To appreciate the cool vibe jazz saxophonist Brandon Wozniak brings to a set, it pays to watch him stride to the bandstand.
With a tall and imposing presence, Wozniak evokes the image of the great horn players in whose steps he follows. Among them would certainly be Dexter Gordon, the silky smooth master whose photo hangs to the left of the stage at St. Paul's Artists' Quarter, where the saxophonist performs Saturday with bassist Adam Linz and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt.
Wozniak plays with a number of Twin Cities jazz ensembles, among them Monk in Motion, the Adam Meckler Quintet, the Bryan Nichols Quintet, Dave King Trucking Company and the Atlantis Quartet.
Besides excellent technique, the saxophonist brings stirring emotion to the groups and a flowing style. Although he often plays a supportive role to the soloists, he is an improvisational leader among leaders.
"My role is usually to play the melody line and to try to tell a story through improvisation," Wozniak said. "It's not always about that, but I do play the saxophone so it kind of comes with the territory. The people I play with regularly know I'm going try to create and play something original every time I step on stage and they know I'm going to listen to every note and beat they play."
Adding his voice to a group while retaining individuality comes easily to Wozniak. A Green Bay, Wis., native who grew up in Colorado and Indiana, he studied at Indiana University, which has a rigorous jazz studies program led by master educator David Baker. Heavily based on bebop patterns and scales, it stressed jazz fundamentals: how to play tunes and navigate chord changes.
Though he thinks it might have made more sense to skip college and follow Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman around for a few years, Wozniak credits his saxophone professor Tom Walsh with letting him know there are no shortcuts.
"Everyone has their own path," he said. "As long as you continue the search you'll get to where you're supposed to be eventually."
Wozniak's path led him to New York City and the Tom Dorsey band, where he learned from journeyman musicians. Six years ago, he returned to the Twin Cities, where his parents live.
Since then, he's done some of his most innovative work for the Atlantis Quartet, which also includes bassist Chris Bates, drummer Pete Hennig and guitarist Zacc Harris.
Wozniak didn't know what to expect when he arrived, but was pleased to find a solid core of musicians intent on improving their craft, and keeping jazz alive.
"There are a lot of creative people here," he said. "I don't think I would have stuck around if this wasn't the case. I knew about Happy Apple but that was about it. I need to be around people who are trying to create and grow as improvisers and would be miserable otherwise.
"Fortunately for me, there are a lot of talented artists of all kinds in Minnesota and I can honestly say I no longer miss New York City. I do miss my friends and the music there sometimes but I actually play there more now than I did when I lived there and I get a chance to see people when I'm out there."
Wozniak has been in the recording studio of late, for Harris' recently released album The Garden and for an upcoming record by Chris Bates. He's also writing his own tunes and hopes to deliver a recording next year.
Meanwhile, he's continually playing, not worried about who receives top billing.
"I plan on leading more in the future but even if a project is under someone's name, we all collaborate and trade ideas so much that it all feels like one big creative collective most of the time," Wozniak said. "I'm not interested in putting out a record just so people can see my name and say he's finally a leader as if that's the final hump to me becoming a great player.
"We all lead in different ways, I try to do it through my playing and I think that's what's earned me the most amount of respect among my peers. I may not always say it with words but I don't think there's much doubt about what's going to happen once we start playing. At this point I just want to continue doing what I've been doing, trying to play the music that's in my head."