It’s an article of faith among jazz musicians and educators that listening to jazz is crucial to learning to play jazz. This seems obviously true to me about jazz and about any style of music.
(Doubtless one of the reasons the jazz-initiated like to bang this drum, so to speak, is because most of Western music education is so notation-focused. The “classical” tradition has developed hand-in-hand with a notation system that does a pretty good—not perfect—job of breaking down classical music sounds into visual symbols. That system, unsurprisingly, works less well for non-classical styles like jazz. But jazz music is still often expressed in classical-type notation, with some kind of caveat, explicit or otherwise, that the player must apply some significant additional stylistic know-how that will override the usual meanings of some of the notation.)
But one thing classical music educators have done in their few hundred extra years is codify and explain many (not all, and not all well, and not all in agreement) of their stylistic and interpretive ideas. In jazz education, too often important details get waved away with a “ya gotta listen.”
“Ya gotta listen” to classical music to play it well, too. But there’s also more clear, thoughtful pedagogy available to help you know what to listen for, and how to apply it.
If you are a jazz educator and find yourself dodging questions or glossing over concepts with a “ya gotta listen,” can you add something to the picture? Try saying instead, “Ya gotta listen to how Cannonball Adderley ‘lays back’ in this particular phrase. He plays some notes later than expected in a way that sounds good. Listen a few times to see which notes, and how late.” Or: “Ya gotta listen to how Freddie Hubbard plays ‘outside’ over this turnaround. Can you figure out which scale he is drawing from? Where exactly does he resolve back to playing ‘inside?'”
How long would it realistically take for an unguided young musician to listen to jazz until they had fully absorbed the nuances? I used to feel pretty overwhelmed and hopeless when teachers three times my age with thousands of well-worn records told me I wouldn’t sound better until I had really listened. Luckily I had others who were willing and able to accelerate and focus my learning by giving some direction and context to my listening.
If you find that you have difficulty explaining some of the things you want your students to listen for, there are resources available to help you and them boil things down to understandable concepts. For improvisational theory, you might try free YouTube videos (or additional paid content) from teacher/players like Chad Lefkowitz-Brown or Aimee Nolte. For style, consider books like those by Caleb Chapman and Jeff Coffin or Ray Smith.
Recently I asked some questions on social media related to (self-identified) non-jazz musicians playing on jazz or jazz-adjacent gigs. This kind of thing might happen, for example, at a symphony pops concert, or a big band gig in a smaller market.
A number of concerns were raised about this, but two stood out.
Self-described non-jazz players overwhelmingly expressed misgivings about having to improvise in these situations.
For jazz players, asked about having to play a gig with non-jazz musicians, none of them expressed concern about the non-jazz players’ improvisational ability. They were overwhelmingly concerned with style (mentioning specifics like swing, articulation, and inflection).
I think for a non-jazz player, being asked to improvise is understandably frightening. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation like this where improvisation would be strictly required. For example, if your local pick-up big band has some jazz players and some non-jazz players, it’s a simple enough matter to pass the improvised solos off to the jazz players. (And there are plenty of big band charts with written-out solos.) If I’m hiring for the gig, I’d certainly rather rearrange the solos than put somebody in a situation that will be to their embarrassment and mine.
But everyone on the gig needs to be prepared to do good section playing. I’ve been in the frustrating situation of trying to lead a section (from the lead chair or from the director’s stand) with players who aren’t tuned into the conventions and nuances of swing, articulation, and inflection. Often these things aren’t specifically notated, they way they would be in orchestral parts, or the notations aren’t intuitive.
(A case in point: a curved marking like ⌣ over a note, which I hear classical musicians interpret by playing the note at pitch, then bringing it down, then back up. I understand why they think it means that, but it’s an un-jazz-like sound—it should almost always be interpreted as a scoop up to pitch.)
My takeaway: if you don’t consider yourself a jazz musician, and aren’t planning to really become one but want to play some jazz-oriented music on the occasional gig, study jazz style.
Well, my dad was a jazzer and Zoot Sims died. And when Zoot Sims died, they had a benefit in San Francisco at Kimball’s or somewhere. …
So I take him and sit down … and then I get a tap on my shoulder. I turn around, and it’s Getz. It’s really amazing … he’s wearing his horn and taps me on the shoulder, and my dad turns around and Phil Elwood turns around. And my old man goes, “Holy s***!”
Getz says, “Why don’t you let me play on some of your s***? I can play that s*** too.” And I said, “Oh, why, yes sir, I’m sure you can.” And then he took a card and he wrote on it: “Stan Getz. Have sax, will travel.”
He played beautifully, and on the way home, my old man says, “If you don’t take him up on that offer, I will never, ever forgive you!”
It’s common among non-jazz musicians to think of “swing” rhythms as having a triplet-like feel, and it’s equally common among jazz players to regard that as hopelessly incorrect. That conflict over swing style has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won’t rehash it here.
But there’s another layer to the swing/triplets issue: It’s important to understand that real swing rhythms are essentially duple. The primary subdivision of the beat is into two parts, even though those parts aren’t equal in length.
So, writing or playing lots of triplets is a common mistake that non-jazz musicians make when they are trying to imitate a swing sound. That’s not to say that triplets can’t or don’t exist in swing rhythms, but they aren’t the underlying subdivision, and in most cases are best used sparingly.
For example, this can be played to sound like an authentic swing/jazz line:
And even this notation, while problematic, can be translated into something authentic-sounding:
But, to someone who knows jazz style well, this one never quite sounds like swing:
It might pass for a shuffle or something else, but it’s hard to make it swing.
When a well-written swing line does include a triplet, a fluent jazz player might play it to sound distinctly un-triplety:
That approach (one of several possibilities) might make sense to a jazz player because they are stretching the downbeat note, and letting the subsequent notes fall later in the beat—a very similar approach to playing a pair of swung eighth notes.
Written or improvised melodies, background figures, drum fills, and other things that are supposed to swing in an authentic way should avoid excessive triplets. Extensive listening and study of great jazz writing, interpretation, and improvisation are crucial to understanding real jazz swing style.
One of my favorite things about being a performing musician is moving in and out of different styles. Recently I’ve performed as a classical, jazz, rock, and blues musician. I’ve been thinking a little about the skills that I associate with each, especially skills that have expanded my musicianship and carried over into playing other styles. It’s too many to name, but here are a few. Feel free to chime in in the comments section with your own insights.
I have college degrees in (essentially) classical music performance. From playing solo repertoire, chamber music, and orchestral music, I’ve had to pursue a disciplined, precise approach to my instruments. I’ve had to try to blend seamlessly into a variety of instrumental textures. I’ve had to try to give every note delicacy and beauty, even when the music is trying to communicate something that isn’t delicate and beautiful. Other aspects of my classical music education involved informing my performance by studying centuries of tradition and history and methods of musical analysis.
I’ve also done a lot of study of jazz. From big band section playing, I’ve had to try to make every note crisp and energized, even in the sweetest of ballads. I’ve had to try to blend into sections that take a wide variety of approaches to style—much wider than I’ve encountered in classical music. I’ve learned to use purposeful imprecision (in a way) by, say, playing a little behind the beat, or being a little more flexible with pitch. I’ve learned to really, really use my ears, transcribing notes and chords and rhythms but also nuances of style. (For jazz players, “transcribing” doesn’t always mean writing something down; it’s copying some or all of a performance from a recording.) And of course there’s improvisation, an art unto itself that many classically-trained musicians never delve into. From that I’ve gained a much deeper, more practical, more useable understanding of harmony. I’ve also gained confidence to play something that isn’t on a page in front of me, and a sense that I can make things work musically even when I’m not sure what will happen next.
It’s not uncommon on a rock or blues gig to play songs that I don’t know and have never heard before, with no fakebook and nobody to tell me what the chord changes are. On some blues gigs, I’ve had to watch the bass player’s fingers to try to anticipate even which key the song is going to be in. That kind of unstructuredness can be terrifying to my classically-trained side, and even my jazz-playing side, which is used to improvising within fairly well-established frameworks. But it’s also freeing and thrilling to play for several hours with no music stand and no agreed-upon set list. Sometimes it means reaching way back into my memory to try to roughly reproduce a rock horn section riff I’ve heard once or twice on a recording, but often it means having to create my part from nothing. The protocols often aren’t as strict as they are in jazz, and I’ve had to learn, for example, that just because I played a fill after the blues singer’s first phrase doesn’t mean the guitarist is going to leave me any space after the next one. And, of course, formal education in rock or blues aren’t nearly as widespread or formalized (yet?) as jazz education or especially classical training, so these are lessons learned on stage.
Every new gig is an adventure. See what you can learn in the concert hall to apply later in a smoky club, or vice versa.
This year I played all jazz at my Delta State University faculty recital. Program and some selected videos are below.
