The High Key Portrait Series: Maxfield Gast

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Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.

Making a career out of the musical arts is a hustle, and as hustlers go, Maxfield Gast stands out. A sax player raised on the instrument and daily rehearsals, Gast cut his teeth like so many musicians at Philly clubs like Ortlieb’s, and played prominent stages in Philly and New York City at a young age.

Over the years, Gast has produced three studio records. He’s contributed to soundtracks to film and TV, including the music for Louis CK’s Louie and his comedy specials, and the recently released finance thriller Equity, starring Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn. He’s played every stage in the city, toured the country with his bands, and played shows alongside the likes of Cage The Elephant, Reggie Watts and Work Drugs, not to mention furnishing contributions to the albums of over two dozen celebrated artists as well.

Lately, Gast is focusing his efforts on expanding the capabilities of his Roxborough-based label and recording studio, Militia Hill, founded in 2009, the studio does mixing and editing and voiceover recording, and specializes in custom composition for movies, TV and radio.

Of course, that doesn’t mean this player spends all his time sitting at home these days. In February, Gast was a featured artist on PhillyCAM, a Philly Jazz Project production that showcases live jazz musicians. The session will be released digitally as the artist’s first live band EP, available on iTunes and Spotify, among other outlets. And he’s excited too to share an upcoming single, a collaboration with Philly artists Kuf Knotz, Tony Catastrophe and Jeremy Grenhart.

The Key: Are you a Philly native?

Maxfield Gast: I am.

TK: Did you go to high school in Philly?

MG: I went to high school in Ambler. I went to Wissahickon High, and I’m a Temple grad.

TK: What do you remember from high school?

MG: Lots of skateboarding, and tons and tons of rehearsals. I was really musically active in high school. Living in the suburbs, before I had my license, I was takin’ the train, and my parents would drive me into the city almost every night of the week and every weekend. I was in Settlement Music School on the weekends, and the All-City Jazz Band, and Mellon bank had a sponsored jazz band. I was all over the place, doin’ different things. In high school was where I got to meet and learn from a lot of now-famous jazz musicians, like Jonathan Blake, and Jaleel Shaw, and Bilal.

TK: How did you first get connected to the music scene?

MG: I mean it started in high school, with coming down to the city. Outside of jazz bands and stuff I remember going to Ortlieb’s as a kid. I think we started going to Ortlieb’s when I was like 13, 14 years old. That’s really where I learned a ton. I guess when I graduated high school, I’d be at Ortlieb’s like almost every night, that was like my second home.

A lot of it is just kind of putting in the effort to be at the clubs, and just getting to know people and building relationships. I was fortunate enough, cats like Mike Boone and Syd Simmons — they had a lot of encouragement, and they always pushed me along and encouraged me to keep playing. They were always a positive energy. Byron Landham too, and Robert Landham. I studied with Robert for many years — the Landham brothers — they both had a huge, huge influence on me. Robert really taught me — or, I should say, showed me — what a saxophone could do and how it could be played. Edgar Bateman, Jr. — he passed away, he was in his 80s I think — he took me under his wing. He used to come over to my old apartment in South Philly and we would shed for hours together, just drums and sax. He always encouraged me and pushed me with my playing. Hangin’ out at Ortlieb’s and playing with those guys, and basically getting run over every night. Playing with Byron on drums, it always felt like he was kind of a freight train, and the instant that I would pause and second guess what I was doing, you know I’d be run over. Ortlieb’s was kind of my official schooling. I didn’t go to college until my late twenties. I’d say I was more a product of the Philadelphia jazz scene than anything else.

TK: What made you decide to go to college?

MG: I had a strong ear. I love to improvise, and I love to create. I love to compose. That’s a big part of who I am and what I do as an artist. But, I felt like I was lacking in the theory and mechanics of the music. So, getting an education and forcing myself to sit down and really learn the stuff could only improve my ability to express myself. So yeah, the education was what I felt like I needed to help me to get to the next level of expression. I needed to understand that to be able to compose. Piano really became a strong second instrument for me.

Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: Who are your favorite Philly artists, or which Philly artists do you feel influenced you the most?

