Saturday, September 22, 2012

Post-Summer Catch Up...

Teaching... I've been meaning to update the blog for awhile and with a day off in the middle of touring perhaps I have the chance to organize some thoughts. I'm kind of shocked that summer is now officially past. I enjoyed being in NYC for the most part of it. I love the warm weather and the fact that the city often empties out a bit. Adding to my pleasure in being in one place for a period of time was the opportunity to do some extended teaching through the SIM program which took place at NYU this year. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi has organized a wonderful program with students coming from all over the world for a concentrated study of improvised music with many of the city's leading practitioners of the art. I gave twenty-five private lessons in a quick succession, zeroing in on specific issues while dealing with a variety of students. If there was an emerging theme it became stressing the importance of developing and applying one's own critical thinking to the process of practice and development. For many of the students (who were in university or recently graduated), their practice had been quite compartmentalized. I found myself emphasizing the need to consciously integrate all aspects of playing into a single delivery as I tried to make the students aware of just how many potential choices there are to be made in any given situation, no matter how seemingly simple. It was very rewarding experience to work with students who were so engaged and working hard towards realizing their own music.

Piano... In my own musical studies the piano is becoming more and more central. I only wish I had started earlier with the instrument as I am still rather far from where I would like to be. But I am greatly enjoying the process and have been gaining quite a lot of insight into how I would like to develop my saxophone playing though the increased musical awareness gained from piano study. And of course, my relationship with pianists is changing as well. After nearly twenty years of playing freely improvised music in piano-less ensembles (for the most part) I'm finally feeling ready to re-approach the piano / saxophone paradigm with a renewed perspective.

As such, I recently reconnected with pianist Marc Copland who I first began playing with in 1979. Marc has a very deep and original harmonic conception and helped me a great deal when I was first starting out. At that time I really had little idea of what I was doing, operating largely by ear in situations that were well over my head. But Marc encouraged me and took the time to show me things and work out ideas for improvising and composing. We shared the bandstand many times through the late '80s before my music took a bit of a different turn. Yet Marc's ideas stuck with me. I was reminded just how much so when I recently had the opportunity to play with Marc for the first time in well over twenty years. One of the wonderful qualities of the musical experience is being able to pick right up again with someone after a long period of time with the feeling that little or no time had passed at all. Marc's concept and playing has only deepened over the years and I was truly in awe of what he was conjuring from the piano during the gig. In addition, the band chemistry was stellar, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Gerald Cleaver. I'll be looking for more opportunities to follow up in the near future.

Tour... As I mentioned, I'm writing this catch-up installment while on the road (3 am and I am wide awake!) This tour is led by drummer and composer Harris Eisenstadt. It's a trio with pianist Angelica Sanchez and myself on saxophone. We made a recording a couple of years ago for the "Clean Feed" label out of Lisbon. At the end of this tour we will record again. I appreciate playing in this ensemble as the group dynamic can often be very soft yet very focused and intense. In fact, just last evening (in Wels, Austria), we played with no amplification at all. This can be challenging for any pianist playing with drums but we made the decision to trust the situation and it was very rewarding musically. If anything it heightened the attention and focus to every detail of the music and led to us getting closer to the essence of each piece that we performed.

Trio New York... Just Prior to this tour I was in Detroit performing with my band "Trio New York" (Gary Versace on organ and Gerald Cleaver on drums) for the annual summer jazz festival there. With much of my work taking place in Europe it's a pleasure to perform in the states and I hope to find ways to do more stateside work with this band in the coming seasons. One of the great things about the Detroit festival is that it is completely free and open to the public, taking place at a number of outdoor stages near the waterfront. Ever since playing in a similar free concert situation for the JVC Jazz Festival in NYC years ago (with drummer Joey Baron's group on a special drummer's day bill with the great Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones) I've felt that these kinds of productions are a great way to reach beyond and expand the regular audience for this music.

In Detroit the audience was able to choose from a great number of concerts over a period of four days including Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter along with an impressive lineup of talent too numerous to mention. I regret not having had the chance to hear more than a few moments of the other sets taking place but it was a great chance to see a lot of fellow musicians that I don't often get to run into except on the road in settings like this. One musician who I got to hear at the after hours session was saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi and his group. Jerry is also one of our most important educators and as such there are a great many young saxophonists who are tackling the language that he works with. I've admired Jerry's playing for years but this was actually the first time I'd heard him live. I was struck by his sound and delivery and the degree to which his lines served to lift the entire music. It's one thing to be able to connect these kinds of extended lines into a coherent and well constructed solo (no easy feat). Yet each one of Jerry's rich and harmonically precise phrases served the purpose of driving the musical energy of the entire band, taking this kind of playing to a level I don't often hear. This "big picture" musical awareness is really the essence of swinging, getting the entire band to function as a unit. I felt a brand of commitment that I generally only get from players of a certain generation. We all do well to be reminded of what that kind of playing sounds like for real when all the elements are truly integrated and are working together. I found it to be quite inspiring.

As for my own set in Detroit, the band continues to dig deep into a handful of classic tunes while developing and expanding our musical language as a group. I'm encouraged that no matter how far we may take things, the audience is right there with us. It's important to me to maintain that connection while not consciously trying to second guess what may or may not work in any given situation. When I think of the great musicians who have inspired all of us I'm reminded that it is their ability to communicate their ideas (even if those ideas are unfamiliar or complex) that is fundamental. It felt good to reinforce these ideas in the context of an event in which folks were not only listening but out to have a good time in the process. "Trio New York" had also played some summer gigs on the east coast and Canada calibrating and fine tuning our musical responses to the point that I feel confident that we are ready to head back into the recording studio to document these latest developments. Stay tuned for news on that.

