Sunday, September 28, 2014

Spring / Summer 2014




The Way Things Feel

Living in midtown Manhattan it sometimes seems as if it couldn't be possible to add any more people into the mix, any further noise, any further activity. And then for a few weeks in late August there is a marked decrease in the amount of people. Less traffic, less sound, less movement. While many folks choose this time to vacate the city I find it to be one of my very favorite times to be in town. A little more room to think and feel. And perhaps catch up on maintaining this blog.

I realize that the posts here have been coming less frequently as of late. Not sure entirely why that is except to realize that the intuitive mode of working often requires a degree of retrospection in order to articulate and make sense of what’s been done. Or perhaps it’s OK to simply admit that I have little to say for a particular length of time. 

Writing about music tends towards intellectualization. Not that it can’t be done. Good writing is it’s own form of expression, not a substitute for experiencing the things it is describing. The direct experience of hearing music is by nature non-verbal (lyrics aside). So how is it processed, before the act of intellectualization? What does the music sound like? “Like” in this instance is a comparative word. Perhaps we can better ask, what does the music feel like? Feel is experiential, direct, even physical. If there is any theme or cohesion in this lengthy post, it may center around the issue of how things feel.

I turned fifty-five this year, and that feels good. This past summer has been a time to more deeply connect with family and friends while considering just what it means to make a life in music. In this culture, devoting ones life to music requires making a living at it, being able to do it as much as you can and to the highest degree you can. Certain sacrifices may be required. There can often be pressure to compromise our artistic goals as we figure out how to earn a living. And yet there is another potential compromise if in the pursuit of these goals we somehow miss out on too much of what life has to offer.

Having raised this issue, perhaps it’s best to start with a philosophical essay, inspired by some recent statements by one of the masters in this music.



Who’s playing?

Sonny Rollins did in interview recently with NPR which was titled “You Can’t Think and Play at the Same Time”. There was one quote in particular that got me to…thinking…

“The thing is this: When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. I don't want to overtly think about anything, because you can't think and play at the same time — believe me, I've tried it (laughs). It goes by too fast.”  

That’s something I can strongly relate to, as I’m sure most of you can as well.  By the time you calculate, or separate yourself for even an instant from the music you’ve lost your place. If we try and be too clever about intentionally putting this or that idea into action we may actually derail the process. Then he went on to say:

“I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I'm just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that's when it's really happening.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment among musicians, especially improvisors. And while I understand what he’s saying, the way he says it draws my interest in a bit more deeply. At the risk of reading more into it than was intended there are some fundamental questions raised that are worth considering.

The first thing that caught my attention was the idea of “I’m not supposed to be playing” and that the music is coming "through" us. That seems to imply that the music comes from some other source. But if we’re not the source of the music, who or what is? As for “standing there with the horn, moving my fingers", if I disengage to the point that I am letting my fingers go on their own I will likely wind up playing rote, practiced ideas that may not relate very well to the music in the moment. Obviously Sonny Rollins does not have that problem so let’s look a little deeper.  

If the music is coming “through” us perhaps we need to think about the words “me” and “music” in some other way. Let’s consider “me” in the context of “thinking”. It’s very easy to identify with our thoughts as being “me”. But clearly this can create problems. Thoughts change. And they may well get in the way of doing certain things. Playing music requires a sense of flow. So how do we turn our thoughts off when improvising? Simply by turning our attention towards how it feels to actually do the thing you’re doing, without distraction or personal commentary. If we entertain the possibility of losing ourselves in the music, then we won’t perceive any separation between ourselves and the music. Perhaps asking where the music is coming from is not the correct question.

What are we really talking about here? More than just playing the saxophone, we are also listening to the sounds being made around us, interacting with other musicians in real time. In order for a group of musicians to improvise a coherent and compositionally balanced piece of music there has to be enough overt connection and development of ideas between the members of the group to create a sense of continuity.  And there has to be enough variety, initiation of new ideas and independence among the musicians to create contrast and keep things moving. This involves issues of intellect, organization and negotiation. And yet we leave all of this to our intuitive, non-verbal, non-thinking minds to accomplish. What could possibly go wrong?

If the participants each took too passive a role little music may actually take place. Too aggressive a stance and the players get ahead of the music. How to balance being pro-active and being responsive? I would suggest that by placing attention on the overall music and intuitively asking, “what does the music need right now” we remain engaged in the moment and ready to guide the music in any particular direction or achieve the proper balance at any particular time. Our intellect and years of training and study inform the process but the music is guided simply by the act of playing the music itself. Our attention stays on what we are doing at the moment we are doing it, no more no less.

You may have noticed that I left out “feeling” or “emotion” when discussing what is involved in playing music. I attended a chamber music concert earlier this year which was followed by a discussion with the composers and artists involved.  Someone in the audience asked the vocalist about the role of emotion in the process of interpreting the music. The vocalist surprised me by bringing up the fact that if she were to become emotional during the performance it would physically interfere with her ability to sing. Even as I understood the obvious truth of that statement I didn’t want to fully accept it. I don’t like to think of music as being cold or cerebral. But of course that’s not an idea that she was endorsing. In some way this could be similar to the idea of ”thinking” as it interferes with the process, and yet intellect is still present. Emotion may also interfere with the process and yet feeling is still there. Intellect and feeling are accessed naturally in the act of “doing” music. To the point that we may even say that playing music is not “about” these things. If we want to be intellectual there are ways to be intellectual and if we want to be emotional there are ways to be emotional. And yet music involves both. Clear away notions of intellectualism and emotionalism, remove any baggage that we may potentially bring to the process and what is left? Only the music. And the music contains everything.



Swing as a Creative Act - Towson University Residency 

I'm not an idiomatically “correct” player. When placed in any particular musical situation I'm usually predisposed to situate myself somewhat left of center, meaning that I understand the context I find myself in yet there is a desire to expand that context just a bit. And yes, there is a fine line between expanding the music and imposing one’s self on it. I’ll be honest, there have been times in which I’ve crossed that line. I’m tempted to point some of them out. But I won’t. So don’t ask.

Expanding the music simply means adding something, ones own voice. But what if you are consciously trying to recreate a music on idiomatic terms? There may well be a set of unwritten rules by which one is guided. Asserting one’s own voice may be problematic, raising the question of the appropriateness of such a notion in recreating a music that was new, say, eighty years ago. The problem is that we know too much. Too much history has taken place since then. So we have to edit the creative process to such an extent that it becomes questionable whether it’s still a creative process. If anything it’s a re-creative process, a different dynamic than the one that was in place at the time that music was first played. 

If you listen long and hard enough to early jazz at some point you may get beyond the style and hear the creative process that was going on. And you may recognize that process with such familiarity that you think, “that sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. That sounds modern.” At least that’s what happened to me in the past few years. So the question then becomes, can that music be replicated? I’ve raised that question before but I haven’t closed the door on the possibility that it can be done.

It might be accomplished by simply dealing with the musical raw materials as such. If we understand the conceptual parameters of the music (as determined by the materials) we should be able to find creative choices within those parameters. But what of the fundamental relationship we, as individuals, have with the music? You may respect the music, even revere the music. You may in fact love the music. But do you love to play it? What does it mean to pick up an instrument and play from your own feelings of how it feels to be alive, no agenda, no function, in this moment. Letting go of everything else, obligations, requirements, the word “should”. No need to prove anything to anyone, particularly yourself. What would you play?

