My New Phil Barone Soprano Saxophone: Wow!

I. LOVE. My new Phil Barone soprano saxophone!

I mean, I seriously dig this horn.

When I sold my vintage Yamaha YSS 62 “Purple Label” a couple years ago, I went into a period of minor mourning. But the tax man required money, and for as long as I had owned the horn–since the mid 1980s–I hadn’t played it much. Practicality won out; the sax went on eBay and got snapped up.

I doubted I’d ever be able to afford another soprano sax of its quality, even used.

The loss became more apparent as the band I play in, My Thin Place (MTP), has prioritized ECM-style tunes that call for the soprano sound. I’m primarily an alto man, and MTP plays plenty of tunes for which alto is the right voice. But when it comes to our originals and numbers like Oregon’s “1,000 Kilometers” and John Abercrombie’s “Timeless,” the soprano is the better fit–in some cases, the only fit. So now what?

Enter–and huge thanks to–my friend and fellow saxophonist Michael Doyle (Evidence; Big Band Nouveau). Recognizing my need to supply the appropriate voice for MTP, he volunteered his Mark VI. “Hang onto it,” he told me. “Just get it to me when I need it.” That was way beyond gracious of Mike, and it was our arrangement for a year or more.

But realistically, I needed a horn of my own. I just didn’t have the money. Self-employment as an editor and writer is a roller coaster, and when the checks come in, they’re usually spoken for. When I felt I could responsibly purchase another horn, I would do so. But that time wasn’t now, and I didn’t know when it would be.

A NAMELESS BENEFACTOR AND A GENEROUS GIFT

Then one evening, at my monthly Sandy Point Beach House gig with MTP, my friend Dave DeVos, the bassist and band leader, told me, “Someone wants to buy you a soprano saxophone. They prefer to remain unknown. How much would a new horn cost?”

Well, that was a question I hadn’t considered lately.

A nameless benefactor wanted to buy me a horn? Really?

Yes, said Dave. West Michigan has its share of arts patrons, and he had approached one of them on my behalf. So, how much?

Whoever it was that was being so gracious toward me, I didn’t want to overreach on his or her generosity. I named an amount: two thousand dollars–hesitantly, because it seemed like an awful lot of money. It was an awful lot of money. But in the world of saxophones, I believed it was practical yet conservative. Then I started shopping online.

A QUEST FOR VALUE

Ouch! Man, those little stinkers are pricey! Had I underestimated? True, you can buy a Chinese horn for a couple hundred bucks, but do you really want to hang your sound on such an instrument, particularly when it’s going to play a defining role in the band?

Two grand, on the other hand, ought to buy me something decent. Maybe not in the same league as the vintage Yamaha I had parted with, but certainly a good horn of a quality one could count on. I just needed to ask the Lord to guide me to it, and I needed to do my homework.

So I dug more deeply. And I began to read glowing accounts of Phil Barone saxophones. Phil, a professional saxophonist in New York, aims to provide pro-quality saxophones at an affordable price for guys like me who can’t afford to slap down $4,000 or more for a new Yamaha, Selmer, Cannonball, or Yanigasawa. By skipping the retailers and selling direct to consumer, Phil is able to offer his saxophones at substantial savings. His website says, “When you order a Phil Barone saxophone, you’re ordering direct from the maker, who doesn’t spend a lot of money or time on expensive ad campaigns or marketing. Great reviews and word of mouth works just fine for Phil Barone. The result is a professional quality saxophone priced for the student; an instrument that doesn’t just rival the sound of more expensive brands but out-plays them time and time again.”

All fine and well–but really? Were the horns as good as all that?

Based on what I read on Sax on the Web and elsewhere, player after player seemed to think so. The reviews weren’t merely positive–they were consistently rave. Saxophonists were loving these horns, preferring them even over their Yamahas and Selmers. I checked out some YouTube demonstrations and was impressed. The intonation–an obvious concern with soprano saxophones–was good, and the sound seemed clear and consistent.

Given a reasonable trial period, what did I have to lose? I ordered a nickel-plated model and eagerly awaited its arrival.

A DELIGHT TO LOOK AT, A JOY TO PLAY

I was in the throes of a terrible cold when the saxophone arrived, so I wasn’t in shape to take it for a test flight immediately. I was barely up to feeling excited–but excited I was, nevertheless. I unboxed the new arrival and, with some trepidation about what I would find, opened the sturdy black hardshell case.

The horn was gorgeous.

It was also well packaged, with pads and keys clamped snugly and all separate pieces wrapped in plastic. Those included, besides the main saxophone body, both a curved and a straight neck, a neckstrap, my choice of one of Phil’s $200 mouthpieces (included in the purchase price), and a basic ligature.

Removing the plastic, I inspected the instrument visually. The finish was flawless–not a rough patch or defect anywhere that I could see. Just sumptuous gold engraving against a smooth, silvery dark nickel lacquer on a sturdily built instrument. My gosh. If this horn’s sound and performance matched its appearance, then I had just gotten a very sweet deal indeed. I’d have to wait to find out, because physically I just wasn’t up to playing a wind instrument. But so far, visually, this soprano had just taken my breath away.

