Searching for Sound: Chet Frierson

Chet Frierson describes jazz music as a conversation, musicians and instruments trading solos and the chance to speak out, then stepping back to blend their sounds into a single harmonious voice.

“It’s the way that individual expression mixes with a collective sound as a group,” he says about his love for the genre. “It’s the ability to, through improvisation, display you who are and what you’re about, to tell your story. When it’s good, everyone’s listening and there are so many different conversations going on.”

As a saxophonist and Jazz Studies major at VCUarts, Frierson has been searching—in classes and jazz ensembles, in funk bands and local clubs—for his own, authentic voice in that conversation.

It’s a search that started somewhat accidentally. Frierson, who has been playing music since childhood, played in the band in middle and high school. Studying music education in college seemed like a natural next step. His plans shifted at his VCUarts audition. He showed up with a jazz performance prepared, but the music education program required a classical audition.

What started as a mix-up turned into the right move.

“I’ve really fallen in love with the music and the people, and just the way that I can express myself or learn more things about myself through playing and writing,” he says.

“I think being a jazz major has probably helped me more, as far as the ability to teach other people. Because the Jazz Studies here is more of a performance degree, I’m spending more time and energy with my horn in my hands.”

Frierson isn’t just getting performance time in the music building. He can also be found playing in venues around the city several nights a week with Jazz Studies ensembles, his funk-rock band Weekend Plans, and most recently Brunswick, a 13-piece group with a jazz big band style. He even had the chance to perform with a music department jazz ensemble when President Barack Obama spoke in Richmond.

In all of these performances, Frierson’s attention was on how he fit in with the larger group.

“It’s all about listening and being aware of everyone around you and of yourself, being aware of what kind of sound the music needs in that moment. It’s almost like I’m in a different world and the only things that exist are me and the people around me, the sounds that we’re making and the intent we put behind that.”

But as he prepares for life after graduation, Frierson is shifting his focus to developing and honing his individual style. He’s letting all of the information, the music theory, and the relationships with fellow musicians seep in and settle, as he waits for his own sound to emerge.

“I’ve learned how to set a direction for myself and have the discipline to do it,” he says. “I’ve learned how to dig through the different layers and analyze and get into the nitty gritty while being in touch with the intent the music was written with. That’s all really valuable. Once I’m out of school, I just need to let it rest and figure out more about me and my sound.”

Image: Chet and fellow Small Jazz Ensemble members improvise music to the social-justice poetry of the Hon. Photo by John Charles Thomas.

May 11, 2018