Phrasing and rhythm are two of the most important things I teach to all instrumentalists. When someone comes to me for a lesson, first I listen to them play a tune or a blues while I play the drums to check out their sense of form and time feel. My biggest area of concern is the eighth note feel which is the common denominator of jazz rhythm; it’s like the penny to the dollar; the currency used in jazz. Of course we use other combinations but the basis is the eighth note (or triplet with the middle one left out, which for the sake of this discussion is the same). The number one fundamental skill that a jazz musician has to have is a good eighth-note feel. The best way to do that is by imitating someone who does it well, through transcription.
Transcribing is the best way to understand subtleties like eighth note feel and nuance. You start out imitating someone and eventually it becomes your own way as it filters through. Some people may object to this approach because it’s a direct imitation of somebody else’s mode of expression, but to me it’s just a process and a means to an end. In the final analysis, you can never breathe like another person and your heartbeat will not be the same as someone else, etc. If you continue to evolve, it’s inevitable that you’ll come up with your own interpretation. If you don’t continue to evolve the least you’ll have is a time feel like Sonny Rollins if you copied him for example, which is not so bad!
There are a few concepts of time feel that I discuss with students. One that is very important is understanding that a beat is an “area”. It’s a space, not a point in time. If I hold my hands twelve inches apart, that distance is a beat at whatever tempo. That’s a big area and inside it I can choose to strike my downbeat in the middle, at the end or in the beginning. Musically, we think of that as playing on top or bottom of the time, ahead or behind the beat, pushing or laying back. Words like “rushing” and “dragging” are the negative connotation of these concepts. They’re the extreme, which means you have overdone it and gone into the other beat. The elasticity of the beat is what I’m emphasizing. The fact that a beat is an area and not a definite point means that you have quite a bit of freedom. There are a lot of grays, not all black and whites. The slower the tempo the more freedom you have because you have a large area from which to choose where to place your beat. The “accurate” beat is being marked off by the metronome or the rhythm section (which when the musical level is high will be applying the same flexibility), allowing you to use the entire area for placing the beat wherever you choose.
The way you manipulate this concept determines your time feel. There are no two people who do it exactly the same way. At the same time, how you address the issue also depends on the context you are playing in. Certain kinds of music demand a definite concept in this regard to be rhythmically successful. A Sousa march is going to be interpreted pretty much on top of the beat as would a samba for example, but a slow blues might automatically have a laid back character attached to it. How you interpret the beat may also depend on your physical state at the time, meaning how your body rhythm is, what you ate and what you’re thinking about – it can really come down to that. Because of the nature of time and the flexibility that’s built into it, this is a rich area for study, especially through transcription.
A simple but effective exercise for working on your time is to play a major scale from the root to the ninth or add a half step between any two scale tones if you like. You need to get eight notes so it comes out even in one bar of 4/4 time. Play up and down the scale with the metronome clicking on two and four. Practice playing ahead, behind, and in the middle of the beat. Try to achieve a level where the beat is flexible and the metronome becomes purely a reference point. You need to develop an independent sense of where the metronome is and have it so strongly internalized that you don’t even have to think about it. You want to be able to do this little dance, playing ahead and behind the beat, as well as dead center when needed. It is a question of balance, tension and release and looseness—all very important principles in any art.
Once a student gets that flowing, I discuss two other rhythmical concepts: against and over the time. The clearest example of “against the time” is when you take two quarter notes and play three notes against them – in other words a quarter-note triplet or three over two. This is a basic and familiar polyrhythm. You can take this to extremes and even work it out on paper by executing three against four, four against three, five against four and so on. If you listen to Indian drumming (especially south Indian) you’ll hear many polyrhythm and metric modulations going on. Without getting really technical, just try to play against the quarter note. This gives you a very wide spectrum and multiple choices resulting in a feeling of another tempo and unusual rhythmic combinations.
“Over the time” is another concept I discuss. I don’t know if John Coltrane thought of it in this way, but when you look at a Coltrane transcription, especially from his later period, one of the most striking rhythmical aspects are the groupings of fives, sevens, nines, etdc., meaning uneven figures against the beat. Usually they were runs or what I call multi-noted flurries. Was Coltrane mathematically permutating or was he just “feeling” these groupings?
