Sam Newsome

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

Steve Lacy Re-Imagined

Steve Lacy was probably one the most prolific and idiosyncratic composers in jazz. He has made over 200 recordings with numerous ensemble configurations from large chamber groups, with and without text; to solo saxophone, with and without text.

One of my favorites is “Bone.” I first heard Lacy play this piece solo on his CD, Snips:Live at Environ. It was part of a eight-part suite called the “Tao Suite.”

It’s pretty common knowledge that Lacy was heavily influenced by Monk, but on this piece it’s pretty apparent, to me, anyway. If you were to compare “Bone” to the first two bars of Thelonious Monk’s composition “Thelonious,” you can definitely hear the similarities and influence. Of course, for the bridge, they each travel their own unique paths.

Lacy was also the consummate minimalist, as a composer and improviser—a few notes, a few chords, and lots of possibilities. Which is why his tunes are ideal for re-imagining. Especially for me, since I’m into always having the melody present--whether it’s playing it as a motif during my solo, or using it as an interlude.

My initial arrangement of this tune was for a gig with Dave Liebman, with two sopranos, bass and drums. However, in this video clip of my concert at Smalls Jazz Club with Ethan Iverson on piano, Gregg August on bass, and EJ Strickland on drums, I had the piano play the 2nd soprano part.

I’m looking forward to exploring more of Lacy’s stuff in the future.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Four (4) Schools of Solo Saxophone Playing

Since I began exploring this path of playing in the unaccompanied format almost 10 years ago, my style of solo saxophone playing has come to integrate four distinct approaches, ones best named by the players who developed them: 1) Anthony Braxton, 2) Evan Parker, 3) Steve Lacy, and 4) Sonny Rollins.

1) Anthony Braxton - Compositional/Improvisational

 When listening to Braxton play solo saxophone, it can be hard to distinguish between what’s written out and what’s improvised. He often combines 20th century classical composition with improvisation in its most general sense, and not necessarily jazz improvisation--where blues, swing and syncopated rhythms are at the core of the music’s aesthetic. However, the end results are always very musical. Whenever I improvise a piece on the spot, I can rarely do so without thinking about Braxton. The musical equivalent would be playing a sax and drum duo and not think of Coltrane and Elvin.

2.  Evan Parker - Sonic/Soundscape

Evan's  approach is probably the most radical and inventive of the aforementioned players because it has less to do with traditional ways of thinking about music with regards to form, rhythm, and harmony. It's more about exploring the numerous and often under-explored sonic possibilities of the instrument through the use of circular breathing and extending saxophone techniques. While studying Evan Parker’s music I thought it would be interesting to use the concept of playing multiphonics--playing two or more notes simultaneously--out of their usual role of noise and textures, and apply them in a more traditional way, such as using them to create chordal accompaniment. This potentially poses problems when playing with conventionally tuned pianos and guitars, since many of the chords produced using multiphonics are hybrid chords, borrowing from the microtonal and equal temperament scale systems.

3)  Steve Lacy - Head-Solo-Head

Steve Lacy’s style of solo saxophone is the same format used in most traditional jazz performances. Unlike Braxton, Lacy rarely wrote pieces specifically for solo saxophone. He would often take tunes that he played in duo, trios, quartets, quintets, etc., and play them solo. Of course, the solo interpretations sound a lot more free and elastic. Not to mention, that his approach is the most minimal of the four. With Lacy, it's all about sound, not virtuosity. You might say that his virtuosity comes from the way in which he deals with sound. I feel that's why he sometimes he barely improvises. He was able to make his statement with how he played the melody.

4)  Sonny Rollins - Extended Cadenza

I feel Sonny's solo saxophone approach was heavily influenced by the extended cadenzas played by John Coltrane during mid-late sixties, where Coltrane would often play cadenzas at the end of piece, usually ballads that were often longer than the piece itself. Sonny created a style of solo saxophone playing that often takes the listener on a melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and historical journey--drawing heavily upon his calypso background. Sonny’s approach is probably more closely related to Steve Lacy’s, of the aforementioned saxophonists. The big difference being that Sonny usually played on the tune’s harmonic structure (or some type of  harmonic structure), whereas Steve Lacy’s rarely followed as easily identifiable progression. As a matter of fact, he usually played free.

Of course, they are a lot of practitioners of the solo saxophone format that are not on this list. But I narrowed it down to the four whom I think have been the most influential on me. And I can't end this post without a special shout out to Dave Liebman, Lol Coxhill, John Butcher, and of course, Coleman Hawkins, who actually started it all.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are We Selling Our Music Short In Our Effort To Work?

Several years ago, after I had recorded my first CD, Sam I Am with Criss Cross Records, Gerry Teekens, the label’s founder and producer, asked me if I had given any thought to what I’d like to do for the next record. I told him that I’d like to record with the same musicians, and hopefully, do a better job on the next one. Well, his answer is what you'd expect to get from most labels, club owners, and promoters: “You recorded with them the last time, we need something new for the next one."

It ‘s understandable from a business perspective why one would take this position. If your project has a different name and/or members, it’s seen as something new and fresh, and hopefully, easier to sell than if it’s just a repeat of the last one. My issue with this, however, is whether or not buying into this way of dealing with our music hurts us artistically.

