Thursday, December 23, 2010


I just spent three weeks in Belgium, in a lovely town called Ghent to be exact. I was invited by RadioKUKAorkest to guest with them on a tour and recording session. Over the years I've often wished for the luxury of staying in one place for a week or so as opposed to the extended one-nighters in which one bounces from one end of the continent to the other in a matter of hours. This was pretty close. Belgium is a rather compact country and it's possible to traverse any two points within a couple of hours at most. Each afternoon I would meet the band and we would drive to whatever city we were playing in. Additionally I was given an apartment and a bicycle, of which I made daily use in spite of the snow and low temperatures. (See photo, taken at 2:30 am during a snow storm, horn on my back).

Given the players and the instrumentation (Kristof Roseeuw on bass, Lode Vercampt on cello, Philippe Thuriot on accordion and Tom Wouters on clarinet and drums) we were able to explore a "chamber" oriented sound as well as hit some high impact improv stuff as well. The tour was booked by the JazzLab Series and most of the gigs took place in cultural centers that typically present theater as well as various types of music. This was an opportunity to play for folks who might not otherwise go to a jazz/improv club. A group like this really shines when able to play as acoustically as possible. It can still be rather difficult to convince sound engineers to allow this but we persevered and the results vindicated our approach. It's a pleasure to hear everyone's true sound on stage and interact dynamically, especially in a group with such a wide pallet of sonic colors.

Additionally I did a couple of wonderful improv based club gigs, one with Teun Verbrughen (drums), Peter Vandenberghe (keyboards) and Kristof Roseeuw (bass) in Antwerp and another with Joze Dumoulin (Fender Rhodes piano), Kristof Roseeuw (bass) and Lander Ghyselinck (drums) in Ghent. Incidentally, Lander was a student at the JIMS workshop in Salzburg (where I taught) a few years back. It's a great feeling to see a young musician quickly progress and enter the gigging scene with something to say.

On one of the days off I went to Brussels to visit MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum. I particularly wanted to see the original saxophones made by Adolphe Sax but the entire museum was fascinating. Afterwards I visited legendary saxophone mouthpiece specialist François Louis. My travel horn on this trip was the Conn 10 M which plays very differently than my main horn, the earlier vintage Conn "Chu Berry". I had been thinking about getting a mouthpiece tailored to the 10 M for some time and this was my opportunity. François lives in a small town not far from Dinant, the birthplace of Adolphe Sax. I met him at the train station and we drove to his workshop. This was the first time in my entire life that I've had anyone do custom work on a mouthpiece for me. I don't know why I waited so long! We used one of François' existing blanks. I played on it for some time and spoke to him about what I wanted. He would then take the piece and file away at the baffle and I'd play some more and then try and find the words to express what I was hearing. Fortunately, with his experience he knew exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. We repeated this process a few times, then he did some work on the tip and within a couple of hours I had a new mouthpiece. The result was a somewhat denser core sound and the elimination of certain harsher frequencies in the upper range. The palm keys in particular sound rounder and more singing. Now that I see what is possible I plan to have some work done on my Lebayle LR II which I use on my main horn.

All in all it was a great trip and I want to thank everyone involved. It was a special opportunity to work on music and make some new friends. It's no exaggeration to say that every single person I met was totally friendly which made the trip a real pleasure. Oh, and before I forget, my favorite coffee bar in Ghent is the OR Espresso Bar.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I'm a tad overdue for a blog update. Got things on my mind to share but time has been a little tight as I prepare to head out on the road in a few days. I'll be in Belgium for three weeks guesting with RadioKUKAorkest. Details on the appearances page of the website. Gotta finish a new composition for the group…soon!

Speaking of composition I had the pleasure of hearing portions of Arnold Shoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire played live here in NYC by the Argento Chamber Ensemble. Each month they have been presenting a portion of Pierrot Lunaire along with music of other composers. What's great is that they have been repeating the program every Sunday in each month. Hearing the pieces a second time allowed even deeper listening. If you're in NYC in the coming weeks I recommend it. I was sitting just a few steps away from the ensemble in a rather small room with about thirty people. It was amazing to experience the power (in focus more than in force) as well as every nuance, movement and color in the music. There's something about the kaleidoscopic kinetic effect created when each player acts somewhat independently (and yet contributes to the whole) that I have always tried to emulate in my own group improvisations. And hearing the concision of ideas (as the result of composition) really reinforces my desire to continually strive for the essence of whatever improvised statement is being made.

Drummer Gerry Hemingway and I have been performing improvised duo music for some years and have just released "Inbetween Spaces" on Gerry's Auricle Music label.  It's just getting into the pipeline now so you may see mention of it in the coming weeks. I'll have copies available via mail order from my web site once I'm back from tour in a few weeks. Gerry will have more information on his site soon…

hatOLOGY Records informs me that my 1996 recording "One Great Day…" is slated for reissue in the coming months. Apparently The Penguin Jazz Guide has chosen this recording as one of 1000 Best Albums. I haven't yet seen the book but there's a review of it here: The Penguin Jazz Guide The History of the Music in the 1000 Best Albums

In other news…
I've deleted my MySpace account. Gotta better consolidate my on-line thing. Too much sprawl. I plan to upload some selected tracks and videos onto this blog from time to time. Like I was saying to a friend the other day, I don't mind Facebook and all that just as long as it facilitates some FaceTIME, you dig?!? Go out and support your local scenes, as I'm sure you already do...

Check back in in a few weeks for a post-tour recap. And enjoy your holidays...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Art / Music

Went to the Whitney Museum of American Art this afternoon to catch some of the Christian Marclay Festival. Electronicist Andrea Parkins and trumpeter Peter Evans performed a Marclay composition entitled "Ephemera" from graphic scores. People were free to meander in and out or sit in rapt attention. The piece moved from one musical texture to another and went well with the visual works situated in the various adjoining rooms. I've heard Peter play a number of times yet we've not yet played together. He seems emblematic of a type of up and coming improvisor that I'm noticing more and more these days. Fluent in a wide range of sonic and musical terrain he seemed to pretty much cover it all, from old to new. What's nice about improvisors who can do that is not so much the fact that they can "do that" but the fact that having a starting point inclusive of that much music allows for broad musical statements that sound as if they can only have been made today. Hearing Peter together with Andrea seemed to heighten both of their approaches. Andrea's singular voice speaks through whatever sounds she is conjuring up from her instruments, a quality I value greatly from my own experience of making music with her for the last sixteen or so years.

