The first time I met Paul Balcain, he was wielding a saxophone. The next time I met him, he was wielding a paint roller. When I track him down for this interview, I ask him about it. “I grew up in the construction business,” he says. “The harder I tried to escape it, the more it sucked me in.” He pauses. “Just like music,” he adds, and laughter bursts out of him. That’s Paul. His wit comes out of left field, quick and quirky. I suspect he’s pulled some inspired pranks.
Paul is a serious saxophonist without being too serious. He has a warm sound, and it’s clear that he loves to play. He’s at home across many styles, from Scott Nolan’s roots band to the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra. On Wednesdays, he’s often at The Hang, sharing tunes and stories, and these days he’s gigging with his new quartet.
When did you start playing the saxophone? What drew you to it?
I started playing saxophone in junior high. That was 153 pounds ago for me, and back then I had a chin and a slapshot—if I had chosen the clarinet, the team would have made me buy a matching dress. But I suppose there might be something in my blood: my grandfather wanted to play saxophone too, but his mother always took it back to the music store!
Who do you consider your most important influences?
The list is long. Off the top, I’d name some of the great saxophonists: Sonny Rollins, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz. Then I’d add Chet Baker, BB King, Bob Brookmeyer, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, and Bill Evans.
What’s on your ipod?
Right now? Glenn Patscha—he’s a long ways from jazz, but he’s really great songwriter. Chopin—I have “Nocturne in C# minor” on repeat, because it’s so gorgeous. Grant Stewart—he gets compared to Sonny Rollins, the way Sonny got compared to Coleman Hawkins; when he solos, he’s got a point, he’s got a purpose. Greazy Meal—these guys were a 9-piece band from Minneapolis, very soul-driven; I always loved everything they did. Jimmy Greene—no really, I was into Jimmy way back; him coming here is what I call “%*&# luck”! When I heard the news, I felt the same joy as when I found out Bob Brookmeyer was coming to Brandon. Excitement, interest—the whole bit.
What jazz projects do you have on tap?
I’ve put together a quartet with Aaron Shorr, Julian Bradford, and Curtis Nowosad. I seem to be in a Duke Ellington phase right now. We’re doing some Kenny Wheeler tunes because they’re fun and challenging. And some later Brookmeyer small-group stuff—he’s a fantastic writer but not many people play his stuff. I’m writing for a CD, and I’m beginning to work with some vocalists too.
What do you do when you’re not playing sax?
I spend a lot of time doing woodworking and refinishing—it’s relaxing, it’s fun. (I’d say I get high off the varnish but this is a family magazine.) And time with my family is really important. I have a 7-year-old son. He’s autistic, and a fantastic kid—really, we’re so lucky in so many ways. Some days I forget he’s my son because he’s so much fun to hang out with! For the first few years of his life, I was out working a day job, pushing gigs in the evening, whatever. Now I stay home as much as I can because I choose to. Our second baby debuts in August. It’s been one helluva ride, but if I had the chance to do this all over again, I’d do it verbatim. It’s unreal!