I call it the Post-Dave-Douglas Syndrome (PDDS)--where we feel we have to have to invent a new band concept every time we want to make a CD or be booked on a festival. In all fairness to Dave, he’s just doing his thing, and I’m sure it’s all very sincere. Not to mention, I’m singling him out because he’s been the most successful at doing this. For good reason, mind you.

Dave is a product of the Downtown musical culture, where many of its musicians often played at places like The Knitting Factory, Tonic, and The Stone, often working with many groups and configurations. And I think the premise of this jack-of-all-bands approach was quite innocent in the beginning.

Imagine this: It’s a Wednesday night, and you write four or five new compositions to be performed during an hour-long set at one of the aforementioned venues. At the end of the gig, you and your band might make a hundred dollars and enjoy a few free beers. To add to this experience, you figure why not give the group some ironic name like The Running Still Funktet, John Doe's Organized Chaos, or my favorite, The Silent Noise Trio. And if you’re an active player on this scene, playing these venues regularly, in couple of years you could easily have three or four bands.

Of course, a gig is a gig. And as Billy Higgins said, “Get to the bandstand anyway you can.” But I figure there has to be more to it than this. It can’t all be about our “bookability” and developing new angles for promoting ourselves.

If you’re a composer, always writing for and working with a different project comes with the territory. There’s a kind of finality to a concert giving by a composer. The music is often more involved, and usually requires more of a commitment from the musicians who are hired to play it. And sometimes the music is a result of a commissioning or grant—with the exception of the big band. But I’m mainly speaking about small groups that are more improvisational and band oriented--what most of us do.

Some of the best work has come from those who have made a commitment to a group or a sound, and really explored it to the fullest. Miles, Ornette, Coltrane—they’re all great examples of this. Imagine if after a making A Love Supreme, Trane put together a Brazilian project, and then a Latin jazz project, just to make himself more bookable. We would have missed out on a lot of great music.

I started thinking about this more and more after noticing how people responded when I told them that I was working on my third solo CD. The most common responses were: “ Didn’t you just do one?” And my favorite: “Another one?” And I do understand where they are coming from.

A solo CD is usually looked at as one of these momentous things you do once in a lifetime--sort of like climbing Mount Everest. Half the fun is being able to say that you did it. And once you do, you have something interesting to talk about at parties.

And solo saxophone, mind you, is even more of a novelty. There are a few exceptions, like Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, John Butcher, and Evan Parker, who have released large bodies of work playing in the unaccompanied format. But it’s not a musical path followed by many.

However, I do feel there’s a growing trend amongst musicians of not being committed to a single sound or musical vision. The focus is often times on finding a new project to promote or market, rather being solely focused on improving ones current one. The way that I see it is like this: Even if a couple of albums don't turn out as we'd hoped. That may only mean that it’s time to go deeper, not that you need to change your musical trajectory. I understand if it’s just not working out or if you feel that the music has run its course. Then yes, you must move on. I’ve done that myself.

We shouldn’t let one or two recordings define who we are as artists. And definitely should not cow tow to promoters, club owners, agents, only thinking about our bookability. We’ve already tried that. Musical cultures tend to flourish more when the music is actually put first, and not its commercial viability.

When we’re long gone, we want people to see our extensive discography and say, “Oh yeah, now I see what this guy was about.” Those one or two horrible CDs might become historical in that they will be seen as transitional CDs that enabled you to get to that one really great one. Look how many recordings Miles Davis made before he got to Kind of Blue.

You dig!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Music of Monk: The Soprano Player's Right of Passage

As saxophonists, we often find ourselves having to deal with the music of certain players as a way of addressing certain sound and technical issues. Alto players have to deal with Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker; tenor players, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, and with soprano players, it's Steve Lacy and Thelonious Monk.

Lacy described Monk's music as ideal for the soprano saxophone: ''Not too high, not too low, not easy, not at all overplayed and most of all, full of interesting technical problems.''

This would explain why he spent a large portion of his 50 year career exploring Monk's music. Even though Lacy only performed with him for a few years, his impact was everlasting.

Following Lacy's lead, I took the daring leap and made Monk's music the focus of my first solo CD, Monk Abstractions. While recording this CD, I sometimes had to nudge msyelf just to take a solo. Just playing the melody of one of Monk's tunes felt like a statement within itself.

Upon hearing my recording, producer and trumpeter Don Sickler asked me to perform as a part of the Thelonious Monk 90th Birthday Celebration at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom. It was very exciting to play for that many people, not to mention conversing with my comedic hero, Bill Cosby.

Here's a clip from that memorable evening.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Roscoe Mitchell:Master of the Avant Garde

It's been a while since I've posted anything by Roscoe Mitchell. Roscoe is one of the players that I've gotten into in more recent years, along with Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill. He's one of the true masters of the sonic/soundscape approach to improvisation.

Free players can sometimes sound cliche-ish within that vernacular. Roscoe, however, has something unique. His ability to build solos, creating this slow burning, gradually rising, sonic boil, sets him apart from other free players. It's one thing to play flurries of notes, interspersing multi-phonics between the cracks. But it's another to be able to sustain the interest of the listener for the entirety of your solo.