I won’t risk projecting any of that onto musicians from generations back. There were agendas, conventions, obligations, of course. But at certain times in history it seems that particular values come together, values of entertainment, art and personal expression, resulting in a music that speaks to it’s time and yet remains vital well beyond that time. To the degree that we perceive a form of honesty and directness in that music, a sense of pushing at the boundaries, a sense of expanding the music even as it’s being played, we hear musicians who were creating music, not recreating it. Is it safe to assume that they loved playing it because it was a personal expression as well as a collective expression geared to the realities of it’s time? If so, would we regard this as an essential ingredient in trying to play this music today, beyond the technical issues?

There are many musicians who play very well in these early styles yet I sometimes yearn for them to break the rules and go a little wild. But if I’m honest, I never have that feeling when I listen to the original recordings from years back. So maybe it’s not rule-breaking and mania that I’m missing. There are also many musicians playing this music from a less reverential stance. They sometimes surprise me with how much vitality there still is in this music when having some fun. But I often wind up feeling that these performances tend towards a degree of shallowness, lacking in a certain depth that is evident in the early recordings. So just what is the proper balance, the missing ingredient? Again, I’m not saying it can’t be done, just looking at the issues.

This past April I had a chance to experience firsthand how these issues can play out. I was invited to do a week long teaching residency at Towson University in Baltimore. When doing these types of workshops with students I'm often hired to bring a "creative" improvising ethic to the proceedings. I have no problem with that. It’s only natural given the music I make. But there is a troubling implication in making a distinction between creative improvising and jazz improvising. The former is often regarded as a personal expression while the later is often regarded in terms of style. This results in a tacit omission of certain essential musical elements in the stance of being "creative" or “modern”, namely swing. But swinging is one of the most creative acts we can manifest in our music. To simply regard it as a style diminishes it's power. 

Addressing this issue head on there seemed no better place to start than to have the students play some early Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington compositions. I've been listening almost exclusively to early jazz for the last couple of years but that alone could not prepare me for what I was getting into. I had never done this before with a group of students. Thankfully much of the heavy lifting had been done by director Jim McFalls in preparation for my arrival. We knew this was not going to be a straight repertory project but we had to find the essentials of the music in order to find our own approach.

As I walked into the first rehearsal the band was already there and warming up. They had been working on the music for some weeks so I asked to hear something. I didn’t know quite what to expect (as there were a number of freshman students in the band) but was pleasantly surprised by how well they navigated the chart. There was one issue however that deserved immediate attention. The bass sounded muddy and indistinct. This affected the way the drummer played and by extension the way the entire band played. I figured the amplifier was turned up too high and suggested turning it all the way down then incrementally raising it until the proper level was reached. But as soon as the bassist turned off the amp and started playing time with the drums the difference was clear to everyone. They were swinging so hard I wanted to pick up my horn and join in. There was now a clarity to the sound and a sense of the proper weight on the proper part of the beat that was lacking just a moment ago. Now we had a foundation for the rhythmic feel, the essential quality of the music.

As a result each member of the ensemble was able to feel their own relationship to the time. And being able to hear every other person in the band allowed the ability to interact with various subsets of the group at any given time according to the orchestration. This became the entry point for making creative choices based upon the issue of “how does it feel”. As the rehearsals progressed we picked up on certain textures or events in the music that seemed to be viable points for further exploration, designing introductions, endings or insertions of improvised material. Some of the pieces we played more or less verbatim according to the scores, even replicating some of the solos as they were done on the original recordings. What’s so creative about that? Making that decision in and of itself. There were numerous choices available in the playing of these pieces, and most of them are not arrived at by looking at the music. How to phrase, how to articulate, issues of dynamics, blend, contrast, and of course how to make it all feel good. In deciding whether to open a piece up or play it straight the only obligation we had was to explore the inherent creative possibilities that the music offered. 

We continued to rehearse using no bass amp nor any microphones at all, either on the piano or for any soloist. Playing completely acoustically cleared up many things but would it work in performance? The concert hall was rather large and some of the students had their doubts but I insisted we try it. We set up for one last rehearsal, this time in the performance hall and to my own surprise I could hear every instrument with no problem whatsoever all the way to the back of the hall. When this music was written there was little if any amplification used. That meant that composers and arrangers had to know how to orchestrate accordingly. This was like listening to chamber music, both subtle and powerful at the same time. The students got a first-hand lesson in the meaning of creativity beyond the issue of style. I and learned a bit more about just how this music works. The questions raised at the beginning of this essay remain open. But I take that as a positive sign.

As part of these residencies I’m also invited to present a concert of my own music. The natural choice in this case was to bring “Trio New York” to explore our version of free improvisation as it relates to the Great American Songbook. The lineup of the group (tenor saxophone, Hammond B3 and drums) also speaks to a time when Baltimore was a bonafide organ town. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey joined us for this engagement along with Gary Versace on the organ. It was very rewarding to deal with the very same issues that I had been working with the students on in lectures, rehearsals and private lessons that week. 

As always, there is quite a lot of work involved in making something like this happen. Getting a proper Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speaker on a gig is sometimes a risky proposition. In this case however we were very fortunate in that one of Baltimore’s great organists, Dennis Fisher was in a position to provide an instrument for this event. I remember Dennis from many years ago as part of saxophonist Mickey Fields’ group. All of us young musicians would regularly go to clubs like the Birdcage to sit in. We got one education in school and we got another education on the streets of Baltimore from folks like Mickey Fields and Dennis Fisher. Thanks Dennis.

And kudos to Dave Ballou for building up a vital program at Towson University. Thanks to the Music and Arts department and thanks also to the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency for continuing support.



The Classical Saxophone

Another area of practice that has emerged in the last year involves investigation of the classical tradition of saxophone playing. As with early jazz, my interest is not based on style but rather on issues of sound. The manner of playing saxophone in classical music and in early jazz was not nearly as different in those early years as it is today. As to who borrowed from whom that’s an interesting question. Marcel Mule claims in an interview that he was the first saxophonist to introduce vibrato to the classical tradition, having been coaxed into it by a composer who had heard him playing in a jazz band. This composer wanted Mule to utilize that same vibrato as soloist in his symphony orchestra piece. Over time Mule employed it more consistently in his performances. Prior to that it is thought that classical saxophonists did not use vibrato.

I'm currently practicing a transcription of the Bach cello suites and in the process gaining insight into issues concerning the saxophone as well as issues concerning interpretation. As with improvising or playing jazz, there are choices to be made with respect to each note, each phrase. The choices are often different than the one’s I’d make in a jazz context but again, rather than be guided by notions of style I prefer to be guided by the process of figuring out how to make everything speak clearly and feel the best it can feel. 

Saxophonists may be interested in the gear involved. I find that my Buescher Aristocrat tenor along with a Rascher mouthpiece and Vandoren reed make things much easier. As an experiment I sometimes try to play the Bach suites with a “jazz” mouthpiece. It becomes immediately evident how far we’ve gotten from certain tonal aspects of the instrument in the name of increased volume, power and brightness (increased high end) of sound. None of that is bad in and of itself but it is instructive. 

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m in the process of commissioning a chamber work in which I can utilize this kind of tonal pallet yet in a modern language. News of developments will be made as things move forward.



