About Me

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

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Major Thirds on Minor Chords: How James Moody might have been the greatest improviser of all time


The other day, I stopped to talk to a colleague at JMU (thank you, Donna Wampler!) who was placing donated cds on a table.  I saw this Dexter Gordon album, The Tower of Power, and I snatched it up.  I actually bought the record at Tower Records in Boston back in the 80s, when I was a teenager.  I had very few records back then and I listened to this one over and over.  I still have my vinyl copy, but I haven't listened to it in years.  Having it on cd was too good to pass up.  The next morning, I popped it in the stereo while I drank my morning tea.

I have been teaching jazz improvisation for thirty years.  In that time, I have always taught that you can wiggle your way out of any note on any chord, as long as you do it with style and intention.  There is one exception: you can't play the major third on a minor chord.  I call it "the dreaded flat eleventh!"

The first track is a tenor battle between Dexter and James Moody on a minor tune with a cycle bridge.  I listened to this album probably a hundred times when I was a kid.  Remember, we didn't have the internet back then, so I had a handful of albums and listened to them over and over again.

Imagine my astonishment when I hear Moody absolutely slay a major third on a minor chord.  Check it out below at around 3:30.

Yes, he is using the major third as a super slick lower chromatic neighbor to the eleventh, which is a superb note choice on a minor chord, but he leans on that major third pretty hard.  It is jarring to my adult ears, but in a very satisfying way.  I almost fell out of my chair when I heard it.

And then, later in the solo, he does it again.  I have questions!!! Is Moody doing this as an amazing prank?  A bar bet with Dexter?  Did he do it by accident and then wink at us by doing it again, acknowledging the accident?  Or did he just hear this as sounding good?

It does sound good.  Actually, it sounds great.  It might be the most genius thing that I have ever heard.  A major third on a minor chord is the most dissonant choice imaginable.  You can play minor on major and it sounds bluesy.  You can play different sevenths, as long as you resolve them correctly.  But I never thought of sliding a major third up to the eleventh of a minor chord.  Check it out.  My mind is blown!  Skip to around 4:55.

I am so grateful for this crazy discovery.  It is a reminder that anything is possible, as long as it is played with conviction and style.  James Moody spoke to me through a kind of time machine this week, upending my most core ideas about how to improvise jazz.  If Moody could play major thirds on minor chords, I believe that anything is possible.  Peace.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Eric in the Evening: A Remembrance

     When I heard the news that Eric Jackson left us, I was hit with a heavy dose of nostalgia from my youth.  I was an eager teenage musician in the 1980s, growing up near Boston.  WGBH was one of the few stations that I had preset on my FM tuner, and it was mostly to listen to Eric in the Evening.  This was my first true education in jazz music, and Jackson's expert curation of artists and albums had a large impact on my own musical tastes.  I will always be grateful.

It is difficult for young people to understand what it was like to build a library of recordings in the pre-internet days.  You had to buy, or borrow albums.  I had very little money, so my collection was small and every record was precious.  It was also hard to know what to buy, so you relied on friends and mentors to recommend "the good stuff."  Although we never met, Eric Jackson was my friend and mentor.

I usually listened with a cassette loaded into the recorder, ready to jump at anything that struck me.  Sometimes, I would record a minute or two and then decide it wasn't for me.  Other times, I would go back and listen to a track over and over again, until I could either find the album at the public library, or scrape up the money to buy it.  One particular evening, Jackson gave me a pole star that steers my ship to this day:  Mingus Changes.

I was probably in the eighth grade, so I was just learning to play the saxophone.  When the ferocious George Adams exploded through my speakers, it was as if time had stopped.  Adams' virtuosity spilled out all over the place, but it was the way that the technique connected with his soulful, bluesy approach that really hit me in the chest.  In the stillness of that evening in my little suburban bedroom, I received "the call."  I knew that I would be a professional saxophonist and that nothing could stop me, if only I could unlock the mysteries of George Adams and Charles Mingus.  Here is the track that knocked me over: Remember Rockefeller at Attica.

I came to trust Eric Jackson's warm and thoughtful commentary.  It was through him that I discovered some of the most important music of my life.  When I moved away from the listening area of WGBH, I never recovered from the loss.  Fortunately, I gained access to better libraries and I had more money to spend on music, and professors and classmates became my new advisers, but there was never anything quite as visceral as leaping to hit record on the cassette deck or clinging to the radio in hopes that Jackson would name the recording so that I could search for it.

WGBH posted the following, announcing his passing.  Travel in peace, good sir.  Thank you for being my teacher when I needed you most.

#ericjackson #ericintheevening #wgbh 

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 cliché, 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