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



Saturday, April 18, 2015

Non-Linear Thinking: The True Path to New Discoveries

As artists, our ability to think in non-linear ways has not only been our surviving mechanism, but it’s often how we’re able to carve out a personal vision. There’s a common notion in the jazz world that hard work is our competitive edge. The one who puts in the most hours in the “shed” becomes the best player. In certain circles and in certain kinds of music, that may actually be the case. This way of thinking certainly works great for classical musicians. Performing classical music is a very physical process, sort of like figure skating. Musicians are small muscle athletes and figure skaters are big muscle athletes. So a big part of what you do is conditioning. In fact, if you never have an original thought as a classical player, yet, you are technically proficient and well-versed in the repertoire, you will probably do well and be regarded highly. Being a classical performer fits perfectly in the linear paradigm. In this instance, however, I’m speaking specifically of the classical soloist, not the composer.

Jazz—which tends to be more soloists-centered--follows a different path. Hard work and clocking in numerous hours of practice is not your creative competitive edge. Being musically correct and polished might win you points during your college proficiency exams, but these things won’t necessarily give you the competitive edge when comes to creating art. Jackson Pollack could have painted in the traditional way until the cows came home, and it still would not have naturally morphed into to the innovative drip-painting style for which he became known. His innovation resulted from changing his thinking, not his work ethic. 

And please don’t misunderstand me. Working hard is a good thing. It’s a valuable and very necessary thing. However, it’s not the determining factor that separates the boys from the men; the artists from the practitioners; the book readers from the book writers. Hard work is the vehicle that gets you there. Non-linear thinking is the map that you follow.

Whenever I conduct a master class discussing these things, I have students try this little experiment. I rattle off a list of words, and they tell me the first thing that comes to mind. It usually goes something like this:

Me: black
Student: white
Me: fast
Student: slow
Me: up
Student: down
Me: loud
Student: soft
Me: happy
Student: sad

And these are typical responses from most people. Afterward, I explain that this is linear-thinking and that most students, giving the information at hand, follow this most logical sequence. As you can imagine, there’s only but so far this way of thinking can take you. I could give this experiment to 100 students, and it will probably yield similar results.

During the second part of the experiment, I have them think in a non-linear way. In other words, give responses that, on the surface, are illogical. Now the responses are usually something like this:



Me: black
Student: blanket
Me: fast
Student: Rhino
Me: up
Student: table
Me: loud
Student: brown
Me: happy
Student: rocks


As you can see, just by slightly changing their thinking, new and fresh responses were conjured up. Non-linear thinking, yielded non-linear results. These new and fresh responses did not come from hard work, they came from making creative connections.  FYI: The thought of a fast rhino or a happy rock really makes me laugh.

What’s interesting is that human beings by nature are non-linear thinkers. If you want proof just observe any three-year old. When my daughter was three, she didn’t think twice about wearing a pink sock with a purple sock; or a dress shoe with sneaker. As grown-ups and practitioners of linear thought, this way of thinking is simply wrong.  But what we often fail to see is that this way of thinking is often the foundation of innovation. It’s when we’re not a slave to rules and conventions that we can make connections that lead us down new paths. The creative genius works in the same way that a naïve child plays.

In fact, there's a New York based clothing company called Little Miss Matched that specializes in selling colorful, unmatched socks for girls.  It began with girls' socks in 2004, and has since began selling clothes, toys, bedding and furniture with same colorful designs. Now I don’t have any recent data, but in 2008, retail sales was at a whopping 32 million. Which is not bad, figuring that all that they basically did was to embrace what we typically try to avoid every time we do the laundry. And I’m willing to bet that the  founder of the company was inspired by watching a three –year old think in a non-linear way.  Again, this is not something that came from hard work, but from creative connections.

One of my favorite stories of achieving innovation through a single non-linear thought, involves Thelonious Monk.  Apparently, Monk and Coltrane were rehearsing and Monk, fascinated by the sequence with which Coltrane pressed the keys on the saxophone, had Coltrane play the saxophone in a non-linear way, where the fingers did not move up and down in a conventional fashion, following the typical sequence of pressing down and releasing the keys of the saxophone. What Coltrane miraculously discovered was that he was able to play split tones, or what we now know as multi-phonics. And again, let me reiterate that this did not result from years of trying to figure out how to play and master split tones, the way in which we go about mastering conventional tones. It resulted by simply changing his thought process. As we all know, fine tuning these things can take a lifetime; discovering them, however, can happen instantaneously.

