Chances are good that you’ve listened to Collin Tilton’s music before—possibly for decades, even. After all, it’s Tilton’s simmering sax and flute lines that punctuate such classic Van Morrison tunes as “And it Stoned Me,” “Moondance,” and “Into the Mystic.” For anyone who owns a copy of the 1970 Moondance album—rated #66 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time—the horn parts, which are as dominant as the vocals, are recognizable to the point of being hummable.
Clean and breezy, the lines are equal parts jazz and blues; they imbue every song on Moondance with just enough R&B to have made the genre of the album nearly indefinable. Isolating moments of certain tunes can actually conjure images of the most deft swing band from the ’50s. Take the sax break in the album’s title song: It harkens back to some smokey after-hours jazz club with sharp dressed instrumentalists huddled around one another on stage, working feverishly to deck out the main melody with grit and vitality.
A young man in his 20s at the time, Tilton happened upon the recording session back in 1969 in Woodstock, New York, after Morrison, known even today for his fastidiousness as well as erratic bouts of behavior, fired his studio band. They were out, and Tilton, who by then was adept on flute, clarinet, and saxophone, was in. Woodstock was an unlikely artistic hub. Just under three hours from the city, the pastoral, sparsely populated town became home to such lumi- naries as Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, and The Band. This is what caused Tilton to uproot from New Jersey and take up residence in a modest attic apartment on Tinker Street that he shared with his first wife.
Elliott Landy, famed photojournalist who captured what are now peerless images of the ’60s music scene, also lived in Woodstock during this time. “Life was sweet. The spirituality of the place took me over and transformed my life,” Landy writes in the afterword of his book, Woodstock Vision. If you were fortunate enough to play music and earn a paycheck in those days, life was in fact sweet.
“The Van Morrison project was just another gig at the time,” recalls Tilton today, who main- tains he had no idea that the Moondance record would be the megahit it has become. “I was a working musician doing what a working musi- cian does: working.” It is this very ethos that has allowed Tilton, now in his 60s, to toil steadily for decades, on both coasts no less, with his instruments in hand, playing the role of band- leader, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter.
Tilton muses on his time with Morrison, with whom he also toured for years in the early 1970s, in the same way he does about everything else in his life—with a lucid sense of humility and nonchalance. He does not come off as an artist wading knee-deep in the nostalgia of his halcyon days; he’s too busy for that. Tilton who, since 1989 has played sax and flute with the iconic Connecticut band, Eight to the Bar, also owns and
operates Bar None Studio in North Branford.
“I opened the place on a whim,” he says. “It was during the digital explosion. I wanted a place that could foster the artist and be conducive to getting a nice, warm sound.”
Recordings made at Bar None are made on a custom-built Sonica dual core computer and Samplitude software. To the neophyte, this simply means that the studio is stocked with state-of-the-art equipment that will garner pristine 5.1 surround sound, which is of the highest possible quality. Bar None, is a capacious and airy space, which also boasts enough isolation booths to make live band recording accessible. Despite having no formal training as a sound engineer, Tilton says he saw instant success: “I poured money into the place and watched it grow through the years.”
Having recorded genres as diverse as ska and zydeco to alum from Blood Sweat & Tears, Tilton considers Bar None Studio to be his veritable playground. It’s where, as Tilton puts it, “technical savvy and artistic vision can meet on common ground.” Aside from being the studio of choice for Eight to the Bar, it’s also where he records a bevy of instructional CDs for Alfred Music Publishing, the company responsible for putting instruments in the hands of curious young children since the early 1920s.
Tilton has come a long way from playing clarinet in elementary school in Trenton, NJ. “I grew up listening to Polish music—Polkas and that sort of thing,” he recalls good-naturedly. But even at a young age, he could play.
“You couldn’t be a hack on your instrument,” Tilton says with conviction. “It was essential that you knew more than a few scales if you hoped to keep up with the serious musicians.”
By the time he reached high school, he moved on to the saxophone. Weaned more on the bebop sax of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young than the raucous mainstream music of Elvis and Little Richard, Tilton knew his interests were off the beaten path. Another early influence was his classically trained uncle, who lived upstairs from Tilton’s family. “The music was there, all around me, so I must have absorbed it somehow,” he says.
Finding himself in bucolic Woodstock during the heyday of the peace and love era, Tilton played in some high-profile gigs before landing the Van Morrison job. A musician’s musician, as the saying goes, Tilton is versed in blues, jazz, rock, swing, and Motown. With deft precision, and an almost scholarly approach to his craft, he can emulate any of these genres with ease and comfort. And it’s this level of expertness that has made him preeminent in the music business. If you ask any of his bandmates about his abilities, they will state the obvious: “How else could he have played over the years with the likes of Etta James and Clarence Clemons?”
An Eight to the Bar live show is a party. It’s a party for the musicians and it’s a party for the audience. The six-piece mixed-gender band, whose sets include covers as well as originals, is composed of artists who clearly love sharing the stage with one another. Their synergy and enthusiasm is evident before the chorus of their first song is sung. Tilton, one of several soloists in the band, is generous with his fellow musicians. He is comfortable to sit back and augment a song with tasteful flourishes—observe the band’s howling version of the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic, “Pride and Joy”—or elevate a song into the stratosphere. Check out Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” an instant crowd-pleaser. One listen to Tilton’s sax playing, and it’s obvious: he could upstage nearly anyone. But he doesn’t. He plays for the song and the performance. And he’s been lucky enough to find a group of empathetic musicians to share in this vision.
With backgrounds steeped in everything from Doo-Wop to blues to big band to orchestral, Eight to the Bar is a force to be reckoned with. The band can effortlessly genre-jump with the best of them. And they do. Check out the YouTube clip of the group playing a medley at Norfolk’s Infinity Hall. Their musical schizophrenia is teeming with authenticity, all the while boasting their impressive technical skill. And in the middle of it all is Tilton, smiley at times, stoic at others, and always joyfully waiting to make his contribution to the song, yet nevertheless enthralled by the efforts of his musical brethren.
With a new Eight to the Bar record slotted for release sometime in 2014, and gigs booked, Tilton says he thrives on staying busy. “It’s a full load,” he says, “yet manageable. I’m having fun. Writing, recording, playing, being a grand- father.” Tilton, who’s married to Eight to the Bar’s founding member, singer, songwriter, pianist, and band leader, Cynthia Lyon, exudes the energy not of the seasoned pro he is, but of a teenager who has just found his niche playing sweet-sounding licks that have garnered some wonderful new attention.
“I can’t imagine Collin doing anything else with his life,” Cynthia maintains. “He’s a musician through and through.” Then she recounts a story of listening to the radio one evening in her small New Haven apartment. The year was 1970 and the song was “Into the Mystic.” Lyon describes the sax hook in the song as “ancient” and “soulful.” “I loved him musically before I even knew him,” she says today. It’s safe to say, perhaps, that we know exactly what she means.
Image Credits: Illustration courtesy of Shutterstock