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



Friday, November 25, 2016

New York City Jazz Record Interview

I know this is a little late, but here's an interview I did last month in the October 2016 issue of New York City Jazz Record with Kurt Gottschalk. Sometimes when I do interviews I'm never sure of how edgy I can be. Treading the waters of edginess is a lot easier musically. No one would chastise me for playing challenging notes; however, saying things that challenge popular beliefs can end careers. As a culture, we are very tolerant of musical perspectives, diversity of opinions is a different story altogether.

But I did have fun, and I hope to do more in the future.



Thursday, September 29, 2016

Channeling Your Natural Genius Zone



Everyone has a natural genius zone just waiting to be explored. Some learn to channel it early on. Others learn to connect with it much later in life. But I guarantee that this place lies dormant within each of us.

First, how to define our natural genius. This is an ability to do or understand something that you seem to be able to do better than most--that thing which feels very natural. Simply put, this is an ability that seems too easy. This could be as broad as a musical concept, to something as specific as being able to play some crazy sound on your instrument. Whatever the case may be for you, this is a skill or perception in which you own.

The deceptive thing about our natural genius zone is that we are able to create, perform or think from this space with such ease that we can easily perceive it as being too easy. To the point that we feel anything produced from this space has no merit. We've convinced ourselves that unless it takes us several years and countless hours to develop something, it has no value. So instead, we only focus on that which we cannot do--that which appears to be too difficult. Sometimes this is indeed necessary.

Imagine if Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor ignored that which is uniquely them and just focused on what they were not able to do. What if Ornette only focused on playing with the hard bop sophistication of Sonny Rollins and the technical virtuosity of John Coltrane.  Or what if Cecil Taylor only strived for the relaxed swing feel of Wynton Kelly or to play with the Romantic introspection of Bill Evans? New schools of improvisation would have never unfolded.

I wonder if abstract painter Jackson Pollack felt similar doubts when he found himself inside his natural genius zone where he basically did all of the things painters are taught not to do: he dropped and spilled paint onto a canvas while it lain on the floor. He flung and hurled paint at canvasses with no discernible logic. As a painter, he had probably seen the type of asymmetrical collage that defined his drip style all around him for most of his life--on his clothes, the floor, his shoes, splattered all over his easel. He probably thought nothing of it. These things were probably discarded as messes--things to be cleaned up after he'd finished painting the conventional way. Fortunately, he had the insight to turn these drips, splatters, and spills into masterpieces.

On my new recording, I had a similar creative insight as Pollack when I recorded a few pieces made up of percussive key clicks produce by pressing down the keys on the soprano in a succession so that they created a rhythmic pattern. For most jazz purists, this kind of experimentation would immediately activate ones "bullshit meter." But much to my surprise, it was anything but. As you can imagine, merely pressing down the keys of the saxophone without actually blowing air into it, did actually feel too easy. But it did not make the final result less valid. Quality work has no time preparation prerequisite. Does a meal that takes 15 minutes to prepare taste less delicious than one that takes two hours? Not necessarily.


So the next time you find yourself in your natural genius zone doing something which seems too easy, don't discard it as being unworthy of much deeper exploration. We do not always have to travel uphill on our creative journey. We can get to some nice places traveling with the wind too.

Channeling Your Natural Genius Zone



Everyone has a natural genius zone just waiting to be explored. Some learn to channel it early on. Others learn to connect with it much later in life. But I guarantee that this place lies dormant within each of us.

First, how to define our natural genius. This is an ability to do or understand something that you seem to be able to do better than most--that thing which feels very natural. Simply put, this is an ability that seems too easy. This could be as broad as a musical concept, to something as specific as being able to play some crazy sound on your instrument. Whatever the case may be for you, this is a skill or perception in which you own.

The deceptive thing about our natural genius zone is that we are able to create, perform or think from this space with such ease that we can easily perceive it as being too easy. To the point that we feel anything produced from this space has no merit. We've convinced ourselves that unless it takes us several years and countless hours to develop something, it has no value. So instead, we only focus on that which we cannot do--that which appears to be too difficult. Sometimes this is indeed necessary.

