Jake Clemons | Photo by Matthew Boster Carasella
Jake Clemons, with Bassel and the Supernaturals, 9 p.m. March 28, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport. $10-$12. (773) 525-2508; schubas.com
If you’re a fan of Bruce Springsteen, you know Jake Clemons. In early 2012, the young saxophonist stepped into the shoes of his late uncle, Clarence, as the lead sax player in the E Street Band. Performing with the band has been both thrilling and bittersweet for Clemons, who was very close to his uncle.
“Musically for me, it was basically Clarence and John Coltrane as far as the sax was concerned,” Clemons says. “I grew up under those shadows and tried to figure out my own sound.”
Clemons, a multi-instrumentalist (sax, guitar, piano), singer and songwriter, takes a step in that direction with his recently released EP, “Embracing Light,” a rootsy five-song collection that shows variety and depth. In between the E Street Band’s constant touring, he says it was “pretty intense” trying to find time to record his own music.
He says he got advice from Springsteen about how to approach a new record: “One of the main things he stressed was the importance of having a theme, a message. You can have a great collection of songs that people will listen to but at the end of day [it’s]: What do you think of them? What do they mean to you?”
As a youngster, Clemons was surrounded by music of a different kind. His father William, Clarence’s younger brother, was a band director in the Marine Corps, so there was lots of marching band music, as well as classical and gospel, around the house. Rock ’n’ roll really wasn’t in the picture until he saw the E Street Band for the first time when he was 8.
“It was at that concert that I realized music was my destiny,” Clemons, 34, recalls. “That concert was the first time I heard distorted guitars. It blew my mind.”
Inspired by his uncle’s stage work, he told his father he wanted to take up the saxophone. “He agreed but told me I had to first learn piano, which at the time I wasn’t excited about,” Clemons says laughing. “But in hindsight, I see the wisdom in the deal.”
By the time he had mastered piano and sax, Clemons turned to songwriting. It was an odd run-in with Dave Grohl that supplied a mega-dose of encouragement. He was performing some of his original songs at a wedding that Grohl happened to be attending.
“He came up to me afterwards and poured on the encouragement,” Clemons says. “That was a big moment for me in terms of having faith in my songwriting.”
Clemons also didn’t have much faith in his vocal ability. Seeing Glen Hansard singing in the movie “Once” turned that around.
“I never really fashioned myself a singer, but there was just something about Glen and the way he sings. It’s raw, it’s honest and it’s unapologetic.”
Since joining the E Street Band, Clemons has been dubbed “Little Big Man” by Springsteen fans because the Boss referred to Clarence as “The Big Man.” People have told Clemons that at times with the E Street Band it sounds like his uncle is playing through him.
“I can feel Clarence’s strong, powerful presence every time I play his horns with the band,” Clemons says, pausing. “There was a time of healing that I shared with the band and with the fans. It was a very heavy time but rich and beautiful as well.”
Clemons finishes his tour in early April, and two days later he’s back on the road with Springsteen. He’s the first to admit the last few years have been “kind of crazy.”
“I feel like I’ve been attending rock ’n’ roll university,” Clemons says laughing. “And working directly under the dean.”