Book Review: The Scale Omnibus by Francesco Balena

Francesco Balena operates the website Saxopedia, a tremendous resource for saxophonists and jazz musicians of every stripe. If you play the sax—or, for that matter, any instrument—and you are not familiar with Franco's site, then I highly recommend that once you have finished reading this post, you go directly to Saxopedia and acquaint yourself with it. The exhaustive collection of links to solo transcriptions alone is enough to place Saxopedia in the upper echelon of saxophone resources. But there's much more besides, and that now includes Francesco's new masterpiece, The Scale Omnibus: 392 Scales for Instrumentalists, Composers, Vocalists, and Improvisers. The amount of material covered in this 429-page, downloadable book is simply staggering. And it's free. Did you get that? Free. In the author's words, "The primary objective of this book is making in-depth knowledge about scales available to the largest number of people as possible. For this reason The Scale Omnibus is free. Free as a free lunch. No strings attached." There are a few commonsense stipulations in the use of the material, but the bottom line is that Francesco, in keeping with the spirit of Saxopedia, has created what has got to be the most comprehensive repository of scales ever assembled, and now he is making it available to musicians at no cost whatsoever. It's a fantastic accomplishment on Francesco's part, the fruit of considerable time, research, insight, and plain, solid labor; and it is an equally remarkable gift to jazz musicians in search of fresh ideas for improvisation. Organization The Scale Omnibus is well-organized and easy to use. Following a thoughtfully written, insightful introduction, the book plunges directly into the material, beginning with the common major and minor scales and their modes and then progressing, per the table of contents, through
  • Symmetrical Scales
  • Jazz Scales
  • Pentatonic Scales
  • Modal Scales
  • European Scales
  • Asian Scales
  • Indian Scales
  • Miscellaneous Scales
Every scale is allotted its own separate, full page. Scales are presented in ascending form in all twelve keys—with the exception, for obvious reasons, of the chromatic scale—and in descending form as well for a few of the Indian ragas whose ascending and descending forms differ. Each scale is preceded by brief, helpful notes that cover its alternate names, modes, construction, harmonic applications (i.e., which chords it works well with), and in some cases, its country of origin. Following the presentation of the scales themselves, the book includes four appendices that provide a scale index and scales by name, interval, and chord. The last appendix, Scales by Chord, strikes me as particularly useful, providing a quick match-up of chords with scale options. Many of the options will be familiar to experienced improvisers, but there are surprises. For instance, until a short while ago, I had no idea that the Romanian scale could be used with a minor seventh chord. (For that matter, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Romanian scale.) This particular appendix is by no means exhaustive, given the vast array of possibilities covered by the book, and Franco might consider expanding the list of scale choices in a future edition. However, the amount of time required to do so would no doubt be considerable, and the appendix as it stands is an eminently useful tool, furnishing a greater selection than similar lists such as Jamey Aebersold's chord/scale syllabus. About the Scales The Scales Omnibus gives all scales, both the everyday and the exotic, equal coverage. But while it begins with the major and minor scales all Westerners relate to, whether trained musicians or everyday listeners, it goes far beyond those scales into territory most of us aren't familiar with. For instance, turning to the first page of the section on Asian scales, I come across something called the Honkoshi scale, which, I am informed, originated in Japan; generates, as its modes, the Raga Hamsa Vinodini, the Raga Manavi, and the Insen scale; and works well with a half-diminished chord. Following it is the Ichikotsucho scale, also known as—are you ready?—the Major-Lydian Mixed, Gregorian 5, Genus Diatonicum Veterum Correctum, Kubilai, Raga Bihag, Raga Gaud Sarang, Raga Hamir Kalyani, Raga Kedar, Raga Yaman Kalyan, and Raga Chayanat. Stick that in your horn and play it (preferably over a Cmaj7 or Cma7#11). Does this book cover every possible scale under the sun? No. Francesco has screened out scales of fewer than five notes; such scales exist, but when tones become so sparse, the use of the term scale becomes questionable. Also, significantly, the book covers only scales that fit easily within the twelve-tone, well-tempered system. Francesco writes, "Microtonal scales, scales that use just temperament, and scales that use equal temperament obtained by dividing the octave in a different number of intervals—as is the case of some Arabian scales—are not included." In Summary A book so vast in its scope as this can only provide the basic scales and insights on their use. From there, it's up to you to determine which scales interest you most and develop exercises that will help you master them. No way will you or anyone ever internalize all of them. But even one new scale is a tremendous acquisition for the improvising musician, and to that end, The Scale Omnibus is a treasure trove of possibilities. Franceso could easily ask $25.00 or more for this volume; instead, he's offering it for free, and in so doing, he has added even more value to an already immensely valuable website for jazz instrumentalists, particularly saxophonists. A work of such excellence and heart as Francesco's book, given so generously to others, deserves support, and it is in that spirit that I have written this unpaid and unsolicited review. Bravissimo, Francesco! You've given a gift to musicians everywhere. Thank you.