This Monk and Coltrane story has been the guiding force that inspires much of my non-linear practice. Practicing linear things such as scales, jazz vocabulary and long tones are necessary in helping one become a competent musician. Unfortunately, competence is the only thing that practicing these things will produce.  If you wish to achieve originality, a distinctive voice, or innovation, then a non-linear approach must be followed.

When it's time to practice, one thing that I do to get into the non-linear frame of thought is a process called “questioning.” And “questioning” is just as it sounds. I question everything that I’m doing.  For example, if I’m practicing a C note, I ask myself the question: Is this the only way to play this note? Then I begin looking for new and under-explored alternatives to playing a C note:

I'll play the C note as overtones with different fundamental starting notes
I'll play the C note with different tonal inflections
I'll play  the most ugly sounding C note that I can
I'll play  the most beautiful C note possible
I'll play the C note like a flute player, using unconventional fingerings
I'll play  the C note like a double-reed player, also using unconventional fingerings
I'll play play the C note while singing through the horn

So as you can see, what started out as an ordinary C note, has now become a path of excitement and new discoveries. And all that I did was to ask one question, which, consequently, lead to numerous and non-linear ways to discover answers to that question. As I've asserted throughout this article, hard work is not always your competitive edge. Hard thinking, however, can leave you without competition. A master of your own domain.





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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Is There Soprano Sax Discrimination in Higher Ed?

Recently I was asked if I felt that university music programs discriminate against soprano players. In my experience, I haven’t found universities to be overtly discriminating, nor have I found them to be particularly accommodating, either. Okay, they're not out there perpetuating Jim Crow like prejudice against soprano players. Thank goodness we don't have to sit in the back of the section. But they're hardly creating a soprano-friendly environment by any stretch of the imagination.

When I went to grad school back in 2006, one of the reasons I chose
Purchase College was because they didn't have a problem with me only playing the soprano. Students had the option of playing in the big band or a small ensemble. And fortunately the ensembles were not instrument-specific, so the situation was friendlier towards an oddity like myself--which is not always the case.

One of the first schools I considered, which shall remain nameless, was one of those typical “un-accommodating” type of schools that I mentioned earlier.  In fact, during the early stages of trying to find the right school at which to get my degree—which I knew was not going to be easy since I had recently acquired a full-time teaching position--I was having a conversation with one of the key faculty members at this school about their program and at one point I began inquiring about their ensembles. And when I asked about me playing only the soprano saxophone in the ensemble he became somewhat annoyed and said to me in a very condescending voice, "I hope you don't that we're going to let you come in here and just play the soprano." Insinuating that in doing so, I would in some way be "getting over," or even worse, jeopardizing the integrity of their program. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, I politely ended the conversation and never spoke to him nor inquired about his program again.

What I learned from the conversation is that there is a lack of understanding and compassion for the uniqueness of the soprano and those who play it.  Most fail to realize that its depth lies far beyond just being difficult to play in tune. There are layers to the soprano that only a specialist can understand. The soprano is like a sonic onion whose layers can only be peeled away through hard work, time and devotion. And what lies beneath can be fully enjoyed by all if we are allowed to just do what we are meant to do--play the soprano.

When I asked Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine, who got her master's degree from a university in Montreal, not long ago, if she faced any type of discrimination because she only plays the soprano. She had this to say:

"I think about that often - why alto and tenor are so much more popular than soprano and baritone. In school, playing in big band, you pretty much have to double, so I did for a couple years. I was lucky that there were also other ensembles available to me that were more open to having me just play soprano. By my last two years I just refused to play the alto and tenor because it just didn't make sense anymore. By then teachers and students knew me as a soprano player, and knew I wouldn't play the others, and respected that enough. I think if a student wants to focus on soprano, they should stand their ground. I think if you're serious then people will respect that. It is unfortunate that the soprano isn't seen as a primary instrument in the saxophone world. We almost have to see it as an instrument separate from the other saxes."

Kayla brought up a very interesting point, which is that we have to see the soprano as "an instrument separate from the other saxes." This is something I've pondered often. In fact, when I see someone on the subway with a tenor sax gig bag, I don't feel I have anymore in common with him or her than I would someone carrying a trumpet. And a lot of that stems from my approach having little to do
with playing the saxophone in the traditional sense. In a recent tweet, I said this: "Even though I only play the soprano, little of what I do has anything to do with the soprano." That tweet might sound somewhat esoteric on the surface, but beneath its meaning is an underlying truth that rings true with me and many other soprano saxophone specialists. Soprano players tend to be artistic to a fault. They are more concerned with creating a box than existing within one. Steve Lacy was the father of this paradigm.