Imagine if Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor ignored that which is uniquely them and just focused on what they were not able to do. What if Ornette only focused on playing with the hard bop sophistication of Sonny Rollins and the technical virtuosity of John Coltrane.  Or what if Cecil Taylor only strived for the relaxed swing feel of Wynton Kelly or to play with the Romantic introspection of Bill Evans? New schools of improvisation would have never unfolded.

I wonder if abstract painter Jackson Pollack felt similar doubts when he found himself inside his natural genius zone where he basically did all of the things painters are taught not to do: he dropped and spilled paint onto a canvas while it was on the floor. He flung and hurled paint at canvasses with no discernible logic. As a painter, he had probably seen the type of asymmetrical collage that defined his drip style all around him for most of his life--on his clothes, the floor, his shoes, splattered all over his easel. He probably thought nothing of it. These things were probably discarded as messes--things to be cleaned up after he'd finished painting the conventional way. Fortunately, he had the insight to turn these drips, splatters, and spills into masterpieces.

On my new recording, I had a similar creative insight as Pollack when I recorded a few pieces made up of percussive key clicks produce by pressing down the keys on the soprano in a succession so that they created a rhythmic pattern. For most jazz purists, this kind of experimentation would immediately activate ones "bullshit meter." But much to my surprise, it was anything but. As you can imagine, merely pressing down the keys of the saxophone without actually blowing air into it, did actually feel too easy. But it did not make the final result less valid. Quality work has no time preparation prerequisite. Does a meal that takes 15 minutes to prepare taste less delicious than one that takes two hours? Not necessarily.


So the next time you find yourself in your natural genius zone doing something which seems too easy, don't discard it as being unworthy of much deeper exploration. We do not always have to travel uphill on our creative journey. We can get to some nice places traveling with the wind too.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Playing the Credit Game: The Price of a College Education





As my summer break from teaching starts to come to an end (So long being immersed in music and enjoying the company of family!), I'm beginning to think more and more about my classes and class enrollment. Many who are not in the profession don't realize that securing enough students so that your classes will run is the Achilles hill of being a professor, even those with tenure. And this leads me to the discussion of the topic of selling class credits.

Selling class credits is the financial life support system at many private colleges and universities--particularly those devoid of large endowments. Without that cushion of the millionaire- and billionaire- alumni generosity, they are vulnerable to have to play what I call "the credit game."

First, let me define credit, for those of us who don’t work in academia and are not matriculated as a student. A credit is a measure of how much instruction a student receives during the semester. Typically, a credit equals an hour of instruction each week over the term or the semester. So if you are taking a three-credit course, which is the norm, you will be meeting anywhere between 2 ½ to 3 hours per week.  From a business perspective, it’s in the university’s best interest to have students take as many credits as possible during the school year. After all, business is business.

Now that we have an understanding of credits, let’s examine the credit game. The credit game is when your main focus becomes tilted more towards selling credits to students than maintaining a certain educational standard. And I'm not implying that a credits-sold initiative equals a lower educational standard, but it certainly creates opportunities for this kind if educational digression to unfold--which I will explain in just a moment.

Some institutions are somewhat protected from this and are able to remain focused more on academic excellence and graduate their students in a timely fashion. Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are abundant with endowments, so they don't typically have to view students solely as a source of income. This enables them to maintain a high level of academic standards. They are comparable to the musician who is independently wealthy and takes a gig because he's excited or inspired by the music, not because he has a phone bill to pay. Similarly, city and state schools can uphold their own level of academic excellence because they get support from public funds—anywhere from 80 to 90 percent in some instances. This is why they’re able to offer affordable tuition rates compared to most private institutions. So for them, seeing students as a means solely for paying for the school's infrastructure is not necessary. They're like the musician who gets to pick and choose his gigs because he or she has a low overhead and a modest trust fund. And FYI, Havard's endowment is roughly 36 billion. 

