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



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Howard Stern and Tommy Sotomayor: Things We Can Learn from Offensive People:

If we were to look at the careers of personalities who've made a living out of being offensive--or at least not caring if they offend you or not--what they all have in common is that their only commitment is to what they perceive as the truth and honesty.

They welcome all who want to tune in and listen. And if you don't like what's being said, they're as eager to have you move on. Controversial types such as them don't change their position just because you feel that they should. Your relationship is not a collaboration where the two you take this like long journey, for better or for worst. On the contrary. It's their way or the highway.

Two of my favorites are probably radio shock jock Howard Stern and YouTuber Tommy Sotomayor. Not only do they not run from controversy. It is the centerpiece at their table of politically incorrect discourse.

Tommy posted a video discussing how rapper Ice T was one of his biggest supporters when he agreed with what he was saying, which in Tommy's case is usually about the pitfalls of black culture. However, when he started taking viewpoints that made Ice T uncomfortable, he no longer wanted to associate with him. Tommy went on to explain that this is why he doesn't develop personal relationships with fans and followers. Since fans are not are not going to be in support of all of your views or work, trying to maintain a relationship with them would prevent you from being free to express yourself--especially if you began to worry about offending them in some way.

I've heard Howard Stern hang up on people who've been devoted followers for years, just because they were trying to pervade him to alter his thinking. Being uncompromising is often what makes them unique. So when you try to get them to be different from who they are, you're basically saying stop being the person who got my attention in the first place.

Fortunately for people like Stern and Sotomayor, they never succumb to these fan-pressures. They just continue being who they are: free speakers of what they believe the truth.

As musicians, we can certainly relate to this. We all want to build a sizable fan base, but at what price? When I stopped playing the tenor saxophone I lost most of my support system--musicians, journalists, club owners, you name it. There were a few hardcore supporters who stuck by me for a little while and eventually even they had to jump ship--which I totally understood. They didn't need what I was offering, and I had a path to pursue. In fact, I have not seen many of them since, which makes me sad on a certain level. But hey, that's the business.

On so many occasions I was tempted to record a standards CD or assemble a group of all-star players just to see if it would buy me a seat at the table at which I proudly once had a spot. Believe me when I say that I came come. But I never quite went there. Instead, I went in the opposite direction. I pushed the envelope even more. I got more avant garde, more experimental. You might say that I made sure that seat would never be available to me again. As artists, these are the difficult decisions that we sometimes have to make. Sometimes you just have to let certain people and situations go. 

These types of losses come with the territory if you are more committed to your vision than not losing any of your fan base--especially if you work in talk media. Having differing views that go against the grain of popular thought can often leave you with more fans--certainly bigger ratings. People like Don Imus, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Tommy Sotomayor prove this to be true, daily.

There's one memorable scene in Private Parts, the movie about Howard Stern's life, where the radio station managers are going over Howard's ratings stats. At one point, the guy with the stats states that the average Howard Stern fan listens listens for any hour. The main reason: To hear what he's going to say next--whereas, the person who hates him listens for two hours. Why? To hear what he's going to say next.



Not all of us can concoct the win-win formula of Howard Stern. But there's something to be learned from being more of a slave to your vision than worry about offending or alienating your fans. Ultimately, being this type of person makes you someone fans would want to check out in the first place. It's not often that we find those not hiding under the veil of political correctness. Listeners, viewers and readers tend to tune in when there's controversy involved. Controversy is the gas that has fueled the careers of many.

Now I'm not advocating that we all start exploiting strippers and the mentally challenged for their comedic value; or start referring to all inner city black women hair-hatted hooligans and Beastie 1000s--two of Tommy's signature insults. But we can learn from their unwavering commitment to what they see as the truth--with or without their fans. This is what makes them who they are: unique and undeniable individuals.

If you're not hip to Tommy, here's little clip of him doing what he does best: ethering!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jazz and Liberation: An Interview with Francisco Mora Catlett

During the making of my CD, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation - The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 2.--as suggested by the title--I was experimenting with creating from what I considered to be an African consciousness. And it's not a place from which I always create--at least not deliberately. Typically I try not to limit myself to cultural boundaries. This type of thing tends to be anti-progressive, especially when practiced over an extended period of time. Or as the case be for some players, the entirety of their careers. However, creating within controlled cultural parameters over the short term as a means of taking ourselves out of our comfort zone, can yield results that are progressive and enlightening. Imposing these types of restrictions has become a part of my creative process. I'll live in a space outside my comfort zone just to see what it's like.

