Greg Fishman Interview
We are sitting down with Greg Fishman, Chicago based tenor Saxophonist, educator, and composer. Today is June 8th, 2005. The new book, Jazz Saxophone Etudes is getting rave reviews. This is the fifth book from Greg. Tell us how Jazz Saxophone Etudes came about?
The idea for writing etudes came from one of my teachers, the great Joe Henderson. I had the opportunity to study with Joe in the late 80′s. We were working on Coltrane’s tune, “Countdown,” by writing an etude based on its chord progression. He told me that writing an etude was a very effective way to memorize the changes to any tune.
After that advice, as I was learning tunes, I would write a one-chorus etude that was basically like a written-out improvisation. However, after writing out a few etudes, I noticed that the etude concept was a great way to focus on anything I wanted to improve. I started to write etudes that would focus on very specific problems in my playing, and they had a positive effect on my playing right away. I remember that I wanted to improve my control of starting points in my phrasing, so I started writing etudes where every phrase started on the upbeat of beat two, or the downbeat of beat four. Another thing I wanted to improve was my ability to play long streams of eighth-notes, so I wrote an etude based on that idea. I also wanted to train my ear to hear smooth voice-leading, so I’d write a chorus based on voice-leading, and then I’d write phrases based on the voice-leading. After a few months of this type of practice, I noticed that my improvised solos had much better structure. I started to think of the etudes as improvisations in slow motion. It was a way of training my brain to think along a certain path, which was based more on composition than on playing licks.
As I got more into teaching, I started using etudes with my students. When we’d work on a standard tune, I would give the student one of the etudes I’d written for myself, or, in the case of more advanced students, I’d tell them to write an original etude and bring it with them to the next lesson. Sometimes I’d write half of the etude, and tell them to complete it, trying to make it sound not like an exercise, but like an improvisation. If someone were to hear them playing their etude, the listener shouldn’t be able to tell that it was something that was written out.
The book has been over five years in the making. It was a challenge to write, because it had to meet so many goals simultaneously. I felt that there was a need for a book that demonstrated the concept of soloing for players who knew their chords and scales, but were not yet fluent in the language of jazz.
I thought about the collective goals of all the players who would be using this book. When I was a student, what did I want more than anything? I wanted to sound like a professional level jazz saxophone player. With this premise in mind, I decided to write etudes that sounded more like professional level solos than typical jazz etudes.
Jazz Saxophone Etudes demonstrates the use of theme and variation, sequence, voice-leading, long streams of eighth-note lines, phrasing, and syntax. Syntax is a major factor in the creation of an effective solo. It’s the order in which musical events occur. The etudes also clearly demonstrate common bebop devices, such as ornaments and enclosures. The etudes are also designed so that you can play any of them without accompaniment, and still hear every chord change.
Jazz Saxophone Etudes was originally going to be a book of a dozen etudes without any play-along CDs. I initially printed up a small quantity of books and used them with my students. I also gave the book to two of my former teachers, Mark Colby and Dave Liebman. I asked them to try the book with some of their students and let me know if they had any suggestions. As it turned out, they both had some very valuable suggestions which inspired me to go beyond my initial concept of the book.
Mark Colby liked the etudes, and saw that his students were getting a lot out of them, but he felt that they’d get even more out of the book if I included a play-along CD. This way, the student could hear my articulation, inflection, and all of the nuances which are just impossible to put on the page. Mark also suggested that I should have extra rhythm section tracks for extended blowing.
Once I decided to include the play-along CD with the book, I was faced with a new problem. In order for the etudes to feel comfortable on the horn, they needed to stay in the key in which they were written. I felt that transposing the etudes would destroy the idiomatic quality of the etudes. It would be like playing a Charlie Parker alto solo which had been transposed to the tenor’s key. You can play it like that, but it doesn’t feel as comfortable as the original fingerings Parker used, and you usually have awkward octave jumps because of the difference in registers.
