About Me

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

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Greatest Saxophonists in the World - and how the very idea is harming us

     The recent controversy in the saxophone world surrounding the release of "this year's model" tore the curtains back to reveal a deep and painful division.  What is argued to be the greatest saxophone company in the world appeared to unintentionally work on a new instrument for eight years without consulting any women saxophonists.  The problem, at least in my opinion, is that they had eight years to think about it and nobody ever noticed until it was too late.  A quick look at the list of their endorsing artists reveals a long list of outstanding women, so the questions remains.  What went wrong?

I have been a university saxophone professor for over twenty years.  A quick look back at my list of students reveals that about 40% of my class has been female.  I can also think of a long list of incredible women that I have either studied with, performed with, or admired.  You actually don't have to work very hard at all to come up with a list of highly accomplished female saxophonists.

When I asked friends and students what they thought about the absence of the voice of women in the big release, two answers were very common.

  1. I didn't really notice until someone pointed it out.
  2. They [the company] just wanted to focus on the best players in the world.
Point number one perfectly illustrates the underlying problem.  If you are a woman, you noticed.  If you are a man, it could easily sail right by you.  That is how privilege works.  We tend not to notice exclusion when we are not the ones being excluded.  There is much to unpack there, but for now, let's look at number two.

THE IDEA OF "BEST"

I asked my students some questions about the second suggestion:
  • How do we know who are the best saxophonists in the world?
  • Who actually decides?
  • Who is helped or harmed by this list?
For fun, I conducted a little experiment.  I googled "best saxophonists in the world."  I know, I know.  This is a ridiculous thing to do, but I had no trouble getting a list.  I went with the top hit and was instantly hit with some interesting information.  In this "top ten," I found myself looking at a list of saxophonists that were entirely jazz musicians, almost entirely black men, and mostly deceased.  I kept looking at lists, but google would only give me lists of jazz saxophonists.  The only way that I could get any classical saxophonists was to include the word "classical" in my search.

When I did include the word classical, I got a list from a British website that included Rascher, Mule, Rousseau, and three British saxophonists.  One of those saxophonists had a business connection with the parent company of the site.  This wasn't much of a list, but at least some of the saxophonists were alive, and two of them were women.  At the end of my little experiment, and it was indeed little, I was unable to find a list that included classical and jazz saxophonists on a single list.

Before we continue, I want to emphasize that this is probably the least scientific investigation that I have ever conducted.  I fully realize that google won't even give us the same results, and search engines show us what is popular or what they are paid to show us.  Google doesn't actually have expertise or an opinion on the matter.  What follows is just some observations that may or may not have much value, but I think that we find some good fodder for discussion.

WHAT DOES GOOGLE LIKE?

Google tells us that the best saxophonists play jazz.  Why is that?  I will argue that jazz has historically been far more popular in terms of commercial success.  Most of these saxophonists are dead because the golden age of jazz, at least in terms of selling records and generating profit through festivals and clubs, well, it is over.  If we use record sales and media presence as metrics, modern artists cannot compete because the market has diminished greatly over the years.  There is an unbreakable connection here between "the best" and "the most popular."

If we continue on this path, jazz is historically far more popular than so-called classical saxophone.  Larry Teal became the first full-time American saxophone professor in the United States in the 1950s, so it is important to note that the saxophone was a marginalized instrument.  If you had the desire and the means to study music formally, it was very difficult to do that as a saxophonist.  On the other hand, the saxophone was considerably more accessible to African American men that had severely limited access to music schools,  and they could learn jazz from the recordings and from the community, essentially becoming self-taught.  This seems to have been socially acceptable for men, but far less so for women, which illustrates the damage of being even farther marginalized.

HOW DO WE MEASURE?

Getting back to the question of "best," how do we measure musical greatness?  We can obviously make subjective observations, such as tonal beauty, phrasing, and perceived virtuosity.  It is also possible to take some objective measurements, like accuracy of intonation, speed of articulation, and range.  When I looked at my original list of "bests," two saxophonists (whom I love very much) threw this method of evaluation into chaos:  Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.

