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

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Are You Making Music or Art? The Litmus Test

As jazz musicians, sometimes it's good to remind ourselves that just because we play jazz, doesn’t automatically make us artists. That’s a misconception. I call this “great by association.” And it’s understandable why one would make this assumption.

You figure jazz is a musical art form; therefore, if one plays it, then he or she must be an artist. This is not necessarily so.

First of all, to understand my position, you must view jazz as a language. And as with any language, speaking it does not automatically make you a poet. Why? Because poets don't just converse, they take everyday words of a language, expressing them with a certain style, originality, and emotion, which turns these ordinary words into works of art--just as certain musicians do with the jazz language.

Throughout history, there have always been musical practitioners of the language, and musical poets. And simply put: practitioners use it to make music, and poets use it to make art.  And here’s a litmus test that I have put together which helps me to determine which one I’m making:

1.  Is the Music I’m Making Music I Want to Share? 
Artists have not only a burning desire to create their art, but an even bigger desire to share it. Whenever I discover something new, I’m always very excited and eager to share it with others. It’s great to be able to say, “Hey, check out this cool thing I came up with.” Not to mention, the process of discovery is a lot more fun.

And  I've noticed that CDs that I've made that were very artistic, and not necessarily great, mind you, I had no problems giving them away. And it wasn't me seeking peer approval, even though there's always some element of that in everything that we do, it was merely me saying, "Listen to this. I think you might find it interesting."

We are fortunate to live in a time where sharing our music and ideas is so much easier than at any other time during our history—especially with the accessibility of the internet, social networks, and technological advances that have made recording music so much easier and economical. A lot of what we struggle with today is just giving ourselves permission. Now that we don’t have the old record company paradigm with their gatekeepers deciding who gets picked and who doesn’t, we can now pick ourselves and take our ideas straight to the people.

2.  Is it Original? 
When music is art, it’s usually is. Which happens when artists challenge the status quo. Musicians who are artists have the unique ability to take disparate sounds and influences and human experiences and synthesize them into a unique form of musical expression--something that’s very specific to them. In some ways, they create a type of artistic brand; the more original the art, the stronger the brand.

If you look at all the great jazz musicians (and to borrow from marketing guru Seth Godin), “the only thing that they have in common, is that they have nothing in common.” Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Woody Shaw—the only thing that they have in common, is that they have nothing in common. Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, and Dewey Redman—the only thing that they have in common is that they have nothing in common. Art Tatum, Bobby Timmons, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor--the only thing that they have in common, is that they have nothing in common.

Barry Harris once said in an interview that Thelonious Monk was someone who decided from day one he wasn’t going to sound like anybody else. Which reiterates what I said earlier. He simply gave himself permission to be an original.

3.  Does the Music Change People’s Perception of the Status Quo? 
Music that’s art changes people’s perception of what they thought was once the norm. Keith Jarrett's music changed our perception of the concept of solo piano. Ornette Coleman's music changed our perception of the importance of harmony. Larry Young's music changed our perception of the way that the Hammond B3 organ can be used. Bobby McFerrin's music changed our perception of the ways in which the voice can be used. Paul Desmond's music changed our perception of how the alto saxophone should sound. And the list goes on and on. This type of music has the inherent quality of making us say, "Oh, I never looked at it that way before."

Now it would be presumptuous for me to insinuate that only innovation is considered art, and everything else is not. That stringent sort of weaning process would eliminate a lot of greatness. This litmus test is just something I use to inspire fresh ideas and to help me think outside of the box. It keeps me from becoming artistically lazy. Who knows, maybe you have your own litmus test? Whatever methods you use to inspire yourself, just make sure the end result is,  yourself.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ask the Straighthornist: What Kind of Soprano Should I Buy?

Occasionally, I get asked questions about what type of soprano to get if you're just starting out. Here's one I recently received from pianist D C DowDell.

Pianist D C DowDell
"I'm thinking of buying a soprano sax. I'm a pianist and I play C flute. And although I taught myself the clarinet a few years back (then abandoned it) I have never played sax. I'm very interested in soprano sax and will teach myself, asking technique questions from those willing to share.

I thought you'd be a good person to ask - In your opinion, what is a good, pro model (not student model) to buy and where is a good place to buy it either new or used. I'm thinking I want a straight body and a bent neck."