By the next afternoon I had crossed the hump with the cold, and I could wait no longer. I had to know. Grabbing the new soprano, I headed out to Charlton Park east of town–a riverside location where I love to practice–and I assembled the horn and blew my first notes.

Forty-five minutes later I was on the phone with Phil Barone. I wanted to tell him personally how delighted I was and thank him for making such a marvelous instrument accessible to me.

FOUR MONTHS LATER

That was back in late April. It is now mid August. Having had some time to familiarize myself with this saxophone, I can tell you that I no longer feel the loss of my vintage YSS 62. That was a wonderful soprano saxophone, but this new horn surpasses it. It is everything its maker claims. Its lovely tone is consistent throughout the range of the instrument; it is solidly built, with intuitive ergonomics that allow my fingers to fall naturally in place; it is responsive, mechanically deft, and has excellent intonation. It most certainly plays as beautifully as it looks–and that is saying a mouthful. I am proud to own this horn and very grateful to the person who saw fit to bless me with it.

The new Barone is inspiring me to do something I never did with my old Yamaha: spend serious time practicing the soprano sax, learning its nuances and getting a feel for my sound on it. I’ve come to appreciate how very different in temperament it is from my alto saxophone. My Conn 6M alto is a golden-toned, swashbuckling, exuberant instrument that will take as much air as I can give it, and it resonates in my hands like a living thing. This soprano is a lady with a soft, pretty voice, and she’s at her best when I treat her as such.

Due to its smaller size, the soprano is a more temperamental instrument than the alto and tenor saxophones, and intonation can go out of whack in a hurry. Using new, crisp reeds makes a world of difference for playing in tune, and getting the right mouthpiece/reed setup is crucial. The Barone 7* vintage mouthpiece that came with the horn proved to be too ambitious for me. That was my fault. Barone mouthpieces receive stellar reviews, and this one is what I ordered. But in my ignorance about the soprano, I overestimated what I needed; a smaller tip opening would have served me better. I have yet to try using a softer reed–a #2, possibly even a #1 1/2. I’m not a fan of soft reeds, but I’m still in the learning curve with the new soprano and am game to try different options.

My present mouthpiece/reed setup pairs a considerably more moderate Yamaha 4C mouthpiece with a Rico Royal #3 reed. The sound I get with this combination is clear and consistent, and the intonation is great throughout the range of the horn. Still, it will take some time before I feel confident about what setup I want to settle into. The close tip opening of the 4C is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wide-open Barone 7*, and I’d like to be able to move a little more air. A half-size stronger reed might be the solution. As well, given the affordability of Yamaha mouthpieces–around thirty bucks a pop–I plan to pick up a 5C and see how it performs. I’ll also replace the cheap ligature with something more refined. And at some point, I’ll make a pilgrimage to one of the saxophone shops in Detroit or Chicago and spend an afternoon trying out pieces. For now, though, the 4C is working well, wonderfully so for the price.

My old Yamaha was a solid-body straight soprano. The new two-piece Barone gives me the option of using either a straight or a curved neck, depending on my mood. I’ve gravitated toward the curved neck. It puts the horn in a more comfortable position . . . which makes it more enjoyable to play . . . which means I practice it more. Indeed, I’ve become a junkie. My beloved Conn 6M alto is probably feeling neglected lately, because the Barone soprano is such a pleasure to play. Moreover, based on the comments I’ve gotten from the guys in the band, it is turning out to be a superb voice for our unit.

GENEROSITY

I wouldn’t own this marvel of a horn were it not for the generosity of three people. One of them I know; one of them I have a feel for; and one of them is a mystery.

To Dave DeVos: Thank you for seeing my need for a soprano of my own, thinking of a solution that never would have occurred to me, and inquiring on my behalf.

To Phil Barone: Thanks for putting such a superb brand-new instrument in my hands at so affordable a price.

Last, but by no means least, to my Unknown Benefactor: Thank you for donating the purchase price of this horn. You sounded no horn of your own in doing so. You just quietly made my world a better place. I hope you’re one who sits often among those who enjoy My Thin Place, and when you hear the soprano, I hope it makes you smile.

In addition–Mike Doyle, thanks so much for generously volunteering the use of your Selmer Mark VI soprano, no strings attached, during the time when I was without. I call that exceptional of you.

Generosity is a beautiful thing, particularly in a culture so focused on self and on getting. In my own life, I’ve found that God rewards generous deeds in the oddest, timeliest, and sometimes most striking ways. I’ve never put stock in the so-called “prosperity gospel”; I don’t believe faith is about sticking a buck in the vending machine and getting ten bucks back. But I do believe “God loves a cheerful giver.” Generosity is in proportion to one’s means, and one of its earmarks is the satisfaction, even the joy, that a generous act releases in the heart of the giver. It’s about the motive. Generosity is its own reward. And yet, God takes it further and honors it in unexpected, practical ways.

Mike, Dave, Phil, and my Anonymous Benefactor: May the Lord honor each of you for your generosity.

