Soprano saxophonist Jamison Williams, who hails from the Jacksonville, Florida area, is on a steadfast mission of building new audiences through various educational initiatives, adventurous music programming, and, of course, the old fashion way of getting on stage with his instrument and winning over fans, one by one.
Please check out this fascinating interview where he discusses what it's like to play the soprano saxophone exclusively (not to mentioned the story of how he ended up with only a soprano), how he became fascinated with the Disney songbook, and insight into the thriving improvised music scene in the Sunshine State.
Sam Newsome: You're probably one of a handful of people in the country who self-identifies as a soprano saxophonist and an improviser. Some would say you have created two musical hurdles, others that you have created two paths to freedom. How do you see it?
Jamison Williams: As an improviser, I always thought that it was our responsibility to dictate in real time, systemic stories and compositions, representative of the specific life that we decoratively create as “personal entertainment” for those who have come to listen to our brand of storytelling; the soprano saxophone is, for my story device/medium, a stylistic tool enables an ideal development for a full representation of my graphic musical dictation. It’s a very difficult instrument, those who choose to create solely based on this one instrument, non-doublers, often times find it to be limiting, lacking a lower fundamental and stuffy/nasally extended ranges. It’s very finicky, too, and tends to not compromise to the performer, but if you do find its sweet spot, treat it with the absolute respect of a polished beauty, as well as putting in your 10,000 hours of consistent practice, you will find that you ultimately don’t need any other instruments to help coexist in the portraits you’re designing. I can’t speak for everyone, but it is a perfect tool for me in accessing the colors needed to paint a fully mapped out landscape of sound images.
Ultimately, whichever tool do you use, regardless of whether or not it’s a saxophone, “it” being the soprano or any other instrument in the saxophone family, it will guide you to a path of creative freedom, that is why the tool was created; whether or not it’s an impossible hurdle or a priceless asset, would depend on how comfortable it is for the narrator to define their ideas through that tool. Those possibilities can only be narrowed down based on how unequivocally you were able to better understand who you are, tap into the truth, and characterize the choice descriptives that are available to your personal disposal, allowing and optimally emphasizing the details of the story you’re publically presenting. The story will always be stifled and burdened with doubt, if what is being said carries the weight of insecurities, musically or otherwise.
SN: What inspired you to take up the soprano saxophone as your main axe? Because I know that you played the alto for a while. Correct?
JW: Throughout the 2012-13 curatorial season of the Experimental Arts Union of Florida, it was my responsibility to schedule [and fund] as many of the world’s most important improvisers in avant jazz, as well as educators and experimental artists, hosting the most valuable creators in our field; as an inaugural event opening the series and program, it was decided the most ideal performers for our flagship event, would be to provide the city with an opportunity to experience two of the greatest instrumentalists this genre had to offer, Peter Brotzmann and Joe McPhee; the amount of inspiration these two players have gifted to me is absolutely immeasurable, so I believed that it was important for others to experience that same type of exuberance, emotionally. Although we covered a great portion of the amount through collections and fundraising, we were just shy of the performer’s guarantee amount, so to supplement the needed amount I reluctantly hocked my ’47 Conn 6M, proving to be a very bad decision, because unfortunately the rest of the city didn’t share in my appreciation for these exceptional artists.
There was a lower turnout than I was expecting, which meant that the attendance wasn’t strong enough to yield the amount needed to recover my horn. Life is full of unforeseen circumstances: 15 years on the same horn, developing a language and “sketchbooking”, and in the end, losing it to fund those who have inspired you, and to inspire others. My only backup was a '27 Conn New Wonder II, a horn that was physically in shambles, and ridiculously uncontrollable. The 5,000 hours of private practice, and full personal overhaul, were mandatory prerequisites before I decided to play one note publicly. It ultimately proved to be my true voice, a beautiful sound, radiant and truthful, and a blessing in disguise. I’ll never play another saxophone for the rest of my life; it’s my sniper rifle, and calligrapher’s pen. The guarantee was the standard rate for a personal lesson from the Masters.
SN: There seems to be a scene in Jacksonville for young improvisers and experimentalists. Who are some of your collaborators and where do you play?