After much thought, I finally came up with the solution. I decided to have the rhythm section transpose keys to accommodate the saxophone player. This way, you could play the etudes on alto or tenor and use exactly the same fingerings, reading the same written part. When we went into the studio to record the play-along tracks for the book, I had just one set of saxophone charts, but two different sets of rhythm section charts. One set of charts was used to accompany the alto, and another set of charts, in a different key, was used to accompany the tenor. For example, the etude, “Irving Park Road” is written in A Major on the page. That means that when the alto is playing it, the rhythm section is in Concert “C,” but when the tenor is playing “Irving Park Road,” the rhythm section is in Concert “G.” So there are now two play-alongs included with the book: an “alto version” CD and a “tenor version” CD. The rhythm section had to record 48 different tracks to make the play-along CDs. There are the twelve etude tracks, with me playing each etude on tenor, and then twelve extended tracks for soloing, with just the rhythm section, and no saxophone. Then, we recorded the twelve etudes again, this time with me playing them on alto, followed by the extra rhythm section-only tracks for the tenor accompaniment. This approach allows for maximum flexibility. For intermediate level players, it means that the etude lays perfectly under your fingers, whether you play alto or tenor.
However, for advanced level players, it means that you can work on your transposing skills and play the etude on alto along with the tenor version CD, or play tenor along with the alto version CD. This exercise will give you a great physical workout on the horn, and improve your sight transposition skills at the same time. Or, to focus more on your ear training skills, memorize the etudes and transpose them on tenor with the alto version CD by ear, or vice-versa. If you like, you can just solo over the rhythm section in the two different keys and make up your own solo. It’s completely up to the player. This approach allows a wide range of players at different playing levels to use the book. It also provides increasing levels of complexity for players who are working their way through the book. For example, once a tenor player has mastered all of the etudes by playing along with the tenor version CD, he can go to the next level, and play each etude along with the alto version of the CD, transposing each etude up a fourth. Of course, the etudes won’t lay as comfortably in this new key, but by the time you reach this level, you should be able to handle losing that idiomatic comfort level of the etudes in their original keys, and start pushing the limits of your playing. As a matter of fact, my really advanced students work the etudes in all twelve keys, and that is a real challenge! So the great thing about this book is that the player will not outgrow it. The book will present the player with new challenges as he or she reaches higher levels of playing.
Once again, just when I thought the book was ready to go on the market, I got some more excellent advice, this time from Dave Liebman. I had given him a copy of the book when he was in Chicago for a masterclass. I contacted him a few days later to see what he thought of the book. He told me that he really liked the book, but felt that I should add a theory section, so students could get a deeper understanding of the compositional devices used in the book.
Based on Dave’s suggestion, I decided to add a style and analysis section to the book. However, as a supplement to the information in the book, I’ve also posted several in-depth theory articles on my educational website. This way, students can learn the etudes from the book, and still do further research into my concepts on the website. This allows me to continually add new and useful information for the people who are working out of the book. So, after five years of development, I am very happy to finally have Jazz Saxophone Etudes on the market, and I’m grateful for Mark and Dave’s great suggestions.
You have a jazz studio north of Chicago in the city of Evanston. What kind of students are you attracting and working with there?
First let me tell you how it started. I have been teaching for about twenty years now. In the late 1980′s, I started teaching saxophone at eight different Chicago-area high schools. I taught sixty individual lessons per week for a period of about six years. During that time, I started to get my teaching method together. I had so many students that I was able to experiment with many different approaches to teaching theory, ear-training, scales, chords, etc. I would track the student’s progress and notice which teaching methods were the most effective. After a few years, I realized that my passion was more for teaching jazz improvisation than teaching basic saxophone skills. There are many wonderful saxophone teachers out there, but only a few who focus on jazz improvisation.
So, I decided that I wanted to specialize in jazz improvisation, because this is one of the things I can offer that is unique. I started to teach ear training, theory, harmony, improvisation, and how to transcribe – how to figure out things off of the record. These are really my specialties and these are the things that I enjoy doing. There are a lot of fine saxophone teachers who teach beginning level saxophone – how to read music, how to count. I did that and I enjoyed it but I didn’t think that was my calling as a teacher. My thing was getting into the music aspect – showing my students piano voicings, talking about the role of the piano, talking about bass-line construction, and things like that. I wanted to train students to be good musicians, not just good saxophone players.
