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

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Positive Side of Cluelessness

In many instances I would not think of cluelessness as something positive. Being able to accurately assess our abilities is a necessary skill to have if we wish to improve our music and grow as human beings. If we play badly, we should not only understand why we played badly, but understand the necessary steps to be taken to play better the next time.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, here's the problem: Sometimes we can have such a realistic perspective about our abilities that we won't even try. Studies have shown that pessimistic people are much more accurate at assessing their abilities than optimistic people. Sometimes they are so accurate that they talk themselves out of trying. I'm sure we've been at numerous jam sessions where some drummer was cluelessly getting in everybody's way, but instead of being sorry for his performance, he actually came off the bandstand happy and in a good mood. Not only did he not apologize for his performance, he had the audacity to give you his business card and say to you, "Give me a call if you ever need a drummer." Optimistic people like this typically won't let a small thing like limited skill sets deter them.

When I first moved to New York, like the aforementioned drummer, I had no idea how badly I played. Which was good. Otherwise I would have stayed in Boston forever until I had "perfected" my playing. And I know many players who stayed in Boston for that very reason. In fact, many of my friends with whom I moved here were less skilled than many who opted to stay. And in their defense, some people just don't have the desire or temperament for the hustle and tussle of New York City. I barely had it myself. However, where we lacked in skill, we made up in youth and optimism.

                                                                                                                                                                    Here's how clueless I was: A few months before making the move, I came to New York to check out the scene (testing the waters, if you will) and I stayed with saxophonist Steve Wilson. Around the second night of crashing on his couch, Steve invited me to go to a concert at the Blue Note to hear saxophonist Bill Barron and his brother Kenny on piano. I can't remember who played bass and drums, but I imagine they were pretty heavy cats. Long story short, I brought my tenor sax to the gig to sit in. I figured why not? That's what a burning rhythm section is for: To accompany sad ass mother effers like myself who were soon to graduate from college. Besides, how else was I going to get discovered?

After the first set, I went up to Bill, horn in tote, and asked if I could sit in. I still cringe when I think about it. To Bill's credit he sent me away gracefully. He politely said that they had a lot of rehearsed material to do and that there was no time to let people sit in. And I wished I had ended the conversation there. But then I followed with, "Oh, so it's not that kind of gig." He then looked at me with a stare of someone unimpressed and said "Right, it's not that kind of gig."

In hindsight I should have sent him a thank you note for sparing me having made a fool of myself on the bandstand that night. The potential was overwhelmingly great.

I think it's accurate to say that I'm just as clueless today as I was when I first moved to New York back in the late 80s. Mind you, I'm not showing up at the Blue Note to sit in with the Herbie Hancock trio, but I am willing to take artistic chances and choose to remain clueless to how I'm being perceived.

I'm certainly in a better position to assess my abilities and the potential for negative consequences to result from my actions, but I just choose not to asses and let my whatever results from my musical actions be. Otherwise I would go from being the kind of person who tells himself "Yes you can" to someone who says to himself, "Maybe you can't."

Fortunately I have no big fear of failing--not musically, anyway. When I switched to the soprano 20 years ago, in many ways I hit rock bottom. I had no money, no gigs and no support system. Most of what I had built up was lost when I decided not to play the tenor sax anymore. What I had left was a vision and a belief that what I was doing was the right thing. Call it insight. Call it cluelessness. Whatever it was, the important thing is that it didn't keep me from trying and I had nothing to loose. And I still don't. I don't headline festivals and I work a day job. No one is banking on me to have musical success so that they can reap the financial benefits. I'm artistically free when it comes to playing music. And frankly, this is the space from which I do my best work. Because I have few financial consequences to weigh, many doors are open to me.