And so I got to thinking about the environment and context for this music. Christian's Festival seemed to speak to an issue that I've been wondering about for years. Given that I'm as much (or perhaps more) likely to hang out in a gallery as in a music club I've often been a little jealous of the fact that visual artists who can present at these institutions have their work seen by so many more people than populate the music clubs, clubs that are presenting what I feel to be the musical artistic equivalent of much of what is presented in the galleries and museums. In addition, the audience for visual art seems much more generalized than the audience that comes to the clubs. People will flock to the Whitney or to MOMA to be exposed to the work of current day artists even if they don't know much of anything about the artists or the work. I realize some of the reasons for this. These are long-time institutions that have support mechanisms in place to allow them to exist in the first place. With visual works the viewer is physically mobile, often moving from one work to another in less than a minute's time. I do wonder about the depth of experience people afford themselves but on balance spending an hour or two in that environment does provide something of an antidote to the kind of disassociated stimuli we experience every day through our ever growing media culture. Audiences for contemporary music seem to be smaller and more specialized. One has to know something about what one is getting into and make more of a determined effort to follow through. Most of this music takes place late at night and you are more or less committed to sitting in one place for an hour or so looking at one thing. It's a more concentrated experience, which of course has it's own rewards. Yet beyond any of this I do sense that most people are more accepting of challenging or provocative visual work than they are of challenging or provocative music. At least they can look away and move on if they don't like what they see. Listening to a piece of music requires extending one's attention over longer stretches of time.

So what if we had more situations in which this music were available during waking hours and made easier for the public to encounter? I gotta think it would be nothing if not completely positive. Sure, not everyone will like everything they hear. But there are few more deeply rewarding experiences for listeners and musicians alike as when someone is emotionally moved by music that they might otherwise never have even imagined. Just the act of attentive listening in and of itself seems almost a subversive act in our culture. If these types of situations are made more regular the increased exposure can only heighten public awareness of new music and enhance people's ability to make some sense out of what they are hearing. In a way, it's much like my response to the visual works I saw today. I'm not sure I have the words to talk about much of what I encountered but then it's not a verbal experience. It's an intuitive and emotional experience. The intellectualization and analyzation can come afterwards if need be. Reminds me that I often encounter this strange idea that one has to understand jazz or improvised music in order to "get it". I really, really disagree with that.

One other important consideration is that a presentation of music provides an opportunity to create a social event. For example, some years ago I did a concert with drummer Joey Baron and trombonist Josh Roseman ("Baron Down" as we were called) as part of the JVC Jazz Festival here in NYC. It was an outdoor afternoon concert at Bryant Park. The theme was drummers and we had the honor to play on the same bill as Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes. As this was a free concert people filled the park. Families, tourists, fans, commuters in transit, passers by, you name it. I'm sure that a large portion of the people there would not likely have make their way down to the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard. The social nature of the event greatly enhanced the musical experience for everyone involved. I also recall the early days of the Summer Stage series in Central Park being like this as well (a challenging program of music and dance, free to the public). Needless to say, I'd love to see more of this kind of thing. The Christian Marclay Festival provided one answer to the issue. Of course his music and visual art are intertwined. But who's to say that music and art should not come together more often?

Lee Friedlander
Also at the Whitney is a show by one of my very favorite photographic artists, Lee Friedlander. Lee is the father of NYC cellist Erik Friedlander, who's music I highly recommend. And as it happens, Erik is on a couple of my recordings (Ramifications from 1999 and Vanishing Point from 2000). I had seen Lee Friedlander's MOMA retrospective in 2005. At that time I was already familiar with some of his work (he also took LP cover photos for some classic jazz recordings back in the day) yet seeing decades worth of his materials all presented together was a transformative experience. His ability to see things in the fabric of everyday life that most of us miss and create visual compositions out of them is inspirational. This show is called "America by Car". Every photo (about two hundred) was taken from inside his car during a series of road trips from the last ten or fifteen years. (The photo above is from the exhibition). They all look as if they were taken quickly but the compositions are so strong and the details too perfect for that to be the case. At least that's my assumption. Makes me wonder how many shots were taken to have arrived at these. So many times I looked at a particular photograph and thought to myself, I wish I had done that!

Also on display were a couple of early Bruce Nauman videos. He's another of my favorites. This clip is called Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1 and dates from 1968...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Current Practice...

In September I'll be going into the studio and recording with my 1927 Conn tenor for the first time since I got it last December. Given that the sound and response is so different as compared to more modern instruments I've been provided with a wonderful opportunity to reassess everything from the ground up. Thought I might share my practicing / thinking process as of late…

Take a tune, something standard, like Cherokee for example. Figure out what key seems the hardest or least natural and practice improvising choruses in that key only, every day for at least an hour. Play very slowly, trying to find the strongest and clearest melodies you can think of. Make sure that each and every note you play is the note that you intended to play. While it is possible to play acceptable sounding notes utilizing musical phrases you've memorized or by relying on muscle memory go even slower, being obsessive about whether the note you played was really the note you heard in your head, stopping and correcting yourself as you go. You'll see that the process becomes more like composing than improvising. When we improvise we must sometimes make the best out of having played something that we may not have actually intended to play. Even accidents can work. You have myriad options from any one note to any other and if you're quick and imaginative enough you can recover and redirect from any situation. Of course you have to be able to "hear" well in order to do that. But being able to hear "really well" means having even greater accuracy so that what you intend to play is more often what actually comes out of your instrument. That's what this process is about. Try it. It's not nearly as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I'm playing so slowly I feel as if I am doing Tai Chi on the horn. But after some time practicing a tune like this I notice that I am able to "say" a whole lot more when it comes time to improvise freely. The thing is, I'm not practicing to be able to play Cherokee on a gig nor am I trying to emulate a style. It's just that this kind of material makes it abundantly clear as to whether I'm really playing what I hear. In freely improvised music with no predetermined harmonic form the difference between one note choice and another may not seem as crucial as when playing on a set of chord changes. So I need to increase my accuracy in terms of playing the note I intend to play at any given time so that I am able to say exactly what I mean to say at the precise moment I mean to say it. Just like when playing on changes. In fact, when improvising, there really is no distinction between playing on changes or playing free. The goal is to be able to play anything you can hear in your head. That's true freedom. And acquiring that type of freedom is a life long process. The entire time you are doing this stay completely committed to your sound and delivery. Rhythm is first. This can mean harmonic rhythm (if you're playing eighth notes, for example), variations in your phrasing or the use of more clearly defined rhythms. The rhythmic impulse will lead to a melodic idea which will lead to harmonic motion (either according to the harmonic form of the chord changes or leading to the possibility of implied harmonic motion when playing freely).