Different But the Same

“Different But the Same” European Tour Spring 2014

David Liebman - tenor saxophone
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Tony Marino - bass
Jim Black - drums

I first met David Liebman in 1980 when he came to Baltimore to do a teaching workshop. When I moved to NYC a few years later I tracked him down for some lessons which over time led to informal jam sessions and occasionally hanging out. Over the years we have continued to keep in touch and in 2004 David proposed that we combine forces and start a two-tenor quartet. We call the group “Different But the Same”. The band has made three albums for the Swiss hatOLOGY label tours Europe regularly. Each member of the group contributes material to the book, which has grown considerably over time. One night on this most recent tour however, we got the idea to hit the stage without the book, improvising the entire set. Given the history of the band it proved none too difficult and the process opened up territory that we had not fully addressed in the past. We completed the entire tour in this fashion. Aware of the potential challenge to the listener (generally a continuous piece of music lasting nearly an hour) we focused on creating a vivid aural journey, providing a sense of structure that invites the audience in with us. Very direct playing and a very rewarding experience. As long as I have known David I have been impressed and inspired by his continuing thirst to learn and his capacity for artistic development. I never fail to learn something from playing with him, every time out.

The band does not often play in the states so it was a special treat for us to play the “New Music in Bryant Park” series this past August. This is a free concert series curated by Chamber Music America presenting a jazz group and a classical group on a double bill. The concerts take place outside in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. People walking through the park are able to stop and take in sounds they would not likely be exposed to otherwise. It was a terrific feeling to stand in the heart of the city playing what I’m sure to many sounded like some pretty weird music. Folks seemed to be listening intently but what did they make of it all? Did they understand the music? Personally I don’t think understanding has that much to do with it. But it was clear that they were feeling something. Their focus and attention demonstrated that. All in all a very gratifying experience. There should be more opportunities for musicians and the public to intersect like this.




Swing as a Physical Act - NYC

If you’ve been paying any attention to this blog over time you’ll know that I’ve been immersing myself in the listening of early jazz and finding all kinds of inspiration from the sound, emotional directness and above all the rhythm of this music. One night, somewhere in that strange middle ground between waking and half-way dozing off, losing myself in these sounds I began to hear the music in a different way, and it occurred to me that this was really dance music. Not that I didn’t already know that, but I felt it in a way that I had never felt before. It was if there was no other reason for this music to exist if not to swing and move people, and quite literally at that. I’ve always regretted that I never learned to dance. Seems not an uncommon situation among most musicians. After all, we’re always on the other side of the dance floor. So I got to thinking that if I were to be able to dance to this music I might learn something more about the essence of it. My wife loves to dance so I decided this year to take some lessons. Fortunately there are a good number of dance events in NYC during the summer both at Lincoln Center and on the Hudson River. But still, I’m embarrassingly awkward on the floor. But even though it’s tough at times I always come away feeling very good about having done it. In trying to figure out the reasons for this stereotype (that musicians can’t dance) I’ve come to sense that dancers seem to feel the beat in a different, perhaps looser way than musicians. There’s also the fact that musicians typically use smaller muscle groups and fine motor control for very precise movements while dancers use large muscle groups and in a much larger range of space. Given these larger movements it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly where certain movements originate, especially given my initial preoccupation with where my feet are at any given time. After some humbling experiences on the dance floor I decided that rather than worry about what I was learning in the lessons I should simply begin by connecting with the movements of my body in an improvisatory way (safely in the confines of my room). Not being afraid to look like a goof I was able to open up my physical awareness as a whole. Not worrying about where my feet go made it possible to concentrate on moving the core of my body. I soon realized the connection here to playing music. If all we do is concern ourselves with the rules we may never give ourselves the chance to explore our natural musical tendencies and idiosyncrasies. And without that, without feeling something, what are we doing? This has not immediately resulted in me becoming a good dancer but it’s essential if I’m going to get any better. And I’m also not sure that I’ll reconcile the different modes of hearing and feeling the beat but if nothing else it’s great fun.



Two New Projects

Marc Hannaford
Jozef Dumoulin

I’ve taken part in two new projects this year, both centering around a current musical trend of sorts, that of odd or mixed meters in jazz and improvised music. This area of the music has been developing steadily for some time and is now reaching a stage where an entire generation of young musicians is able to play fluidly in a rhythmic language that is quite complex while making it all sound and feel quite organic. The first of these projects is led by by pianist Marc Hannaford (from Melbourne, Australia). This past March I worked with Marc’s ensemble here in NYC for a week of rehearsals, a concert and recording session. The band includes trumpeter Scott Tinkler (also from Australia) as well as NYC based drummer Tom Rainey. The second project is led by keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin (based in Paris, France). Jozef’s project took place in June with a week of rehearsals, a number of dates in Europe (including the Jazzdor Berlin Strasbourg Festival) and a recording session in Paris. Jozef plays Fender Rhodes piano and NYC based Dan Weiss is on drums. Both of these projects involved cultural grants. Given the state of finance for the arts in general (and jazz in particular) in the context of economic recession, politics and technology these grants are often an important part of the overall equation in getting projects off the ground.

Musically these new projects have been very stimulating and challenging. While my phrasing has developed along different lines (and is not particularly metrically based) I feel a strong kinship to the overall sound and feel of this kind of playing. Drummers Dan Weiss and Tom Rainey are able to make any kind of mixed meter or cross rhythm feel loose and relaxed while grooving intensely. It’s kind of amazing to think about how far we’ve come in this area in the past thirty or so years. The first measure of one of Marc’s compositions contains groupings of 5, 7, and 3 with irregular portions of note groupings tied across beats and the occasional quarter note triplet feel superimposed on top. As Tom said at the recording session, “when we were coming up we were just happy to play in 7/8!"

Both of these groups will be releasing CDs in the near future.




Nine Musicians, No Music - Sibelius Academy Workshop in Finland

This year I was invited to travel to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland to do an extended teaching workshop. This event, however, had a twist to it. I was to work directly with the faculty, no students involved. It’s an idea borrowed from a similar workshop in Denmark but it’s also in keeping with the idea of ongoing teacher training which is maintained throughout Finland’s school system. In discussions about the state of education in the US the educational system in Finland is often held up as a model for the rest of the world.

I was also invited to bring some of my own music with which to put together a concert from a group made up of the participating faculty members. There would be two other groups as well, one led by drummer Obed Calvaire and another by pianist Antonio FaraĆ². I explained that most of my music involved either pure improvisation or utilized compositions in which open improvisation plays a large role. Rather than try and adapt music to an ensemble I suggested putting together a program using no written music whatsoever. The idea was received enthusiastically. 

On day one I entered the rehearsal room and was faced with eight musicians; vocalist, pianist, bassist, drummer, another drummer, guitarist, keyboardist, saxophonist. And myself. That makes nine. Thinking back to my original suggestion I was now  faced with the issue of “where to start?” 

First, in order to simply hear the sound of everyone playing together I asked for a five minute piece of improvised music. I gave no direction, wanting to be able to learn something about the group as they operated within uncertain parameters. Afterwards we discussed the sound and what it felt like to play. Various issues came up depending on the perspective and orientation of each musician. It was these very challenges that became the catalyst for creating structure and form over the coming days.

I then posed a question, “How do we know when a piece is finished? How to we recognize the ending?”  I suggested that endings are not created but are achieved when the balance of elements is correct, requiring no further need of playing. By being ready for the ending to occur potentially from the the very first note we play we’re brought into and kept in the moment. There’s little or no time to think and analyze during this process but there are a couple of guiding principles that seem to help. Any time we might experience doubt as to what to do or second guess the value of what we’re doing simply listen harder to everyone else and ask yourself, “what does the music need” Then simply do that. It may require you to play or it may require you not to play. In either case you are actively engaged in what is going on.