Everything is speculation, especially when you’re studying what somebody played and what you think is implied from it. What it suggests to me is “over the time,” or in a sense momentarily leaving the pulse. Forget you are relating to a quarter-note for short periods of time, like maybe a bar or two. If I’m playing eighth-notes lines, I may throw in an uneven grouping every few bars, usually in the context of playing fast rhythms. If I do it more often, I have in a sense suspended the ongoing pulse division in my own playing. Although the pulse still underlies the music as it always does (similar to the force of gravity that surrounds us), I’m not thinking about the beat for that particular moment. There is a clash that hopefully will eventually be resolved by an “in the time” phrase, which should incontestably swing.
These are the rhythmic concepts that I talk about which one can actually practice to some degree with a metronome and certainly with a play-along record used as a steady non-deviating background. You need to get the beat very strong in your head so that you can play around it. This can only happen by practice and experience.
The metronome is an important tool to practice with in the beginning, but you need to set the metronome on two and four just as a drummer would play the hi-hat. You want to get the feeling of the upbeat/backbeat, not the downbeat. This is very important in jazz. After you’re comfortable with two and four, set the metronome only on the fourth beat and play your scales or lines to that, then place the metronome click on the upbeat of four and other upbeats. If you do this for some time, first with scales, then intervals and lines, you’ll get to a point where you’ll feel all the beats as being the same. It doesn’t matter what the beat is because you’ll never turn the time around. You’ll never confuse two and four and make it one and three, which in the beginning can be a challenge. You won’t even have to worry about the one. All you really need to be concerned with is the pulse which is one, two, three, four. Conceptually, the pulse can easily be recognized as one, one, one, or two, two, two, etc. In the end, to accomplish the kind of independence I’m describing, a beat doesn’t have to have a number on it; it just has to be a beat. In any case, after eight bars usually we feel the big “one” of the turnaround, at least if it’s a normal cyclical form
Phrasing As Art
As far as I’m concerned, a big part of phrasing is using good judgment. It’s thinking about it how one can mix things up so that they’re not so predictable. I learned it from Miles Davis, as it was one of the strongest aspects of his playing. That was his sense of timing: when to play, not only what you play. Let’s turn that around and say, when not to play. In other words, when not to say what’s already been said or is going to be said or maybe doesn’t have to be said!! This is part of becoming a mature artist, because eventually you edit more and more. Editing doesn’t mean that you necessarily play fewer notes. Coltrane played more notes toward the end of his life. That’s a question of density which is different from editing one’s playing down to essential statements, whatever they maybe constructed of. In the final analysis this is a matter of personal aesthetics and taste.
For me editing means a sense of when to do something, when to turn it on, when to turn it off, when to hit hard, when not to hit, when to caress, or when to play fortissimo for example. In jazz, good judgment may mean letting the rhythm section take on more of the load. Let them be responsible for the completion or initiation of phrases, so you’re not bound to play all the time, allowing some breathing room, avoid avoiding boredom and repetition as well as providing an opportunity to think. It’s much more interesting for the rhythm section because they’re now interacting. The listener actually hears a conversation going on rather than only a soloist accompanied by a rhythm section, great as that may be. The bebop format was by and large a soloist with rhythm section. When the rhythm section was right, it became a harmonic/rhythmic underpinning, much like a carpet to walk over. One of the developments of contemporary jazz, especially in the 1960s, was not just a soloist with a background but heightened equality. The free jazz movement of that period really fostered this concept. Whatever you may think of that style, it raised the importance of interplay which really hadn’t been heard to any degree since Dixieland.
In free jazz, one of the understandings was to play together rather than soloist followed by soloist. Even the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid 1960s (Hancock, Shorter, Carter and Williams) incorporated increased interaction and independence between the rhythm section and soloist. They might plant seeds for the soloist, or enlarge upon what was played. At times they might actually get ahead and do something before the soloist thought of it. Independence and interplay were the point. When a rhythm section plays like that, it means that I have a choice: I can play or not play and let them initiate. You have to have high level musicians to do that with which goes without saying. These must be folks who can “deal”, meaning not only knowing the rhythm, form and changes that may be present, but able to make something more out of what’s there. If you play with drummer Jack DeJohnette for example, he’s not going to be inactive for long; he’s not going to play two and four on the hi-hat just to keep time. He’s going to interact with you. He’s still playing time, keeping the form and swinging which is the drummer’s responsibility, just as my job as a horn player is playing the melody, but he’s not going to be content for long with solely fulfilling these commonly understood functions. Neither are Miroslav Vitous or Dave Holland on bass for example. If you play in that kind of environment, you can relax and leave a couple of bars empty and the rhythm section will probably play something hipper then you could have ever thought of.