At times I found myself at odds with the band director. For example, one director wanted me to work primarily on sax solis in jazz band charts at each lesson, so that the school could have an impressive showing at competitions. I’d spend some of the lesson time on band music, but I felt that the students would probably never play most of those tunes ever again in real life, and that they should also be learning some Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker. I also felt that the students needed a deeper understanding of the music to improve as players and to increase their own enjoyment of the music. This could only be achieved by spending time listening to recordings, learning standard tunes, improvising, and working on transcription, theory and ear training.
I decided to move in a new direction, with no restrictions on what I taught, so I left the schools and started to teach out of my home. Once I did that, the teaching thing really took off. In addition to my high school students, I started getting more advanced players. I started to get college-level students, and even some adults who’d been playing all of their life, but wanted to learn how to improvise. After many years of teaching out of my house, a great opportunity presented itself. About two years ago, a friend of mine, Paul Maslin, opened PM Woodwind Repair in Evanston, Illinois. It’s a pro-level saxophone repair shop, and about a year ago, he had the chance to expand the store, doubling its size. I had the opportunity to create a custom built teaching studio in the expanded store space. The studio was built to my own specifications, and it’s just wonderful. Greg Fishman Jazz Studios opened in June 2004. It’s the perfect environment for teaching. I had this room in my mind for many years, and it’s just great for playing and teaching. I’ve outfitted the room with an excellent piano, stereo, recording equipment, Mac and PC computers, with more than 50,000 jazz recordings from my personal record collection, and even a TV for watching historic jazz videos. I’ve also decorated the walls with vintage album covers for extra inspiration. It’s like my home away from home, where I can concentrate 100% on the music.
I teach about twenty students per week. Most of them are college or advanced high-school level players. However, I have some pro-level players who study with me as well. Some people come to me to learn how to transcribe. Others come just for ear-training. Sometimes I get other teachers who are interested in learning my teaching method.
The lessons are so packed with information that I started to record a CD for every student at each lesson. This way, the student can listen to the lesson repeatedly during the week. I found that this really helps the student’s progress. For the CD recording of the lessons, I play examples on saxophone, and I can also play piano and bass as either examples or accompaniment. It’s all geared towards the student’s particular needs.
I listen to each student and assess him or her from a technical standpoint, as well as a musical standpoint. Then I give them what they need depending on their particular level. Their age doesn’t matter – I could be giving something very advanced to a kid who is fourteen or fifteen, and give something very basic to someone who has been playing for 40 years. That’s the great thing about it. There’s no age limit – you can be 15 and sound just great. You don’t have to wait until you are 21 or graduate from high school to sound like a professional level player.
My theory is that I am teaching a language – jazz is a language. An improvised language. I am improvising right now. We are using vocabulary to speak to each other. But we are able to communicate spontaneously. It’s not like this morning I got in my car and said, “Here’s this great sentence I am going to say on the interview.” I describe it to students like this: if you are going to go on a date, you can’t think, “Wait until I say this sentence to my date tonight – she’s going to think I am so cool.” It’s impossible to predict what words will be appropriate to say at 7:30pm on any given evening. You can’t prepare in advance. Have you ever been with a group of friends and said something off the top of your head that was really funny, that fit the mood of the moment, and then you tried to say the same thing on another occasion, and it just fell flat? Jazz is the same way. If you’re counting off “Cherokee,” and you immediately start thinking about what lick you’re going to play when you get to the bridge on your improvised solo, you’re in trouble. You need to have enough control over your musical vocabulary that you can react and express your ideas in real-time, as things are happening.
The academic approach I’ve seen used in a lot of schools is one that trains students by sight, rather than by sound. In other words, students are taught reading – looking at dots on the page, moving your fingers based on those dots on the page, and figuring out how to count. These are definitely valuable tools. However, I feel that there is not really enough emphasis on what the student is hearing in his head. Students look at the chord on the page and they have been trained that it is “appropriate” to play an E or a Bb when they see a C7 chord. Those are fine note choices, but if you just play them because you’re “supposed” to, that’s not a good enough reason. You need to hear them for yourself. These were some of the core issues we always talked about while I was getting my Masters degree in jazz pedagogy at Northwestern University.