Pushing the envelope is fun. For many, however, it's terrifying. It's the space from which I feel most alive. Most of the things I try are utter failures, I will humbly admit. Most of my students at LIU Brooklyn can attest to this. But when I do discover something new, it makes all of those duds that spring from my creative well, totally worth it. So as you can see, cluelessness is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it's a necessary evil.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pete Yellin (July 18, 1941 - April 13, 2016)

I’m very sad to learn that alto saxophonist Pete Yellin has passed. Pete died on Wednesday, April 13, 2016 due to complications from a stroke he had in the spring of 2011. I actually owe a huge debt to Pete, him being the one who is responsible for me having my full-time position at LIU Brooklyn. And as you can imagine, this has afforded me a chance to have a somewhat normal life as an artist living in New York City--an opportunity not many have, as you well know.

Pete started the jazz program at LIU Brooklyn in 1984 and it was one of the most progressive ones around. In fact, the model used at the New School where students study with professionals of their choosing throughout New York City was started at LIU Brooklyn.

I first heard Pete when I was a student at Berklee in the 1980s on a Joe Henderson record titled In Pursuit of Blackness. That album also featured Woody Shaw, Curtis Fuller, George Cables, Ron McClure and Lenny White. It was released on Milestones records in 1971. Pete remained a frequent collaborator of Joe Henderson all throughout of the 1970s, playing in many of his small groups and big bands. I was very impressed in the way in which Pete walked the line between modernity and tradition. It was very creative and very masterful.

When Pete retired from teaching in 2005, he was pretty excited about getting back on the scene again. In fact, when I visited him at his place in Cobble-Hill (Brooklyn) he said that his chops have never felt better. Unfortunately, his comeback was cut short by his untimely stroke.

Pete was survived by his wife, Jane Oriel of El Cerrito, California; his daughter and son-in-law, Allegra Yellin and Jordan Ruyle, and two granddaughters, all of Oakland, California; and his siblings, Jill Fischer (residing in Connecticut), Bob Yellin (Vermont) and Gene Yellin (New York).

RIP my friend. You will be missed. But we're grateful we still have your music.

Pete's Discography as a Leader:

  • Dance of Allegra (Mainstream Records], 1973)
  • It's the Right Thing (Mainstream, 1973)
  • European Connection: Live! (Jazz4Ever, 1995)
  • It's You or No One (Mons Records, 1996)
  • Mellow Soul (Metropolitan Records, 1999)[
  • How Long Has This Been Going On? (Jazzed Media, 2009)

Below is one of the songs from In Pursuit of Blackness through which I first got introduced to Pete's playing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Sound-Centered Approach to Improvisation

Being that our sound is the first thing that people hear, it’s ironic that it’s not our first priority when we play?  Imagine a top fashion model being more concerned with her voice than her face, or a writer being more concerned with his style of font, rather than his story. You would probably think that they have their priorities in all of the wrong places. The same can be said of a musician. If you are more concerned with what you’re going to play, than the sound you’re using to play it, you, too, may be a voice-conscious model, so to speak.

One thing that all great jazz musicians have in common is being able to tell stories with their sound. Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis—they moved people just as much with their sound as they did with their ideas, if not more. When we think of John Coltrane, it’s usually of his technical virtuosity and harmonic innovations. But one of the most unique things about his playing was his concept of sound. I’m a firm believer that if want to have an original vocabulary you have to start with an original sound.

This distinction between sound and ideas has led me to realize that there are, in fact, two schools of thought when it comes to improvisation. Whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, many players seem to have either an idea-centered approach or a sound-centered approach. Even though these two approaches overlap, they produce very different results.

Idea-centered playing, as I see it, is when you first realize the idea and the sound produced is a by-product of implementing the idea. In other words, you think of something to play, and your sound is what’s heard as a result of trying to play it. There are a few advantages to this approach. One, you are playing something that’s well rehearsed, so the execution of the idea is often precise and accurate. Two, you have the comfort of knowing that the idea will serve a particular function melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically.

