Friday, July 1, 2011

Getting Started With Long Tones

I published the first online version of this article in 1998, and I’m pretty sure it was the first tutorial on this important aspect of sound production to appear on the web. Over the years I’ve received emails from all over the world from folks telling me this approach got them started on long tones, and thanking me for improving their sound! THAT’S pretty damn cool, and it still makes my day every time I get one of these notes.

What follows is more or less a reprint of the original article, but with an expanded introduction.

If you give this a shot and it helps with your sound (it will!), I’d love to hear from you...

You only need to work on long tones if you’d like to have a good sound. It’s about that simple!

I avoided them for as long as I could. I had no idea how to practice them, and the few times I half-heartedly gave them a shot, they felt like a waste of time — shouldn’t I be working on cool licks and impressive, finger-busting patterns in my limited practice time instead?

Unfortunately, whenever I’d ask a killer player how they got that great sound (“What mouthpiece are you using?”, “What are your reeds?”, “What’s that ligature you got?”), they’d say “Play long tones.” Even then, I resisted.

What finally forced me to hunker down and get serious about them was a Downbeat interview with Johnny Griffin, where he talked about how he worked on ... long tones. I love his sound, and I know it sounds silly, but somehow it had never occurred to me that an older cat like Johnny Griffin would’ve shed long tones! I just assumed he was born with that sound!

I wanted to get serious about them, but I’d never seen any instructional materials on how to “practice” long tones — I had cabinets full of books telling me what to play on a ii-V7-I progression, and how to use this or that pattern — but nothing that dealt with long tones!

Clueless, I just started blowing notes and holding them, and resolved that I was going to try this for a couple of weeks, no matter how boring and unfun and possibly pointless the exercise seemed to be.

At first, it was boring. However, after a while I started to realize that working with long tones made me hear things in my playing I hadn’t noticed before, and forced me to address a number of playing habits I’d been unaware of. It turned out the long tones were about a lot more than just honking on a note: if you’re doing them correctly, you can work on many aspects of your playing — and they should never be boring!

After a while, I figured out an approach to long tones that worked for me. And, for the first time in my life as a saxophonist, folks started to compliment me on my sound!

Here are my suggestions for someone getting started with long tones...

When you’re playing long tones, you should strive for a full, resonant sound that has a consistent timbre (tone quality) throughout the range of the horn. In other words, your palm key notes (high D, Eb, E, and F) should be just as rich and full (and in tune!) as your low C or Bb.

You’ll start out by playing a low C. But wait! Before you play, you should think about your inhalation.

Fill your lungs from the bottom up!Fill your lungs from the bottom of your diaphragm up. If you’re not sure how to inhale properly, try saying the word “hot” backwards: that is, breath in while saying hot (but don’t get your vocal cords involved). For many folks, this “inverted hot” will result in a “lower” breath, rather than an incomplete breath higher in your lungs. Again, remember to fill your lungs on this inhalation.

Don’t raise your shoulders as you’re taking in air — this is often a clue that you’re not breathing from the bottom of your diaphragm (it is, however, normal for the shoulders to raise slightly at the very end of a full inhalation).

Don’t “stab” the note.Once you’ve taken in a full breath, you’re ready to play the low C. Almost! Before you start, think about your attack of the note: it should not be explosive; the note should come out strong without being “stabbed.” At the same time, the note should sound immediately when you start it: there shouldn’t be a lag after you tongue the note, with the note suddenly popping into place after a moment or two.

You want a strong, consistent tone quality.Then, while you’re blowing the note, think about your tone quality. You want a strong, consistent, in tune timbre. You should be putting out a solid block of sound; if you were to visualize it, it might look like this:

You don’t want your sound to look like this:

If your tone is “wobbly” as you’re producing long tones, then long tones are your friend! Doing them diligently for a few weeks will build up your diaphragm and “bulk up” your sound, getting rid of the wobbles.

In the days before amplification, tenormen like Coleman Hawkins, the grand-daddy of the tenor, or Ben Webster, or Dexter Gordon, had to have a sound big enough to allow them to solo over a big band and have their horn cut through the background clutter and fill the room. That’s what you are striving for with these long tone studies. Try to imagine filling the room with your sound — think of it as being a warm, almost liquid presence.

Fill your room with sound, but don’t overblow.At the same time, don’t overblow. This ain’t honking! Find a good natural volume level that will give you a full, warm, resonant sound, without feeling like you’re going to pop a vein! You should feel comfortable while you’re blowing.

Did you know that you can be “in focus” or “out of focus” on your saxophone? When you’re in focus, your tone will be strong, consistent, and in tune, and you won’t change your embouchure much from the low end to the high end of the horn.

A tuner can help you “focus” your sound.One important tool to help you find the focus of your sax is a tuner. When you know you’re in tune, you can concentrate on your embouchure and breath support, and eventually playing in tune will become a habit: your horn will just “feel right” when you’re in focus and in tune.

You should be relaxed!The last thing you need to be aware of while you’re blowing the note is your stance and posture. (I practice standing up, because that’s how I typically perform, and I want to mimic my performance conditions as much as possible when I practice.) You should be relaxed. Your fingers should curl to the keys without grabbing the horn in a death grip, and your shoulders should be down and relaxed as well. Do an “inventory” of your body while you’re playing, and make sure that nowhere, from your head to your feet, are you tight and clenched — that’s just a waste of energy, and you want to devote as much energy as possible to your playing.

Be especially careful not to tighten up as you reach the end of your exhalation. Keep on blowing until you can no longer maintain a good, strong sound. Don’t turn it into a life or death struggle where you scrunch up your shoulders and try to squeeze every last molecule of air into your horn, sounding at the end like a dying seal!

As you practice long tones, you will naturally be able to play each tone for a longer and longer time, as you develop your diaphragm and embouchure.

Okay, you are finally ready to play that low C:

To summarize...

While you’re playing it, here’s a reminder of what you should keep in mind:
  • Inhalation: fill your lungs from the bottom up (the “inverted hot”), and don’t raise your shoulders.
  • Attack: don’t stab the note to make it sound, but do make sure that it starts immediately.
  • Tone Quality: you want a solid block of strong, consistent, room-filling sound, but don’t overblow.
  • Focus & Intonation: Use a tuner to make sure you’re in tune, and to help you find the right focus for your horn.
  • Stance & Posture: Keep your body relaxed, including your fingers and your shoulders, and do an inventory to make sure there’s no tension anywhere else in your body.
  • Release of the Note: Play until you can no longer maintain focus and a good sound, and don’t tense up at the end of the note.

You can see why long tones shouldn’t be boring: there’s plenty to keep track of while you’re playing them!

After you play the low C a couple of times, each time trying to improve your tone quality and focus, you’re ready to move up a fourth to F. You’ll keep on moving up in fourths through the range of your horn, playing each note several times. The entire series looks like this:

Try to maintain the same focus & tone quality for each note.Now, this is very important: each time you move to a new note, try to keep the same timbre and warmth of the previous note. (And, of course, check each note on the tuner.) For example, when you move up to the F from C, you should strive to duplicate the strength, focus, and timbre of the C. You should also, of course, keep track of all of the items (inhalation, attack, etc.) listed above.

Enjoy your sound!Finally, as you’re blowing these notes, enjoy your sound! The sound of the saxophone is a beautiful thing — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say to me, after hearing that I’m a saxophonist, “Oh, the saxophone! That’s my favorite instrument!” When you’re developing your abilities as a jazz saxophonist, you’re making yourself a part of an incredible legacy. That’s an elevating and inspiring pursuit....

