About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Thursday, January 13, 2022

In Gratitude to Michael Brecker

This article originally appeared in Saxophone Journal, May/June 2007.  Volume 31, No. 5 

Michael Brecker’s public battle with myelodysplastic syndrome and leukemia had given us time to prepare ourselves for what we had hoped would not come, despite the odds against him.  We had come to view him as something beyond a mortal.  I can hardly believe that he is gone.  Brecker's colleagues, some of the greatest musicians of our time, will all have something to say.  While I defer to those greats that shared the bandstand with him, I still feel compelled to say something about my personal relationship with Michael Brecker’s music.  It may be selfish for me to say anything at all, to somehow diminish his light by shining it on myself, but I am nonetheless compelled, if only by a need to express my solemn gratitude to a man that provided endless inspiration in my musical youth.


Without clichΓ©, Michael Brecker was a true titan of the tenor saxophone.  In sound, style, and technique, he was a one-man tenor revolution.  It was as if Coltrane, Paganini, and Hendrix had been rolled into one super-musician.  There isn't a tenor saxophonist alive, at least one who has found their voice in the last twenty-five years, that wasn’t somehow affected by Brecker's gravitational force.  Jazz composers scrambled to understand, and emulate, his innovative writing (Maria Schneider's Wyrgly immediately comes to mind).  Whether you tried to be more like him, or less like him (to avoid unfavorable comparison), Michael Brecker was the 800 lb. gorilla.  He was the Charlie Parker of the last quarter-century.  You loved his music, or you hated it, but you couldn't avoid it.  I met guys that bought their Selmer Mark VI tenors because the serial numbers were close to His.  They paid big bucks to play His mouthpiece, and I even remember seeing reeds with His name on them (that sold for double what other reeds went for).  Especially in the late eighties and early nineties, you could say “him” to a sax player, and they knew you meant Michael Brecker.


My first experience with Brecker, other than incidental exposure to his inescapably prolific recording career, was his self-titled debut on Impulse.  Sea Glass grabbed me right away, in that I had never heard anything like it.  It was like an anthem, majestically announcing the new new thing.  As I listened in my dorm room at the University of Massachusetts, I immediately felt that my musical direction was about to change because of this music.  By the time Syzygy started, I was on my feet.  The sense of awe widened as I made my way through The Cost of Living and Original Rays.  It was like a torpedo had struck me between the ears.  I didn’t even own a CD player, but I started buying Michael Brecker CD’s.  When I listened to the opening track on “Don't Try This At Home,” Itsbynne Reel . . . I have no words for how awestruck I was.  Everything about that track blew me out of the water.  I listened to it over and over, and I didn’t make it to the second track until the following day.  It was the same feeling that I had after hearing Coltrane’s Giant Steps.  I couldn’t get it out of my head.  After that, I began taking piano more seriously, so I could figure out how to emulate the harmonies I was hearing.  I started practicing scales and patterns using alternate fingerings, to create Brecker-like technical effects.  I changed mouthpieces, to focus my sound.  I practiced scales a full octave above palm-key F.  I wrote my own version of Itsbynne Reel, called Pay the Fiddler.  At the encouragement of my arranging teacher, Jeff Holmes, I wrote a big band arrangement of Pay the Fiddler, which later became the title track of the UMASS Jazz Ensemble CD.  Within a couple of years, I won the downbeat award for best collegiate jazz soloist, partially based upon my recording of Fiddler.  Itsbynne Reel turbo charged me down the path that would lead to a successful career in music.  I practiced those Brecker licks until I had tendonitis.  I can still hear my old Franz metronome clanking away as I chugged through rapid-fire harmonics into the altissimo.  It was a rite of passage.


All this inspiration, and productivity came at a price.  I was soon unable to play without immediately calling attention to my master.  I struggled to overcome the influence, but Brecker was like a drug habit that I couldn't kick.  No matter how I tried, my solos were always peppered with Breckerisms.  In desperation, I put all my CD's in a box and taped it shut (and I’m not making that up).  I focused on pre-Brecker tenor players for my studies.  Finally, I made an extreme mouthpiece change and worked on playing in the lower register, just to avoid sounding like Mike.  It literally took me nine years to overcome the overwhelming influence of Michael Brecker.  But it is important to note that, both in striving towards him, and away from him, I was artistically transformed for the better.  His music opened my ears and my imagination.