Some students learn to play a diminished whole-tone scale when they see an altered dominant chord, and so they are going to play it because it is the “correct” thing to do. The problem with that is that it’s meaningless if they arrive at those note choices by theory alone, and not by ear. I call this phenomenon “empty note playing.” These are notes without specific harmonic intent. The notes may be technically correct, but they won’t be as convincingly played as the same notes arrived at by a gut-level, emotional feeling to play those particular sounds.
There’s another phenomenon that’s closely related to empty note playing, which I call “random chord tone playing.” For example, I could read a list of random words: “to rainy on I a day read love.” There’s nothing wrong with those words, but it’s like random note playing. Now I’ll put those words together with some intent: “I love to read on a rainy day.”
Some students come to me when they are at the empty or random stage, and I love to get them at this point, because they are developed enough that they have some vocabulary, but they don’t know how to put it into context and how to use it to build a solo. When I can see that they are noticing the difference, that it is not just a matter of playing your licks or moving your fingers around or playing something flashy, it’s very satisfying, because I know I’ve reached them. It’s all about syntax, context and intent.
But they’re kind of unique in that they sound like – you hear Michael Brecker and you say that’s Brecker. And you hear Bob Berg and you say that’s Bob Berg. There’s a great quote from Konitz where he says that he heard Desmond and he said he wanted to change his sound because he reminded him of him. It seems like today that folks aren’t chasing the sound in their head as much as players a generation ago.
There are so many other sounds out there, I wish people would go after the sound that they hear in their head, like Paul Desmond did. He sounded different than everyone else. He said he “wanted to sound like a dry martini,” and he really did sound like that! Or, how about Benny Carter’s unique alto sound? That individual character, I’d like to hear more of that. Those three guys I mentioned…Brecker, Potter, and Berg each have their own individual thing. One of the younger players I really love to hear is Eric Alexander. He’s out of the hard-bop tenor thing. To me, he’s combined elements of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt and especially George Coleman. When I hear him, I hear the influence of George Coleman’s concept and sound coming through a younger player, and it sounds very fresh to me. The fact that Eric picked George Coleman as a primary influence sets him apart from his contemporaries. Now Eric has found his own voice, but I’ll always hear his main influences, which is great, because it ties him in with the aural tradition in jazz. Oh, and there’s another young player whose playing I really like, and that’s Harry Allen. Harry’s a wonderful, melodic player, and his playing is really influenced by Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, and especially Ben Webster. Harry, of course, is his own man as a player, but I can appreciate where he came from, as well. I guess what I like with all of these players is that they have strong roots in the history of the music, and rather than hide their roots, they use them as a point of departure and build on them with their own concept.
Well, lineages in jazz historically have always been important. Without Lester Young to some degree do you have Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, and Al Cohn as well as a host of other tenor players who were very influenced by Lester. Then you had the folks who were following Ben Webster and his ideal of the more Texas tenor. You had these lineages. I think we got to Coltrane and it seemed like with the exception of some of contemporaries who kept going with the free jazz movement it seems like that has ended some of this. Brecker has maybe been the exception to that in that he has taken a lot of the technical prowess that is the wonderfulness that is Coltrane and expounded upon it in an interesting way.
We were talking about those old players and the Stan Getz books. I should get back to that a little because I kind of diverted from your question about the three Stan Getz books. I knew Stan during the last year of his life. I got to hang out with him a couple of times, and I talked to him on the phone about a dozen times. He heard an audition tape I sent to Stanford University for a summer jazz workshop around 1989. He actually called me on the phone and told me he heard my tape and he liked it. I was in shock to come home and find Stan Getz’s voice on my own answering machine! The first time I met Stan in person was at a fund raising event for Stanford University. I flew out to Malibu for the event, which was a dinner and a concert by Stan’s quartet. Although there were lots of people there, I managed to convince someone to let me sit next to Stan for the dinner portion of the evening. At that time, his album Apasionado had just come out, and Stan was proud of that recording. For the concert I sat right in front of him, in the first row, about two feet away from the bell of his horn. What a thrill! Lou Levy was playing piano, Alex Blake on bass, and Terri-Lynn Carrington was the drummer. On a side note, in 1996, I was playing with the Woody Herman band and Lou Levy was playing piano. We got to hang after the gig, and I told him about the night I saw him with Stan. Lou and I got to be really close friends. I saw Stan about a month after that in New York, for what turned out to be his final performance at Carnegie Hall. I went to find his dressing room and was stopped by security, but amazingly, Stan had given them my name in advance, and they let me through to see him. So, I hung out with him all day and in the dressing room. I heard him warm up and try reeds. It was just thrilling. I couldn’t believe it was real. I showed him about 250 solos of his that I had transcribed – a huge stack of papers. I made copies for him. He was impressed with the transcriptions and he was flattered that I liked his playing so much. We were going to publish a transcription book together, but he died before we got the chance. He passed away on June 6th 1991.