Private institutions without sizable endowments are not afforded this luxury. They have to generate their own income from credits sold.  Even though they are not owned by the state, they do, however, receive assistance in terms of tax exemptions. And some private universities even receive a per-student subsidy for every in-state student they enroll.  Even with this government assistance, they are still faced with an enormous challenge to keep their university financially afloat.

LIU Post, the sister campus to LIU Brooklyn has an endowment of $43 million. In practical terms, this is about $6,000 for each of it's $7,000 students. Princeton, on the other hand, which has an endowment of around 22 billion, has $2 million per each of its students. So you can see why some private universities have to take desperate means to stay afloat. I see them comparable to the musician who has a huge monthly overhead, so every gig is crucial--even the crappy ones. Picking and choosing is not an option. These schools tend to be more on the costly end of affordability, compared to their public owned counterparts. Their income primarily comes from student tuition. This is where colleges find themselves in compromising positions. Every student that they reject is potential money that won't go towards paying for the basic infrastructure of the university. And of course, in order to maximize their recruitment efforts, they have to loosen the reigns of academic excellence. At some institutions,  low performing students serve two financial purposes: (1) to provide scholarships for high performing students and; (2) to pay bills and teachers' salaries. It's a sad but definite truth. The institutions, on the other hand, are shielded from the accusation of any wrongdoing under the guise of providing educational opportunities for students who represent a broad spectrum of learning abilities. In other words, they give students who probably should not be in college a chance to strive for the American Dream, and sometimes they do realize it. There's always the possibility of defeating the odds. But in many cases, they end up going heavily into debt for a degree that may or may not have real worth. This, unfortunately, is a very harsh reality.

Having a college degree is comparable to having a brand new, top of the line instrument. Both of which are worthless if you can't support it with excellence. It is possible to graduate with a passing GPA and still be unemployable. In higher education the good student isn't always the one who produces good work, sometimes they’re just ones who are able to follow directions without causing the professor too much trouble.

And unfortunately, many students simply view a college degree as an accumulation of credits that they can cash in on the job market. Recently I was registering a student, a non-music major who was interested in taking one of the music appreciation classes I teach. When I began describing the class to him, he said, "Oh yeah, that's the class that costs $4,000." And I thought this is a sad moment in higher education when a class is viewed through the lens of money instead of the lens intellectual enlightenment. And these two disparate perspectives on classroom learning also determine the level of learning commitment. Love, passion, and genuine interest will always trump indifference and concerns of financial worthiness.

Colleges and universities play a role in students viewing classroom learning in this way by having such inflated tuition prices. If I bought a CD for $10, I would listen to it with little regard to what was paid for it. However, if that same CD costs $1,000, my association with the CD would be financial. It would no longer be a Charlie Parker or Miles Davis CD or whoever I'm listening to, but that damn $1,000 CD! Inflated prices for anything deprives us of intrinsic enjoyment. If a plate of pasta costs you $500 at a restaurant you'd probably do an appraisal of every noodle. It's human nature.

I stated earlier that a degree can be comparable to an instrument in that they both are deemed meritless without the active ingredient of excellence. I wouldn't be out of line in saying that a three million dollar Stradivarius violin in the hands of a beginner is nothing more than a piece of wood and strings. And the same holds true for a college degree. Without conjugating with the love of learning and excellence it is merely no more than a piece of paper signifying that you will be in debt for the next decade or two. As a music student, you can graduate with a 4.0 GPA and still have a horrible sound, bad rhythm, a limited knowledge of harmony, and be virtually unemployable. I've seen it happen. I've even graduated a few. Becoming a good musician is an intricately nuanced process. The college system of assessment does not work within the realm of this kind of nuance but numerical truisms. You can meet all of the mandatory proficiency requirements of your professors but that does not translate to artistry nor employable skill sets. Often times the things that make us great or even unique are immeasurable. How does one put what Dewey Redman, Thelonius Monk or Cecil Taylor do into the construct of a university rubric? In fact, music programs often do a disservice by even attempting to.