I’m very much a part-time jazz player, so it was fun to spend the summer trying to get my chops in shape to play tunes in a variety of styles on a variety of instruments. This was my new record for number of instruments on a recital: flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon (electric bassoon), soprano/alto/tenor saxophones, and EWI, 9 in all. I’ve written previously about the challenges of improvising on multiple instruments, which I suspect might be surprising to non-doublers or non-improvisers.
An additional challenge is that I live in a small town in an isolated area, so I had to bring in some rhythm section players from out of town and rehearsal time was extremely limited. Enjoy the videos warts and all.
I have previously done some things with bassoon and electronics, but I took that to a new level this time around with a Little Jake pickup and a few new effects pedals. This was lots of fun and I’m already brainstorming how I can use the Little Jake with some other instruments.
I’ve already done thorough reviews of the D’Addario clarinet mouthpieces (twice) and alto saxophone jazz mouthpieces, both of which immediately replaced the competing Vandoren products I was previously using. So, naturally I’ve been very anxious for the release of the hard rubber tenor saxophone jazz mouthpiece, and I got my hands on some samples earlier this week. (Full disclosure: D’Addario sent me the mouthpieces for free, but with no strings attached. This is my best attempt to give an unbiased review.)
I’m pleased to report that everything I like about the clarinet and alto mouthpieces is true of the tenor mouthpieces as well: these are well-made, utterly consistent, easy-to-play, affordable, versatile mouthpieces. Like the clarinet and alto pieces, the Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is going to be my new mouthpiece for the foreseeable future.
I like to be as low-fuss as possible about my gear. This is a sub-$200 mouthpiece, fully machine-made to fine tolerances, by a major woodwind accessory company. That means if I break or lose mine, I can quickly and easily get another that plays virtually identically from just about any online or brick-and-mortar music store. (Soon; the tenor mouthpieces don’t seem to be in many stores yet.) Check out my previous reviews for more in-depth discussion about that—in short, the days of having to order a half-dozen and pick the best one are gone.
The Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is currently available in a medium chamber and medium facing, with tip openings from 6 (2.54mm/.100”) to 9 (2.92mm/.115”). I’ve been wanting to move to a little smaller tip opening, and the 6 is just what I was looking for.
The tip openings differ in the ways you would expect. The 6 likes a medium- or medium-soft strength reed, and the 9 needs a medium-soft or soft. The smaller openings are very slightly mellower in tone, softer in volume, and oriented toward stability rather than flexibility, while the larger ones are brighter, louder, and more flexible/less stable, but the differences really are pretty minor. The 6 is my favorite, but I could use the 9 on a gig in a pinch. Choosing your tip opening will probably be more a matter of comfort zone than a question of differences in sound or application.
My previous mouthpiece was a slightly older model Vandoren V16 metal mouthpiece, the T75 (2.67mm/.105″, I think). It served me well for quite a few years, but recently I’ve been less satisfied with its difficult low notes and overall edginess. (After having it for a few years the gold plating started to get some discolored spots, and ultimately got some pitting on the table, so it may not be playing as well as it once did.) Playing hard rubber for jazz on tenor is actually new for me—I’ve played a string of metal mouthpieces since high school—but the transition to the Select Jazz has been seamless. Eyes closed, I don’t think I could tell the difference material-wise.
For tenor in particular I want a mouthpiece that can do lots of things—a sweeter, mellower sound for small-group cocktail gigs, a punchier, gutsier sound for amplified rock and blues, precise articulation and rock-steady intonation for studio playing. The Select Jazz has a nice middle-of-the-road quality that moves easily between straight-ahead jazz and funkier sounds. I find that at a scream I don’t get quite as much bite in the tone as I do with the V16, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of bottom end in the sound at maximum volume. In other words, the V16 gets bright and aggressive when I push it, but the Select Jazz just gets big and powerful. I’m liking the tradeoff.
The Select Jazz also wins hands down for ease of playing (against the V16, which I originally selected for its ease of playing). I could just about play a classical recital on the #6 if I had to—the articulation and response are easy from low B-flat up into the altissimo. Like the V16, it strikes a nice balance between stability and flexibility. It’s easy to play in tune, but there’s also plenty of room to bend the pitch around when I want to.
I’m not going to do a thorough play-test comparison this time, because I don’t think it’s really necessary. My V16 is an old model, in poor shape, and metal, so the comparison isn’t really fair and they are perhaps somewhat different animals anyway. But here’s a quick demo of the 6, moving through a few different styles. (It was supposed to be one uninterrupted take, but I ended up having to re-record the last segment standing a little farther from the mic.) First a snippet of Body and Soul, then a few bars of a Brecker tune that I can never remember the name of, then Night Train, then the horn break from Sir Duke.