How to Play Chord Changes: Melodicism Versus Change-Running

It was back in my college jazz band days that I first became concerned with "playing the changes"--that is, improvising in a way that insinuated the harmonies of a tune. Prior to that, I didn't know what changes were. My inner ear had been informed by the blues and the psychedelic, proto-metal, and progressive rock of the seventies--wonderful styles of music, but they didn't prepare me for the logic and complexities of more traditional harmony or the notations used in jazz charts. So when our band director, the brilliant Dr. Bruce Early, handed out the first round of charts in my first semester, my freshman mind was fascinated by the lineup of symbols strung across the blowing section of a tune titled "Pygmy Dance." What did all that mumbo-jumbo mean? An F# followed by a circle with a line slanting through it--what was that? And a B7b9? I recognized B7, but what did b9 mean? It seemed like that might be important for me to know. Not that I needed to at the time, because I wasn't playing lead alto. Good thing, too, because the tune was written in 11/8, and I was in no position to do anything with it but follow the rest of the band. When we got to the solo section, the lead guy, Dan Bryska, stood up and blew the balls off of those changes, as he did with pretty much anything I ever heard him play. What the ... how did he do that? Amazingly, Dan didn't even appear to be paying attention to those arcane scratchings on the chart. I'd have been glued to them, but he evidently had internalized them to the point where they appeared to be part of his genetic makeup. Knowing the Mile Markers Had I known then what Dan knew, life would have been easier. I'd have instantly recognized the tune as a blues--a long-form blues, as I recall, but still in essence just a blues--and done what Dan did: just stood up and blown. Dan saw the overall form and signposts of the tune while I was trying to figure out its hieroglyphs; Dan saw the tree while I was scrutinizing the leaves. And that knowledge (not to mention Dan's fantastic technique and musical experience) allowed him to create where I'd have struggled simply to survive. I soon came to understand the runes of jazz harmony and the scales attached to them. But translating that knowledge into inventive and expressive music was another story. I viewed the written changes as an accountant might, as hard figures which demanded that I justify every note spent, rather than realizing that they were simply guides that suggested certain melodic directions. I still wasn't ready to do what Dan and other great soloists do: just stand up and blow. Which brings me to the point of this post: how does one move from the constraints of jazz harmony to freedom and spontaneity? The question is more relevant for some tunes than others. There's a big difference between, say, "Cantaloupe Island" and "Confirmation." The latter, a bebop tune, is far more complex harmonically, and its dense, fast-paced changes are exactly the kind that can hang a player up. But they don't have to. Here's why. Two Approaches to Improvisation There are two broad approaches to improvising on tunes: change-running and melodicism. In running the changes, a player seeks to outline or imply every chord in every bar, or at least, most of the chords. With a seasoned player, the results can be stunning. But by itself, change-running ultimately is limiting. There's more to music than glorifying chord tones, and that's where the melodic approach steps in. Melodic playing concerns itself with creating a pretty or an interesting melody rather than making all the changes. Not that this more scalar approach ignores or disdains a tune's harmony; it just deals with that harmony more flexibly. As the name implies, it works with scales and melodic lines rather than chord tones. Most good jazz soloists know how to utilize both approaches. It's the blend of the two that can take a seemingly tight, demanding harmonic structure and make real music with it. So here's the deal: learn the changes to a tune. Work them into your fingers during practice by running arpeggios, patterns, and licks over them. And as you do so, consider whether there are any particular tones that define distinctive measures in the tune, then earmark those pitches mentally. In other words, look for harmonic signposts that you can refer to. You don't need many of them, just a few, ones that to your ear are the most significant. These will help you get a feel for the broad shape of the tune. The more you work with the tune, the better you'll get at filling in the areas between those signposts with cool stuff. The process I've just described, which seeks to cultivate both change-running and a broader melodic perspective, requires a good deal of mental effort at the front end, but your playing will become increasingly intuitive as you stick with it. By degrees, the tune will become yours, and you'll find yourself stepping out of rigidity into exploration and inventiveness. This holistic approach seeks to balance the extremes at either end. If you've been locked into the changes to the point where you're a change-running machine, maybe you need to lighten up and think more melodically. If you've been lax in dealing with the rigors of harmony, think about adding a few more leaves to your tree. The discipline comes first, then the freedom. Learn how to play the changes, but also know that you're not enslaved to them. They're consultants, not employers; guides, not dictators. The better you and your fingers know your way around a tune's harmonic structure, the more you'll be able to make judicious choices as an improviser--but don't get stuck on the chords. The point of learning to serve the harmony is to make it serve you, and you don't need to be a master change-runner for that to happen. The goal, after all, is simply to play pretty. So practice hard and practice smart. Then do like Dan: just stand up and blow.

