"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Helpful Hints on Putting Together a Good Set

Putting together a set of tunes to play for a concert can seem as difficult as securing the gig itself. Having led a band at one point or another, most of us can empathize with being backstage and having your band members ask you, "What tune do you want to start with?" Or "what's the first set going to be?"

It seems as though no matter how long you're in the business, or how many gigs you've done, figuring out which tunes to play and what order to play them never gets easier.

I'm far from an expert, but here are a few pointers that I use to make the process a little easier.

1. Start with something that you and your band can sink your teeth into.
I've been in numerous situations where the leader was determined to start with the most difficult tune in the book. Unless the band is well-rehearsed or have been playing the material for awhile, this can be a bad idea for a few reasons. One, the audience does not get a chance to hear the group at their best, which could leave a negative impression; and two, if the performance of the tune does not go well, it could shake the confidence of some of the members of the group.

2. Make sure that the tempo of the first tune is not too fast or too slow
Starting with extreme tempos is uncomfortable for the players and the listeners. It does not allow players to properly sync with each other and it's difficult for the audience to get into a good listening zone for your music.

3. The first tune should represent the group's vision or concept. 
If you have a straight ahead jazz group, don't start with the one free piece in the book, and vise versa. Save the oddities in your book for the middle or at the end of the set.

4. As the leader, make sure you start with something you don't have to read.
I always feel it's good for the leader to be able to observe what's happening on the bandstand, musically and personally. If nothing else to make sure everyone is comfortable. This is difficult to do if all of your energy is going into reading and/or counting.

5. Make sure the first tune isn't too long
It's good to let the audience hear a range of what you do before the middle of the set. This is difficult to do if the first tune lasts for 20-minutes. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

6. Change the instrumentation when possible. 
If you're leading a quartet, having all four musicians play all the time can become predictable. Playing solo, duo or trio can be a welcomed deviation from the norm.

7. Keep the talking to a minimum. 
People go to jazz clubs to hear music, not lectures. An entertaining anecdote to set-up a tune can be a nice transition. For the most part, you just want to give the audience pertinent information: who's playing and what tunes are being played. Talking too much during the set prevents listeners and players from losing themselves in the music.

8. Make sure that you don't play more than two consecutive tunes with a similar feel and tempo. 
Unless you are a trained musician, the subtle differences between tunes can be difficult to detect. This is why it's good to choose material that takes the listener and the music into unique and distinct areas.

9. Plan the set far in advance
Trying to put together a set five minutes before the downbeat can be nerve racking. I would start thinking about what to play as far as a week before. This way you have a chance to weigh the different possibilities. So even if you do put together your set last minute, you will have spent quality time weighing the different tune sequence possibilities.

10. Have more than one tune option ready. 
Sometimes it is difficult deciding between which two tunes to play. Instead of agonizing over them, just have them both ready. Sometimes you have to go with what's inspiring you at the moment.

As I said earlier, I'm far from an expert at this sort of thing. Picking a good sequence of tunes to play is not an exact science. But these aforementioned suggestions can make the process easier. And no matter what order you play your tunes, the most important thing is to have fun playing them.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Lower Register: The Most Neglected Part of the Horn

The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument.
- Steve Lacy

  • Increased sound control in the lower register
  • Increased dexterity in the lower register
  • Increased breath support
  • Increased ability to play at different dynamic levels in the lower register

I’ve often expressed to students the importance of the developing the lower register of the soprano. There’s a tendency to only play in the instrument’s high and middle registers. This is understandable being that they’re the most comfortable parts of the instrument to play in--not to mention that they’re the most practical ranges on the other saxes.

However, on the soprano, the low Bb to low F is actually in the practical range, too, similar to the Bb trumpet. Not to mention that saxophonists often the approach instrument from a non-soprano perspective, causing us to lack the vision to tap into the things that makes the instrument unique.

