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.

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.


  1. Ellery, you are a very resilient soul if you could be told what Woods and McDuff told you and still play afterwards. I would have changed horns, or changed music, or something, rather than think I was pleasing the person. I wouldn't even have cared how much I respected their playing.

    There are people who will say you have no business doing anything in life if you can't draw something positive from a negative experience that is strong enough to overtake ego and shame.

  2. Thanks Paul. As I mentioned on the facebook post, in these situations it’s not always to be taken personally. From McDuff’s point of view, he’s got a gig to play for a room full of his fans. It’s not about my comfort zone, it’s about doing a job for him. I don’t lead my bands this way but I understand the old school approach. As for Mr. Woods, he was simply getting straight to the point on what was probably a trying day. I appreciate them both greatly.

  3. Hi Ellery, I really enjoyed (and was quite enlightened) by all the wonderful information and thoughts in this post. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I was especially happy to read of your experiences with archery, and about the importance of "process" in any activity. Your son has great wisdom with respect to this (as you well know). It is important to learn to get out of our own way when we carry out a highly skilled activity (be it archery or music). The trick is in learning how to do that. Your assertion, "Obsessing over hitting the bullseye only leads to neglecting some aspect of my form." is spot on. If you were to ever read a book by F.M. Alexander (the founder of the Alexander Technique), you'd see that this is one of the most fundamental principles of his work. When I teach musicians, much of my aim (no pun intended) is to get them to stop trying so hard to hit the proverbial "target". When they are able to do that, wonderful things seem to happen. All on their own. Anyhow, Happy New Year and thanks for all you do!

  4. Thank you Bill, I appreciate your comments and will be sure to pass that along to my son!

  5. Thanks. A lot of deep insights. Much to consider. I've had some similar lessons, not always in the classroom, but on the bandstand. Some were encouraging. Some were harsh, but they all were worthwhile. See you on the block.

  6. Thanks were there for one of these discussions, so thanks for the stimulating conversation, as usual...