This is the conversation that’s of interest to me when I play or listen to jazz. I just don’t want to hear a great soloist. I want to hear a story which emanates from a group of people. The force of that is incredible. Having three, four, or five people giving their all, playing by the rules of that particular context and manipulating the rules to their own personal tastes in relation to the other musicians is very powerful. That is musical democracy at work meaning participation and interaction. When it’s happening with high-level musicians, then you have magic which is what people respond to, the realization that you’re getting off on each other and creating something new that never happened before. Even if it’s simple or just three notes, the effect is the same upon the listener. The band is communicating with each other in front of their ears and eyes. Ninety percent of what is called jazz today is not jazz. It’s like jazz; it uses the language, the vernacular, the customs, the swagger of jazz so to speak; but all on the surface. It looks like jazz – but without the communication and the interplay.
Before we get too far along in this lesson, I’d like to address one question. Since I have written several books on jazz and improvisation and do a lot of teaching, I’m often asked if I teach the same way as I was taught. In my case, ideology came after instinct, meaning I had to construct my own explanations as to what I was learning. If it was the present period or the recent past and I was starting to play, it would probably be different because I’d have books to read and teachers to aid me in understanding. Jazz education has come along way in the past twenty to thirty years, but when I started playing, no one told me what I’m telling you. No one gave me even a suggestion to practice what I am discussing here. No one described rhythm as “against the time” or “over the time.” I have found that in teaching these ideas on rhythm for example, I was able to explain to a student the concept of a flexible time feel. For me this is one of the trademarks of an accomplished jazz musician, meaning (s)he has the ability to be flexible with the time as well as with tone color, harmony, etc. Hearing these aspects in a solo makes me feel that a musician is expressing him or herself in the moment and is not just playing like a machine with a preset agenda. That is the element you hear in all the great players. They have an amazing looseness of time feel for example. Think of Joe Henderson or Sonny Rollins or even Coltrane, each within their own spectrum. The beat is something they don’t have to think about.
Mind & Improvisation
One question that I’m often asked is: “What are you thinking about when you’re improvising?” This depends on who I’m playing with and the material. I don’t have to think about the changes if I’m playing “Stella by Starlight.” But if you tell me to play “Stella by Starlight” in Gb or another less familiar tune I might have to think about it for a minute because of lack of familiarity.
There are some musicians who can hear anything in any key, certainly the common progressions of standards and bebop. You play it for them once and they can hear the changes right away, as Charlie Parker, Chet Baker and others could do. For me, I’m quick at seeing any kind of changes and knowing what a chord implies meaning what the consonant and dissonant notes are. I determine to what degree I can use these factors as I play. My ear, experience and instinct provide the decision making tools.
When I’m sight reading new music with a progression that’s unfamiliar, I have to think about it, at least in the beginning. If I have a chance to play a tune ten or twenty times in a row, I won’t have to think. “Thinking” about it means that if I see an F minor chord with a flat five it triggers a particular scale. Am I saying F, G, Ab, Bb, etc. to myself? No, because if I thought that slowly I’d be unable to play. What happens is that I see the chord symbol and I recognize the basic scale. I may at that moment not have every note right, but I’m able to pick out those that will produce result in continuity in the improvised line and allow me to get through that chord and on to the next.
If I play the tune over and over again and don’t want to sound stale or repetitive, I will most likely continue to develop my thinking toward some other possible notes to use. I’m sure John Coltrane did that with “Giant Steps,” “Moments Notice” or even “Lazy Bird” which is not an easy tune. Coltrane wrote some very challenging tunes, as did Wayne Shorter. The progression to “Pinocchio” and tunes like that were strange at the time. Some of Joe Henderson’s tunes are like that. These tunes were ground breaking because harmonically they were not the normal Tin Pan Alley progressions, which most everything before was. (By the way, obviously I’m talking about tunes that use chord progressions; for the sake of this discussion I am not discussing chordless music like that of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor’s which is a different language.)