Observation: Personally, I don't use a lot of patterns when I improvise but I'm not against the idea either. After all, most music relies on patterns of some type. In jazz, patterns have become pretty much the bread and butter of the vocabulary. Seems that most younger players I hear have a fairly strong command over this type of vocabulary being (I assume) that it's easily teachable (and measurable) in university programs. Yet the players who inspire me the most in this area are the ones who are able to connect their patterns in the most melodic ways. The great players who developed this language all had a talent for melody. No matter how far afield they went they sounded like they were improvising in the moment even if we can see in retrospect just how much of their vocabulary was memorized. For them, melody was the starting point while I sense that the starting point for most current players are the extended lines and patterns as extracted from these past master's solos. Personally I think it pays to go as far back to basic fundamentals as possible and apply one's creativity from that point onwards, one note at a time. The acquisition of musical vocabulary through the analyzation of recorded solos and books would only be enhanced and enlivened by such an approach, in my opinion.

Again, this is not an exercise in style. I'm simply strengthening skills that need constant maintenance if I am to feel that I can truly improvise from day to day. This is simply an exercise that works well for me. I'm not one to subscribe to the notion that playing a standard is prerequisite for playing free. There are a lot of great improvisors who do not utilize this language. However, I am experiencing a renewed interest in the early players (such as Lester Young and Ben Webster) as part of the ongoing process of learning how to play the saxophone. There is much about tone quality and sound production that has collectively been lost over the years. I want to unlock a few of the more elusive aspects of the sound that have been calling out to me ever more strongly. Even as melody and harmony were for years deemphasized in free music (with some exceptions of course), by now, everything is on the table. The goal is not to be able to play everything that could be played. Just to be able to play whatever you choose to play in the moment and be able to connect to the essence of whatever musical impulse is in the air when it happens…

Monday, June 14, 2010

More on Sound…

As some of my previous posts attest, as a saxophonist I'm becoming more and more concerned with the idea of sound production. My daily practice (as well as my work with private students) continues to reinforce as well as renew the basic fundamentals that we are taught from the beginning of our musical journeys as instrumentalists.

However, a few recent concert experiences have caused me to think about how these ideas extend to the way a band or musical ensemble produces sound and how that sound is often the victim of poor reinforcement and amplification in concert settings. In most small clubs this is not such an issue although any time a PA system is employed it does change the way the musicians play and respond to each other and not always for the better.

This is something I've been aware of for quite awhile actually. I've come to feel that the more amplified sound that the listener hears (as opposed to acoustic sound) the less "live" the experience is for them. In considering the degree to which amplification has become the norm, practically taken for granted in even the most unnecessary settings, I have the feeling that listeners probably do not even realize the effect that this has on their listening experience. For a lot of years when touring with my own bands I took the attitude that I would not utilize a PA system nor would I use a microphone on my saxophone except in situations that would not be viable without amplification, which was in fact almost none. And in many instances I was thanked by members of the audience who heard the difference and appreciated a more personal concert experience. They realized that they were being drawn in and not pushed back. But given my aforementioned concern with "resonance" I decided that the effect of this often strenuous playing was deleterious to my tone. So I have been using a microphone so as not to have to strain when playing with bands that include electronic instruments or loud drums. I accept this as a compromise and do my utmost to try and make sure that the sound is not overdone. I must say however that the most rewarding playing experiences I've had of late have been ones in which the dynamic level has been rather soft.

I'm not trying to create any aesthetic divisions with respect to loud and soft. What I'm realizing is that this is more about resonance at any volume, loud or soft. Certain volumes are more conducive to revealing the fullness of sound of any given instrument and those levels do vary. Achieving a desirable balance among instrumentalists is part of the art of blending, a necessary skill for any good band. In order to accomplish this we might realize that the room in which we are playing can in fact be considered part of one's instrument. We understand that soft sounds must project to the back of the room and that loud sounds have a threshold beyond which there is a point of diminishing returns that undermine the very intentions we may have in attempting to create more musical energy through increased volume. I'm not sure every band I hear understands this.

However, no band stands a chance when all too often the sound engineers do not understand how to balance and amplify a band in proportion to the room that they are performing in. To be fair, many situations do not afford enough time for a proper sound-check. But very often when it comes to jazz or improvised music the sound engineers take a default "rock" approach which is usually not appropriate to the music. With the advent of mis-fit jazz/improv bands (which describes most of my own projects) performing in rock venues this is often the case. Some engineers seem to think that the bass drum is the "lead" instrument in the band. And it can be hard to disabuse them of that notion.

As a listener I can think of too many situations in which I felt that the musical presentation was ruined as a result of these issues. But what really surprises me is that audiences will allow themselves to be subjected to the most egregious examples of over-amplified and unbalanced music. Our ears do adjust and adapt to most situations but I'm convinced that over decades of increasing stage volume in all types of music we are becoming a bit numb to the very sounds that we seek out. Having thought about this over the years I can more easily imagine what the optimal sound would be when attending a concert and realize how much is being missed. Again, loud is fine. But balance ought not to be forgotten about. Too often I have witnessed gigs in which my fellow saxophonists are completely drowned out or there was a lack of clarity in the overall sound or the low end was too muddy or the high end too harsh and abrasive. And in most of these cases the musicians have little control over the sound coming out into the room.

These issues are especially of concern in jazz and improvised music since I know that the majority view is that this music thrives on the live experience. And yet I can think of many situations witnessing musicians standing on stage playing instruments where I could not hear the sounds coming from their instruments because they were being drowned out by the amplified version of the sound coming out of the PA system. For example, I was very excited at the prospect of hearing Wayne Shorter perform at a festival in Europe a few years ago. I did enjoy the concert. The sound was not terrible. I could tell what was going on and I walked away feeling better than when I had come in. But in no way can I say that I heard Wayne Shorter (or anyone else on stage) play live. I did not hear the sound out of the bell of his horn. In some cases that may be necessary and that just is what it is. But we should not confuse it for something that it is not.

An analogy might be in order. As we seem to be an increasingly visual society we would not put up with going to the cinema and sitting though a grainy or blurry picture. And you would likely be disappointed if your new television did not deliver the degree of high definition advertised. And yet we accept concert sound that is often so unclear that if it were speech it would be largely unintelligible. That just amounts to too many missed opportunities.

Something to think about…

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

More on grants and cultural funding…

In my previous post about Chamber Music America I mentioned that I had encountered some strange ideas in the jazz blogosphere with regard to grants and funding. I was surprised to find that not everyone thinks it's a good idea. We're not talking about the political right and left (at least I don't think so) as much as we seem to be dealing with a nostalgic regret over jazz having become detached from it's popular/folk music roots, apparently with the assistance of grants.