Regarding pursuing a music degree in higher education as a soprano player, Kayla had this to say:

"I did have teachers tell me that if I focused as much on tenor I would get more gigs, etc. I thought about it a bit, but by that point I was too committed to soprano. Also, I am not interested in the types of gigs they were talking about; cruise ships, overseas hotels, etc."

I certainly can relate to this sentiment.  When I first switched to the soprano, someone once told me I would never be able to play in the Village Vanguard Orchestra—as though this would be a career changer. People often don't realize that soprano players do what they do because they aren't looking to travel the same path as the other members of the saxophone family, only up an octave.


In our Facebook exchange,  Kayla brought up a third important point:

"The average non music educated person I meet at gigs usually don't even know what my instrument is! So if students were more encouraged to play soprano, in the real world, most people wouldn't even know the difference."

And this puts it all in perspective. Because at the end of the day, the instrument doesn't even matter. It's all about one's musical vision. It's what you do with it. I think I summed it pretty well with the title of a tune I recorded with my band Global Unity. "It's Not the Size of the Horn, It's How You Swing It!" Unfortunately, people mistook this title as being about everything but the soprano. And as Kayla pointed out, in the real world, most people can't tell the difference between a soprano and a clarinet or between an alto and a tenor. The bottom line is that you're either saying something or you're not. You're either reaching people or you're not. This is something that institutions need to understand: Which is that they need to nurture musical voices, not musical instruments.

Now the whole reason I even started thinking about these things is because I got an e-mail from a young, up and coming soprano player who was upset because he auditioned for a university music program in Denmark and received really low
marks. And when he inquired why his marks were so low, he was told that he would have had a better grade had he played the same thing on either alto or tenor.

I wasn't there, so I don't know how the audition actually went. But I've never
heard of anyone being so openly biased against someone's instrument--especially
an instrument that is such an important part of jazz history. The soprano was at the
forefront of the New Orleans jazz era with Sidney Bechet; the cool jazz era with Steve Lacy and Lucky Thompson; the free jazz era with John Coltrane; the fusion jazz with Wayne Shorter; and the smooth jazz era with Grover Washington Jr. This is an instrument that's been around. It's not like the musical faculty was listening to an instrument rarely heard in jazz, like the bagpipes.

Typically when students ask why they received low marks, they're giving tangible reasons such as "you had difficulty navigating the chord changes," or "you had pitch problems," or "bad rhythm"--things that one could work on and invariably improve upon. But when you get into the area of judging someone's instrumental identity, then it starts to sound personal, or just plain old misinformed. And to add insult to injury, when this soprano player asked his teacher why this happened to him, the teacher responded with, "No one respects you if you only play the soprano." Talking about a one-two combination to the right jaw!

When he asked me for advice about this situation,  I said this to him in an email:

 "I'm sorry that you had to go through this. There is certainly discrimination against the soprano and soprano players.  It's often looked at a doubler's instrument. But it's up to us as soprano players to prove the instrument's validity. And the only way to do that is through great work. This is something that cannot be disputed. We're held to a different standard and consequently, we have to hold ourselves to a different standard. Meaning, we have to create our own path. We can blend in to a certain extent, but ultimately, we have to do our own thing, our way."


Being the optimist that I am, I don't imagine that incidents such as this are widespread. But they do exist. I've experienced them first hand. And in all honesty, since universities are the training ground for many young players before being set loose into the workforce, I think that they need to recognize that soprano specialists are a growing minority, and it would be irresponsible of them as institutions of higher learning not recognize and accommodate them. I'm pretty confident that if universities take the first step in recognizing us as a growing demographic, the general jazz public will soon follow suit. As I said before, I am an optimist.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Great Mouthpiece Fallacy


 There have probably been few professional saxophonists on the planet who have not had a mouthpiece obsession at some point. I’ll certainly claim my part in what seems to be an inevitable ritual of obsession. I remember moments while still a young tenor player in my mid- to late-twenties, changing mouthpieces during the same tune. And what made it even more insane, is that these were mouthpieces that had very little aesthetical overlap. Had I been switching back and forth between two Otto Link 7s, or even an Otto Link 7 and 7*, I’m sure one could see the justification. These two pieces won’t yield two sonically disparate results. I could conceivably discover that one is easier to play than the other, or than one gets better projection, or  that one is easier to play in tune. But what I did was hardly the case. There were times that I was going back and forth between a metal Berg Larsen and hard rubber Selmer. Or a metal Dave Guardala and a hard rubber Vandoren. Of course the resulting affect was something to be desired.