I recall seeing him live at Monroe Community College in upstate New York.  He was on tour promoting “Tales from the Hudson.”  It was a moderately sized hall, and I had a seat close enough to see Brecker very clearly.  Everything about his playing was textbook perfection.  He stood perfectly straight with no signs of tension.  His embouchure was firm but flexible, and every note sounded as if it emanated from his vocal chords.  You were unaware of reeds or mouthpieces; there was no machinery in the way.  He played like he was speaking to you, directly and with his own, human voice.  It blew your hair back.  He used fingerings that I had never thought of, and I had to watch intently because his fingers hardly seemed to move at all.  The poise and grace of his delivery belied the ferocity of what came out of the horn.  I remember that the audience sighed, gasped, and even laughed in wonder and amazement.   I have heard a handful of musicians with technical facility close to Brecker’s, but he had a way of using it to express something more than just sublime craftsmanship.  When the shock wore off, he had a creativity and musicality that kept you interested.  He was offering something that you simply couldn’t get anywhere else . . . something that will never be available again.  We can only be grateful for the many brilliant recordings he leaves behind.


As much as I remember seeing him live, my favorite Brecker-related moment came years later.  It was a Sunday evening and my phone rang a little later than usual.  When I picked up, I heard the nervous giggling of a group of my students.  They were calling me from their first Michael Brecker concert, and he was about to go on.  I laughed and told them to soak up every sound.  I knew exactly how excited they were, and on Monday morning, I recognized the dazed look of awe in their eyes.  Yet another generation was under his spell.  It gives me pause to think that none of my future students will experience  a Michael Brecker concert.  Even as I write, another of my students is holed up in a basement somewhere, practicing Brecker’s unaccompanied performance of Naima.  I cannot imagine being a student of the saxophone and not studying Michael Brecker.  In a world of clones, drones, and charlatans, he was the rarified real deal.


I have had a lot of heavy influences in my career, but Brecker was in his prime when I was at the height of my personal search.  When I was his disciple, he was on the cutting edge, which is what makes all of this so vivid for me.  Unwrapping a new Michael Brecker CD always had me trembling with anticipation.  I could never get the damned shrink wrap off quickly enough.  Waiting for the disc to spin up and reveal the first track was an experience that has had few parallels for me.  I can only imagine that he felt the same way, dropping the needle on a newly released Coltrane record.  In both cases, each new piece of music contained a bit of secret code that could only be cracked in the shed, and only if you had the chops.


If Brecker had died in the middle of his prime, we would perhaps exalt him to an even higher place.  This is often the case, especially with folks like John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, and Scott LaFaro.  We had just enough time to embrace them before they were ripped away, leaving us to wonder what the future would have held.  Michael Brecker lived long enough for his brilliance to fall somewhat out of fashion.  If you go to New York, almost every young tenor player is on a rubber mouthpiece.  I have no doubt that this is in response to the need to NOT sound like a Brecker clone.  Most everyone gave up trying to play EWI years ago.  His force was so dominant, you simply had to deal with it.


Those CD’s from my younger days, and the more recent ones, are sitting in a stack in front of my computer monitor as I write this essay.  Hopefully everyone knows the cover of “Don’t Try This At Home,” where he is balancing the saxophone on one finger.  As if by some significant sign from the cosmos, that CD is sitting on top of the pile but showing the back cover.  The saxophone floats in air, with Brecker’s image removed from the photo.  I couldn’t imagine a more fitting metaphor.  Travel in peace Michael.  You will never be forgotten.  §

Monday, December 27, 2021

Reflections on Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live in Seattle

     Let me start by saying that A Love Supreme is far from my favorite recording, or even my favorite John Coltrane recording.  Now, before you get all excited about this, please take a breath and read on.

By the time I had my first listening experience with the original album, I already knew that this music had been placed on a pedestal before I was even born.  There was no chance of me being able to have an authentically original opinion, and even if I had an opinion, it was irrelevant.

An Immutable Stone Tablet

So A Love Supreme entered my world as a 2,000 year old stone tablet, an immutable monolith that had critically shaped a certain view of the jazz world for so long that nobody could remember a world without its influence.

I own a copy on cd, and a very nice copy on vinyl, and I never listen to either of them.  I can listen to Coltrane's Sound or Live at the Half Note on infinite loop for days at a time, but A Love Supreme for me is like a heavy meal that you eat once every five or ten years, and maybe you enjoy it more because the Michelin star chefs tell you that it is the best meal in the world, but you find yourself half passed out somewhere between trauma and regret.