Personally, I have not mastered that as of yet. As a matter of fact, my solos tend to be more on the shorter side since I have not figured out how to sustain the intensity for longer periods of time.

But in the mean time, I'll just keep checking out Roscoe. I'm sure it will come.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Ideal Soprano Reeds

I've been playing RW reeds since 2008. So when Roberto asked me to become an endorser, it was great, because I was already playing them anyway. I have numerous credit card statements to prove it! And personally I can’t think of a better endorsement to have.

Endorsing mouthpieces and horns are good. But honestly, I don’t want several horns and mouthpieces. I’ve been playing the same horn for over 20 years and the same mouthpiece close to ten. It would have been longer, but my old mouthpiece fell on the floor and broke. Besides, having unlimited access to horns and mouthpieces would do me more harm than good. I would spend too much time blaming everything on my equipment.

Reeds on the other hand, you can never have too many of them. I might go through a box faster than a cowboy goes through a pack of Marlboros. Hey, if I could play a reed for twenty years, that would be amazing, not to mention cost effective--but back to reality.

I haven’t tried the RW reeds on the other saxes, but I know they’re ideal for the soprano. As you know, everything is magnified on the soprano. Saxophonist Dave Liebman offered some insightful reasons why, in his article The Soprano Saxophone: "A great portion of the soprano's range places it in that area of sound where the pitches are produced by very fast oscillations. (If the A below middle C is 440 cycles, doubling that number for the next A and again for high A above the staff gives you an idea of the speed of vibrations in the soprano range."

So when you have the sound producing such fast oscillations, it’s only natural that you need the micro-sizes that the RW reeds offer to give you just the right consistency and resonance needed throughout the entire range of the instrument.

When I used to play Vandorens--which are great reeds, too--I found they just didn’t give me the same flexibility and power of the RW reeds, especially when it came to playing multi-phonics and in the altissimo register. Until recently, I was playing the RW Soprano, 3 Medium, but came down in size to a RW Soprano, 3 Soft. It offered me a little more control, allowing me to play with less resistance. Back in the old days, I would have had to shave down my reeds. But the micro-sizes have made that practice a thing of the past.

If you ever find yourself on W. 46th Street, between 6th and Broadway, do yourself a favor and stop by Roberto’s Winds .

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pre-Multiphonic Training: Part 2

A few months ago I submitted a post called “Pre-Multiphonic Training,” discussing an exercise developed by Ronald L. Caravan in his book Preliminary Exercises & Etudes In Contemporary Techniques For Saxophone that helps with sound, embouchure control and playing multi-phonics.

Attached are pages 2 and 3 of that chapter. When playing these exercises, you should pay close attention to the different dynamic levels. Successfully playing these tones, as it is when playing most multi-phonics, requires one to play with a very delicate airstream. We’re often taught to blow through the instrument full and forcefully. Which is applicable when playing more conventional notes and sounds. However, when playing multi-phonics and the pre-multiphonic exercises below, the airstream must be played the same delicacy and finesse with which a violinist uses his or her bow.

These exercises require a lot of abdominal support, just so that the notes don’t crack or distort. These notes are not pretty. So don't let this distract you. I wouldn’t use them as alternate fingerings when playing a lovely ballad. However, when paying something a little more experimental, they could be very effective.

Have fun!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Six (6) Benefits of Playing Solo Saxophone

Here's a list of things I've discovered of ways in which playing solo saxophone can be beneficial to ones development. They're not listed in any order of importance.

1. Increases your awareness of your sound:
Believe it or not, it's easy not to really know our own sound. My theory is that we spend so much time practicing fast stuff that we rarely take the opportunity to slow things down to do an in-house sonic examination. When you're playing unaccompanied, you end up doing this whether you want to or not.

2. Helps to expand your sound palette: 
When you play solo using a single note instrument, such as a saxophone or clarinet, you quickly yearn for other sounds to play other than lines. And trust me, streams of eighth notes for about 20 – 30 minutes played by the even the most skilled improviser will induced yawning. That's when I began to heavily explore extended techniques to expand my musical as well as sonic options. Often times, not only did the sounds give me more ideas, but the process by which I discovered them was very creative.

3. Teaches you how to pace your solos:
 Learning how to pace yourself is probably one of the most important skills you can develop when playing solo. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble 10 minutes into your 40 minute set. Learning to pace yourself over a 40 minute period teaches you to think like a long distance runner. It’s not just about moving from change to change, or from bar to bar, but more about learning how to navigate a much larger musical terrain.

4. You become more autonomous and independent:As with most saxophonists, most of my playing is done with other people--whether it's a quartet that includes a rhythm section or with three other saxes. So the dependency on other players is very justifiable. However,  when you get to the point where you can play an hour set by yourself—dictating the direction of the tune as well as the harmony and rhythm--playing with a band afterwards will make you feel like you're flying.

5. Develops your endurance:
Most of us can practice pretty intensely for an hour without feeling the need to take the next few off days to recuperate. At least I hope so. However, if you perform solo for that long, that might actually be the case. That's why I wouldn't recommend doing an hour long solo set right away. Start off playing an unaccompanied intro or two on gigs, and then try some modest 15 to 20-minutes sets, just to build your endurance, and before you know it you'll be a one-man show. Easier said than done, but very possible.