I don't want to bash music programs nor colleges and universities. They all serve a great and much-needed purposes. However,  I do feel students should become more aware of why they are there. And that the piece of paper at the end of the four years won't mean that you will get a job nor that you are job worthy. Students must learn to see their educational experience as more than four years of accumulating credits. It is important to value the experience of the educational environment, taking every advantage to learn from the professor as well as the other students. The college experience should be viewed as a practice run for real life. Professors are not just old people who are standing between you and an "A." Often times they are potential references and employers. As a student,  I viewed my professors as people who could potentially hire or refer me for gigs. Sometimes they did--another reason to always put your best effort forward. You never know where a personal connection could lead. You don't want to wait until you are booted out from the protective bosom of dormitory life to begin conducting yourself in a professional manner. By then, it's already too late.

Graduating from college is an amazing experience and accomplishment. One that I wish every person could experience--young and old. And if you do decide to take this journey to intellectual enlightenment, you must remember that some colleges and universities have to play the credit game, it's imperative for their financial survival. As students, though, you don't need to get entangled in that web of thought. Never lose sight of why you’re really there: to learn. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Artistic Capital versus Financial Capital


One of the misguiding notions about being a free-lance jazz musician is that the actions which increase our financial capital also increases our artistic capital. In the short term they do compliment each other, however, in the long term they yield very different results.

First, let me differentiate between the two. Financial capital pertains to funds available to acquire things.  Nurturing your financial capital results in having more money to go into your pocket. Whereas, artistic capital tends to mean richer music rather than a richer bank account.

One of the personal demons that I sometimes wrestle with are the inner struggles that surface when I do sideman gigs--particularly ones where I'm not presented as an equal collaborator nor am I hired to do what I do. You know, the kinds of gigs where your identity gets lost in non-inclusive band names such as the John Doe Quartet or the Jane Diaz Trio, and your name isn't John Doe or Jane Diaz.

Developing artistic capital can be a difficult course of action to be committed too, since it doesn't always translate into money, or at least as not as much money one can demand as a popular side person. And it’s no mystery that leaders often have to pay to have their music performed--particularly those who are taking the more difficult path of developing something original.

Personally speaking, I have the good fortune of having a full-time teaching gig, so my financial capital and artistic capital remain different entities. Typically I don't have to take gigs to pay the bills. Of course, every little bit helps. But, in general, I can afford to be more selective, and make sure that I'm constantly investing in my artistic capital and not skewing that with the financial.

I've seen numerous musicians who've tried to cash in some of their artistic capital, so to speak, only to realize that they've invested in it very little throughout their careers. And it's not even something you even notice until it's almost too late. You'll look back several years into your career and you've realized that neither your name nor your music has a brand. And why would it? A brand often requires us to project an image of very narrow confines. And many are not willing to make that kind of sacrifice. I’ve known a few musicians who’ve just decided one day that it’s time for them to get paid. For no other reason than they’ve been out here for a long time.

Often times what makes us employable does not lead us to invest in our artistic capital, which is where our branding is born. Being a sought after side person requires you to be musically adaptable, able and willing to play many styles and genres. And this is a good thing. However, in many cases, it's more of an investment in your financial capital than your artistic. Quite frankly, you're more likely helping someone invest in his or hers. Again, this is not a bad thing. In fact, it's admirable. I wish I were better at it. But my point is that we should have a clear understanding of how our time is really being spent. Investing in your musicianship does not always translate into investing in your artistic vision. They sometimes work against each other. If you're constantly preparing for someone else's music, that's time you're not investing in your own. In economics they call this opportunity costs. This is “a benefit, profit, or value of something that must be given up to acquire or achieve something else.”

My situation is more extreme than most. My creative efforts have been channeled towards solo saxophone performance. And it's not so much that I desire to play alone. The dynamic range, textural flexibility and sonic space that I'm afforded allows me to better negotiate the delicate set of nuances that are available to me when playing solo. Having the option to play at mezzo piano and pianissimo dynamic levels makes a huge difference in the kind of sonic language I can draw from.


