Homegrown: Field of musical dreams

By Ken Capobianco, March 23, 1999

Welcome to Community Newspaper Company's Arts and Entertainment resource.
Ken Field has been one of the true jewels of the Boston musical community for a number of years. His work on a number of different projects, most notably Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, has always pushed the boundaries of musical possibilities. The saxophonist has a restless ear and over the past few years, he has been all over the map, working with a number of challenging groups and dipping into genre-bending sounds. Field, who lives in Cambridge, is currently getting ready to release his second solo record, which is in post-production now.

Q: What was the first instrument you ever played?

A: Clarinet. I was in fourth grade. I worked really hard at it and I practiced a lot and got to be pretty good at playing notes on a page and working the technical aspect of music. But I didn't know really very much about creating music.

Q: When did you make the move from being simply a technical musician to a creative one?

A: I was in college and in my freshman year at Brown; I was chasing a guy down a hallway. He had taken a book of mine, I think a J. D. Salinger. And he pulled a swinging door behind him and I ran into it and broke my front tooth. So I kind of looked like the guy from Mad magazine. And you can't play clarinet without a front top tooth. Clarinet puts a lot of pressure on your top tooth and it didn't work very well with a capped tooth, but with a saxophone, there is a different pressure point. It's less stressful. So I started playing flute and then moved on. I started jamming with acoustic guitarists and then I got into improvising and the blues and it totally changed my mindset and approach to music.

Q: Do you think that sometimes taking formal music lessons can be bad?

A: Lessons are bad when the teacher is bad. A teacher who teaches you to play in only a certain way is a bad teacher. I worked with a guy at Berklee, Joe Viola, who just retired recently, and he was amazing. He taught me certain technical matters. Not creative. I needed to understand the mechanism of the saxophone and making a good sound come out of it. But I also needed to find a way to make my own sound and Joe was constantly telling me that you had to have a good and recognizable sound above all. After that, you can move on.

Q: You seem to be working on 100 different projects at once. Why?

A: I have a hard time saying no. I'm involved in a lot of things, but they are really diverse projects. I'm playing with the Bad Art Ensemble, which is basically a great bar band, a drinking band, and we play at the Plough and Stars and have a lot of fun. Then I play with Birdsongs, which is as far away as you can get from the Bad Art Ensemble. The music is written out and there's very little improvisation and coming more from a compositional format. And then there's the Crown Electric Company, Willie Alexander, the Board of Education, which I call post-neo hippie. That's almost totally improvisational. And then there's my own stuff. My own music is a blend of all those influences and how all the work with everybody else has been filtered through and into my own sound.

Q: When do you find the time to work on your own music?

A: (Laughs) I don't. I'm working on it now and I wrote most of the material when I did a composing residency in Wyoming in 1997, and this past September I was in Seattle for the Bumbershoot festival and I worked with other saxophonists and a lot of the compositions also came from that work.

Q: OK, forget music. What is the one other thing that you are involved in or have a passion for? Sports?

A: Uh, no sports, no. I'm actually getting involved in some of Cambridge's city politics. Not quite politics, but community activities. I've been living in Cambridge for a long time and I'm getting involved in community committees. I'm working on the bicycle committee and I try to encourage people to try and not drive as much. I'm involved in a volunteer tutoring program. I tutor kids in math and reading and it takes up a bit of my time.

Q: Anything else?

A: I like to talk on the phone to people in the press.

Q: What is one musical goal you haven't achieved yet?

A: I'd like to get my music in scores and soundtracks. Both existing music of mine as well as composing for specific projects. I also did this gig on New Year's Eve with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, which is a Mardi Gras group that I have, and we played for 6,000 people on the Common. And it was quite a success and we played my stuff, some obscure covers and some New Orleans stuff, and the response kicked me in the butt and made me say to myself, "This is something I should record and get some music out with them." We'll see. Sometimes, there's just not the time to do this, though. I try.