Friday, June 3, 2011

I put those “Truck Ballz” on my tenor and OMG THE SOUND!!!!

I posted this a few years back on the Sax On The Web site, and I guess because it’s kind of “racy” it ended up banished to the “Members Only” section, lest wholesome, innocent, convent-raised youths be permanently scarred by what you’re about to read.

A preamble: the folks on SOTW run the gamut from band kids to enthusiastic amateurs to weekend warriors to saxophone collectors to pros to Pros Whose Names You’d Even Know. A lot of the discussion is very gear-heavy, and there’s a certain cohort that is always seeking to improve their sound not via the traditional route of long tones or hours in the shed with the sax on their face or whatever, but instead by “putting stuff on” or “doing stuff to” their horns: freezing them, or attaching “resonance stones” or this weird spoon-like doohickey or even just big metal lumps (photo below) on crucial spots OUTSIDE the horn (some manufacturers are even doing this), or removing lacquer from the neck, and on and on and on.

I haven’t tried these, so perhaps I‘m unfair with my skepticism. However, when one poster swore that tying a small length of leather cord around his horn’s neck focused and enhanced his tone, I snapped — resulting in this account of my own groundbreaking work in this area:

I saw this picture...
...and for some reason it made me think of those Truck Ballz that dangle from the rears of pick-up trucks of Particularly Distinguished Individuals.

So then I got an idea: what if I put ’em on my sax!!!

However, I was afraid to make a permanent mod on my vintage Mark VI tenor without even knowing if it would work, so I decided to try a controlled experiment first: I installed them on the back of my ’95 3-cylinder Geo Metro.

It ... changed ... EVERYTHING!

I can only assume it acted as some sort of spoiler and reduced turbulence and stuff, because the car felt peppier and, though I haven’t had a chance to fill the tank yet, I believe it improved gas mileage.

Once I saw that that worked, I felt better about putting one of these suckers on my tenor.

Here’s a picture:

Here’s what I noticed: first, that famous Mark VI core sound — well, man, it just got plain corier, I guess is how I would put it. Folks I play with noticed it right away — I could see, they were pointing at the horn and stuff, and I think the core was just like friggin’ drilling a hole into their brains!

Altissimo was now effortless.

The horn felt more free-blowing and powerful, from a low Bb all the way up to altissimo D9 (after D9, some notes were harder to lock into, but it was worth the trade-off...), from a whisper to a roar. The horn now has a husky, smoky, bluesy sound that I really like.

Intonation seems better too, except for middle-D, which is sharp.

Now I find I move around more when I play, and they kind of dangle and sway and flop around down there, and I like that.

There have been some drawbacks. I've been experiencing bouts of “gig rage”: if I think the guy soloing before me is taking too long or isn’t double-timing enough, I’ll follow with my solo probably too closely, or might even cut him off. If I feel like the piano player plays a chord voicing that disrespects me, I give him the finger.

Also, I now need to find a case that fits the horn. (The horn dresses to the right, so that’s a consideration....)

I know there’ll be “naysayers” or “haters” or “scientists” who’ll say that this mod wouldn't have any “real” “effect” on my “horn,” to which I say, “Nuts!”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Don Byas • “All The Things You Are” (Live in Germany) transcription

From the Impulse! recording Americans In Europe, recorded live January 3, 1963 in Koblenz, Germay.

Don Byas All The Things You Are (Live in Germany) transcription
Over the course of a musical career straddling swing and bebop, after having already toured as a professional musician with name bands before anyone had heard of Charlie Parker, Don Byas readily took on many of Bird’s innovations without obscuring his roots: Coleman Hawkins inspired his robust tenor tone and phrasing, while pianist Art Tatum was his mentor, serving as a role model for his virtuosity and harmonic inventiveness. (Johnny Griffin called him “the Tatum of the saxophone,” and Byas himself said “I haven’t got any style. I just blow, like Art.”)

♫ MP3 ♫
Byas’s solo on
All The Things You Are
Byas had the chops to play bebop, a technically demanding music requiring fleet fingers and keen harmonic instincts, before there was such a thing as bebop! As that genre emerged, Byas was there, eager and (more importantly) able to sit in with the younger beboppers, and also quick to incorporate their discoveries into his own playing — since, in a way, he was already in their neighborhood.

While he’s appeared on some early sessions that have been hailed as the first bebop (or at least perhaps “prebop”) recordings, his later work reveals a mature player who’d fully integrated bebop into his own vocabulary, so that later Don Byas was indeed an amazing bebop tenor player, and also more than that.

And that’s exactly what this live performance of “All The Things You Are,” recorded in Germany in 1963, documents: double-timing to rival later speed demons like Sonny Stitt or Johnny Griffin; a bebopper’s approach to the changes; and some unique harmonic stuff (Tatum’s influence?) that I’ve never heard anyone else do.

The beginning of this solo illustrates the above: he starts with a blistering two-bar double-time break that commands your attention and tells you something serious is about to happen, then plays an interesting sequence ascending chromatically over the harmony:

(This sequence resolves satisfyingly with the notes D and F on the Bb∆7 chord following the F7.)

This is something he’d worked out: he plays this same lick more or less verbatim a few days later on a live recording of this tune in Copenhagen and, a couple of years before these examples, he delineated the harmonic kernel of this phrase in a studio version of “All The Things” found on the “Tribute to Cannonball” recording:

This results, of course, in some interesting note choices over the F7 chord: C# and E are, to put it mildly, not consonant on that change, but sound cool here because they’re in the context of that chromatic melodic sequence.

But I don’t think that entirely gets at what Byas was thinking. Take a look at m. 29 in this transcription, where he hangs both those notes over the chord without any attempt to “justify” them in a sequence. It’s almost as if he’s substituting an A7b9 here, then “resolving” it by sliding up to the Bb∆7. I haven’t seen that before: is it an Art Tatum trick, a Don Byas trick, or something else? I have no idea — but if anyone out there does, please comment! [POSTSCRIPT NOTE: Older Me finds Byas’s approach here less mysterious than Young Naive Head-In-The-Clouds Me, and I endorse Anonymous’s observation in the comments below: “A7 to Bbmaj7 is a fairly common jazz resolution, Bbmaj7 and Dmin7 are interchangeable.”]

At any rate, this is a great performance by one of the Tenor Masters — and yet someone who isn’t as well known in the States as he ought to be, since he spent most of his professional life in Europe. If you’re a serious tenor player and don’t know Don Byas, you’re not quite serious enough!

Don't have this recording? You can get it from Amazon in the following format:
CD of the album Americans In Europe
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Monday, May 9, 2011

The Other Side

These are trio improvisations from a while back, with bassist Marc Cousins and drummer Doug Dreishpoon. These “tunes” are excerpts lifted intact from longer free improvs where we just played — there was no previous discussion of what we were going to do, whether in terms of tempi or keys or “vibe” or whatever, resulting in some interesting twists and turns. I really like this stuff and wish I had more opportunities to explore this direction — I invite you to check them out and tell me what you think...

♫ MP3s
(Bucheger, Cousins, Dreishpoon)
The Secret Life of Insects (Bucheger, Cousins, Dreishpoon)
Horton Hears A What (Bucheger, Cousins, Dreishpoon)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hoe James Carter Mijn Leven Verwoestte

In 1999 my article James Carter Ruined My Life was translated into Dutch and published by the Amsterdam-based online magazine Writers Block. Because I have instigated a strict policy of posting any of my writings translated into Dutch, I’m obligated to put it here. You laughed and cried at the original English version — now live it all over again in mellifluous Dutch!

