If you’ve been anywhere in this city over the past couple of decades, you’ll be familiar with the laid-back warmth of Walle Larsson’s saxophone. You’re probably also familiar with the laid-back warmth of his voice—he’s been one of the city’s busiest and best jazz radio hosts. As we come around the corner on his Sunday evening series at Assiniboine Park, I caught up with Walle…
How did you get started playing saxophone?
I started out as a classical flute player. In 1975, I was playing in a dining room band at the Chateau Lake Louise, and the bandleader told me if I wanted to keep the gig, I’d need to play sax. I bought a sax out of the paper for $650—and I’m still playing it!
I know you’re curating smooth jazz concerts again this summer. How do you define “smooth jazz”?
Yes, I’m putting together the Sunday night series at the Lyric Theatre in Assiniboine Park. I’ve got a house band that is backing up some of the top names in smooth jazz—people like Dave Koz, Jeff Lorber and Steve Oliver. The series starts July 10, and runs until the end of August.
Smooth Jazz has a bad name, so I actually prefer Groove Jazz. The definition: any rock, R&B, or funk-flavored groove combined with conventional or non-conventional harmony. By non-conventional, I mean harmony that does not necessarily follow the predictability of jazz standards with their AABA forms and 2-5-1 chord progressions. For me, Groove Jazz shares the improvisational aspects of standard jazz—the vocabulary is derived from that tradition.
Many people know you as a radio personality. Do you see connections between that work and playing jazz?
I’m not currently on the air, but I have spent a lot of time on the air in the past ten years. Being a radio host is a bit like improvising because you have to keep talking even if your brain isn’t in gear. When you’re doing a late night shift, you really think about who’s out there, driving around on those lonely streets listening to your show. Sometimes you feel like you are talking to the wall, but other times you hear these incredible stories from people who have been listening faithfully to your show.
The cool thing about working in radio when you are a musician is that you learn the other side of the business. You learn the habits of listeners, and how to get airplay on a variety of formats. I devoted a lot of time this past year to promoting my music to US radio stations. Hitting the charts and getting airplay in some of my target markets was a kick.
Working in radio can be a great way to find work as a musician. You kind of get your finger on the pulse and opportunities open up. I’m planning to get back into radio, but not six nights a week like before.
What really inspires you as a musician?
The incredible talent of the musicians I get a chance to hear is a humbling experience. Lately I had a chance to spend some time in NYC with one of my favorite sax players, Andy Snitzer (Rolling Stones, Paul Simon). To be with him in his home and having him play and share his knowledge with me was truly inspiring. As a Christian believer, what really inspires me is the chance to be a part of the amazing creation around me, to tap into the inspiration and joy that fuels our music.
What’s on your CD player at the moment?
Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard, and Jeff Lorber’s Now’s the Time.