Should Church Musicians Get Paid?

Should church musicians get paid, or should they be expected to provide their talents for free to the body of Christ? I have no hard, fast answer. I'm simply putting the question on the table because it deserves more consideration than it is often given. In the past, no church ever offered to pay me for my services as a musician, and I never expected nor asked to be paid. I was happy to do what I did gratis in service to God. However, the church I now attend does pay me--not a large amount, but a meaningful amount, enough that it adds up and helps me pay the bills. More, it provides a tangible expression of appreciation and respect. As the old adage says, it's the thought that counts. My musical abilities haven't come to me freely, quickly, or easily, and it's nice to have that fact recognized and valued My involvement with this church started over a year ago with an invitation to sit in with their contemporary worship team. I received fifty bucks for doing so and was invited to sit in again whenever and as often as I chose. The openness of that arrangement has been ideal for where I'm at in life. I've found myself playing with the team more often than not, and in the process, I've been drawn to other aspects of the church as well, relationships being foremost. When I first became a Christian more than thirty years ago, the presiding attitude toward musicians in the churches I attended was that we were to play strictly "the Lord's music." If it didn't have an overtly Christian message, then it wasn't appropriate material for a Christian musician. Not anytime, anywhere. That worldly stuff just didn't fly. From a practical standpoint, this theologically flawed taboo on anything other than Christian music and any venues other than church and Christian events was disastrous. The only halfway decent money I made back then as a budding jazz saxophonist was from "secular" gigs. But, wanting to please the Lord--and at the time, I naively mistook the conventions of religious culture for the will of God--I dropped out of the local music scene at the precise time when I should have been forging connections, learning my craft on the bandstand, and making at least some semblance of money. The sacrifice was one I made willingly, but its financial and vocational implications weren't understood by those who expected it of me. Churches wanted my musical skills, but none of them thought to compensate me for them; yet they'd have looked at me askance had I used my talent to make a buck or two playing in the clubs. The result was a catch-22 both monetarily and developmentally. And my situation was far from unusual. In that religious culture, it was the norm for musicians. I've told you this story not to whine about the past, but to shed a little light on the realities of being a musician in the church. In doing so, it's practical to point out that not all church musicians are the same. They have different perspectives toward their craft and invest their time into it accordingly. For most, music is simply a hobby; for a few, however, it is an avocation and even a vocation. For many, music is one small facet of a multifaceted life; but for a handful, it's a lifestyle and a livelihood. Most church musicians develop enough skill to do a good job meeting the needs of their praise team; but a small percentage practice daily for hours, year after year, to develop abilities that can transform how a praise team sounds. My purpose in drawing these contrasts is not to create some snobbish and divisive musical caste system. In the words of the apostle Paul, "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7). There is no gift any of us is given that doesn't come from God, and humility is the only appropriate response. However, it's still up to every musician to cultivate his or her gift, and some do so to a greater degree than others. That's how it is in a life that requires prioritization and trade-offs. Those who invest themselves more deeply into the pursuit of musical excellence often pay dues that others know nothing of. As a hobby, music is fun; as a vocation, it is costly in terms of time, finances, and relationships. To pursue music seriously is deeply satisfying, but it can also be disappointing, frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking, demanding much of one's life and returning little in the way of making a living. All this to say that musicians are worthy of their wages. Does that mean churches ought to pay their musicians? That's for every church to determine for itself based on the realities of its size and budget. If you can't afford it, then you can't afford it. But if you can, trust me, it will be much appreciated and well-deserved. Worship is not a commercial venture. It's an act of the heart, and I've never met anyone in worship ministry who has approached it with any other attitude. No one is in it for the money, any more than pastors take up pastoring because it's such a lucrative profession. It's a matter of calling, not cash. But it still takes cash to make house payments, buy food, and keep the car running and the utilities operable. That's why Paul wrote,
If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more?...Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:11–14)
While Paul himself chose to forego the privilege he describes above, he makes it plain that those who invest their lives into preaching the gospel have the same needs as anyone else and deserve to have them met. You could argue that Paul was referring exclusively to pastors and preachers. But of course, the early churches didn't have music ministries, or children's ministries, or teen ministries, or any of the other ministries and programming that we take for granted today. So I think there's room to apply the principle to a church's musicians, at least as much as is practical. It's certainly not unscriptural to honor a musician's investment of time and dedication by helping him or her pay the electric bill. That kind of tangible care and appreciation can make a real difference, not only in the pocketbook but also in the heart.

