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Papillion teen going places with tenor sax

July 14, 2018

PAPILLION, Neb. (AP) — High school senior Cole Palensky talks about his tenor saxophone as though it’s a person.

He says he likes the way it feels in his hands, the way his fingers click on the keys when he’s practicing his technique.

“If it’s all clicking, it’s just so satisfying to me,” he says.

He also likes the way the mouthpiece creates so many different sounds — bright like Coltrane or Brecker, mellow like Young or Getz.

That’s John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Lester Young and Stan Getz. Cole talks about these legendary jazz greats as though they’re old friends and mentors.

“Those cats are the most innovative,” he says.

The 17-year-old has been crazy about making music ever since playing “Guitar Hero” when he was just a kid.

The Omaha world-Herald reports that now, as he prepares for his last year at Papillion-La Vista South High School, Cole will spend the next month with NYO Jazz, an elite group of young instrumentalists who will study with master musicians, play at Carnegie Hall in New York City and take a two-week tour of Europe. Noted trumpeter Sean Jones will be the group’s bandleader and Grammy-winning singer Dianne Reeves will be a special guest.

It’s a big deal: Cole is one of only 22 teens from across the nation to be chosen out of more than 250 applicants in the program’s first year. And he’s one of only two tenor saxophone players who were selected.

“He’s fantastic,” says Darren Pettit, a University of Nebraska at Omaha assistant professor of music and Cole’s sax teacher. “I’ve been teaching sax to students pretty close to 30 years and he is hands-down the most talented student I’ve ever seen.”

A representative of the Carnegie Hall program said they look for young players with amazing technical and artistic talent who have lots of potential to grow. They also try to assemble a group that represents the country’s diversity and musicians who will have chemistry when they play together.

They found all that in Cole.

“I think we were all struck with just his obvious love of playing the tenor sax and how hard he had worked and how advanced his technique already is,” said Doug Beck, director of artist programs for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

Cole started his musical journey in an ensemble with his dad, John.

“He was the drummer in a little band we have, the Mark Street Trio,” John says. “That was fun for me.”

The group, including Cole’s brother, played at local events such as Ralston’s Fourth of July celebration.

Jazz and blues gradually replaced rock in Cole’s life, partly because of now-retired teacher Ken Janak at Papillion Middle School. Janak, who played with jazz combos around town, encouraged Cole’s work on the alto sax. Cole eventually branched out to tenor sax as well.

“He was very lucky to have him as band director,” John says. “He was just the right person to introduce (Cole) to that art form.”

Cole didn’t take formal lessons until he was a high school sophomore, when he started with Pettit.

“He helped me get conscious of (the types of) sound,” Cole says, and introduced him to the styles of Coltrane, Brecker and Chris Potter, among others.

Cole listened to hours and hours of recordings and dissected photos of the greats playing their saxophones.

“I’d look at pictures of their embouchure (the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument) and ask ‘Does my embouchure look like that?’” he says. “I’d pay attention to how my throat was open and keep my tongue up to keep the pitch up. I’d listen to players I wanted to sound like.”

He transcribed lots of Coltrane and Brecker solos into sheet music and attempted to match their tones.

Though Cole got his start in the family group, John says his own influence had little to do with his son’s jazz prowess.

“He’s self-taught,” John says. “The depth of his playing went past me a long time ago.”

Cole’s talent was apparent at the recent UNO Jazz Camp for high-schoolers, where he performed a solo on a swinging version of “Too Close for Comfort” with passionate proficiency. His calm, nearly expressionless demeanor as he played with his ensemble offered no indication of the boisterous solo to come.

He’s attended the camp — which offers a glimpse of what he can expect in New York — for the last couple of years and has worked there with Chip McNeill, a widely known professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign who is music director for jazz legend Arturo Sandoval.

All this prepared Cole for the detailed and competitive NYO Jazz audition process, which began this winter. Pettit encouraged him to go for the opportunity.

“He told Cole ‘You need to try out because you’d get in,’ ” John says.

During winter break from school, Cole practiced eight hours each day. He assembled a band to record an audition tape, submitting it to the contest in February. By one night in mid-March, he was getting anxious.

“I was, like, panicking, laying in bed. I couldn’t sleep.”

The next morning, he saw an acceptance letter in his email.

He leaves next week for a two-week residency at the State University of New York in Purchase, where he will take master classes and work on the band’s 26-piece repertoire. NYO Jazz plays at Carnegie Hall on July 27 and then travels to London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Edinburgh, especially cool because Cole has never been out of the country.

John and wife Mary also are excited — they will be at every concert, both in New York and overseas.

The audition process for NYO Jazz was a prelude for his next step: applying to college. He knows he wants a career in music but isn’t sure about where to study. Possibilities include prestigious institutions such as Manhattan School of Music, Berklee College of Music and the Juilliard School.

He’s also considering the University of Illinois after working with McNeill.

Wherever he goes, says UNO’s Pettit, he’s sure to be a success. The teacher says Cole has perfect pitch and is an extremely fast learner.

“He’s the only student I’ve ever told ‘When you’re done with high school, you have to move to New York City.’ He could go to school wherever he wants.”

And, Pettit adds, he’s likely to be kind of an international phenomenon when he launches his career.

“Cole is one of those kids we’ll be listening to,” he says.

For Cole, it’s all about finding the sweet spot. When he speaks about making music, he echoes McNeill’s mantra.

“If it doesn’t feel good, it’s pointless.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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