So my point in airing all of my dirty mouthpiece laundry is to simply say that I understand the obsession.

What I have discovered during these moments of sound seeking neurosis is that no matter how strong the love affair at the beginning of your mouthpiece courtship, eventually you wind up with the same sound that you were frustrated with when playing you old mouthpiece.

For this simple reason, I'm left to conclude:  Your sound in between your ears, not inside your mouthpiece.

And let me not downplay the importance of having a good mouthpiece. If your set-up is faulty, then it could be like trying to pedal your bike up hill with one flat tire. But often times, that’s not the case. The mouthpiece obsession we sometimes have comes from our quest for sonic perfection It comes from our desire to find Mr. Right.

This type of sonic utopia we aim for can be achieved. But not by finding the perfect mouthpiece, reed, and horn combination--the sound trifecta--but by listening. Yes, I know. It sounds too easy and too simple to be true. But it does work.

Here’s an interesting story: Once again, we’re going back to when I was budding young tenor man, looking to spread his sonic seed across the world. When I played tenor, I had absolutely no altissimo—a high G, at best. In fact, while I was playing in Terence Blanchard’s band, we used to play one of his tunes called “Azania.” Not a particularly difficult piece, but the melody went up to a high Ab in the last four bars. And needless to say, I missed it every time. Terence eventually realized after hearing me choke on this note, night after night, that playing it correctly was beyond the scope of what I was able to do at the time. If someone heard me today, if would be difficult to imagine I grappled with a problem so basic.

Now there we many reasons for me not being able to play in the altissimo during those days—improper embouchure, lack of breath support, lack of oral cavity awareness, or maybe just plain lameness—I’ll go there, too.  But in hindsight, I realize that the real culprit was NOT having a sonic reference. I only played the tenor. I didn’t listen to any high-pitched instruments at the time. There were few tenor players that I listened to that ever played in that register. And I didn’t play the flute, clarinet, or soprano—at least not of any consequence. So there was nothing between my ears that I could use as a sonic reference—Charlie Rouse, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter (on tenor) were useless with regards to this.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started playing the soprano regularly that I began being able to hear in the fourth octave. In some ways a little too well. I remember one particular instance, a few years after I had only been playing the soprano saxophone exclusively, I picked up the tenor sax for a few days. I can’t really remember why, I imagine that my soprano had some kind type of malfunction, which happened a lot back then, and I was probably just playing the tenor while it was being repaired. Thank god for Roberto Romeo! In any case, what I remember most vividly was that when I finally did pick up the tenor again after so many years, was how high I was able to play.  As a tenor player, the high Ab was a challenge. But now I was playing high Fs and Gs, with no problem. I attribute some of it to the development of my embouchure and most of it to my hearing. As I mentioned before, one of the problems I had with playing in the altissimo as a tenor player, is that I had no sonic reference. Now, I had only a high register reference.  It felt like the sky was the limit—which was a totally different ballgame. Now, what was strange is that I had no lower register reference. I guess it’s always something.

My point in telling this story is to highlight the importance role listening habits have on your sound. To me, listening is where you put all of your ducks in a row, while playing is the process by which you march them in either direction. More simply put: Listening is the gathering of information (the conceptual), while playing is the process by which you direct that information (the execution).

One of Charlie Parker’s most famous quotes was that, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Well, I look at it this way: If it doesn’t go into your ears, it won’t come out of your horn.”

People often wonder how I’m able to play in the altissimo. And there are two main reasons: One, my emphasis on the development of my oral cavity control; and two, the things that I listen to. Sidney Bechet will take you but so far. Sidney will teach you how to swing and how to play the blues. But he won’t teach you how to play Cs above high F.  For that I listen to bansuri flute players, shakuhachi flute players, North African double reed instruments, you name it—anything or anyone thing that will give me a sonic reference, and consequently, the desired outcome. As I said, “If it doesn’t go into your ears, it won’t come out of your horn.”