JW: Florida has nurtured a very interesting brand of improvisation and experimentation, due to the growth of the “noise scene” by Frank Falestra from south Florida, Timucua White House by Benoit Glaser and the Civic-Minded 5 in Orlando, as well as our involvement through the Experimental Arts Union and the [neu ]Sonics music initiative at Karpeles Museum [Jacksonville]; through electronics, circuit-bent sound engineering, and electro-acoustic performances, the music scene has cultivated a wonderful open collaborative landscape inviting artists from every facet of the experimental genre, we are very inclusive and supportive of those presenting performances. This has always been a community that would allow novices of musical creative expression to further develop into masters of their craft by designing and developing a personal language very much unique to their specific artistic interests.
I love Florida, it’s a magnificent state, and the collaborators associated with the state are priceless elements to my personal development. I find that many who have supported the scene are now either co-instructors with [neu]Sonics, or students directly involved in the program. It has become a haven for new development, a safe place for ideas, and a realm of dedicated, experimental music practitioners.
SN: Is it naive to think that one can make a decent living in today's musical climate? Because there are some who believe and have proven that where there is will, there is a way.
JW: My father raised me believing that ultimately the only way to make a decent living in life is to establish yourself with full knowledge in one of five basic occupational fields: doctor, lawyer, teacher, accountant, or military. Education was my field of study, and will be for the rest of my life, as to whether or not that field of study could provide sustainable income needed to maintain a standard of living is questionable, but ultimately having an awareness of your personal expectations, and not trying to compare your success to anyone else, creates a bar that only you know what you’re success rate quantifies. Does it mean we have to diversify our artistic interests to help keep us from sinking? Do we have to take in students, as well as wedding gigs? No. What’s most important is to recognize that the stronger bonds you have created with fellow musicians, the strongest of familial bonds, are the most priceless of our possessions. We live in the musical environment where many of us are aware that everyone else is working tirelessly, and would be catastrophic to see any friend suffer, as we are all relative and the ripple carries past the horizon. So it returns back to the question, what is a “decent living”? In my eyes, a “decent life” is friendship, family, and the bonds created therein: the stronger the bonds, the more decent life created. This musical climate, and strength found in our community has enabled that environment.
SN: There are two organizations you are involved in: the [neu]Sonics Music Initiative and the Experimental Arts Union of Florida. Tell me a little about how they came about.
JW: The Experimental Arts Union of Florida was originally designed as an educational program, presenting internationally, critically acclaimed experimental improvisational artists; it gave our community an opportunity to experience world-class musicians, first-hand, in an environment where the impact of their performance could leave an outstanding scar of inspiration. These were intimate performances, close and personal, as many performances were so close to the listeners, we could almost hear the performers crafting out ideas in real time. It was a beautiful experience in local history, and an educational environment unlike any in this city’s history, and one I would value as a lifelong inspiration. The Experimental Arts Union of Florida eventually became the [neu]Sonics Music Initiative (www.neusonics.org), a six-part, tri-annual, music program focusing on structural improvisation and the tools needed to create graphic notated scores and “soundpaint”; it is always referred to in public as, essentially, an “alternative music education program”. Co-instructors and guest performers are an integral part of the lesson plan, as students are able to perform with the world-class musicians, rather than passively learning through their presentations and performances. Many of the students have never even touched an instrument before entering this program, now they’re developing graphic scores and verbalizing constructive musical ideas specifically developed for veteran improvising musicians. It’s an environment where the ‘student is teaching the teacher, as the teacher teaches the student’; the system is very symbiotic. Everyone is learning, and teaching, regardless of existing musical experience.
SN: For someone who creates music that's on the fringes, you seem to be successful at performing throughout the United States and Europe. How are you able to successfully pull this sort of thing off?
JW: The environment in which we create this type of specialized music interest isn’t as large as we’d like to believe it is, and everyone is just a stone’s throw from everyone else, creating the same form of relative art, basking in the prismatic degree of that same spectrum, so we know who is involved and who inspires; when you thumb through the Penguin Guide to Jazz you recognize personnel, musicians who have collaborated with other musicians, and there’s an obsessive nature in wanting to cross reference specific players, and their roles in ensembles, and associations with band leaders; just as Ellington assigned specific musicians based on the personality of their sound, if you have developed particular voice that is of interest, people want to engage themselves in your dialogue, especially if the obtainable nature of the interaction is relatively frequent. It’s almost like nerding out over the stats of a benched baseball player, or a rarely seen actor who makes cameos in a film. We’re not pop stars, but we will be taken as serious has anyone on a list of historic performances by our peers, which makes it more personably valuable on a magical and intimate level. If relating to others on a personal level, and allowing them to speak freely in a musical dialogue with me, is success, then I am the happiest of millionaires. It’s important to recognize how absolutely little we are on this planet, and how many people there are on it for such a short time, because as soon as you start to develop a massive ego and you start comparing yourself, and belittling others, the more separate you are from the environment who helped create you. I’m on the fringes because I’m a part of that “fringe” community of ideas, it’s where I often find solace and a very comfortable performance atmosphere. It’s my home, and I am welcomed there; it’s where my family is, and it’s where my education process began.
