Monday, December 18, 2023

Solo Concert 12/15/2023

This past Friday evening I performed a solo concert in Brooklyn.

It was my second concert in about four years, the previous one also being solo which took place in 2021.  

This particular concert took place at a Zen temple.  More about that in a moment.

The Set Up…

Preparing for any concert requires concentrated practice but a solo concert is perhaps the most demanding.  I began focusing my daily practice a couple of months in advance, gradually ramping things up in earnest about a month out only to encounter a bad bout of “reed neurosis”, something that does not happen often but is quite the pain in the ass when it does.  I like to think I’ve developed a good degree of flexibility with respect to reeds but occasionally the whole lot of them seem to go south all at once, for reasons I’ve never been able to determine with any certainty.  Saxophonists are notoriously dissatisfied with their reeds and everyone has a theory but I don’t really subscribe to any of them, the saxophone is mysterious that way.  I do know that when preparing for a concert I do tend to get more picky.  And I had been experimenting with overtones at around this time and it’s possible that adjustments to my embouchure may have thrown things out of alignment.  Or maybe it was a sudden change in the barometric pressure or whatever else we saxophonists like to blame for the vagaries our instrument.  As you can see, this is the neurosis part.  

So I did what every saxophonist does in such a situation, I tried a new brand of reeds, in this case the reeds currently being offered from the Boston Sax Shop which it turns out I like quite a bit.  That combined with spending a couple of weeks really working on the physicality of getting the horn to speak from every note to every other note to an extent I had not done in awhile.  However, in concentrating so heavily on sound and notes I began to feel a bit stiff musically which became something else to wonder about.  So I took time to remember some of the things I mention to my students, orienting myself to the physical gesture, shaping the sound and phrasing, the physical movement being the generative element which determines the phrasing, which determines the color of the sound, which determines the notes, all of which rides on the breath.  That got everything realigned pretty quickly but in order to remind myself, I wrote down on a piece of paper “the breath dances…” and took it with me to the concert.

The Setting…

Many musicians speak about their creative process in spiritual terms, often self-styled or sometimes aligned with a particular tradition, which is all fine and cool.  But when folks find out you may be a bit more serious about that tradition things can get a little quiet all the sudden.  That’s completely understandable given the complexity of religious practice in America as it intertwines with our personal histories filtered through the cultural, economic and political landscape that make up our collective experience.  The word fraught springs to mind to the point that spiritual becomes a loaded term.  For years, even as it was obvious to me deep down that music was spiritual, I didn’t want anything to do with the word.  This being a blog about music I feel pretty strongly the importance of keeping on-topic.  You have your own thoughts and feelings on life and it’s probably best if we all find ways of honoring that about each other.

In this case, given that I played at the Zen center that I have been attending as a practitioner for many years, I’m faced with honoring my own sensibilities, some of which seemed a bit contrary to the whole endeavor.  For example, I was apprehensive about playing a saxophone, or any kind of music actually, in a Zen temple. After all, it’s a place in which we practice silence.  Not that there isn’t a precedent for doing so, there is the tradition of the shakuhachi flute for one.  But the saxophone and the musical traditions that inform how I play it may appear antithetical to the image one may have of the shakuhachi or even Zen itself.  But in spite of any reservations, I couldn’t really come up with a convincing reason to refuse the invitation.  Having played in concert halls and dive bars and everything in between, this was a new experience and yet it turned out to be a natural fit.  I saw quite a few folks I hadn’t seen in awhile (which is most folks come to think of it) and while most of those in attendance were not Zen practitioners it was perhaps the most concentrated listening experience I’ve been a part of, allowing me to go a bit deeper into musical areas that I might not have trusted so firmly in the past.  Given the disruption of the music business in recent years and the effect it’s had on musicians, venues and audiences this invitation turned out to be quite welcome.  It also provided a means for me to encounter some of my own blind spots around what I think it means to be a musician.  I played three extended improvisations and in retrospect, while the experience was very positive, I have almost no sense of what I actually played.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  This makes me realize how heavily we rely on recording to inform ourselves of the progress of our work and yet in this case I chose not to record the event, thinking about the Tibetan monks who create mandalas made of sand only to wipe them away after finishing.  Where does music come from and where does it go?

The Takeaway...