A Torch to the Heavens

With all that unpacked (whew!), I have that music in my musical DNA as much as any other modern jazz musician - whatever that means, but you can interpolate that as you like.  I find it a little cringey when musicians quote from it, but on my first concert after the pandemic lockdown, I found myself extending a solo by a chorus and uncontrollably witnessing A Love Supreme coming out of my horn like a torch to the heavens as the band responds in kind (link below)

                                                         Madison Jazz Collective: Jack

When the newly recovered live version was released, I admittedly dragged my feet before purchasing it on vinyl.  I bought it more as scholar than fanatic - I mean, I cannot be a saxophone professor and not study this alternate universe that we can see through some dark and dirty mirror through time and space.  And then, it sat on my shelf for two months.  I couldn't bring myself to even unwrap the cellophane, never mind place it on the turntable.  What will it say about me if I hate it?  Or if I love it?

On December 26, 2021, I could no longer reasonably procrastinate.  The time had finally come.

There are some important considerations that make this live version very unique.  Obviously, it is performed live with a few extra musicians moderately contributing (Pharoah Sanders and Donald Garrett).  The movements and the soloing are extended, stretching over two generous vinyl discs.  The setting is not exactly what you would call "sacred."  The Penthouse was a jazz club that capitalized on the Playboy image of the time, with stylized rabbits in the decor and waitresses dressed as one might imagine.

The recording itself is like having a bad seat in the club.  The drums are too close, and Trane seems to be far away, maybe on the other side of the piano.  You strain to hear him, even though his sound is clearly massive and encompassing.  But, this is a time machine and like many of the rare recordings, it is worth a bit of squinting to see through the fog of history to get a glimpse of real magic that was nearly lost forever.

Upon the first listening, I settled into the sound and established a mental focus on the scene.  I hear some noodling, people talking, some applause - I am in the room.  About 15 minutes into the first movement, tears well up in my eyes for no particular reason.  I suppose that the intensity of the music and the auspiciousness of hearing any previously unheard music by this ensemble is always a heavy load to process.

The music itself is familiar, yet strangely different.  Pieces of the old stone carvings are spaced out with more extended soloing.  At times, it sounds less like the holy sacrament of the studio album and more like . . . well, like the classic quartet blowing in a jazz club.  Because that is what it is - the John Coltrane Quartet at work.


The end result for me is quite unexpected.  For the first time in my life, A Love Supreme is a living thing, as if the weight of that stone tablet is lifted.  I feel a greater connection between this and my own work.  When we place art/artists on pedestals, we tend to forget that they are made of the same star dust as everything else that we have ever known.  Yes, A Love Supreme is a particularly unique and powerful masterpiece, but it is only music, created by musicians that walked the same streets and gazed upon the same sky as the rest of us.

I look forward to going back to the original recording to see how it will change with this new perspective, but I think that I will give it some time.  After all, no matter how you experience it, this music is a heavy dose of jazz expressionism that requires attention and space.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Imposter Syndrome and Social Media

    I had a brush with imposter syndrome last week that I am compelled to share in the hopes that it will help anyone that finds themselves in a similar situation.  It all started when I posted a video two weeks ago . . .

I collaborated with my friend and colleague at James Madison University on a project where he recorded some sounds that I made on my tenor saxophone, and then used granular synthesis to make virtual instruments to compose a kind of dreamscape, with the intention of me improvising with his soundtrack.  He describes it as a kind of improvisational feedback loop, where the genesis and the final product are my improvisations, with his masterful sonic creation in between.  You can learn more about Eric Guinivan, this project, and his work at his website:  ericguinivan.com/howl.html

The performance had already been shared from my JMU concert back in September, but I finally got around to isolating the piece and syncing the video from the livestream with the fantastic audio recording by JMU's sound designer, Tom Carr.  I honestly wasn't expecting much of a reaction, but I wanted to share the video with the intent of promoting the piece.  The idea from the beginning was that the piece could be played by anyone, on any instrument, and I personally find Eric's work to be very compelling, a kind of sci-fi tone poem.  In the first few days, the video slightly did better than my usual posts.  Then, it suddenly caught fire.  On Friday morning, I thought that it might hit 10,000 views.  Soon, it was doing that much per hour!  Eric and I were texting back and forth with excitement and awe at what was happening.  In a matter of days, we passed 250,000 views.

Now, this was not the first time that I have had successful videos.  My YouTube channel had well over a thousand subscribers and over 400,000 views.  Somehow, Howl surpassed all my other videos in a few days.  I made no unusual effort to attract attention, and the video is far from clickbait.  It is a 7 minute piece of fairly abstract art, and honestly, it seemed pretty unlikely to go viral.  It was thrilling to accidentally hit the mark with something that we made with vision and integrity.