- D C DowDell

          Hi D C, 
One of the reasons the soprano is so difficult to play is that most of them are so horribly made. The most consistent model is the Yamaha YSS-62 Soprano, which can be found online or at any high end music store that sells band instruments. But I recommend getting a saxophone player friend to try it out for you. You need someone who understands the idiosyncrasies of the instrument. And its really important to have a skilled saxophone technician give it a good look over. It could save you hours of unnecessary frustration.

As far as mouthpieces, I would start with either a Selmer, Vandoren, or Bari--they, too, are the most consistent. Just make sure the tip opening is not too wide. Reeds could be anything, as long as they are of moderate strength. Ones that are too soft and too hard makes the pitch go sharp.  I play RW reeds, which might be good for beginners, since they come in micro-sizes, which enables you to find something to tailor fit your needs. But reeds can be non-entity in the beginning stages. Find something that will vibrate and get it on with it,  I always say. Right now, the focus should be getting a sound that can be controlled.

Good luck and keep me posted!

If you have any soprano-related questions that I could possibly feature on my blog, please send them to samnewsome@aol.com

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Soprano de Africana: The Art of Slap Tonguing

One of the great things about the soprano saxophone is its ability sound like instruments from disparate parts of the world, mainly Asia and Africa. This is something I didn't discover until I started to explore inner layers of the instrument's sound.

My favorite sound to emulate, using the slap tongue technique, is that of a high-pitched balafon (a West African xylophone). Saxophonists often ask me how to slap tongue, but I never have a good answer--at least not one that enables  them to do it.

A great chapter about slap tonguing can be found in a book by Jay C. Easton: Writing for Saxophones: A Guide to the Tonal Palette of the Saxophone Family for Composers.  It's pretty thorough. I highly recommend it.

Here are the the four kinds of slap tonging techniques that he discusses in the book.

1. “melodic” slap or pizzicato (clearly pitched): melodic “plucking” sound entire keyed range of horn (but not altissimo) Maximum tempo: 240 beats per minute Possible from p to f dynamics

2. “slap tone” (clearly pitched): melodic slap attack followed by normal tone 
Maximum tempo: 200 beats per minute. Possible from p to f dynamics

3. “woodblock” slap (unpitched): soft, dry percussive sound
Maximum tempo: 200 beats per minute. Possible from p to mf dynamics

4. “explosive” slap or “open” slap (unpitched): loud percussive sound
Maximum tempo: 70 beats per minute Possible from mf to ff dynamics

In this clip from a duo gig I did with pianist Ethan Iverson at Cornelia Street Cafe back in March of 2012, I'm doing a cross between what Jay describes as a melodic slap and a woodblock slap.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

An Interview with Soprano Saxophonist Michel Doneda

French soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda is a master of navigating musical extremes: chaos and subtle nuances, obtrusive noise and beautiful melodies, layered textures and open space--all through the scope of a singular musical vision.  "Free" is not just a musical approach for Mr. Doneda, it is the philosophy by which he lives and embraces life. And he was gracious enough the grant me this interview sharing his insight and dealings with the soprano and improvised music.

Your musical concept seems to extend beyond you just being an improviser. You’re also a performance artist, where the visual component is just as important as the aural. Do feel this is true?

Since early in my career, I have played and collaborated with artists from other disciplines. First it was actors and poets; then I began collaborating with dancers, painters and filmmakers. It is suffice to say that those experiences are fully integrated into my life and career as an improviser. I’ve also found that playing outdoors in an open space is just as important as playing indoors in enclosed spaces.

Do you feel that being self -taught has enabled you to develop an approach that’s more personal than if you had served an apprenticeship under someone?

Yes, my approach is very personal. Fortunately, I never needed to try and find myself. And even though I’m self-taught, I do not absolutely reject music education. I regard it as a precious treasure in our society. However, for personal reasons it was not for me. It goes without saying that others often revealed themselves as teachers to me, even though I did not realize it at the time. As a result, there are some things I lack. For example, I would have liked to of spent more time studying and playing contemporary music, especially the Giorgio Netti pieces for soprano sax. But I'm constantly learning and moving forward, even though on the horizon I do not always see the finish line. Let me just add that no matter how personal ones approach is, you should always look to play and communicate with others. And this requires reflection, musical exchanges, and personal and inter-personal confrontations.

Have you always played free/improvised music, for lack of a better term? For some players it’s more of a gradual progression.

I still remember the first sound that I played on the soprano in April of 1968. It was the discovery of this sound that made me want to continue exploring the instrument. There were attempts to play more conventional music. But I never really had the desire and strength to pursue it. Admittedly, each style requires a lifetime.

