wax Poetics

Low End Theory

Odean Pope rediscovered the saxophone from the bottom up

published online
Originally published in Issue 33
By Jon Kirby

Courtesy of Porter Records
Courtesy of Porter Records

    Although Odean Pope has performed alongside everyone from Jimmy Smith to James Brown, perhaps the wisest decision of the saxophonist’s career was to stop playing. “I disciplined myself,” explains Pope. “I said, ‘I’m not going to play; I’m just going to study. Everything I play, construct, and create, I’m just going to use the lower range of my instrument.’ ” It was the late ’60s, and while everyone was chasing John Coltrane’s spirit to the top of the staff, Odean Pope decided to take the low road, utilizing the sparse yet effective tones obtainable below middle C. It was in this manner that Pope was able to create a sound bearing no resemblance to that of his reeded peers. “I thought it would only take me about six months,” Pope admits, “and it ended up taking me six years; I think it was a great, great learning experience.”

    A native of tiny Ninety Six, South Carolina, Pope’s playing reflected elements of Southern gospel, as well as the soul music and the sound of the numerous gifted saxophonists from his adopted hometown of Philly. Unlike the transitive metropolis of nearby New York, Philadelphia artists tended to remain close to home, reinvesting in their own musical community. As a result, luminaries like the Heath Brothers, Clifford Brown, and Philly Joe Jones had a visible and tangible impact on Pope’s generation of jazz giants. 

    In the last ten years, Pope has issued and reissued a number of recordings that have commemorated several milestones in his expansive career. To the Roach pays tribute to the late Max Roach, with whom Pope had a tenor tenure lasting over twenty years. The Funkiest Band You Never Heard anthologizes the finest fruits of Pope’s progressive quartet, Catalyst.

    Although the deceptive cadences and clusters found within these textured records make it hard to categorize, Pope simply states, “I would just like to think of it as being great contemporary music.” It was as a result of these musical meanderings that Pope was paired with the elusive duo, the Misled Children, who, impressed with the intriguing arrangements, requested Pope collaborate on songs that would eventually comprise The Misled Children Meet Odean Pope.

    “I was so energized by the surroundings,” recalls Pope regarding the group’s California-desert compound. “I was supposed to rest for a day, but it was so inspiring, I just jumped right into writing and practicing and getting concepts for the music.” The Misled Children, who are also responsible for the faux-fabled Clutchy Hopkins projects, produced a series of respectfully simple instrumentals that allowed layers of Pope’s breathy melodies to bind the curious compositions. The finished product combines appealing elements of both parties’ identities, integrating unapologetic jazz with organic beats. Although a seemingly unorthodox pairing for Pope, he greeted it, as he does everything, as “a great learning experience.” 

    “My feeling is that the more flexible you are, the more ideas and concepts you know about different kinds of music,” concludes Pope. “If you really disciplined yourself, they’re only going to enhance what you really believe in.”