One of the cons, however, is that the idea might sound forced. It might work melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, but not musically. While I was a student at Berklee College of Music, I remember attending numerous jam-sessions knowing what lick I was going to play on which tune and on which chord. Like most developing players, I figured why practice something if you're not going to play it, even if the situation does not call for it. This type of approach can make one sound very uncommunicative, isolated, and technical. And by technical  I mean playing ideas that sound premeditated rather than inspired. Technique in this instance is not a means to an end. It is the means. If you notice someone's technique apart from his or her music, chances are that he or she have not figured out how to musically integrate it.

Sound-centered playing, on the other hand, is just the opposite. This is when the primary focus is on the various nuances of your sound, and the ideas heard are a by-product of the various ways in which you manipulate these nuances. One advantage to this approach is that now that you are maximizing each note, exploring its timbre and textural possibilities to the fullest before moving on to the next note, your ideas now take on a more vocal-like quality. Not to mention, with your sound now the forefront, listeners can tune into its subtleties—which, by the way, is how listeners will ultimately come to recognize you.

These two distinct approaches first dawned on me many years ago after I attended a concert at the “old” Iridium Jazz Club (when it was this hip, chic place, with a modern décor, located in the Lincoln Center area). That night featured two bands. One was led by tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, and the other by an up an coming tenor saxophonist, who will be referred to as “The Young Tenor Player.”  Both players sounded great that night. However, being able to listen to one after the other, I noticed there was something distinctly different about their approaches. At first I thought it might have been the generational difference—with Dewey being in his sixties at the time and “The Young Tenor Player” being in his early thirties. Then I thought maybe it was the stylistic difference. Dewey’s style being the bluesy-tough-Texas tenor, laced with flurries of Ornette Colemanisms and “The Young Tenor Player’s” style was coming straight out of the hard bop era, paying much homage to 1950s Rollins and Henderson. But then it dawned on me that difference was this: Dewey was leading with his sound, “The Young Tenor Player” was leading with his ideas --or licks, for lack of a better term. Now when I say “leading with his sound.”

When listening to Dewey play, because his approach was sound-centered, his ideas sounded more inspired by what was happening musically.  He never played something technical just for the sake of playing something technical. Even when he played fast flurries of notes--ideas that would be perceived as technical if they were attempted by others—it sounded more like abstract forms of sound manipulation, that were part of a much broader melodic and musical statement, than well-rehearsed licks which fit perfectly over the changes. Players who play this way tend to leave me feeling more inspired. And I’m not really sure why. I think it may have to do with the fact that sound-centered playing tends to be more spontaneous and organic in nature, which tends to engage me more as a listener--which probably holds true for the players who are accompanying them, too.

“The Young Tenor Player,” even though he had a very nice sound, it seemed to always take a backseat to the things he wanted to play. Which is very common amongst modern players. My theory is that there is so much music and musical vocabulary readily available through CDs, iTunes, books, YouTube, not to mentioned live performances, it puts a certain pressure on us to think that we need to play everything, all the time. Lester Young probably had a handful of influences on his instrument, whereas a young player today probably has three times as many--making it possible for them to have a lot of ideas to play, often times at the expense of lacking clarity and originality.

This, by the way, is where focusing on the sound helps. Since not all ideas sound good with every type of sound, knowing your sound will help you to know which ideas or approaches are a good match. If Paul Desmond had Ornette Coleman’s harsh and strident tone, he may not have developed the lyrical style for which he was known. The fact of the matter is, that if you’re going to play fewer and more sustaining notes, you are going to want them to be nice, warm and pretty—which by the way, personifies Desmond’s approach. 