I don’t see myself as a guy who gets snobby about brands, but D’Addario’s pro-line mouthpieces have hit the mark for me 100% so far. Looking forward to what’s next.
I like mouthpieces that are easy to play, especially in terms of response and tuning. But I also really like something easy to replace; I don’t like the idea of a mouthpiece that is so expensive, variable, or rare that if I drop it I can’t just order a new one, have it in a few days, and expect it to play like the old one.
A few years back I did a fairly detailed review of the Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces (in two parts), and have been happily using the Reserves as my main clarinet mouthpieces ever since. The Reserves are, in particular, astonishingly consistent from specimen to specimen, presumably due to the very precise tooling that obviates the need for hand-finishing (which sounds cool but ultimately means a relatively high degree of variability).
The pro-line products formerly released under the Rico name are now D’Addario Woodwinds products, and they now include some alto saxophone mouthpieces, the Select Jazz series. I was pleased to hear from a contact at D’Addario Woodwinds who sent me some samples to try out.
My point of reference is the various Meyer-ish alto mouthpieces I have played for about the last 20 years, most recently the V16 series from Vandoren. I used the A6/medium chamber for a number of years, but more recently switched to the A6/small chamber, which gave me a little more bite in my sound that works well for me in louder situations (like big band lead playing, or blues gigs here in the Mississippi Delta) without having to strain as much.
The new D’Addario Select Jazz alto mouthpieces are currently available in three flavors, the D5M, the D6M, and the D7M. Larger numbers in the middle correspond to larger tip openings (details at D’Addario’s website). I got a couple of each to try. Each one says “medium chamber” on the box, so maybe D’Addario is considering other chamber sizes. At the moment street price seems to be a little higher than the V16s, but still basically in the same class.
As mentioned in a couple of otherreviews, the Select Jazz mouthpieces have an unusually tight fit on the neck cork, and they chewed up my aging cork a bit. Cork grease!
The mouthpieces have individual serial numbers, like the Reserve clarinet mouthpieces. When I asked about this during my clarinet mouthpiece review, the Rico/D’Addario rep told me there might in the future be some way of registering your mouthpiece online, maybe to access some kind of members-only content. I haven’t seen anything happen along these lines, so maybe there’s a more logical explanation, like that the numbers are just for quality control.
Here is a sound clip of each of the six mouthpieces I received, plus my two V16 mouthpieces for comparison. For all the sound clips I used the same inexpensive fake-leather-type ligature, but different reeds, a D’Addario Select Jazz filed 3S and a filed 3M, depending on which worked best with each individual mouthpiece. The V16s and the Jazz Select D5Ms worked better with the 3M reed, and the Jazz Select D6Ms and D7Ms seemed to prefer the 3S reed.
D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #1
D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #2
D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #1
D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #2
D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #1
D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #2
My old Vandoren V16 A6M
My old Vandoren V16 A6S
The differences are minor at best, and really in a pinch I could make any of these eight mouthpieces work, but here are a few observations:
The Select Jazz mouthpieces have noticeably more stable intonation than the V16s, especially the D5M. This is a bigger deal than tone, which is more malleable and more subjective.
The Select Jazz mouthpieces are, again, very consistent. This is the killer feature of D’Addario’s mouthpieces. I found the two D5Ms to be virtually interchangeable in terms of tone, response, and tuning, and the two D7Ms too. One of the D6Ms (#2) has, to my ear, just a tiny bit of an edge that I find unpleasant. I suspect that this one is slightly “off,” but the difference between the two is still quite minor compared to the differential in hand-finished production mouthpieces.
I do still want something with some edge to it, and the V16 small chamber still feels like is has more of that than any of the seven others, but not by much. The Select Jazz mouthpieces seem to have a bigger core and body to the sound, plus a bit higher volume, so I’m thinking it may be an acceptable tradeoff as far as making my presence known among the electric guitars.
Overall, I find the Select Jazz to respond better both down low in the staff and up above it than the V16s do. I didn’t play any altissimo in the sound clips, but I find the Select Jazz to have a slight advantage in that register as well.
The D5M and, to a lesser extent, the D6M, seem to be the best fit for my style and needs. The D7M doesn’t work as well for me—it has the louder but more spread tone and less-stable intonation you might expect from a larger tip opening—but it’s still one of the best mouthpieces I’ve played in that category, and it’s really only slightly large, not nearly as extreme as the tip openings offered by some other makers.