We then improvised in trio configurations in order to get to know each other’s playing better and to be able to hear a little more clearly what was going on. In between each short piece we discussed what it felt like from each musician’s perspective. In this discussion we investigated the idea of independence, when to maintain one’s idea against the others and when to match ideas heard from others. As a practice device to develop our ability to better “hear” contrary forces within the group we started a series of overlapping trios, each maintaining it's idea while the other entered with its own idea. We discussed how to play and influence the music without necessarily signaling one another musically or visually. At a certain point I asked the participants to play with their eyes closed in order to see if we could all agree on the ending of a piece (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean stopping together). In each case I asked with respect to the ending, ”did we get it right?"

Over time certain issues became clearly important to certain musicians. “Why does it have to be atonal?” asked one of the keyboardists. “Who said it had to be atonal?” I replied. “What about groove?” asked the guitarist. “Great question!” I said. The bassist brought up the difficulty of differentiating his sound (textures and ideas) from moment to moment in the midst of a large group. At this point I suggested that free improvisation not be thought of as a style and that the music could be inclusive of any musical devices that we were interested in trying out. We then began assembling a structure based upon some of the practice ideas that emerged involving internal groups within the larger group. We introduced tonality against atonality, groove against non-groove, soloists against small groups and so on. From this came a large structure piece that lasted about twenty minutes and which could have easily gone longer had we wished. 

Sensing that members of the group may have had some remaining concerns or musical interests I went around the room and asked each person to suggest an idea for a short group improvisation about one thing and then instruct us in how to proceed. This proved to be a excellent way to find out what was really on people’s minds as they addressed issues that were personal to them that might not have come up in discussion.

After an evening’s relaxation (involving a very hot sauna and a very cold lake) we looked at things the following morning and decided on some clear strategies with which to create our improvisations on the next night’s concert. In the process of playing versions of these pieces we discovered that success or failure was determined by our ability to perceive the collective whole while we were each involved in smaller internal groupings which were sometimes in opposition to each other. There seemed to be a fine line between the exciting musical tension created between contrasting events and undifferentiated noise. Someone walked into the room when we were deep in the middle of two diametrically opposing grooves, each drummer self contained yet listening deeply to the other. Our visitor stopped in their tracks laughing. “What kind of groove was that?” he asked. He really wanted to know. It was then I knew we were on to something.

At the sound check I made sure to ask for the minimum required amplification. If everything were to go through the PA system it would be much harder to differentiate who is doing what. We needed to hear where sounds were coming from and balance our own sounds accordingly. It was a somewhat tricky proposition with this size ensemble but in the end the concert was a success. Why? Because the music felt good. I had advised the group to perform with an ear towards the greatest clarity, imagining what the music might sound like to a listener. Could we convey to the audience what we were doing? In the end that might not even matter. Whatever the intent or however created, music primarily communicates on the basis of feel. 

I learned a great deal about how musical energy is translated from intent to result. And it was a real pleasure to work with a group of professionals who were open minded and willing to try and create something from nothing. Of course we weren’t working from nothing. In the end we learned just how much is there to work with in the moment once we begin to turn challenges into advantages. The moment contains everything.

Teaching Principles

This workshop also provided the opportunity to address the issues of learning jazz in an academic setting in an extended discussion with all of the teachers present. The issue of using the ear as the major tool (as opposed to reading) was the largest area of discussion.

My basic position is: 

By using the ear as much as possible (rather than rely too heavily on the written page) we better internalize the material we are dealing with. This work is internalized experientially, not from a book. By doing the work ourselves we make discoveries. Even if these discoveries have been made before by others they become personal to you. This is a direct relationship with the music. The ear becomes strengthened to the point that we are more agile, spontaneous and creative in our playing.





Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Podcast conversation...

Clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman has been posting a growing collection of podcasts on his website 5049 Records, informal (and extensive) conversations with improvising musicians here in New York City. Jeremiah has a way of getting below the surface in these talks, being both humorous and disarming even when touching on some of the more serious aspects of artistic life.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeremiah in episode 44.

Listen here...

Friday, January 17, 2014

First Blog Post(s) of 2014

Having not posted all that regularly of late I’ll take this opportunity to try and catch things up a bit.  This is really about eight posts of material in one…


New Year’s Resolution
Why Improvisation?  That’s a question worth revisiting from time to time, which likely sounds strange coming from someone who considers themselves an improvisor above all else.  After all, improvisation is a process that seems to net results that could not have been achieved though other means.  But the reason I ask myself this question stems from my desire to make improvisations that have the concision and structural integrity of notated compositions.  While being quite satisfied with the process, and with much of the work I’ve done in this area, comparisons are unavoidable whenever attending a chamber music concert of contemporary music.  Texturally there can be quite a lot of overlap between contemporary improvisation and contemporary composition.  And yet there are certain pieces encountered from time to time that really inspire this drive towards even greater concision and organization in my improvised work.  Some of the chamber music concerts in the city have afforded the opportunity to meet and speak with composers and performers.  It would seem that over time the worlds of contemporary concert music and improvised music have come closer together.  Composers and performers of contemporary concert music seem to have a greater awareness of the kind of work that goes under the name of jazz and or new music, in which composition intersects with improvisation in myriad ways.  In my circles, composing one’s own music is expected if not required.  Personally I’ve not done much composing beyond the immediate necessities required to otherwise serve largely improvised settings.  In coming to realize just how many talented composers are out there the time seems right to take advantage of this situation.  The goal this year will be to commission a composition for saxophone and chamber ensemble.  I’m currently researching and familiarizing myself with the work of various composers (many of whom are new to me) and will begin moving on this project in the coming months.


“Trio New York” European Tour 
Trio New York” (with Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ and Gerald Cleaver on drums) made it’s second European tour this past October.  We continue to focus on just a handful of standards at a time, going deeply under the surface, presenting them in varying ways, all arrived at spontaneously in performance.  Never dictating that a tune be played in any particular tempo or time-feel, never deciding in advance how any tune will be treated, or what song we may arrive at, once we settle on a tune there is no guarantee that we will even follow any type of preconceived protocol in terms of it’s form.  So what kind of guidelines or determining factors come into play in such a process?  Simply that the music should breathe, always sounding and feeling good, no matter what is being played at any given moment.  Rather than fit our ideas into the structure of a song we may choose to alter the song’s structure to better accommodate our ideas.  It takes time for a band to develop the kind of rapport necessary for this type of approach.  We’ve been playing for almost four years now and it’s very gratifying to experience the kind of musical development that happens on tour.  Onward…


Solo Concert and Recording
There’s something about solo concerts…recently one of my students gave a solo clarinet recital here in NYC, mainly for friends and family.  He had played music when younger then stopped for many years, picking the instrument up again as an adult.  It was very affirming, not only for him but for us listeners sharing the experience.  He played for the joy and challenge of the experience, pushing himself past perceived limitations, making music with what he had and maintaining connection with the audience the entire time.  It’s an elemental yet profound dynamic that never fails to impress me.