Lang geleden, voordat hij platencontracten tekende bij Sony en Atlantic en door de schrijvende pers werd aangekondigd als Het Nieuwe Aanstormend Talent, voordat Downbeat hem op de cover zette met een uitdagend bijschrift en Robert Altman hem een rol gaf in Hollywood-film Kansas City, voordat bladen als Time en Newsweek lovende recensies over zijn platen schreven, toen was James Carter gewoon nog een middelbare scholier met buitengewoon veel talent. Ik kan het weten omdat ik er, tot mijn spijt, bij was.

Related PostIn de zomer van 1985 maakte ik mij op voor een Europese tournee met een bigband onder leiding van de uit Detroit afkomstige trompettist Marcus Belgrave. De groep was samengesteld uit docenten en ondersteunend personeel van het Michigan’s Blue Lake Fine Arts zomerkamp. Dat jaar had de bigband een uitzonderlijk sterke bezetting; naast Marcus en piano-legende Harolf McKinney, hadden we mensen die gespeeld hadden met Buddy Rich en Woody Herman en verscheidenen hadden hun sporen verdiend in bigbands van naam.

Nadat een van de saxofonisten niet mee bleek te kunnen als gevolg van een persoonlijke crisis die zijn weerga niet kende, kregen we te horen dat zijn plaats zou worden vervuld door een zestienjarige puber uit Detroit. Op dat moment toerde het knulletje nog in Europa met een groepje studenten van Blue Lake, maar hij zou binnen enkele weken terug zijn. Sommige bandleden dachten nogal sceptisch over deze ontwikkeling (ik was één van hen). Anderen, waaronder Marcus, kenden de jongen en zeiden dat er geen reden tot zorgen zou zijn. Bovendien: hij was de tweede tenor. Dus wat zou er mis kunnen gaan?

Zijn naam was James Carter.

En ik was eerste tenor...

In afwachting van zijn komst, kwamen mij steeds vaker lovende verhalen ter ore - Oh man, die jongen is zo goed! Wacht maar af, hij zal je nog behoorlijk verrassen - en langzaamaan begon ik tegen zijn komst op te zien. Aangezien ik verder de enige in de band was die sax speelde, wilde ik absoluut niet verrast worden. Ik was vierentwintig jaar oud, acht jaar ouder. Zo goed kon hij niet zijn.

Ik hoopte dat hij zich koest zou houden, zonder al te veel serieuze fouten zou spelen en verder wilde ik zo min mogelijk met hem te maken hebben. In een bigband geldt de regel: je hebt de eerste tenor sax en dan is er nog iemand die verder niet ter zake doet. En aangezien ik de eerste tenor sax speelde in deze band, vond ik deze benadering natuurlijk volkomen terecht...

Zodra ik hem hoorde, wist ik dat hij het was. Het was tussen twee sessies door, op een van die zeldzaam slome dagen waarop de kampleiders het ervan nemen en het er roerend over eens zijn dat het zomerkamp een fantastische plek had kunnen zijn ware het niet dat die verdomde kinderen niet in de buurt waren. We zaten lekker onderuit toen plots vanuit de nabij gelegen bossen het onmiskenbare gekreun van een tenorsax klonk. James kon ieder moment arriveren en ik realiseerde me meteen dat hij daar stond te blazen. En ik realiseerde me ook dat ik verdomd diep in de stront zat.

Geloof het of niet, maar het geluid van James als zestienjarige verschilt weinig van het geluid James vandaag de dag. Dat massieve, prachtige geluid. Dat te grote zelfvertrouwen en de niet aflatende neiging om altijd net iets te ver te gaan. Hij was afschuwelijk goed en hij wist het.Ik wist het ook en ik vond hem duivels.

Het was niet alsof hij Mozart was en ik Salieri. Denk eerder in de lijn: hij was Mozart en ik de loodgieter.

Ongevraagd werd ik de oppas van James, hij was mijn kamergenoot tijdens de tournee. En hoewel ik talloze malen de kans heb gehad hem te smoren met een kussen of hem voor een rijdende auto te duwen, heb ik dat toch maar niet gedaan. Dit gebrek aan initiatief van mijn kant, kon te zijner tijd wel eens mijn grootste bijdrage aan de jazz blijken. Laten we hopen van niet.

De vraag is natuurlijk hoe hij zo monsterlijk goed geworden is. Om te beginnen is hij een geboren musicus. In het kamp bevond zich een soort museum met zeldzame en exotische instrumenten, Normaal gesproken mocht je daar niet aankomen, maar James, die binnen de kortste keren door iedereen op handen werd gedragen, kreeg toestemming om wat te experimenteren. Welk instrument hij ook oppakte, binnen enkele minuten had hij voor elkaar (Serpent? Oude koek... Buccina? Heb ik gedaan... Didgeridoo? Ga ik morgen doen.).

Maar er is meer. James was bijzonder gedisciplineerd waar het oefenen betreft. Niet dat hij dingen als toonladders speelde, dat heb ik hem nooit horen doen, hij speelde gewoon. Constant. Altijd. Altijd zat hij met een walkman op te luisteren naar saxofonisten, met engelengeduld zocht hij uit wat ze precies deden. Meer dan eens werd ik ’s nachts wakker van James die in het donker zachtjes - maar niet zacht genoeg - licks die hij op zijn walkman had gehoord probeerde te spelen.

"James, het is verdomme DRIE UUR ’s nachts. Ik moet om zeven weer op. Ga nou naar bed, man"

"Sorry, ik wilde even iets uitproberen.”

Het klinkt als een cliché, maar het is voorgekomen dat ik hem ’s ochtends met zijn saxofoon in bed aantrof. Alsof hij, vechtend tegen de slaap, nog een laatste lick probeerde uit te werken maar strijdend ten onder was gegaan. Voorzichtig pakte ik dan de sax uit zijn armen en legde de toeter in de koffer.

Als ik terugdenk aan James als zestienjarige, valt een aantal dingen op. Om te beginnen - en dat geeft inzicht in de James van nu - kon James perfect R&B spelen. Als hij wilde, kon hij je met die R&B-licks om de oren slaan. Hij beheerste die echte gillende blues-krijs (lukt mij nog steeds niet) en iedere keer ging het publiek uit zijn dak. Minstens even belangrijk: James hield ervan om het publiek uit zijn dak te laten gaan. Hij maakte ze gek. Hij haalde een noot uit de toeter, boog die noot met negen verschillende vingerzettingen om uiteindelijk af te sluiten met een raspende, irritante krijs, die natuurlijk weer de perfecte noot was voor precies dat moment.

Een van de trompettisten wees me erop - een duidelijke poging me wat op te vrolijken in zware tijden- dat James veel luisterde naar baritonsaxofonist Leo Parker. ’Ah man, maak je niet druk, hij doet gewoon Leo Parker na.’ In zekere zin was dat waar, een hoop trucs die James toen gebruikte kwamen inderdaad van Leo Parker. Maar James kon nog veel meer grappen uit zijn mouw schudden.

Op een gegeven moment verbleven we in de kelder van het Heidi House, waar de oorspronkelijke oprichters van het camp, Fritz en Gretchen Stansell, wonen. Ik ben een goede vriend van hun zoon Tom. Tom woont tegenwoordig in Kopenhagen met zijn vrouw en dochter. Hij ontmoette zijn vrouw tijdens de tournee in kwestie, dus voor lang niet iedereen was de onderneming een ramp. Tom had een enorme platencollectie en James stortte zich er onmiddellijk op. Bij Tom hoorde hij voor het eerst werk van Johnny Griffin & Lockjaw Davis en hij begon zich er serieus in te verdiepen. Bijzonder serieus trouwens. Als James iets hoorde dat hem beviel, dan geen glimlach of een ’hé, te gek!’ of zoiets. Diepe lijnen verschenen op zijn voorhoofd en zich diep concentrerend, probeerde hij te achterhalen wat er gebeurde.