Tin Pan Alley tunes (“standards”) are basically tonic/dominant relationships: IV-V-I, V-I; pretty much like the history of classical music. What the innovators of the 1960s did is use relationships that don’t modulate in common diatonic cycles. Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which is really only a two-bar cycle was a unique and unusual progression at that time. To play it, especially at the speed he did, I’m sure he had to think about it and practice, which historically we know he did. On the recorded version that most of us know, he played a rather mechanical solo employing finger-like 1-2-3-5 patterns, but the sheer speed and excellence of bringing it off is what amazes you and me as we listen to it.
To Coltrane’s credit though, he went much further than just 1-2-3-5 patterns on the songs he did in the “Giant Steps” cycle. He used it on several tunes, such as “What is This Thing Called Love (“Fifth House”), “Body and Soul,” “How High the Moon (”Satellite”), and “Confirmation” (“26-2”), etc. He got much looser on it after “Giant Steps.” What he figured out was that the “Giant Steps” cycle was a substitute for a ii-V progression, so he just put it into tunes that evidenced that normal cycle. In his version of “Body and Soul,” he uses the cycle on the bridge, and that was only a year or so after “Giant Steps.” Being familiar with a piece of music implies that you do not have to think about the structure or movement of chords allowing you to ponder other aspects of performance. Not being familiar equates to lack of experience, or no practice implying that there is going to be some mental figuring out of what is going on.
I guess the next question would be, if I’m not thinking changes, then what am I thinking about? I can answer that in a metaphysical/spiritual way and say, I’m not really there. I’m trying to be outside myself and observe as I play. I am not there but I am there. This is music coming out of you at the moment. It’s based on experience, yet it’s fresh. I’m trying to think about interplay and expression. What did I just do and what should I do? I’m thinking about form, though not necessarily as twelve bars or AABA, but in the sense of the curve of the solo. Did I start loud, hard, soft; did I go down in dynamics; should I come up and end with a climax? Did the piano solo first? Since he just soloed, I’m going to use a different approach to my turn and then leave something else for the next horn player to do. Miles was always aware of that. He always played first and the saxophone next. Most of his saxophonists played fast, so that he could play slow. At one point I discussed this with him and he said, “I play slow; you play fast. The saxophone plays fast, that’s what a saxophone does.” It was very simple to him-a matter of balance.
When I think of form, I think of what I did and what was heard. As soon as I play one thing, that’s a fact. It’s like science. Here’s the thesis. Now, here’s the antithesis. Here’s the question and here’s the answer or complement to that. In other words, as soon as I have played my first phrase, I’m already thinking about what I did and what I need to do. Everything is based on memory accompanied by one’s particular way of figuring out what is needed for balance. So if I play fast, I’ll probably say, it’s time to play slow. I don’t know if a clock goes off in my head that literally says “slow down,” but I’m thinking about what I just did, and I’m trying to remember what I just played. Of course, there is all that interaction with the rest of the group to also deal with.
I have complete confidence in what I play. By that I mean it’s fine, even if it’s not fine. I don’t censor it, nor do I have a little guy standing there with a checklist saying, “Good, not good, etc.” As soon as you judge yourself, you’re lost. I play-it’s done-let’s move on. I don’t judge it as good or bad. I might listen to a recording and criticize my playing but that’s after the fact. Many students talk about this constant chatter going on in their head while they’re playing and for many years I experienced that as well. But that stops with experience and maturity. After awhile you start feeling relaxed and confident enough to realize whatever you did is fine. You learn to accept what you’ve done and believe in yourself if only because other people believe in you.
Maybe somebody felt this way from the first day they played, but for me it was definitely a process. This is part of the reason I wrote the book Self-Portrait of A Jazz Artist. The process of artistic growth and becoming aware of oneself is of interest to me. Developing as a musician is a reflection of how we grow as people in the real world. One of the greatest things to discover as a jazz musician is yourself meaning finding out what you do best. You must capitalize on that strength rather than what you can’t do.
Who Am I
When I was younger, what bothered me was that I couldn’t play like Coltrane or any of my idols. I really wanted to play like them. What I realized of course is that you can’t play like someone else. The message is not “play like me;” but rather “do like me.” I think it’s important to learn what you do best and be able to describe it, meaning realizing what it consists of in musical terms. Make the most out of that material instead of doing what you think or wish you could do. You can get to those other things when you have time, but first get your act together. Young improvisers don’t understand this and I don’t blame them, because I didn’t either.
