-octave saxophone playing with his unique sense of phrasing and articulation. A member of the UMO band, alto saxophonist Jouni Järvelä, calls him “an unusual sax and wind player superman with extraordinary skills and ideas— one who could do anything on the horn and in the score…And, of course, when talking about Lenny, you have to mention his ultra-high notes…they’re never a gimmick or a device to boost ego—like the stratospheric displays of too many trumpeters and saxophonists. Rather, Lenny is utterly jubilant or irresistibly volcanic.”
The Prescription opens with the slow 12/8 blues that Pickett originally wrote for a two- minute SNL commercial break. Shemaria slowed the tempo and now ”you can drive a truck through the solo breaks,” Pickett writes in the liners. His solo in the altissimo register is an ear-opener. Another SNL-derived tune is the title track, which is a roller coaster of expression that opens and closes with a funky guitar riff, and that also features rollicking horn section action.
On the whimsical “Alex Foster” (the name of Pickett’s saxophone-playing friend), Järvelä takes the first alto sax solo with Pickett’s signature E-flat clarinet break coming toward the end when the group is into a full-on swing. It’s one of Järvelä’s favorite tunes. He says the tune “has a combination of external simplicity, singable blues phrases and even some marching band sounds…in a very upbeat atmosphere.”
“XV,” a piece Pickett wrote in the ‘90s for a local access cable series (Jim Staley’s Roulette TV), starts off in the slow-tempo, soulful zone before it kicks wide open into a romp with Pickett’s wild, whinnying tenor leading the way. Another piece from the series, the laid- back, sunny “XVII,” is arranged by Pickett; it is reminiscent of Al Green and includes what the saxophonist calls “a John Cage moment” (read: a moment of silence) and tenor screams. The beauty of the batch, “Kathy,” is a soul ballad Pickett wrote for his wife. He explains its structure in the liners: “It has some odd metered bars, and it modulates between two unrelated keys.”
Other highlights include the rowdy and ripping “The Big Wiggle” with a killer Pickett tenor cadenza and “UMO,” a tempo-shifting piece Pickett wrote (and arranged) while he was imagining what the Finnish winter would be like prior to his first visit. Shemaria’s humorous—even comic—composition, “A Sad State of Affairs” is a playful tune that changes gears and ends with a band member’s guffaw. The arranger/conductor explains it in the liners: “It’s a kind of clunky, falling-down-the-stairs waltz. The opening volley by the snare drum and brass announces the arrival of an inept, bureaucratic politico (or perhaps the town drunk). With his unique approach, nobody can make the E-flat clarinet speak like Lenny, and, for this piece, I had his sound in my head every step of the way.”
The album finale is the rousing, buoyant, funny and funkified Pickett arrangement of arguably his former band’s biggest hit, “What Is Hip?” He had reorchestrated the piece for his SNL band and later for an Emmy Awards show in 1988. In the liners, Pickett writes: “I think my TOP brothers would enjoy the results.”
Also in The Prescription liners, Pickett thanked his collaborators, and noted, “I never imagined that I would make a big band jazz album, and I am fortunate to have been able to work with such a gathering of experts in the craft.” He added, “This recording is the result of a series of random circumstances.”
Indeed, the project, championed by Pickett devotee Järvelä, traces its genesis back to 1994-96 when Shemaria served as the UMO Jazz Orchestra’s conductor and artistic director. The story continues in the early 2000s when Shemaria was hired by the New York University jazz department chair Dave Schrouder to be the big band director. Seeking to bolster the department’s staff with top-notch artists, Schrouder also enlisted Pickett in 2004 to be a member of the faculty. The next year Shemaria listened to some of Pickett’s music (some from his 1987 avant-oriented album, Lenny Pickett and the Borneo Horns, and other tunes he had written for various projects and SNL) and asked him if he could reorchestrate some of the tunes for a school band concert.
The show was a hit and got to the attention of Järvelä, who was still in contact with the former UMO conductor. After a long search, he had finally found the link to Pickett. “I knew Lenny’s playing from his record with Borneo Horns and from a couple of Tower of Power records,” says Järvelä. “Many of his exceptional qualities were observable from listening to a handful of tracks, like the long solo on ‘Knock Yourself Out.’”
Given that Shemaria had already written arrangements—and Pickett had written some of his own—Järvelä worked to get the pair to come to Helsinki to perform with UMO, getting Shemaria a commission to work up six more arrangements of Pickett’s music. “Jouni tracked me down and was so persistent,” says Pickett. ”He was the person who made this whole project happen. The way the musicians in UMO enveloped my music, it was a lovely embrace of the concepts I had in my compositions. That was the payoff. They lent their expertise to my imagination. They had a fondness for all the different styles and genres of music and didn’t want to pigeonhole jazz. That made this all worth the effort.”
Pickett played with UMO in Helsinki in February 2006. “It was a huge success,” says Shemaria. “There was a big press presence, so we thought the next logical step would be to record.”
Pickett and Shemaria were asked back two years later to do six weeks of workshops in Finland and also perform at the Pori Jazz Festival (ironically opening for Tower of Power). However, it wasn’t until 2012 that Pickett and UMO recorded over a three-day period (July 9-11) at E-Studio, a ‘70s-style vintage recording studio in Helsinki. “It was such an enjoyable experience,” says Jouni. “We were prepared; we had rehearsed really well, and most of the band had played the music a couple of times in concert. Everyone was exceptionally motivated…There was sense of mission and everything flowed…When Lenny plays a take…he gives all to every note and that attitude is contagious.”
Scott Elias, Random Act Records’ chief, and a feature film producer, met Pickett through SNL band member Ron Blake. “I’d always loved Lenny’s playing as a fan,” Elias says. “Through Ron I contacted him. He was moved that I approached him. I told him, it’s criminal that you have only one album.” Though they agreed to talk about a future album, Pickett had already recorded the UMO project, which he presented to Random Acts. “I thought, the band is state subsidized, and I expected to hear a European adoption of jazz,” says Elias. “But I was astonished by how UMO played with aplomb and swung! The band is distinctively keeping the American jazz tradition alive. And well.”
While Elias would love to bring UMO to the U.S. despite the economical difficulty in touring a big band, Järvelä says that The Prescription session itself has been the crowning achievement. “It was about time to bring Lenny’s mastery in focus, in his prime and in length and detail.” he says. ”He is a master musician and instrumentalist, and his playing and music will be valid a hundred years from now like the other great jazz tenors.”