Op het persoonlijk vlak konden we wel aardig met elkaar opschieten. Zeker als je bedenkt dat ik degene was die James ’s avonds in en ’s ochtends uit bed moest schoppen en er feitelijk op moest toezien dat hij niet in de problemen kwam. Tegelijkertijd was ik vreselijk jaloers op hem. Behalve een briljant saxofonist was hij knap om te zien en erg populair bij de meisjes in het kamp. Om kort te gaan, hij was precies het tegenovergestelde van alles dat ik was toen ik zestien was.

James wist, zoals iedereen wist, dat mijn spel niet eens in de buurt van het zijne kwam. Hij speelde de partijen van de tweede tenor maar kreeg het leeuwendeel van de solo’s. Hij kreeg ze gewoon in de schoot geworpen: “Laten we James deze solo geven: hij is jong en kan spelen als een gek. Het publiek zal het fantastisch vinden!” Ik was als de dood dat iemand zou voorstellen om een tenor-battle houden, James zou mijn rammelende spel als een slachter hebben afgemaakt.

Er kwam geen duel.

De rest van band begreep wel dat ik me in een lastige positie bevond en ze hielden rekening met mijn gevoelens. Marcus was cool, hij bleef me steunen terwijl mijn zelfbeeld nog nooit zo negatief is geweest als die zomer.

James was verdomme gewoon een aardige jongen. Natuurlijk, hij had een vreselijk groot ego - wat wil je? Hij was zestien en kon de meest ongelooflijke de dingen met de sax en dat wist hij, maar hij was niet egoïstisch. Ongeacht het nummer, het tempo of de toonsoort, als er werd gevraagd “Wie wil een solo spelen", dan knikte hij, wachtte keurig op zijn beurt en zou uiteindelijk een solo spelen die zijn sax liet roken.

Was hij geweest zoals de meeste tieners, dan zou hij hoogstwaarschijnlijk op een gegeven moment tegen mij, zijn gevangenisbewaarder, iets gezegd hebben als ’Ik blaas je tegen de vlakte’. Hij deed het niet.

Wel begon hij me op een gegeven moment ’Lip’ te noemen, omdat ik aan de lopende band nerveuze grapjes liep te maken en omdat ik in die tijd een probleem had met mijn embouchure. James merkte dat direct. Hij zei het niet uit onaardigheid, hij wilde er alleen zeker van zijn dat ik wist dat hij het wist.

Een muzikale momentopname. In Arhus (Denemarken) vond na afloop van het concert een jamsessie plaats. James pakte op een gegeven moment iemands altsax en werkte zich door alle overgangen van een up-tempo versie van Cherokee alsof hij degene was die het nummer geschreven had. Fere Noren, een goede Zweedse trompettist en lid van de bigband (die tegenwoordig de leider is van het Stockholm Jazz Orkest), concludeerde met een zwaar Zweeds accent: “Bird! Bird! Man! He sounds like Charlie Parker!"

Het was waar. Hij klonk godverdomme als Charlie Parker!

Na de tour stopte ik met spelen. Iedereen ging naar huis, ik besloot naar Parijs te gaan om mijn wonden te likken en het geld dat ik met de tournee verdiend had te besteden aan een vrouw die uiteindelijk mijn echtgenote zou worden. Ik besloot de saxofoon aan de wilgen te hangen omdat ik vond dat er geen plaats was voor een tenor-saxofonist van mijn niveau op een planeet waar ook zestienjarigen rondliepen die konden spelen als James Carter.

Zes maanden later pakte ik, ondanks James, de sax weer op. Ik had me gerealiseerd dat ik, als ik geen saxofonist kon zijn, werkelijk niet wist wie of wat ik dan wel was.

Ik ben bijzonder trots op James en wat hij bereikt heeft. Ik heb hem hard zien werken en alles dat hij bereikt heeft, is zonder meer verdiend. De jonge mister Carter heeft me wel in een paradoxale situatie gebracht: als ik later groot ben, wil ik kunnen spelen zoals dat ventje.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Michael Brecker • “Invitation” transcription

From the Chiaroscuro recording You Can’t Live Without It, recorded October 31, 1977.

Michael Brecker
Invitation transcription
This is Michael Brecker’s solo on Invitation, from guitarist Jack Wilkins’ album “You Can’t Live Without It” (later released on CD as “Merge”), and in my opinion it’s one of the most astonishing jazz performances ever recorded.

♫ MP3 ♫
Brecker’s solo on
When I say that, I don’t mean “I think this is a really great solo!” I mean: “This is one of the most astonishing jazz performances ever recorded.” I’ve never heard Brecker sound better than this, and I’ve heard (and loved) lots of Brecker.

Almost 30 years ago (!!), when I first transcribed this solo — a process that involved slowly and methodically destroying the LP and my phonograph needle by playing passages over and over again at 16 RPM, dropping the speed sorta almost in half and lowering the pitch sorta almost an octave (making Brecker sound like a demonically-possessed bari player) — I’d already had a few transcriptions under my belt: Dexter, Newk, Trane, even Don Byas.

I used the same trick to slow down their solos. Half-speed helps to isolate otherwise impenetrably fast phrases. It also reveals the “more human,” “more fallible” side of these folks who were (are!) giants for me: slowed down, you can hear the imperfections and miscues in their execution and articulation, the slightly flubbed notes, the tiny faults in timing and fingering. These are normal, and inaudible at regular speed.

Brecker slowed down, on the other hand, sounded ... clean, perfect! To put it another way: Abnormal. Inhuman. This technical virtuosity, though certainly a contributing factor, is NOT what makes this an astonishing performance, however.

The technical mastery on display here — Brecker’s amazing time feel, his clean execution and varied articulation, his stunning facility in the altissimo, his hair-raising double-timed passages — is in the service of his varied and interesting harmonic language, and in the way he “manages” the overall arc of tension and release in the solo, building successive climaxes leading into his final chorus, where at the very end he finally lets the air out of the balloon and trails off. When it’s over, you don’t feel like you’ve been merely listening to a jazz solo: you feel like you’ve been on a dangerous ride, then safely delivered home.

That feeling of “being taken somewhere” happens in great jazz solos. Like this one.

There are a couple of specific things worth mentioning for a student of jazz: Brecker’s minor ii-V7-i lines, and in particular his fluent use of the altered scale, merit study and emulation, and his use of false fingerings, a common saxophonistic ploy, go beyond the more typical exploits of other players — the alternating between the standard C fingering and A with the side C at mm. 122-125 is interesting and less often heard, calling to mind a blues guitarist’s riff.

I really have nothing to say about the double-time passages at mm. 47-53, 71-75, 89-100, and 131-140: they are, to me, stunning, in both senses of the word!

I’ve never understood why the album, which (in addition to Invitation) features Brecker’s inspired blowing on What Is This Thing Called Love, What’s New, and Freight Trane, along with stellar contributions by Randy Brecker and leader Jack Wilkins, isn’t better known — especially among Brecker enthusiasts. Part of the reason is that it was a small label with limited distribution. Although the CD is now out of print and only available at extortionary prices from some online sellers (as I’m writing this, 3 copies are available from Amazon Sellers: 2 at just under $50, and one for $90!), you can download the whole inspired thing right now for 9 bucks:

Instant MP3 Download of the album Merge

Your purchase from Amazon helps to support this blog!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

James Carter Ruined My Life

On June 21, 1995 I posted this tale of woe on the Usenet discussion group It became an internet sensation in the online jazz world of the day: folks reposted it far and wide (I remember planning a trip to Paris and stumbling upon it on a website devoted to jazz in France!), and it was translated into Dutch for the Amsterdam-based e-zine Writers Block.