You’re not going to play all styles equally well. You’re not going to play on all kinds of chord changes or even all tempos equally. You’re going to have strong and weak points which have to do with your nature, experience and what you practiced. Find out what the best thing is you do, stay in there and make the most out of it. Have a base from which you can move out into other areas that interest you and relate them to this center core. If you don’t have that center core that you’re confident of and good at, you’re like a trapeze artist without a safety net. If you’ve got the safety net and fall, you are safe. It’s the same to always have something you can play to bring you back home. You know it’s going to sound good because you’ve done it before and are comfortable with it. That’s one thing about a master-he has his language completely covered. Of course some have a larger or smaller area, depending on their taste and what they’re interested in.
To my mind, a master means that the thing he or she does is solid and recognizable from the first note, implying you know who it is. Why is it that you can identify a master from the first note? Because of the mouthpiece he uses? Because of the horn? Because of the reed he uses? Because of the way he fingers a B? It’s because he believes in what he does and developed something masterful. A young artist doesn’t know that because he’s trying everything, all part of the process.
I’ll say to a student, OK, you’ve tried many things. You can play like Trane, you can play like Bird, you can play piano, you know harmony, you can write tunes. Now what do you want to do? The response is usually: “I love it all. Every night it’s different. I like to play like this and play like that. I like this style and I like that style.” Well, that’s not good enough at a certain point. You’ve got to hang with one thing, build your core and make it part of you. That’s what maturity is all about and that’s what I spend most of my later lessons talking about to the serious students. It’s like Psychology 101. You have to discover who you are and believe in what you do. As you get to that level, then you need to use musical judgments and aesthetics, the principles of tension and release, balance, etc. In other words, the tenets of art.
Saxophone: Harmonics, Intonation & Timbre
In my book Developing A Personal Sound, I talk about a tone-matching exercise that comes from my master, Joe Allard. The exercise involves playing a harmonic off of low Bb and matching the pitch and color with the regular fingering. For example, if I fingered low Bb and produced the first overtone, I would get middle Bb which would have a different quality to it than the regular fingering because the sound is produced using the entire bore of the saxophone.
“Matching the pitch and color” implies finding the center of the tone. You want to match the brilliance or darkness as well as the resonance of the overtone and remember what it feels like, so that when you play the regular fingering, the sound is not going to be squeezed. The sound on the saxophone tends to thin out the higher you play, especially when using the palm keys because at that point you are employing very little of the body of the horn. You’re vibrating much less brass and pushing air, especially on the soprano sax, into a very small space which is the neck. If you play the higher notes off of a lower fingering (called the fundamental), you get the benefit of the full vibration of the horn which gives you a certain feeling in your throat, or more accurately, the vocal cords. It’s a feeling of fullness which is very satisfying. If you play high D off of the low Bb fingering (fourth overtone) and memorize what that feels like, you’ll have a better chance to produce a fuller sounding note when you play the high D with the normal palm key fingering. This will give you a secure feeling and inevitably lead to better intonation and control because of the increased stability in your larynx.
Intonation on the saxophone is always of concern because there are so many variables. Your body, your mouthpiece, where your mouthpiece is placed on the neck, the horn itself are factors because of the design as well as even the height of the keys. Some musicians seem to have an inner sense of pitch. They always know where it’s at. Others need to tune carefully to their surroundings, meaning the other instruments. A good way to practice is with a chromatic tuner, especially for the soprano sax. It kills you and can be like a nightmare because it’s very hard to be accurately in tune, but it has to be done at some point.
Practicing with a tuner is not the only way to improve your intonation. When a young saxophonist comes to me and asks: “If I want to play in tune, should I practice with the tuner ten hours a day?” I’d say no, because then you’ll just depend on the tuner and in the final result you have to depend on your relative sense of intonation. The saxophone is an inaccurate instrument, so it’s good to discover its tendencies. But you have to remember that you’re playing in a jazz situation where intonation is not only loose because of the nature of jazz, but is also part of the expressive language. You don’t want to be out of tune, but you want to use intonation as an expressive nuance.
If you’re able to play the overtones and you have that good feeling in your throat that I’ve alluded to, the altissimo will be easier to play. The various fingerings almost don’t matter. The only thing that the false fingerings do for the altissimo is help facilitate the sound because they break the air stream up and create a leak so the note jumps. In the end, it’s not really the fingerings that make it happen but your throat, larynx, hearing and a little bit of lip and tongue positioning which enhance the necessary higher partials. Of course I’ll practice with a tuner and find the best fingerings for intonation. It’s a matter of experimentation.