6. Teaches you to better utilize space:
When playing solo, space can be your accompanist. Almost like your silent partner, so to speak. And more importantly, it helps to give your ideas clarity and structure. I've often equated using space with being like using punctuation when writing. It keeps your ideas from sounding like one big run-on sentence. However, this is easier to do when you're playing in a room with nice acoustics.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pre-Multiphonic Training

I sometimes get asked questions about fingerings I use to play multi-phonics on the soprano. Using the correct fingerings is only a part of the process. It’s a combination of breath support, cross fingerings, and oral cavity manipulation.

The exercise below is from an excellent book by Ronald L. Caravan, Extended Techniques & Etudes in Contemporary Saxophone; it sets the stage for playing multi-phonics as well as microtonal fingerings. The exercise itself doesn’t sound very good, but it’s a great way to gain the control you'll need to play multi-phonics and other extended techniques.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Art of Long Tones

I once asked my teacher, while I was a student at the Berklee College of Music, how I would be able to tell whether or not the long tones I was doing were working. He told me that the changes were so subtle, that I actually wouldn't be able to tell. I continued to do them anyway on blind faith. But I always suspected that it had to be more to it than that.

Today, I have discovered that long tones are more than just playing notes long and sustaining; that's just part of it. It's a balance between pitch, breath support, and embouchure control.

As a young Berklee student I would make the mistake of only playing the notes long and sustaining, not really given much consideration to the aforementioned things. I figured just by the mere process of doing it, my sound would correct itself. Sort of like running on the treadmill. You can run on the treadmill every morning without thinking about the speed, the incline or your form, and you will still become more conditioned just from running at all. And I guess with long tones, the same principle applies. Your sound will improve somewhat, regardless. But I'd like to discuss here is getting the maximum results for your efforts.

When playing long tones the two most important things you must do is (1) practice them at different dynamic levels and (2) practice them with a chromatic tuner.

Back to the treadmill analogy. Playing long tones at one dynamic level is actually like running on the treadmill at one speed and one incline level. You're not really working your muscles to their full burnout potential. To keep this from happening with long tones, I suggest following this dynamic arc: pp---mf----ff---mf---pp. When you're playing at these different dynamic levels you'll notice that you'll need varied levels of embouchure control and breath support. For example, when you're playing fortissimo, you'll notice you're working a lot more facial muscles. Whereas, when playing pianissimo you tend to need more diaphragm support. It can feel like having to pull back the reins to control a wild horse.

In terms of loudness, practicing using this dynamic arc helps to increase your ability to project. Because now you're learning how to direct the air at high velocity with control and precision. Almost like controlling the wheel of a car at high speed. In terms of pitch, you'll notice that when you play louder and softer, the pitch has a natural tendency to go flat or sharp.

For my set-up, I tend to get sharper when I play louder due to the increased blowing intensity as well as the reed is vibrating more. I also play sharp when playing soft, too, since now the embouchure is less tight. Sort of like loosening a screw on a latch; the whole thing now becomes a little more wobbly. And as I've said in earlier posts, that's why it's great to practice long tones with a tuner. It can difficult to distinguish between having a dark tone quality versus being flat and having a bright sound and being sharp. And of course, the advantage to this is that the more in tune you are, the uniformed your tone will sound.

So as you can see there's a lot more to long tones than just playing long tones. It's not the mindless activity that it's perceived to be. It requires just as much focus and technique as playing a prepared piece, sometimes more.

Who knew?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Can You Double And Still Be A Great Soprano Saxophonist?

Saxophonists often inquire how I’m able to play certain extended techniques on the soprano--whether it’s multiphonics, slap-tonguing, or playing in the altissimo register (Right now, my practical rage in C4 and my extreme range is Eb 4, reed permitting).

Now if I had to give a one-word answer as to how I’m able to do these things, I would have to say “flexibility.” Which leads to the discussion of whether of not you can be a great soprano saxophonist even if you play it as a double.

Steve Lacy once said during an interview: “There's a lot more flexibility with a soft reed, so you can go much higher. A hard reed is limited. After you reach a certain point, the door is closed.” I feel this addresses the fundamental problem with playing the soprano saxophone as a double. The set-ups that doublers play on soprano are often too big for the instrument.

As I see it, if you play the soprano using a set-up that’s comparable to a much larger horn, you’re not dealing with the soprano on it’s own terms. It’s being treated as an extension of a much larger horn, and not as a separate entity.

When I first switched from the tenor saxophone to the soprano, I was amazed at how loud I was able to play. I remember attending various late-night New York City jam sessions and recall being able to play louder than some of the trumpet players. Though intrigued by my newfound power and superhuman strength, I did find that my sound was very lacking. I often felt the limitations that many said would be apparent upon choosing to make the soprano sax my primary instrument.

Two of the most noticeable limitations were my inability to play high and my inability to play low.

It’s difficult to play high without flexibility. The word flexibility actually means “easily bent or shaped.” For something to be easily bent or shaped, first of all, it must be soft. Which do you think would be more fun to play with and will inspire more creative thoughts—clay putty or a hard clay pot?

