Loren Stillman's resume looks a bit different than the average music student at the University of Montana.
To single out just one part, he played saxophone on two top 10 albums in the 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.
The Brooklyn transplant, who's been gigging in New York since he was 16, moved to Missoula last summer to pursue a master's in composition. It's the latest step in a career that's included work with traditional big bands to private jam sessions with avant-garde legend Ornette Coleman.
"I love doing everything, honestly," he said. "I love playing really straight-ahead stuff with rhythm sections that swing and groove really hard, and I like doing the opposite, too," he said. To his ear, they inform each other and he doesn't want to "limit myself to one way or one idea or format."
Stillman and his family moved here last summer. His wife, Valerie Krex, a filmmaker, lived in Missoula for about a decade. They have two children, ages 3 and 10 months and they wanted a different quality of life for their kids.
He inquired about the master's program here, a necessary step toward teaching at the college level, and enrolled at UM to study composition. It aligns with his interest in merging classical and jazz. He's long studied classical technique, and loves everything from French impressionists like DeBussy and Ravel to avant-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg and György Ligeti.
He's writing and working with composition professor Emilie LeBel, now in an early phase he compared to "foraging" that will culminate in a larger work to be either performed or recorded to finish the degree.
He's also a teaching assistant in the jazz program, working with a small combo and a big band. He said the students have "a great spirit and good energy."
"I've taught at a lot of places, and the kids really do their homework, you know?" he said.
Rob Tapper, the director of the jazz program, said Stillman imparts in them the work ethic, skill level and professionalism required at a professional level. As an example of the opportunities it can create, the students are heading to Berkeley, California, next month to perform. Since they'd be in the area, Stillman lined up a master class at San Jose State University with a piano player, followed by a field trip to a club for a gig.
"That speaks volumes way more than any of faculty beating on them for that sort of thing," he said.
Then, of course, there's the playing. Jazz Times once ranked him as one of the best alto players in New York.
"From a performance standpoint, having someone of that level perform and demonstrate is phenomenal for the students," said Rob Tapper, director of the jazz program.
Stillman grew up in Croton-on-Hudson north of New York City, and picked the alto when he was 7 after seeing his uncle play. He took private lessons and practiced for "hours and hours and hours. I was just obsessed," he said.
"I started playing gigs in New York when I was 16, and I didn't stop and I still haven't stopped," he said.
He released his debut album, "Cosmos," when he was 17 on Soul Note Records, a respected label. Even more notably, according to a 1998 Jazz Times write-up, he was only 15 when he recorded it.
Through the years, he's had the chance to meet and play with legendary figures in jazz, some living and some recently deceased.
He once took a lesson with fellow alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, whose warm tone was an influence, and it developed into regular duet sessions at Konitz's house. For a few years, he would play privately with another hero, the late Ornette Coleman, the originator of freely improvised jazz that has no set chord changes.
"It was the closest thing to sitting in a room with John Coltrane, you know what I mean?" Stillman said. He described it as a rare experience, "just being next to the real thing, the source." It was also unique getting to "make the connection with the person" who created such influential music.
"Sometimes we have a way of idolizing people and putting them on a pedestal, and Ornette was really just such a humble, amazing person," he said.
For about a decade, Stillman played with bassist and bandleader Charlie Haden, who passed away in 2014. Haden led a big band, the Liberation Music Orchestra, that released a final, posthumous album, "Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Human Beings)" in 2016. It made that NPR top 10 list, along with bassist-composer Michael Formanek's record "The Distance," written for his big band, the Ensemble Kolossus.
Stillman gained valuable professional experience with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, a big band that holds residency at the famed Village Vanguard nightclub in New York. That led to another regular gig at the club with drummer Paul Motian, and Stillman can be heard on a 2009 album, "On Broadway, Vol. 5."
The drummer, who died in 2011 at age 80, had a free sense of time-keeping that was influential on generations of musicians, Stillman included.
"Everybody has to move together when you're abandoning time as a functional role," he said. He called it a challenge, not totally free but more akin to orchestrating and arranging together.
Stillman is the main composer in an organ quartet, Bad Touch, that goes back about 15 years. It features Nate Radley on guitar, Gary Versace on organ and Ted Poor on drums.
The band is "very loose and expansive, compositionally and improvisationally. We're always using form as the backbone to everything we're doing," he said.
The New York Times wrote that “Bad Touch is a young group facing the usual embarrassment of riches. It’s looking at 60 or so years of style and temperament in American jazz: soft, loud, fast, slow, in tempo, out of tempo, free, composed, cluttered, sparse, swinging and non-. And it has chosen all of them.”
While the members have dispersed across the country, they still get together to play on occasion. Stillman is heading to the East Coast in March for a few gigs.
In June, he'll fly to Washington, D.C., to play at the Kennedy Center with a legend who's still with us: Carla Bley, the pianist and bandleader.
"She's one of the greatest musicians and human beings I've ever met," he said. "You meet people whose music you've admired and idolized in your life and then you find out they're great people, it's like two for two."