Three reasons why developing the lower register of the soprano is so important:

1.     You can extend practical range, given you more notes to work with.
2.     You can play in the same transposed range as the other saxophones, particular the alto and tenor. 
3.     You can play with more fluidity in the darkest and warmest part of the instruments

Most saxophonists don’t play melodies using notes below the low F (or F1), which makes sense on the larger saxes. The tenor saxophone, for instance, transposes up a major 9th. That means if you play an F1 on the instrument, it will sound as a concert Eb one octave below—which definitely gets into the muddy range of the piano. And this especially holds true for the bari sax, which transposes an octave and a 6th;  therefore, if you play an F1 on the bari sax, it will sound a concert Ab two octaves below, which is even muddier. However, on the soprano sax, if you play an F1 it will sound the Eb1, which still in the practical range since it’s a minor 3rd above middle C.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Here’s an except from the book, Conversations, where Steve Lacy gives his view on the bottom register of the soprano:
The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument. I must be the only one that’s really opened up the bottom. I’m waiting for somebody else to really have founded something downstairs. That’s perhaps the most interesting part of the horn, the most beautiful part, it’s most pleasant part.

I agree with Lacy in that the bottom is “the most interesting part of the horn.” I’m not so sure it’s the “most beautiful part,” but definitely the warmest and most neglected, second only to the altissimo. In general, this area of the saxophone is not considered part of the instrument's practical range, as I’ve stated earlier--which is understandable with the larger members of the saxophone family; melodies and lines played on those instruments in the lower register tend to sound muddy. On the soprano, however, this “neglected area” has a lot more melodic possibilities.

Let's look at how to tackle this neglected area: 

Suggestion/Exercise #1: I suggest starting with practicing melodies and your musical ideas, using only the notes between Bb1 (low Bb) - Bb2. You’ll need to practice this way for a few weeks to really see results. It's uncomfortable in the beginning, but after a few days you will start to make the necessary embouchure, breathing, and aural adjustment, that will make it feel more natural.

Suggestion/Exercise #2: Another thing I like to do is practice Charlie Parker's tune "Now's the Time" in the key of Eb concert. When I transpose it to the soprano’s key, the melody is right in the very bottom of the horn.

When practicing “Now’s the Time” in this key, here are a few things to pay attention to:

  1. The lower register tends to be sharper than the middle, so make sure you practice it with a tuner.
  2. Aim for the same evenness and clarity that you would have if you played it on the tenor sax and octave above. Look at it from a soprano perspective.

One Lacy tune that I recommend, if you’re looking for an exercise to strengthen your lower register control as well as a cool tune to play is “Blues for Aida”. I’ve heard Lacy play this tune in solo and duo settings with pianist Mal Waldron, a long-time Lacy collaborator. And like most of his compositions, it will pretty much work in any context. This tune is in concert Bb minor, which is C minor in the key of the soprano.  The melodic range of the tune extends from low C to middle C on the soprano.

Blues for Aida

Soprano sax

This tune is loosely based on a five note Japanese scale called the miyako-bushi as shown in Example 1.  This is the scale on which many of the traditional Japanese tunes are built—particularly ones written for the koto.

This scale has a sound that’s very identifiable, exotic and soulful—similar to the blues. The difference being that in the  “blues scale” the essential notes are #9, #11, and b7, whereas the blues notes in the “miyako-bushi” are b9 and b13.

Example 1:  The miyako-bushi pentatonic scale

As shown in Example 1, this penta-tonic is very different from the major and minor penta-tonics found in most Western, Asian, and West African music. You’ll find that the main differences occur between the 1st and 2nd tones, and the 4th and 5th, both spanning the interval of a ½ step. 


Lower Register Studies 1 – 4: The following four (4) exercises focuses on developing the lower register. Each exercise should be practiced using the suggested articulations.

Suggested articulations:

Exercise #1

Exercise #2

Exercise #3

Exercise #4

Here are a few things to keep in mind when practicing these exercises:
  •  Playing these at softer volumes forces you to play with better breath support.
  • Notes in this register tend to be on the sharp side.
  • The notes will often sound very harsh, so try to aim for a middle register smoothness.
  •  It’s good to imagine you’re playing the oboe or trumpet, it will raise your standard for what is an acceptable sound.
  • Aim for the same fluidity that you would in the other registers.                                     