Then, the negative comments started.

Someone snarked that the ratio of likes to views was sad and posted a barf emoji.  Another user called it "appalling."  Another comment was so nasty that YouTube took it down before I could even process it.  I suddenly turned dark inside and my inner voice said, "This video is popular because people are making fun of you."  Every bone in my body told me to take the video down before this got even more out of hand.  I had a full blown panic attack.

I thought back to the recital, and how I was nervous because I was operating a lot of electronics for this first time in a live setting.  Howl was the third piece on the program, and I started with a very challenging new work on tenor where I used a looper pedal, followed by a performance on duduk (a traditional Armenian instrument) where I created drones live with a pedal.  When I went back to the tenor to play Howl, my reed was a little dry and I squeaked.  I really don't like squeaking, but it happens, and I made the decision to not edit the video because I wanted to present an honest performance.  Suddenly, I found myself rethinking that decision, now that 100,000 people had heard me squeak, and the views were growing exponentially.

After about an hour of self-loathing, I had a moment of clarity.  I took a look at the negative comments and noted that one of the users had very few followers and only one video that is four years old.  Another had no followers or content at all!  How could I have allowed myself to feel like an imposter over nasty comments by three one-thousandths of a percent of 100,000 viewers?  It is so important to remember how much social media messes with our sense of reality.

I have been making pretty esoteric and abstract music for my entire career, and it isn't for everyone, but it is music that comes from my heart and soul.  I am very proud of this work that I did with Eric Guinivan, and I am grateful that it reached such a large audience online.  I am also grateful for this brush with imposter syndrome and how quickly I was able to shake it off.

To me, the lesson is pretty clear:  share your work and never let "likes" or comments determine your self-worth.  The integrity of your preparation and efforts will be evident, and as one of my heroes, Bob Brookmeyer once told me, "If everyone likes your music, write better music!"


If you are interested in performing Howl, you can find the score video below, and Eric can supply you with a score transposed for whatever instrument you play.  I hope you will give it a try.  The audience loved it and because the sounds originated from my saxophone, it will be a little like playing a duet with me.  How cool is that?

#impostersyndrome #socialmedia #howl #ericguinivan #YouTube

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Building Technical Dexterity for Jazz Improvisation (aka, the superfly exercise)

This article originally appeared in Saxophone Journal, March/April 2007.  Volume 31, No. 4

[An interesting aside to this article is that my right hand is now completely recovered from the old injuries.  I credit this mainly to reinventing my physical approach to the instrument, but also to learning to write in cursive with my right hand as a kind of physical therapy to develop the intrinsic muscles of my "opposite" hand]


            It is a well-known fact that speed can only be developed by slow repetition.  As with so many aspects of craft, the solution to a problem seems counter-intuitive.  Any level of musical maturity allows us to see that the house is only as good as the foundation; effortless dexterity is the inevitable result of attention paid to the slow-motion details of technique.  Obviously, it is important to practice playing rapidly, but there must be a balance that is weighted more towards perfection of the technique through slow-motion practice and analysis.  The following is an exercise that I have been doing for the past several months.  While the specifics of the routine may need to be altered to match the level of individual development, the core ideas of this exercise should be useful to any saxophonist.


When I was in my early twenties, I suffered tendonitis-related injuries in my right hand.  I went from experiencing occasional pain while playing to being in constant pain, even when I was not on the horn.  I had no choice but to take some time off and heal.  My teacher at the time, Lynn Klock, had recently recovered from a broken hand.  With his guidance, I assessed my technique and unlearned the bad habits that led to my injury.  My main problem was that I held the horn up with my thumb in the hook, pulling my hand out of its natural position.  This forced me to grip the horn, and to hyper-extend the first joint of my right ring finger.  As a temporary measure, I removed the thumb hook from my horn completely.  I learned to let the weight of the instrument hang from the neck strap, so I could float my right hand on the saxophone without trying to hold the horn up.  In time, I was able to put the hook back, but only as a means of balancing the instrument.  In other words, I unlearned my habit of applying upward pressure in the thumb rest.


While my hand eventually came back, the injuries were serious enough that the recovery has never really been 100%.  If you play in pain, and most of us do, STOP and figure out what is causing the pain.  I often wish that I had solved my issues sooner.  I can only be grateful that my experience helps me to teach others, so that they might stave off injury.  Do not play in pain!  If you cannot solve your problems on your own, seek the advice of a great teacher.  I have students who have had great success studying Alexander Technique with a qualified teacher.  We must never forget that musicians are elite athletes, using the tiny muscles that no one ever really sees.  We must warm up, refine our technique, and protect ourselves just as a professional athlete does.  While it may be impossible to avoid every injury, it should be possible to play without pain.