Some of my favorite players are usually not the most versatile ones, but the ones who have a very singular vision. By them having a very narrow creative ambit, their artistic intent becomes clearer. I wouldn't want to hear Thelonious Monk play bossa novas and jazz rock. I only want to hear him play Monk. In other professions being a specialist is revered through peer and financial recognition. Most brain surgeons are better paid than the average family doctor. Brain surgeons are recognized for their expertise in a targeted area. They don't need to dabble in pediatrics or oncology. The world greatly benefits from their narrow focus.

And I'm not one of these musicians with an over-inflated sense of the importance of my work. What I do is important to me and maybe a handful of others, which is fine. The world is flooded with aesthetically neutral musical concepts targeted at the middle. If someone nurtures a concept that appeals to only a few otakus (obsessed fans) it would probably be a breath of fresh air. What most don't realize about these otaku-types who are on the creative fringes are actively seeking out sources of inspiration. They’re not most likely to find them on the covers of Downbeat and JazzTimes. Not unless they been on the fringes for so long that they've reached iconic status. I'm talking about the Cecil Taylors and Anthony Braxtons of the world.


I’m not advocating that we all stop playing with other people and that everyone should only play their own music. That would be insane. And boring. But we should realize how our time is actually being invested. Playing in someone’s band for five years is five years you’re not immersed in your own vision. And unfortunately, simply being immersed in ones vision cannot pay the bills. So as you can see, it’s a slippery slope. But I’ve learned over the years that if your artistic vision is important enough to you, you will invest in it. You’ll have no other choice. It would be a matter of spiritual survival.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Positive Side of Cluelessness


In many instances I would not think of cluelessness as something positive. Being able to accurately assess our abilities is a necessary skill to have if we wish to improve our music and grow as human beings. If we play badly, we should not only understand why we played badly, but understand the necessary steps to be taken to play better the next time.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, here's the problem: Sometimes we can have such a realistic perspective about our abilities that we won't even try. Studies have shown that pessimistic people are much more accurate at assessing their abilities than optimistic people. Sometimes they have such an accurate understanding of their abilities and the probability of them succeeding at something that they won't even try.  I'm sure we've been at numerous jam sessions where some drummer was cluelessly getting in everybody's way, but instead of being sorry for his performance, he actually came off the bandstand happy and in a good mood. Not only did he not apologize for his performance, he had the audacity to give you his business card and say to you, "Give me a call if you ever need a drummer." Optimistic people like this typically won't let a small thing like limited skill sets deter them.

When I first moved to New York, like the aforementioned drummer, I had no idea how badly I played. Which was good. Otherwise, I would have stayed in Boston forever until I had "perfected" my playing. And I know many players who stayed in Boston for that very reason. In fact, many of my friends with whom I moved here were less skilled than many who opted to stay. And in their defense, some people just don't have the desire or temperament for the hustle and tussle of New York City. I barely had it myself. However, where we lacked in skill, we made up in youth and optimism.


                                                                                                                                                                    Here's how clueless I was: A few months before making the move, I came to New York to check out the scene (testing the waters, if you will) and I stayed with saxophonist Steve Wilson. Around the second night of crashing on his couch, Steve invited me to go to a concert at the Blue Note to hear saxophonist Bill Barron and his brother Kenny on piano. I can't remember who played bass and drums, but I imagine they were pretty heavy cats. Long story short, I brought my tenor sax to the gig to sit in. I figured, why not? That's what a burning rhythm section is for--to accompany sad ass mother effers like myself who were soon to graduate from college. Besides, how else was I going to get discovered?

After the first set, I went up to Bill, horn in tote, and asked if I could sit in. I still cringe when I think about it. To Bill's credit, he sent me away gracefully. He politely said that they had a lot of rehearsed material to do and that there was no time to let people sit in. And I wished I had ended the conversation there. But then I followed with, "Oh, so it's not that kind of gig." He then looked at me with a stare of someone unimpressed and said: "Right, it's not that kind of gig."