Around that time, I was still an undergrad at DePaul. Frank Mantooth, a great big band arranger, was one of my teachers. Frank was writing a book of re-harmonized standards for Hal Leonard. It just happened by accident that I came into his office to ask him about something and I saw a couple of lead sheets on the piano and I said, “Hey Frank why don’t you try it like this?” I just went to the piano and started to play subs that I like to use, and he said “That’s great, I’m going to put those in my book.” I was just joking around and said “you better give me credit if you use those changes.” A few months later, I got the book in the mail. I looked through it, and saw that he actually had given me a credit in the book. Since Stan had just died, and I had all of those transcriptions ready to go, I called Hal Leonard and I mentioned Frank’s book. I told them my story about meeting Getz and our plans for the book. They said that they were interested in putting it out. About a year and a half later it came out and it turned out to be one of their best sellers in their artist transcription series. Then they asked me if I wanted to write another Stan Getz book. I suggested that we should do two more books. There should be a Bossa Nova book, because those are so important, and another book of the 50′s period of Getz.
The thing I really admire about Getz is that, unlike most of his contemporaries, he continually surrounded himself with young players and continued to evolve and explore new musical styles. It was very unusual for a player of his generation to play with such young and modern players like Gary Burton or Chick Corea. And of course, the music that made Stan a household name, the Bossa Nova. Stan Getz had the uncanny ability to sound right at home, no matter what the context, whether it was an orchestral setting, a straight ahead quartet, Bossa Nova, or even his short-lived fusion band of the late 1970s. He always maintained his musical identity and integrity, while fitting in with his surroundings.
Stan will probably always be my overall favorite, because he was a melodic genius. I never get tired of hearing him. Melodic playing has much more of a timeless quality than pattern oriented playing – melodic playing never sounds dated.
It seems as though in all things that the pendulum swings back and forth. I think we’ve swung from the Coltrane era on to the technical perfection whereas Getz, Zoot Sims, other people of that era even Art Pepper or Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley all played with a much more organic sense. You could go back and forth on Charlie Parker who was a technically amazing saxophonist but his roots were blues. On ballads you hear a different Parker so perhaps we’re going to see the pendulum come back the other way. When I listen to your playing – you’re playing is quite melodic, you’re technically quite proficient, you have a sense of the organic moment and the soul of playing. Things seem to move you. We’ve talked before about chord changes and about different keys and how different keys can represent different feelings and moods and emotion. How do you get that across to students?
I got the concept of playing in 12 keys from Joe Daley. He was a fabulous player and a legendary teacher in Chicago. I was very fortunate to have studied with him. One part of Joe’s lessons would be to take three tunes that you know, like when I was learning “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and “Misty,” and for the next week he said, “I’m going to call each tune and I’m going to pick a couple of keys and I want you to be able to play the tune in the key in which I call it – it might be F sharp it might be B. Play the melody, solo on it, then play the melody out. Keep the time. Don’t mess up the time. Hit each change clearly.” Joe didn’t believe in play-alongs. There was never any accompaniment to play with in his lessons. He believed that you had to hear the time and the changes in your head. This was very hard. I was practicing eight hours a day, and I was in constant fear that Joe might drop me as a student because I might not meet his high expectations. Fortunately, I did make it through my lessons with Joe. Joe took his students up to a certain point, and then he’d tell them that he’d shown them what they needed to go out on their own, and start figuring things out for themselves.
Joe’s approach was really a “sink or swim” type of thing. Joe was not inclined to give any long explanations of things. He was a man of few words when it came to teaching. Joe didn’t think in terms of grading a student’s performance in terms of how good he was for his age. In Joe’s mind, you were either “makin’ it,” which was cool, or, if you weren’t happening, you’d get this response: Joe would shake his head side to side and say, “Ain’t makin’ it, baby”! It made you feel terrible to hear those words, but it was a very clear and effective way of communicating the truth. My own teaching style is a bit more user friendly than Joe’s. I get the point of playing in different keys across to my students in a different way than Joe did, because I allow the students to hear accompaniment when playing in the unusual keys. They can then work up to the Joe Daley method of no accompaniment. I also like to encourage my students when I hear that they’re improving. I think they need that positive feedback when they’ve worked hard and are making progress.
My teaching style is very interactive. Everything is dependant on how I think the student is hearing the music. I think that the student needs to hear the chords while he’s playing in these different keys. We’ll work on something in a few keys, and we’ll try to determine which keys sound bright or dark, and which ones seem to be the most flattering keys for the character of the tune. I accompany my students on piano, but I also have my students learn some basic jazz piano voicings and play through the changes to a tune in a few different keys at the piano. Rather than program a computer to comp the changes in different keys, I prefer that the students make recordings of themselves playing the changes on piano. Then they can play along with the recording. For more advanced students, I like to have them play on the changes unaccompanied, as I did for Joe, but record themselves, and then play back that recording and comp the changes on piano for their recorded improvisation. This approach seems to improve the student’s accuracy when trying to remember a tune’s changes.
After about two years of playing in different keys, I started to notice just how strongly the mood of a tune could change depending on the key. Another consideration regarding the keys is often simply a matter of range. I think of the saxophone as a vocalist, in that it has about a 2 � octave range. I usually want to put a tune in the middle of that range, but sometimes there are exceptions. For example, Getz would sometimes put something in a very high register; Sonny Rollins, on the other hand, would sometimes play things in a very low register, just for the character of the key. I like to do that. I experiment with the keys. I don’t automatically reject a tune’s original key, especially in the case of jazz standards like “Confirmation” or “Joy Spring.” I usually leave those tunes in their given key. Standards from the Great American Songbook are more likely to be put in different keys. For example, Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” is usually in the key of C. I did it in C for years but then I started working on the tune in twelve keys, and every time I got to the key of Ab, I just felt in my gut that there was a greater depth to the tune when I played it in that key. It also happens to lay very well on the horn in that key. I’ve learned to go with those feelings, and I’ve developed an instinct for which keys to do things in. I try to play tunes in the key I’m hearing in my head at the time I call the tune on the gig. It could be different on a nightly basis. Like tonight, you just came from a gig I did with guitarist/singer Paulinho Garcia – our duo, Two For Brazil. We’re getting ready to do another album. We’re going to do a bunch of jazz tunes by Coltrane, Monk, Dizzy, and Miles. Paulinho did the tune “All Blues” in E concert! I loved it. It’s a very bright key. I played completely differently on the tune than I would have if it were in the usual key of G.
Hey, I just remembered a profound quote from one of my old teachers, Hal Galper, the great pianist and educator. This doesn’t pertain to playing in 12 keys, but it does relate to playing by ear. In 1986, I was attending an Aebersold jazz camp, and Hal had just played some nice changes on a standard tune. A kid came up to Hal and said, “Hal, I love those changes, can I have them”? Hal said, “If you can hear ‘em, you can have ‘em.” It was perfect. It was so succinct. He was saying that if you are at the point where you can hear those changes and you understand what they are – they’re already yours. That exchange of words revealed a lot to me. It changed my way of thinking.
At this point we spent a moment or two making sure that the safety cassette was still going as the interview was being recorded on a PC which neither of us had a lot of faith in. This led to a discussion of technology and the pop culture of the 1940′s, 1950′s, and 1960′s which led us to talk about old horns and equipment.
Speaking of things that are older. Personally I’m more of a vintage horn guy. And I noticed tonight that you aren’t exactly playing a new horn either. Your tenor is a little older than mine. When it comes to students though, most kids and I fell prey to this when I was a young kid want a shiny new horn. My Grand Father told my folks that he could probably get me a nice used horn but I said no I don’t want a used horn. I think he meant Super Balanced Action or Mark VI as a used horn and instead I ended up with a Bundy II! This has proved to be one of the more dumb decisions ever made by my fifth grade self which I still kick myself for. When it comes to your students what do you say about equipment? Do you give them any advice on equipment or do you let them go on their way and learn the way we learned – make mistakes along the way?