I use the altissimo as more of a vocal expression. I’ve never really worked on it in a classical or pop manner. What seemed important was to have a vocal quality in that register. I loved Coltrane’s altissimo because when he used it, it made you feel so much passion and soulfulness because it was an emotional climax of the line or phrase. When I’m playing up in the altissimo, those notes are accompanied by my voice. If you put a mic near my throat you’d hear a pitch emanating, not necessarily the same exact note as I am playing. A certain pitch in my throat produces one color, while another produces a different color, both using the same fingering. That’s really what I’m dealing with in the altissimo. The sound I get on any given day depends on my throat, my mood, and how connected up my whole being is. I don’t have it planned and I don’t really know how it’s going to happen, but it’s definitely some sort of throat activity.
Mouthpiece & Reeds
On soprano I play a very open setup while the tenor piece is a bit more normal. On the small horn, I play with the same air stream as on tenor, hence the need for a big opening. I wouldn’t try this at home-it’s not for everybody. I think that is what gives me my particular sound. I push a lot of air through the instrument so I need a pretty resistant setup. I did use plastic reeds for years but am back on cane which is working fine with some adjustments I automatically make which I describe in detail in Developing A Personal Saxophone Sound. My basic rap on mouthpieces, reeds and horns is that once you understand the principles, you can literally play anything. Of course you look for a certain comfort level and ease, so you don’t have to strain to get what you want.
Often, students look at the horn as some kind of object to pick up, wear on their neck and deal with like a machine. But it should be seen as an extension of one’s vocal cords with the bridge between this “object” and the vocal cords being the mouthpiece. It is just an amplifier that has keys on it so you can get to the notes faster than your voice. Of course, certain horns have this or that tendency due to construction, material, etc. In my case, on the road I use a different tenor everyday and it is usually fine (with my mouthpiece of course.)
Miking the soprano
Unless you are using a wireless or pickup system you really need to use two microphones on a straight soprano. Look at where the sound comes from. On the left hand, including the palm keys, the sound is going out to the left. The same for the right hand keys. So it seems logical to have the mic in those two locations. In Coltrane’s day, they just placed one mic in the middle, out in front of him which worked fine. Beware of putting one mic in the bell at all costs. Both live and in the studio I’ll record with two mics, basically one at around 8:00 o’clock on the left and 2:00 o’clock on the right. The engineer can put each on a separate track meaning they can equalize each as necessary, rolling off the highs on the top mic if it’s too bright, or brightening up the bottom mic on the lows.
There is very little creativity about developing technique. You procure some difficult books, start at the beginning and go through until you can play them. You learn the fingerings and practice till you have it down. It’s like sight-reading; there’s no creativity, you just do it. Like reading prose, if you expand your vocabulary you can read more sophisticated levels of literature and philosophy, etc. You learn the words by looking them up in the dictionary. It doesn’t mean you’re brilliant; it just means you had a little more inspiration to do something.
Start with Marcel Mule or somebody like him as everyone has for the past half a century or more. In truth there are so many different books that it doesn’t matter what you get as long as it’s going to make you read and execute passages that you haven’t played before so you’ll improve. Get each exercise up to speed and move on through the book. I’ve been feeling more and more that it’s really important for students to work on classical studies. I find that some of the young jazz musicians don’t have technique. They come in the back door, teaching themselves by ear, which by itself is fine. They love the music and want to play it, but they don’t realize how much technique is involved. Somewhere along the line, you need to practice technique for technique’s sake.
When I talk about working on classical repertoire or studies, I’m not saying be a classical saxophonist. The classical world is a whole different scenario representing another set of values. To play classical saxophone, you have to have a different mouthpiece and play with a different kind of air stream, etc. A classical saxophonist even looks different! Classical saxophone is something different as it should be because they’re after another result: “Don’t change what’s written, please!!” Interpret, and only that to a certain degree. In jazz, most of what we do is not even on paper. When I say that everyone should play the classical repertoire, I mean play through the books. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or even have to be saxophone pieces. It just has to be challenging technically. After all, to play a Bird solo or “Giant Steps” involves a lot of chops, pure and simple.