If want to hear more extreme cases of sound-centered playing, improvised music is a good place to start. This is actually one of the more intriguing aspects about free players like Albert Iyler and Anthony Braxton, and not so free, but open players like Pharoah Sanders and Billy Harper, is that you get to hear improvisation which is based on emotion and sometimes sonic sensationalism than the typical jazz-lines-oriented vocabulary. This approach can sound non-Western and primitive at times, with players making “noises” that sometimes sound environmental and animalistic.  However, if you’re just learning to improvise, listening to these types of players may not be how you learn to navigate your way through chord changes, but are great resources for studying how to convey raw human emotion and hearing sounds they go beyond the original scope of your instrument.

As students of jazz we often feel that it’s OK to borrow other peoples concept of sound--until we can find our own, of course. And why not, you can’t copyright a sound. Even though it may not be copyright infringement, it is, however, a type of artistic plagiarism. As artists, we never want to lose sight of how important it is to have our own sound that is as unique and interesting as the things we play, and not just be musical dispensers of licks, ii-V-I patterns and transcribed solos. Many people have expressed to me that when they listen to the radio, they can’t tell who’s who. Which is my case in point. If they are familiar with your music, they should know before the DJ even announces your name.

If you read some of Downbeat magazine’s “Blindfold Tests,” you notice that the interviewees rarely guess whom the modern players are. And in all fairness, many of the participating musicians did not grow up listening to the kinds of modern players who are played as they are with people like Joe Henderson and  Keith Jarrett. But on the other hand, I’ve probably listened to two John Scofield records in my life, but I still know his sound, even if what I’m hearing are others imitating it. As did all of the before-mentioned players, this is why it’s important to go beyond the theory, the ideas, and the harmony and learn to embrace music’s mystical and spiritual sides, the unexplained and the unexplainable, which will undoubtedly prevail the real you.

There was a popular TV game show in the 1970s called “Name that Tune,” where contestants would test their knowledge of musical songs by bidding against each other, seeing who could identify a tune hearing the fewest notes. And the contestant who made the strongest case, would say, “I can name that tune in (blank) notes. ” Now wouldn’t it be great as jazz musicians if listeners were so confident in the originality of our sounds, they would have no hesitation saying, “I can name (you fill with the player of your choice) in two notes.”

This article was originally published in Jazz Improv Magazine. Date unknown.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sound and Silence: The Democratic Aspects of Improvisation

Through the lens of politics, jazz is democracy in action--individual and collective liberties being negotiated in real time on the bandstand. Jazz, since it's inception has operated under the basic principle that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, a brand new shiny Yamaha soprano saxophone that is completely disassembled and displayed as keys, pads, screws, springs, corks and various pieces of metal is almost worthless in comparison to the perfectly assembled and functioning one, complete with all of its parts working individually and collectively  as a conduit for expressing musical ideas.

This concept is probably more easily seen in a group comprised of several players. But how can this type of democracy be seen when playing solo?--particularly solo saxophone. The answer: silence.

Silence, when used effectively, allows the performer to create a type of call and response during the performance. It's similar to comparing giving a speech (playing without silence) to giving a sermon (playing with silence). During a sermon, particularly those given in African American churches, it's usually a dialogue; a call and response between the pastor and the congregation. The democracy is seen in the respect each has for each other's role during the sermon. The pastor feels less mobilized  without the countenance of shouts and amens of the congregation. And the congregation is without direction and purposed without the pastor's spiritual and fiery message. Again, an affirmation of the democratic process in action. 

I have often spoken of silence as the quiet partner of a solo saxophone performance. The sonic yang to the improvisational yin. In some ways, it almost sounds too easy. Not play? Make music by doing nothing? The reality is that it is very difficult to make use of silence. Which almost sounds humorous to insinuate that they hardest part of playing is not playing. Well, it is true. I have plenty of recordings, my own included, that proves this true over and over again.

On the following video, I'm performing a solo rendition of "Blue in Green." As with most of my solo works, I'm operating within extremes: sporadic and circular breathed phrases; loud and soft dynamic levels; legato and percussive attacks; melodic as well as abstract lines, and so on. Even though I'd hardly call myself a master of the using silence in the ways in which I spoke of earlier, I do feel that my intent can be heard.