After the concert we had a chance for folks to ask questions or offer comments.  One person said that at times it sounded as if I was playing backwards and asked if that was intentional.  It wasn’t, although the thought has crossed my mind in the past.  Another person, with experience in improvisational theater, asked whether improvising musicians also come up against habitual tendencies and wanted to know how we handled that.  I offered that we do and that it doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it’s actually something we need and something we can use, seeing it might simply move you in another direction.  Years ago I might have answered differently, given that in earlier stages of development it may feel necessary to focus on particular ways to meet challenging conditions that come up when improvising.  We may even feel the necessity of taking a particular stand artistically and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.  But when seeing that our agendas have become weighty over time we can drop them, not out of negation but out of trust, there being no real need to make an ideology out of creative practice.  Personally I find that all of the same basic kinds of thoughts and feelings come up as was always the case, just that now I don’t feel the need to manage it all to such a degree.  Someone came up afterwards and said that she experienced a wide range of feelings throughout the music and wondered if I was guiding the music emotionally in some way.  I wasn’t, although I’m certainly aware of everything I’m feeling.  It’s just that the concentration is such that I can’t get distracted by those feelings.  In some way that I don’t quite understand it seems that this process allows for those feelings to be even more true in that they can move, as they must.  

This makes me think of a quality that musicians often speak of in terms of idealized states for playing and that is the word effortless.  It’s the quality of the music seeming to play itself.  I would not negate that but I think it can be misleading if taken at face value.  It might imply that our involvement, intention or effort is misplaced, even an obstacle to achieving a desired state.  In my experience “effortless” does not negate our involvement, it requires it.  Personally I like the feeling of working a bit when I play.  It’s a very physical and directed energy in which the horn offers its resistance and thereby the sound is created.  In putting in this effort there is a kind of equilibrium that takes place in which it can well seem like the whole thing is going by itself.  But it does require an investment.  We put our energy into the process and are met with…well, that’s up to you to experience in whatever way you feel it.  Sometimes musicians might say that the music doesn't come "from" them but rather "through" them.  I would not negate this either except to say that I would not want to imply that there is music “out there” that comes through me “in here”.  In fact, I was having this discussion recently with my first saxophone teacher, Mr. Reinhardt, who rephrased my statement as “the music that comes ‘through’ you is not separate ‘from’ you.”   I think that’s very nicely put.  

This is all just my take on what I’m feeling, something that defies putting into words although I can’t resist trying.  There really is no end to the ways in which we might think and feel about playing.  I love to read interviews with artists in which they speak about their process.  Sometimes I don’t relate so much to a particular approach or even disagree with it strongly.  Once I read someone advocating mastery before creativity in a way that seemed dictatorial.  On the other end of the spectrum are folks who express an aversion to conventional skills or even anything determinative, wanting instead to surrender to whatever is happening.  But I know that we are all essentially doing the same thing, in our own way.  It’s a good practice to take something that rubs me the wrong way and try and enlarge my view of what’s being said in order to see that.  

In closing, there was one other question that came up, a rather obvious one that nonetheless caught me off guard.  “How does it feel to play for people again?”  I should have been prepared for that one but I really didn’t know what to say except that having just done so I should probably do more.  And in fact, I do want to play for folks but I have my concerns about the form that takes, at least here in NYC.  It’s a challenging environment and a challenging time for creative work.  In acknowledging this I’m greatly appreciative of the effort it takes from folks who know how to make things happen on the ground and I do want to extend my appreciation for all of their efforts.  In particular to Hojin Sensei, the abbot of  Fire Lotus Temple, a creative artist herself who helped me to see a bit more clearly that yes, it is OK to play the saxophone in a Zen temple.   


For the benefit of us saxophone nerds, given all of the pre-game drama, upon warming up in the performance room for the concert I opted for my regular brand of reed, Rico Grand Concert Select.  They are a classical cut reed which works very well for a solo performance.  I suspect I will be using Boston Sax Shop reeds for ensemble work although I understand that they will also be offering a classical cut reed in the future.  And out of curiosity I just went back and played through that bad batch of reeds only to find out that they are pretty much fine.  So…I remain clueless about the whole thing…

The group photo is by photographer Todd Weinstein.  You can find out more about his work at