So the next time, you are unhappy with your sound, and you’re thinking of changing your set-up, you might want to first change what’s inside of your iTunes playlist.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Soprano Saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith: The Flying Kiwi

Saxophonist Jasmine-Lovell Smith is unique in two ways. One, she one the few young jazz musicians living in the United States who hail from New Zealand (along with bassist Matt Penman); and two, she is a soprano saxophonist. 

I first met Jasmine in 2010, back when I was teaching at one of the summer intensives presented by the School for Improvisational Music (SIM). She was in one of my ensembles. I could tell even them, that she was an artist traveling a different path with aesthetic that was left of center. 

So it was no surprise when I started reading wonderful things about her 2012 CD, Fortune Songs (with her band Towering Poppies) a couple of years later. In his plauditory review, jazz writer Dan McClenaghan (All About Jazz) wrote, “It is a superb debut by an artist and a band that does much more than run with the pack.” 

If I had to describe Lovell-Smith’s playing in one word, it would be lyrical. She lives in a space that most of us only visit occasionally. In this very illuminating interview, Lovell-Smith discusses growing up in New Zealand, the challenges and joys of playing the soprano, and working alongside Anthony Braxton as his teaching assistant at Wesleyan University.


So, Jasmine, of all of the saxophones, why did you choose the soprano? Were there some players who inspired you—locally and/or on recordings?

It took me quite a while to choose the soprano. I started out on tenor sax at age 14, since that was the sax that my high school had available for me to hire. That was fine with me because one of my first favorite saxophone players was Stan Getz. A few years later when I had started university. I had an opportunity to buy a second-hand soprano from one of my teachers. By that time I was starting to really love the music of Wayne Shorter, so I think that was part of the reason I was drawn to soprano. Locally, two people that come to mind who I saw playing soprano were another teacher of mine, Colin Hemmingsen, and Lucien Johnson.



Are they still active of the jazz scene there? And what city are you speaking of?


I'm speaking now about Wellington, New Zealand, where I went to University. It is the capital city and, though not the largest city in the country, is known for having a great music scene. Yes, as far as I know Colin and Lucien are both active there, although in different ways. Lucien is also a composer and bandleader and plays a lot of tenor as well.  Colin is more active within the educational scene, I believe he was in fact the person who actually founded the first ever jazz university program in New Zealand. He's also a great bassoon player and last time I heard him play (several years ago - I haven't spent much time in New Zealand in several years) the concert was focused on jazz bassoon.



At that time the tenor was still my main horn, and with the soprano it was usually one step forward and two steps back. I would play it for a while, then put it down for several months, then pick it up again and find it terribly hard. I found this so discouraging that I mostly left the soprano in the case for the next 8 or 9 years.


What was discouraging about it?



I couldn't play anywhere close to in tune! But also, it was difficult just to produce a consistent sound that I liked without it dissolving into a crack or squawk. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was playing on a setup that didn't make things easy for me. When I first got the horn I asked a more experienced saxophone player friend what mouthpiece I should get, and he recommended a Selmer Super Session I. The local Selmer dealer didn't have the I in stock, so I got a J. At the time, my understanding was that having a harder setup would be good for me. But I consistently found this mouthpiece really difficult to use. Later, once I seriously took up soprano I went to a music store to try some mouthpieces and ended up buying a new Otto Link Tone Edge 7. I had been playing an Otto Link on tenor for awhile, so that's probably part of why this worked well for me, and I also found the intonation was a lot easier to control. I'm still using the same mouthpiece. I'm not one of those saxophone players who spends a lot of time reevaluating their setup - I try to find something I like, and then just stick with it. 


When I did pick it up again, it was at the end of a period where I had given up playing saxophone almost completely for an entire year. I was picking it up with a sense of curiosity rather than ambition, and a willingness to sound as bad as I needed to sound in order to finally figure out to play the instrument. Playing the soprano turned out to be part of my path to rededicating myself to a career in music. Somehow I feel much more free on the instrument. I think this has a lot to to with the soprano's less standard usage in jazz. It feels comparatively unexplored.


Why did you stop playing for a year? And also, how old were you at the time?



I was 26. It's hard to say. It was largely a personal and emotional issue. I think I hadn't found the right community of musicians with similar interests to play with in Wellington (there are great musicians there, but I think I hadn't found the right part of the scene) and I was very self critical, lacking confidence in my own aesthetic sensibility. I felt like I had to be a virtuoso for anyone to care about what I was doing as a saxophonist. Also, though I had been very interested in composition for a long time, I wasn't actively pursuing my own projects, but instead was doing mostly standards gigs with thrown together bands playing background music, and I found it unsatisfying. Eventually the whole subject became kind of emotionally charged for me and painful to think about, and I decided I would be happier not doing music at all. I was interested in completely changing careers at this point, and so I went back to University to explore something else I had been passionate about, which was English literature and creative writing.