Let me know how they work out. I'm curious to know.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Uncovering the Hidden Musical Treasures: The Power of Observation

One valuable lesson I try to instill in aspiring students is the importance of exploring their music far beyond it's surface--almost to the point where it feels extreme. Then when it feels like you can't go any further, go a little deeper. And if you're lucky, you might scratch the surface of what you're capable of.

When I first began exploring extended techniques on the soprano almost 15 years ago, I never imagined the possibilities existed that I've now discovered. I hope that I will look back 15 years from now and feel the same way. In fact, last fall when writer Phil Lutz interviewed me for my feature in DownBeat in March of 2015, he asked me where else is there to go musically after my CD, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation. At the time, I told him I had no idea, but I knew that if I kept digging I would discover many more sonic treasures.

I sometimes conduct this one experiment with students that teaches them to see beyond the obvious--which is basically what we do as artists. During this experiment, they are to look at the picture on the left and tell me how many faces they see.

At first glance, most see the head of the man with the white beard in the center looking to the left (face #1).

After a few more minutes they'll notice the man in the center carrying the walking stick, whose head is the eye of the first man (face #2).

Minutes later,  they'll notice the lady (face #3) and the baby (face #4) to the right of the man carrying the walking stick.

Then this is where it gets tricky.

I then tell them there are actually nine faces in the picture and they've only discovered four. This is when I really start to see the powers of observation go into over-drive.

After five minutes or so, many still don't see the other five faces and begin questioning whether or not I'm being deceitful. Assuring them that five additional faces do exist, they begin focusing harder trying to discover them.

A few minutes later they'll discover the profile of the woman facing to the right just above the right hand column (face #5). Then they'll notice the woman just above the woman of the left hand column (face #6). Then another face in profile directly above her, in which the bird forms the nose and forehead (face #7). And below her is a sideview of a woman looking to the right (face #8), and she is connected to a face looking directly at you, located on the far left (face #9).

Of course after discovering the mystery faces, they all seem so obvious, which is usually the case. 

"This is how you should deal with your music," I then explain. Music may not have nine faces, but it does have many layers. Like this picture, only a few are apparent at first glance. But if you stay committed to what you're doing long enough and truly believe that deeper aspects really exist, eventually they will reveal themselves, as they did in this experiment.  In fact, my first experience with multi-phonics began as mere split tones and cracked notes, but I kept exploring those typically- regarded-as-wrong notes until I was able to understand them on a much deeper level. And you can take this approach with any musical material that you're working on: composing tunes, big band arrangements, shedding ii-V-1s, practicing long tones, practicing technical etudes, learning tunes, you name it.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, when you feel you can't dig any deeper when working on any of these aforementioned things, go a little deeper, and that's where the fun begins. And most of all, have patience and never lose your faith.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Death of the Jazz Star

When I first moved to New York, there were two main ways in which musicians made a living playing jazz: playing in the band of some famous person, or becoming a jazz star. Sometimes the previous led to the latter.

Wanting jazz stardom, as I saw it, wasn't so much about ego. Musicians weren't putting out the vibe that said, "Hey, look at me. I'm so great. I'm the best." Maybe this was true for some, but for many it was about economic survival, not ego appeasement.

Jazz stardom simply meant making a living through performing, preferably leading your own band. This is different from the Hollywood version of stardom of red carpet events, super-model girlfriends and million dollar pay checks. Being a jazz star just meant that you had regular work, made frequent appearances in jazz publications, and had won the adornment of jazz fans and critics all over the world. In an expensive and competitive city like New York, having made it could mean something as modest as not having to live with roommates. This was very much my definition during earlier years.

And I certainly wanted my shot at jazz stardom, even though I did little to facilitate it. I liked the idea of it, not the networking it took to achieve it. Just thinking about those times conjures up feelings of anxiety, anger and resentment. The amount of kissing up required was a bit much. Begging A&R reps to come to your gigs, the numerous calls made trying to get these guys on the phone; it was horrible. They were the hot chicks at the dance and we were the horny teenagers trying to get their number.