I really don't want to dredge all that up, honestly. But I responded to a recent blog post on the NPR website regarding this topic and thought I'd mention what I see as being a fundamental misunderstanding about the market for jazz or any other cultural art form in the US. Intertwined with the aforementioned lament about jazz having become an art-music there seems to be a lingering sentiment that in order to get closer to those lost roots jazz ought to be, if not dependent upon, at least tied to some degree to the so called "free market". In my view that argument is fundamentally flawed in as much as there really is no such thing as a "free market". At every level, starting with the largest of corporations, the government offers every manner of subsidy, tax break and pork-barrel spending imaginable. In spite of all the anti-socialist rhetoric from the right it's apparent that even they don't believe in free markets. So why should I? They would tell us that we in the arts need to survive in that imaginary free-market world, as if we all didn't know that the deck is heavily stacked against us.

I don't agree with everything our government spends money on. No one does. But that is in fact the true nature of our economy. And so we must continue to fight for what's left of our culture and demand that the nation's artistic and musical traditions not be left to die a slow death in the name of the almighty dollar. Despite the arguments pro and con regarding public and private support of the arts, within the political and economic structure that we live in, the music will not survive without such assistance.

Given the tone of my post I should point out that I dislike rants and negativity. However, if I see sentiments such as the ones I've described, I can't help but weigh in, especially when they come from inside the jazz world. But I don't want end on a depressing note. Let's look at the greater context. For example, in spite of all difficulties, it's amazing to me to realize how much good and positive work is currently being done by so many people under so many different sets of circumstances. I'm going to make it my business from time to time on this blog to mention and promote those people and projects that uplift my life in the hopes that they might do the same for you.

Recent and upcoming words worth mentioning…

An in-depth and thorough interview took place with the band (Ellery Eskelin with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black) on our recent European tour which will soon be published in L'art du Jazz N°2 (Francis Hofstein, Editor in Chief, Published by Éditions du Félin, Paris). Bill Shoemaker's website "Point of Departure" has posted the transcript under the heading "Parisian Thoroughfare" in their most recent edition. Curated by Alexandre Pierrepont. Interview by Cécile Even.

Also, in my previous post about the late Baltimore saxophonist Mickey Fields, I mentioned a forthcoming book on the history of the Baltimore jazz scene (my hometown). Apparently that book has been published and copies should be available from very soon. I will certainly make mention of that when I find out more. For now here is the information I have:

Music at the Crossroads: Lives and Legacies of Baltimore Jazz
Published by Apprentice House, Loyola College in Maryland
ISBN 978-1-934074-52-7
Editors: Mark Osteen and Frank Graziano

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bobbie Lee at the Hammond organ…

This is a promotional photo of my mother taken in the early 1960's from her days playing Hammond B3 organ professionally in Baltimore nightclubs. With her organ playing days now long past the memories I have from hearing her play and teaching me standards when I began playing saxophone remain formidable. Yet in some ways the trajectory from her musical upbringing leading to my own involvement in music is just now becoming more clear to me.

Sometimes I'm asked what kind of music my mother played and I reply that while she did not regard herself as a jazz musician she did play standards in a swinging fashion. There was little improvisation involved but over the years working in clubs she would come up with arrangements and "shout" choruses to these tunes, which I then grew up hearing (and playing) at the many house parties we had. But I was always at something of a loss trying to describe exactly what this was and where it came from.

I was aware that my mother learned to play in church. But by the time I came along she was playing in nightclubs full time. This was in the early '60s at a time when socially it was a big deal not only to be a woman in this field but to have also made that break from the church to the world of secular nightlife and entertainment. The little exposure I had to church services as a kid was to be honest, quite boring. Very reserved and staid affairs. We didn't even go much at all but I'm guessing that the adults in my family thought it was a good idea for me to get some kind of religious upbringing even as my mother had pretty much left the church. But I did realize that the divide between the kind of music I was hearing in church and the kind of music my mother played on the organ was rather enormous. I never thought much about church after that. Of course I recognized certain blues and gospel elements in her sound but I never really knew exactly where she got it from. I assumed that she had somehow learned to play standards like that on her own. But a year or so ago I was talking with her about her upbringing and was surprised to find out that her church experience was very different from what I had assumed. Turns out she was brought up playing piano and organ in the pentecostal church and in her words "the music had to make you move"! Well, that made much more sense to me given the way she played. Turns out her parents left the pentecostal church at some point before I was born and so I had no experience with the type of services she described.

But it really wasn't until more recently that I heard some online clips of church organists playing hymns in a style that I immediately recognized as being very close harmonically, rhythmically and emotionally to what I grew up hearing from my mother. Lots of dominant seventh and diminished chords with a strong beat and more than a hint of gospel tinge. So now my interest is piqued and I've been reading some background information on just how this all came to be. In the early days of the pentecostal movement congregations were racially mixed. The expressive (or even ecstatic) tradition of church services was already established in southern African American churches as well as in white Appalachian services (in which some congregations went so far as to handle deadly snakes as proof of their devotion to God). Over time, white congregations and African American congregations became divided. But the musical seeds had been planted and continued to develop in spite of societal restrictions. One story my mother tells took place when she was just a teenager. She was invited by one of the African American churches in Washington DC to fill in for one of their services. Up until that time she was used to playing a few choruses of the song and that was it. But as she played, the members of the congregation all got up and came over to the organ, encouraging her to continue playing the song over and over as everyone sang and contributed to the mounting energy. As she tells it, they wouldn't let her stop. She laughs about it now, but at the time that was a formidable experience for a young person unaccustomed to that degree of social and musical intensity. My father, Rodd Keith, a keyboardist (as well as occasional saxophonist) was also musically involved in the pentecostal church (which is how my parents met). As a kid I recall my mother playing an elaborate arrangement of "Stand Up for Jesus" that he wrote and taught her back when they were playing together. From what I recall, it certainly had all the ingredients of the kind of music that surely would have gotten people on their feet. But he too had left the church.

In reading about the history of gospel music there is a general sense that white gospel traditions intertwined with southern country music while African American traditions paved the way for R & B and jazz. But my mother's approach was more towards the later as there was really no love of country music in our household. Even my grandfather (an accomplished guitarist and director of music at the church where my mother and father first met) eschewed the type of roots music (or "hillbilly" music as he called it) that he knew from his rural West Virginia upbringing. He was much more into the "pretty chords" that he loved to play on guitar which also extended into the popular tunes he played in Baltimore clubs for a time in the '40s and '50s. My mother had some jazz and R & B records in her collection and ultimately it was the sound of the great R & B tenor stylings of the day that got me into playing. In fact I quickly became a young jazz-snob. I hated rock and roll as a kid. (post script: For the record, I'm proud to say that I've overcome that snobbery. Led Zeppelin rocks and I think Ralph Stanley is one of the most soulful singers I've ever heard in my life.)

