By A.D. Amorosi
When it comes to the tradition of innovative Philadelphia tenor saxophonist-composers, Odean Pope is heavenly-high atop that list. Growing up, competitively, in the same North Philly neighborhoods where Benny Golson and John Coltrane lived would have that effect on any artist: it did Pope as he’s always fed his need for constant invention and metamorphosis, playing and writing albums of post-Bop, hard funk, avant-garde, saxophone choir soliloquies and Modern Creative sounds throughout his long career. He’s made daring and varied shifts in his career and his aesthetic even when staying still and repeating himself would’ve made more money. “I love all music, hearing it and playing it,” he said with gusto. “It’s a lot of hard work and discipline—the Creator allows me to pursue all of these configurations.”
Going on 82 years of age, and readying to release a new album, Pope isn’t about to give up the gauntlet any time soon. And Philadelphia is always at the forefront of everything he is and does.
“My parents moved us from South Carolina and brought me here when I was a child,” said Pope of his roots. “I was inspired first by the big Baptist church where my mother was the choir director. It was mandatory that we spoke up, be part of the experience. Then came the inspiration of living in a neighborhood of extraordinary musicians like Coltrane, Johnny Coles, Sonny Fortune, and Lee Morgan. Benny Golson lived half a block from me. I was in the mix, trying to get as much information from them as possible.”
Being part of the experience or “mixing it up” and being mentored by talented parents and extraordinary artists—to say nothing of being inspired by “a supreme being, a higher power of which I am a tool”—stayed with Pope through his adulthood as he believes in paying it forward, every way that he can.
“Whether it is the rich community of North Philadelphia where I lived, or young people coming up and playing this music, I believe in giving back,” he said before remarking that he had won a 2018 grant from the Pew Center that was devoted to examining and furthering the legacy of jazz in this city. “For one year, I had 21 young people, from age 18 to 84, exploring my music and that of my seven-piece ensemble. In order for this music to live, we have to commit ourselves, educate audiences, and be willing to give back. You have to pass the information along.”
“In order for this music to live, we have to commit ourselves, educate audiences, and be willing to give back. You have to pass the information along.”
Currently mixing an angular album with that same (as of April 2020) septet of Philadelphia musicians featuring bassist Lee Smith and harpist Gloria Galante, Pope can’t put a label on the sound of his new music. Yet, the master is quickly able to show how its feel and tone are part of the rich continuum of playing with organist Jimmy McGriff, drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, or being a part of the funk-jazz ensemble Catalyst, before leading his own bands or assembling his Saxophone Choir.
“I’m extraordinarily blessed and this project feels good,” said Pope, comparing his newest work to personal favorites such as Catalyst’s 1972 album “Perception,” 1987’s “The Saxophone Shop” and 1999’s “Changes & Chances.”
“Really good. So different and so great. That’s always the point. It’s another tool, another very profound project I’ve created, where a higher power is telling me what to do, and working through me.”