I am left-handed, and my right hand is weakened from injury, so I always start by warming up my left hand.  For the following, refer to Basic Dexterity Builder- Left Hand Emphasis.  These passages should be executed at sixty beats per minute.  Each measure should be repeated as many times as necessary, until it can be performed with comfortable ease.  It is extremely important to keep every part of the body relaxed.  Focus your strength on diaphragmatic air support.  Keep the shoulders low, the elbows loose, and the wrists fluid.  Do not think about pushing the keys down, but rather think of getting the fingers out of the way of the keys.  Let the springs do most of the work.  The fingers should be low to the keys, and the hands should keep a relatively rounded position.  Reach out as if you are going to shake hands with someone.  This is the natural hand position that must be maintained:  wrists straight, fingers curved, and thumbs approximating a 90° angle to the rest of the fingers.  DO NOT move on to the next measure until you are satisfied that you can perform the current group of notes in a relaxed fashion. If tension is introduced into the process, the entire point of these exercises is lost.


As the notes come at a faster rate, concentrate on lifting the fingers.  Again, keep them low to the keys, but emphasize the negative action (releasing the keys), instead of the positive pushing down on the pearls.  At a certain point, it will become impossible to evenly divide the beat by thinking of the numbers.  I have had success using the Indian syllable to divide fives and sevens (for more on this, check out Ronan Guilfoyle’s excellent book Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation), but anything from elevens on is more of a feel.  If you can stay relaxed, just work on hitting the target notes on the downbeats and making the notes between as even as possible.  When you really get down to it, the notes should feel like water flowing between the beats.  This takes time and patience, and one must never attempt to play at a speed that requires pounding on the keys.  The body, the hands, and notes should all be fluid, like liquid.


As I said, I am left-handed, so I begin with the left hand emphasized.  On any given day, I will only work as far as I can without becoming tense.  Once I reach the point of tension, I slow back down and begin the right hand emphasis exercises.  The tempo should remain at sixty beats per minute throughout.  Take great care in maintaining good posture, active air support, and gentle fingers.  Repeat each measure at least ten times, increasing repetitions with the increased subdivisions of the beat.  I will often play the faster measures for several minutes at a time.  When a true feeling of effortlessness is achieved, and only then, it is time to move on.


The astute student will notice that these exercises only address the key of C.  I alternate between two methods of taking these patterns through the keys.  The first way is to go all the way through, and then begin again with an added flat.  Subsequent repetitions will continue to add a flat until it makes sense to switch to sharps, again letting the sharps accumulate one at a time.  If a particular cell of notes does not include the newly altered note, ignore the fact and play on until the changed note appears.  A second approach is to stay on one measure, adding flats and then sharps, until all variations have been performed.  Then move forward to the next measure, again working through all the variations.  Clearly, some versions of each measure will be more difficult.  When you have reached an alteration that you cannot perform with ease, slow it down, or move on to the next measure.  In certain extremely challenging note configurations, I will perform the measure at half-speed.


This strategy for building dexterity is only the beginning of what is possible.  These patterns could begin on different notes, or extend into the altissimo register.  In certain keys, I will extend the upper register to altissimo D, E, or even F.  Another great variation is to invert the intervals and play from the top down.  Do not limit yourself to scalar motion, but try playing in thirds to make extended arpeggios.  I can only imagine that the great John Coltrane practiced in this manner, developing a technique that freely fit as many notes between the beat as he desired.  If you cannot perform at your speed goals, spend more time with the slower measures.  Build a solid foundation for the house!  Be creative with the concept behind this exercise and try to create your own variations.


Speed is the illusive goal of many musicians.  Never lose sight of the importance of proper technique as the vehicle towards speed.  Tension, heavy handedness, and lifting the fingers up straight are all enemies in the process.  The most benefit will be derived from the time spent working slowly for consistency.  Over the course of several months, you should notice an increase in precision, speed, and relaxation.  I hope this is helpful, and I welcome your thoughts at popesax@mac.com.  Practice well!  §

#superfly #dexterity #warmup #oppositehand #tendonitis 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Diatonic Patterns With Neighbor Tones

This article originally appeared in Saxophone Journal, January/February 2003.  Volume 27, No. 3


            It goes without saying that part of the process of learning to improvise is mastery of scales in all keys.  After scales come diatonic intervals, triads, and arpeggios.  When improvising on chord changes, it is necessary to have a handle on scales, intervals, and simple patterns so that one can “play the right notes.”  The next step in using these materials is to embellish the basic patterns.  An easy way to dress up a simple pattern is to add neighbor tones.  In this column, I will show some different ways of using neighbor tones to add interest to diatonic patterns.  This method of practicing will not only build vocabulary for improvisation, but will also help develop technical dexterity.