Today's young musicians seem to have less lofty aspirations. Surviving playing the music that one loves seems to satisfy most. In fact, many men and women I know have come to terms with never experiencing the joys of raising a family, owning a home, or having a nest egg to fall back on during their senior years--all for the love of music. Music has essentially become their babies. This certainly was the case for me in my 20s and most of my 30s. I often questioned whether I would ever experience the titles of husband, father, and family guy.  I was certainly prepared to use music as a surrogate for these things. I'm fortunate not having to choose one or the other.

What exactly is a jazz star? Is it he or she who is popular, sells a lot of CDs, or headlines the major festivals? Could be...or not. As I see it there are two kinds: There are those who arrive at jazz stardom through merit, and those who arrive at it through marketing. One is a byproduct of doing great work; they produce something desirable and consequently, a lot of people want it; the other is a byproduct of having out spent their contemporaries. People do want they have to offer, but mainly because they're being told to.  This was very common in the late 80s and most of the 1990s.

The problem with the latter is that it has influenced the previous. People who initially created good and sincere work began mimmicking the strategies of those who achieved it through marketing.

During this period, managers and agents had us duped into believing that we could not have a career without having a marketable story. People had totally lost faith in just doing quality work. It was really sad. And what was considered a good story was constantly changing. At one time it was being from New Orleans; then it was being able to play jazz and classical; then it was being young and black; then it was being from Cuba; then it was having a band with your brother; then it was being the son of a famous jazz musician. And it went on and on. It was everything except producing great music.  So you can see why many who rose to jazz stardom under these pretenses, eventually faded.

The jazz legends and the really creative types who had built a reputation for doing great work, began selling themselves and their audiences short when they began mimicking the marketing strategies of the aforementioned. They came away looking cliche and desperate. Their career trajectory usually looked something like this:
  • First they made a name for themselves playing their own music.
  • Then when bookings became more difficult, they began forming all-star bands.
  • When that stopped working, they put together an electric or funk project.
  • And when all else failed, they started  playing someone else's music.

You could see it coming a mile away. Consequently, many American jazz festivals nowadays are filled with either tribute bands, all-star bands, or a combination of the two. And I'm not here to bash. I can understand people needing to do what needs to be done. Get to the bandstand by any means necessary, I always say. 

Doing whatever it takes to make you and your band bookable does work short term, however, in the long term, it creates no artistic capital. And besides, this way of doing things has become somewhat irrelevant in the bigger picture. The bigger picture is being able to look back and feel good about the body of work you've left behind; a legacy of which you can be proud. A body of work others look at in reverence and go, "This person really stood for something," not, "He was a master of coming up with great promotional angles and gimmicks"

I call this the lipstick-on-a-pig approach. On the surface it looks special, but when you wipe away the red carnauba wax, the only thing left is a pig. This is classic fluff over substance, which if continued, ends in regress, not progress. Again, I applaud anyone who can be viewed as the cream of the crop in today's climate. This is no easy feat.

Today, as I see it, is the time of the artist. A time for musicians who not only have the creativity to think differently, but the courage to bring that vision to fruition. We can't continue passing off clichés with a backbeat as contemporary or progress, nor can we continue riding the wave of someone else's accomplishments. That's too easy. It's like they say, "If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is."

When I first started playing the soprano, I wanted praise just for playing it exclusively. It didn't come that easy. To get noticed, I've had to work hard, and continue to do so. Cliché tactics don't work for me. I wish they did sometimes. Trying to be creative and inventive is hard work and at times draining--more emotionally than musically.

The great thing about living in this artistically fertile and creative period is that everybody gets a chance to play the metaphorical game of jazz. Carving out a career is not reserved for the select few, and those with a marketable story. This is a good thing. New and interesting music is being explored all over the world, and those following the jazz star model of the past, become poster children for the status quo.