My first solo concert took place at the Old Knitting Factory (NYC) in 1991.  Playing solo saxophone for an hour is a special challenge and not one that I might normally have made time for.  It’s a bit intimidating. The motivation for this concert came as the result of the distress felt upon looking into my datebook, facing a three month period of nothing.  After some thought, deciding that this time may actually be of some benefit if used wisely, I made a date with the Knitting Factory to do a solo concert having absolutely no idea how to accomplish putting together such a program.  Of course I kept that last part to myself.  Starting from scratch in the practice room each night with the horn, a clock and a tape recorder, I slowly began to reassess many musical questions and concepts that had previously been taken for granted.  What is a phrase?  What is a piece of music?  During this period I did not to play with any other musicians at all, even casually, so as to focus this experience with full intensity.  After the concert took place and the process of playing with other musicians began anew it was surprising to find that the work that took place during this three month period had a dramatic effect on the way I played in ensembles.  An unexpected result that continues to resonate even these many years later.  This solo program was documented on the recording “Premonition - Solo Tenor Saxophone” (limited copies of which are available for mail order).  Over the years there have been many more solo concerts, all based upon the concepts developed in that three month period.  The last one took place in Paris in May of 2009.  Later that year I became consumed with making some fundamental changes with my approach to the saxophone.  If you’ve been reading this blog (the first entry being April 2010 ) you’ll know that this process of reconsidering issues of sound has been almost like relearning the saxophone from the very beginning.  That can be a daunting challenge especially in the middle of many different types of musical commitments.  Not only was there a steep learning curve involving the new (old) instrument but my musical conception was changing as well.  It’s been about four years now. With the transition phase well behind me a new solo concert program remained as an unmet challenge.  The idea was just as intimidating as it was the first time, maybe even more so.

In December, Anabel Anderson extended an invitation to take part in her “Snugs Concert Series” of solo concerts at 61 Local in Brooklyn.  Without the invitation this certainly would not have happened when it did.  But sometimes a deadline is just the thing to spur creativity.  In this case there was a good month of daily preparation (this time without the social renunciation) including test recordings and assessments.  One significant difference for this program was the decision to improvise completely, with no plan, guide or material of any kind to rely upon.  The concert took place on December 1st, 2013 and was documented by audio engineer Jon Rosenberg.  A release is planned for later in the year. Stay tuned…


Towson University Residency (and questions regarding creativity…)
I’m looking very much forward to what will be my third residency at Towson University in Baltimore this April.  These residencies consist of a week’s worth of daily immersion in activities with the students culminating with a concert that we will have developed together.  The first residency (2010) focused on work with the improvisation ensemble.  The second year (2011) involved compositions that I had written over the course of my recorded output as adapted for a student group.  This year will see a different approach, that of dealing with swing through the performance of early jazz repertoire by Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.  This idea has already met with some surprise in as much as my reputation is not at all associated with early jazz music.  At least one student has raised the question of just how creative it is to play these old arrangements and investigate these early soloists.  So what’s the thinking on this?  Swing does not often get addressed in the context of so called “creative” improvising workshops.  It’s usually considered a style of music from the past.  And yet we perpetuate this association at the risk of cutting students off from an important reservoir of creativity.  By ignoring the issue of swing there is the tacit implication to students that it is not that important, vital or relevant to them.  I’m a firm believer that everything comes from rhythm and want students to realize just how many creative choices they have available to them at any point in time.  Placement, color, attack, decay, volume, texture…there are myriad considerations as to how to play a melody.  One of the most enjoyable lessons I’ve ever given was having a student explore every permutation in the delivery of the opening figure of Charles Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle” that he could think of.  I don’t think we got much past the first phrase or two for the entire hour.  It will be important to treat this as a creative process and not an exercise in idiomatic recreation.  There are many ways in which this could play out.  Look for a post residency recap in April.

Special Note: Also during that week will be a performance by “Trio New York” (with Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ and Nasheet Waits on drums) at Towson University’s Center for the Arts recital hall on Wednesday, April 2nd.  It will be especially meaningful to me to present this group in Baltimore, a true organ town at it’s core.  If you’re anywhere in the area please considering stopping by.




What I learned from my teachers…
My friend Ben Goldberg (clarinetist and composer) was just in town and we were having coffee at a neighborhood cafe along with saxophonist Bob Feldman.  In talking about some of the old music publishers in the city we got to joking over Ben’s comment that back in the day “there was only one jazz book” (“Improvising Jazz” by Jerry Coker, 1964).  Upon further reflection he and Bob thought of one more, “Bop Duets” by Bugs Bower, from 1946.  Quite a contrast to these days where there is so much information available.

The first jazz record I ever owned was a Dizzy Gillespie big band LP which my mother gave me from her collection when I was around eight years old.  There was a lot of information to process in that music and the record got played repeatedly.  At first following the bass parts, then the melodies (which were fast and complex) things began to line up.  Listening to the inner harmonies became fascinating.  And eventually I could even sing along with the solos.  In fact, I can pretty much remember that entire record these many years later.  Another early record in my collection was Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt’s “You Talk That Talk” which got worn out from constant use.  Rather than replacing it with a different title I bought another copy of the very same LP.  Fast forward to today and with so much available at the touch of a button it’s easy to go wide but perhaps not so deep.  With so many books and resources available there’s a danger in not doing this work on one’s own, thus not truly developing the essential skills required to be an improvisor. Memorizing from the page is not at all the same process as using your ears.  By using your ears you’ll facilitate making your own discoveries and personalize the material you are working with.  Many of the discoveries I’ve made for myself have involved ideas and concepts that have in fact been discovered by many others before me.  But encountering them through a process of aural investigation and experimentation (as opposed to wholesale acquisition from written sources) makes all the difference.

I was recently cleaning out some old papers when I came across some pages of manuscript written out for me by George Coleman and David Liebman as part of my lessons with them.  I was struck by just how basic this material was.  In the case of both of these musicians I was given just enough information and explanation to get me started on my own process of investigation.  They knew how to open my mind to the possibilities of what could be done, well beyond the material at hand.  That meant a lot of hard work but I feel very strongly that any substitute for this kind of work is merely a postponement of the inevitable.  Being faced with too much material can actually be a major distraction.  Best to find a teacher who can help focus your efforts.  With that in mind I thought it would be appropriate to relate some early experiences I had with my teachers.

Phil Woods
You may have already seen the concert listings from the Left Bank Jazz Society of Baltimore I posted on my website many years ago.  One of the most important music lessons I ever had took place at the Left Bank’s Famous Ballroom.  I went to see saxophonist Phil Woods perform with his quartet.  The year may have been 1979.  Being a teenager hanging at the Left Bank on a Sunday afternoon hearing some great music in a relaxed but exciting environment was an education in itself.  The prevailing attitude at that time was that jazz could not be taught and that you either had it or you didn’t.  I had been improvising completely by ear and while I was enrolled in a music program at Towson University the emphasis there was on classical music and music eduction.  The jazz ensemble was the entire reason many of us went to Towson but there was little to no instruction in improvisation.  We were more or less on our own.  I understood basic music theory but I didn’t know how to apply that to the saxophone.  So here I am face to face with Phil Woods and he’s playing everything that I wish I could play.  Not that I couldn’t play those lines off the page.  I had been reading the occasional Charlie Parker solo off of transcriptions since high school.  But to improvise fluently in that language was a major leap and I didn’t quite know how to go about learning to do that.  So I got up my nerve and decided to ask Phil Woods for a lesson.  I was a bit afraid to approach him directly as he appeared to be in kind of a gruff mood.  I seem to recall him announcing that another great jazz musician had just passed although I can’t be sure who that may have been.  The pianist (I believe at was Mike Melillo) seemed friendly and approachable.  I started a conversation with him and expressed my desire to speak with Phil about a lesson.  Mike offered to take me to the band’s dressing room and introduce me.  So we walk back there and I’m standing outside the door looking in.  There’s a group of people in there sitting around while Phil is in the middle of the room standing at a table with his saxophone and case looking a little distracted.  There’s kind of a cloud hanging over his head (speaking metaphorically) in that I can sense that he’s a little bugged.  Also, there is quite literally a cloud hanging over everyone’s head, the room being full of smoke.  More detail than that is probably unnecessary.  So I take a few tentative steps into the room and Mike says something to Phil about me being there.  Phil hasn’t looked up at all and is still rummaging around in his case.  So I say something to the effect of “thank you Mr. Woods, it’s a great concert and I’m really enjoying it.  I play the tenor saxophone and I was hoping that I might be able to take a lesson with you.  I really want to learn how to play in the bebop style”.  Without missing a beat, without looking at me and without interrupting what he was doing he growls back “I don’t teach styles”!  And with that I know it’s my cue to leave the room.  I had fucked up and I knew it immediately.  The vibe was so awkward in front of all of these people so I kind of mumbled something and backed up out of the room.  Mike looked at me with an expression that said, “well, sorry…”.  I didn’t tell anyone this story for a long time as I was so embarrassed.  But I knew exactly what he meant by not teaching styles.  Over the years this stuck with me as a theme, reinforcing the true nature of improvisation as being a process.  While I never did take a lesson with Phil Woods I consider this experience as important as many of my more formal lessons.  Thanks Mr. Woods!


Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz has been a hero of mine for a very long time.  I never took a lesson with Lee but he did come to Towson University to give a workshop while I was there.  I had been listening to his records for years and was very excited to hear what he had to say.  At first things were a bit slow, Lee starting off with “does anyone have any questions”?  I’m not sure what was asked or what he said in response but within a few minutes Lee decided that he would demonstrate for us his method of practicing.   He spoke about learning a tune, knowing the melody and chords fully and then playing that melody in time over and over until it’s ingrained.  After some time with that he would then begin taking improvised choruses on the song.  First in whole notes.  He demonstrated this, playing whole note choruses on a tune (it may have been “All The Things You Are”) for some minutes.  Then he stopped and said a few things about that and announced that he would then move to half notes.  This also went on for some minutes.  A little more talk and then quarter notes.  A little more talk and then eight notes.  By now this process has taken twenty minutes or more.  I can sense that the people in the room are getting a little uncomfortable.  They had expected something more substantial than this very simple approach.  After some more talk the workshop was over.  In speaking to my friends afterward there is a lot of grumbling about the fact that he just stood there playing whole notes the whole time.  Even my saxophone professor was complaining that “he didn’t come prepared with a lesson plan”!  I on the other hand, loved it and went straight to the practice room to experience this process for myself.  By honoring the amount of time required (Lee stressed that it should be done slowly and deliberately) I found that there was actually a great deal of freedom intertwined in the process of making the changes.  And it had nothing to do with pre-learned lines or licks.  It was one note at a time, hear it then play it.  This simple process made a big impact on me.  Thanks Lee!


George Coleman
When I was still living in Baltimore I met drummer Harold White.  Harold was originally from Baltimore but had been living in New York for many years having played with Horace Silver.  Around 1980 Harold came back to Baltimore to help out his mother.  During that time we got to play tother quite a bit.  This was right at the time when I was playing by ear and Harold, while being very supportive, gave me George Coleman’s number and urged me to take some lessons with him.  It wasn’t until after I had left Baltimore and began traveling that I managed to connect with George while in NYC.  I had seen some jazz books, knew how ii V I progressions worked (in theory) and even done some transcriptions by this time but none of this seemed to stick when it came time to play.  I just didn’t know how to apply any of it.  So I made an appointment with George Coleman to meet at his apartment for a lesson.  The first thing I did was play “There Will Never be Another You” with George comping at the piano.  Within the first chorus George seemed to know exactly what I needed.  He wrote out the changes and wrote out a page of melodic ideas that clearly defined the harmonic contours of the song. He pointed out these contours in the tune and instructed me to make up my own melodic ideas to fit them (using his ideas as a model) and come back again.  To this day I’m not completely sure what it was about this experience that clicked for me but all of the sudden things seemed to make sense. Probably because I was doing the work on the horn as opposed to reading it from a book.  He had opened up the process for me.  I took the next lesson and was gratified to hear George tell me that he heard progress.  He seemed pleased, almost surprised.  In this lesson he went deeper into the harmonic possibilities of a number of tunes, cluing me into ideas based on diminished scales and other devices. Again, doing this work from ear to horn made all the difference.  I didn’t have to write many things down at all.  These melodic ideas worked like a kind of musical glue that held things together functionally.  They weren’t anything that I hadn’t seen before but doing the work and discovering these things for myself made them my own.  I only took these two lessons with George Coleman but they were probably the most important lessons I’ve had in that so much of my subsequent development could not have taken place without this foundation.

Some years later (around 1984) I was playing a gig at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.  I was taking a solo on “Body and Soul” and it wasn’t feeling all that great.  I didn’t like my reed.  I wasn’t really flowing with the tune as best I could, struggling a bit.  I had my eyes closed and was concentrating hard on just trying to keep things together.  Just one of those tough times that you have to push your way through.  I finish the solo and open my eyes only to see George Coleman standing just a few feet away directly facing me, arms crossed and with a very concerned look on his face.  He was by himself, staring straight at me.  I could tell that he wasn’t completely sold.  By the time we finished the set he was gone.  I didn’t have a chance to speak with him but I knew the score.  I was scuffling and we both knew it.  To come out of that solo and be faced with that glaring demeanor has stuck with me all these years.  Along with organist Jack McDuff yelling across the stage at me,  “You call yourself a musician?” (another catalyzing moment from those years) this experience drove home the importance of being prepared (knowing the material) any time I pick up the horn to play in front of people.  It’s as if George’s presence is still felt whether I’m conscious of it or not, urging me to play better.  Thank you George Coleman.


Mel Ellison
I only took one lesson with saxophonist Mel Ellison.  He came through Baltimore in 1979 playing with trumpeter Ted Curson.  He had a very different sound and approach to the horn than anyone I’d ever heard.  Mel was one of the first people I met who was living the life.  I wrote about my experience with Mel in this early post on the blog.


David Liebman
I became aware of David Liebman’s sound and music while I was in college.  My saxophone professor had a list of potential artists under consideration for an upcoming workshop.  He asked my advice and when I saw Dave’s name on the list I said "you have to get him"!  Upon moving to NYC I began following David around and and managed to set up a couple of lessons with him in the mid eighties. David represented the kind of musician I wanted to be, pushing himself forward and developing a very identifiable sound and approach (this during a rather more conservative musical climate in NYC). David and I have since gone on to collaborate musically and by now have a history together which is very rewarding.  As for my lessons, Dave had some rather fundamental suggestions.  He felt that my sound was a bit too uniform and advised me to investigate more timbral variation.  He also opened up the idea of creating an intervallic melodic language, a sort of lyrical atonality.  I have some manuscript paper in which he wrote out some of these ideas.  Again, like the George Coleman pages, very basic stuff with just a hint of how to start out my investigations.  I kind of wished for a bit more but this forced me to find my own ideas rather than copy his and opened up an entire line of inquiry that I devoted years to, creating a melodic language that is not based on chords. Applying this language to playing over chord changes has helped to maintain spontaneity when playing tunes.  For the entry into this process I say thanks Dave!


Final Thought…
Over the years there were other folks who took me aside from time to time in order to show me a thing or two.  These moments were in many ways just as important as these more formal lessons.  Add to that the many things we learn from each other as performers, colleagues and friends.  We should not underestimate the importance of our musical relationships as being central to the development of this art.