Speaking of musicians who have inspired all of us, as you can see from the photo, I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Sonny Rollins at the airport after the gig. We had a few moments to say hello and talk a bit about saxophones. Needless to say, Mr. Rollins exemplifies those qualities to which we all strive and it was an immense please to share a few moments with him.

Soon after finishing this tour with Harris I will begin another European tour with drummer and composer Gerry Hemingway and his quintet. We made some festival appearances earlier in the summer and I look forward to following up with a couple weeks of one nighters. There's nothing like the night after night pace, grueling as it sometimes is, for the development of a band's sound. Check the website for our itinerary.

I've been fortunate in that I've been able to maintain a viable tour schedule with a number of great bands, some new and some that I go back with for decades. The shared communal experience of music at a dedicated time and place (in which the focus of concentration is optimized for musicians and listeners alike) is essential and something I'll never take for granted. No matter how challenging the changing conditions for arts and music in general may be I'm always happy to be in the game. I feel that every concert experience is a gift in which we may walk away with a renewed perspective on our lives. Towards that end I'm reminded of an issue that I've been meaning to address here for some time...

Issues... The proliferation of audio/visual gadgetry has introduced an unwelcome intrusion into the concert experience. One that risks a lessening of the very intensity and joy surrounding concert experiences that I just spoke of. I completely understand why folks may want to document their experience but I wonder how many have given time to thinking about the effect of this distraction on their listening experience or how this affects the musicians. It may not seem to be that big a deal but I feel compelled to state for the record that the distractions are real and do have an effect on the musicians who are attempting to operate at peak performance levels emotionally and intellectually. Lights flashing, shutters clicking, people moving around to get shots...even without the movement and visual distractions just the knowledge that the performance is being recorded can be enough to detract from the performer's energy. And it's made worse knowing that the material may be posted on-line before one even gets home after the gig. And while many folks feel that they may be helping to spread the word about the music they love, you may be surprised to know that there are many reasons that the musician may not want you to do this.

For example, with all the amazing technological advances in the area of personal data devices, we are suffering from (and becoming desensitized to) some of the worst recorded sound in the history of technology, all in the name of convenience. YouTube is awash with videos made on cell phones from the audience with unfocused, harsh, thin and otherwise distorted sound. You may think it sounds alright but I have to be very concerned by the fact that it is likely to turn off more potential listeners than it turns on. Given the superficial nature of web surfing, a curious listener having heard about my music may find one of these videos, give it thirty seconds of their time (for which I can't blame them) and come away with a very distorted view of what the music is really all about.

In the end it's really up to the musician to decide. Given the increasingly overwhelming amount of material available on line, the quality of our time spent is an issue of greater and greater importance. What will we listen to? How much time will we spend on it? How deeply will we listen?

I don't expect to turn the tide with these comments but I do feel that it is important that musicians express these views as I find that most fans assume that we are all OK with what's going on. But think about it. We musicians are perfectly capable of presenting our own video and audio as promotion on the internet to standards that we feel comfortable with.

So please know that at our concerts we want you to be 100% in the moment with us. And know that by doing so you are helping to make the music better as well as enhance and maximize your own experience and that of the people around you.

Thanks and see you out there!


  1. Hi Ellery, I really enjoyed reading your post. I'd like to comment in particular on the subject of concert recordings made by fans. I completely agree with your point of view here, as you so directly expressed:
    "The proliferation of audio/visual gadgetry has introduced an unwelcome intrusion into the concert experience. One that risks a lessening of the very intensity and joy surrounding concert experiences that I just spoke of."

    Besides the fact that I find myself becoming more distracted (and annoyed) at concert performances (whether I'm playing or whether I'm in the audience) by this trend, I'm dumbfounded by the amount of horrible recordings of great contemporary artists proliferating the internet these days. As you also mention, many of us are becoming desensitized to the declining levels of quality in these recordings. That's a shame. Your post eloquently sums up this problem and makes a reasoned plea for why this trend has to be reversed. I think many folks need to read your words here. Thanks for that.

    Also, glad to hear about your tour with Harris Eisenstadt. He's a fantastic musician. I had the pleasure of playing a few concerts here in Los Angeles with him and his wife, Sara Schoenbeck (amazing bassoonist!), as part of the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble some years back. Take care, and best wishes.

  2. Thanks for your comments Bill, much appreciated. Always good to hear from you and I'll be checking in on your blog as well...

  3. Really interesting that you gave 25 lessons back to back, teaching the player to consider integrating all he/she knows and thinking about choices in any given situation. It's an idea that anyone working in any art/writing form can contemplate. I don't know Marc Copland or Harris Eisenstadt's music, so I'll look out for some recordings and gigs here in NYC. Glad to hear that the Trio NY gig in Detroit was a success-- it's a fantastic group that really brought me back to live music in a profound way.

    Wanted also to let you know that this album by Devin Gray that you played on was very favorably reviewed on Emusic. I haven't heard it myself but am intrigued.

    Best wishes,

    Mark Lewis, Brooklyn, NY