Springsteen sax player Jake Clemons channeling uncle’s spirit

Jake Clemons, nephew of the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, made his New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival debut with Bruce Springsteen in 2012. Clemons fit right in, even though it was just his third official show with the E Street Band.

Speaking from New York recently, Clemons described his 2012 Jazz Fest appearance as mind-blowing. At the show, he played the tenor and baritone saxophones he’d inherited from his uncle, who died in June 2011. He’ll be playing them again Saturday at Jazz Fest.

“Those horns are a way to keep him with me,” said Clemons, a 34-year-old singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and recording artist who recently released a solo EP, “Embracing Light.”

“My dad and I, we had a hard time connecting,” he said. “But Clarence and I were always close. He asked me to be the best man at his wedding.”

Clarence Clemons’ death left his nephew shattered. He, Springsteen and members of the E Street Band were all missing someone who’d been a cornerstone of their lives. Clemons and Springsteen talked a lot in the months after the saxophonist’s death, on the phone and in person.

“We were dealing with this strange new place that we had never been before, that we never anticipated knowing,” Clemons said. Months of conversation with Springsteen preceded Clemons’ performances with the E Street Band. “It was a purposeful, slow process,” he recalled.

One big step for Clemons was his collaboration with Eddie Vedder and Glen Hansard.

“I hadn’t played my saxophone since Clarence passed,” he said. “But I played some music with them. It became this amazing feeling of connection, in a spiritual way, beyond physical. I felt like Clarence’s spirit was with me.”

Following his healing work with Vedder and Hansard, Clemons wanted to play music as much as possible.

“I could not be selfish with this healing,” he said. “Millions of people around the world needed to experience that as well. It became a pretty natural thing.”

Sharing the world’s stages with Springsteen and the E Street Band has been beautiful, Clemons said.

“I just did a solo tour,” he said. “People along the way asked me how different is it playing these small clubs in comparison to big arenas and stadiums with Bruce. Because I’m with Bruce, it’s no different. The room is bigger, there are more people there, but that connection is just as intimate. He draws everybody in. It’s really spectacular.

“We went down to South America in the fall. He’d never been to South America. Crowds who had never seen Bruce perform — most of them probably there because of the legend — were enraptured for 3½ hours. South Africa, the same thing.

“Watching this man perform, I’ve learned amazing lessons about courage and strength. Music is transcendent. It is a supernatural force. What a blessing for us to be able to be conduits of that.”