So what I'm realizing now is that my mother's organ style when playing standards was not all that different from the way she played those hymns and gospel tunes that she learned in church. It was all about delivering the melody (with a jazz and blues harmonic inflection and an infectious swing feel). Had she taken the next steps of improvising with the right hand she would have been on her way to being a jazz player. But she was all about the songs. And for that I'm quite grateful as it provided me with my own musical roots of a type that are much harder to come by now. I remember making a poster for the elementary school band room that included the names of all the major jazz stars that I gleaned from Langston Hughes' "The First Book of Jazz". At the time I didn't understand just how a scrawny, introverted white kid like myself could have been so into jazz music in the late 1960s. None of the other kids my age knew or liked jazz. Most of my heros were African American. I loved the music of Gene Ammons. Now I can see more clearly why that music resonated with me so strongly. Having heard my mother play from the time I can first remember and later having her teach me many of the songs she played gave me that foundation. And now I understand much better just how she got it.

In writing this I'm suddenly reminded of another small but noteworthy moment from when I was a teenager. I was at home listening to a Horace Silver record (I think it was "Silver and Brass"). Again, my mother never considered herself a jazz musician and in some ways had a fair degree of difficulty with much of the "progressive jazz" (in her words) that I was listening to. As she came into the room she stopped and listened for a moment during one of the piano solos and remarked upon the fact that he was quoting an old obscure church hymn (wish I could remember the title) but superimposing it rather dissonantly over the changes of whatever tune it was they were playing. She was surprised and a little puzzled to hear that tune in that context. And I was impressed and puzzled myself over the fact that she knew whatever hymn that was and could pick it out since I had no clue that was even going on in the music.

Being in no way religious myself the significance of much of this had less of an impact on me growing up than it does in retrospect years later. At that time I was striving to get a hold on post-Coltrane saxophone playing which was going strong in the '70s. (By the way, Bob Berg played amazingly on that Horace Silver record!) But it all makes total sense now. Everything comes from somewhere.

"Bobbie Lee" played the Great American Songbook night after night in the clubs but with the advent of rock and roll that scene too came to a close. I still have some old cassettes from some of our house parties. I don't know that I'll ever have the courage to let anyone else hear what I sounded like in those first few years of learning the horn. My mother still sounded good even though these recordings were made about a decade after she stopped playing regularly. Here are a couple of exceprts:

Satin Doll

Oh, and one of the clips that I referred to earlier that got me thinking about all of this is a video of organist Eddie Howard explaining the difference between the Pentecostal style of organ playing and the style used in the "Church of God and Christ". It's rather short but as soon as I heard those chords they just knocked me over. It's the very style of playing that my mother comes from…

Friday, May 7, 2010


On Monday, May 17th I'll be hitting in midtown with a new configuration that I'm really looking forward to. Roberto Romeo (of Roberto's Winds) has been producing a Monday Night series at Rosie O'Grady's on 46th Street. He's been bringing in some great bands. I saw Donny McCaslin's trio, Loren Stillman's band, Greg Osby's sextette and a quartet led by drummer Jonathan Blake that featured Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw.

I'll be leading a trio featuring Gary Versace on organ and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Gary and I have been playing together in drummer John Hollenbeck's "Future Quest" band performing the music of Meredith Monk. Meredith Monk is a musical icon who has inspired me deeply over the years. I'll have to make a post on her soon. Suffice it to say that Future Quest's participation in her Whitney Museum retrospective last year was a peak musical experience for me. Another peak musical experience of late involved another new project I put together last November that involved Tyshawn Sorey along with guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist John Hébert at the Cornelia Street Cafe. We did two completely improvised sets of music that I really wish had recorded.

So Gary, Tyshawn and myself will be hitting at 8 pm in a first time performance in this configuration. We look forward to seeing our NYC friends there. For you out of town folks I'll be sure to write up a post gig report. There's always a great vibe there plus Roberto always takes good photos. Check out his Facebook page.

The 10 pm set will be saxophonist Hayes Greenfield and his trio. Looking forward...

Monday, May 17th at 8 pm
Rosie O'Grady's
Limerick Bar (2nd Floor)
Times Square / 149 West 46th Street

Chamber Music America

In my opening post I mentioned a recent writing commission I received last year from Chamber Music America. This was a grant as part of their jazz commissioning and development program funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I wrote an extended composition for the group "Different But the Same" a quartet that fellow saxophonist David Liebman instigated in which we explore the classic two tenor lineup. In this case the band includes bassist Tony Marino (who has played in David's band for many years) and drummer Jim Black (who has played in my band for many years). So it's a sort of combined forces approach in which each member of the group is contributing material.

Much of my compositional approach over the years has been about introducing composed elements into otherwise open improvisations. At least that's how I think of it. It's sort of the opposite of the more traditional approach of inserting improvisation (or solos) into a written composition. I'm interested in the effect of introducing these events into a process with inherent unknowns. And it creates a situation in which improvisors must be more compositionally minded than soloistically minded. Structure and balance become the overriding concerns for everyone. So with form itself being manipulated in real time performance we can arrive at musical points of interest that may not have been achievable in any more of a direct fashion. Subsequently I titled the piece "Non Sequiturs (for two tenor saxophones, bass and drums)". I love the idea of musical non sequiturs. In as much as there is no literal or narrative meaning involved in the arrangement of sounds in time the whole idea of structure (from individual phrasing to overall form) is really endlessly malleable and indestructible. The piece had it's premier in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe back in February of this year. We had a followup performance at the legendary "Blues Alley" club in Washington DC.

So in this case, I suppose that my blog functions as a self promotional vehicle, which gives me pause. Hopefully it's not seen as being only that. But the fact is, the fragmentation of the little infrastructure that may have once existed in this corner of the music business requires us to get the word out ourselves. And I'm happy to have the opportunity to provide what I feel is a necessary focus to my work. Commercial publications have their structural limitations and so it's nice not to have to depend totally upon them. Still, it was somewhat concerning to me that the little attention this grant program did receive was in a rather negative light, as in "should there even be such a thing as jazz grants?" And actually, much of that discussion took place in the blogosphere.

