I'm the folk-singing son of a folksinger, who got introduced to jazz in college. I've been riding both trains ever since. I was exclusively a singer until my little brother dropped an acoustic guitar off at my house in the dead of night a decade-and-a-half ago. That was the beginning of a career that has put me on stages all over the world as a band leader, songwriter, and storyteller.
What was the first concert you ever went to?
My first concert was Ellis Marsalis on the Berkeley campus in Oakland with my grandfather. Grandad was a music teacher and musician, who arranged tunes in his head to keep his chin up as a prisoner of war in France during WWII. He took me to a lot of A's games. But that night, it was Ellis Marsalis.
What gear do you use?
I've used a Breedlove SD20 for years, on an off with a Martin D35 and a Martin OM18V. I've been playing for the last few years through a Fishman Aura Spectrum, which I like better than any Fishman product I've ever heard (I haven't been crazy about my Fishman pickups, but in combination with the Aura Spectrum, it's been a pretty much guaranteed great sound, plugh-and-play).
Who was your biggest musical influence growing up?
My dad's album collection had plenty of James Taylor, Plenty of Harry Nilsson, plenty of Cat Stevens, some Keith Jarrett, and a bunch of Bach. It also had a ton of Dylan, which for my dad was the mother lode. I was a grownup before I found my way into Dylan. I started with "Slow Train Coming." Dylan's a pillar for me.
Are you in a band? Have you been in bands?
I've played as Sam Payne for years, with a group that called itself "The Sam Payne Trio," and later "The Sam Payne Project." Right at the center of my work now is a jazz quartet called "Savoy." We play and play. I also work as a storytelling solo artist.
If you could jam with anyone, who would it be?
"Jam" might be a strong word, but Stephen Foster is my patron saint. I think "No one to Love" is one of the most beautiful songs in the world. Likewise "O Comrades, Fill No Glass For Me." In terms of people who actually lived while I was alive, I think the biggest musical discovery of my adult experience was "The Last Waltz." I think Levon Helm is a national treasure, God rest his soul.
What's the biggest audience you ever performed to? What's the smallest?
The smallest show I ever played was to two people: a command performance for Richard Dreyfuss and his wife in their hotel room. The largest show I've played was for 8,500 on the fourth of July of, oh, say, 2008. The most memorable performance might have been an amphitheater gig the day after the passing of the father of Denis Zwang, my sax player. We played Gershwin's "Love is Here to Stay," big tears rolling down Denis' cheeks as he went somewhere in a spiraling solo, on and on and on through chorus after heartbreaking chorus. Unforgettable.
You're stuck on a desert island and only get to bring one album with you. What do you pick?
If the ship is going down, and my life depends on picking just one album, I guess I'm going down with the ship.