After a year of that, I ended up discovering that if I was going to go down a path related to my love of writing, I was most interested in writing poetry - which is one of the few things I can think of that is less financially viable than being a jazz musician! Plus, I discovered that I wasn't as accomplished at it, at least not yet - I just wasn't as far down the path. In the end, once I started playing music again my need to write poetry disappeared. For me, both things satisfied a similar urge that I have to be creative. I guess what I needed to start playing music again was to realize that I still really wanted to express myself through music and, knowing that, to fully accept my own limitations and decided to evolve from there. Getting out of an environment where I had been feeling stuck and going traveling definitely helped with that.


I don’t come across many jazz musicians from New Zealand. Is there a burgeoning jazz scene there? If so, who are some of the players we should know about?

The New Zealand jazz scene is small but pretty active, especially considering the size of the population (which is tiny, about 4.5 million people). There are four different undergrad jazz programs in the country pumping out new grads every year, plus a coterie of more established players and teachers, many who have spent time working and playing in Australia, the UK or the USA and brought that knowledge back home.  One downside to the scene is, due to New Zealand's fairly isolated position in the world, the scene can get a bit stagnant, with comparatively few new musicians coming and going as they would in larger cities in America or Europe.

You don't meet many kiwi jazz musicians in North America - it's more common for kiwi's to move to Australia or the UK as its much easier immigration-wise. Personally, I have an American mother, so that obstacle wasn't an issue for me. Some of the more well known jazz exports from NZ include bassist Matt Penman, sax player Hayden Chisholm, and pianists Mike Nock and Jonathan Crayford. Some of the other kiwi sax players that are amongst my favorites (all who currently live in NZ) include Reuben Derrick, Lucien Johnson, Blair Latham,  and (of course) Jeff Henderson, who has been a huge figure in nurturing the avant garde free improv scene there.



How did you find your way from New Zealand to New York--and now, Mexico?

I decided to move to NYC fairly impulsively, after I had spent several months traveling around the United States. This was in a very transitional period in my life, when I was uncertain what I wanted to do with myself or where I wanted to live, shortly after I started seriously working on the soprano sax and rediscovered my love for music. The initial reason for my trip to NY was to take part in the school for improvisational music summer intensive, and before I arrived I decided that while I was there I might as well try out living in New York for awhile. I ended up staying for 2 years. The things that really made me want to live in New York were the opportunities to hear live music, and the amazing musicians I was meeting and playing with. It was a struggle as well, working day jobs and trying to find time for my music, and I ended up deciding to do my masters degree in composition at Wesleyan in Connecticut so I could focus more on music. It was also close enough to maintain some degree of connection to the NY scene. While at Wesleyan, I fell in love with one of my fellow composers in the MA program, who is from Mexico, and I moved here to be with him once we finished our studies in mid 2014.


Often times with soprano saxophone specialists, they’re usually coming out of the New Orleans/Sidney Bechet thing, or the avant garde/experimental thing. But your approach is different. It’s neither period music nor is it experimental. It’s great “modern jazz” for lack of a better term.  Is that a correct assessment?

Thank you! It seems like a good assessment to me. I think that perhaps one thing that's different about jazz in New Zealand is that there's less of a traditionalist emphasis in jazz education. At least for me, I learned to improvise first by using my ears, and from the beginning I was encouraged to approach improvisation with what I would call a compositional approach, rather than to be a perfect stylist, or to exactly replicate the sound of players that I admired.  I haven't listened to a huge amount of early jazz and didn't really check out Sidney Bechet until after my soprano sound was more developed, so he wasn't a big influence (though one thing I love about earlier jazz is the strong melodic focus, and I do think that's something that's present in my work). My soprano influences are mostly Wayne Shorter and Steve Lacy, both of whom I relate to a lot because they are also composers and their improvisation and composition are so connected. But I've also been very influenced by singers, especially Joni Mitchell. Speaking of the avant garde, I'm drawn a lot more to consonance than most people in the so called 'avant garde' - but I do feel like I have many common interests with people who are part of that community. Basically, I don't think about my music in terms of genre, and whenever I'm called to it's a bit confusing. I guess I would call it contemporary chamber jazz with a strong melodic emphasis.

