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

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Art of Solo Saxophone: Part I

A solo saxophone jazz performance can be a challenge of the highest degree for the performer as well as the listener. And it’s certainly understandable. Even though it’s just one person on stage, we naturally want to hear melody, harmony, rhythm, variety, tension and release, clarity, and all of the other things we take for granted with groups of a more conventional size.

As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about these things, here are three (3) suggestions that might help your solo outing go more smoothly.

1. Be prepared

I’ve found that the best way insure that most, if not all of the aforementioned things are realized is to be prepared. I always say that you have to know the material well enough that you smoothly recover from your mistakes. Nothing kills the momentum of a solo performance, especially playing a wind instrument, then playing that noticable "clonker." Nothing goes unnoticed when playing solo. Everything is subject to micro-scrutinization. When playing with a rhythm section, covering ones tracks after a fluff or clonker is easy to do. Often times you’re the only one to notice. When playing solo, however, that cracked or out of tune note can jump out at you like the boogey man on Halloween.

2. Know when to move on

Another important thing to remember is knowing when to move on to the next idea once you’ve made your point. Knowing when to stop is can be the key factor in whether or not a tune comes off great or just OK. My concerts and recordings tend to flow much better when the pieces are more compact. This can mean not fleshing the melody out too long or soloing too long. When you’re playing alone there’s natural tendency to want to overplay to make up for lack of any accompanying instrument. But oddly enough, that’s actually to time to exercise restraint and become more selective with your ideas.

When I’m preparing material for a live concert or recording, I often record myself and listen back for what I call the “bored factor.” Meaning, at what point does this start to get boring. Typically it’s when I play too long, spend too much time on one idea, or spend too much time in the same sonic space, that the b-factor starts to set in. I’m usually pretty amazed at how much of a difference 45 – 60 seconds can make. When playing solo, the version that’s 3:20 in length can seem like eternity compared to the 2:40 version.

3. Think like a story-teller

When it comes right down to it, solo playing is comparable to being a great storyteller, or even a joke teller, for that matter. If you study stand-up comics, every second of their routine is accounted for. In fact, music and comedy are two mediums that are both about controlled chaos. Sometimes it’s just the impression of being spontaneous and totally in the moment. If you hear a stand up perform his or her routine a few nights in a row, you’d be surprised at how little of it is off the cuff. Even those seemingly in the moment verbal exchanges with hecklers are typically from their expansive arsenal of insults and comebacks.

Like great musicians, great comics have impeccable timing and pacing. And when pared with equally great material—which can be jokes or a musical vocabulary—the results can be incomparable. That’s why great comics like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld can walk on stage with just a microphone and have you on the edge of your seat more than multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster movie. Or great musicians like Sonny Rollins or Steve Lacy can walk on stage just their saxophones and take you on a musical journey more exciting than listening to an 18-piece big band. Clarity and vision can go a long way in the world of improvisation.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Responsibility and Greatness in Music

Here's a piece I wrote for Jazz Inside New York back in April 2010. It didn't really get a good placement in the issue, so I feel a lot of people didn't really get a chance to read it. I thought I'd give it another shot on my blog.

In the article they asked several musicians to write a short essay about "Responsibility" and the role it's had in their personal and creative endeavours. My essay addressed the question: What is the relationship between responsibility and greatness in music?

Responsibility and greatness in music go together like hand in glove. And I don’t mean responsibility in the sense of paying your bills or getting to your gig on time (not that these things aren't important), but being responsible for your music—how it sounds and how it’s perceived. This is the key to artistic growth. This is the key to realizing your potential.

Whenever I play an improvised solo—or an entire gig for the matter--and people don’t have a strong reaction to my playing or my music, I usually attribute it to something I didn’t do or was lacking. I rarely play the blame-game. I don't really believe in good and bad audiences—not that they don’t exist. I’m a firm believer that either you reach people or you don’t. To me, every gig is the same. I don’t care if I’m playing for fifty people at a restaurant or a thousand in a concert hall; the only difference to me is the pay. This puts the responsibility on me and my music and not some set of uncontrollable circumstances. If you’re not reaching people performing in a neighborhood bar, chances are you won’t at Carnegie Hall, either.

Several years ago while was working with my band Global Unity, I expressed to a colleague my frustration with people not accepting the new cross-cultural direction that I was pursuing. He told me very simply: “You have to develop the music further, where it’s visible to the people who are looking for it.” Shifting the focus away from what I could not control and focusing on the music proved fruitful. A year later I signed a deal with a major record label.

Through experience, I’ve learned that if I see myself as a victim when things are not going my way, on and off the bandstand, I’m putting my fate into the hands of others or some mystical force. Taking full responsibility for how good the band sounds, how I sound, and how enthusiastic the audience is, makes me feel as though I’m in the driver’s seat—like I’m in control.

Back in the early 90s I used to hang out in comedy clubs. And I remember one distinct night after an inexperienced comic “bombed,” he walked always saying that the crowd “sucked.” Then a comic, who obviously had some serious chops, came on stage right after him and had the same crowd in stitches. This was my “ah-ha” moment. This made me realize the importance of excellence--that it usually prevails, even if your performance conditions are not ideal.

Lastly, I’d like to say that taking responsibility forces us to continually assess our playing and music—rethinking and re-examining our strengths and weaknesses with humility. This attitude has helped me continue developing my career as well as growing and evolving as an artist. When you pass the buck, you just might pass up your chance to realize your potential too.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Exploring the Soprano's Basement

One of my favorite books for learning about jazz history and to get a quick dose of musical inspiration is Steve Lacy: Conversations by Jason Weiss. This book is a collection of Steve Lacy interviews where he talks about life, music, and most times the soprano.

Here's one excerpt that I found particularly enlightening where he talks about 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 couldn't agree with Lacy more about this. The lower register of the soprano is without a doubt the most neglected part of the instrument, second only to the altissimo. In general, this area of the saxophone is not considered part of the instrument's practical range--which is understandable with the larger members of the saxophone family; melodies and lines played on those instruments tend to sound muffled down there. On the soprano, however, this neglected area is the warmest part of the horn.

Most of us, myself included, are influenced by Coltrane's approach to the instrument, who favored the higher register, as he did on tenor. Which is great, mind you, for a certain thing--mainly intensity and cutting through the rhythm section. Intensity, however, is only a small part of what the soprano is capable of. To get to the instrument's real beauty, you have to go down stairs to the basement, so to speak. As you find with most basements (If I may keep this analogy going), it will be dirty, cluttered, and unsettling in the beginning. But once you clean it up you will discover a new place of comfort.

I suggest starting off spending a good two weeks only practicing melodies and your musical ideas only using the notes between Bb1 (low Bb) - Bb2. It's uncomfortable in the beginning, but after a few days you start to find your way though the dark, so to speak.

One of the things I like to do is practice Charlie Parker's tune "Now's the Time" in the key of Eb concert. This puts the melody right in the very bottom of the horn. You can do this with any melody, but this is a good place to start.

In the words of President Obama, "Real change happens from the bottom up."

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