My Father’s Horn: The Final Note

(Continued from part 4.) Over thirty years have passed from the days of God's Family Band until today. Dad's horn has been a constant companion in that journey, though I have not always been constant with it. There were times when I set it aside for a season, and other times when I thought how much simpler life could be if I put it behind me forever. Yet every time I have set down the saxophone, I have returned to it. I have kept at it--because I must. It is more than a passion; it is a calling, integral to the way God has designed me. There are many other stories besides the ones I have told in this brief series, more than I wish to share here. The long and short of it all is, Dad's horn has shaped me both as a player and as a person. Thus far, I have talked about the journey my father's horn has taken me on. Now I would like to tell you a little about the horn itself. I own two other saxophones beside it: a Conn tenor that is even older than my alto and has long been in drastic disrepair, and a Yamaha soprano that I sometimes play. But the alto remains my voice, and I have always owned only the one, Dad's. I've had no need for any other. Not that I haven't tried other horns. I've sampled a fair cross-section of altos over the years. But the one I learned to play on is the one I play today and the one on which I will someday play my last note, and then, I hope--though I have no children of my own--pass it on to someone else as a legacy, just as Dad passed it on to me. Of all the saxophones I have played, my father's horn sounds the most resonant, offers the greatest flexibility of sound, and blows the freest. It is an amazingly open horn. It will take as much air as I can supply and convert it into a sound that fills a room. Not that the Conn 6M is a miracle horn; it has its drawbacks. While I can get around reasonably well above high F, the altissimo is not as responsive as on other saxophones. Manufactured before the introduction of the high F# key, Dad's sax does not feature uber-high notes as one of its strengths. Also, my repairman tells me that the rolled tone holes--a hallmark of the 6M--are beastly when it comes to getting pads to seat properly. When I have pads replaced, I usually need to visit the shop more than once to get the sax sealing tightly. But once that job is accomplished, oh, man! Dad's alto is a dream to play, and I fall in love with it all over again. It has a sound and a response like no other, and it has served me well for over four decades. Dad was always the greatest fan of my playing. During the last three years of his life, he, like me, had an encounter with Jesus that changed him--not a little, but drastically. The anger that seemed to lurk below the surface disappeared, and while his feistiness remained, it was tempered with humility, even a sweetness, and above all, a peace I had never seen in him before. The ghosts that I think had haunted him from World War II seemed to lose their grip. There is a verse in the Bible that reads, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (II Cor. 5:17) Whenever I read that verse, I think of Dad. I was 28 years old when Dad passed away. That was nearly thirty years ago. Several years ago, I wrote a letter to my father. I thanked him for all he had done for me and for our family. I told him how, now that I was older and wise enough not to know as much as I did back in my twenties, I wished I could sit down with him and listen to him tell me about his life--how it was in the Great Depression, and in the War, killing and watching his friends be killed. I told him that he was my hero, and how glad I was, how very glad, for the peace he had found. The transformation that had begun in him when he first encountered the Lord was now complete. When next he and I would meet, Dad would no longer be a white-haired man crippled by a back injury, short-winded from a chronic heart condition and breathing from an oxgyen tank. I envisioned him striding toward me, grinning, his arms outstretched, his face that of a vibrant young man, his eyes filled with a spark that can only be found in one who has looked into the very face of Love and Life, and in its Presence found his home. On Memorial Day, I took my letter to the small cemetery out in the countryside where Dad is buried. A tiny American flag fluttered by his marker beneath a tall fir tree. It is a beautiful little place, and Dad, who loved trees, would have been pleased with the location. I cleared away a few sprigs of grass that were encroaching on his modest gravestone, and I dusted off its surface. With a piece of Scotch tape, I attached my letter to Dad's marker. Then, standing up, I fulfilled one last, important part of the letter. "Thanks for the saxophone, Dad," I had written. "It was your legacy to me, and I've brought it with me. Perhaps, just for a minute, the Lord will roll back eternity and let you get an earful of me playing it just for you." Taking the horn, setting its mouthpiece in my mouth, and wrapping my fingers around the golden, pearl-covered keys that I had first seen and admired when I was a little boy, I began to play. With his old Conn alto sax, I played for Dad the song I had performed on the day when I was baptized at Bethel--the song that over the years had become my theme song and was a fitting description of Dad's own life. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see. A saxophone cannot verbalize those words, but it most certainly can communicate them. That day, I played them with all my heart. Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. 'Twas grace that brought me safe this far, and grace shall lead me home. The legacy of my father's horn lives on. I love to play it, and while I am no Kenny Garrett, I continue to practice regularly, and thus to grow as a jazz musician. Today, I realize that Dad's gift to me of his saxophone was ordained by my heavenly Father--by my father's Father and mine. I am his son, his man, and his musician. And with gratitude, until a day known only to him when my last song shall end, by his grace, for his pleasure, and in honor of the Master Musician, I will continue to play my Father's horn.