Process...
In most musical inquiries of late I find myself returning again and again to the word process.  Improvisation requires spontaneity and interaction and the skills required to achieve those qualities are actually rather basic, so much so that writing about them only seems to emphasize the simplicity of the process, making this essay slightly challenging to pull off.  On the other hand it may be of some value for students to realize that these very simple processes will only take on depth and become enriched with time and experience.   While there is such a wealth of information and increasingly sophisticated materials to be assimilated by today’s improvising musicians this simple concept can be underestimated, that of being able to imagine music and make it come out of one’s instrument.  How can one imagine each new musical situation as starting from a clean slate (unencumbered by the very materials that are essential to acquiring our language, which can become pre-programmed)?  How can one interact with other improvisors in the moment, working together to compose a lucid piece of music with formal and structural integrity?  This seems like something of a paradox but it’s really just the nurturing of two different types of processes.  Our practice requires a more complex analytical process while our performance requires a very simple and intuitive process.

My son has become interested in archery and we’ve been going to the archery range together on a fairly regular basis.  I started from nothing but over time have progressed enough to realize that there are some parallels with respect to putting air into the saxophone.  Essentially you are performing an act that is rather complex but with practice ultimately making it as simple as possible.  In the case of archery you look at the target and put the arrow there.  In the case of the saxophone you imagine the sound and then make it.  There is almost a magic to this process in that so much of it is intuitive.  In both cases the more you can get out of your own way the more the process takes care of itself.  Once set in motion the arrow has no choice as to where to go.  Likewise, the saxophone can only respond to the energy that you put into it.

My son has become quite proficient at the range and espouses a natural approach, encouraging me to remove the aiming sight from my bow.  Without this guide there seems to be nothing concrete with which to orient my shot.  This has been somewhat unnerving, especially when shooting among a group of skilled archers.  Thankfully no one says anything if my arrow goes off course but it’s hard not to feel the pressure.  Obsessing over hitting the bullseye only leads to neglecting some aspect of my form.  And it can be very difficult not to overcompensate after a bad shot (curiously it can be even harder after hitting a bullseye, when we very much want to replicate the shot).  In either case it’s best to simply to honor the process, reset and start over as if nothing happened.   At this level we must rely on our body’s natural skills and strengths many of which are out of our conscious control.  It’s the same when playing the saxophone, especially with respect to sound production and intonation. In practice mode we can compartmentalize the aspects of form into in a mental checklist, isolating certain aspects when necessary then returning to the whole.  Improvements are incremental.  In performance we must stay focused on the moment, keeping things as simple as possible.  Everything follows as only it can, one idea to the next.  All of the study and knowledge you have accumulated will come into play naturally. You won’t even have to think consciously of it.


For the Saxophonists…
I recently bought a couple of very old saxophone mouthpieces in an attempt to discover something about how saxophonists played the instrument in the 20’s and 30’s.  Over the period of a couple of weeks I began recording myself playing all of the various mouthpieces I own with various brands of reeds.  Sound perception can be a tricky thing.  Sometimes we may obsess over a particular aspect of the tone (certain frequencies) and wind up amplifying our perception of them.  Other times we may not fully appreciate just how strong certain frequencies of the sound may be.  We need sufficient high frequencies to project our sound, especially when playing in louder situations.  As a result the sound as heard up close will be perceived differently than when heard farther away.  Because we’re always behind the instrument we have to imagine to some degree how this will really sound to everyone else and how to best achieve an acceptable tonal balance.

Comparing all these different clips on playback was at times a bit confusing.  They all sounded more or less the same.  Of course, in order to play certain kinds of music with certain sonic demands it’s best to choose equipment wisely.  Otherwise we work too hard to achieve the desired results and have less energy and attention for actually making music.  But there are certain techniques to playing the old style mouthpieces.  It’s very easy to over-power them as they seem to offer much less resistance than more open modern pieces.  It takes proper focus of the air-stream, finding this resistance and adjusting to it. Then the mouthpiece will open up and fill the room with a very full and warm sound with a natural high end, very well in balance.  At one point I wondered if it would be possible to play an R&B gig on one of these early mouthpieces.  It didn’t seem to have any of that kind of edge or rawness that one associates with tunes like “Night Train” or “Walkin’ with Mr. Lee”.  In my attempt to play “Honky Tonk” the reed closed up completely.  In backing off, finding the resistance and playing the same thing very softly it became clear that articulating the notes of the melody appropriately was all that was required to convey the feeling of the tune.  It’s not the force of the airstream but the inflections and nuances that give the feeling of the rhythm.  It doesn’t have to be full on, but if it is, it’s essential that you still have the right delivery.  Otherwise it’s just forced.  The lesson to take from this is that one’s personal sound is largely due to phrasing, inflections, attacks and variance in tone coloration rather than the basic sound itself.  After all was said and done, I still wound up on the same mouthpiece that I’ve been playing.  But a certain amount of flexibility was gained in the process.  So don’t get too hung up on equipment.   As for reeds, be sure to have some sort of break in process and you ought to be able to play all of them.  If I didn’t break my reeds in I’d be lucky to find one two out of ten that I could play.  I would never simply pull a reed out of the box and try to play it on a gig.

As for developing your sound think about movement.  Moving from one note to another.  I like to practice my long-tones this way.  Make sure you can play smoothly (slurring) from any note on the horn to any other note on the horn.  Do it slowly and be sure your embouchure, tongue position and air stream are correct to the task.  This leads to a more musical conception.  No matter what you’re practicing always strive to play with respect to sound and phrasing, pacing your statements and ideas. One note leading to another, every note functioning to serve your sense of direction. It’s just like chord changes, which are entirely about movement.  We don’t so much play “on” a chord as we move “through” the chords.  This simple idea frees us up to be creative with our choices. It also helps us to identify and nurture our own musical idiosyncrasies.  Keep in mind, I’m still doing these basic things.  I expect they will continue to be central to my practice.

Lastly, every saxophonist would do well to learn more about how the saxophone works.  There’s a lot of just plain wrong information that gets passed around among even the most accomplished musicians (which is further perpetuated and taken advantage of by instrument makers).  The more you understand, the easier these processes will become.

This is a very useful site on Music Acoustics with respect to the saxophone.

Specifically the Introduction to Saxophone Acoustics.

Also recommended is “Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics” by Arthur Benade.



More Family History…
One of the early posts in this blog was on the subject of my mother, organist Bobbie Lee and her musical upbringing in the church, a Pentecostal church in Baltimore, Maryland.  My grandfather, guitarist Theodore “Ted” Blankenship was the musical director at this church.  As my mother is fond of saying, “the music had to get everyone moving”.  And it was my Grandfather’s job to make sure that happened.  In speaking with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn (who performs along with with bassist Mike Formanek on “Mirage”) about the development of the pedal steel she told me a bit about the tradition of “Sacred Steel” and how in some churches the pedal steel took on the role of the organ.  In reading about this tradition it seems that congregations were often astonished at how this instrument could “talk”, almost articulating the words to the songs.  In Baltimore for a concert with Susan and Mike I spoke to my mother about the group and mentioned Susan’s instrument.  My mother reminded me that my Grandfather played the pedal steel in church.  With only a vague recollection that he had ever played the instrument I was surprised to know that he used it in church services.  She said the congregation loved the fact that he could “talk” on the instrument.  By the mid ‘60s my mother was out of the church and into Baltimore’s nightclub scene.  My grandfather also left the church after a time and while he continued to teach guitar in Baltimore into the ‘70s he had not performed live in many years.  Ted Blankenship passed away in 2008.  I regret that I never had a chance to really hear him play.  I’d love to have asked him more about his roots in in Weirton, a steel town (established in 1793) in West Virginia.  He seemed somewhat reluctant to speak about those days and usually made a point of saying how much he disliked “hillbilly” music.  He liked pretty chords.  But I have to wonder what he saw and heard in those days as a young person.  The type of worship service my mother describes has it’s roots in a very deep strain of American culture.  And it’s one that somehow speaks to me, however indirectly, through my mother’s sense of rhythm.  One of the last times I visited my Grandfather he pulled out his guitar and played a few chords for us.  Well into his ‘90s he didn’t have the fluidity he would have had back in the day but I was astonished at the voicings, they were beautiful.  I so wish I had recorded that.  They’ll just have to resonate in my memory, along with my memories of him.