Ornette and Ayler make the subjective elements difficult to use as a meaningful comparison with more traditional saxophonists.  If Ornette was our first expressionist, Ayler is our Jackson Pollock.  I am firmly convinced that Albert Ayler didn't really play the saxophone very well [edit: Ayler is very important to me, but I am suggesting that he cannot, and should not, be evaluated in terms such as "accuracy of intonation"] because it wasn't a requirement for the music that he brought forth from his imagination.  He was speaking in tongues and communicating more with waves of sound than with notes.  It is extremely important to acknowledge that these  avant-gardists had an important influence on many of the other "bests" on the list, including John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.  That influence did not involve any of my suggested measures of musical greatness because Free Jazz transcends the sum of its parts.  In other words, some music doesn't necessarily require perfect intonation or purity of tone.

THE LIST HAS AN AGENDA

My first google hit for classical saxophone demonstrates source-generated bias.  Half of this list was British saxphonists, and while I agree that all three listed are excellent musicians.  It was a little hard to imagine that Cecil Leeson, Donald Sinta, or Fred Hemke (for example) would not be on this list.  Remember, this list came from the BBC, and one person on the list works for the BBC.  As with most lists of "bests," whether we are talking about musicians or phone apps, the list has an agenda.

Another curiosity that I encountered is that the classical list included Mule and Rascher, the pioneers of the style.  As a student of the saxophone, one must study both of these founders.  The jazz list, however, completely ignored Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Lester Young . . . even though they are the founders, and Hawkins is arguably the inventor of the extended improvisation in jazz.  Every single saxophonist on the jazz list would be impossible without those founders.  I believe that they are not included because Sonny, Trane, and Bird sold more records.  They were commercially more popular, and that seems to be a metric that is hidden just below the surface of what is means to be "best."

"THE CLUB"

When I was a young man, my goal was to be "the greatest saxophonist in the world."  I practiced myself into physical and mental illness that endured for several decades.  I practiced furiously, I continued to win awards and garner professional accolades, but I realized that I would never be able to break into "the club."  The idea of being "the best" was very damaging to my personal happiness, and wellness.  I started to get better when I made peace with the fact that "best" is an illusion that is generated by those with power.  When we allow ourselves to believe that only a certain number of elite artists are the exclusive top of field, we are being manipulated into buying products.  Worse still, as the echo chamber increases in amplitude, there is even less room for others to be recognized.  This is how record companies, concert promoters, and product manufacturers invent an imaginary club called "best in the world," but I have concluded that the real club is almost everyone else in the profession; not being in the club is the club!

STOP USING SUPERLATIVES

There are some very real things that saxophonists can do to heal our community.  Firstly, I think that we need to stop using the language of superlatives.  Coleman Hawkins and Marcel Mule are essential, but there is no reason to rank them, and even if you could, what would be the point?  Second, we must stop believing in the idea of "best in the world."  This is difficult because there are powerful forces that are purposefully and/or unintentionally reinforcing the idea of "best."  I honestly believe that the company that started this controversy did not realize that they were believing their own list, the list that they created.  That is how echo chambers operate, after all.  Finally, we need to look for new artists and make our own determinations, and we need to support those artists.

DIVERSITY IS REALITY

When I was starting my career, I went to work for Saxophone Journal.  I was told on the day that I was hired
  1. We don't review, we only recommend (positivity and support)
  2. We always feature classical, jazz, and rock/pop/smooth jazz artists
  3. We always include racial and gender diversity because it reflects the real world
I remember Dave Gibson, editor of the magazine, said that featuring women was important because they are literally everywhere in the profession.  The approach was not to require token this-or-that every so often.  The magazine strove to include everyone.  I had no idea how ahead of their time they were.  That approach continued with Saxophone Today, and I see a similar philosophy at The Saxophonist.  It is easy to support diversity in the saxophone world because it exists.

[Did you notice that Google didn't show me any rock or smooth jazz saxophonists?  No Junior Walker? No Clarence Clemmons?  No Candy Dulfer?  No Kenny G?]

Every facet of my professional life improved when I stopped trying to be the best, when I saw the club as an artificial construct.  No matter how one tries to measure musical greatness, the bottom line is that we make beauty in the air, and if we try to measure beauty, we damage the music, and ourselves.  There is room for everyone, but before we can invite people into the space, we have to make room in our own heads.

Practice well, and share the light.






 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Remembering Benny Carter at the Eastman School of Music, 1996

     I was a first-year arranging student in the masters program at Eastman in the spring of 1996.  Fred Sturm, my mentor and the head of the program at the time, arranged for Benny to do a short residency and Fred had asked him to send some charts.  I will never forget when Fred showed me the old trunk that Benny sent with his original, hand-written parts!  They were priceless manuscripts, and Benny just sent them to us.

I also remember that in the first rehearsal, Benny teared up after hearing us play and  he said something like, and this is a paraphrase from my memory, "I haven't heard this music live since we first played it in 1940.  I can't believe that you young guys are even interested in it, never mind that you sound just like the original."  I don't think that any of us ever got over that moment.  I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

I also remember that Benny's alto sound filled the Eastman Theatre.  It was huge and warm.  Listening back to his recordings from the 1920s, his style hadn't really changed, but it was an education to be in the room with a human time machine.  He also apologized for not being able to play the trumpet anymore, but his chops were gone.  Benny was 89 years old at this time!!!

As a person, he was very generous and kind.  I will never forget how warmly he greeted us.  I don't think he looked at the clock once.  Benny Carter was charming, funny,  and self-effacing, so much so that you might forget that, along with Johnny Hodges, he literally invented the jazz alto saxophone.  (He remarked that he wanted to play C-melody like Trumbauer, but he could only afford an alto, so that was it!)

Below are my notes from Benny's masterclass, where he was assisted by his biographer, Ed Berger.  When Benny couldn't remember an answer, Ed would answer for him and Benny would say, "That's right!  How do you remember more about my life than I do?"  It was simply unforgettable and I'm so happy that I found these notes.

Friday, January 1, 2021


This article originally appeared in Saxophone Journal, March/April 2013.  Volume 37, No. 4

 

Creating Synthetic Bop Scales

 

            Improvisers are presented with the interesting challenge of figuring out “what to play.”  Beyond the most basic chord/scale theory, there is a tremendous amount of flexibility for note choices, and you are “the decider.”  In this issue, we will look at some ways of finding interesting linear additions to the most familiar of sources: the major scale.  Hopefully, readers are already familiar with the bop seventh scale (containing both the major and the flatted seventh).  This scale is a mode of the major bop scale, which utilizes the raised fourth degree as a chromatic passing tone between steps four and five.  The following scales are all variations of the major scale, but with chromatic passing tones in different places.  For lack of a better label, I call these synthetic bop scales.



 


For reference, example 1 shows the major bop scale in G major, commonly used on tonic chords – for the rest of this article, all scales should be considered relative to a G major chord.  It is worth noticing that adding a pitch to a traditional, 7-note diatonic scale results in an even number of notes.  This means that we can span the octave in eighth notes, starting and ending on downbeats (or upbeats, if we choose).  Symmetrical phrasing, if desired, is easily achieved with this arrangement of notes.

 

The traditional version of the bop scale is found throughout the repertoire, but the concept of adding a passing tone to a basic set of pitches is actually at the core of the bebop tradition.  In example 2, the passing tone is in a different place, connecting the second and third degrees of the major scale.  This new scale has a bluesy sound, especially if we emphasize the chromatic note.  Example 3 moves the passing tone upward, bridging the fifth and sixth.  This scale has a brighter, or perhaps a more neutral sound than example 2.  Adjectives are highly subjective in this context, so I encourage you to play the scales for yourself and to find your own way of describing the sound.  Example 4 crushes the passing tone down to the sharp one.  This is a particularly dissonant sounding scale, encroaching on the tonic note.  This is a great choice for creating tension!

 

There is no reason to strictly adhere to one scale.  Example 5 ascends with one scale, and descends with another.  Naturally, it would also be possible to mix and match in whatever order you might choose, or to use chromaticism randomly, depending upon the musical situation.  At a certain point, the randomness would cease to suggest scales, at least from the perspective of the listener.  I find myself frequently aiming for a target and improvising the appropriate number of passing tones to get the right resolution.  This takes practice, and the fundamentals of that level of improvisation are contained in a preliminary mastery of the scales themselves.  At its best, this kind of improvising has an exciting, edge-of-your-seat kind of sound.

 

Another compelling property of this chromaticism is the potential for fitting more notes into a relatively narrow range than a diatonic scale will allow.  For that specific reason, many trumpet players are exceptionally good at improvising these kinds of snaking lines, since range, and conservation of chops are more of an issue for them.  Taken to the extreme, one could even use microtones to squeeze in even more notes into a small space.  Example 6 places a quarter-step passing tone between the major seventh and the root  (finger an F# in the normal way, and add the side F# key, raising the pitch an extra quarter-step).  This is very dissonant, creating an almost anxious quality to the sound.  I use a variety of these microtonal scales, which I will present in a future column.  For the interested student, there are excellent quarter-tone fingering charts in the books of Londeix and Ronald Caravan.

 

Back in the realm of more conventional bebop technique, example 7 provides three phrase endings that I associate with Charlie Parker, all based on the previous examples.  Bird was the master of executing long, flowing lines that always managed to neatly punctuate with licks that have become the wonderful clich├ęs of the bop language.  Examples 8 and 9 show two sample lines, using elements from the previous examples, again to be played over a G Major chord.  For contrast, the former is very scalar, spanning well over an octave, while the latter is very tightly compressed, for increased tension over a smaller range.

 

A truly great improviser gives the audience the feeling that they are hearing a unique voice.  Sound is obviously the most important musical element, and the core of musical identity, but there are many players that are deeply associated with the way that they play the changes.  Joe Henderson is a great example of both types of uniqueness, with his dry, compact tone and his highly individual (and virtuosic) arpeggiations.  As you explore the possibilities, pay careful attention to the bits of language that sound good to you, and then work those musical bits and pieces into your approach with the highest degree of mastery possible.  You will end up with more ways to play the changes, but you will also build a vocabulary that helps to define your overall sound.  Practice well!  §

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Developing an Improvisational Language

This article originally appeared in Saxophone Journal, May/June 2013.  Volume 37, No. 5

 

            Jazz might be the music of poets and lovers, but it also attracts plenty of jocks and tough guys.  Individual style speaks to the way that we see the world, and how we relate to our environment.  Improvisation is usually interactive, and therefore a social activity, but it can sometimes be quite the opposite.  In the moment, we can channel the quiet, internal world of the mind, or aggressively charge forth, all blood and guts.  The language of each improviser is a unique and personal spectrum of expression, and the cult of jazz personality is sustained by heart-on-sleeve performances, even if the heart is one of cool, detached intellectualism, or even a heart of darkness.  At a certain level of artistry, when the need for proving and posturing is over, we can fully become who we already were.

 

I recently played a short stint in Colorado with some truly fine musicians that I was meeting for the first time.  On one of the breaks, a band member was asking me about some of the things that I had played in the previous set.  He described the things that he had heard in a way that I hadn’t really thought of before, but he was articulating, in his own way, some of the deeper processes of improvisation.  It was very interesting to get the perspective of a stranger with a highly developed ear, after carefully listening (and interacting in a supremely artistic manner, I should add!).  This caused me to reflect on all the different ways that I think about improvising, and how I slowly accrued those methodologies, one by one, over many years of hard practice.

 

There is no single “correct” method for learning how to improvise.  I know great players that used play-alongs and chord/scale theory, while others relied mostly on transcribing.  Some shun transcribing altogether, for fear of sounding too much like somebody else.  Furthermore, the nomenclature can very widely among a group of well-matched musicians, making it more challenging to talk about the music.  Sometimes, a student can be totally hung up by a method of deriving information because it just doesn’t make sense to them.  For example, when I was a student, I learned about something called the super locrianscale.  It was explained to me as a major scale with the root raised by half-step.  This made my brain hurt.  Another student explained it to me as a locrian scale with a lowered fourth.  This made the left hemisphere of my brain slowly melt out of my ear!  I struggled for a long time, never really mastering that part of the language until the day that someone showed me that you could go up a half-step from the root and play the ascending form of melodic minor.  For some reason, that explanation made very clear sense to me, and to this very day, I continue to think about altered dominants in this way.  All roads lead to the same place, but we usually need to find the path that best suits our individual needs.  Now and then, it is necessary to learn something a few different ways before the concept finally sinks in.  There are no shortcuts in the learning business.

 

Jazz culture places soloists above all, and this leads to egoism. There is a strong tendency to act cool and aloof, even when we don’t know what the heck is going on.  Especially when we don’t know what’s going on.  The long-term damage of the shuck-and-jive routine can literally set you back by years.  By admitting that you don’t understand something, you can keep trying to find a new way to comprehend a given concept.  If you ask ten teachers to explain something, you are likely to get as many as ten different accounts of the truth.  This can be confusing, but only until you find the way that makes the most sense to you.  Never give up, and never be afraid to say, “I still don’t understand.”

 

As a teacher, my philosophy is that the best way to solve problems is to distill each challenge into a clear statement.  A problem should be expressed in a single sentence, in plain language.  For instance, “I don’t know what to play on half-diminished chords.”  If the problem is too complex to state in one sentence, try to break it down into a set of smaller, simpler problems.  Once the problem is clearly established, the answers (and there usually are multiple solutions) can be laid out in the same, matter-of-fact language.  One path for our sample problem might be something like, “Play a melodic minor scale on the third,” or, “Play a major seven sharp-five chord on the tritone.”  Simplicity is about minimizing the number of steps necessary to solve the puzzle.  Life on the bandstand is fast and furious.  A moment of hesitation is all it takes to get lost.  Get to the important stuff as quickly as possible, not by cutting corners, but by identifying the straightest path.

 

The issue of multiple solutions has a lot to do that expanding bag of tricks.  Once we understand a particular way of negotiating a chord type, or a progression, we should master that method and then search for alternatives.  If we only have one way of getting out of trouble, we will only use that way, and once your audience can easily anticipate your next move, they will be bored with you and they will stop listening.  Much in the way that great writers constantly seek new metaphors and expressive devices, the improviser must expand his/her language.  New sounds and melodic structures will keep solos sounding fresh, and provide a greater capacity for choice.  The single most potent element of improvisation is the ability of the musician to make choices, on the fly, and in the moment.

 

Long-time readers of my column know that I tend towards a wide variety of techniques.  I have written about chord/scale theory, upper structures, modal approaches, voice-leading techniques, triad pairs, and even atonal systems and tone rows.  An over-reliance on any one way of thinking will lead to predictability, and then monotony (for the listener and for the player).  My training has given me flexibility to quickly adapt to different musical environments.  I enjoy playing all kinds of music, and I can equally enjoy burning an up-tempo swinger or laying back on an atmospheric ballad.  In retrospect, it is easy to see how I amassed the different techniques that ultimately formed my voice.  Here are a few key points that have worked for me.

 

1.     Never immediately discount anything, ever.  Give it a chance, or put it away for future exploration.

2.     Study with a master teacher for an extended period of time.  Then find a new master.  Repeat as necessary.

3.     Transcribe one artist until you gain deep insight into his style.  Then find a new artist.  Repeat as necessary.

4.     Respect the tradition, study history, and get the oldest musician in town to tell you her stories.

5.     Don’t lie to yourself, and don’t quit.

6.     Have a notebook.  Fill it.  Get a new notebook.

7.     Be confident, but always assume that there is a better player in the band, and an even better player in the audience.

8.     Be generous on stage and share the spotlight.

9.     Regularly read all sorts of books, magazines, and newspapers.

10.    Teach!  You will nurture the future of music by helping young artists, and by building new audiences.  (You will also learn unexpected things from your students.)

 

There are no shortcuts to becoming a master.  You will make choices that relate to your values, musical and otherwise.  You will face dark hours of intense doubt.  There will be spectacular successes, and punishing humiliations.  It takes a long time, and patience isn’t exactly cultivated in contemporary society.  If you can muscle it out, endure the tough times, and keep your nose to the wheel, you will eventually get there.  It is only a question of how badly you want it, and how much you are willing to sacrifice to get there.  Everyone is unique, but nobody is born a master.  It is a process of becoming.  Practice well!  §

Friday, July 31, 2020

Should I take a gap year?

Some interesting debates online about "should you change majors, "should you take a gap," etc. Here is my honest take - the same thing that I share with my students and my own children:

1. A gap year only makes sense if you have something better lined up than being a f/t student. If your plan is to live with your parents and drive food delivery or bag groceries, I don't think that is going to do much for your mental health. Worse still, you might end up living at home, sleeping all day and playing video games at night with no job at all. You'd be better off at least taking some classes online.
2. A college degree is a degree. How many of us do something that is different from, or tangential to, our actual majors. I am primarily a classical saxophone professor, but my degrees are in jazz studies and jazz arranging. Closely related? Sure! But I took on the extra study and teaching outside of my required curricula, which took extra time and money.
3. A degree will get you through the screening process of jobs that *require* a degree, but only YOU can develop the skills necessary to win a job. You are the architect of your future.
4. Don't make a one semester plan. Make a 5-year plan. Allow for contingencies, of course. Have an optimistic top tier and a last ditch version, if nothing else works out. After my masters degree, I ended up at the bottom rung of my plan, but 3 years later, I was back on top.
5. You certainly don't *have* to go to college. It is expensive, and we are all worried about having to go back online while the pandemic continues to wreak havoc. With that said, think carefully about how you spend, borrow, and invest. I still believe that education is an incredibly valuable investment.
6. How you spend the hours is how you spend your life. It is over quickly. Be smart, be realistic, but don't give up just because things look bleak. This is temporary, and we are all sharing in the suffering.
Hang in there! If you are a college student, don't let anyone pressure you into doing anything. You have big decisions to make and they are YOUR decisions. The people that love you will support your decisions as well as they can.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

What Makes a Great Performance?

    World Saxophone Quartet was the first sax quartet that I really listened to.  30+ years later, I am still listening.  On the edge of my seat.  Heart pounding.  Arms up.  I am still listening.

However, there is a problem.  I strive to play with perfect pitch.  I preach to my students to play with magical blend.  We strive for control:  control of the sound, control of the articulation, play perfectly together.  We reach for perfection, but World Saxophone Quartet was anything except perfection (I'm writing about the classic 1980s lineup).  They were rough, raw, and often, OUT OF CONTROL.  I'm a saxophone professor, sitting in my basement with a collection of recordings that allow me to hear just about anything that I want, and I am listening to what moves me:  perfect imperfection.

Looking at this paradox, I reflect on what I consider to be my best performances.

1.  Performing John Mackey's Concerto at the Virginia Music Educators Association conference, around 10 years ago.  I had the opportunity to play it on a little tour with the JMU Wind Symphony leading up to VMEA, and I started experimenting with improvisation on the cadenza.  It was high pressure, a packed hall, but I had just had a revelation through my studies with Michael Colgrass.  I flung myself at the audience.  It was not recorded, but the crowd seemed to like it.  After it was over, I sat on the floor backstage and wept.  Hard.

2.  Performing Gil Evans' "Meaning of the Blues" with the JMU Jazz Ensemble, supervised by visiting scholar Ryan Truesdell.  This was the dress rehearsal, so again, it wasn't recorded.  George Adams is one of my great heroes of the tenor saxophone and I was so honored to have a chance to play this arrangement with my students and my dear colleague Chuck Dotas conducting.  The actual concert wasn't nearly as good, but in the dress rehearsal, I sort of left my body and watched a river pour through it from above.  It was like the room went black and I levitated for a couple of minutes.  I shook when it was over.  I was unable to recreate the experience on the actual concert.

3.  Recently, on JMU's George West Jazz Festival, I finally played Bob Brookmeyer's arrangement of "Skylark," which is probably my favorite big band arrangement ever, conducted by my friend and colleague David Stringham.  It was after a long day of listening to high school bands and giving clinics.  I was tired.  I was actually too tired to really think.  As I finished the cadenza, I quietly burst into tears on stage, thinking about Bob Brookmeyer.  There were audible gasps in the audience.