The short answer to that question is, YES! And I do think that most would agree. However I do understand some of the concerns that motivated those articles. I was able to take part in some of those on-line discussions and in the end I felt that the exchanges were thoughtful and positive. My purpose here is not to restart that conversation but to recognize that this is the world we live in. We cannot always depend upon traditional networks of publicity to recognize everything that may be taking place at any given time. Rather than complain about the situation (which is really no one's fault) I am free to pick up the slack and hopefully provide something worth reading in the process.

I'm very grateful to have received the support of CMA and I would hope that these types of programs will be able to expand past the idea of rewarding those of us fortunate enough to be recognized from time to time. I'm reminded that we would not be having much of a discussion at all if it were not for the support that so many American musicians have received by working abroad, particularly in Europe. This has been going on for many decades. There is a true network of support for the arts in general and jazz in particular that has resulted in opportunities for so many of us over the years as well as providing a comparatively more healthy environment for European musicians in which to work as compared to what most American musicians deal with here.

I'd actually like to see a shift in the US away from the emphasis on a handful of artists getting some type of recognition while the vast majority have many fewer opportunities. Perhaps due to the nature of our society there is something of a "winner take all" mentality that does not seem to serve us all that well. Personally, I feel fortunate to have received the degree of recognition that I have achieved over the years. But the health of the scene at large should concern us all. It takes the dedicated work of many people to create a scene or even make the most modest of productions happen, and most of those people will never get any real recognition. It's nice to get an award or win a poll but there is the risk that a "musician of the year" mentality risks portraying the scene as even smaller than it actually is and in some ways makes things more difficult for those many deserving musicians who for whatever reasons are not fortunate enough to have their work acknowledged.

Be that as it may, I am happy to have received the recognition from an organization that is working hard to support a music that gets far too little support in the US. And at the risk of blowing my own horn, I'm happy to have the opportunity to give my perspective on it. If I had to wait for someone else to talk about it I may be waiting a very long time. As an interesting side note, just this month I received my first ever live concert review (as a leader) in any NYC publication. I've been living here for twenty seven years now. Believe me when I say, that's not a complaint. For most of that time I've been touring and recording regularly and receiving much positive support for my work. I'm happy to be in the game. But like most things, you can't wait around for s**t to happen.

I guess that's why I took the time to write this down...

Wayne Shorter

I'm realizing that some of what I may write here from time to time will be background material or an attempt to catch up with and further develop loose ends that accumulate over time. Back in February I had the occasion to comment on another blog, Ethan Iverson's "Do the Math" in which he developed a critique the work of saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Here was my response:

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February 11th, 2010
Completely side-stepping any of the larger issues raised here I feel compelled to state that all I need is one note from Wayne Shorter and it's game over. Nothing else matters. The sound in any one note he plays contains the complete DNA of his musical universe. I guess we can talk about the context or the fact that as listeners we may have our favorites but for me, the profundity of his sound and delivery make it hard to think about anything else. It changes my perception of the music being played around him.

The release of "Footprints Live" by his current quartet got me listening to jazz again (and more specifically to saxophonists) after many years during which I was in that phase of having to avoid certain influences while developing my own music. I'm now experiencing a great deal of joy in listening and reconnecting with the entire history of the music. I've tried very hard to figure out just how he makes that sound and it's a total mystery to me. And I'm very happy to be in that position as it has reaffirmed the endlessness in front of us.

So what am I saying, why am I writing this? Maybe just to say that it's great when the joy from the music outweighs the arguments that often surround it. Not trying to put down the conversation, there are points well worth considering. I'm just realizing (and happily so) that there is so much to do!

And thanks for your articles about Lester Young which I enjoyed. I'm finally at a place where I feel I'm able to hear past "style" and really connect with many early players who's sound I did not connect with as strongly with when I was younger, due mainly to issues of style. As with Wayne Shorter and Lester Young, there is an essence that transcends style. That quality can be elusive when we are distracted by so many other considerations (in life and music). But what's really beautiful is that it is a timeless quality. And that means that there is always some new music to be made.

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Some subsequent posters commented on my response. I think there was a feeling that I may have been saying Wayne Shorter's sound and work should outweigh any criticism. That's not quite accurate. It's just that I find myself much less interested in such criticisms as they really don't provide me with much of anything. Whereas the music itself and those qualities I elaborated upon, very much do. And so I mention this more as a matter of context as I have the feeling that I'll be writing even more about sound in the coming weeks and months. Working through some of this in word form may actually help as it relates to my practice.

And I might also point out that I feel as if I learn something from every saxophonist I hear. And there are certainly many players worth listening to here in NYC as well as all over the world. One fellow saxophonist who has my attention is Tony Malaby. I'll just drop his name here as a suggestion for any readers who might not already be familiar with Tony's work. Tony has developed a very unique sound on the horn. Look him up! And of course, there are many others who's names I will share from time to time.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bill Singer

The Master. My 1941 Buescher "Big B" tenor saxophone gets restored to playing condition by repair technician Bill Singer in Manhattan. Witness the first sounds out of this instrument (which as Bill points out had been "sitting in a basement, rotting") since 1972!

Here's the video...

And for you true saxophone obsessives my visit with Bill is followed by a very geeky comparative demonstration of three vintage tenor be the judge...

Please note: This is the followup to my previous post "Shut Up and Practice". See below for the backstory...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lester Young

From Ebony Magazine, sometime in the '40's. Lester Young demonstrates how he made his trademark porkpie hat. On page two he describes his set-up. A number 3 plastic reed on a number 7 mouthpiece..."very hard on the chops" in his words. This kind of stuff never fails to fascinate me...

Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black

Back in 1994 I decided to start a band. Saxophone, accordion and drums. In the process I got much more than I bargained for. I thought we'd make a couple/few recordings, maybe a tour or two and then move on. Well, it's 2010 and we just did our...I've lost count of how many...well, we just got back from a European tour that's given me a lot to think about.

One of the criteria I had in mind when forming the band was that I wanted each member of the group to be the type of musician who could play an improvised solo concert on their instrument. And I wanted the band as a whole to be able to perform completely improvised concerts. Ironically however, we never did that. We could have, but I had ideas about the nexus between composition and improvisation that I wanted to explore. And that kept me busy with this band. Each tour we did opened up some new musical territory that I wanted to concentrate upon before recording and taking the next step. I had thought about doing an improvised tour from time to time but there was something about the way the band played when compositional elements were involved that just wouldn't let go.

But with this recent tour we finally took the plunge. Two weeks of concerts, two sets a night completely improvised music. So...I guess it's taken me sixteen years to get to the starting point. Let's see where we go now...