The same principle can apply to reeds and how they affect sound production. Softer reeds offer a few advantages. One, because the softness of the reed allows it to vibrate more, it allows you to produce a sound richer in harmonics. And two, it allows more room for sound and pitch manipulation, which are mandatory if one chooses to play notes belonging to what Steve Lacy refers to as the “stratosphere.” If all of your effort is going into getting the reed to vibrate, than that leaves little room for anything else, except for basic sound production. Also note that controlling the high register isn’t just about embouchure control, but oral cavity manipulation, too—speeding up and control the airflow by changing the position of the tongue.

Now, as far as playing in the lower register of the soprano, the one thing you don’t want to do it treat it as a throw away register. The soprano is unique in that even in its extreme low register it is still in practical range as far as laying in the cut of the chord or of the melody or melodic line. Therefore, when playing down below, you don’t want to play a reed that only allows you to “honk” the note out, or only get a sound that’s abrasive and/or harsh. Having a lower register that’s in tune, with a warm and breathy sub-tone is one the hallmarks of having great sound control on the soprano.

From my own experience, I’m finding that the longer I play the soprano, the more I long for the kind of flexibility that will allow me to be as expressive on soprano as I was on tenor saxophone—being able to play low as well as high, delicate as well as harsh, soft as well as loud. And much to my surprise, I’m finding that more my chops develop, the less stiffness I actually need from a reed, causing me to actually come down in reed size. And this, however, contradicts the resistance-training approach practiced by many who believe that the stronger you get, the more resistance you need, or stiffer reed.

I’ve found that the stronger I get, the more I’m better able to handle the increased amount of vibration that comes from moving down in reed strength. And, consequently, this is what gives me the flexibility to play many of the extended techniques mentioned earlier, along with increase sound projection.

Let me just conclude saying that, ultimately, how good or accomplished someone becomes on the soprano or any instrument for that matter, lies in their talent, dedication and artistic vision. Without these three things, you can play an instrument exclusively until the cows come home, and it won’t automatically put you ahead of the game.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Downbeat Critics Poll

Here are the results of the 59th Annual Downbeat Critics Poll:

Category: Soprano Saxophone

1. Dave Liebman
2. Jane Ira Bloom
3. Wayne Shorter
4. Branford Marsalis
5. Steve Wilson
6. Joe Lovano
7. Evan Parker
8. Chris Potter
9. James Carter
10. Sam Newsome
11. Anat Cohen
12. Joshua Redman
13. Kenny Garrett
14. Roscoe Mitchell
15. Jane Burnett

I'm happy to have made a decent placing this year. I remember a time when I wasn't even in the consciousness of the critics. Even though I was one of the few saxophonists of my generation playing the instrument exclusively (at least that I knew of, anyway), I was still never really taken seriously.

And it's understandable.

Many knew me as a tenor player. And when people have one perception of you, it takes a while for them to accept a different side of you--especially when you aim re-event yourself. For example, I like comedian Dave Chappelle. But if he decided to become a Shakespearean actor, it would take me a few years to get used to.

But it did teach me that if you want something, you have to work hard for it. You don't always get it by default. Or just because you feel you deserve it. Besides, anybody can cry "unfairness," or the infamous Spike Lee quote: "We wuz robbed."

I found that real and significant change only happens when you accept responsibility for your own fate. If your music doesn't get the type of response you feel it deserves, you have to either improve it, target a different audience, or learn to market it better. Finger-pointing only leaves you frustrated and bitter. And most of all, in the same predicament.

Even though it's an ego boost when critics say nice things about you, at the end of the day, you have to take these things with a grain of salt. The focus has to be on your body of work and what you want your musical legacy to be--not settling for becoming another flavor of the month. I've seen many of them come and go. So many, actually, that they're becoming easily recognizable.

Dave Liebman placed as the number one soprano saxophonist in this year's poll. But this climb to the top took 38 years. Believe it or not, it's true. If this isn't a lesson in being patient and staying focused, I don't what is.

Like they say, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings!"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Problems Aren't Always A Problem

Many of you who know me are aware that in addition to writing wacky saxophone articles, I also divide my time between coming up with crazy stuff to play on the soprano and being college professor. Upon getting the job, many of my colleagues and I wondered if the time vested and responsibility of being a full-time professor would take away from my music and my artistic growth.

Oddly enough, I have found it to be just the contrary.

Studying music can be viewed as a means of problem-solving. You look at your objectives, what you want to learn, and you come up with a series of equations (or problems) to solve to help you process the information. Similar to being a scientist or researcher. Instead of working solely with numbers and scientific equations, we work with various degrees of sound and rhythm.

Saxophonist Gary Bartz once said in an interview that when you look at the music of Thelonious Monk, you see a series of musical problems that he was addressing. My guess is that learning to improvise over deceptive dominant seventh chord resolutions was a way in which Monk used to gain more harmonic and rhythmic freedom. And I say rhythmic because, once you get over your harmonic inhibitions, it tends to free you up rhythmically.