My Father’s Horn, Part 4

(Continued from part 3.) Writing this article has opened my eyes to just how immense a legacy my dad left me when he put his alto sax in my hands as a boy. I never intended to pen a lengthy, multi-part personal history, just a brief tribute to Dad and the shaping force his old Conn 6M has been for me. Now, four parts into "My Father's Horn," I realize that I could write a book and still not tell the full story. But writing a book was not, and is not, my intention. I see a need to condense, to say much in few words. Yet I am not sure how to do that. Dad's horn has been as pervasive an influence in my life as yeast in bread dough. It has been a source of tremendous satisfaction and great frustration; a creative outlet; an intellectual challenge and stimulus; a doorway of faith; a parable portraying truths about God's kingdom and how He designs individuals; a song of joy, a wail of pain, a voice of my soul; a catalyst for insight, choices, and growth; a blessing to many listeners and, first and foremost, to the player; a gift, a discipline, and most certainly, a calling. When I was 24 and playing in the Aquinas College Jazz Band, I got a call one evening from a guy named Rick Callier. Would I care to play in a musical that the Bethel Pentecostal Choir was presenting called "The Beautiful Story of Jesus"? I learned that Rick's cousin, Kimball Owens, had recommended me to Rick. Kimball was my buddy in the jazz band--a non-stop chatterbox, funny, super-likeable, a fine tenor sax player, and my friend. I knew nothing about either Rick or Bethel, but, while I wasn't a Christian, I had grown up knowing about Jesus and was glad for an opportunity to offer my talent in His service for an evening. That event was my introduction to Rick, to Bethel, and to a number of talented black gospel musicians and vocalists: David Jennings, Chico DeBarge, James Abney, Craig Tyson ... the list goes on, too many to name. Even more important, playing for the Bethel musical ushered me into the beginning of my walk as a disciple of Jesus.* Back in the 1980s, white churches in West Michigan didn't have much use for the saxophone. Not so black churches. I knew nothing about the foibles of religious culture and cared even less about racial distinctions. All I knew was, I had fallen in with some people who loved Jesus, loved music, projected joy, and welcomed me and my horn wholeheartedly. And my heart was open. I had been seeking God for a long time, searching for meaning; searching for something bigger even than the music; searching for Life. And I found it. Or rather, I found Him--because throughout the years, He had already long been seeking me. Thus it was that a few days after Christmas in December, 1980, I was baptized at Bethel Pentecostal Church. On that day, I had an encounter with God. It was, as best I can describe it, a sense of being overwhelmed by joy and praise. The experience was almost physical in nature and one I have never forgotten. From there, I played often with the Bethel Pentecostal Choir. As a white kid from a German family, I was a salt grain in a pepper mill, but it didn't matter. Love of the Lord and of music made ethnic differences something to be appreciated and enjoyed, and a source of insight. At that time, I also joined the horn section of a gospel group called God's Family Band. The band was co-led by Rick Callier and David Jennings, with Rick doing the arranging and David working with the vocalists. Both of these guys were incredibly talented. In partnership with a friend named Larry Rhodes, Rick also used the horns in studio sessions for other gospel artists, notably the Grammy-Award-winning group Commissioned. It was under Rick and Larry that I gained experience both as a horn section player and as a studio musician. I've never played for more exacting producers. They would do take after take, striving for perfection. Rick and Larry set a benchmark for excellence. Working with producers of their caliber was an eye-opening, rewarding, and hugely valuable experience. All the while, I continued to study music at Aquinas College and play in the jazz band. My college education equipped me with the tools I needed to grow as a musician. To be honest, though, I wasted my first years in college, and I only really began to learn my horn after I got out of school. As a result, I'm mostly self-educated as a jazz saxophonist. One influence from my college days to whom I will always feel a debt of gratitude was Mel Dalton. A wonderful Grand Rapids area tenor player, Mel was the closest thing I ever had to a musical mentor. For a brief but memorable semester or two, I use to get together with him on a weekly basis at his home. Mel didn't exactly teach me how to play jazz; mostly what he did was spend time with me listening to Coltrane records, talking about music, playing with me through solo transcriptions, and encouraging me. Mel modeled what jazz musicianship was about. He was a beautiful player and a warm, wonderful human being, and I wish he was still here today. At this point, I need to fast-forward. There's a lot of story I could tell, but it wouldn't serve my original intent in writing this article. It's enough to say that my father's horn has opened up doors of relationships, opportunities, and experiences. That's enough for now. I'll save the rest for part 5, which I think will be the conclusion of "My Father's Horn." ------------------------------------ * I'm cautious about using the word "Christian" to describe myself. I am a Christian; however, these days the word has become a label freighted with meanings that have nothing to do with what it means to follow Jesus. The word "Christian" has become politicized. It has become a marketing niche. It has come to stand for a subculture that in some ways misrepresents what Jesus and Christianity are truly about. So I prefer to be thought of as simply a disciple of Jesus--a fallible man who seeks to know Him, love Him, and live in a way that reflects his Lordship in my heart.