SN: I have a few questions about playing solo, an area that is of particular interest to me. This question is in three parts. First, what inspired you explore this format so deeply? For many, it's just a novelty. Secondly, do you find that your thought process is different from playing with an ensemble? And third, do you prepare for a solo concert differently?
JW: A soliloquy is such an intense way to dictate a personal expression directly to an audience, it’s just you, and the people focused on listening to what it is that you’re presenting: no filter and no fluff, and only the thinnest of safety nets; if you fail, you fall hard, and everyone there can bear witness to you floundering. It’s a great experience, because if you happen to nose-dive a performance, that in itself could be a part of the performance, as you dig yourself out to a successful conclusion. You’re there alone, as everyone is watching you sculpt a story from absolutely nothing; your voice is all you have, and the buzzer can sound at any moment, as the Sandman’s waiting to wipe you off that stage. It takes a lot of guts to stand there alone, and either an extremely confident musician can manage that role or a musician who has absolutely nothing to lose. It’s important for me to realize that the sincerity of performances typically weeds out the facsimiles from the archetypes; honesty is my only weapon, coupled with 10 years of tireless dedication to saxophonic ingenuity. Focusing on the importance of a direct monologue, seamlessly gifted to the audience from you, the performer, through a metal tube, without any added effects, that always seemed heroic, wise, and the task of an experienced lecturer. A solo performance is as close to the source as you can get.
On the other hand, many of the performances that I conduct [with large ensembles] usually involve very little rehearsal time, so what happens when you bring together 20+ musicians who have never been given the opportunity to discuss the material together, the end result usually equates to mass confusion and a dense wall of sound, and that is what I typically expect; so what I do, as a band leader with ensembles that are that large, is generally create a golden thread throughout all this turbulent confusion by creating a thematic line of recognizable material. In the past, many musicians that participate in these type of improvised conducted ensembles know that there will be elements of control, even though they may not know where the controlled element is going to lead them. Creatively, by trade, I thoroughly enjoy structured improvisation, through graphic notated work or improvise conduction, just so that the audience and the participating personnel knows that it’s leading to a closure and that there is a purpose to the performance. I don’t want to leave anyone into the dark; I’m the director of a creative circumstance that the audience is participating in, they are not separated from us, instead they are the reason we are presenting the work, as entertainment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that their criticisms reflect the result; so the large ensemble creates a foundation, a very turbulent explosive foundation, that allows me to delicately provide a point of understanding throughout this tornado of musical drama. In these performances, the soprano is used with circular breathing long tones, upper register, and my solos are extremely short as transitional elements leading to collaborative heads, created by interpersonal groupings and instant directed arrangements. The soprano is a baton, as the ensemble is a thunderstorm of killer bees.
Constructing solo sets is essentially bleeding into the well. For the past 5 years, I’ve been religiously studying the works from the classic Disney songbook, that’s what I focus on when I’m focusing all my creative energy on improvising material; studying recognizable songs of our historic musical past. The songbook has been panned over thoroughly as I try to further delve deeper into this very rich and beautiful musical history. So if I am preparing anything for a solo set, it’s no different than any other day, in which I get up and obsess over my core musical values; the nonidiomatic musical style that I had developed and learned through my collegiate experience and private lessons, and into college, derived from the opportunity to study extensive nontraditional sounds and techniques. The extended words and phrases I learned, words that have been exploited by many others in this field, ones which, today, don’t necessarily reflect on the ideas and opinions that I personally carry as an adult. They did when I was trying to develop a unique identity on this instrument [overblowing, biting reeds, unverbalized runs], but to hear many other people regurgitate those same carbon copied statements, ideas stolen directly from some of the world’s greatest masters, reduces the truth they are presenting, vilifying and parodying pricelessness of an original idea by a second generation narrator. My responsibility is to get closer to my musical source, and that is thinking critically about every step I take in finalizing what the story is going to spell, the studied Disney material will leak out of from my primary vernacular, and interject itself throughout my matured monologue. I prepare simply by further investigating the truth behind who I am, versus who I thought I was, and who my teachers and parents wanted me to be. There was a time when I used to practice extended techniques, eight hours a day, every day, for years, now I simply practice Disney songs; I want to learn every single note, deconstruct them all, and graft them on to everything I have become.
