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

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 lays 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 lay 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 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 your financial capital also increases your 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 are so accurate that they talk themselves out of trying. 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 loose. 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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Sound-Centered Approach to Improvisation

Being that our sound is the first thing that people hear, it’s ironic that it’s not our first priority when we play?  Imagine a top fashion model being more concerned with her voice than her face, or a writer being more concerned with his style of font, rather than his story. You would probably think that they have their priorities in all of the wrong places. The same can be said of a musician. If you are more concerned with what you’re going to play, than the sound you’re using to play it, you, too, may be a voice-conscious model, so to speak.

One thing that all great jazz musicians have in common is being able to tell stories with their sound. Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis—they moved people just as much with their sound as they did with their ideas, if not more. When we think of John Coltrane, it’s usually of his technical virtuosity and harmonic innovations. But one of the most unique things about his playing was his concept of sound. I’m a firm believer that if want to have an original vocabulary you have to start with an original sound.

This distinction between sound and ideas has led me to realize that there are, in fact, two schools of thought when it comes to improvisation. Whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, many players seem to have either an idea-centered approach or a sound-centered approach. Even though these two approaches overlap, they produce very different results.

Idea-centered playing, as I see it, is when you first realize the idea and the sound produced is a by-product of implementing the idea. In other words, you think of something to play, and your sound is what’s heard as a result of trying to play it. There are a few advantages to this approach. One, you are playing something that’s well rehearsed, so the execution of the idea is often precise and accurate. Two, you have the comfort of knowing that the idea will serve a particular function melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically.

One of the cons, however, is that the idea might sound forced. It might work melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, but not musically. While I was a student at Berklee College of Music, I remember attending numerous jam-sessions knowing what lick I was going to play on which tune and on which chord. Like most developing players, I figured why practice something if you're not going to play it, even if the situation does not call for it. This type of approach can make one sound very uncommunicative, isolated, and technical. And by technical  I mean playing ideas that sound premeditated rather than inspired. Technique in this instance is not a means to an end. It is the means. If you notice someone's technique apart from his or her music, chances are that he or she have not figured out how to musically integrate it.

Sound-centered playing, on the other hand, is just the opposite. This is when the primary focus is on the various nuances of your sound, and the ideas heard are a by-product of the various ways in which you manipulate these nuances. One advantage to this approach is that now that you are maximizing each note, exploring its timbre and textural possibilities to the fullest before moving on to the next note, your ideas now take on a more vocal-like quality. Not to mention, with your sound now the forefront, listeners can tune into its subtleties—which, by the way, is how listeners will ultimately come to recognize you.

These two distinct approaches first dawned on me many years ago after I attended a concert at the “old” Iridium Jazz Club (when it was this hip, chic place, with a modern d├ęcor, located in the Lincoln Center area). That night featured two bands. One was led by tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, and the other by an up an coming tenor saxophonist, who will be referred to as “The Young Tenor Player.”  Both players sounded great that night. However, being able to listen to one after the other, I noticed there was something distinctly different about their approaches. At first I thought it might have been the generational difference—with Dewey being in his sixties at the time and “The Young Tenor Player” being in his early thirties. Then I thought maybe it was the stylistic difference. Dewey’s style being the bluesy-tough-Texas tenor, laced with flurries of Ornette Colemanisms and “The Young Tenor Player’s” style was coming straight out of the hard bop era, paying much homage to 1950s Rollins and Henderson. But then it dawned on me that difference was this: Dewey was leading with his sound, “The Young Tenor Player” was leading with his ideas --or licks, for lack of a better term. Now when I say “leading with his sound.”

When listening to Dewey play, because his approach was sound-centered, his ideas sounded more inspired by what was happening musically.  He never played something technical just for the sake of playing something technical. Even when he played fast flurries of notes--ideas that would be perceived as technical if they were attempted by others—it sounded more like abstract forms of sound manipulation, that were part of a much broader melodic and musical statement, than well-rehearsed licks which fit perfectly over the changes. Players who play this way tend to leave me feeling more inspired. And I’m not really sure why. I think it may have to do with the fact that sound-centered playing tends to be more spontaneous and organic in nature, which tends to engage me more as a listener--which probably holds true for the players who are accompanying them, too.

“The Young Tenor Player,” even though he had a very nice sound, it seemed to always take a backseat to the things he wanted to play. Which is very common amongst modern players. My theory is that there is so much music and musical vocabulary readily available through CDs, iTunes, books, YouTube, not to mentioned live performances, it puts a certain pressure on us to think that we need to play everything, all the time. Lester Young probably had a handful of influences on his instrument, whereas a young player today probably has three times as many--making it possible for them to have a lot of ideas to play, often times at the expense of lacking clarity and originality.

This, by the way, is where focusing on the sound helps. Since not all ideas sound good with every type of sound, knowing your sound will help you to know which ideas or approaches are a good match. If Paul Desmond had Ornette Coleman’s harsh and strident tone, he may not have developed the lyrical style for which he was known. The fact of the matter is, that if you’re going to play fewer and more sustaining notes, you are going to want them to be nice, warm and pretty—which by the way, personifies Desmond’s approach. 

If want to hear more extreme cases of sound-centered playing, improvised music is a good place to start. This is actually one of the more intriguing aspects about free players like Albert Iyler and Anthony Braxton, and not so free, but open players like Pharoah Sanders and Billy Harper, is that you get to hear improvisation which is based on emotion and sometimes sonic sensationalism than the typical jazz-lines-oriented vocabulary. This approach can sound non-Western and primitive at times, with players making “noises” that sometimes sound environmental and animalistic.  However, if you’re just learning to improvise, listening to these types of players may not be how you learn to navigate your way through chord changes, but are great resources for studying how to convey raw human emotion and hearing sounds they go beyond the original scope of your instrument.

As students of jazz we often feel that it’s OK to borrow other peoples concept of sound--until we can find our own, of course. And why not, you can’t copyright a sound. Even though it may not be copyright infringement, it is, however, a type of artistic plagiarism. As artists, we never want to lose sight of how important it is to have our own sound that is as unique and interesting as the things we play, and not just be musical dispensers of licks, ii-V-I patterns and transcribed solos. Many people have expressed to me that when they listen to the radio, they can’t tell who’s who. Which is my case in point. If they are familiar with your music, they should know before the DJ even announces your name.

If you read some of Downbeat magazine’s “Blindfold Tests,” you notice that the interviewees rarely guess whom the modern players are. And in all fairness, many of the participating musicians did not grow up listening to the kinds of modern players who are played as they are with people like Joe Henderson and  Keith Jarrett. But on the other hand, I’ve probably listened to two John Scofield records in my life, but I still know his sound, even if what I’m hearing are others imitating it. As did all of the before-mentioned players, this is why it’s important to go beyond the theory, the ideas, and the harmony and learn to embrace music’s mystical and spiritual sides, the unexplained and the unexplainable, which will undoubtedly prevail the real you.

There was a popular TV game show in the 1970s called “Name that Tune,” where contestants would test their knowledge of musical songs by bidding against each other, seeing who could identify a tune hearing the fewest notes. And the contestant who made the strongest case, would say, “I can name that tune in (blank) notes. ” Now wouldn’t it be great as jazz musicians if listeners were so confident in the originality of our sounds, they would have no hesitation saying, “I can name (you fill with the player of your choice) in two notes.”

This article was originally published in Jazz Improv Magazine. Date unknown.

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