I’ve found that many players that have come out of the Wesleyan University scene, tend to be very much influenced by the experimental aesthetics of Anthony Braxton. But you have something very unique. It sounds modern, fresh, and with a strong sense of melody and groove. Again, let me know if I’m off base.

Well, the Wesleyan composition scene definitely has a long history of experimentalism, including a lot of computer music and post Cage experimental music as well as Braxton's musical world. I arrived there interested in learning about those things but without knowing too much about any of them. I think people have an idea of what the Wesleyan sound or aesthetic is, but as my advisor Paula Matthusen said to me, "the point is that there is no style." I wanted to work with Braxton, and was lucky enough to be his teaching assistant for a semester and to have him as one of my thesis advisors. Probably a lot of the Wesleyan composers who worked with Braxton went there having already been writing in a musical world that was more similar to his than mine was, but the fact that my music was much more 'straight ahead' didn't seem to be a problem for our working relationship. One great thing about Braxton is that he can discuss anyone's music, but he'll do it through a very unique lens and with his own terminology. I learned a lot from our conversations, from his lectures, and especially from playing his music in his Wesleyan ensemble class. I really admire the breadth of his conceptual thinking - he's so creative in his approaches to structuring music.

Anyway, to elaborate on the lack of an overtly 'experimental' aesthetic in my music, something that I sometimes find difficult about experimental or avant garde music (particularly free improvisation) is that it's often very dense, and I am really drawn to clarity and space. While I like to use free elements in my music, I'm most interested in free time as juxtaposed against metric time, or in some kind of combination of the two. I'm interested in dissonance as contrasted with consonance - an hour of dissonant music is not usually going to be my favorite thing. All this being said, I recorded 'Fortune Songs' before arriving at Wesleyan, so I expect it will be the next album I record that demonstrates how I have reconciled (or not reconciled) what I learned at Wesleyan with my existing style.


Let’s talk about your project Towering Poppies. How did this project come about? Did you take your working band into the studio or did you record it and then developed the music afterwards?—which is sometimes the case.

Towering Poppies was a band that I started more or less by accident. I called a session with some friends, including two musicians I met in 2008 at the Banff International workshop in Jazz and creative music, and then nobody brought anything to play except me, so we just played a few of my compositions. Then I found a gig for us, and then another, and it grew from there. We had been playing together for perhaps 5 months or so before we went into the studio to record. So a number of those pieces had been in our live repertoire for a little while, though a couple were written fairly quickly before the recording session. We've continued to work on and develop the same repertoire, and new repertoire, since then. We haven't played in quite a while as I now live in Mexico, but I'm planning to be back in NY for a visit later in 2015 so I hope to pick up where we left off then.

What challenges did you find as a soprano player trying to break onto the New York jazz scene? We all know it’s already difficult playing the alto and tenor saxes, but I imagine just playing the soprano, it becomes double the challenge.

Well, for me I would say that it wasn't my goal in the first place to 'break onto the New York Scene' - that sounds terrifying! When I arrived in New York I was in a very adventurous point in my life, and I really just wanted to have the experience of living there for a while. Whilst there I reconnected with various people that I had met at Banff, and those people would become my friends and collaborators from that point on. It was the people I was playing with, and all of the energy and great music I heard while living in the city, that combined to give me the inspiration to start performing my music. Playing only soprano doesn't seem to me like an obvious choice if you want to do a lot of work as a sideman, but that wasn't what I was looking to do. I identify as a composer as much or more so than as a saxophone player, and I was pretty clear by that point that what interested me about music was playing original music, so that was the only thing I focused on in NY.

Do people think that it’s strange that you’re a soprano specialist? Or maybe they’re more used to it since I switched to soprano 20 years ago.
 

I definitely think people are more used to it since you switched, and of course because of Steve Lacy. I remember meeting one person in New Zealand who only played soprano back when I was in university and at the time I thought that was an odd choice. But by the time I made that decision, it seemed like people in New York accepted it and dug it. They didn't necessarily hire me for gigs, but that was ok because I didn't expect them to. I was just focusing on what interested me, and trying to do something that felt genuine and honest. I think one of the reasons the soprano is a good fit for me is that I sang a lot before I played saxophone, and when I sing I'm a soprano. So the transition from my singing voice to my playing voice is more seamless this way. And generally, the music I compose seems to fit well within the soprano range.


