Get to know the Grossman Ensemble: Taimur Sullivan, saxophone

saxophonist Taimur Sullivan and horn player Matt Oliphant in rehearsal


This year at the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, we're introducing (or re-introducing) you to members of our resident ensemble, the Grossman Ensemble. Today, we're sharing more about saxophonist Taimur Sullivan. Read on to learn how the Grossman Ensemble has created community and inspiration for Taimur and to learn more about his experience with jazz and bluegrass.

What has been your most memorable moment from your time in the Grossman Ensemble? 

New music players, myself included, pride themselves on time and making sense of complex rhythms. And then we met Tania Leon, who spent a good bit of rehearsal re-teaching us how to interpret our relationship with time and rhythm as it pertained to her wonderful work in particular - a work which fuses contemporary musical language with a rhythmic sense based in the vitality of Cuban music. It was a fantastic master class for us all!

How did you become interested in pursuing a career in music? Were there any other fields that you considered?

I attribute this largely to wonderful teachers at both the middle and high school level where I grew up, in Champaign, IL. That, and then meeting Joseph Lulloff, who would become one of my teachers and mentors, sealed the deal for me at a young age. I'm not sure I ever seriously considered anything else. I think a young me once uttered the words 'or maybe Business', but really I had no idea what I was talking about. 

Taimur Sullivan posing outside with a saxophone

What other ways do you like to make music in your life?

I am the saxophone professor at Northwestern University, so I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by great music-making every day by students and colleagues. Much of my musical life is also spent with my saxophone quartet, PRISM, with whom I have been performing and recording for almost 30 years. My saxophone playing actually began in the world of jazz, and I have always kept a foot in that area and play it whenever possible, and in the privacy of my home I also improvise on piano. And then during the summers I switch hats completely; my two daughters are both award-winning bluegrass musicians, and we spend a good part of the summers in the Blueridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, where we are immersed in bluegrass, Irish, and old time music. I keep up as best as I can on my horn - usually not particularly well, but I do receive sympathetic smiles from the flatpickers. My main advantage is that I'm the only saxophonist for miles around, so at least there is the novelty factor.

What is something you learned as a music teacher that you didn’t learn as a music student?

When you are a student, you only really know how you learn - it is, by necessity, your whole reality. As a teacher, we need to figure out how each and every one of our students learn. This balance of teaching the subject, and teaching the student, is a vital one to strike as a one-on-one instructor.

Your upcoming concerts include a performance with a local high school and a performance at the Kimmel Center. How do you prepare for such different performances?

It's safe to say that I prepare no differently for any of my concerts. I am trying to represent the composition, the composer, my instrument, and myself at the highest possible level that I can. It really doesn't matter if I'm playing for a student in a lesson, in front of a high school band, or with the Cleveland Orchestra. Right now I'm trying to get 2-3 hours of practicing a day in for this high school performance, which is on par for pretty much any feature appearance.

What has being in the Grossman Ensemble meant to you?

So many things. First, it has meant creating a new and grounded community for us all - the musicians, the composers, the administration. This sense of community, and shared goals, is a vital underpinning of how we function. Secondly, it has provided a novel way for us to approach the support of new works. Instead of receiving completed pieces and working them up quickly, we are in on the creation process from the outset, in a 9 week workshop/rehearsal format that allows collaboration and input back and forth between the composers and performers at every step. Lastly, it means endless inspiration. The group is filled with rock stars of the music world who provide inspiration day-in and day-out, and the composers we work with create the most fantastical, inventive music for our ensemble. It's truly a 'dream team' in the world of new music.