Are there any recordings of Michel Doneda playing standards?

I have not made any recordings playing jazz standards, but I have recorded two projects playing traditional music. The first was on the Nato record label, a collective album called Flight Sidney. I recorded a theme of Sydney Bechet’s called "Egyptian Fantasy" with drummer Elvin Jones. I had never played that song before and I never played it again.

The second was a record called General Gramophone, which I co-lead with saxophonist Daunik Lazro. We played melodies from India, Eastern Europe, a Lee Konitz tune, and a choro piece. All of this happened back in the late 80s and still remains a rarity for me in my career. However, I do continue to play and study choros (a style of Brazilian popular music from the 1940s), but this only for my pleasure.

Having recorded close to 50 CDs, do you ever worry about repetition? If not, how do you keep it fresh?

My improvisations and recordings are collective processes. By collective process I mean: the decision (making up my mind to do something), the process (the act of doing it), and the organization (the logistics of doing). Even my solo recordings have never been only me making my own decisions.

And I don't talk about the music. I hope this is clear. I just always record music that I want to record. And I’ve never had any producer.

Why did you decided to make the soprano your main instrument? Or as some musicians say, maybe it chose?

I cannot say why I chose the soprano. There may be reasons--perhaps some unconscious influences. But so far I do not know. However, I do know that the soprano saxophone resonates a particular feeling in my body that I like—both tension and calmness. These are two qualities I cannot separate. I don’t know if this is reason enough to pursue a lifetime of learning. But I do feel that the demand of the soprano is perfect for me.

You have a pretty vast vocabulary of extended techniques. Do you, or did you at one time, spend several hours a day exploring new sonic possibilities on the instrument? And where do you get you inspiration for new sounds?

I spend time with the soprano everyday--as a discipline and for pleasure. My musical inspiration comes from the instrument itself. My musical language results from the dialogue between the instrument and myself. This is why I have no a preconceived notions about "my" music as such. My perception can change with my understanding of the instrument.

And I do not like the term “ extended techniques” because it standardizes an approach that is very personal. In fact, the instrument processes both cerebral and organic musical terrains. And I’m constantly going back and forth between these two poles. Of course, there are technical things to master, but one’s state of mind also grows with this research.

I should also mention this excellent book on “multiphonics” written by Marcus Weiss and Giorgio Netti: Techniques of Saxophone Playing.

Most of the music I’ve heard you play is often sound based and textural. Do you find yourself ever having to balance working on more conventional things like playing chord changes, scales, and line oriented ideas, along with you sonic approach?

I do so much with improvisational music that I find that I have to be fully dedicated to that style of playing. Let me also add that I am fortunate to have many musical partners who inspire me as well as keep me satisfied musically. What I do takes a lot of practice, time and effort. You might say that I have made a commitment to dedicate my life to being a contemporary improviser.

I am not talking only about musical things, but also the organization of my professional life—which means looking for concerts as well as organizing them. Everyday I have to spend time for these kinds of things. It is always a struggle to play this music.

Who are some of your influences on the soprano?

I listen to Sidney Bechet, Bhob Rainey, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, Alesandro Bosetti, Marcus Weis, and many others. All these wonderful artists have influenced me throughout my career, and it’s been a pleasure to listen to as well as play with many of them. And let me give you the name of a Japanese shakuachi player, Watatsumi Do, whose musical expression touches me deeply.

Myself, being someone who has a pretty straight ahead past, I know that most straight ahead players care a lot about pleasing the audience and presenting a well-balanced, varied performance. However, free players, tend to only care about creating an experience for the listener—whether good or bad. Do you agree? If so, do find this to be more liberating or a hindrance?

I see improvisation as a listening experience--an experience that takes place at a certain moment, at a particular place, with a specific group of listeners. For me, all these components are equally important. I'm not trying to control what happens. I just try to make sure to be focused and present so I can make the best of my opportunities. Again, discipline and pleasure.

Even in a free context, do you ever put limits on yourself just to inspire different kinds of ideas?

I am under no mental suggestions before playing. I am prepared to be in attendance at whatever is there in that moment. This way there is always potential, limits, accidents, and most of all, discoveries!

Michel Doneda’s equipment:
· Instrument: Yamaha YSS 675
· Mouthpiece: Nicolas Trefeil (facing tip opening:1.70 mm or 7 stars)
· Ligature: Rico
· Reed: Vandoren ZZ-3.5

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