What I’ve learned from playing different musical styles

"Sun and Sax." by Neil. Moralee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Jazz recital videos, August 2017

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.

The pedalboard setup I used for electric bassoon and EWI

Program

 

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz tenor saxophone mouthpieces

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.

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz alto saxophone mouthpieces

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.

If you read the second part of my Reserve mouthpiece review, then you won’t be surprised to see that the Select Jazz mouthpieces are extremely consistent. Check out the very even and symmetrical rails and tips.

L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.
L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.

As mentioned in a couple of other reviews, 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.

Jazz swing notation

Sometimes a well-meaning composer or arranger will try to approximate a jazz swing style notationally in this way:

dotted-eighth, sixteenth rhythmThis is wrong.

Sometimes he or she will take this approach:

12/8 rhythmAlso wrong. So is this one:

eighth notes with indication to tripletizeThe idea of “tripletizing” eighth-note rhythms is especially pervasive, and especially dangerous because it is thrown around so casually by people without background in jazz music. Composers are sometimes guilty of this; so are conductors, arrangers, and educators.

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:

grace notesWhat 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:

eighth notes with "Swing" indicationNote 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.

Happy swinging.

Improvisation and doubling

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.

Photo, fantail media
Photo, fantail media

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.

Creativity, hard work, and beginning jazz improvisation

I occasionally teach a university course in jazz improvisation, geared toward beginning improvisers. Sometimes I think prospective students are afraid to sign up because they don’t consider themselves already to be musically creative. On the other hand, I have some students enroll in the class with unrealistic expectations about the results, thinking that they will learn all the tricks and secrets and be ready for some fantasy gig.

It doesn’t make sense to avoid taking French 101 because “I don’t speak any French”—you’re missing the point of an introductory course. But it also isn’t likely that by the end of the semester you’ll be ready to wow everyone at the smartest dinner parties in Paris.

Photo, alphadesigner
Photo, alphadesigner

The good-news/bad-news is that most of what happens in a beginning improvisation class doesn’t feel creative or spontaneous at all. In my course, we do a lot of drilling of scales, arpeggios, patterns, and “licks,” and then trying to execute them successfully in a pre-planned way over a set of chord changes. The same happens in your first-semester French class: you memorize some basic phrases by rote, and try to use them in the right order in very structured “conversations.” At some point you get some very restricted freedom: you have to say what color le chat is, but you get to pick if he is noir or blanc. Similarly, in my class you might get to decide which of your two memorized “two-five-one” licks to use over the first four bars of the bridge, or whether to start that digital pattern on the root of the chord or the fifth, but that’s about it. Limited options don’t mean you aren’t really improvising (or speaking French), it just means you don’t have a lot of vocabulary to work with yet.

I know that this rubs some improvisers the wrong way: I shouldn’t be regurgitating pre-packaged licks! I should be developing my own “thing!” For those people, I suggest you read a biography of any great improvising musician and find out what they did in the early stages of developing their thing. Or just try speaking some French: no need for grammar study or vocabulary lists! Do your thing!

For those who consider themselves creativity-deficient: you can learn to improvise in a systematic way—it’s not something you’re born with (or without). I’ll teach you some existing vocabulary and some techniques for making your own, and then you can start putting them together in ways that make sense to you. You’re being creative!

For those hoping to learn some “tricks:” the only useful trick I can teach you is to take the techniques from the class and hit the practice rooms. There aren’t any shortcuts to improvising well. It will require hard work over the course of many years. But the process can be a lot of fun!

Farewell: Yusef Lateef

Earlier this week jazz musician Yusef Lateef passed away at age 93. Lateef was known for his adventurous woodwind doubling, playing saxophone and flute, plus the oboe and a number of woodwinds from non-Western cultures. Here he is playing some tasty flute:

I’ve seen oboists look a bit uncomfortable when the topic of Yusef Lateef comes up, no doubt because his sound on that instrument was so different from the preferred American-school classical oboe sound. If you have been too quick to dismiss Lateef’s contributions as a jazz oboist in the past, I suggest you listen again with fresh ears, bearing in mind that his music was informed by jazz as well as the music of many other cultures, and that the “classical” oboe tradition was not necessarily relevant to his goals. Here’s some bluesy oboe playing:

Check out Yusef Lateef’s official website for more information about his life and music and about his passing.

Farewell: Frank Wess

Last week Frank Wess, one of the great woodwind doublers in jazz, passed away at age 91. He was best known for his years with the Count Basie band, and for being an influential figure in bringing the flute into its own as a jazz instrument.

If you’re not familiar with his playing, definitely check out “Midgets” from the Basie April in Paris album. Sometimes classically-trained flutists are quick to dismiss jazz-playing doublers, in some cases justifiably so, for failing to pay proper dues on the instrument. While Wess’s tone doesn’t fit current ideas about a “correct” classical sound, there is evidence here that he is in control of the instrument: certainly good command of finger technique (and remember, classically-trained folks, that Wess is improvising here), plus some double-tonguing, a technique common in classical flute technique but relatively rare among reed players.

Photo, Tom Marcello
Photo, Tom Marcello

There is a nice tribute (with a YouTube video) at the NPR jazz blog.

Things that aren’t jazz

Photo, frawemedia

Okay, first of all: what I’m talking about here is the “mainstream” jazz tradition, insofar as such a thing exists (you can make a good argument that it doesn’t, really). “Jazz” is a wide net to cast. To flip it around, if I were going to list things that aren’t “classical” music, I might say “use of the electric bass guitar” or even “microtonality.” Are those things really mutually exclusive with classical music? No. But they are not part of the tradition of the Viennese masters, not what your local community orchestra would play, not what most people think of when they think of classical music.

One misconception that many classical musicians seem to have about jazz is that since it has strong improvisatory elements, it must be very free and unstructured. I think the opposite is true: improvisation, at least in the mainstream-bebop/hard-bop-influenced style, requires fairly strict structural underpinnings. None of the following works well when someone is trying to improvise:

  • Free forms. Form in jazz is much stricter than in classical music. Most common jazz tunes have one of two forms. The first is precisely 32 bars in 4/4 time, with four eight-bar sections: AABA. The second is precisely twelve 4/4 bars, a “blues” form. Anything that doesn’t fit exactly into one of these categories is most likely very closely related to one of them.
  • Free harmony. Bebop and hard-bop jazz are extremely tonal. While improvisers may play pitches that fall “outside” the chords, it is almost always within a tonal framework: the notes function as upper extensions of the chords, or at least they are used in a sort of polychordal way that has reference to the underlying harmony and will ultimately resolve back to it. The idea that “there are no wrong notes” isn’t exactly true; notes can definitely sound very wrong if they aren’t properly contextualized with regard to the harmony.
  • Free or changing meter. Jazz makes frequent use of polymeter and syncopation, which can give the impression of shifting meter, but most jazz doesn’t actually change meters, especially in improvisatory sections. The polyrhythms and syncopations work because they are overlaid on an unchanging metric pulse, and resolve to it.
  • Rubato. Tempi also tend to quite strict in jazz playing. A musician might “lay back” in the beat or stretch a rhythm, but the underlying pulse doesn’t change. (In my experience, jazz players generally have much steadier internal metronomes than classical musicians.)
The freedom that improvisers do have is to create melodies over these fairly rigid structures. The rigidity gives the improviser a predictable framework to work with (or perhaps against). At a more detailed level, there are certain melodic characteristics that classical musicians tend to associate with jazz, that I don’t hear when I listen to jazz or play with fine jazz musicians: Continue reading “Things that aren’t jazz”