MG: Well, I guess John Coltrane would fall into that. [laughs] I mean there are so many names on Broad Street, you know? Coltrane, Stan Getz is in there. The cats that I mentioned earlier — Mike Boone and the Landham brothers, and Syd Simmons, and Grover Washington Jr. And my peers! Playing next to Jaleel, even as a kid, I was gettin’ my ass kicked left and right. It felt like it was so much work, and it seemed like music came so natural to these guys, and I just felt like every Saturday at Settlement Music School rehearsal I would literally get my ass handed to me. And it really kind of showed me what could be done, and it also made it clear I had a lotta work to do. And I still don’t feel like I’m anywhere near, I don’t think I’ll ever be on the level of playing a saxophone like Jaleel Shaw. I mean he’s amazing. But they were all an inspiration. I just feel really fortunate that I was able to hear those guys, and have that influence on me, and be exposed to that kind of raw ability and musicality.

TK: Where do you remember playing your first gig in Philly, and how do you remember it being on stage in your hometown, in front of your peers?

MG: I don’t know what my first gig in Philly was. In middle school, my buddy Dave Stoller — who owns and operates The Samurai Hotel Recording Studio up in Astoria, New York — we were best friends through middle school and high school. And actually, he was just my best man — I got married in May! — so we’re still tight. We started a band in middle school called Indigo Mood, and we would gig, we would play private parties and festivals. I think in 1995 — I was 15  — we were actually written up in Downbeat Magazine. So we were doin’ good stuff, and we were workin’ hard, and we were playing a ton. So I guess notable gigs in childhood, through the All-City Jazz Band we would play the Penn’s Landing jazz festivals every year. So as a kid, I was fortunate enough to be playing at Penn’s Landing, and that’s where I got to play with Grover a few times. We played the Academy of Music once when I was a teenager. When I was 17, Dave and I actually played at Carnegie Hall together, which was really neat, and that was through Mellon PSFS Bank. It was amazing, with the Philadelphia Boys Choir and our jazz band. That one really stands out.

TK: Do you remember feeling nervous, or excited?

MG: No, I never really got nervous about performing. I always liked playing in front of people, in front of an audience. It’s fun. It’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed. There have been gigs here and there where for whatever reason there is a bit of anxiety. But my anxiety comes more from logistics, generally not from the actual music, you know? Like my anxiety comes from travel and dealing with the stuff that we don’t have control over. Being prepared for a gig, that’s up to me. I always loved to perform, and obviously I still do.

Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: What’s your favorite Philly venue to play at?

MG: Johnny Brenda’s is fun. I like that place. I like World Cafe Live, it’s a beautiful venue (I’m not saying that for brownie points! [laughs]), I really enjoy playing there, on both stages. Tritone was the coolest place — I lived at 17th and Fitzwater, so it was 3 blocks from my house — that was such a cool venue. It was the one place in the city you could go one night and hear a punk rock show, and go the next night and hear avant garde jazz. It was the one place in the city where you could go and experiment and do your thing legitimately and not get judged. It was such a beautiful place, man, I so miss that. I used to absolutely love, love playing at Ortlieb’s. When Pete Souders was the owner, and ran the place, it was like the coolest place in the world. It was really the best. I don’t do a ton of shows in Philly anymore.

TK: Is that on purpose?

MG: It’s a number of things. The scene has changed quite a bit. You know, when I was in my 20s I played in a lotta rock bands, and I had different priorities. As I’ve gotten older, my priorities have kind of changed, and I guess I reached a point where I kinda was getting burned out on playing tons of shows and not making a lotta money. In my late 20s, I was touring with a band across the country, and after that tour, I was like, I need to change what I’m doing, because I’m getting tired of this, and I’m not makin’ enough money, and what I wanted to do was get my composition together. I’m somewhat of an audio engineer, and I’d sit at home with my ProTools, and I had hundreds of sessions, and songs, and I guess at one point I was like, I need to put out an album. So I really decided at that point, I need to take my focus off trying to hustle gigs, and I’m gonna put that energy into polishing this songs and put out an album. That first album was Eat Your Beats, and it did pretty well. So then I was fired up to do another album, so I put out Side By Side. And then last year I put out OgopogO, which was back to my electronic-type music. And I do still gig, and I do play in New York, and I do play in Philly, but it’s just not to the same degree as I used to.