For the purposes of illustration, we will look at two basic patterns: diatonic thirds and diatonic triads.  Keep in mind that the basic principles can be applied to any diatonic pattern, such as fourths, seventh chords, or any melodic pattern.  Example one shows the basic patterns, in the key of C.  Before one attempts to embellish these patterns, it is important to be comfortable playing the unaltered originals.  It is also best to have the patterns memorized, especially if the intent is to build an improvisational vocabulary.


The first kind of neighbor tone is the diatonic neighbor.  These neighbors are within the given tonality, or key signature.  Example 2 shows the basic patterns with the addition of lower diatonic neighbors before each cell of the pattern.  On the way down, the pattern inverts and the neighbors are upper diatonic tones.




Another form of the ornamentation is to use chromatic neighbors.  Instead of staying within the given tonality or key signature, always place lower neighbors a half-step below and upper neighbors a half-step above. Example 3 show a portion of thirds and triads with chromatic neighbors.


Playing through these examples should give the general idea of how neighbor tones work.  Take these patterns through all twelve major keys, without look at music.  Once the sound gets in your ear, these should come relatively easily.  For clarity’s sake, the patterns in example 1-3 work well on the following chords: C major (ionian), D minor seventh (dorian), E phrygian, F major seven sharp eleven (lydian), G dominant seven (mixolydian), A natural minor (aeolian), and B Locrian.   The whole process could (and should) be repeated for the modes of melodic minor, and any other diatonic scale system that might prove useful for improvisation, such as harmonic minor, harmonic major (ionian flat six), etc.




Practicing these patterns will build dexterity, and playing them will yield “right notes,” but the overall sound will be relatively bland and predictable.  The next step towards building a dynamic vocabulary, or “hipping things up,” is working with more interesting patterns.  Remember, neighbor tones will work on any pattern of repeating note cells.  Example 4 shows the pattern “up a second, up a fourth” with upper chromatic neighbors.




Until now, we have been using one neighbor at a time.  It is possible to use both neighbors, upper and lower, to encircle the target note.  Example 5 demonstrates the same basic cell as Example 4, but embellished with double chromatic neighbors.


There are many other ways that neighbor tones can be applied to diatonic patterns.  One way is to place the neighbor tone inside the cell, instead of at the beginning.  Example 6 illustrates this concept by subscribing the lower chromatic neighbor to the third in diatonic triads.




By practicing simple patterns for speed and comfort, it becomes possible to make up patterns on the spot, while improvising over chord changes.  It also develops mental and physical dexterity to play longer, more challenging patterns.  Example 7 shows a pattern which is larger and more complex than the preceding examples.  The pattern consists of fully extended thirteenth arpeggios with alternating upper and lower chromatic neighbors before every note.




When playing a complicated pattern with many neighbors, it helps to mentally focus on the basic notes of the pattern.  Visualize the neighbors in a different way, so that you don’t get tangled up in the chromaticism.  I try to see the target notes as rungs on a ladder, and the neighbor tones are the spaces between the rungs.  Another way might be to see the target notes as red and the neighbors as yellow, or whatever color scheme works for you.  I practice improvising patterns with the metronome, forcing myself to stay in perfect time.  IF I am unable to play the pattern precisely with the metronome, I keep turning the tempo down until I can play evenly and without pausing to think.  From there, if the pattern is musically attractive to me, I’ll keep speeding it up.




In the early stages of practice, it is necessary to think about each note.  As the motor skills take over, there is less thinking involved.  The ultimate goal is to be able to turn a pattern on and let it fly with no mental effort.  The mind is then free to be creative with the pattern.  You might think about different rhythms to play, varying articulations, changing the time feel, or working with tone colors.  Music can be made using patterns, but never forget that patterns alone are not music!  Peace.  §

#diatonicpatterns #neighbortones 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Critical Thinking About Jazz Improvisation

 This article originally appeared in Saxophone Journal, Sept/Oct 1996.  Volume 21, No. 2

    It is important to feel good about your playing.  If playing the saxophone were unpleasant, clearly a magazine like this one wouldn’t exist.  For many saxophonists, it becomes very easy to “get comfortable” when a certain level of proficiency and (especially) technique is achieved.  It is in these moments of satisfaction that we must be able to continue to look critically at our own playing.  This is not be confused with beating yourself up, a practice which I wholeheartedly discourage.  What I am suggesting is developing the ability to remain cognizant of what is really coming out of your horn.