My Father’s Horn, Part 3

(Continued from part 2.) For a couple of years after I graduated from high school, I cast about with no certain direction. I worked a series of odds-and-ends jobs, none with any promise, and lived alternately with my parents, in a tiny shotgun house in Eastown, and in a former chicken coop converted into a rental home out in the countryside of Cascade. (Don't knock it till you've tried it! The place was really nice for that time in my life.) The one constant in my life was music. But in those days, I had largely set aside my horn in favor of my acoustic guitar, which I had taught myself to play. I was hugely into Jethro Tull and wanted nothing more than to be another Ian Anderson. So I was doing my best to develop as a singer/songwriter. It was the sax, though, that opened the door to some key musical friendships. In those days, I was hanging with my buddies Perry Werchowsky and Scott Smith. It was these guys who in different ways spurred me on to learn more about what I was doing. The three of us used to get together frequently at Perry's house and jam, with Perry playing piano, Scott on the guitar, and, of course, me on the alto sax. Perry was studying with veteran jazz keyboardist Eddie Russ, and Scott had begun to take music classes at Grand Rapids Junior College. Scott was constantly talking about the latest musical concepts he was learning in music theory class. Triads, inversions, augmented chords, secondary dominants, cadences ... all fascinating to hear about, and frankly, I was starting to feel a bit jealous. I wanted to know about that stuff! When I told my parents that I thought I might like to study music, they leaped at my mere mention of the idea. A whirlwind of college visits, applications, and financial aid forms ensued, and when the dust finally settled, I found myself sitting in the afternoon jazz band at Aquinas College under the directorship of Dr. Bruce Early. Bruce put me in the lead alto chair, but he made it plain to me that the arrangement was only temporary. Someone else would be playing first chair, and once that person arrived in a week or two, I would be demoted. "Right," I thought. "Just wait till you hear what I can do!" Rehearsals got underway, me playing with all the gusto and confidence that comes from either great talent or monumental ignorance. From the impression Bruce was doing of being utterly unimpressed, I knew I was secretly blowing him away. He just wasn't letting on. Then one afternoon as I was assembling my horn for rehearsal, into the room walked another saxophonist named Dan Bryska. I had heard Dan play before; he had sat in on a few Formal Aires gigs in months past. I felt a bit nervous. Here was my replacement, apparently, and I knew he was good. Dan put together his horn and began to warm up with a series of bebop licks. In fifteen seconds, the guy blew lines through his sax that I had never dreamed of. And like that, my cocky attitude evaporated. Geeze, Dan wasn't just better than me, he was a lot better. There weren't even grounds for comparison. Until now I had been a small fish in a smaller pond, and I had made the mistake of believing the people who told me what a great player I was. Now here was the truth, staring me in the face. I was a novice, so green that I didn't even know how badly I sucked. But Dan had just given me a clue. It was a humbling experience, but it was good for me. It suggested that if I wanted to become anywhere near as good a player as Dan and some of the other guys in the band, I was going to have to work at it. In other words, practice. What a novel concept! But practice what? I wasn't sure. I had begun to take jazz improvisation lessons with Bruce Early, but my ears just couldn't wrap themselves around the complexities of even the simplest jazz harmony. A ninth slapped on top of a minor seventh chord didn't sound pretty to me; it sounded wrong. I forget how I stumbled upon Jerry Coker's renowned book Patterns for Jazz, but I'll never forget the impact it had on me. By then I was two years into music school, and I was slowly developing, but I think I was mostly just a source of frustration for my saxophone instructor. Then along came Coker's book. I took it to school with me, hit a practice room, and began to work on a pattern that consisted of major triads ascending and descending chromatically. "Hmmm," I thought, "I wonder if I can memorize this." I took up the challenge, persevered at it, and succeeded. And light began to dawn for me. I could do this stuff! If I practiced, I could become good. Maybe even really good. I was hammering away on my triads one afternoon when the door to my practice room suddenly flung open and my sax instructor, Fred Bunch, rushed in. "YES!" he yelled. "That's it! That's it! Keep doing it!!!" The man had a wild look in his eyes, and I had left my pepper spray at home. But I felt more inspired than nervous. After all those years of misfiring, it looked like I was finally on the right track. (To be continued.)

My Father’s Horn, Part 2

(Continued from part 1.) During my eighth-grade year, my father's horn opened the doors to a formative experience in my life. It began when a fellow junior high school classmate, Steve Afendoulis, asked me if I would like to play in a band he was forming. Steve being a drummer, I thought he was talking about a rock band. Now, I have to be honest: Much as I enjoyed playing the saxophone, rock music was in its psychedelic heyday, and what I really aspired to be was the next Jimi Hendrix. The only hitch was that I didn't play guitar. Still, while I'd never heard of Dave Sanborn, I thought that maybe I could carve my niche as a rock saxophonist. I'd be cool, and "cool" was a quality I lacked and desperately wished to cultivate. So I told Steve to count me in. Thus it was that I wound up playing lead alto in a 17-piece dance band called the Formal Aires. It was not exactly Woodstock material. Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong ... good heavens! I was playing my parents' music! Whatever image it might project for me, "cool" didn't figure in. I hadn't a clue what an amazing experience I had walked into. What I did know was that, cool or not, I really enjoyed the weekly rehearsals with my 16 other junior high and high school bandmates. They came from several schools around the Grand Rapids area, and even as our athletic teams clashed, we harmonized. Steve's dad, Gus Afendoulis, served as the band's manager. He owned a tuxedo rental and dry cleaning shop on Michigan Street in Grand Rapids and also wrote a weekly column on bridge for the Grand Rapids Press. Being well-connected, Gus managed to secure frequent weekend and holiday gigs for the band at top country clubs, wedding receptions, and social and community events throughout West Michigan. I'm quite sure it was Gus who purchased our music library for us. Owning his own tux shop, he saw to it that we were properly outfitted in formal attire. He secured a couple of music directors who worked with us during weekly rehearsals, helping us to properly interpret the music and develop our sound. Above all, Gus loved us kids. He was a sweetheart of a guy who made it all happen for us and did so in such a low-key way that his immense significance never dawned on me till years later. I mentioned that the band had two music directors. These men, Sid Stellema and Ted Carino, were the guiding forces for the band. Ted, an alto saxophonist with prior big band experience, was there every week, walking us through the charts, rehearsing us, encouraging us, shaping our sound. Ted was the person who first made me aware that not all mouthpieces are created equal. I had been playing the stock mouthpiece that came with dad's horn. With its small tip opening, it was not designed to move a lot of air, and it gave me a feeble, overly dark sound with little volume or projection. It was by no means a lead alto mouthpiece. One night, Ted pulled me aside and handed me a box containing a brand-new Brillhart mouthpiece. I put it on my horn and experienced an epiphany. This piece was so much louder! And its brighter tone gave me the edge I needed for the first alto chair. Sid Stellema also helped rehearse the band. His involvement wasn't as extensive as Ted's, but his experience as an arranger provided us with invaluable input. Sid also guided me in writing my first--and only--successful big band chart: an arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne." In those days I knew nothing of music theory, and my inner ear was informed by rock harmonies rather than jazz. Thanks to Sid's coaching, though, I came up with an acceptable arrangement of the Guy Lombardo classic, which the band played every New Year's Eve henceforth and eventually passed down, along with the rest of its book, to its successor, the Stardusters. The Formal Aires was a profoundly important part of my musical learning curve. Through it all, my father and mother faithfully drove me to the weekly rehearsals. The saxophone that Dad was unable to play now rested in the hands of his oldest son, and Dad could hear both it and me coming to life, doing what we were created to do. I played in the Formal Aires, and afterward the Stardusters, all the way through high school and even into my early college days. I think the Formal Aires must have played at every country club in West Michigan, and not just once, but frequently. We had the New Year's Eve gig locked in every year at the Cascade Country Club. The band was a great way for us kids to make a bit of money playing music--and above all, we had fun! To Steve, to Gus, to Ted, to Sid, and to all my old bandmates: Thanks. I've never forgotten. The Formal Aires and the Stardusters steeped me in the classic swing band literature and gave me the confidence I needed as a lead alto player. Too much confidence, really. I was naive as to how much I had yet to learn ... (To be continued.)