The important musical events are as follows:

0:00 -  Silence. I've learned you don't always have to begin your solo with sound.

0:10 - I play the first half of my motif.

0:14 - I left six seconds of silence--which can seem like an eternity while you're in the throws of a performance.

0:20 - I began playing into the strings of the piano, which, while pressing down the damper pedal, allows you to create a very lush natural reverb from the strings vibrating. During this section, you hear the back and forth between sound production and sound reverberation. Again, staying true to the democratic principle of everyone having a say.

1:22 - The melody is played using the technique of circular breathing. This enables me to play the entire melody without a break in sound. This also creates a drone-like effect that adds to the drama. Occasionally I added to this drama by swinging the horn back and forth to create a Doppler-like effect.

2:00 - The melody is played the second time with slightly more drama using increased volume and by swinging my horn back and forth more frequently and rapidly.

2:29 - The melody ends on the V7 to i cadence.

2:31 - Three seconds of silence.

2:35 - The improvised solo over the tune's chord progression begins. This is where the dialogue between sound and space starts to unfold. The democratic negotiations between the yin and the yang, if you will.

4:29 - The melody is played the last time, re-implementing the circular breathing technique until the tune's ending.

So, as you can see, pulling off a solo performance is a delicately nuanced process. It's not just about you playing your ideas or getting to your "shit," as they say. You have to be very much aware of the democracy within the creative process--even if it is between you and your silent partner. You'd be surprised at how profound he can be when given a chance.

And as an addendum, I have two solo concerts coming up this month:

Saturday, March 26, 2016
Rocky Mountain Saxophone Summitt @ Colorado State University
(Masterclass and solo concert)

Thursday, March 31, 2016
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
(Lecture and solo concert)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

My appearance as a guest on "The Radical Imagination" on Firehouse TV

On this episode of “The Radical Imagination,” co-hosts Michael Pelias of LIU Brooklyn (shown 2nd from the left)  and Jim Vrettos of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (shown on the far left)  sit down with world-renowned jazz artists, Sam Newsome and Stan Harrison to discuss the future of jazz, their individual creative processes and the inspiration behind their music. Plus, watch clips of performances by each of the artists.

Sam Newsome is a soprano saxophonist, composer and jazz studies professor at LIU Brooklyn. He is most known for his time in the Terence Blanchard Quintet and Global Unity. He has also released six solo saxophone albums and most recently authored a book entitled “Life Lessons from the Horn.”

Stan Harrison is a saxophonist, composer and founder of the Mud Music Ensemble. He has toured across the country with artists including David Bowie, Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen as well as written music for television.

Firehouse TV’s “The Radical Imagination” airs every Sunday at 8:00 pm on MNN1 (TWC 34 & 1995, RCN 82, FiOS 33 or streaming live) and repeats every Thursday at 8:00 pm on MNN4 (FiOS 36, RCN 85, TWC 67 & 1998 or streaming live).

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Jazz Jam Session: Using the Wally's Model in the Classroom

The jazz jam session is a very important entity that has been instrumental in shaping the very essence of the music: the ethos of fierce competition wrapped in benevolent camaraderie. The jazz jam session can be so cut throat that I could see certain musicians "cutting" their own mother if she didn't ascent to the musical occasion. It truly is survival of the fittest being acted out not in the jungles of the Amazon, but during the democratic forum of the bandstand. Not to mention, it's also a great model for teaching in the classroom.

The classroom is often looked at as a safe haven for intellectual nourishment. But sometimes safe is not always a good thing, especially if it means stunted growth and an unrealistic perception of one's abilities and understanding of the material being taught. A classroom that's too safe won't give students a realistic perspective of their capabilities. And this is where the jazz jam session becomes a great model for learning and self-assessing.