In recent years I have enjoyed a modest amount of success and attention.  I would be lying if I said that those things don’t matter to me and I am unaffected.  This would be clearly lying with the pretense of being modest. Never, ever do that.  It is important to have a generous amount of humility in your overall vibe, but when someone pays you a compliment, no matter what you might think, smile and say “thank you.”  This is a lesson that I learned from my former teacher and friend Lynn Klock, and he credits the lesson to his mentor, the late Larry Teal.  It [would be, often] is very easy for me to feel quite good about myself, in certain contexts.  Hanging out in the comfort zone for too long is devastating to progress.  This is why it is necessary to find fault with your playing: not to take away from the pleasure of the moments in which high quality and artistry is achieved, but to know what needs to be practiced and worked out.

I’ve included a “Mental Checklist” that I try to use sometimes before I improvise.  Clearly it would not be possible to think about all ten things at once or even in the space of one solo.  The key is to assimilate these things into the automatic processes one at a time, thus making it possible to make a new list of considerations.  I think about most of these ten things, but usually end up focusing on two to four of them.  Obviously, choosing a different focus in a particular solo will produce a different musical result.  One time, I might be really concentrating on varying my articulation and time feel, but my tone might be relatively straight ahead and unchanging.  The next time I might concentrate on leaving space for the solo solo to breathe and varying the tone colors, but I might neglect a different slant musically.  This list is also ever changing.  As one topic becomes automated, a new topic immediately takes its place in the checklist.  There was a time when my checklist included topics like “Am I clearly outlining the harmony,” “Am I not starting on the root of every chord every time,” “and “Am I sitting up straight?”  This is an illustration of the reasoning behind my checklist.


Mental Checklist


1.     Am I playing with my best possible tone?

2.     Am I thinking about variety in the tonal colors?

3.     Is my time feel connecting with the musical environment?

4.     Are my rhythms varied and interesting?

5.     Is my articulation varied and interesting?

6.     Am I developing my ideas throughout the solo?

7.     Is my body physically relaxed

8.     Am I leaving adequate space (rest)?

9.     Am I just playing licks when I don’t know what to play?

10.  Am I making a spiritual statement about my life through my instrument?


Number one is about my tendency to sometimes get caught up in what the notes are instead of what the notes sound like.  Who cares if I just played a tone row and then perfectly inverted it in retrograde if the tone is crummy?

Number two is about my tendency to only think about my tone at the beginning and end of phrases.  This relates back to my article on “Not Sculpting.”  Number three is important in that it is often overlooked by immature players.  Besides simply playing the notes evenly or with a good swing feel, how does my time fit in with the rhythm section’s?

Nothing is more uncomfortable to listen to than a soloist who is unable to coalesce with the drummer and bass player’s time feel.  Many players will set up a dynamic of playing with and against the time feel of the band as a source of tension and release.  This allows a new dimension in resolution.  Number four is rather self explanatory.  No one wants to hear a continuous string of unending eight notes without any variation. Number five is a strong point that many of us miss.  A strong vocabulary of articulations can lead to an extremely personal sound.  I got this feeling from hearing Joe Henderson in concert recently.  The variation is way beyond just staccato and legato, but more within the many shades of gray which lie between the extremes.  Other masters of articulation include Jerry Bergonzi, David Liebman, and of course Charlie Parker.

Number six is seemingly obvious, but in the heat of the moment, it becomes relatively easy to just keep churning out material that sounds good rather than to deal with the material as a whole.  For a real feeling of motivic development, check out the writing of Jim McNeely.

Number seven is vital to good saxophone playing.  By forcing the body into unnatural positions while playing, the best thing that can happen is what valuable energy will be lost absorbed by the action of setting up body tension.  At worst, physical stress can spell tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome down the road.  This is bad news and very easily avoidable if a certain respect for the human body as it related to playing the saxophone is maintained.  I remind myself to not try to hold the weight of the saxophone in my hands; let the neckstrap do its job!  If you need a better neckstrap, just get one.  There is no excuse for causing bodily harm to oneself in the process of creating art (as far as I am concerned anyway!).

Number eight is my way to keep from filling up every available space with a flurry of notes.  It is important to remember that without silence, there would be no music.