Years later, jazz chanteuse Dee Dee Bridgewater used it on her NPR program Jazz Set (hearing the glorious Ms. Bridgewater purr the name “Kelly Bucheger” — intoned perfectly since her producer had contacted me to figure out how the hell to pronounce it — was a highlight for me...). I’ve met people from all over the world who’ve read it, and I still get emails about it. Lots of folks can relate to the experience, and have been through similar things themselves — when you’re striving to excel in any discipline, there will always be somebody out there better than you. And some of those folks will be younger than you. Get used to it.

My adventures with James were ultimately a sort of “vaccination” for me — I had my musical “mid-life crisis” at the age of 24(!!), which has given me plenty of time to ... get over it! In the years since, I’ve encountered plenty of dazzling younger players who’ve amazed and impressed me. Instead of inducing me to ditch the horn, I just want to practice more. I mean, once you’ve been humbled by the best: bring ’em on!

There are also some postscripts to this story, but I’ll save that for ... you know ... after the story. Anyways, maybe you’ve read this before, or maybe it’s new to you, but here’s the true tale of my brush with (young) jazz greatness...

Before he was a Sony & Atlantic recording artist celebrated as The Next Really Big Thing by the jazz and popular press, before Downbeat put him on their cover with the audacious caption New World Order, before Robert Altman put him in a Hollywood movie, and before Time & Newsweek hailed his albums, James Carter was just a monstrously talented high-school kid. I know because, unfortunately, I was there.

In the summer of 1985 I was preparing to tour Europe with a big band fronted by Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. The band was made up of faculty and staff from Michigan’s Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, and was a very hot group — in addition to Marcus and Detroit piano legend Harold McKinney, we had folks who’d played with Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, and other name big bands.

Due to complications on the part of one of the guys who was supposed to tour in the sax section, it was announced that his replacement was going to be this 16-year-old kid from Detroit, a camper who was at that moment touring Europe with a Blue Lake student group, but was due back in a couple of weeks. Despite considerable skepticism on the part of some of us, Marcus and folks who knew this kid said he’d do fine — and besides, he was going to hold the second tenor chair: what harm could he do?

His name was James Carter.

I was the first tenor player...

As I began to hear more and more testimonials about James along the lines of “oh, this kid’s a muther, just you wait, you’ll be amazed,” I started to view his arrival with a little apprehension. As the only guy in the band who’d be playing the same axe as this kid, I didn’t want to be amazed. I was 24 years old, so I had eight years on him. He couldn’t be that hot. I wanted him to stay out of the way, do a competent job, and that’s about it. In a big band there’s the first tenor player, and then there’s some other guy. As the first tenor player in this band, I thought this scheme had its merits....

One day, between sessions, during that languid and lovely pause when faculty and staff relax and talk about what a great place camp is when there aren’t any kids around, somebody I hadn’t heard before was in the woods wailing on a tenor sax. James was due back, and I realized it had to be him.

Damn! I was in trouble.

Believe it or not, James at 16 was not all that far removed from James today. He already had that massive, glorious sound, and that same grandstanding confidence and youthfully exuberant tendency toward excess. He knew he was bad.

I considered him evil.

It was not like he was Mozart and I was Salieri. It was more like he was Mozart, and I was a plumber.

I became James’s baby-sitter. James was my roommate. Although I had ample opportunities to smother him with a pillow, or push him in front of a moving car, I did not do so. This may have been the greatest contribution to jazz I will ever make. I hope not.

So: how did he become the monster player he is? Well, first of all, he’s a born player. The camp had a museum of rare and exotic instruments. While most folks weren’t permitted to touch them, James (indulged as he was by everyone — sigh), got chances to give things a try. He could pick up anything, and in a matter of minutes get something happening. (A serpentine? Been there... Sackbut? Done that... Didjeridoo? Doin’ it tomorrow...)

However, that is of course only half of it. James was also, sad to say, very disciplined about practicing. Not that he’d play scales and stuff (I never heard him do that...), but rather he’d just be playing. Constantly. Always. He always wore a Walkman, playing tapes of saxophonists and figuring out their stuff. In fact, there were times when I’d awaken to James, in the dark, quietly — but not quietly enough! — trying to cop some licks off his Walkman.

“James, Jesus, it’s THREE in the morning! I’m up in a few hours! Bed time, already!”

“Sorry. I was trying to figure something out.”

It sounds like a cliché, but there were times when I’d find James asleep in bed with his horn, as if he had just one more thing to work out but didn’t quite make it... I’d gingerly take his horn and put it in its case.

Here are some of my musical recollections of James at 16: first of all, and I think this offers insight into James today — James had R&B bar-walking tenor down COLD. He could totally do that screaming blues thang (I still can’t), and it would electrify audiences.

And here’s another important thing: James was into electrifying audiences. I’ve seen him incite near riots! He’d get honking on a single note, juicing it up and fingering it about nine different ways, then let loose with a grating altissimo shriek that also happened to be exactly the right thing to do for that moment.

A trumpeter in the band, trying to cheer me up, noted that at the time James was listening to a lot of baritonist Leo Parker. “Aw, man, he’s just doin’ Leo Parker!” And in fact, I think James was getting a lot of stuff from Leo Parker back then. But he had many other goodies in his bag of tricks as well....

While we prepared for the upcoming tour, we lived in the basement of the Heidi House, which was the home of the visionary founders of the camp, Fritz and Gretchen Stansell. Their son Tom is a good friend of mine (he lived for many years in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter — he met his wife on this tour, so it wasn’t a disaster for everybody). Tom had a great record collection, and James voraciously dived into it. I know that’s the first time he heard the Johnny Griffin/Lockjaw Davis stuff, and he seriously studied it. (Serious is the word, too — when James heard something he liked, he didn’t smile and say “wow, that’s cool” or whatever. Instead, he’d frown and concentrate — and try to figure it out.)

On a personal level, we related together OK, I guess, considering I was the guy who’d have to get James to bed at night and up in the morning, and just in general keep him out of trouble, while at the same time I envied the hell out of him. (He was handsome and very popular with the girls at camp: he was more or less the polar opposite of everything I was at age 16...)

James knew, and so did everybody else, that my playing couldn’t touch his. Though he played the second chair book, he took the lion’s share of the solos — he’d just end up with them: “hey, let’s let James blow on this one, ’cuz he’s a youngster and folks will get a kick out of how well he can play.” I lived in terror that someone would propose a tenor battle: James would’ve been Julia Child, while I would have been the groggy lobster, on the menu and ready for the pot.

It didn’t happen, because the other band members knew I was in a tough spot, and were gentle about it. Marcus was very cool and always encouraging to me, even though my ego and self-esteem were at a low that summer, I’m sorry to say.

And, unfortunately: James really was a good kid. He had a big ego, of course — I mean, he was a 16-year-old who could do phenomenal stuff on a sax, and he knew it. And yet, he wasn’t egotistical, if that makes sense — just supremely confident. On any tune, at any tempo, in any key, if somebody would say “who wants to blow on this” he’d nod his head and get into the queue. And smoke!

If he was a kid like most kids, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had said to me, his jail keeper, something along the lines of “I could kick your ass on tenor.” He never did that.

