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Stacy Dillard Aims High with a Blend of Confidence, Soul and Camaraderie

Stacy Dillard by Jonathan Chimene
Jonathan Chimene/ WBGO

As venues are reopening and work is returning for musicians and presenters, saxophonist and bandleader Stacy Dillard has a recommendation for success in a new era. It involves the ability of the greater community to bond together and not forget its recent past.

"We need each other," Dillard told me recently, for Let Me Tell You 'Bout It. "Society suffers from amnesia a lot....we saw what it was like to not have [music], and we need to keep in mind how much we actually love it."

WBGO's Let Me Tell You 'Bout It w/Stacy Dillard

Since his arrival in New York almost two decades ago, Dillard has closely mined musical kinship with his peers. One such grouping involves a tight-knit trio with drummer Ismail Lawal and bassist Diallo House that dazzles audiences on the road and at their weekly Saturday night residency in Smalls Jazz Club. In the latter situation, this band's concentrated dose of sophistication, grit and groove is potent enough for weekend party goers while remaining deft enough for sophisticated insiders.

"Camaraderie is a big part of this," Dillard said. I've been fortunate to have had bands that I've either led or co-led, and without force, each individual of the band is cool with every member equally. When you build that safety...you feel as if you can fall backwards, and you know that they're going to catch you."

As a saxophonist, Dillard's plays straight from the heart. His lyrical yet gutsy approach to the tenor and soprano saxophones have also made room for him alongside notable players such as pianists Eric Reed and Cyrus Chestnut, drummer Willie Jones III, bassist Ben Wolfe and in a three-tenor front line with JD Allen and Marcus Strickland.

One early indicator that his skills were ready for global appreciation happened early on in his playing career when Dillard, attending a weekly jam session in Cincinnati in 2002, encountered the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra fresh off their gig with instruments in tow and looking to unwind with a few area pros. Along for the hang was JALC's artistic director and creative chair, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

"We were all playing 'Softly As In A Morning Sunrise' and after I finished a solo, Wynton gave me this look and said, 'Man, you can play.' We had a long conversation after [the session] and that night gave me a great boost of confidence." Two weeks later, Dillard left Ohio and relocated to New York.

In our conversation, Dillard speaks more about that confidence and the importance of investigating life experiences to arrive at an individual sound. And in a fun lightening round, he shares three genre-spanning albums that have helped to shape his musical approach and outlook.