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Cannata enlightened by the music, not Buddhism

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Richie Cannata is not a Buddhist, nor a student of Buddhism.

But Cannata, a New York saxophonist, does achieve a nirvanalike state from a good jam. Though he has reached the top ranks of pop saxophonists, having been an original and longstanding member of Billy Joel’s band, Cannata reserves Monday nights for free-form jamming at the Manhattan club, Le Bar Bat.

“It’s my therapy,” said Cannata of the Monday night jam sessions. “I love to just get up there and play. That’s fun to me.”

It is the potential for a spirit-lifting jam ? not any religious affiliation ? that will draw Cannata to the Wheeler Opera House tonight in a Buddhist-related benefit. Cannata will join local players John Oates, Jimmy Ibbotson, Bobby Mason and Little Blue, as well as guitarist Jeff Pevar, banjoist John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, singer Paris Delane from soul-rock group Sonia Dada and Denver vocalist Hazel Miller in an all-star jam.

The event, which opens with a screening of Eric Valli’s Academy Award-nominated 1999 documentary “Himalaya,” is a fund-raiser for the Summit Dharma Center and the International Campaign for Tibet. There will also be a short talk by John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, an organization co-founded by the Dalai Lama.

Cannata started his musical career on piano, inspired by cartoon music. “I was hearing this great music and wanted to do it,” said the native of Long Island, N.Y.’s Garden City South.

So it is only appropriate that his break into the big-time music world came through “Sesame Street.” In the mid-?70s, Cannata, by then a saxophonist, was recording a jingle for the children’s television show with a rhythm section of bassist Doug Stegmeyer and bassist Liberty DeVito. The two were putting together a band for singer-pianist Billy Joel, who was rising from local piano man to national touring musician. But Cannata was initially hesitant.

“I knew Billy Joel,” he said. “He had the ‘Piano Man’ album out, and I thought, I don’t want to play ‘Piano Man’ music.”

After meeting with Joel, and learning of the singer’s plans to expand his sound, Cannata came on board. “There were big, big holes to fill in the music,” he said. “I could continue Billy’s lyrics in my sax solos. I wasn’t looking to play John Coltrane or Michael Brecker solos. I was looking to play Richie Cannata-type solos.”

He had plenty of room to create his sound. In a band that de-emphasized guitar, Cannata was the featured side player in Joel’s live shows. On record, Cannata played virtually every saxophone solo that appeared on a Billy Joel song, including such memorable parts as those on “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “New York State of Mind.” Some years ago, Cannata left Joel’s band and he still hears about his exit from loyal fans.

“People call me all the time, upset that I left the band,” said Cannata, who still does the occasional gig with his former boss.

Cannata now spends much of his time in Cove City Sound Studios, the Glen City, N.Y., studio he founded 19 years ago. The studio has been the site of recordings by Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Booker T. Jones and Brian Wilson, as well as the soundtrack to the current film “Chicago.” Cannata also has toured with Elton John and Rita Coolidge, and has been the saxophonist for the Beach Boys for 12 years. In addition to the usual Monday night jams, Cannata also appears weekly at the Manhattan nightspot Tao, where he plays solo sax to house music accompaniment for the beautiful people set.

Lately, Cannata is most enthused about an up-and-coming alternative rocker: Eren Cannata, his 17-year-old son. Cannata describes his son, who has been playing at Greenwich Village’s The Bitter End, as “a male Avril Lavigne, very organic.”

Even if Eren Cannata makes it as big as Avril Lavigne, his father is going to remain best known for the saxophone parts he added to Billy Joel’s songs. Joel had big ambitions for those sax solos, and Cannata filled the bill.

“Billy said, ‘Play something that people will remember 20 years later.’ I said, ‘What?'” recalled Cannata. “But here we are, 27 years later, and people remember the solos.”

Proceeds from tonight’s event will be split between the two nonprofit organizations, Summit Dharma Center and the International Campaign for Tibet. Tickets for the event are $40.

The Summit Dharma Center was founded three years ago by the Venerable Michael Gregory, a resident of Breckenridge. The center, dedicated to the teachings of Buddhist philosophy, is home to an extensive library of Buddhist literature. Gregory has established six centers for study and meditation in Colorado.

The International Campaign for Tibet is a humanitarian organization which assists refugees coming out of Tibet, and provides legal and other aid to jailed Tibetans who have been arrested leaving their country.

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]


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