Sax symbol Ian Tordella, originally from the Washington D.C. area, cut his teeth playing in jazz and funk-oriented groups, and by sitting in with veterans like Blue Note bassist Butch Warren and former Miles Davis drummer Ricky Wellman. Tordella then accepted a full-scholarship to study classical and jazz saxophone at the University of North Texas where he had the opportunity to play with Norah Jones (then a jazz piano major) and others.
“For your sax curiosity,” he says, “they have the largest enrollment of sax players in the world – 150? Something like that. And all of them auditioning for 55 or 60 spots in bands. The competition there,” he says, “is intense.”
Upon finishing his degree, he made the move from Texas to the West Coast. Since relocating to San Diego in 2003, ending up in Golden Hill, Tordella has been active in the local scene, frequently leading his own trios and quartets, honing his composition skills with SDSU pianist Rick Helzer, and studying improvisation with legendary Mingus alto saxophonist Charles McPherson.
“He’s a positive guru of the saxophone. He’s got a good ear and can analyze your solo as it goes by and pinpoint stuff where you can play better. Better phrasing, the shape of your line.”
Tordella fronts a rather unusual ensemble, at least for jazz. As he told the Reader in 2011, “It’s Danny Weller on bass, Richard Sellers on drums, and there’s two guitars, Joey Carano and Jeff Miles, and me. I’m the lone horn player.”
Influenced by the modern jazz sounds coming out of New York, Tordella shows vestiges of trad jazz and pop music as well. “It’s almost obligatory to do Radiohead and Bjork covers. I guess I got a little more esoteric in putting on the Stereolab covers.” He agrees that his quintet is...different. "This is going in the direction of weirdness, abstraction, and trip hop.”
Tordella makes his living by having many irons in the fire. He teaches saxophone students from junior high level to a player in his 60s, does his own internet podcasts, and plays jazz gigs wherever he can pick them up. His debut full-length Magnolia was released on the Circumvention Music label.
He recorded his second full-length Tragic Comedy in 2011, releasing it early the following year. “We did it at this room called Audio Design, it’s on El Cajon Boulevard near SDSU. It’s a small room, but they have a vintage sixteen channel API console, and they have isolation booths. It’s a really neat room, actually. The Styletones, they use that room a lot. We used this engineer, Chris Hobson, who’s done a lot of acoustic stuff, he’s a great engineer, and on top of that he’s got like $10 million dollars worth of microphones.’
Tordella laughs, adding “It’s not quite $10 million. But he’s got a lot of vintage mics, and so we used all old microphones, and tracked it there. Then I mixed it down at a friend’s studio in Texas, and we mixed it to quarter-inch, because I wanted that tape sound, rather than mixing it in the computer. So we got a hundred percent analog mix, using real hardware reverbs and equalizers. Obviously, I did it because I think it sounds better.”
“I had originally planned some songs with guitars and some songs with piano but all the piano players I work with were out of town or unavailable at the time I booked the studio, so I went with two guitars.”
Tordella's 2016 full-length The Lost Weekend features Rob Thorsen (bass), Jeff Miles (guitar), and Charles Weller (drums).