I've had plenty of great performances, but these really stand out in my mind.  They were not perfect.  I've given performances that were technically much better, at least as far as I can remember, being that only "Skylark" was recorded (I posted that one on YouTube), I was reckless and free of fear.  I trusted the integrity of my preparation implicitly.

I think that what makes a truly great performance is the ability to let go.  That freedom might come from being comfortable, or being uncomfortable.  In each of these instances, I was very inspired.  I felt great meaning in the moment.  We need to teach THAT to our students.  Strive to play perfectly and with control, but when the downbeat hits, let it go and remember WHY you are performing.  Tell your story in your words.  That's what World Saxophone Quartet does for me, and it is why I can't wait to take the stage again.

Practice well.


Friday, May 1, 2020

Jazz Education and Transcription: Should You Transcribe Solos?

This topic has been rattling around in my brain for decades. Especially in higher education, there appears to be a consensus that transcribing the improvised solos of the masters is an important part of learning to be a jazz musician.  I have a confession.  I am not so sure.

Let me begin by saying that I have transcribed many solos over the years.  It is a practice that strengthens connections between the ears and the musical mind.  It is part of the process of learning the language of jazz.  When I taught undergraduate jazz improvisation, I always gave transcription assignments.  I have even made calligraphy scores of a few of my favorite transcriptions.  My thoughts here are more about the long-term strategies for advanced students and professional musicians.

My undergraduate experience was filled with contrasts.  At the same time that I was taking improvisation classes that required transcription projects that were both written down and performed, I was studying with Yusef Lateef.  Yusef was very against transcribing.  He felt that the practice only made you sound like someone else, and that the whole point of being a musician was to be unique.  He saw transcribing as a way to move backwards as an artist.

I have never been great at transcribing.  I can do it, of course, but I'm slow and I don't enjoy getting all the details perfectly written down.  I'm always second guessing how much detail to include.  Articulations?  Fingerings?  Time feel?  I find more value in playing along with the recording, at least when it comes to getting the details right, but I dread writing down things like "lay back," or "straight-ish swing eighth notes."  Ugh.  But I also find tremendous value in writing things down for later analysis, and for documenting the work.

In the twenty years that I have been a professor, I haven't transcribed many entire solos, except for a book that I wrote for Hal Leonard that was more of a project that I took on for professional development than passion for the subject.  I have tended instead towards targeting portions of solos that I am particularly drawn to.  From there, I try to reverse engineer the essence of the passage so that I can learn what made it stand out to me.  I do the same thing with passages from classical music.  For example, I have a page in my notebook of patterns from Astor Piazzolla's etudes that I have expanded into different keys and transpositions. 

This falls inline with a practice from my lessons with Yusef.  We would improvise (although he never used the word, preferring his autophysiopsychic terminology) and then go back and revisit ideas that struck us as interesting.  He would point out if you happened to play something more than once, or if you developed a certain idea.  He would encourage you to uncover the essence of the idea and expand upon it.  It was a bit like transcribing yourself as a way of accessing your own musical subconscious.  In this way, you could develop your own internal voice into a unique form of music expression.

I think that an initial period of transcribing entire solos is probably important, as it gives a tangible framework for building a set of vital skills for the improviser.  Once those skills are in place, I think that it should be up to the musician.  How many solos are enough?  I guess it depends on the individual.  I have had students that labor for weeks on one solo, and others that can pop them off in a few days, or even hours. 

More importantly, if you enjoy transcribing, go at it!  I enjoy hearing all the amazing work that people post on social media.  I also find it very interesting to analyze written transcriptions that I might not have had the time or inclination to do on my own.  For some people, transcribing is an important and rewarding part of the overall work on being a jazz musician.

My personal practice has sharpened into exploring how things work, and how I can rebuild them in my own way to make them distinctive.  It's the same for me when I play Bach or Paganini.  I'm not interested in being stylistic perfect or correct.  I'm trying to find a unique way of performing material that is meaningful to me, knowing that if it is unique enough, I might build an audience that will recognize that they can only get that particular music by listening to me.

So, if you are a young student, definitely transcribe.  Just try to see the big picture and to find a way to be true to yourself as you explore other languages and styles.  Practice well!