Another atypical thing I did while I recording the CD was that I simultaneously began writing a personal essay. You might say it was a musical diary that allowed me to make sense of this new sensibility from which I was creating. If was interesting to examine a topic through both literary and musical compositional lenses.

After the CD was recorded, I enlisted the services of Charles Carson, Ph.D, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin. I wanted someone to write the liner notes who had the historical background to deal with the music on its own merit, instead relying on cliche references such as comparing what I'm doing to the 1960s musical efforts of Pharaoh Sanders and Yusef Lateef--not that there aren't similarities. But I see what they do as a fusion of jazz and African musical languages; whereas, I see what I'm doing more as a type of cultural transference.

Charles, while working on the liner notes said he wanted to interview someone to give the piece more depth. Francisco Mora Catlett was the first and only person I recommended since he was the inspiration behind many of the things I wrote about in my essay, which I subsequently published as an e-book on Amazon. 

Below is the interview that Charles conducted with Francisco. I liked it so much, I also included it in the e-book.

The title of this interview is "Jazz and Liberation," one of Francisco's favorite topics. You may not agree with everything he says, but I guarantee you'll to find it illuminating.

WARNING: The language content is not intended for children.





Sunday, June 21, 2015

Using Bb Clarinet Reeds on the Soprano: A Saxophonist's Best Kept Secret


Have you ever tried playing the soprano saxophone using a Bb clarinet reed? Believe it or not, they work great. I first heard about this sort of thing from saxophonist Branford Marsalis. He has stated in interviews that he plays clarinet reeds on the soprano. I don't recall him going into great detail about it, only saying that he likes the cut.

I dabbled with them off and on, but I never made any real commitment to them. Not until recently, anyway.

In April of 2015, I went on a European tour with The BadPlus, along with alto saxophonist Tim Berne and cornetist Ron Miles, and I took four boxes of RW reeds with me. Two boxes of 2 1/2 soft soprano reeds, and two boxes of 2 1/2 soft clarinet reeds. And guess what? The boxes of  soprano reeds never got opened.


What I like about the clarinet reeds is that they have a more consistent cut throughout the entirety of the reed. My theory is that the clarinet narrower, therefore, there's less room for error. Soprano reeds tend to be a little flimsy at the tip, making it difficult to play with a full sound in the high register. And there's a general inconsistency throughout. Whereas the tip of clarinet reeds tend to be firm but not too stiff. These reeds have a good balance between resistance and vibrancy. The cut feels sort of a cross between a Rico Royal (back when they were good reeds) and the Vandoren Traditional Saxophone Reed--a.k.a. the blue box. 

To further explain my findings, here is a list of pros and cons of using Bb clarinet reeds on the soprano saxophone.

Pros:
  • reeds are more vibrant
  • they enable you to produce a bigger and fuller tone
  • you have better intonation in the middle and high registers; however, the extreme lower register (Bb1 - D1) tends to be on the sharp side--but nothing a few daily long tones couldn't remedy
  • you have more control in the altissimo 
  • multi-phonics sound more prominently and consistently
  • you have more sound projection
  • a higher percentage of good reeds per box--which is always a bonus!


Cons:
  • the clarinet reed is much narrower, so it takes some getting used to
  • the intonation is sharper in the extreme lower register 
  • going back to soprano sax reed is more difficult; hopefully, you won't need to
  • because you’re having to manipulate more sound, it can slow down your dexterity; however, this can be remedied by practicing a few Marcel Mule etudes or just coming down in reed size. Some might try shaving the reed, but I’m not a big fan of this process.


As I said stated earlier, they do take some getting used to; however, I think the benefits to be gained outweigh this temporary stage of discomfort, tenfold. 


Check it out. I'd be curious to hear what you think.

Roberto's contact information is listed below:



Roberto's Winds
149 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Toll free: (888) 7676-SAX
Phone: (212) 391-1315
Phone: (646) 366-0240

Store Hours:
Monday CLOSED
Tuesday, Wednesday 12:00pm - 6:00pm
Thursday 10:00am - 6:00pm
Friday, Saturday 12:00pm - 6:00pm
Sunday CLOSED

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Illusion of Control: A Musician's Cognitive Bias


Many of us in the music business, at one time or another, have been inflicted with the cognitive bias known as the illusion of control--a term coined by Harvard professor and clinical psychologist Ellen Langer.  Simply put, this is when people overestimate the control they have over events in their lives. I've seen this cognitive bias in musicians, music educators, and particularly in music industry people like producers and A & R reps. Sometimes it works for us, sometimes it works against us. But rest assured it's there affecting our everyday lives.