Mickey Fields

Talk about saxophone playing in Baltimore and before long you're going to be talking about Mickey Fields. I was recently interviewed by some folks from the Baltimore Jazz Alliance who are putting together a book about the history of jazz in Baltimore (or "Charm City" as it is sometimes referred to), my home town. So I got to speak about Mickey and in doing so he's been on my mind lately.

Mickey (who passed in 1995) was emblematic of a special type of musician, the home town hero who could have gone on to fame in the music but decided to remain at home. I regret that the the history of jazz does not do better service to local scenes and players who while not well known outside of their hometowns played a great role in the development of the music. Often we read interviews with one or another of the greats who will reference a name or two of someone who greatly influenced them. Often that player was someone who did not record much if at all and not much is usually found out beyond these informal anecdotes.

So I am very pleased that Mickey Fields will get some of his "due" in this upcoming publication. More on that when it comes out. Suffice it to say that Mickey was a warm and generous man who provided much encouragement to us younger musicians coming up and demonstrated night after night in just about every club in town just how it's done. The fact that he could hold his own with Sonny Stitt was a matter of strong local pride. The fact that he did not record much is lamentable. He had a gutsy sound and delivery and possessed a sophisticated knowledge of blues and bebop. I once recall hearing Mickey at a neighborhood club filling the room with an enormously raw sound while romping through the changes of some uptempo tune. It was as if I was hearing Albert Ayler play bebop.

The only recording I have of Mickey was done considerably earlier than that and evidences the quintessential type of Mickey Fields experience enjoyed by so many in Baltimore back in the day. It's a 1969 LP called "The Astonishing Mickey Fields" that is beyond rare and hard to find. Here's a track, "Lover Man"...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shut Up and Go Practice...

That's an all purpose insult often hurled at gear-heads. You know, folks who seem to have an endless fascination with musical gear, often to the exclusion of music. And often to the detriment of practicing. Personally I've stayed almost deliberately ignorant of much of what goes into making a saxophone work. But as I mentioned in my opening post I've had my ears opened to a few things with the switch to a vintage saxophone. In addition to edifying awareness in my occupation it's gotten me very curious about a horn that's been sitting in my closet. It was my first saxophone, rented in Baltimore in 1969 from the music store where my grandfather taught guitar. It was the only tenor they had (and I insisted on a tenor) but it looked as if it had been buried in the ground for quite a long time. And it kinda had a musty odor. All the other kids in the school band had shiny horns. I couldn't wait for the day when I could "graduate" up to a Selmer. That day came a few years later and that was pretty much the last I thought about my first horn.

I had retrieved it from my mother's house (where it had been sitting for the last thirty-five years or so) more out of a sense of sentimentality than anything else. I never thought it was a great horn but I was twelve so what did I know? The finish was so corroded that it was difficult to even make out the engraving. I showed it to Bill Singer (my repair-man here in NYC) who informed me that it would take some doing to get it playing again and that the cost would likely exceed the value. So it sat in my closet for some more years.

That is, until I started researching the saxophone in earnest, reading up on the history of the instrument and the technical advances (or I should say technical changes) that brought us to where we are now, in 2010. In short, seems a lot has been lost over the decades. Granted, modern saxophones are easier to play and have more consistent intonation than older horns, in general. But I'm finding that older horns often have a certain character that seems to have gotten lost with the continual refinements that today's players have come to expect from an instrument.

I decided to pull that old horn out of the closet and see what I could find out about it. I knew it was a Buescher. I assumed it was a "True Tone" model since that's what the emblem on the case said. (The case, by the way, stunk so bad I had to discard it). It was hard to read but the saxophone itself had the word "Aristocrat" engraved on the bell. That was a surprise, as I came to find out that this was a "pro" model and considered one of their best (if not the best). I still couldn't read the serial number so I had to scratch away a bit of the crud in order to find out that this was a 1941 "Big B" model (so named because of the large letter B on the bell). Along with a few other technical clues I came to find out that this horn was actually a contender back in the day. Apparently Sonny Rollins used this model on a number of his early recordings.

Seems that sometime around the 1950's the French Selmer company became ascendent and eclipsed the prevailing American made horns of the day (such as Conn and Buescher). To be sure, the Selmer was and is a fantastic instrument. With their innovations the saxophone became easier to play (key placement) and the prevailing sound changed from a more bottom heavy to a somewhat lighter sound with more complex overtones. This is a generalization, but from my perspective those are the major differences. In the 1970's the overall sound of the saxophone changed even more dramatically due largely to mouthpiece design. In order to accommodate playing in heavily amplified electric bands the horn had to become louder and the sound had to cut through the increased volume on stage. This meant that the older horns and mouthpieces were often abandoned and along with them a certain way of making sound on the instrument, that fuller, rounder, darker sound that one hears in players from the 30's and 40's.

To my surprise I have come to find out that this was not the first time this happened in the history of the instrument. Seems the ascendancy of the saxophone in popular music and especially it's role in the rise of big bands provoked Sigurd Rascher (one of the first classical saxophonists) to express his concerns that recent changes in the instrument (the bore taper) and the "newer" mouthpieces being used (designed to make the horn louder) meant that the saxophone was no longer the same instrument that Adolph Sax invented in 1841. These observations by Rascher came in the 1930's.

It might be easy to write that off as being reactionary in the face of progress. But I've gone back and listened to recordings made by Rascher (and the saxophone quartet that bears his name, who endeavor to play the instrument the way it was designed) and in their hands the saxophone really does sound like another instrument. It's a hybrid sound, sometimes stringlike other times a bit more like low brass. While I'm totally into the idea of taking the horn into whatever sonic realms possible (a process which has historically been more or less fully exploited by now) I'm uncomfortable with the idea that I may have unknowingly been missing out on a very large part of what the horn is capable of.

None of this is news. It's just that making a "discovery" like this for oneself at such a late date can throw one's mental state into disarray. In a good way. Wouldn't want things to get too pat.

So back to this Buescher Aristocrat that got me started. Apparently the taper of the bore design is supposed to be closer to the original design of the saxophone by it's inventor. So that's got me curious. And given how much I love playing my vintage Conn I really have to find out what the Buescher is all about. It seems to represent another branch of the history of the horn. So I took it over to Bill Singer a couple of weeks ago for restoration and it's due back any day now. Don't know whether I'll even like it or not but I'm sure I'll find out something more about saxophones in the process.

More on this soon...