I think the Select Jazz D5M is going to be my new mouthpiece. (I’m keeping a D6M in my case for now too until I can try them both on a loud blues gig, but so far the D5M has worked well for small-group jazz.) The combination of solid intonation, pretty-but-gutsy tone, budget-friendly price, and amazing consistency make this a solid, versatile, and practical option for a working saxophonist. They are great for educators, too—they are easy to recommend to students because they are so easy to play and because they are so reliable in quality (much less need to order a half-dozen on approval and hope there’s a “good” one in the bunch). A great all-around, no-nonsense alto jazz mouthpiece.
I look forward to more offerings from D’Addario Woodwinds, perhaps alto mouthpieces in other chamber sizes, or mouthpieces for other saxophones.
The issue with each of these bad notational approaches is that they try to approximate characteristic jazz rhythms with symbols that are rooted in the rather different rhythms of classical music. But real jazz swing rhythms aren’t dotted or 12/8 or triplets, or least they aren’t necessarily any of those. This leads to problems both for composers and performers.
For composers, using a 12/8 time signature or eighth-note triplets in 4/4 too easily drags the work into a compound-meter feel. And jazz swing is decidedly not in a compound meter: the rhythms are very much duple in nature. Authentic swing almost always has an underlying feel of two notes per beat, even though those notes are not equal in length. Extended or frequent passages with a compound-meter feel (three notes per beat) are dead giveaways of a failure to really absorb swing style.
For jazz-untrained performers, seeing dotted or compound-type rhythms on a page simply doesn’t provide fine enough information to accurately reproduce authentic swing style. It’s perhaps a bit like baking a cake from a recipe with each ingredient rounded off to the nearest tablespoon; the result will approximate a cake but likely won’t be especially successful. And even for the jazz-trained performer, sometimes the dotted or triplety notation can obscure the intended sound, something like typing a sentence into Google Translate, translating it into some other language, and then translating it back into English. (The result definitely loses fidelity.) Or, the poor notation can simply dull or distract from the jazz musician’s more authentic approach.
All of this, of course, begs the question of what precisely is the correct downbeat-upbeat length ratio for a true swing style, if not the 2:1 ratio of the triplety approach or the 3:1 ratio of the dotted approach. That question is larger in scope than I intend to fully tackle here, but I think it suffices to summarize with a few brief points:
Firstly, there’s no reason for it to be a mystery or a matter of “opinion;” using very simple technology we can measure exactly what jazz musicians are doing.
The ratios, if we measure them, are very, very far from consistent, even taken independently of factors like tempo. (There’s a popular but not-uniformly-supportable idea that the notes swing “harder” [greater ratio] at slower tempi and less hard [ratio nearer to 1:1] at faster tempi.) The precise ratios are an expressive, interpretive matter, and ultimately up to the performers.
The rhythms themselves are not the only factors that make swing sound like swing; articulation, phrasing, and other elements are also important, and also beyond the scope of my intended topic here.
What, then, is the best way to notate swing rhythms? I sort of like this one, though it’s not the one I ultimately recommend:
What I do like about the weird grace note approach is that it makes fairly clear the idea that the exact “downbeat” (quarter note) to “upbeat” (grace note) ratio is an interpretive matter. It also evokes what I find to be the most successful method of executing swing rhythms: think in quarter note pulses, and let the upbeats lead to the following downbeats. What I don’t like about this method is that it’s a hassle to write and to read.
My best recommendation is this:
Note the absence of the “two eighths equal triplet quarter-eighth” indication. This way is simple to read and write, reinforces the duple nature of swing rhythm, and doesn’t prescribe a specific ratio. One might hope that a jazz-untrained musician encountering this would seek out some good training or at least listen to some good swing recordings.
An important factor in improvising fluently (such as in a jazz context) is a collection of vocabulary. Broadly defined, this could include rote-memorized “licks” plus all kinds of other material: scale- or arpeggio-oriented patterns, for example. With improvisation, you don’t have the luxury of practicing your solo note-for-note; instead you have to develop a large pool of available material, and learn it so well that you can mix and match it on the fly.
If you double on multiple instruments, the vocabulary pool isn’t really portable. You can bring your improvisational ideas with you from instrument to instrument, but you won’t be able to execute them smoothly unless you have put in the practice hours on each instrument separately. If you are doubling, say, saxophone and flute, you might find that the fingerings are similar enough that you can make a few things work, but it’s too easy to paint yourself into a corner, or to catch yourself using “close enough” fingerings that really aren’t, or to play with unsatisfactory tone or intonation. To do it right, and have the colors of multiple instrumental voices available to you as an improviser, treat each instrument like it’s your only one.