After identifying a problem, it is then important to come up with logical, efficient and sequential ways to solve them. In other words, learning to get from point A to point B in the most time efficient and least labor intensive way possible. Sometimes we tend to practice without clear objectives. Though it is true that you can’t rush the creative process, and the creative process doesn’t always fit comfortably inside a box, neither should one confuse nor blur the distinction between quality time and quantity time.

John Coltrane was famous for his long and somewhat fanatical practice routines, and I feel many have misinterpreted his obession. Here’s what I mean. He didn’t practice for eight hours a day because he felt that he couldn’t play, he practiced a lot because he had a vision. He had a musical vision that encompassed a wide array of elements and required him to have a specific kind of sound, technique and harmonic and rhythmic language. It’s obvious that he identified his objectives and set out to achieve them in an orderly and efficient way: One, he accomplished so much in such a short amount time. And two, it is impossible to practice for that many hours, for that span of time, with such amazing results, without being organized. There was definitely a method to his madness.

Remember that when confronted with musical problems, it's not always a negative. As long as you address them correctly, consistently, and methodically, they become your best means towards achieving musical growth. You'll wonder how you ever lived without them!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sound Calisthenics (Corrected version)

One of the keys to gaining control, flexibility, and endurance on the soprano is to spend a great deal of time with overtone studies. The best book for this is Top Tones for the Saxophone: Four-Octave Range, by Sigurd Rascher. There may be others out there, but I'm not aware them.

This exercise is called "Overtone Repititions." I like the idea of playing overtones repititously because you're approaching it as a calisthenic workout. You can't tell from looking at me now, but I actually used to be an exercise fanatic, which will be the topic of discussion in a later blog!

When playing this exercise you'll notice that it sounds similar to a brass player doing lip slurs. Well, it's the same idea. The difference being that with the saxophone the reed is vibrating, instead of your lips.

If you can't play this exercise in it's entirely, that's OK. Just do what you can. When doing push ups, just lifting yourself halfway up is still producing results, provided that your form is correct. Just remember that's it's not a composition intended for performance, it's an etude to help you build strength.

Have fun. And don't forget to hit the shower afterwards!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Soprano Mouthpieces: Help!

Finding the right mouthpiece for your soprano can be a frustrating and daunting task. There are three main issues you're having to deal with: (1) you don't play the instrument that often, so you don't know if it's the equipment or you, (2) by design the instrument is inherently out of tune, so even when you have a great mouthpiece, you're using it to play an instrument that may be out of wack , and (3) let's face it, many of the sopranos and soprano mouthpieces are horribly made.

That being said, here are a few mouthpieces that I’ve come across that seem to get the job done: the Bari, Selmer, and Vandoren.

Bari mouthpieces are pretty good if you’re looking for something nice and easy blowing. They are especially good if you’re looking to double. You can really push them as far as the volume. So if you’re coming to the soprano from the tenor or baritone saxophones, this might be the mouthpiece for you. They tend to get a little sharp in the higher register, but nothing a tuner and some long tones won’t take care of. The actual sound of the Bari mouthpieces, however, is somewhat built in, so it’s hard to really personalize—which is fine if you want something to get you through the gig.

When I first began looking for a set-up to play on, I tried hard rubber and the metal Selmers of various sizes. Selmers are probably the most consistent mouthpieces I’ve played. The sound is pretty uniform from the lowest register of the horn to the highest. In some ways they are just the opposite of the Bari’s because they can be difficult to push. I eventually gave up on them because I couldn’t find one that could stand up to the kind of intensity I wanted to play at. But they worked well for Lacy and Coltrane. Another thing. If you are in an acoustic situation that doesn’t require you to blow very hard, like a sax quartet or a recording with softer sounding instruments, this could the mouthpiece of choice. But if you’re going to play a two set gig, with no mic, and a loud drummer, this may not work very well.

I find the Vandoren to be somewhere in between the Bari and Selmer. It’s not quite as easy blowing as the Bari, which is good. If the mouthpiece is too easy blowing, it ends up calling the shots more than you. It took me a while to really learn how to project over a rhythm section, but when I did, it was more because of my ability, and less having to do with the mouthpiece. Vandoren’s also have a very dark sound, similar to the Selmer, which is good since sopranos tend to run a little on the bright and harsh side. And let me say, there’s nothing worse than hearing a lovely ballad being destroyed by a bright, loud, and harsh soprano sound. Lastly, Vandoren’s don’t sound as uniform throughout the entire register of the instrument like Selmers. But that’s OK. It’s the little imperfections that give your sound character. We want our sound to be in-tune and consistent, but we don’t want to sound like a midi file either.

Now all of the things mentioned are what worked or didn’t work for me. Everyone has a different sound that they’re hearing as well as different needs.

But at the end of the day, you have to find something that's workable and stick to it until you figure it out. Sound production on the soprano saxophone is not a linear process.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

2011: The Year of the Straighthorn

Here’s the list of nominees for Soprano Saxophonist of the Year by the 2011 Jazz Journalists Association, along with a few words from your truly.

1. Dave Liebman:
Lieb is without a doubt one of the true masters of the instrument. He, along with Branford Marsalis has one the most influential soprano sounds today. I think that they, more than any other soprano player, have made it a viable instrument in modern jazz.