Illusion of Control Scenarios

To give you better idea of the illusion of control, here are a few examples:

Let's say you are an A & R rep at a record label--even though they barely exist anymore--and you signed a band that hit it big and made millions of dollars for the label. The illusion of control is you thinking that you and your "magical" formula for picking bands are the direct cause of the band’s success--which is often not the case. You may have entered them into the race, but why they crossed the finish line far ahead of the others is far beyond your control. If in fact you knew which bands were going to hit it big, you’d be the richest and most sought after person on the planet. But the fact of the matter is that you have no idea. The hypothetical band that you signed who hit it big, did so mostly due to luck. They just happened to be the right people, at the right place, and the right time. 

A non-musical example of the illusion of control is winning the lottery. People who win lotteries often think they know how to pick lucky numbers. Many of them have some wacky system or ritual that means absolutely nothing (i.e. claiming to play numbers only from birthdates of family members, or playing various combinations of their phone number and zip code).  Which as I mentioned earlier means nothing, since the selection of lottery numbers are totally random. Having a three-year old pick random numbers out of a box of sand is as likely to produce a winning lottery ticket as using numbers from birthdays and zip codes.

Studies performed by Langer showed that people who roll dice at the craps table tend to throw the dice harder if the want higher numbers and softer if they want lower numbers, as if that would make any difference. This is something that Langer defines as "skill cues."

As performers, ninety-nine percent of us are probably guilty of this. How many times have you stood on your tippy toes to hit those high notes, or bent your knees to honk out the low tones?  As though being closer to the ground will actually help you play lower. 

Even in the context of carving out a career as a jazz musician, I’ve seen the illusion of control in successful players who think that they know exactly why they became successful. I’ll hear theories from how they know how to put together a great band, how to spot trends, or know the right hands to shake. I do understand the importance of these aforementioned things. However, a lot of skilled musicians know how to put together great bands, spot trends, and have great social and political skills; yet, these things still don’t automatically translate into a successful career.

And of course, there's something to be said for continuing to try and keeping it at. But let's be clear,  this is not control. This creates possibilities, not outcomes--something I will address a little later.


A Story of Randomness

Years ago I had a band called Global Unity who got signed to Columbia/Sony—albeit our tenure with the label was short lived, but that’s another blog post.  The way that this happened was totally random.

The short of the story is this: One day I decided to self-produced an album length recording of my band (this was before that kind of thing was popular, mind you) and after it was completed I played it for my friend Lisa. I told her that I was looking to shop the recording to various labels and she suggested that I give a copy to a booking agent friend of hers who was looking to get into artist management. After I agreed, she set the ball in motion by not only telling him about the recording, but actually taking it to his apartment and sitting down and listening to it with him. One of the reasons he agreed to their meeting was because he’d remember hearing us a few months earlier at some small club in the East Village. And apparently,  really liked the group.

So here is where randomness played a role.

Right before our performance at this East Village club, I realized that I'd left some of my sheet music at home. Since the club did not have a copy machine, I went to a photocopy shop a few blocks from the venue. On the way back, I bumped into him and his then fiancée as they were walking up the street. They were just about to go to dinner, so I gave them a flyer and told them that the venue where I was playing was only a few blocks from the restaurant. So they took the flyer and assured me that they would stop by after they’d eaten dinner. Sure enough they did. And lucky for us, we performed a really good set. We were well-rehearsed and everyone was having a good night. Keep in mind that this was a period where if you wanted to have a relationship with a record company, you had to either invite someone from the label to one of your performances. or someone who would be willing to advocate on your behalf. This was pre-check-out-our-band-on-YouTube days.

Back to my point about randomness. Prior to this gig, I had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to get this agent out to one of my performances. However, just by chance, he happened to be in the neighborhood on this particular night that I was playing. And lo and behold, several months later I was able to reap the benefits of that random encounter.