This makes a lot of sense….



Regarding your set-up, what kind of horn, mouthpiece and reed do you play on?



My soprano is a newish Selmer, a super action 80 series 2. My tenor (which was my main instrument previously) is also a new Selmer (series 3) so it was a comfortable transition as far as the keywork. I was fortunate that my first soprano is a really nice one and, as mentioned earlier, once I find something I like, I just stick with it. My mouthpiece, as mentioned earlier, is a new Otto Link Tone Edge 7 - just straight out of the box, it hasn't been refaced or anything, though I'm kind of intrigued about the idea of having that done. I generally play Vandoren blue box #3 reeds. I also use a Cebulla neckstrap, which I love. For a while there I was playing without a neckstrap, but I definitely like using this one a lot better.



I think the most important thing in a setup is that everything is in good working order and also, especially for beginners, not too extreme (no super hard reeds or super open mouthpieces). I like my setup because it is what I'm used to, and over time working with it I have developed a sound on it that I like. The sound I'm looking for is quite direct, not too bright, not too reedy, just a straight, natural tone.


Many people who play soprano, doublers and specialists, often struggle with intonation. What kinds of things do you do to "tame the wild bore," as Lacy used to say?



Working on intonation is definitely an ongoing process on soprano. For me, the first step was accepting the out-of-tuneness and continuing to play anyway, feeling out the natural tendencies of the instrument and listening to what it wanted to do intonation-wise. Other things that I think can be quite crucial are figuring out where to place the mouthpiece on the cork, and of course the formation of the embouchure (figuring out the right amount of pressure). I don't have any hard and fast rules about these things, but I learned a lot from trial and error, a few hints from teachers and also reading various perspectives about this online (the Sax on the Web forum is a wealth of information!)



I really love Steve Lacy's book 'Findings,' and I've really enjoyed some of the exercizes in there, particularly 'bugle boy,' which is great for comparing intonation between 5ths and octaves through the whole range of the horn. I've also spent time working out by playing long notes with a chromatic tuner.  I think it's important to practice intonation in real life situations as well, by playing with other people (ideally starting with something slow, so the pitch has a chance to settle and you can really listen) and also by playing along with recordings. I remember playing along with Joni Mitchell songs at times when I was trying to work on my intonation, and it made the process a bit more fun and musical.



I've noticed that many saxophonists who have chosen to make the soprano their main instrument are people who think outside the box, or at least try to create their own box.  What's your take on it?



Yes, that resonates with me. I am definitely seeking to create my own box rather than fitting into a pre existing one. Most of the musicians I most admire and am most interested have (according to my interpretation) gone their own way, listened to their inner voice and ended up in interesting places because of it. I hope to do the same.



As you may or may nor know, playing solo has become a very concentrated area of focus for me over the past eight years or so. Do you have any plans to record or perform in solo pieces? As a soprano player, it seems almost i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-e.


Oh no, I had no idea it was inevitable! Joking of course, but for me playing solo is quite terrifying. That probably means it would be beneficial to do it. It's something I would like to spend some time working on for sure, though there are no plans for a solo album at this point.


Fair enough.  And let me ask you this: What major thing would like to accomplish in the next five years?



Shorter term (in the next year or so) my goal is to release a new album - I'm planning a recording session for that in April, so preparing for that will be a big focus until then. More generally speaking, I would say my goal is to integrate what I focused on in my MA in composition (which was mostly writing fully composed and chamber music) with my practice as a jazz composer and improvisor. I'm continuing to study composition here in Mexico as part of a workshop with Hebert Vázquez, and there is a lot more I would like to learn about composition and orchestration from the western classical and new music realm. I also hope to realize some music for large ensemble.



Lastly, I’m going to list some soprano players, that you may or may not know, and I want you to tell me the first word that pops into your mind.




I have to confess that I am not familiar with several of these soprano players. I'm realizing that I haven't made checking out other soprano players much of a priority - maybe out of a fear of being influenced of intimidated. Anyway, thank you for the list, and I will take this as a cue to spend time checking out those that I am not familiar with!



Steve Lacy
- space 

Evan Parker - squawk 
Branford Marsalis - power 
Dave Liebman - evolution 
Lol Coxhill - (no answer) 
Michel Doneda - (no answer) 
Lucky Thompson - (no answer) 
Sidney Bechet - joy




Thanks, Jamine, for doing this interview. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you in the future.

And please check out a track from Jasmine's CD, Fortunes.

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