TK: Do you still enjoy it?

MG: Oh yeah. Oh I love it. I absolutely love it. I guess I’ve become more selective with what I do. You know how it is, gettin’ older, you have to prioritize, and figure out where you wanna put your energy, and what you’re gonna get back from it. I’m happy with what I’m doing, and I will always continue to perform, and I’ll continue to write and put out albums.

Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: What do you love most about the Philly arts scene?

MG: You know, even as the scene changes, it seems like there’s just a unique sound that Philly has, and artists that come out of Philadelphia have their own vibe and their own sound. It kinda has its own edge. It’s kinda hard to explain. As the scene has changed through the years, there still seems to be original things coming out of here. There is something unique to Philadelphia. My friends and I joke that it’s in the water.

TK: What if anything do you find most frustrating about it?

MG: It can be hard to get a crowd here. It’s hard to make money here, as a musician. It’s a challenge to make your ends meet, just doing that. Venues do not pay well here, it’s really really difficult to make a living doing it. That was kind of an incentive to expand what I do, and pursue my composition and production side. And again, that came down to balancing my energy, and what I wanna put my time into. But I’ll always play live music, and I’ll always play with my buddies.

TK: Which Philly neighborhoods have you lived in, and which made you wanna stick around, or bail?

MG: I lived in South Philly for about a decade. At that time it was a really cool neighborhood, I used to live right around where Tritone was. That was the highlight of when I lived in South Philly. And the neighborhood was very different, that stretch of South St. didn’t have the microbrew pubs and all those restaurants and stuff yet, and it was still kinda rough. But I really liked that vibe, at that point. But it started to change, and I guess by that point I was kinda over living in the city, so I moved out to the Roxborough area, where it was a little quieter, a little more space. That’s when I started setting up my recording spot, and really getting into the production side of things. That’s where I recorded my first album, in Roxborough, at my studio.

TK: What’s your favorite means for getting around the city?

MG: Well I worked down at University of the Arts. I used SEPTA a ton, and I absolutely hated it. I don’t like riding my bike in the city — I’m a big cyclist, but I absolutely hate riding in the city. So, yeah, a lotta walking, when possible.

TK: How have you seen the city change over the time you lived here, and has it been for the better or worse?

MG: You know, it feels like every eight to ten years, a bunch of venues close, and new venues open. And it just seems like an endless cycle. I don’t know. I have to admit, I’m somewhat disconnected from the scene now. And I am a Philadelphia artist, and I do live in Philadelphia, but at this point I’m a little more caught up in my own bubble. And maybe that’s not a good thing either. To some degree it’s cut back on opportunities for me. I think if you wanna be at a certain place or play with a certain person or gig at a certain venue, there’s a time investment: you have to be seen and heard and be part of it. I have mixed thoughts on the scene — not with the artists, I guess it’s mostly with venues. It’s a challenge man. You go out a play a four hour show at a venue, and make $55 bucks. And then you have a couple beers and tip your bartender and walk home if you’re lucky with $40 — you know, that’s really difficult! And as an older guy — not that much older, but in my 30s — I could turn down that gig, but the young cats, college kids are gonna go and do that, because they wanna play in public, they wanna be heard, and they want the exposure.

It’s not gonna stop, because cats will continue to go in. And Philadelphia, with the great jazz programs that it has here, and the education — with University of the Arts, and Temple, and music Drexel and other schools — there are tons of young kids. And they can all play, there’s SO much talent! So the venues can get away with it. At the same time, maybe that’s a springboard to get these young guys out into the world. So I guess it can be looked at both ways. But certainly when you have to support a family and thinking about a mortgage payment, or this or that, it’s a little different. I don’t have an answer for it, I wish I did. And I know a lotta guys feel the same way. I see a lotta guys coming here to Philly to get good at their craft, and then kinda going somewhere else with it, I’ve seen that a ton. But I also know that in the last ten years, New York has changed, and I see a lotta guys move up to New York and then find their way back to Philly or to another suburb. I guess there’s kind of a constant evolution of things happening.

TK:  Last question: Yards or PBC?

MG: Depends on what’s on draught. [laughs] Yards!

Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Maxfield Gast | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

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