We don't have to completely bury the concept of the jazz star. Even with its diminishing relevance, we all should strive for jazz stardom, in some fashion. Not to feed our egos, but for the simple reason of being able to pay the bills playing our own music. And if you can walk a few red carpets and date a few super-models along the way, more power to you.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Overtone Madness Will Prevent Sound Sadness

When saxophonists ask for suggestions on how to gain more sound flexibility--especially in the altissimo register--I often recommend the book Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Four-Octave Range by Siguard Rascher. And as great as this book is, it can be a little dry as far as melodic content--which could present a challenge to the less disciplined student--and I’m speaking from experience. When I was in in my late teens and early twenties, I definitely did not have the discipline to practice overtone exercises everyday.

And here are a couple of reasons why:

1. They’re difficult to play in the beginning, so you never feel like you’re benefitting from your efforts. As a matter of fact, many students have difficulty getting pass the third overtone when playing the overtone series. 

2. Since there is not much melodic content when just playing the overtones series, it gets kind of boring, and becomes difficult to continue playing them for any amount of time for you to reap the benefits from practicing them.

That’s when I discovered that practicing bugle calls could be a practical solution. The bugle is a valve-less brass instrument that looks similar to the trumpet, and they’re commonly played during military-related ceremonial events. Because the instrument has no valves, it is limited to the notes from the overtone series, and the only way to play the notes from the overtone series is by varying the embouchure and the airflow in the oral cavity. So I figured the repertoire written for the bugle would be ideal for the saxophone, especially the soprano.

The five note scale on which bugle calls are written is called the bugle scale, which is the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th partial of the overtone series. See Example 1: the bugle scale in the register of the bugle below.

Example 1: The bugle scale in the register of bugle

Now if you look at Example 2, you’ll see that the overtone for the saxophone is one octave above.

Example 2: The bugle scale in the register of the saxophone

Bugle Calls for Saxophone

The following are three bugles adapted for the saxophone: Taps, Assembly, and Reveille. And there are four versions of each, starting on the fundamental tones Bb1, B1, C1, and C#1. These bugle calls are fun and effective ways of working on breath support, oral cavity manipulation (speeding up and slowing down the air flow) and embouchure control (flexibility and muscles).

Taps (Exercises 1 - 4)

1. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone Bb1 (or low Bb)

2. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone B1 (or low B)

3. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone C1 (or low C)

4. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone C#1 (or low C#)

Assembly (Exercises 1 - 4)

1. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone Bb1 (or low Bb)

2. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone B1 (or low B)

3. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone C1 (or low C)

4. Play entire song starting on the fundamental tone C#1 (or low C#)

Overtone Repetition Etudes 1 – 4

1. Play entire etude starting on the fundamental tone Bb1 (or low Bb)

2. Play entire etude starting on the fundamental tone B1 (or low B)

3. Play entire etude starting on the fundamental tone C1 (or low C)

4. Play entire etude starting on the fundamental tone C#1 (or low C#)


Overtone Triplets (Parts A and B)

The note names at the bottom of each stave represents the notes used to play the melodic content shown above. For example, measures 1 and 2 of Letter A should be played using the fingering for the low Bb, etc.

Some of these exercises might be too difficult for players with little experience in playing overtones. So I have included a few preliminary exercises that will help you in gaining a better understanding of the process on how overtones are produced. As you become more comfortable with these easier  preliminary exercises, the more difficult ones presented in the beginning of the article will become less and less daunting.

 Preliminary Exercise #1: Play all examples fingering only the fundamental tone in parenthesis.

Preliminary Exercise #2: Play all examples fingering only the fundamental tone in parenthesis.

Benefits of practicing these exercises:

  • Playing in the altissimo becomes easier
  • Increased flexibility
  • Heightened oral cavity awareness
  • A sound more rich in harmonics and overtones
  • Strengthens embouchure
  • Breath support
  • Increased endurance

And keep in mind that playing these exercises is not an exact science, so in the beginning, just even attempting them will prove beneficial. So don't get too bogged down with trying to play them perfectly. Fine tune them over time. Right now, just do what you capable of. 

One last thing: Here's a performance I did recently with vocalist Fay Victor and drummer Reggie Nicholson for the Art for Art: In Gardens Series, which features creative and improvised music around New York City.

This performance demonstrates some of the flexibility and extended range that can be achieved through mastering these exercises.  Let me know what you think.

And thanks for reading!

- Sam

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