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

Friday, April 20, 2012

What do record labels and colleges have in common?

When I first started teaching at a college, I was amazed at how similar it felt to being on a major record label.

Here are a few things that I noticed that they share:

1. At a record company, the goal is to sell units. At a college, the goal is to sell credits.

2. At a record company, musicians who sell the most units, get the most attention. At a colleges departments that sell the most credits, get the most attention.

3. At a record company, musicians are the soldiers in the fields. At a college, professors are the soldiers in the field.

4. At a record label you need a hit single or a Grammy to have some security. At a college, you need tenure.

5. At a record label, it’s the musicians against the suits. At a college, it’s the professors against the administration.

6. At a record label, musicians are represented by managers who speak on their behalf to suits. At a college, professors are represented by the union, who speak on their behalf to the administration.

7. At a record label, you ultimately have to show good numbers (units sold) to satisfy the CEO. At a college, you ultimately show good numbers (credits sold) to satisfy the Board of Trustees.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Chasing the Trane: The Coltrane Complex

Do we as saxophonists have a John Coltrane complex? It would be understandable if we did. After all, he developed jazz improvisation and expanded the technical possibilities of the saxophone to such a high level, that we blindly accept his contributions as the standard by which everything should be measured without question--sort of like following a religious leader.

In our attempt to pay homage to Coltrane, we often make the mistake of imitating his sound and approach. And some of the more ambitious minions of Coltrane even try to improve upon his music in some way, often falling short.

Trying to improve on Coltrane’s music and numerous contributions, somehow thinking that we can take it further, a couple of things happen. One, we don't give listeners a sense of who we are, consequently, selling the listener short as well as ourselves. Two, we produce something that's inferior to the original, since we are essentially taking something already perfect and tampering with it until it becomes much less perfect. These things usually result because we’re not playing by our own rules, we’re playing by those of John Coltrane; we’re chasing the Trane.

I once read in a book of inspirational aphorisms that “a genius works, as a child plays.” What does this mean? Does it mean to work recklessly, without discipline? Or does it mean to come to work with the openness and willingness to venture in to the unknown, as a child often does?

When I first read the quote I was reminded of the story of the child who opened his new toy at Christmas time, and after a few minutes became bored with the toy and began playing with the box. This is the kind of openness with which I feel a genius works--being open to all possibilities, being willing to stray from your original preconception of what something should be and learning to go with the flow with what’s inspiring you at that moment.

What if you used John Coltrane’s contributions as a source of inspiration and not just a source? What if you used Coltrane’s flawless technique as inspiration to find your own approach to the instrument, developing your own technique that’s as natural you as eating or drinking? What if you used Coltrane’s harmonic innovations as a source of inspiration to find you own harmonic language? If you break down harmony to its most rudimentary terms, it’s when music is organized vertically and pitches are heard simultaneously. These pitches are derived from scales, which are just systems of organizing pitches. Why use Coltrane’s scales? Why not come up with your own system of organizing pitches? Why not come up with own pitches?

When I think about my own instrumental technique. Even after years of playing and practicing, I still don't have much of it. And that's fine. More recently, I've learned to find my own way of dealing with the instrument. I'm sure if even the most virtuostic saxophonist tried to play some of the solo pieces I recorded on Blue Soliloquy, they would find them extremely difficult, if not, impossible to play. But for me, they're easy--after having practiced them, of course. And that's because I've tapped into my own sort of "effortless mastery" that Kenny Werner talks about.

We often think of mastery as learning to do what we are not able to do. It can also mean mastering what comes to us naturally. We all have the ability to do something on our instruments, technically and musically, that know one in the world can do better than us. However, we often ignore this innate uniqueness of ours and only focus on what we can't do. Our strengths can be developed to the point that your weaknesses become an after thought.

When you listen to Coltrane play over "Giant Steps" it sounds effortless. And I'm not suggesting that he didn't work extremely hard on it. That goes without saying. However, when listening to others who have mastered their instruments play it, it never sounds quite as natural. I don't hear the effortless mastery. That's because Coltrane was just being himself, setting his own standard. It's like they say, "You can either read a book, or write one."

Finding ones own voice is a life long journey that should not be taking lightly. It not only requires instrumental mastery, but mental mastery and spiritual enlightenment--with and without the instrument. Of course, life would be a lot easier not having to worry about all of these esoteric things. But I feel to truly pay respect to those we revere, at some point we're going to have to step out of our comfort zone and take those difficult steps, just as they did.

Trumpeter Donald Byrd once told me, after hearing me play some generic sounding Coltrane licks, “ Don’t do what we did, do as we did.” In other words, don't chase the Tran

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Soprano Saxophonists Harri Sjöström and Gianni Mimmo

Finnish saxophonist Harri Sjöström and Italian saxophonist Gianni Mimmo have two things in common. One, they're both devoted straight-hornists who have become important voices on the European improvised music scene. And two, they're both former students of Steve Lacy.

So it's no surprise that they would come together to form this enigmatic soprano sax duo. They demonstrate how well two soprano saxophones actually sound together. I especially like their use of the slap tongue technique and multi-phonics. These are two extended techniques that I feel sound really good on the soprano.

Their duo CD release, Live at Bauchhund Berlin 2010, on Armirani Records.was actually recorded on the sixth anniversary of Steve Lacy's death. So I'm sure Lacy was there in spirit, not to mention influence.

I haven't heard it yet, but it's currently in route to my mailbox as we speak.

The first soprano sax duo I ever heard was record called Chirps, with Steve Lacy and Evan Parker. I can't think of two players more different. However, collectively, they made it work.

This clip of Harri and Gianni was taped at the Black Motor Club at Telakka - Tampere, Finland. Which seems to have a lot a interesting and adventurous music. Definitely a place I'll keep my eyes and ears open for.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Twelve (12) Nevers of Playing the Soprano

1. Never practice without a chromatic tuner.

2. Never play all of your favorite alto and tenor saxophone licks.

3. Never avoid your lower register.

4. Never go without checking out Sidney Bechet and Steve Lacy for long periods of time.

5. Never play a set-up that doesn't allow you to get a nice sub-tone.

6. Never go without experimenting to find new and interesting sounds.

7. Never confuse expressiveness with being out of tune.

8. Never forget that the soprano is the storyteller's instrument. Just check out Wayne Shorter!

9. Never avoid the music of Thelonious Monk for long periods of time.

10. Never underestimate to the effectiveness of practicing sloooooooooow.

11. Never believe doublers when they say that a new line of sopranos is the best ever.

12. Never forget that playing soft is just a powerful as playing loud.

Soprano Sax Talk Followers

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