Thursday, September 19, 2013

Interview posted at "Do the Math"

My apologies for not having posted anything in the past four months.  Hope everyone enjoyed the summer (or whatever the appropriate season in your hemisphere). Thanks to all who have purchased the new releases.  Thanks in advance to those of you who will.  And thanks to everyone for reading.  Perhaps this current installment will make up for the lack of recent activity on the blog.

I'd like to call attention to a recent interview I did for Jake Wunsch which is being hosted by Ethan Iverson's blog "Do The Math".  Jake Wunsch is a clarinetist who has been studying with me regularly for some time.  Jake's idea was to structure the interview as a sort of pseudo "blindfold test".  All of the selections that we listened to were versions of standards that I had recently recorded for my "Trio New York II" release (with organist Gary Versace and drummer Gerald Cleaver).  Some of these versions I was familiar with and knew well.  Others were in fact new to me.  Interestingly, this process allowed us to touch upon a great many topics and I was happy to have had the opportunity to think through and articulate some ideas concerning the "bigger picture" of music making in the present time.

Here is the link.   And this is what we listened to and discussed:

The Midnight Sun
Paul Motian Trio 2000 + 2, “Midnight Sun” (from ON BROADWAY VOL. 5, Winter & Winter, 2009) (Paul Motian, drums; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone; MichaĆ«l Attias, tenor saxophone; Masabumi Kikuchi, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass)

Just One of Those Things
Lee Konitz & Red Mitchell, “Just One of Those Things” (from I CONCENTRATE ON YOU, SteepleChase, 1974) (Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Red Mitchell, bass)

We See
Thelonious Monk, “We See” (from PIANO SOLO, Vogue, 1954) (Thelonious Monk, piano)

My Ideal
Branford Marsalis Quartet, “My Ideal” (from FOUR MFs PLAYIN’ TUNES, Marsalis Music, 2012) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums)

Coleman Hawkins acc. by Leonard Feather’s Esquire All Stars, “My Ideal” (from COLEMAN HAWKINS: THE BEBOP YEARS, Proper, 2004) (Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Art Tatum, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Sid Catlett, drums)

After You've Gone
James P. Johnson’s Blue Note Jazzmen, “After You’ve Gone” (from BEN WEBSTER: COMPLETE SMALL GROUP RECORDINGS, 1943-1951, Definitive Records, 2001) (Sidney De Paris, trumpet; Vic Dickeson, trombone; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; James P. Johnson, piano; Jimmy Shirley, guitar; John Simmons, bass; Sidney Catlett, drums) 

Flamingo
Jimmy Smith, “Flamingo” (from THE SERMON!, Blue Note, 1958) (Jimmy Smith, organ; Lee Morgan, trumpet; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Art Blakey, drums)

Don Byas, “Flamingo” (from DON BYAS, 1947-1951) (Don Byas, tenor saxophone; Art Simmons, piano; Jean-Jacques Tilche, guitar; Roger Grasset, bass; Claude Marty, drums)

Earl Bostic, “Flamingo” (from FLAMINGO, Proper, 2002) (Earl Bostic, alto saxophone; Lowell Hastings, tenor saxophone; Clarence Redd, trumpet, vibraphone; Rene Hall, guitar; Clifton Hall, piano; William Betts, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)


Special thanks go to Ethan Iverson for hosting this interview.  I've been a fan of "Do The Math" since it's inception.  I think Ethan has raised the bar in terms of the quality of music writing with his thoughtful and well articulated articles.

Friday, May 10, 2013

MIRAGE

MIRAGE: An image formed under certain atmospheric conditions, in which objects appear to be reflected or displaced or in which nonexistent objects seem to appear.

MIRAGE: A recording of improvised music for saxophone, pedal steel guitar and double bass.  Simultaneously unpredictable and transformative.  A music that is not always what it first appears to be.

MIRAGE
clean feed CF271CD

Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Susan Alcorn - pedal steel guitar
Michael Formanek - double bass


New release!  You can order MIRAGE directly from my website...

I’ve done a number of completely improvised recording projects over the years. “Inbetween Spaces” (with drummer Gerry Hemingway), “Every So Often” (with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier), “As Soon as Possible” (with Sylvie Courvoisier and cellist Vincent Courtois), “Ten” (an augmented version of Eskelin w/Parkins & Black), “Vanishing Point” (string trio plus vibraphone) and “Dissonant Characters” (with drummer Han Bennink).  There’s something very compelling about the process of real time interaction and communal composition that results in a music that could not be achieved by any other means or ever happen again in quite the same way.  It’s a  process that is simultaneously unpredictable and transformative.  Of course, it is mandatory that the musical chemistry be perfect and as such I feel fortunate to have been able to combine forces with so many great musicians in the US and abroad.  Some of these projects have been long term touring groups and others were put together for a one time event often based on nothing more than a hunch on my part that things would work.  

MIRAGE began as one of the latter type of propositions.  A few years back I was in Baltimore to do a week long teaching residency at Towson University.  A local musician’s organization called Out of Your Head Productions was having a one year anniversary event that same week and invited me to put together a group to present at the Windup Space in Baltimore’s Station North arts district.  They drew up a list of musicians from their collective and I immediately noticed Susan Alcorn’s name.  I had been hearing great things about Susan and the thought of improvising with a pedal steel guitarist was intriguing.  She was an obvious choice.  Bassist Michael Formanek I’ve known for many years having toured together with drummer Gerry Hemingway in the late nineties.  Mike has been teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore so his availability was a big plus.  I was able to imagine the sound in my mind before we ever played and felt confident that the concert would be a success.  We recorded that first concert and I was tempted to release it on CD but I had a feeling that another chance to perform together would pay off.  That chance came a year or so later in 2011.  In Baltimore again for a second Towson University residency I presented this group in the newly built (and acoustically impressive) Fine Arts Center.  For the occasion I hired recording engineer Ed Tetreault (manager of the Recording Arts & Sciences department of the Peabody Conservatory).  In addition to our concert we did some additional recording in the hall afterwards, without the audience.  Most of the material on MIRAGE is from the after-concert portion however, the extended piece “Downburst” was performed live.

Perhaps more than any other recording project I’ve done, MIRAGE has allowed me to more fully investigate that expressive range of the saxophone that is perhaps most associated with it’s beginnings.  I want to bring that type of lyricism to the language of contemporary improvised music.  Susan Alcorn compliments this idea perfectly, her musical sonorities are simultaneously stimulating and haunting.  Mike Formanek brings a great depth and warmth to the music making for a complete group sound with this unique instrumentation.  

I'm also very pleased to have this project released by the clean feed label out of Lisbon.  They have a great catalogue of music, well worth looking into.

Here’s an excerpt from the CD: