Have you ever wondered about the setups other saxophonists are playing on soprano?
NOW you can find out!
During this installment, we will be talking shop with soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. Gianni, who is based in the Milano area of Italy, is a genuine renaissance artist. His accomplishments are voluminous. First off, his level of soprano playing is top tier. Like many specialists, he is heavily influenced by the late Steve Lacy. In fact, Gianni switched to the soprano in 1994 after having taken numerous lessons with him.
As a composer and improviser, Gianni has a large body of work ranging from freely improvised solo saxophone pieces, to more intricately composed chamber music. In addition, he runs his indie label Amirani Records, on which he sometimes releases two to three CDs per year. And to top it off, he is also a saxophone repairman.
As a performer, Gianni also tours extensively throughout Europe and the US, collaborating with such luminaries as Peter Brötzmann, Enzo Rocco, Harri Sjöström, Alison Blunt, and many, many, others.
So I am extremely grateful he was generous enough to take time from his busy schedule to talk shop with us.
Sam Newsome: Gianni, let's get right to it. So what kind of soprano do you play and how long have you been playing it?
Gianni Mimmo: My main horn is a Selmer SA III. I bought it in 1994, and it’s still my preferred one, but I owned a lot of soprano saxes including a gold-plated Conn from the late 20s, a number of Mark VI, Yanagisawa Elimona, Yamaha 62 and custom models, King, Buescher and a Martin too. I recently also modified a silver Mark VI working on ergonomics, which is a project that was lying for years in my closet.
But I’m stuck on that SAIII, it’s not the best, but the relationship is more challenging, in a way. I lately dedicate some practicing on a Selmer SA I which is pretty good too.
Gianni's Selmar SA III with the detachable necks
SN: What is it about this particular instrument that was the deal breaker?
GM: The complexity of the sound, a sort of blessed disorder in the overtones. It was new, but promising a lot. Other horns in the shop were more explicit, but already assertive, tending to drive the player, in a way. The one I chose was harder but elegant. The only flaw is the weight.
The tone had some geometric resonance to my taste…
SN: You said that the Selmer SA III is “not the best,” which I can relate to. Do you feel because you specialize on the soprano that you’re better equipped to play an instrument with more challenges, consequently, making you work harder for a sound, which ends up being more personal?
GM: Yes I’d say it’s for that reason. I owned some great soprano saxophones:
I recall the Conn, a gold-plated one, that was really fantastic: the tone, the dynamics, the subtleness of its medium range. The keyboard wasn’t that ergonomically easy because it was a very old design as the project dated back in the 20’s, but the sound was really something. Although it made me play “old style” in a way: Everything was too velvet, a little bit too perfect. It affected my phrasing, and after a little bit, I thought I was playing the way the Conn wanted.
This SA III I’m playing now is one of the first of that series Selmer made.
It needs more attention, I had to work a lot to get a decent tone on it. It’s like a jealous woman, and it turns its face on the other side if I don’t play it for a couple of days. It still has some mysterious areas and a number of frequent little surprises that ask for your continued attention.
But it’s a relationship, I cultivate it day by day.
SN: What kind of mouthpiece do you play on? Or do you have a few in your arsenal?
GM: I play a Selmer Soloist that has been refaced by Filippo Bucci in Rome to a .067. All mouthpieces I played in the last 20 years are actually a development of a couple of squeeze chamber mouthpieces that Jon Van Wie refaced for me in the late 90s. I really loved his work, and I was really sad when he passed away. I always looked for that flexibility. My impression is that flexibility means a lot of clarity in the sound, but it also needs to be driven. After a little bit, I started looking for darkening the sound, just to round up a bit the projection. My opening range looks to be between .064 and .070. It seems as though I prefer a thin front rail.
I own six or seven mouthpieces, I actually had a lot, but my arsenal is limited to those ones now. I’ve another couple of Soloists, a current production HR Otto link, a very unusual chambered Meyer, another Link, another Meyer Joe Giardullo refaced for me.
All of them have been accurately refaced following my boring requests…I’ve to say I also spent some time experimenting with different necks: the SAIII is a detachable neck model.
I always play straight necks, but I’m intrigued by how different metals and/or shapes can affect the sound and its nuances.
Gianni's primary mouthpiece, the Selmer SA III
SN: How is this mouthpiece different from what you previously played on?
GM: I sometimes switch to another Soloist, but the two mouthpieces are very, very similar. What is changing is the subtleness of the resistance in the attack. How high is that initial step? Sometimes I get a more bodied tone with this second mouthpiece, probably I lose a lit bit of flexibility. They’re very close each other, and the listener wouldn’t recognize the difference. And sometimes the player as well!
SN: Do you find that having so many mouthpieces to be a distraction, or are you pretty disciplined. Personally, I’m not disciplined when it comes to this sort of thing, so I tend not to give myself options.
GM: They’re not distracting. Actually, they’re very similar as I restricted my research on certain facing and chamber size. The main differences lay in the matching relationship between that facing and the chamber size and shape. These are subtle things after all.
Gianni's Meyer, Otto Link, Selmer, and Meyer
SN: Now, ligatures. Do you have a collection of them, or do you play what came with the mouthpiece?
GM: I play several ligatures, I also invented one which is my main one.
They have a different kind of response quickness, resistance, projection, and warmth. In my saxophone case, I keep three of them: The one I invented, the one Mr. Ishimori made for my mouthpiece, and the last model Marc Jean did.
Gianni's collection of ligatures
SN: Is the Gianni Mimmo ligature available for public consumption? Or is this particular ligature something that was tailor made for your personal needs and taste?
GM: Masterclip ligature is really the result of years of research and experiments. I’m still keeping about 70 experimental models that drove me to its final and actual form. Yes is available on order, no problem. Each ligature is handmade and takes two hours and a half to be made.
Gianni's own Masterclip ligature
SN: Reeds are often a never-ending problem for saxophonists. First, what brand (or brands of) reeds do you use? And secondly, do find soprano reeds to be more forgiving or more temperamental than reeds for the other saxes?
GM: Reeds are the very problem for me: I think I played all brands of reeds in the world. I also did a long research on synthetic ones, and I’ve been playing Hahn synthetic reeds for years. The second series Mr. Hahn did were really fantastic, and many of my albums have been recorded playing those reeds. After that Hahn production discontinued, I came back to cane reeds: When I started dedicating myself to soprano sax only almost 30 years ago, I was playing Marca and Vandoren reeds. I’m now playing Vandoren Java reeds mostly, but I’m not stuck with them: it’s a constant re-adjustment. Rigotti cane is great, but I can’t find the proper strength, in a way.
I’ve been positively impressed by Steuer Reeds, I’ve still to dig the thing a little bit…
For my playing, the soprano reed is more temperamental than on alto and tenor. Anyway, I’ve to say that if one wants flexibility and bodied sound at the same time, a sort of compromise must be found. I’m pretty patient after all. But I like to understand the design of a reed, the thickness of the spine, profile, etc. It’s an interesting thing.
Gianni's Vandoren Java reeds
SN: That’s all very fascinating. I’m curious, after playing on the Hahn synthetic reeds for so many years, was it difficult trying to get used to cane again?
GM: No, it wasn’t difficult. Of course, you have to spend a couple of hours just to understand how less geometric is the cane and how the cane reed tends to decay in less time. It wasn’t that difficult to manage.
SN: Also, one concern many have of playing synthetic reeds on soprano is that the sound is too bright and sometimes too harsh. Did you find this to be the case?
GM: Yes that’s the risk with synthetic reeds and actually what generally happens. Mr. Hahn was really doing something different. I really liked his second series production, and I continued playing them for few years after that production. The idea to work on high-density foam and to reproduce on it the cell design of the Arundo donax is simply marvelous.
I know very well other brands, carbon fiber ones, injection molding ones, hybrid natural-synthetic ones, etc., but for some reasons, mainly the consistency of the medium range, I preferred those reeds.
A well-done synthetic reed is usually offering great flexibility. It is very symmetrical, and all the overtones and the altissimo range are usually where the player expects to find them. On the other hand, the sound leaks a little bit in the medium range, becoming less bodied and bright-- harsher, in a way. This is more noticeable on soprano and much less on the baritone or on the bass clarinet for instance.
SN: What are your thoughts about equipment obsession, in general? Because some believe it's all about the equipment, and some think you can make anything work if just work at it. So I'm just wondering if you feel that having so many possibilities is making us lazier? Feel free to unpack this however you like.
GM: My starting position is always to work with/on what you have. The work will tell you which if you need to improve your equipment, which element of it. One should refine his or her attention to sound and make proper choices. As a painter does try a new brush, or a larger spatula and understanding how that particular tool will adequately help to express the thing he feels. The relationship between the player, horn, mouthpiece, reed, and the ligature, is a kind of constellation, I think. When you touch one parameter, all the system is affected, someway. Finding the right balance among all the components is always a struggle.
Some aspects are more important for the player than for the listener. What seems so important from behind the horn and makes us tell ourselves stories like, " Wow! This ligature is so sensitive!" or "This is finally the reed I was looking for, " is sometimes un-relevant for the listener as it doesn’t change the complexity of the delivered sound image. Attention to detail is often closely related to player parameters: brightness in the horn high range or ease in lower dynamics are typical examples.
I need a certain number of uncertainties to give my best, I don’t want to be completely comfortable: the goal is “good quality in what I’m doing.” The answer does not lie in the equipment only, of course, but in a good relationship with all the involved elements. When a musician becomes more conscious, his steps will be more accurate.
SN: Many may not know this, but in addition to being one of the top soprano players playing today, you’re also a saxophone repairman. Do you find that having this much knowledge about the inner workings of the saxophone to be a blessing or a curse?
GM: Repairing, restoring, and rebuilding saxophones have been a blessing. That work drove me right inside the sound and made me know different musicians and their peculiar and personal approach to the horn. After so many years, it still feels like a form of meditation to me. It helps me to give each saxophone character a sort of sound-image that I like to describe to myself. It’s also great to listen to great masters, considering how their style can be affected by the horn they’re playing.
I do pretty much the same when I observe certain painters work, considering how their style is developing through the use of different brushes or special tools.
Gianni wearing his saxophone repairman hat
SN: Lastly, please let us know what you've been up to lately. Any new CDs, groups, projects?
GM: I’m leaving for a tour in Japan with Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura. The trio album with pianist Satoko Fujii and double bassist Joe Fonda will be released on next month for Long Song Records. Within the year, two additional records will be released: my duo with Vinny Golia, and a new Italian trio called Clairvoyance, with pianist Silvia Corda and double-bass player Adriano Orrù, will be out on my label Amirani Records. The next year my Sestetto Internazionale, whose album has been so well received and reviewed, will be on tour in Germany and North Europe.
I’m so intrigued by writing graphic scores and hopefully premiering my work Prossime Trascendenze for chamber quintet and sextet soon!
SN: That sounds amazing. I'm looking forward to hearing it. And thanks, again for sharing your insight and wisdom. It's been an inspiration and a great learning experience.
And please check out some of Gianni's recent recordings on Amirani Records
Have you ever wondered about the set-ups other saxophonists are playing on soprano?
NOW you can find out!
TALKING SHOP is the most recent feature on Soprano Sax Talk where I provide answers to one of the most frequently asked questions amongst sax players: "Hey, what kind of set-up does___________ play on soprano?"
During this installment, we will be talking shop with soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith. Jasmine, who has studied under such luminaries as composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton and composer Paula Mathussen, is also a prolific composer in her own right, whose harmonious compositions are perfectly matched with her lyrical and thoughtful improvisations. Jasmine has released two recordings with her band Towering Poppies—Fortune Songs (2012) and Yellow Red Blue (2015).
She currently resides in her birthplace, New Zealand, where she is pursuing her in Doctorate of Music Arts in composition at the New Zealand School of Music, while still performing occasional tours in the United States and Mexico.
Jasmine was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Sam Newsome: Jasmine, first off, please tell us a little bit about the set-up you're playing on?
Jasmine Lovell-Smith: The Super Action 80 Series II is the first and only soprano I have owned. I previously played a Selmer Super Action F80 Series III tenor saxophone, so the keywork and style of the horn was comfy for me straight away. I started out on a more open Selmer Super Session mouthpiece, which I found incredibly difficult to play, but since I changed to the Otto Link Tone Edge 7 (around the time I got serious about the soprano) I haven't looked back.I like that my setup is familiar, pretty consistent and what I would describe as 'neutral' sounding. By this I mean that the sound of my setup is pretty simple and clean - I want any added nuance to come from me rather than the intrinsic tendencies of the equipment as much as possible.
Jasmine's soprano saxophone: Super Action 80 Series II
As you can maybe tell already, I'm not very into gear. I definitely think it is important to have a good horn in good working shape so that it isn't a hindrance when playing, and figuring out the reed and mouthpiece thing involves some trial and error, but once I find something I'm happy with, I'm happy to stick with it indefinitely.
SN: Personally, I've never played the Selmer Super Action 80 Series II soprano, at least not extensively.But I do know that many consider this horn to be a vast improvement on the Selmer Mark VI Series, especially with regards to the palm keys. And those flat palm keys were undoubtedly a deal breaker for me.
Just curious, have you ever played on any other soprano? I'm just wondering if you can say precisely what made you decide on the Selmer Super Action 80 Series II?
JLS: I bought the Series II because my teacher in my first year of university, Johnny Lippiett, was selling it, so I had the opportunity to try it out and knew I was getting a good horn at a good price – it was as simple as that. I didn’t start playing the soprano seriously ‘til nearly ten years later. Before that it was something I would pick up every now and then, get frustrated with quickly, and then put down again. Since playing more soprano I’ve tried out a few friends’ instruments briefly, but haven’t played anything that has made me feel the need to switch instruments.
SN: The makers of the Otto Link Tone Edge describe it as a mouthpiece with a “very rich, full, and gutsy tone quality, accurate natural intonation and very good playing response.” Do you find this to be the case with you?
Jasmine's mouthpiece: Otto Link Tone Edge
JLS: I did find that the intonation was a vast improvement with the Link as compared to the Selmer Super Session J I had previously, and I like the tone quality – I think it does sound full and rich, though thus far nobody has yet described my playing on it as “gutsy!”
SN: Jasmine, as far as reeds, you said that you usually play on Vandoren Traditional #3 soprano reeds. However, you’re now playing on Gonzalez #2 ¾ soprano reeds. The Vandoren Traditional reeds I know, but this is the first time hearing about the Gonzalez reeds. Did you discover these while living in Mexico? And how do they differ from the Vandorens?
Jasmine's reeds: Vandoren Traditional #3 (L) and the Gonzalez #2 (R)
JLS: I actually first heard of Gonzalez reeds from the great tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, who gave me a couple to try when I took a lesson from him a few years back. They are made in Argentina. They weren’t readily available where I was living in Mexico, but I started playing them again recently as I found them in a local music store when I was in need of reeds. I would describe them as having a slightly lighter, flutier tone than the Vandorens. I like both!
SN: I know that you use the stock ligature that came with the mouthpiece. Have you tried different ligatures, or did you just figure if it’s not broken, don’t fix it? Some sax players are pretty fanatical about ligatures.
Jasmine's ligature: Stock ligature that came with the mouthpiece.
JLS: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it! You’re giving me ideas though, perhaps it is something I will look into.
SN: Not to worry. What you are currently using is working fine! So maybe you can tell what you’ve been up to, lately?
JLS: Since releasing Jasmine Lovell-Smith's Towering Poppies"Yellow Red Blue," which came out in 2015, featuring a string quartet on some of the tracks along with my quintet, I have moved to New Zealand (my homeland) and started work on a doctorate in composition, which has been challenging but rewarding so far. I'm currently getting ready to record some chamber music influenced works that I wrote as part of my studies this past year. The recording will include multiple ensembles and I won't be playing on everything, which is new territory for me, but I'm excited to be exploring a wider variety of instrumentations.
SN: Well, I’m very excited to hear it. And please do let me know when it’s finished so I can feature it on Soprano Sax Talk. Thanks again, for sharing your time and knowledge.
JLS: Always a pleasure to talk with you Sam, thanks for having me!
The latest episode of the Burning Ambulance podcast features an interview with violinist Meg Okura and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome. She leads the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, whose latest album, Ima Ima, will be released in May; his most recent
solo disc, Sopranoville, came out last year.
In our interview, they discuss their marriage and their creative relationship, their individual work and approach to their respective instruments, Meg's religious/spiritual journey (she was raised an evangelical Christian in Japan, became an atheist, then converted to Judaism), the challenges of making and marketing their music themselves, and much more. It's a long and very interesting conversation, and I hope you enjoy it. - Phil Freeman
Have you ever wondered about the set-ups other saxophonists are playing on soprano?
TALKING SHOP is the most recent feature on Soprano Sax Talk where I provide answers to one of the most frequently asked questions amongst sax players: "Hey, what kind of set-up does___________ play on the soprano?"
During this interview, we will be talking shop with soprano saxophonist Heath Watts. Heath hails from Butte, Montana, but currently resides in Philadelphia. In addition to being a soprano saxophone specialist, Heath has been solely committed to a path of free and improvised music since releasing Breathe If You Can, his adventurous 2008 outing with drummer Dan Pell on Leo Records. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk shop with us.
Sam Newsome: So Heath, we'll just dive right in. What are some of the qualities that you like about your current set-up? First your soprano.
Heath Watts: My Borgani Jubilee is an excellent horn with key work that fits my hands well. The feel, vibration, and the sound that I perceive in the horn make it my favorite among my three saxophones. I also have a black gold Keilwerth SX90 and a silver Rampone and Cazzani soprano saxophone; they are both very nice and have great qualities, but I prefer the feel of the Borgani.
Heath’s soprano: late 2000/early 2001 Borgani Jubilee Pearl Silver
SN:I've always been curious about the Rampone & Cazzani. Does the shape and position of the bell change the sound, and how you hear the sound?
HW: The Rampone & Cazzani sounds that same on recordings to me, but I think that I can hear undertones when I play the lowest notes. That is, I can hear a B-flat that is one octave lower than B-flat while playing. I haven't caught it on a recording yet, because either I'm imagining it, or the sound of the undertone is too subdued and is masked by the sound of the fundamental. I don't like the Rampone & Cazzani because it bothers my right thumb, unless I play with a neck strap, but then I lose a the freedom to move the sax subtly in order to play some multiphonics and other tones.
Heath's Silver Rampone and Cazzani (left) Borgani Jubilee Pearl Silver (center) Black Gold Keilwerth SX90 (right)
SN: And what about your mouthpiece?
HW:I play on a Gaia 1 mouthpiece. It opened up an additional octave of altissimo range for me. Generally, I can play two octaves above high F# (sometimes higher) and I can bend down to F below low B-flat, which gives me a usable 5-octave range. The Gaia 1 allows me to play multiphonics easily and responds very well. I like that it allows me to play with a number of tonal colors and from pp to ff with little difficulty. It plays in tune quite well throughout my range, so I don’t need to make too many adjustments to my embouchure to play in tune. I am always looking for a mouthpiece that allows more color, loudness, quietness, range, and playability. I’ve been playing the Gaia 1 exclusively since 2014, but I’m always looking for another mouthpiece that might provide me with additional ways to express myself.
Heath's mouthpiece: Theo Wanne Gaia 1 11 (0.085” tip opening)
SN: So tell me about the types of reeds you play.
HW: Reeds are quirky. Sometimes several boxes of one brand will play well, but then I have to switch to another to find reeds that play consistently well. I use a Bhosys reed knife, a Reed Geek, Reed Wizard, and reed rushes to adjust my reeds. The Reed Geek allows me to easily flatten the table of my reeds, which are usually not flat. A reed with a flat table makes better contact with the table of my mouthpiece and improves the playability of both. I have several Reedjuvinate tubes that I started using a couple years ago and they allow me to prepare, store, and evaluate a number of reeds simultaneously. The Reedjuvinate tubes keep the reeds moist, clean, and prolong their lives. Sometimes I can get 3-4 months of playing from a good reed by storing it in a Reedjuvinate tube. When a reed stops resonating intensely, or if it loses its ability to play very high altissimo notes, I will discard it.
Heath's reeds: Reed: Hemke 2, Marca 2, or La Voz Medium soft (Shown)
SN: I've never used theReedjuvinate tubes. But I did meet Bob Covello at the Downtown Music Gallery, a while back, and he was mentioning it. So have you noticed a significant difference in the life of the reed after using it?
HW: Yes, my reeds last longer and are ready to play immediately and consistently. The Reedjuvinate is an ingenious accessory.
SN: You play the Bambú ligature, which is some beautiful craftsmanship. Tell us a little bit about this interesting apparatus.
HW: My Bambú ligature is similar to the Vandoren Klassik ligature, which I also own. The Bambú seems to let my reeds vibrate more intensely than other ligatures in my (large!) ligature collection allow. It is important to keep my neck cork well greased, because the Bambú does not hold the reed tightly enough to turn the mouthpiece without disrupting reed placement, unless the cork is greased well. For cork grease, I use Alisyn cork and slide grease; it is synthetic grease that works well and does not contain animal byproducts, which is important to me, because I’m a vegan. The Bambú ligature is the perfect ligature for me.
Heath's ligature: Bambú braided, sapphire blue color
SN: Do you have any additional thoughts to offer regarding setup, sound, and things of that nature?
HW: I think that one’s choice of setup is very subjective. What feels good for me might not feel good for someone else. I do not think that my setup affects my recorded sound or the sound that my audience hears. However, my setup does affect how I perceive my sound while I’m playing and affects how well I am able to play and feel the vibration of my saxophone. Therefore, I suggest that you develop your sound on one setup and know that you will likely sound the same on another setup. I only change my setup when my current setup limits what I can do with my technique. Changing mouthpieces, or any other part of your setup regularly will not affect what your audience hears. I suggest that you play long tones and overtone exercises every day for the rest of your playing life to keep yourself in shape and to expand and improve your tonal palette. I suggest that you focus on your breathing, embouchure, intonation, and sound. After you have developed your sound with 3-4 years (2,500 or more hours) of consistent and productive practice, you can experiment with changes to your setup. Please note that I’m not suggesting that one can play successfully on a broken instrument, a poorly made mouthpiece, a cracked reed, or a ligature that does not hold the reed in place, but I am suggesting that sometimes saxophonists change their equipment when they should be improving their fundamental playing abilities.
SN: I appreciate your candid and insightful answers. And yes, I do agree that the changes we often make to our set-ups are only noticeable to us. Which is OK, too. No one ever died because of too much placebo. It's only an issue when we become so fanatical about these sometimes un-noticeable changes, that we fail to address the real problem: our ability to properly regulate the air through the instrument. Before we conclude, tell about what you’ve been up to lately.
HW: In February 2018, I released my third album on Leo Records, Sensoria, with trombonist M.J. Williams, violinist Nancy Owens, and bassist Blue Armstrong. Sensoria was the follow up to my critically acclaimed album, Bright Yellow With Bass, on Leo Records with bassist Blue Armstrong. This fall, I will be releasing a duet album with the extraordinary pianist Robert W. Getz on Leo Records called Helicopter Seeds. Also, you and I will be recording an album this summer, which will be released on Leo Records.
SN: Thanks, Heath. It's been a pleasure. And your new CD sounds fabulous!
Some of you may have heard or seen me hang chimes from the next strap holder of the soprano. This, of course, enables me to improvise to the chance rhythmic and melodic occurrences that result from the movement of the soprano.
The balloon extensions have a similar function.
There are a few differences. One, the balloons are attached to the bell of the horn, not the neck strap holder, and two, the movement of the balloons creates more of a rattling-effect, that’s neither rhythm nor melodic specific.
The rattling effect: This is created by placing bits of dry rice inside of deflated balloons and then inflating the balloons to the desired length. For me, once I inflate the balloons, I like to tie the ends and connect them all to create a visual as well as sonic collage.
What’s great about this type of improvisation is that it teaches you to go deeper inside of your sonic language in order to find musically compatible responses to the rattling effect.
Even if you don’t care to try this in public, it could be fun to try at home just to see what you come up with.
Oh, and I almost failed to mention that I used the effect as a way to interpret Steve Lacy's "Deadline." The footage is a little grainy, but the point is still clear.
NPO (Newsome, Pilc, and Okura) was formed in April of 2016 when violinist Meg Okura assembled this group to perform as a part of her week-long residency at The Stone.
The idea was to have an ensemble that could successfully re-imagined Yiddish songs without sacrificing the jazz aesthetic.
I think I can say with humilityand confidence: mission accomplished.
None of us knew that this would someday become a commercial recording, or if we would even document something that we were proud of. To be honest, the three of us were all "pleasantly surprised."
In fact, our first response was "Wow. Maybe we need to put this out." And here we are.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the legwork done by Okura, and the vision and faith in this project shown by Jon Madof and Shanir Blumenkranz from Chant Records.
Now, about the music:
The following is NPO's interpretation of "Oyfn Pripetchik," a Yiddish song by 19th-century composer and poet Mark Markovich Warshawsky. The original Eminem! Born into a Russian Ashkenazi Jewish family, Washawsky had composed many pieces, but "Oyfn Pripetchik" was one of his most famous ones. It's about a rabbi teaching his students the aleph-bet, which is the Jewish alphabet or sometimes known as the Jewish scripts. I actually took a course at Temple Israel New York called "Aleph Isn't Tough," just to learn some of these scripts. No easy task, let me tell you. But the piece became very popular amongst Jews of Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. It's still commonly sung by Jewish school children around the world.
The piece is in a minor key, as is the case with many Jewish songs, which makes them very adaptable to a jazz makeover, particularly through the lens of modal jazz.
The melody isn't really stated until 4:29 of the recording, which is played very loosely by me on the soprano, while Pilc and Okura are playing very passionate, and, at times, very textural accompaniment.
The following video features me playing duo with Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine-Abbott.
This piece demonstrates how sound that is produced using unconventional methods, often works best paired with another instrument on which sounds are being produced unconventionally. The two approaches used are prepared saxophone and extended saxophone techniques.
Here are my working definitions of the two:
Prepared Saxophone: The process through which alterations are made to the soprano that distorts how air enters the instrument, how it exits, and by attaching external vibrating sources to the soprano that are set in motion by the movement or sound of the instrument.
Extended Saxophone Techniques: Notes and sounds that go beyond the original scope of the instrument.These notes and sounds are either produced by blowing air through the instrument using unconventional methods and/or using conventional fingerings, slightly modifying the air stream.
1. Demonstrating prepared saxophone, I've attached plastic tubes to my instruments, elongating the air column, consequently, producing a longer column of air that results in a lower sonic range. In addition, I've attached a trumpet Harmon mute to the end of my bell. Essentially, I've altered the way air enters and exits the instrument.
2. Demonstrating extended saxophone techniques, Kayla is blowing through the mouthpiece without a reed, which creates a buzzing effect as air travels across the facing of the mouthpiece.
We often want to wait until something is perfect. Perfection is an illusion. You'll find Sant Claus faster. We can't wait until the optimal moment to act. Sometimes in life, you just have to put it in the mail. We often spend way too much time obsessing over the envelope stuffing process.
And the same can be said of playing music. Don’t wait until you have something to say to play. Play so that you can figure out what you have to say. I say this to people who are ultimately waiting until their music becomes perfect before they feel compelled to release a recording or book a gig.
Aiming for perfection and wanting to wait until we’re "ready" has become all-purpose excuses for not trying. The truth of the matter is that we never feel we’re 100% ready. There’s always something to do—a tweak here, an edit there...I once heard an executive from Pixar say that “...at Pixar, we don’t finish movies, we just decide to release them.” Or as Leonardo da Vinci said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."
This is why I’m a firm believer of just getting to the bandstand “by any means necessary.” And don’t worry about being outmatched. If you can’t keep up, musicians will let you know.