SN: With your interpretations of the Disney songbook, it sounds like you’re trying to deconstructive the most mainstream aspect of American culture. Or you do you simply just like the melodies? After all, Coltrane did record “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music. So that sort of thing is not totally unusual.
JW: When I was a kid my parents used to buy me records every week, 45’s, Picture Discs, Read Alongs, etc, as an allowance for good behavior, grades, and treats; my dad was in the military and would purchase these from the commissary, five, six, or whatever was new on the store shelf; as the pile at home got larger, the disc clutter was managed by storing away the older ones, as new ones we bought. What I didn’t realize was, after over a decade of this, there were hundreds upon hundreds of records stored away up in an attic. Five years ago, I wound up finding these, literally about a 1,000 Disney records up in my parent’s attic space, and it blew my mind. I had an absolute epiphany; it was a beautiful experience, and it took all the previous musical knowledge that I had developed and flipped it on its ass. It made me reevaluate everything that I was musically saying up to that point, and forced me to reflect on my personal history, musically, and challenged myself in a way that was incredibly realistic, truthful and had a defined confrontation point on who I was. There was a message in the story, and honesty was written in my musical vernacular. It wasn’t simply the process of moving forward in a linear pattern, instead, it was a process of catharticism, and developing backwards; I guess it would be called ‘constructive nostalgia’. All these elements that belong to my past could now be reintroduced into a viable story of personal self-interest. These records are in my vision daily, and from the moment I found them they’ve been a part of my fundamental study material. It was a landfill of history, valuable memories stored away; until one day they were all taken away, and focus was put on academia and sports. Buying records for the child, turned into buying a car for the teenager, and music was not a priority; high school graduation and college became the forefront of the familial ideal. It was a very immediate and callous transition, furiously fast. Finding this enormous archive and studying all the information is my way of preserving a history that was stripped from me too abruptly. Presently, and for the past half-decade, it had been my absolute passion, and as obsessive natured as I am, it will ultimately be my study material until I’ve exhausted this creative need.
SN: That's pretty fascinating. Few people with your experimental aesthetic have such a passion for this kind of repertoire. Now tell me about your latest project?
JW: Currently, I’m in the process of compiling and editing Volume II of ‘Interpretations from the Disney Songbook (for solo soprano saxophone), over 550 pages of hybrid notated [graphic/traditional notated] compositions, a massive tome of interpreted manuscripts. Earlier this month, I released ‘Interpretations from the Disney Songbook (for solo soprano saxophone)’, Volume I; over 400 pages of graphic notated compositions, the first in a series of five, totaling out with nearly 2,000 compositions, written back in June of this year. Each composition comes complete with directives, compositional movements, and narratives on specific temperaments associated with the piece. Everything is fully explained, in detail. This is a project that consumed me, all my time, life and focus, and practically everything else, besides touring, was put on hold. Days would turn into night, and back again, as I kept pushing out comp after comp; even now, there are times when I will wake up from sleep, and write one out, 15-20 mins later back to sleep. Staffs are waiting around the house, just waiting for me to pencil one in. That is my “speaking in tongues”. This project is a monolith of tireless efforts, one painstakingly crafted: the deliberate words of absolute creative obsession. I feel they are my truest representation of purity and creative honesty: a soliloquy of passion and determination, and a valuable resource providing insight into the functional process of personal exploration and recovery.
SN: Well, it sounds like an intriguing piece of work. I can’t wait to hear it.
But before we conclude, I’d like to ask about your set-up. Inquiring sax-geeks would like to know.
But before we conclude, I’d like to ask about your set-up. Inquiring sax-geeks would like to know.
SN: Reed brand and size?
JW: Vandoren (traditional), 3
SN: Mouthpiece brand and size?
JW: Otto Link, 'Super Tone Master' (Florida), 6
SN: Instrument brand and model?
JW: Conn 18M, Soprano ('New Wonder II', 193xxx), unlacquered
SN: Thanks for your time, Jamison. I really appreciate it.
CLICK HERE, to find out more about Jamison Williams and music.
CLICK HERE, to find out more about Jamison Williams and music.