While I was a student at Berklee, my saxophone instructor Andy McGhee always encouraged me to go and play at Wally's Café, a nearby jazz club located in the South End section of Boston, affectionately known as just Wally’s. The club itself was not very impressive aesthetically, as is the case with most jazz clubs, but it's role and importance in the development of generations of jazz players is immeasurable. In fact, the smoke in Wally's was so thick that your clothes would be un-wearable the next day due to the stench of cigarettes and cheap cologne.

Typically the musicians who played there were juniors and seniors, who in my opinion at the time already played at a professional level. I used to think, "Why are they even in school. They should be in New York making thousands of dollars." I was so naive back then.

But they all were excellent players. Most of them did go on to do great things. While I was in Boston, we used to sit in with people like Bruce "Bud" Revels, James "Saxmo" Gates, and Ron Savage. They sent me and my Berklee classmates home many a night depressed and hopeless that we would never learn how to play. We called it being sent back to the shed.

What's most revealing about jazz jam sessions, like those that took place at Wally's, is that your strengths and weaknesses become very apparent--much more than when you do a regular performance, where you are well-rehearsed, knowing exactly who you're playing with, and how long you'll be playing. Jazz jam sessions are more about surviving than just showing off your talents. You're constantly on your toes, never quite sure what’s coming down the pike. You're forced to improvise. So after a jazz jam session you know if your sound is big or small, if your rhythm needs improving, and how well you can hear chord changes--especially at those sessions where musicians are playing songs in unconventional key signatures. Most of all, you come away knowing that you have much work to do.

How can this understanding help you in the classroom?

The jazz jam session in many ways is nothing more than a pop quiz. A pop quiz on how well you know jazz tunes, how well you can play in different keys, how well you can play fast tempos, etc. The one thing that jazz jam sessions and pop quizzes teach us is where our strengths and weaknesses lie. We know exactly what we need to do in order to improve those areas in which we are deficient. Wally's taught this to me more profoundly than any of my final exams at Berklee. 

As educators, we need to take our students to the bandstand of the classroom and put them in situations that challenge them and force them to assess the various aspects of their learning, the way that a jazz musician does when confronted with the challenge of having to play "Cherokee" in the key of B major. I'm not just speaking of music-related learning, either. And these pop-quizzes can come in many forms of assessment: written essays, oral presentations, multiple choice, fill-in the blank, or sometimes just talking off the cuff. Comparable to when we're performing at a jazz jam session, we can even have students collectively elaborate on a related topic--complete with background figures and all. 

As a teacher, your main job should be to get your students started, or count off that metaphorical tune, but then let them intellectually fend for themselves. Like the jazz jam session, this is an opportunity to take information and deal with it in an informal way. This is a chance not only for the students to take chances but also for teachers. In order to create new perspectives on learning, you have to just try things, you have to experiment. Otherwise, you’ll just keep repeating the same thing over and over. In fact, the jazz jam session is one of my favorite contexts to hear musicians play. Not only do they sound more relaxed, but they are often taking chances in ways that they don't when performing during more formal settings. I have fond memories of hearing many of the jazz stars of today at Wally's in a relaxed and informal setting: Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, Don Byron, Jeff "Tain" Watts, and numerous others. One night, Freddie Hubbard even stopped by and played a couple of tunes. But, unfortunately, I was working elsewhere on that particular evening. 

Besides, as professors, due to the fact we are a part of the university paradigm, we can't totally replicate the informality of the jazz jam session--particularly 1980s Wally's.  After all, we have various members of the administration to answer to. Be that as it may, just by merely borrowing from the jazz jam session’s model of informality, it will allow us to get away from our syllabus just long enough to take notice of the latent opportunities for learning just waiting to reveal themselves. Frankly, speaking, If we aren't putting ourselves in the position where we are always the smartest ones in the classroom, we will allow ourselves to also learn while teaching. And as teachers, anytime that we can replenish our pedagogical licks, we, too, will become more inspired, and maybe even more inspiring to those around us.

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