After I had gotten my record contract, I could have come up with numerous pat-myself-on-the-back theories on why things went in my favor. But the fact of the matter is that I just happened to be at the right place at the right time--not to mention some good advocating on behalf from my friend Lisa. The music has to be good; that's a given. However, the fact that I have not been able to create any music remotely interesting to any label--large and small--is proof that this situation was in fact random. And in my own defense, maybe if I cared about that sort of thing a little more I might have been able to conjure some interests. The fact of the matter is that that sort or thing—shopping to labels and trying to get people to represent me—is of little interest. I’m much more interested in documenting my work these days. I’ll worry more about career advancement when the time is right.

The Negative Aspect of the Illusion of Control

Moving away from my getting-signed story for moment: Another point I’d like to make is that the illusion of control clouds our ability to access our situation. Studies have shown that the more powerful a person feels, the stronger the illusion of control becomes. I’ve seen this demonstrated in prominent jazz musicians who’ve surrounded themselves with sidemen who were not on their level--frankly, musicians whom many considered to be very mediocre. But because of the feeling of control and authority that comes with being a prominent person in this business, you can come to exist in a bubble, since you are no longer open to the criticism and assessment endured by everyday, less prominent players. And this is very common amongst people in leadership positions: CEOs of major corporations, presidents of universities, and pastors of churches. These figures of authority often get caught up in their own illusions of control, while everyone else around them are able to so clearly see the obstacles halting their progress.


The Positive Aspect of the Illusion of Control

I’d like to point out that the illusion of control isn’t all negative. The truth is that it makes us strive for things even when our chances of achieving them are very low. Think about how many times we’ve tried to get our bands booked on festivals as an unknown. The illusion of control made us feel that we could influence the booker’s decision by having a well-written cover letter, a slick looking band photo, and, of course, a well-recorded, well-performed CD.. These things do help, but ultimately, the booker of the festival makes his or her decision independent of what you think your influence is. If you are lucky, your packet will be the very thing they’re looking for at that particular time.

Point and case is when I got my deal with Columbia/Sony, it just so happened that the new regime at the label were looking for something more world music oriented. And voilà! My demo, Global Unity comes across their desk. The timing could not have been more perfect. But the bigger point to be learned from my scenario and many others like it, is that even though you ultimately don’t have the final say (or control), the illusion of control does at least give you the confidence to try.

Things You Can Control 

The last issue I'd like to discuss is the illusion of futility, which is the opposite of the illusion of control. This is when you fail to recognize how much control or influence you actually have over a particular situation.  For example, you may fail to realize how being difficult decreases your chances of employment. Or how practicing correctly makes you play more consistently. Or how just being visible increases your chances of being hired, in general. These are things we take for granted; however, these are things which we can control that can make a big difference.


In summary, if you want to do well in the music business,  prepare, prepare, prepare. Or better yet, try, try, try. Ultimately, you don't have direct control over final outcomes; however, you can increase the likelihood of luck going in your favor.  These are the rules of the game. Now our job is to learn how to play it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Some Thoughts on Ornette Coleman: March 09, 1930 - June 11, 2015


I'm sure that I echo the sentiments of many when I say that with the passing of Ornette Coleman, we not only lost an important and still relevant jazz figure, but a school of thought that became the face of modern jazz as we know it. I've been more occupied with Ornette and his music in recent months since becoming an active member of The Bad Plus' Science Fiction project, in which we play music from his 1972 Columbia Records release of the same name. 

A while back, pianist Ethan Iverson asked me to write a few words about Ornette and his music for a piece that he was putting together for his blog Do the Math to promote some upcoming performances with the Science Fiction project. 


Below is what I contributed to his piece. I thought it would be appropriate reprint again here today:

Two artists whom I think of as being the quintessence of originality are Ornette Coleman and Jackson Pollack. They both turned convention on its head--Ornette with sound and style, Jackson with colors and shapes. And Ornette was even more unique in that he was always Ornette. Jackson came into his own much later in life. Ornette, however, seemed to have been born into his--and has remained there. Whenever I hear Ornette's music, the message I always hear is that it's OK to be yourself. His music is a story of self-acceptance. He opened the doors of jazz, and welcomed all of those who felt that they had something say--both the well schooled and the untrained.  His music taught black musicians that it's OK to embrace a black sound; it taught white musicians that it's OK to embrace a white sound. And even more importantly, it taught us all how to work together. On the surface, Ornette's music seems very militant--a blatant rejection of a European sensibility. But it's not that at all. At its core, his music doesn't reject anyone or anything. Through his music, Ornette embraced the world—and most of all, himself.

Thanks, Ornette, for the music. And congrats on a life well-lived. (RIP)



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