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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  Fair
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Saxophonist Frank Catalano set to blow away the 2010 Isthmus Jazz Festival
A honking, squealing, gutty player.
A honking, squealing, gutty player.

Tenor saxophonist Frank Catalano has led a charmed life, especially for a modern-day jazz musician. Jazz doesn't mint as many successful stars as it used to, but Catalano makes the career path look easy.

As a Chicago teenager, he caught the eye of the prominent saxophonist Von Freeman, who became his mentor. He played with Miles Davis and Tony Bennett and signed his first record contract at age 17. Shortly thereafter, he placed two albums on the Billboard jazz charts, Mighty Burner and Bang!

Along with establishing a successful career in his own right, he's an in-demand sideman with pop stars like Jennifer Lopez and John Legend. Then there are the endorsement deals with Yamaha and Rico Reeds.

Yes, it's been one lucky break after another for the 33-year-old saxophonist, but talent has had a little something to do with his success. Catalano is a honking, squealing, gutty player in the tradition of Chicago tenors like Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris and his mentor Freeman. Down Beat has compared him to John Coltrane, and that fits in terms of his relentless energy. You sense that he just can't wait for the next chord change or cadenza - another chance to blow the house down with a gust of 16th notes.

Catalano was influenced by Coltrane but doesn't follow him into the outer reaches of time and space. He's found his niche by blending bebop-style improvisation with a funky, bluesy backbeat.

"It's become my signature sound," says Catalano, an amiable guy who talks almost as fast as he plays. "It seems to be exciting for people who are straight-ahead jazz purists as well as people who might just be getting into jazz."

About those purists. Catalano has butted heads with them, most notably a New York Times critic who questioned his eclectic approach to his career.

"I could tell this guy had never tried to make a living as a full-time musician," Catalano says. "If you are out there trying to make a living, you just have to play everything the best you can and try to put your spin on it. Playing with pop artists definitely helps - I performed with Seal on Oprah Winfrey's show last year, and a lot of people get to see you in a situation like that."

So, Mr. New York Times Critic, what's wrong with a jazz musician making a little money and earning some name recognition? It's not like Catalano fails to prove his jazz bona-fides on disc or in concert. Talking to him, you hear his passion for the music when he discusses his favorite saxophonists: Dexter Gordon's "big fat soulful sound" and Charlie Parker's "yearning quality."

I started by mentioning Catalano's charmed life, but he has had one stunningly unlucky break. In his teens, he cut off one of his fingers while working on his car. His musical career might have ended right there, but doctors reattached the finger, and after a year's worth of therapy he was able to use it again.

"It almost seems like there was some type of divine intervention," Catalano says. "It was a one-in-100 chance that my finger would have functioned again, much less as well as it does."

If it was indeed divine intervention, then let's thank God for allowing Frank Catalano to follow the career path he was clearly born for.

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