He did start calling me “Lip” all the time, both for the fact that I had a nervous habit of constantly cracking jokes, and because I had an embouchure problem back then that James, a natural student of the horn, spotted right away. It wasn’t said to be cruel; he just wanted to make sure that I knew he knew.

One musical vignette: in Arhus, Denmark, there was a jam session after our concert. James picked up somebody’s alto and ripped through the changes of an up-tempo Cherokee as if he were the guy who’d thought them up. Fred Noren, a fine Swedish trumpeter and member of the band (today he leads the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra), put it this way (insert Swedish accent here): “Bird, man! He sounds like Charlie Parker!”

MY NEMESIS: James getting into trouble on the band bus, somewhere in Europe.
And he DID, dammit: he DID sound like Charlie Parker!

I quit playing at the end of the tour. While everybody else went home, I went to Paris to lick my wounds and spend what I made on the trip with the woman who’d eventually be my wife — she was living in Paris at the time. I renounced the saxophone because it didn’t seem like there was room for a tenor-player like me on a planet that had 16-year-old kids who could play like James.

I picked up the horn again about six months later, when I realized that, James or no James, if I wasn’t a saxophonist then I really didn’t know who or what I was.

I’m very proud of James and his accomplishments. I watched him work hard, and he’s earned what he’s got. However, the youthful Mr. Carter leaves me in a paradoxical position: when I grow up, I want to play like the kid!


In 2006, for the first time in the more than twenty years (!!) since the tour, I ran into James in New York, at a Selmer saxophone event at Steinway Hall. I wasn’t expecting him. After a presentation of their latest horns, I was directed to a roomful of Selmer saxes available to try out. Heading toward that room I heard an impossibly WAILING bari and instantly said to myself: “Whoa! That... Must... Be...”

I turned the corner, and there was James! The last time I’d seen him he was a teenager, and I was younger and hairier. I went up to him and stood there. He pondered me for a moment, exclaimed “Kelly!” and gave me a great big hug.

I pointed out that last time I saw him he was 16, and now he was all grown up and looking great. He said that I looked good too, which was sweet of him. Maturity has been good to James. He is a super nice and humble person, enthusiastic about music, a friendly, warm fellow. He is a great, successful adult, and he is, in fact, an inspiration!

I am totally glad that I never smothered him with a pillow.


From an interview with K. Leander Williams, published in Time Out New York:

K. LEANDER WILLIAMS: Speaking of your youth, there’s an article on a blog about you at 16 called “James Carter Ruined My Life.”

JAMES CARTER: [Laughs] Yeah, by Kelly Bucheger. We’re totally cool.


In May of 2012 NPR’s jazz blog, A Blog Supreme, featured this piece. I was delighted, of course, but there was an unexpected side-effect: my blog traffic spiked insanely, prompting Google to suspend me from their AdSense program, convinced that some sort of fraud was afoot. Good times.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Eric Alexander • “Blues For All” transcription

From the Sharp Nine recording Too Soon To Tell, recorded February 25, 1997.

Eric Alexander
Blues For All transcription
Although Eric Alexander is a nearly perfect human tenor saxophonist — his sound, time feel, articulation and execution on the horn are exemplars of human saxophone playing — I absolutely can imagine being able to play like him: if I spent ten years in some sort of saxophonist monastery where my meals were prepared for me and I was able to put the horn on my face for 8-12 hours a day, under the guidance of nurturing and wise sax master monks, I can see myself emerging at the end of the retreat playing the horn and executing Alexanderish lines with his flawless poise.

♫ MP3 ♫
Alexander’s solo on
Too Soon To Tell
In that regard, I differentiate him from post-human, freak-of-nature saxophonists like Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin: guys who, whether as the result of prenatal exposure to gamma radiation or an X-Fileish intermingling of human and alien DNA, play and think on the horn in ways that are demonstrably non-human, and where no amount of monastic sequestration would ever enable me, a human, to play like them.

This photo of Eric Alexander is by Dave Kaufman, and is used with his kind permission. Check out Kaufman’s other great shots at his
All About Jazz photo gallery.
(However: as I further ponder my important and groundbreaking hypothesis here, it’s worth noting that Alexander was already a freakishly great player at a young age, so I’m not entirely vouchsafing his credentials as a human: it’s conceivable he’s some sort of kinder & gentler alien spawn who has chosen to focus on aspects of saxophony that us lesser species might still aspire to. Without blood tests and dissection, there’s really no way to know.)

Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah: Alexander started out intending to be a classical saxophonist, discovering jazz only after going to Indiana University to study with the legendary classical saxophonist Eugene Rousseau, and I have to wonder if Alexander’s “legit” (crummy term, but what can you do?) roots play a part in his refined technical mastery of the horn.

Whatever: his 7 choruses on this C minor (tenor key) blues offer a nice demonstration of getting a lot of mileage from simple motivic devices; succinct use of the altered scale to set up quick tension/resolution speed bumps; basic chord superimpositions to increase harmonic interest; along with a few curveballs in the form of some unusual melodic devices.

Let me point out specific examples of the above:
  • Simple motivic devices

    Eric occasionally grabs a simple melodic motif, like the cliché-ish triplet riff that begins his 2nd chorus (mm. 13-15), but then spins it out in an unexpected but logical way, as he does at mm. 16-17.

    At the start of his 6th chorus he plays an incredibly simple little triplet figure — but then starts throwing it around and sequencing it in other keys. Whenever I see stuff like this, I feel like I’m not sufficiently exploring this kind of “basic” material in my practice regime — although these are simple devices, it’s only through serious attention on the horn that one develops this kind of “casual” fluency with them: on a tune moving at a bright 224 bpm, Alexander’s ease with the material belies its technical challenges.

    Finally, regarding motivic devices: the 4th chorus always makes me smile, because, intentionally or not, it calls to mind Oliver Nelson’s opening maneuver on his Stolen Moments solo — at about 3 times the speed!

  • Altered scale

    If there were an Altered Scale 101 course offered by some especially cool university, mm. 10-11 would be played on the first day of class to demonstrate the characteristic sound of a V7-I resolution using the altered scale. Mm. 22-23 would also be on the syllabus. (However, mm. 50-52 represent a special case that will be addressed in a moment...)

  • Basic chord superimpositions

    Eric uses these throughout to add harmonic variety to the blues form; the 3rd chorus is probably the most obvious example.

  • Curveballs

    The solo starts off with a bit of a curveball: Eric takes a basic F pentatonic scale, but precedes each note with its upper chromatic neighbor, transforming the blandly wholesome girl-next-door pentatonic sound into a strangely exotic foreign temptress exchange student. (Or something like that.) At any rate: sounds pretty cool — and again makes me realize I take certain “basic” melodic fodder (like pentatonic scales!) for granted, when I could be doing so much more...

    Also in the curveball category is an angular little altered scale “tone row” thing he sequences in mm. 50-52: it’s worked out, in that it’s not something likely to spontaneously fall under your fingers on the fly, but it’s based on all the “juicy” notes of the altered scale, so I’m gonna chalk this one up as an “altered curveball.”

Okay, so that’s all there is to it: just master all this stuff, have perfect chops and a perfect sound, and you’ll play just like Eric Alexander! (By the way: for just under a ding-dang buck you can download this track from Amazon — and then, using that track with this transcription, it’s like having a little mini-lesson with Eric Alexander for a buck! Why would you not do that? I’ll also point out that the album Too Soon To Tell also has the most unexpectedly hip 3-horn arrangement of Alfie you’ve ever heard, and you can download the whole album for peanuts, so what the heck?)