(photo is the "before" version)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mel Ellison

I met Mel Ellison in 1979. I was 19 and still living in Baltimore and Mel came through town with trumpeter Ted Curson's band to play for a few nights at "The Bandstand", a jazz club in Fells Point. It was a festival of sorts and saxophonists Sonny Stitt and David Schnitter were also in town to play. In fact, I recall playing on one of the afternoon jams and Sonny and David walked in while I was playing and came right up to the stage in front of me. It was a little nerve-racking but I think Sonny said something complimentary which made me feel good. That night Ted Curson's band played. They sounded great. Mel played saxophones, Armen Donelian was on piano, Ratzo Harris on bass, Tom Rainey played drums and Montego Joe was on percussion. At that time the prevailing trend on saxophone was toward a brighter more cutting sound. But Mel had a distinctively full dark sound and an intervallic melodic style that was his own. I was so knocked out I asked him for a lesson. It was a catalyzing experience which I still remember quite clearly.

About a month later I had a free weekend and decided to visit NYC for the first time. I looked up Mel who was living in midtown on 46th street. A bed, a TV, a stereo, his horns and a big cappuccino maker were all that was in the room. He had his horns out and was practicing. We chatted for awhile and then he played me a recording of a group that he had. I remember thinking that I had never heard anything quite like it. Mel explained how he had done every kind of gig one could do as a saxophone player and now he wanted to simply play the music he loved. So he drove a limo in order to make some money while hitting the NYC jazz scene. He was the first musician I had met who was actually living the life, doing what I aspired to do. I remember pulling my horn out (without being asked) and trying to get him to play with me. I only played a phrase or two, but just being in the same room with him made me play better than I had ever played before. That night he had a gig with Jackie Byard's Apollo Stompers and invited me along.

It wasn't until 1983 that I moved to NYC. By that time Mel had left town and gone back to the Bay Area. I would ask around and those who remembered spoke very highly of him. But he had otherwise vanished from the scene. Finally, sometime in the mid '90s I tracked Mel down on a trip out west. We spoke on the phone and met briefly at one of my gigs. Mel explained that he had since been in and out of music over the years due to his feelings about the music business in general and how he wanted to live his life. We stayed in touch over the years and I asked him if he would send me any recordings of himself made from his time in NYC as commercial recordings were few.

One very nice session is available though. It's by bassist Saheb Sarbib from 1980 entitled "Seasons" (on the Soul Note label). Mark Whitecage plays alto and Paul Motion is on drums. It's a great indication of Mel's sound and approach at that time. You can get it on iTunes

I'm still trying to track down the recordings of those gigs in Baltimore with Ted Curson. I pretty sure they exist.

Mel recently informed me that he was coming to town for a visit. In fact, it would be Mel's first time back in NYC since he left in the early 80's. Being an important musical figure in my development, I was thrilled to be able to organize a jam session inviting Ratzo Harris and Tom Rainey. And I don't think Mel had seen Ratzo or Tom since those early days. In spite of the fact that Mel does not play with the same regularity he did in his NYC days, his spirit and sound are quite intact. It was a real thrill to actually play together and renew the inspiration from those many years ago. Thanks Mel!

(photo: Mel, Tom, Ratzo, EE)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

First Installment...

Back when this whole internets thing got going (mid/late '90s) I took advantage using web sites and discussion groups as a means to speak for myself as a musician. The timing was fortuitous as it coincided with a period in which I experienced a verbal awakening of sorts. I was asked to write some articles here and there and in general I found the process of organizing my thoughts and expressing certain ideas for the first time to be very beneficial for my music making.

At some point however (maybe a couple/few years ago) I found myself with little else to say. And perhaps with the exponential increase in on-line activity (MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) I began to feel the need to take a break. And I'm still rather ambivalent about much of this. So much business is done at the computer as it is. But lately I've been feeling the desire to take charge again and have been wondering what the optimal platform might be to best keep things on my own terms.

Facebook has been somewhat interesting but ultimately I find myself wanting to sink my teeth into something a bit deeper. There are some impressive blogs out there, which at first I found almost intimidating in as much as I can't imagine reading as many books as are being discussed, or listening to as many recordings as are being dissected. But I found many of them to be compelling and so decided to start this blog without telling anyone about it for awhile, just to see what develops and to find out whether this might be a good outlet and connection to other folks who may be interested in my work.

One of the other reasons I stopped doing as much online writing was that I've been practicing more. A lot more. For a time, much of my creative energy was devoted to conceptual issues and integrating other types of experiences into my artistic life. That seemed to require only enough daily practice as to keep myself in shape. But over the past few years I've become almost obsessed with sound. So much so that in trying to further develop my sound I recently took the drastic (for me) step of changing my equipment. I've always been strong on the idea of sticking with a set-up (mouthpiece, reeds, horn) for many years at a time and discovering what it takes physically to change one's sound. Finally however, I felt the need to explore some other options. The first step involved getting a new mouthpiece. I chose a hand-made model by Fred Lebayle (who is working here in NYC). It's a large chamber piece and puts me one step closer to the kind of sound I've been looking for (warmer, fuller). From there it was only a few weeks before I realized I had to take the next step and check out some other saxophones. I've been playing a Mark VI Selmer since the early '70s. But I always had a sneaking suspicion that I might really prefer the previous model, the Balanced Action. Trouble is, these vintage Selmers are so vastly overpriced as to make them all but unattainable for most of us. But I did try a number of them and I did feel that they were much preferable to the Mark VI, more of a core and more of a singing quality to the sound. Along the way however I decided to check out some vintage Conn saxophones (from the teens, 20s and 30s). And man am I glad that I did. I like them even better than the Selmers. I had no idea that these horns were so unique. To make a long story short I picked out a 1927 Conn that makes everything I've been trying to do sonically that much easier. In the process I'm learning a whole lot more about this instrument the saxophone (that I've been playing since I was 10) than I ever thought there was to know.

And the effect of all of this musically has been rather profound. I feel as if I'm starting over from the beginning. That's on the one hand a bit frightening but on balance much more exciting and very conducive to the whole idea of improvising. And improvising is about all I've been interested in doing. Granted (no pun intended) I recently completed a writing commission from Chamber Music America which allowed me to pursue some compositional strategies I've been interested in (maybe I'll write more about that later). But I'm more and more compelled by the idea of free improvisation not being a style at all, but simply a means to incorporate any and all kinds of musical information into a spontaneous presentation. Not free "from" anything but free "to" do anything. Not a form of avoidance (of form, melody, lyricism or groove as is often the case) but an opportunity to unite everything.

So as I embark on this new chapter in music making I will use this blog as an opportunity to share parts of the process. And living here in NYC presents me daily with experiences from the mundane to the astonishing. Taken individually, many of these experiences may not seem all that important. But the fabric of life here is unique (even as the city continually changes) and taken together these experiences are often worth documenting.

So here goes...