I think that we all learn from our own mistakes. Sometimes we have to play a lot of different horns to discover what works best. I grew up playing on a King Super 20, and I loved it, but then about eight years ago, I found a Selmer MK VI that I just loved. (Serial number 108,xxx for your readers who like to talk about serial numbers.) I’ve had several other MK VI’s, but I always end up back on the original one that I liked, the one that made me switch from the King. However, I don’t rule anything out. If I found a new horn that I liked better than my MK VI, I’d switch to it in a second. So far, I just haven’t found anything that I like better.
The same goes for mouthpieces. I usually play an early Babbit Otto Link 6 with a Vandoren V16 #3 reed, but once in a while, I like to switch to a metal link or a more modern type of mouthpiece. I also have an Oleg metal tenor mouthpiece, a #7 that I really like, and I’ve been playing it lately.
One major manufacturer of saxophone mouthpieces, which will go nameless at this point, doesn’t actually employ anyone who plays the saxophone. That may in fact be a slight issue. Whereas Vandoren actually employs a number of people who actually play clarinet and or saxophone and get feedback from artists about their pieces.
Right. They are making an effort. In fact they just sent me an e-mail saying that they want me to try a prototype for new piece that’s supposed to be modeled after the old slant-signature Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece. I think that’s great. I’m glad to see that they’re making an attempt to put a mouthpiece on the market that will fit the needs of the pro level player. I feel that many players gravitate towards the old Otto Links and MK VI horns because they have a transparency to them. In other words, they don’t get in the way of your musical intentions.
The same goes for mouthpieces. I usually play an early Babbit Otto Link 6 with a Vandoren V16 #3 reed, but once in a while, I like to switch to a metal link or a more modern type of mouthpiece. I also have an Oleg metal tenor mouthpiece, a #7 that I really like, and I’ve been playing it lately.
They don’t apply their will upon you.
That’s right. And that, to me, is a very important characteristic. We were talking before about playing and the use of technique. I feel that if your technique is good, it is transparent. It disappears and lets the music come through. Technique should not distract the listener from the music itself. I try to only play what I hear. Right now, as I’m speaking, I am saying the exact words that I am hearing in my head, no more and no fewer words than I think are necessary to get my point across. If I hear a lot of words I’ll say a lot of words, but only if I think they’re needed. If I think just one word is needed, I’ll say the word and then I’ll be silent until you respond, or until I think of the next thing I want to say. This is exactly how I like to solo-it is interactive and of the moment, just like a good conversation. The notes you play and the words you say are all a matter of intent. Hopefully, my technique is good enough that it doesn’t get in the way of the music. When I think of some of my favorite players, like Getz or Desmond, the music is just flowing out of them, and it appears to be completely natural and effortless.
And that seems to be one of the hallmarks of your playing. Your playing appears effortless, which really speaks more to the fact that you have spent the time in the shed. You’ve put the work in and yet nothing appears to be forced. It’s very natural as it comes out. It has that organic nature. That next level of playing that differentiates players.
Finally it is to the point where it’s like that, but it’s been a long process, and I’m still working to improve my playing. For my basic training, from about the age of fourteen through twenty-four, I practiced about eight hours a day. Some weeks I would do sixty or seventy hours a week of practice. I went through periods where I would practice long tones for four hours a day. I went through periods where I would transcribe solos for weeks on end, and then spend the next month or two playing and analyzing the solos, trying to get into the heads of my jazz idols, so I could figure out how they did what they did. I loved practicing. It was a time of self discovery. I wanted to see just how much further I could get on the horn, and how much better of a musician I could become. There was no limit on it, which just thrilled me. I remember sometimes just laughing out loud, because I was having so much fun. When you’re just a kid in high school, you’re kind of powerless. When I first started getting into playing, I was 14. I was too young to drive a car. I had all of the usual responsibilities teenagers have; go to school, do my homework, don’t stay out late, don’t get into trouble�Yet when I would get home from school and get my horn out in my own room, (which has always been in the basement,) I realized I could do whatever I wanted. I could figure something out off a record and no one could stop me. I could practice as long as I wanted. I could try to get as good as I wanted to play and I would just be laughing sometimes because it was such freedom. It was all my choice – I feel like playing fast stuff today in the key of E. No one could say “You can’t do that because you’re not old enough or because you’re not allowed”. For me it was a great escape. I’d ride my bike to a used record store and find an old Sonny Stitt album, take it home and listen to it, and immediately try to figure out the notes by playing along with the record. It was a very liberating experience.