Don't have this fine recording? You can get it from Amazon in the following formats:
Instant MP3 Download of the track Blues For All Instant MP3 Download of the album Too Soon To Tell CD of the album Too Soon To Tell
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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dick Oatts
• “Like Someone In Love” transcription

From the SteepleChase recording Standard Issue, recorded live in 1997.

Dick Oatts
Like Someone In Love transcription
Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans, on their recording of “The Days Of Wine & Roses” (from the album Affinity), don’t play the tune the way composer Henry Mancini wrote it: they take the second half up a minor third. The modulation gives this oft-played standard an unexpected and beautiful lift on the restatement of the melody’s ascending major 6th at the start of the second A section — when I first heard it, I imagined Mancini palm-slapping his head: “Damn! Why hadn’t I thought of that?”

This photo of Dick Oatts is by James Jordan, and is used with his kind permission. Check out Jordan’s beautiful work at his blog
Points Of Light.
You can use this modulation trick on any tune that has an ABAB or ABAC form: changing the key at the second A can give a well-worn tune a brand new vibe, like giving an old room fresh paint and better lighting. Wally Jedermann, a Buffalo pianist, does this on “Green Dolphin Street,” taking the first half in C, and the second half in Eb (and thus splitting the difference in the age-old bandstand conflict of whether to play the tune in the Real Book key [meh...] or in Miles's key [yay!]).

Dick Oatts does the same thing in this stunning performance of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone In Love”: the first half is in C, and the second half Eb (alto keys of A and C). This is from his live recording Standard Issue, a collection of (mainly) standards, and a “desert island” disc for me — if I’m to be banished, these amazing and inspiring performances are coming with me.

As is often the case with Mr. Oatts, the best parts of his performance ARE NOT TO BE FOUND in the transcription! He plays the tune as a duet with bassist Dave Santoro, and what defies the art and/or craft of transcription here is his marvelously elastic time feel and his vast array of articulations. There’s no such thing as a “staccato” note or a merely “accented” note with Dick Oatts — instead, there are thirty different ways of attacking a note, or of ghosting a note, or implying a note, or stopping a note.

So: imagine a large, lovely butterfly flitting around in your backyard (spring is almost here, after all!). Admire it cheerfully darting about your plants, floating on a breeze, soaring into the air, disappearing, reappearing.

Now imagine that exact same butterfly pinned to a board in a butterfly collection. You can stare at it to your heart’s content, but you’re not really seeing what makes it so great and so uplifting and so cool. This transcription is Dick Oatts’ beautiful performance on “Like Someone In Love,” pinned to a board. There’s much very worthy study fodder here, but if you don’t have the recording, you ain’t really getting “it”! So, get the recording if you don’t have it, and you’re in for a treat: the artistry of Dick Oatts!

Don't have this amazing recording? You can get it from Amazon in the following formats:

Instant MP3 Download of the track Like Someone In Love
Instant MP3 Download of the album Standard Issue
CD of the album Standard Issue

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jamey Aebersold Teaches the World to Swing

This is the first thing I wrote for Midwest Jazz after my semi-traumatic move from Minneapolis to Buffalo.

After the editor encouraged me to keep my ears open for worthy stories to tell, I pitched a piece on Jamey Aebersold. While Jamey is recognized today as a pioneer and titan of jazz education — indeed, 20 years after this was published the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him the title of Jazz Master, its highest award in the field — back then the mainstream jazz publications more or less ignored him. This would be the first published in-depth treatment of him I’m aware of.

We had an interesting and wide-ranging conversation for this piece: he had surprising things to say about the state of jazz education (comments still entirely relevant today) and how he’d changed things for better and for worse, along with tidbits about how he came up with his groundbreaking play-along concept, what his expectations were at the beginning, and the behind-the-scenes process that goes into his sets.

Reprinted with permission from
Midwest Jazz Fall 1994 (Vol. 1, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.

Jamey Aebersold is not a jazz vocalist. Not really. And yet in a “blindfold test” literally thousands of jazz musicians would call out his name upon hearing him intone, in his no-nonsense Indiana twang, “One. Two. One, two, three....”

That’s because “Jamey Aebersold” is a household name — if your household happens to harbor an aspiring jazz musician.

He is heard counting off the tempos on more than 60 volumes comprising his trailblazing play-along series, A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation. These recordings form the cornerstone of many serious jazz musicians’ practice regimens.

Each set features a CD or cassette (and once upon a time, LP) recording of a rhythm section (usually piano-bass-drums, although guitar or Hammond B3 organ are featured on some) and a coordinated booklet with transposed parts for all instruments (the piano’s in the right channel of the stereo recording, with the bass in the left, so players of those instruments can turn down the appropriate channel).

Thanks to the series, even the most isolated would-be jazzer has the opportunity to play with such luminaries as pianists Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Patrice Rushen, Richie Beirach, Hal Galper, Ronnie Mathews, Harold Mabern, James Williams, and Jim McNeely; bassists Ron Carter, Rufus Reid, Bob Cranshaw, and Ray Drummond; and drummers Ben Riley, Al Foster, Louis Hayes, Billy Hart, Grady Tate, Adam Nussbaum, Mickey Roker, and Marvin Smitty Smith. Among others.

The approach is simple and effective for developing fluency in the hundreds of tunes that make up the lingua franca of the jazz musician. In addition to numerous sets featuring all manner of standards in various styles, there are also sets devoted to the compositions of notable jazz innovators and composers: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton — the list goes on and on. Other sets cover the building blocks of the jazz vocabulary, including the blues and the ii-V-I chord progression.

Jamey Aebersold started out as a saxophonist, earning his Masters Degree from the University of Indiana in the early ’60s. Since then, thanks to his stellar work in the field, he was voted into the Hall of Fame of the International Association of Jazz Educators, and he received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Indiana University in 1992. He’s even been seen on the CBS television program “Sunday Morning,” on a segment about jazz education that featured his Summer Jazz Workshops, which bring players of all levels together with a heavy faculty of recording musicians and educators. The workshops have been held not only in the U.S. and Canada, but in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, Scotland, and Denmark as well.

When I was in college, I thought that the last thing I would be was an educator.Aebersold got into the play-along business more or less by accident. “Back in the ’60s, I was at a big band camp in Connecticut. At the end of the week, I had a private lesson with a couple of saxophonists — I was playing piano, walking a bass line with the left hand and playing chords with the right. When we were finished, they asked me if I would make a tape for them of blues and standards, things like There Will Never Be Another You and Green Dolphin Street, a few choruses of each. Well, I never got around to making the tape for them, but I did come out with Volume One a year or so later.”

Volume One, Jazz: How To Play & Improvise, is available today in English, German, French, and Japanese. It contains chapters on melody, scales and modes, articulation, ear training, and other aspects of jazz improvisation, with play-along tracks featuring the blues (in F and Bb), dorian minor progressions, and jazz formulae including cycles, cadences, and ii/V7s.

At first Aebersold didn’t expect much, and wasn’t even planning to go beyond the first volume. “I really thought the Berklee School of Music would take it over, if they considered it a good idea. I could imagine a series: a Duke Ellington set, a Count Basie set, and so on. They never did take it on, so a couple of years later I added a few more sets, and before long people were saying ‘hey, why don’t you do this,’ and we were off and running. At the time, I still considered it a sideline rather than my main thing. But then it got out of hand!”

He’s currently working on Volumes 62, 63, and 64, which will focus on trumpeter Tom Harrell, guitarist Wes Montgomery, and salsa & latin jazz. “I want to do one of Christmas songs this year too!”

