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Andrew D'Angelo is back, not that he ever left. Late last January, the renowned Brooklyn-based alto saxophonist was diagnosed with brain cancer after a sudden seizure landed him in the hospital. Now in full remission, the 43-year-old downtown-jazz fixture is playing back-to-back shows on February 17 and 18 at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, to celebrate his somewhat inexplicably renewed health.
Following the initial diagnosis, D'Angelo underwent two brain surgeries to remove the tumor; his last operation was in March 2008. Beyond surgery, though, he's turned down any conventional treatment, opting instead to work with Peter Roth, founder of the Heart River Center for Intuitive Healing on the Upper West Side. He's evidently beat the cancer without any radiation treatment, something no doctor can explain. In addition to creative visualization, a technique that involves imagining himself as healthy, D'Angelo takes 58 vitamins and herbal supplements daily, a veritable ABC of natural medicines, from apricot enzymes to zinc sulfate.
"I think we have more control than we give ourselves credit for," he says. "I'm going to die, but not from this."
D'Angelo grew up in Seattle, where at 16 he led a professional big band that rehearsed in his garage and played local weddings. In the mid-'80s, he teamed with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, drummer Jim Black, and multi-reedist Chris Speed to form Human Feel, a watershed free-jazz group that rose to prominence in the Knitting Factory scene. In addition to an extensive recording career, he's been a key member of such groups as Tyft and the Matt Wilson Quartet; quite simply, D'Angelo has played agent provocateur to the downtown scene for the past two decades, bringing a feverish energy to the stage that, if you're truly pressed to draw comparisons, conjures Fela Kuti or Ornette Coleman. That's not to say his style is anything but unique: "Ornette doesn't think I sound like him," he jokes. "So that's all that matters."
Like many jazz musicians, D'Angelo is uninsured, so in order to help defray the medical costs (a considerable burden even with his unconventional approach), members of the international jazz community were quick to organize more than 30 benefit concerts across the world, one as far-flung as Reykjavík. D'Angelo now says he couldn't have rehabilitated himself without that outpouring of support: "Those friends loving and supporting you, that in and of itself—love heals."
In fact, after his most recent MRI scan in November, he went on a rigorous European tour with cohorts Black and bassist Trevor Dunn—together, the Gay Disco Trio. The three brought their manic, often electronics-infused thump across the continent, playing 10 shows in two weeks. But on his second day back stateside, D'Angelo woke up in a hospital bed; doctors informed him he'd had a grand mal seizure. Ever resilient, he then asked the attendant if he was fit to leave, got up, and walked home. He hasn't been to the hospital since. "I felt like a rock on that tour," he recalls. "You feel invincible. That seizure was the universe's way of showing me I'm not 100 percent—yet."
Ultimately, the saxophonist insists he's emerged from this experience with more conviction than ever to remain a driving force in New York's jazz scene: "I had to sign a living will. That starts to make you think. Looking back at those 40 staples in my head, I think my music's going to change. It has to. I better play better than I ever have in my life, or I missed it. I missed the lesson. I missed the whole point." Not that he doesn't have a sense of humor about it. "I feel like any adversity should pale in comparison," he adds. "You'd think any situation I got into would seem manageable. Man, I had brain cancer—but watch something happen, and watch me react. I'll tell you this—my mom still annoys me."
The Tea Lounge hosts Andrew D'Angelo's Gay Disco Trio February 17, and the Andrew D'Angelo Big Band February 18