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



Monday, June 18, 2012

Straighthorns of a Feather Flocking Together: Dave Liebman/Sam Newsome Quartet (DLSNQ)

Groups led by two soprano saxophonists are not very common in jazz. And many would argue that that's a good thing. However, when carried out by the right people, the melding of these two, at times, unruly horns can be very magical. The soprano is somewhat of an enigma because it doesn't always blend well with other melodic instruments--timbre and intonation being the biggest culprits--but it does, however, blend well with other sopranos. I guess there's a reason why birds of a feather flock together.

The two soprano group I have with Dave Liebman serves as a great platform for exploring the sonic possibilities of the soprano, individually as well as collectively. In this particular clip we explore a lot of extended techniques such as playing with only the mouthpiece, playing the horn without the mouthpiece, and all of the sonic possibilities in between. Drummer Jim Black got into some nice sounds in the beginning of the clip bowing his cymbal with a violin bow. And I can't leave out bassist Tony Marino, who always manages to  play the right thing at the right moment.

Pretty wild stuff!




Monday, June 11, 2012

Sound Calisthenics Part II: Overtone Triplets

Several months ago I posted an overtone exercise called Sound Calisthenics: Overtone Repetitions, a sound etude designed to help with flexibility, endurance, and basic overall sound control. When working on my sound I sometimes opt for this type of overtone workout, since they're a lot more interesting to practice than conventional long tones. However, let me just say that I think they're both very important to the sound development process.


Shown below is a new sound etude that I've been practicing more recently that's been helping me build up my endurance as well as strengthening my altissimo register--which can be very hit or miss on the soprano.


I can barely play this etude more than twice in its entirety. I call it my corner-burning routine. It's patterned after the weightlifter's approach to working out, which is to isolate a particular muscle, tire it out with a repetitive exercise that enables you to tighten and release pressure to that muscle, which is to be repeated until the burning sensation becomes unbearable. And after you break the muscle down, it will become bigger and stronger, when it rebuilds itself. So that's the philosophy behind sound calisthenics.


Have fun with this etude. It works wonders!







Thursday, June 7, 2012

Jazz Innovations from an Economist’s Perspective


Chicago University economist David Galenson in his article "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Human Creativity," has defined two types of innovators: the experimental and the conceptual. The experimental innovator, through years of trial and error, arrives at his or her greatest and most influential work much later in life. While the conceptual innovator makes sudden and radical breakthroughs, taking the world by storm. Often producing their most significant work while in his or her twenties.

In jazz, our conceptual innovators are commonly referred to as natural geniuses. People like Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman--all of whom seemed to have arrived fully formed, with an innovative approach to jazz already in tact. These types of artists have ideas that appear to them “suddenly,” according to Galenson—a type of artistic epiphany--in which they quickly manifest into groundbreaking works of art.

Charlie Parker has often described how he, at age nineteen, was playing “Cherokee” at a jam session with guitarist “Biddy” Fleet, when it hit him that all twelve tones of the chromatic scale can be used during improvisation. He discovered that any note can be played on any chord change. This, of course, was the impetus for the new and radical bebop language that he developed. By his early twenties, Parker had already honed and put this revolutionary concept into practice. Parker often cites Lester Young as an influence, however, there are no recordings where he sounds like a Lester Young clone. As a matter of fact, when you hear him playing with Jay McShann at 19, he already sounds like Charlie Parker.

In addition to making sudden breakthroughs at an early age, Galenson also notes that conceptual artists tend to peak early on. He lists Pablo Piscasso as the archetypal conceptual innovator, who, even though he painted until his death at 92, created Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at age 26. This became known as his greatest work. Parker, on the other hand, made some important recordings in his thirties, such as Charlie Parker with Strings, on the Mercury label, at age 30; and Jazz at Massey Hall, on the Debut label, at age 33. His approach to the saxophone and improvisation, however, did not change since his early twenties.


Experimental innovators, according to Galenson, have to work hard at their craft for several decades just to get good. In jazz music, these types of artists are more common, being that contemporary jazz artists don’t start to find their sound until their late thirties and forties.

One of the most famous experimental innovators was John Coltrane. Even though he made a name for himself playing with Miles Davis at age 29, it wasn’t until he recorded Blue Train at the age of 31, that he became someone looked as on his way to doing great things in jazz. And it would be inaccurate to say that Coltrane practiced so many hours, just to get good. However, he does fit Galenson’s description of experimental innovators as being artists who “rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective.” This applies to Coltrane, certainly in his later years, where his pursuit was more spiritual than musical, in some ways. Also typical of experimental innovators, Coltrane did continue to produce important work until his death at 42.

Galenson cites Paul Cézanne as the archetypal experimental innovator. Cézanne painted until his death at 67 years old, but didn’t produce his most significant work until the last decade of his life. It’s improbable to find a jazz musician who didn’t blossom until his or her early sixties. There have been many who did not begin making a descent annual income until they were well into his or her fifties and sixties; however, their music by that time had already been fully evolved for well over two decades.

In fact, many jazz musicians don’t fit perfectly into the Galenson models of experimental and conceptual innovators; many straddle the fence between the two: Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden, are a few that come to mind.