Look at professional sports. Ballplayers don’t wait until they’re ready to hit a home run to step up to the plate. Home runs are a byproduct of having stepped up to the plate several times.
If I thought this way, I’d still be tweaking Monk Abstractions, my first solo saxophone CD.
So my advice is:
Get it in the mail!
Count off the tune!
Just start swinging, and let life take care of the rest!
First, a quick story: In 1996, when I first began playing the soprano exclusively, I had no idea of what I was doing—musically, technically, and career-wise. So my first inclination was to get a teacher/mentor to help guide me through the process.
My first thought was Jane Ira Bloom since she lives in New York and has had the most experience playing the soprano exclusively than any other living person, other than Steve Lacy. I ultimately decided not ask her, because she did not strike me as the mentoring type. But I did attend a few of her gigs, and she was very gracious in answering some of my questions regarding embouchure building and sound control.
I then thought about Dave Liebman. He seemed perfect. He had developed the soprano to an unprecedented level, he was a dedicated educator and had traveled a similar path of having put down the tenor sax in pursuit of a new and more original voice on the soprano. However, during this stage of my straight horn path, he had already returned to the tenor—which did not exactly boost my confidence in my decision.
But ultimately I did not ask Jane nor Dave—for many reasons. Primarily because I did not want them as mentors, but as heroes.
What’s the difference? The difference is pretty significant.
Heroes inspire us to follow our own path. Mentors tell us which path to take. When you follow a mentor, you do what they do. When you follow a hero, you do as they do. And to bring the point home even further: One gives you a map to follow, the other allows you to create and revise your plan as you go along.
Having a mentor has its perks:
Easy access to information.
Access to their network of musicians.
And most importantly, they offer you the excuse of being able to say that you were just doing what you were told. So if you don’t succeed you are not forced to bare total responsibility.
This is actually of the issues I have with jazz education, which is that we’re into the business of mentoring, while we should be more in the business of hero-ing. In music pedagogy, students are trained to follow orders, not their musical instincts. They're not trained to take risks, nor to problem solve, unless it's a math problem. And I’m guilty as charged. I don’t have the answer. But one step in the right direction is to offer students both mentor-ship and hero-ship. Show them what a good map looks like, but then encourage them to go out and create their own.
But a special shout-out to all of mentors and heroes. Your influence us forever implanted.
Don’t set goals, but develop good and productive habits. One enables you to reach that desired place, the other enables you to stay there.
Goal = a quick fix solution
Good habits = a way of life
Many see the two as interchangeable. But I see them as being significantly different.
Here are the issues I have with goals:
1. The effects of goals are often short-lived. We often move on to the next thing once we reach them.
2. We often neglect essential stuff in pursuit of goals. It does not pave the way to a balanced lifestyle.
3. Most goals are not attainable. Or least we tend to quit before attaining them.
Developing productive habits is different. It’s a longer, more patient path, which tends to produce more favorable outcomes over time. And there is a reason I used the word “outcome” and not “aim.” An "outcome" is a byproduct of habit, whereas an "aim" implies desiring a more immediate result that does not require one to change his or her behavior.
So I’m not suggesting having no standards, only that your positive outcomes result from who you are, not what you set out to do.
Don’t be the kind of person who’s practicing 4 hours a day, getting ready for the big gig. Be the type of person who practices regularly.
Don’t be the kind of person planning a big release in the fall. Be the kind of person who releases recordings.
Look at people who like to go on diets. Guilty as charged! Rather than being the person trying to lose five pounds, be the person who eats healthy and regularly exercises. You’ll never have to worry about your weight again.
One of my frustrations as a younger musician was that I was always trying to get better, rather than being a person who practices in all 12 keys. Or the kind of person who learns tunes, or transcribes, or merely the person who enjoys expressing himself through his instrument. The latter gets rid of the “tick tock” effect.When you’re not so goal oriented, you permit yourself to get lost in the process; consequently, internalizing things on a deeper level.
So become a creature of habit, not a goal-oriented creature. It’s a much calmer and more fruitful path.