In hindsight, I should have sent him a thank you note for sparing me having made a fool of myself on the bandstand that night. The potential was overwhelmingly great.

I think it's accurate to say that I'm just as clueless today as I was when I first moved to New York back in the late 80s. Mind you, I'm not showing up at the Blue Note to sit in with the Herbie Hancock trio, but I am willing to take artistic chances and choose to remain clueless to how I'm being perceived.

I'm certainly in a better position to assess my abilities and the potential for negative consequences to result from my actions, but I just choose not to asses and let my whatever results from my musical actions be. Otherwise, I would go from being the kind of person who tells himself "Yes you can" to someone who says to himself, "Maybe you can't."

Fortunately, I have no big fear of failing--not musically, anyway. When I switched to the soprano 20 years ago, in many ways I hit rock bottom. I had no money, no gigs, and no support system. Most of what I had built up was lost when I decided not to play the tenor sax anymore. What I had left was a vision and a belief that what I was doing was the right thing. Call it insight. Call it cluelessness. Whatever it was, the important thing is that it didn't keep me from trying and I had nothing to lose. And I still don't. I don't headline festivals and I work a day job. No one is banking on me to have musical success so that they can reap the financial benefits. I'm artistically free when it comes to playing music. And frankly, this is the space from which I do my best work. Because I have few financial consequences to weigh, many doors are open to me.


Pushing the envelope is fun. For many, however, it's terrifying. It's the space from which I feel most alive. Most of the things I try are utter failures, I will humbly admit. Most of my students at LIU Brooklyn can attest to this. But when I do discover something new, it makes all of those duds that spring from my creative well, totally worth it. So as you can see, cluelessness is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it's a necessary evil.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pete Yellin (July 18, 1941 - April 13, 2016)

I’m very sad to learn that alto saxophonist Pete Yellin has passed. Pete died on Wednesday, April 13, 2016 due to complications from a stroke he had in the spring of 2011. I actually owe a huge debt to Pete, him being the one who is responsible for me having my full-time position at LIU Brooklyn. And as you can imagine, this has afforded me a chance to have a somewhat normal life as an artist living in New York City--an opportunity not many have, as you well know.

Pete started the jazz program at LIU Brooklyn in 1984 and it was one of the most progressive ones around. In fact, the model used at the New School where students study with professionals of their choosing throughout New York City was started at LIU Brooklyn.

I first heard Pete when I was a student at Berklee in the 1980s on a Joe Henderson record titled In Pursuit of Blackness. That album also featured Woody Shaw, Curtis Fuller, George Cables, Ron McClure and Lenny White. It was released on Milestones records in 1971. Pete remained a frequent collaborator of Joe Henderson all throughout of the 1970s, playing in many of his small groups and big bands. I was very impressed in the way in which Pete walked the line between modernity and tradition. It was very creative and very masterful.

When Pete retired from teaching in 2005, he was pretty excited about getting back on the scene again. In fact, when I visited him at his place in Cobble-Hill (Brooklyn) he said that his chops have never felt better. Unfortunately, his comeback was cut short by his untimely stroke.

Pete was survived by his wife, Jane Oriel of El Cerrito, California; his daughter and son-in-law, Allegra Yellin and Jordan Ruyle, and two granddaughters, all of Oakland, California; and his siblings, Jill Fischer (residing in Connecticut), Bob Yellin (Vermont) and Gene Yellin (New York).

RIP my friend. You will be missed. But we're grateful we still have your music.

Pete's Discography as a Leader:




  • Dance of Allegra (Mainstream Records], 1973)
  • It's the Right Thing (Mainstream, 1973)
  • European Connection: Live! (Jazz4Ever, 1995)
  • It's You or No One (Mons Records, 1996)
  • Mellow Soul (Metropolitan Records, 1999)[
  • How Long Has This Been Going On? (Jazzed Media, 2009)


Below is one of the songs from In Pursuit of Blackness through which I first got introduced to Pete's playing.


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