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

Your purchase from Amazon helps to support this blog!