In fact, near virtuosity is mandatory. Every succeeding generation throws down the gauntlet as far as raising the bar in this way. What was innovative and new becomes standard and required. In the past few decades since Coltrane the level of proficiency on the instrument has risen dramatically. Now everybody is a speed demon. If you look at the true innovators, the first observable level is often technical. In general, the innovators definitely raised the technical level on their instruments. Louis Armstrong, Bird and Coltrane all did that for sure. Alongside this contribution, they added something musically, not to mention spiritually which became transferable to all instruments and the music itself. That is true innovation.
On one of my trips to Israel, I met with a saxophonist who was Sephardic Jew meaning he grew up with the quarter-tone sound as part of his North African prayers, so this kind of intonation was natural in his ear. He figured out quarter-tone fingerings for every note on all the saxophones. Besides playing authentic Arabic music he used it in jazz. He was gracious enough to show me the fingerings and basic concept. What you need to do is sit down with a tuner and experiment. By raising and lowering different keys, you can get approximately fifty cents sharp or flat on a given pitch which would be a quarter-tone. Putting a key down somewhere, usually in the right hand can alter most pitches. It’s amazing how much you can do. I definitely use this technique along with false fingerings and multiphonics for further expressiveness. Sometimes the result can be just a muffled tone of the same pitch.
The Future of Jazz
Critics are always looking for the next “new “thing. New is not always better and often new is not really new. If you think it’s new, it’s because you probably are not aware of where it comes from. Why does art have to continue evolving upwards? Why can’t an art form develop in different ways?
There’s a sideways impulse that can also happen implying there is space on the edges of an innovation. For example one could explore any one of the various Coltrane periods and build a musical life on it, possibly going further than even he did. As soon as you get into the center of something, it expands and becomes much more then it appeared to be at the outset. This is what an artist who is in it for longevity does. (S)he delves deeply into something that’s been touched upon, either in the recent or far past and expands upon it.
We are in a period of collection and explanation If you look at the music of the last decades in jazz, what’s the biggest trend besides the neo-classicism of some musicians, which is reinventing the past and is always present contemporaneously with new developments in any art form? For lack of a better word, it is “fusion”, not as the jazz-rock style of the 70s, but implying the blending of idioms together. It’s like a recipe-if you have one spice instead of two, you have a different tasting soup. I personally don’t think that much more innovation is going to happen in jazz. Great stylists will always appear but I don’t think we’ll have much more vertical development. Instead it will be the combinations which accurately reflects the world we live in. Jazz is not some cult music played in a tiny bar on 52nd Street anymore nor does it represent a subculture as it formerly did. It’s part of the mainstream as are most art forms nowadays because of education and exposure. Therefore jazz musicians will borrow, blend, steal or whatever from everything around them. It’s all in the mix like a giant bouillabaisse stew. A jazz musician now is no different than say a pop artist in that they fit into the context of contemporary culture where everything is mixed together. Of course you could pass a judgment that the pure art form has been diluted by this blending, but new combinations can yield original ways of looking at something.
On the other hand jazz has a very important role in overall music education. It is the liberal arts training in music of our era, similar to the “three B’s” of former times. If we were talking about this in the nineteenth century and were asked: “What’s important in music education today?” The answer would’ve been: “the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.” That was the history of music in the Western world till that time. Jazz occupies that space in the past hundred years because through it you learn many aspects: classical harmony, all kinds of rhythms that one hears everywhere, even on TV commercials as well as pop and ethnic music, not to mention insights into whatever the current technology is. Most important, jazz teaches you about improvisation, which ties in with much of what we hear around us as far as how music is put together. As well, a lot of contemporary classical music has a very improvisational nature. So when you learn jazz you are acquiring a lot of information, helpful to be musically equipped in a variety of ways.
This is an exciting time for jazz. The innovations may be exhausted, but the possible combinations are endless. Back in the 1930s, the swing musicians might have felt that musically, they had seen it all. But they hadn’t really, because all they had to do was turn to Schonberg and know that they couldn’t do that yet. If they had, maybe they would have said, “Why can’t we write music like that? Why can’t we have a chord like that to play on?” This was because of limitation of access. Today, I don’t think there is much music that I don’t have in my record collection. Times are different because it’s more of a world community now and everything is accessible with a click.
Serious jazz is the most personal of expressions. In a sense you are naked on the stage when you improvise. You have to combine mind, body and soul and believe in what you are saying, because when one converses on this level, the truth of your convictions is apparent to all. You are part of a rich spiritual tradition that demands respect and discipline. It is not something to take lightly if you purport to be serious.