2. Evan Parker:
I’m actually surprised when I come across saxophonists who aren’t familiar with Evan’s work. Here’s been the front-runner for a very long time in dealing with extended techniques on the instrument. He's taken circular breathing and triple tonguing to new heights. When I'm looking for new sonic possibilities, he's my go to guy.

3. Jane Bunnett:
Jane has a very personal approach and the kind of sound you can only get to when you play the instrument exclusively. Her approach is almost the perfect amalgamation of Steve Lacy and Jane Ira Bloom, but yet, still very much her own. I’m looking forward to hearing her play at the award ceremony.

4. Jane Ira Bloom:
Jane, by far, has one of the purest soprano saxophone-centric approaches. Even Sidney Bechet sounds like a clarinet player at times. When you hear Jane on soprano, it’s hard to imagine her playing any other instrument. Again, only something that can be achieved by total dedication to the horn.

5. Sam Newsome
No comment. I’m sure you understand.

6. Wayne Shorter:
Well, Wayne is Wayne. What can you say? Even in his seventies, he still has one of the most youthful and inspiring approaches today. He’s a rare breed.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Jane Bunnett Plays Monk

Here's a clip of soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett doing a nice rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," with her band at Gallery 345, located in Tornoto,Canada.

Jane is probably best known for her work with Jane Bunnett & the Spirit of Havana. But as we can hear in this clip she's equally great in a conventional jazz format--and I use the word "conventional" very loosely.

Being someone who's heavily into the solo thing, it's also a treat to hear her short, unaccompanied intro. With Jane having studied with Lacy, playing solo Monk on soprano is almost inevitable.

Nice work!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fun With Overtones

I often recommend the book Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Four-Octave Range by Siguard Rascher, when I talk to saxophonists looking to gain more sound flexibility--especially in the altissimo register.

However, as great as it is, it can be a little dry as far as melodic content--which could present a challenge to the less disciplined student.

Below is "Revielle," a bugle call I like to practice when I want to have a nice overtone workout that's also interesting to listen to. It's written in two keys. The first is in Bb major, which also means that the entire piece should be played using the low Bb fingering. The second in B major, which means that it should be played using only the low B fingering.

This is a fun and effective way of working on breath support, oral cavity manipulation (speeding up and slowing down the air flow) and embouchure control (flexibility and muscles).

Let me know how you like it, I'll gladly send you more.

Soprano Saxophone Jokes!

Here are a few of my favorite soprano saxophone jokes. And I think Bill likes them too!

A soprano player goes up to a jazz critic and says, "Hey, did you review my last CD?
The jazz critic says,"Yes, I sure hope so." Ouch!

Q; What is the range of the soprano sax"
A: The world record is about 57 yards.

Q. If you threw a Yamaha soprano and Selmer soprano off the top the Empire State Building, which one would hit the ground first?
A. Who cares!

Q; What's difference between a Kenny cassette and a Kenny G CD?
A: The cassette makes a crunchy sound when you step on it.

Q: What is the difference between a lawnmower and a soprano sax?
A: You can tune the lawnmower and the owner's neighbors don't mind if you don't return the soprano sax when you borrow it.

Q: What is the difference between Kenny G and a machine gun?
A: The machine gun repeats only 10 times per second.

Q: What is the difference between a soprano saxophone and a trampoline?
A: You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

Q: How many in-tune soprano sax players can you fit into a phone booth?
A: All of them.

Q: How do you get two soprano sax players to play in perfect unison?
A: Shoot one.

Q: Why do soprano sax players drive around with their sax cases in their back windows?
A: For the handicapped parking.

Q: If you were out in the woods, who would you trust for directions, an in-tune soprano sax player, an out-of-tune soprano sax player, or Santa Claus?
A: The out-of-tune soprano sax player! You were hallucinating the other two.

Q: What's the definition of a gentleman?
A: One who knows how to play the soprano saxophone, but doesn't!

Q: How many soprano sax players does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Sixty. One to change the bulb and fifty-nine to talk about how much better Steve Lacy would have done it.

Q: What do you call 1,000 soprano saxophonists at the bottom of the bay?
A: A good start.

Q; What's the difference between a soprano saxophonist and a vacuum cleaner?
A: A vacuum cleaner doesn't suck until you plug it in.

Q: What is the difference between a soprano sax and an onion?
A: Nobody cries when you chop a soprano sax into little pieces.

Please check out my book Life Lessons from the Horn and my new CD, Sopranoville.

                             CLICK HERE:

                          CLICK HERE: 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Improve Your Sound While Lying Down Resting

Is it possible to work on your sound while lying down resting? Believe it or not, yes!

While lying on our backs, we naturally breath from the diaphragm, or use low breathing, as it's sometimes called. When teaching students to breath properly, I have them lie on the floor or a table to observe the difference between the high breathing (from the chest), which the body natural does while we're standing, and the low breathing (from the diaphragm), which the body naturally does when we're lying on our backs.

And if you need a visual picture: When high breathing, you'll see the chest rise; when low breathing, the abdomen rises.

The benefit from low breathing is that enables you to store more air, helping you to get that big, warm tone.

In the beginning, I suggest doing this a few times, right before you practice to observe the muscle movement. After a while, it will start to feel natural.