So if you could give one piece of advice moving forward to players who are looking to get better or to improve what would that be?
My advice to players is very simple. You have to listen. You have to listen to everyone, from the current great players to the great old players, and everyone in between. Also, listen to all genres of music. I’m not a jazz elitist, though jazz is my favorite. I probably listen to 80% jazz and 20% everything else. I love music that is well done, regardless of the genre. To me it’s all about communication.
Try to internalize the feeling you get when you feel that you really connect with a solo you’ve just heard. Try to recreate that feeling when you are playing. When you’re listening to Lester Young play, it’s like he’s talking to you. Try to listen beyond the technical aspects of the music. As a kid, I couldn’t get past Charlie Parker’s amazing technique. At that time it just sounded fast to me. Now I listen to it and the technique is the last thing on my mind. The content of what he’s playing is so spectacular and brilliant that that is what I notice now. I would say just keep listening, and tune into your feelings as you listen.
When you are playing with a band, you should be interacting with the group. If there’s one thing to keep in mind while you’re playing it’s that the act of playing is like a two (or sometimes three or four) way conversation. You have to be able to talk and listen simultaneously. I think a lot of horn players, who grew up practicing mostly with play-alongs, end up playing over a real rhythm section just like they do at home with the CD player. I don’t think that you should ever just play over the rhythm section, even a rhythm section on a play-along CD. I’ve found that it’s possible to play interactively, even with a play-along. You can do this by listening carefully and creating your solo based on the comping patterns of the pianist, and the interplay of the whole rhythm section. Leave space in your solo for the pianist to do a fill, and then let your next phrase have something to do with the rhythm that the pianist on the CD just comped. Obviously, the recorded rhythm section isn’t going to respond to what you play, but you’d be surprised how much more involved you can get with the recording with this type of approach. This is a great way to train yourself to listen, leave space, and integrate other players’ ideas into your solo. After practicing with this approach, when you find yourself in a situation with a live rhythm section, you’ll be amazed at how responsive they’ll be when they hear that you’re actually playing with them and not just playing over them.
I have a lot of funny analogies that I come up with to try and help my students. Here’s one that I call my lobster theory. Did you ever notice that if you go into a seafood restaurant, there’s usually a tank of live lobsters? They don’t prepare the lobsters in the morning and let them sit there all day. They have to be alive until they get thrown into the pot. That’s how jazz is. The ideas and the things that you are going to play in your solo are like those lobsters. You should only use an idea in your solo if it presents itself to you just at that moment that you’re creating the solo. There needs to be a continual fresh flow of ideas from which you pick and choose your phrases as you’re soloing.
Let’s go back to my earlier language analogy. Right now, as I speak, I’m not diagramming this sentence as I’m saying it. I don’t have to think of the parts of speech, yet I can convey my ideas. Earlier, we were talking about transparency of technique? It’s the same in language. The technical aspects like parts of speech, spelling and grammar are internalized at such a deep level that I don’t have to think about the technical aspects, and can just express my thoughts. You want to be able to think and play like that with your instrument.
Just as you speak the English language with a certain vocabulary, and you can express your thoughts, opinions, and feelings of the moment while they are happening to you in real time, that’s all you’re trying to do with jazz. That’s why you need all of this training and technique. You’re taking something that is a foreign object – a saxophone or whatever your instrument is – and trying to use it the same way that you would use your voice to convey ideas with language. So, that’s my advice to players looking to improve – listen and communicate.
Ed, thank you so much for giving me the chance to share my ideas with you. I’m looking forward to speaking with you again very soon.