And unlike some of the experimental innovators referred to in Galenson's article, a jazz musician’s early work is not typically discarded as less important, in comparison to his or her later work. Even though Coltrane’s music, while a member of Miles Davis’ famed 1950s quintet did not change the shape of jazz, it was, however, an important contribution to the hard bop period, in which players played a more tamed interpretation of bop.  And from a purely physical perspective, a performing musician will start to physically decline by their late sixties, especially playing a brass instrument. So even if conceptually they are still developing, the execution of those ideas won’t be as effective, and, consequently, won’t be looked at as equal to or greater than their earlier work.  Just as Michael Jordan at age 40, probably knew the game of basketball better than at any other point in his life, however, physically, he could not play the game as well.

Conceptual innovators according to Galenson “often consider they have accomplished exactly what they wanted to do, and can therefore go on to work on a very different problem, ”—which describes Miles Davis, perfectly.

Miles is the jazz musician whom I feel had the ability to make these kinds of sudden breakthroughs, having the ability to embark upon what Galenson refers to as a “very different program.”  Unlike experimental innovators who work on the same idea for years, Davis was in and out of different styles once he felt he had made his point or it no longer had cultural relevance. Within a span of 20 years, he was at the forefront of five different movements in jazz. Again, it goes back to the whole idea of having a musical epiphany, and quickly bringing ones concept to fruition.


Galenson’s research concludes that experimental artists are not just those who keep trying until they get it right, but ones who get better with age. Which describes jazz musicians in both the conceptual and innovator categories.  The music of the jazz musician typically becomes more refined with age, sort of like a fine wine. As a matter of fact, many contemporary jazz artists lauded early in their careers are typically credited for their potential rather than the actual the significance of their work. In some cases, these musicians not only fall short of their potential, but eventually fall off the radar all together. Moreover, most jazz musicians, if you compare their debut recordings with ones made a decade or two later, their later work is undoubtedly significantly better—reaffirming the commonly known fact that jazz is an art form for the long distance runner and not the one-hit wonder.

Still, the fact remains, conceptual innovators typically receive most of the ink in jazz history books. Which is certainly understandable. If you create a new standard by which the music is measured, then you deserve whatever accolades come your way. That said, the jazz community as a whole understands and recognizes that conceptual and experimental innovators and all those in between are part of the same continuum. One that exudes not only the American, but the human experience, helping us to embrace our individuality as well as our commonalities along the way.






Sunday, June 3, 2012

Straighthorns of Plenty: The Dave Liebman/Sam Newsome Quartet



Cornelia Street Cafe, October 8, 2011
The Dave Liebman/Sam Newsome Quartet will perform on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at Cornelia Street Cafe. It will be the second installment of our two soprano collaboration. This time we'll be in the supportive hands of bassist Tony Moreno and drummer Jim Black. You might call this Dave's collaboration rhythm section, since he used them in the two tenor band he co-led with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin.  They recorded two CDs on the Hatology label--Renewal (2008) and Different But the Same (2003).

Our first gig together was in October of 2011 (also at Cornelia Street Cafe) was with bassist Gregg August and drummer Otis Brown III.  It was billed as a tribute to Steve Lacy, but Lacy was there only in spirit--sort of the way Lester Young is at a Wayne Shorter concert. We did, however, perform two of Lacy's more popular pieces: "Bone," and "Blues for Aida."So it wasn't entirely Lacy-less.



Gearing up to share the bandstand with Liebman on that night felt very intimidating at the onset. All I could think about was the Elvin Jones recording "Live at the Lighthouse," which featured some pretty fiery Coltrane-influenced exchanges between Liebman and Steve Grossman. Back then it was difficult to tell who was who.  As an aside, when I was at Berklee back in the eighties, that recording was the tenor player's rite of passage. (Play a few of those slick chromatic lines on "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,"  and you would be embraced as part of Berklee's Euro-centric tenor elite.)

However, once we counted off the first tune, all of those fears and memories of two titans going toe to toe fell by the wayside. And from that moment on it was nothing less than inspiring. It was more like two voices coming together--each with a unique take on improvising and the soprano. It was far from being a cutting session, up an octave.

Moreover, where I thought I would come away from the experience being more impressed by Liebman's keen harmonic sense, it was actually the way in which he played his ideas that made the biggest impression. I felt like I was hearing someone singing or speaking, instead of playing. Gregg August summed it up best when he said that "after a while his sound just permeated the entire room." And I must admit that at this point in my life, the two things that I'm the least impressed with is technical virtuosity and harmonic density. I overdosed on those two show stoppers while I was a student at Berklee. I need to hear emotional depth and a personal approach to keep my interest.

The apprentice
It was great to listen to his sound at such close proximity. I was able to hear all of the nuances which makes his approach to the instrument so unique. Unfortunately, we don't have many opportunities these days to play side by side with people who are 15 to 20 years our senior. We now serve apprenticeships with players two or three years older, if that. And this can have its advantages. It's nothing like having someone take that journey with you. However, it's a different kind of experience when you play beside someone who has been to where you're trying to get to and back again. It's like that old saying: "He's forgotten more music than you will ever know.


Liebman has already given me a heads up that we will not be playing any tunes. It will be all improvised. I've done that sort of thing on gigs for a tune or two, but never for the entire gig. But I'm sure with Tony Moreno on bass and Jim Black on drums, it will be like riding a wave.

Don't forget to make your reservations, it will be sure to sell out.

Reserve HERE

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