Making an impression

Local saxophone player Mike Gill has performed with his share of jazz combos and ensembles throughout the years.

But his most recent gig in California has been a memorable one.

Gill, a 2007 Yellow Medicine East High School graduate from Granite Falls, recently recorded and a played a show with the Walking Phoenixes, a Johnny Cash tribute band based out of Los Angeles, Calif.

Gill was born with hearing loss, which wasn’t discovered until he was 3 years old.

“It’s a moderate hearing loss,” he said. He wears hearing aids.

Gill went on to start playing the saxophone when he was in the sixth grade.

“(But) I didn’t take it seriously until I was a senior in high school,” Gill said.

Gill said playing music was a mode of expression for him.

“It was easier to express myself through music,” he said. “I really enjoy the improvisation aspect.”

Gill attended Southwest Minnesota State University for a year and said music professor John Ginocchio had loaned him Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album.

“It had me hooked from there,” Gill said.

Gill has played with several jazz bands, jazz combos and other music ensembles throughout the years. He continued his education at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He also played with Funky Gumbo, a cover band in Alexandria that performs jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and dance music.

“That gave me a lot of help with improvisation because there’s a lot of improvisation in that group,” Gill said.

Gill said he was singing karaoke at the American Legion in Granite Falls when Yellow Medicine County Veteran Services Officer Michelle Gatz asked him if he wanted to sing with the Walking Phoenixes.

“She (Gatz) had sent me a karaoke video of Michael playing the sax,” said Drewin Young of the Walking Phoenixes. “He had such an incredible stage presence and an incredible musical ear. It was something that touched our hearts.”

The band was doing a couple of performances during the summer, so he sang a couple of songs and played his sax for the audition. He performed with the group at the veterans event in Marshall.

Young said that it was “on his heart” that whatever opportunity may arise that he wanted to have Gill join the band for a guest appearance. The band had talked about having Gill on its upcoming album. When the Walking Phoenixes got the chance to perform in Folsom 45 years after Cash himself played at the prison, Young knew he had to get in touch with Gill.

Some time later, Gill was at open mic at the Varsity Pub in Marshall when he got this “random call” from Young. Young asked Gill if he wanted to record with the Walking Phoenixes and play at a couple of events.

“I couldn’t say no to that,” Gill said.

“That phone call to Mike, he could barely speak, he was very, very excited,” Young said.

Young said Gill saved up money from delivering pizzas to make the trip to California a couple of weeks ago.

Gill recorded with the band Jan. 9, which included the songs “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The band then played at the Three Stages at Folsom Lake College in Folsom, Calif. last Saturday.

“I just loved the energy created by the band members,” Gill said.

On Sunday, Gill and the band members got to go to Folsom Prison and talked with several of the retired peace officers. A few of them were from Minnesota, Gill said, and it was great to hear their stories.

Gill said the band also performed an acoustic set, featuring gospel music.

“It was just gorgeous,” Gill said.

He also got to take a saxophone lesson from Bob Reynolds, who played sax for John Mayer.

Gill said he’s thankful that Gatz got him connected with the Walking Phoenixes in the first place and appreciates the support he’s been given.

“I’m happy the Walking Phoenixes called me again,” he said.