My Father’s Horn: A Grown Son Reflects on a Priceless Musical Legacy

Most of my music posts share technical exercises or theoretical information. This post is different. I want to share with you something very personal. It is the story of the saxophone that I play: my beloved Conn 6M Ladyface. When I was a small boy living with my family in Niles, Michigan, my dad kept his alto sax in its original black case up against the wall by his bed. He had bought the horn back when he was a young man, and was learning to play it until service in WWII interrupted his musical aspirations and a bout of tuberculosis finished them off entirely. He met my mother in the TB sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse. Dates followed, letters, a ring, marriage, and then me. My parents moved from Chicago to Niles when I was a year old. The sax sat quietly in its case, all but forgotten. Once in a great while, though, Dad would take that case and open it up, and it was on one such occasion that I got my first glimpse of the horn. There it lay, cradled in the case's rich, purple velvet lining: a shining complexity of rods, springs, pearl buttons, pads, and palm keys, all neatly arranged on that deeply golden, sensuously curving body. It was beautiful, fascinating, and to me, impossibly complicated. How could anybody take something so bewilderingly engineered and make music with it? Ever after that first glimpse of my father's horn, I wanted to see more of it. From its aureate luster, to the resonant sound of its bell pads thumping against the tone holes, to its mysterious, brittle reeds, that saxophone captivated me. I was far too young to play it, but it was already beginning to play me. In the summer after my sixth grade year, my family--which had grown to include my brothers Pat, Terry, and Brian, and my sister, Diane--moved to Grand Rapids. Junior high school loomed on the horizon. No longer would I be attending a private Catholic school; the Forest Hills public school system awaited me in the fall, including its band program. Band? I was going to be in band? Yes, that was the plan. In September, when I climbed aboard the school bus for the first day of school, that black case containing my father's horn was in my hands. Private lessons with my band director, Richard Streng, commenced soon after. And I took to my dad's alto sax as naturally as if I had been born for it--which, of course, was the case. The first note I learned to play was A. The second was D. After that came G, and then, I think, C; after that, I don't recall the order. What I do remember is stopping between each note and carefully inspecting my fingers to make sure they were positioned properly. It seems amazing that the fluidity with which I get around on my instrument today got its start with such painstaking deliberateness. But I didn't mind. I was learning to play music, learning to play my dad's saxophone, and I was absolutely thrilled. I could do this! No one needed to tell me to practice; I couldn't wait to get in my daily time on the sax. Mr. Streng seemed to enjoy my private lessons with him as much as I did. He recognized in me a genuine desire to excel. I came to my lessons prepared and ready to play, so he consistently had something he could work with. I still remember his baritone voice after every lesson: "Bob, as always, it has been a pleasure." From Mr. Streng, I learned a life lesson every bit as important as those first music lessons, and that was the power of praise. Never underestimate what a good word can accomplish in a person's heart. A child's heart, a young adult's heart, a heart of many years' experience ... it doesn't matter. Praise empowers; praise instills vision; praise nurtures an inner voice that says, "Yes, I can!" (To be continued)

Video Tutorial #1: The Augmented Scale

The time has come for me to kick it up a notch on with my first video tutorial on jazz. This one is on the augmented scale, a favorite of mine. I feel a bit presumptuous taking this step, since I'm putting myself out in front of you, my musical readers, in a new way that suggests a high degree of expertise. The reality is, I'm a mostly self-taught saxophonist who lives in a rural, bedroom community of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where you can still drive just a few blocks to find plenty of corn and cows. That said, I know what I know. More important, I'm a perpetual learner, and I like to share what I've learned, often as I'm still in the process of learning it. This video tutorial represents my effort to offer you more value by, er, augmenting your learning experience. (Pun intended. Rimshot, please.) In the Jazz Theory, Technique, and Solo Transcriptions section of my Jazz page, you'll find a good number of written articles on the augmented scale, complete with exercises, to supplement this video. One thing they can't do, though, is familiarize you with the sound of the scale. That's where this tutorial comes in handy. I hope you'll enjoy it.

A Hot-Weather Sunday Sermon

The heat wave is here. Today inaugurates it in West Michigan with the temperature moving up toward 90 degrees in the afternoon and dewpoints from the low to mid seventies. Ecch! Lacking both the ambition and the time this morning to write a full-fledged post, I've once again rummaged through my archives. I haven't had to look far to find something thought-provoking for musicians and storm chasers alike--or for anyone who's passionate about any kind of life pursuit--and fitting for a Sunday morning. From last October, here is a post reflective in its tone, which I titled, "Between Idolatry and Joy." Its concept is one I've had to remind myself of during a storm season whose frustrations challenged my attitude sorely. So if parts of it feel uncomfortable, bear in mind that I'm in the same canoe paddling with you. It's a matter of being human and fallible, yet also thankful for Someone bigger than me who calls me to set my heart on things higher than what I can see and feel.