So the next time someone tells you to get out of bed and stop being so lazy, just tell them you're working on your sound!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tonguing Your Way to a Great Sound!

One of my least favorite things to practice on the saxophone is tonguing. I'm note sure why, but I think it might have to do with the fact that it feels so physical, and the fact that I never been good at it.

Tonguing is, however, great for sound development and tightening the corners of your embouchure. The reason for this (and this is just my theory, not a scientific fact) is that every time the tonque touches the reed, it slightly pushes the mouthpiece forward, causing your embouchure to slightly tighten its grip.

To see it in another way, try this experiment: Take your left hand and grip your right. Next, try to pull your right hand out of the left hand's grip, but never letting your hands separate, and repeat this motion several times. You'll notice that your grip in the left hand gets slightly firmer as this yanking motion occurs. This is sort how tonguing works.

One exercise I like to do on soprano is to play a lot repetitive notes in the lower register. For example, as sixteenth notes play: DDDD,DDDD,DDDD,DDDD,DbDbDbDb,DbDbDbDb,DbDbDbDb,DbDbDbDb,BBBB,BBBB,BBBB,BBBB,

I'll repeat this exercise several times without taking a break, until I physically can't play it anymore, which I usually count as one set. In general, I like to do around four or five sets of this exercise. Buy the end you'll really notice you upper facial muscles and corners starting to burn, which is always a good sign.

As they say,"No pain, no gain."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Solo Monk, Solo Soprano

Being a musician who likes to play in the solo saxophone context, I'm always looking for ways to integrate extended techniques with standard tunes. I find if I can use them when playing over tunes, I can use them in many musical contexts and not have them always function as noise or some type of gimmick.

This clip is from a concert I did at the University of the Streets on Monday, November 2, 2010. That night I performed an hour long set made up of a medleys of Steve Lacy and Monk tunes as well as my own.

This clip is of me performing "Four in One" from the Monk medley. Here I'm utilizing circular breathing and multiphonics.

I hope you like it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Small Muscle Athletes

Whenever I'm looking for some intensive training on the soprano, I often practice classical etudes. In the past, my two favorite books were "Marcel Mule 48 Etudes d'après Ferling" and "158 Saxophone Exercises" by Sigurd M. Rascher.

However, more recently I've been working out of flute books. Flute etudes tend to have a lot of exercises that are left-hand oriented, not to mention the extended range, which is often in the saxophone's altissimo register.

The big advantage of practicing classical etudes is that you spend longer concentrated periods of time with the horn in your mouth, with little time to breath. So if you practiced a 5 minute etude, six times, after a 30 minutes or so, you've really felt like you've pushed your chops, which is a great way to build up endurance. This is particularly important to me because I often perform solo concerts, which can last anywhere from 30 - 60 minutes.

When practicing these types of etudes, it's good to have two or three that you're working on at a time, since each one will present it's own unique set of technical hurdles. It's like weight training. You don't want a workout where you only work on your biceps. You have to also work your abs, triceps, chest, legs, back, and any place where there are muscles.

And like lifting weights, you also have to let the muscles rest. And once they do, tear them down again. That's the name of the game. As they say, musicians are small muscle athletes

Anyway, give it a try, and let me know how it turns out.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Soprano Saxophonist Gianni Mimmo

Not long ago, I received an email from Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo--just one fellow soprano saxophonist reaching out to another. He included a couple of links where I could check out some of his music. Being that I had not heard of him before (which actually doesn't mean a thing) I really wasn't sure what to expect.

As you can hear in this clip with guitarist John Russell, Gianni has a very unique approach, sonically and musically. There are times he plays certain notes that are very Steve Lacy (esque), but he's far from a Lacy clone. He plays like he really enjoys his sound. Which is very important, not just on the soprano, but on any instrument. Improvising that's more sound-oriented tends to sound more inspired.

And I really like the way he's able to play multi-phonics with such a full sound. He makes them sound like big, dissonant chords.

I'll definitely be posting more of his work in the future.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Practicing Wide Intervals on the Soprano

Lately, I've been practicing intervals in minor 9ths. It keeps the embouchure corners tight, helping to control the pitch as well as giving me a lot of flexibility.

An example of this is quarter notes played as Bb1,B2,B1,C2,C1,C#2....The slower this exercise is practiced the better.

In order to tame this "cylindrical shrewd," it's necessary to take a calisthenic approach to practicing.

Practicing wide intervals like this does a few different things:
First, it trains your ears. The fact that they are non-diatonic and wide, makes them especially difficult to hear.

Secondly, it increases your dexterity. Now that you're getting out of the range of the eight-note scale, playing with speed and accuracy requires much more finger control.

Lastly, it strengthens the corners of your mouth. Practicing wide intervals is the equivalent of a weight lifter training with weights. The wider the interval, the more you need to support it with good breath and embouchure control.

The minor 9th exercise is just one example. Also helpful are diatonic scales in 10ths and 13ths. These should be practiced at extremely slow tempos.

Just remember: Going slow will get you there faster.

Embracing Authentic Confidence, Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

My struggles with confidence has been a constant companion throughout my life's journey, with and without my horn. I certainly have my g...