Number nine is extremely important for all improvisers to consider.  Remember that playing a lick from the mental library simply because “it fits there” is the antithesis of improvisation.  I like to connect this with leaving space.  The solution to the problem is this: When in doubt, lay out!  Nothing is more obvious than regurgitating patterns in the appropriate places in lieu of making any real artistic motion.

Number ten is for me, the most important factor of them all.  Music only moves me when it sounds like it is reflective of a particular experience.  Yusef Lateef once told me that improvisation is a reflection of the human experience.  If your music is not somehow connected with your overall aesthetic, what purpose does it serve, other than to chill folks out in the elevator or the dentist’s chair!

Never forget that in order to get better, it is necessary to locate the weaknesses and refine them while keeping the strongs strong.  Critical thinking about music is vital in order to maintain a healthy balance between feeling good and feeling inspired to move on.  Until next time, practice hard.  §

#improvisation #checklist #critical #larryteal #lynnklock #yuseflateef

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

In admiration: Matt Smiley

 I was so happy to read this fantastic article about my former student and friend forever, Matt Smiley:

Matt Smiley: Riding the Waves of Free Jazz

Matt graduated from JMU in 2007, he took a number of classes with me, but most importantly, he spent several years as the bassist in my trio on a weekly club gig in downtown Harrisonburg, VA.  When he started playing with me, he was not really ready for the gig.  But whatever he lacked in knowledge and experience, he made up for with giant ears and boundless enthusiasm for the music.  I pushed him very hard on the gig, often giving him extended solos and challenging him to "find a new gear" as we took the intensity higher and higher.  I was able to watch him grow up in the classroom and on the bandstand.  It remains one of the most memorable chapters of my career.

Five years after he left Harrisonburg to begin his career in Colorado, he invited me to record an album with another wonderful JMU grad and alum of my trio, Matt Coyle,  their fellow JMU alum trumpeter, Josh Reed,  and Colorado guitarist Ryan Fourt.  I count this album as one of my finest recordings.  To share the studio with former students who had become very much my equal was unforgettable.  It is important to note that Brother Smiley treated me in a thoroughly professional manner, flying me out, setting me up with a very nice hotel room, food and drink, and he paid me my normal recording fee.  There was also beautiful fellowship and meaningful conversations that still resonate in my mind.

The album earned 4.5 stars in allaboutjazz and you can read the review here.

I remember the moment that I realized that Matt Smiley was going to be something very special.  He was in my advanced improvisation class at JMU, performing a transcription of an unaccompanied bass solo by Dave Holland - I'm pretty sure that it was Solar.

As he started playing, I thought that the cd player must have stopped.  His eyes were closed and I didn't want to stop him, so I got up and looked at the stereo.  To my surprise, the cd was playing normally.  Matt had learned every nuance of this solo so perfectly that his tremendous bass sound completely covered the album as it played on the large sound system in the classroom.  My eyes widened as I sat back down and listened with my full attention.

Matt demonstrated the true art of transcription better than any other student that I have ever witnessed (no offense to my many wonderful students!).  It isn't about the notes, or certainly not the notes alone.  His huge fundamentals on the bass, his attention to articulation, to intonation, to phrasing, and most of all, to THE ENERGY of the recording elevated his understanding of music.  Not just that one particular recording, but all music.  I have told this story many times.  I witnessed a transformation in his musicianship that turned into an unstoppable freight train.  He was indeed "riding the wave."

There is a wide misunderstanding about so-called free jazz musicians.  The modern free jazz artist must have a level of musicianship that equals any other virtuoso in any other style.  They must also be capable of instantly imagining and creating in real time, reacting to the environment, all while allowing the music to rise and fall as organically as possible.  Once a free improvisation begins, it flows like a river.  The greatest free artists give life to an idea that becomes a living thing.  They must feed the idea without unduly influencing its evolution.  Free music rises from the air, tells a story, and comes to an end.  It is a most exhilarating experience and it can only reach the ultimate heights when the musicians subdue their egos and submit to the integrity and momentum of the original idea.

It goes without saying that I have great love and admiration for Matt Smiley.  He has become a complete artist and scholar, all while remaining a kind and generous human.  His friendship means the world to me and he reminds me of the incredible privilege that teaching has given me over the years.  Matt will soon be completing a doctorate and I imagine that some university will be incredibly lucky to hire him.  He is a shining example of the performer-composer-improviser paradigm that is so important to the new generation of musicianship in higher education.  He is leading the way and I can hardly wait to see what the future holds for him.

Keep riding that wave, my brother.  πŸ’œπŸ’›πŸ’œπŸ’›