Aebersold’s business, which not only sells his own materials but also hundreds of other jazz instruction books and videos, is based in his home in New Albany, Indiana. Nowadays the typical play-along recording session takes place right in his basement. “I put the drummer in one room, the bass player in the next, each one with headphones and their own little amplifier for volume control, and I’m in the office here with the piano and the tape recorder.

“I sit at my desk, and I fix the tempo with a metronome, letting them hear it through the mic. Then I count it off and let them go. After four, five, or five and a half minutes, I say ‘OK, last chorus, take it out,’ very softly into the mic.”

In the early days of the series, Aebersold played sax along with the rhythm section, in a separate booth, to keep things tight (the sax track, of course, was not included in the final mix). “Now, from time to time, if the piano player worries about getting too repetitive, or feels like he’s starting to solo rather than accompany, I’ll scat-sing softly into the mic. That levels everything out again.”

Aebersold takes care to ensure that the arrangements and changes for the tunes on the sets are definitive. “We talk about the beginnings and endings before we start. Some of the fake books that I’ve seen don’t have very good changes, so I’m always careful about our changes, and want them to be correct. When you’re dealing with people of the caliber of (jazz educator) Dan Haerle or Hal Galper, well, they don’t want to play changes that aren’t the way jazz players play them, so they’ll speak up — ‘Jamey, you don’t want a dominant 7th chord there, shouldn’t that be minor’ — that sort of thing. We make those adjustments, but I tell you, sometimes it’s a toss-up, and I’ll have to run and pull out the classic recordings, and we’ll strain to hear what those guys are playing, and all the while the clock’s ticking away....”

The old days were better in some ways, because people were forced to use their ears & really listen.The way jazz knowledge is passed on has changed considerably over the years. Novice jazz musicians used to advance through what amounted to an apprenticeship system, learning the music by sitting in with accomplished mentors. Jam sessions were the classrooms in the music’s previous periods.

Today jam sessions of that sort are hard to come by, and the apprenticeship system has largely been supplanted by academic approaches. Most of the musicians currently rising through the ranks typically go through high school and college jazz programs, referring to numerous jazz improvisation texts along the way. Aebersold, a key figure in today’s jazz education scene, laments some aspects of how that scene has changed.

We oftentimes have players who don’t get lost & play the right notes, but aren’t saying much.“I think the old days were better in some ways, because people were forced to use their ears and really listen. Jazz education has changed, and of course I’m a part of that too. Now people use books, a visual medium — people using their eyes instead of their ears. They’re taking the information in on the left side of the brain, while the right side, the creative side, isn’t being used the way it used to. When I was coming up, the eyes weren’t important, the ears were — listening was key. The right side took in the information, while the left side, the analytical side, tried to figure out what was going on. Now, it’s almost reversed, and I think we oftentimes have players who don’t get lost and play the right notes, but aren’t saying much.

“I’m sorry that things have changed in that respect. We have many people today attempting to learn how to improvise, which I think is marvelous, but in my opinion the importance of listening isn’t stressed enough.”

Aebersold believes that improvisation should be a core value in school music curriculums, as a key to developing the students’ creativity, and that music contests have hurt rather than helped the cause. In an article entitled “Music Is For Life” he writes:

We’ve taken the students’ freedom to play music and forced them into a competitive mode. They play a few songs, over and over, to be performed at a competition, festival, or contest in hopes of winning a trophy... What if math or English were taught that way?... I can’t picture a high school History teacher working his students over and over on the Gettysburg address for three months to bring home a first place at contest.

Aebersold favors creativity over competition. “I think that if everyone were given a chance to develop their creative side, the world would be a lot more peaceful. Having a creative outlet is very important, and music is a tremendous stress reliever.”

His sets have helped thousands develop their own creative resources. Yet Jamey Aebersold downplays his status as one of our premier jazz educators. “When I was in college, I thought that the last thing I would be was an educator. When I got started with the series, I took it step by step, not pushing myself into it at all. In fact, all along the way I was thinking, ‘tomorrow, instead of worrying about all this play-along stuff, I’m going to practice three hours. Tomorrow’s the day.’ Now, that day hasn’t come yet, but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”

UPDATE: As you might expect, a few things have changed in the nearly 2 decades since this piece first came out...
  • “more than 60 volumes” — as I write this, Jamey has more than doubled that number!
  • “Each set features a CD or cassette (and once upon a time, LP)”: a few cassettes or LPs are still available, as signed collector’s items...
  • “Volume One, Jazz: How To Play & Improvise, is available today in English, German, French, and Japanese.” — add Spanish and Portuguese to the list...
  • “I want to do one of Christmas songs this year too!” — It took a little longer than that: the first volume of Christmas tunes was Volume 78.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

John Coltrane • “Take The Coltrane” transcription

From the Impulse! recording Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, recorded September 26, 1962.

John Coltrane
Take The Coltrane transcription
This is an amazing blues performance from John Coltrane’s celebrated meeting with Duke Ellington. Around the time of this recording, many in the jazz press, including some usually perceptive and open-minded writers, couldn’t “hear” Trane: they found his sound harsh and his lines angular, unswinging, and abstract. Meanwhile, some lesser writers cursed his output as anti-jazz, angry noise that threatened to eclipse and even destroy real jazz.

♫ MP3 ♫
Coltrane’s solo on
Take The Coltrane
Bob Thiele, the head of Coltrane’s new label, Impulse!, astutely decided to counter the bad press by positioning his new artist as a player firmly in jazz’s mainstream, first by getting the Duke’s “seal of approval” in a collaboration, followed by an ear-friendly album of ballads.

Coltrane’s solo on Take The Coltrane, an Ellington riff penned for the occasion, is a yin-yang study in tension and release: knotty dissonant phrases are juxtaposed with bright, sing-songy consonant motives. The tension he creates with this approach is unsettling, like watching an artist paint swatches of cheerful primary colors onto a smoldering canvas about to burst into flames. (Ellington lays out during the solo, giving Coltrane room to air out his ideas.)

Harmonically, Trane uses a few regular strategies to move from dissonance to consonance, always with an ear toward making strong resolutions at the “big spots” in the form: in the last 4 bars of the chorus, he might play outside the changes entirely, and then firmly resolve into the harmony again to lead into the next chorus. Here are examples from mm. 69-73 and 92-97:

He’ll sometimes make a false- or mini-resolution to the C7 in bar 5 of the form using the same technique; here’s mm. 149-151:

More typically at bars 3 & 4 in the form he’ll play a tritone substitution resolving into bar 5; here’s an example from his 2nd chorus (see also choruses 3, 4, & 8):

Trane’s forays outside of tonality seem more dissonant and intense because they are often resolved by simple and unambiguous diatonic motives, like this very consonant “triad-pairesque” line from his 2nd chorus:

Whatever Coltrane is up to, here’s the thing: this solo is a blast to play! From a technical standpoint it’s actually simpler and more approachable than many of Trane’s outings — there are no sheets of sound here, no intensely technical passages that defy normal, mortal fingers! If you’ve ever worked on a Trane solo and thought to yourself “I’ll never be able to play this...,” here’s one, as amazing and deep as it is, that might actually be coaxed from your horn after a bit of shedding...

(A note about the chord changes in this transcription: these are intended more to delineate the form and provide a possible context for Trane’s blowing. These changes do not always reflect Garrison’s bass lines, and do not even necessarily reflect Trane’s actual intentions: the blues is an incredibly fluid and flexible framework for blowing, and Trane was a master at pushing its limits even further! In several cases here there are multiple ways to interpret the harmonic context of his lines; the changes on this transcription provide one viable and hopefully straightforward interpretation...)

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