SUMMING IT UP

Phil Barone soprano saxophones provide tremendous bang for the buck, even twice the buck. It’s safe to assume the same is true of Barone alto and tenor saxes. If you’re in the market for a new saxophone, you’ll do yourself a great service by looking into Phil Barone horns. Read the reviews. They’re impressive and they’re trustworthy. This post is my own unsolicited and unpaid review, and it’s my pleasure to write it. Phil came across to me as a brisk, down-to-business guy; he isn’t a talker on the phone. But his horns do his talking for him. If you buy one, I’m confident that you, like me, will be delighted.

Pentatonic Licks with the Altered Dominant Chord

What? Another Stormhorn post so soon?

Yes, I’m on a roll. This post is a continuation from the last post, which offered a couple practical exercises on angular playing using pentatonic scales. As I promised in that post, this next one explores the relationship between pentatonics and altered dominant harmony. But as with the previous post, my objective here is not to go all theoretical on you but to offer a few practical exercises for developing facility with pentatonics in the V7 alt context.

Still, for these exercises to make sense, a bit of theory is necessary. By altered dominant, I’m referring to the V+7(#9) chord, otherwise known as the V7 alt. Jamey Aebersold long ago introduced the simpler spelling V7+9, and since that’s the one I’m used to and it’s convenient, that’s the spelling I’ll use. The chord is called “altered” because very little about it–just the root, third, and flat seventh–is unaltered. The fourth and fifth are both raised a half step, and both sharp and flat ninths are included.

The scale of choice for the V7+9 chord is the diminished whole tone scale (dim WT). It is actually a mode of the melodic minor scale built on its seventh degree. For example, a B dim WT is built off the C melodic minor scale, thus: B, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, and octave.

Within the dim WT scale lies a single major pentatonic scale built on the scale’s tritone (augmented fourth).* So, again using the B dim WT as our model, the resident pentatonic is F: F, G, A, C, D. These notes constitute all the scale’s altered tone plus the flat seventh, thus: +4, +5, b7, b9, #9.

For me, the question is, how do I relate the sound of a major pentatonic scale to an altered dominant whose root is a tritone away? It’s not a sound that sticks readily to my ear.

The four exercises shown here–licks, really–are designed to help you drill your fingers and ears on the dominant chord and corelate them to the pentatonic scale. To my thinking, at least at this stage in my development, I want to resolve the pentatonic scale to one of the basic chord tones, and I want to have those chord tones–the root, third, augmented fifth, and flat seventh, always in mind.

To that end, the first exercise introduces a motif I also use in the rest of the exercises. It focuses on the lower part of an A7+9 chord, starting with the sharp and flat ninths and then establishing the third and the root. Following that little four-note figure is a well-known pentatonic lick based on the tritone, Eb. Finally, the exercise resolves to the root of the chord.

Exercise two starts with the pentatonic lick, then arpeggiates the A7+9 and explores the dim WT more fully, and concludes with the four-note motif, described above, resolving to the sharp five of the chord.

The third and fourth exercises, now focusing on the D7+9, begin with the motif, then move into more angular versions of the pentatonic scale. Note that in the fourth exercise, I’ve opted to focus on the F minor pentatonic. It is the relative minor of the Ab major, so none of the notes involved have changed; it’s just a different way of thinking about the pentatonic scale.

I recommend that you spend some time with each exercise in just the key it’s written in, playing it slowly and trying the absorb the sound of the pentatonic scale in relation to the sound of its parent dim WT scale and the V+7 chord. Then work at memorizing each lick in all twelve keys.

That’s it. They rest is up to you. I wish you fun and fruitful practicing.

ERRATUM: In exercise four, the first note in the second bar should be an Ab, not an A natural. With this post finally put to bed, I don’t have the patience to spend the time required (more than you’d believe) to add a lousy little flat. So kindly make the adjustment mentally.

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* You could argue that there are other pentatonics that also fit the altered dominant chord. True, but they’re all modified in one way or another. The only natural major pentatonic that derives from the diminished whole tone scale is the one I’ve described.

Pentatonic Angularity for Jazz Improv: Two Exercises

When was the last time I shared a practical exercise for jazz improvisation on Stormhorn.com? It has been ages, hasn’t it.

So let me rectify that as best I can by giving you something substantial to chew on, or better yet, to take to the woodshed with you and work into your fingers and your playing.

Lately I’ve been revisiting pentatonic scales, with an eye on two things: (1) their usefulness in angular playing, and (2) their relationship to altered dominants. I’ll look at item two in a future post. Right now, let’s turn our attention to pentatonics as a source for angularity–that is, breaking out of the linear, scalar mode of playing by using broader intervals, particularly fourths, to create novelty and interest.

You can think of a pentatonic scale as a major scale (or a mixolydian or lydian mode) with a couple teeth knocked out. The fourth and seventh scale degrees are missing, creating a five-note scale with a couple built-in gaps. Those two gaps, as you begin to work with intervals in the scale, create broader leaps, and angularity arises naturally.

The two exercises in this post will help you build technical finesse with broader intervals in the pentatonic scale. Work out the first exercise till you’ve got it mastered in all twelve keys throughout the entire range of your instrument. Then move on to the second exercise and do the same, revisiting the first as you need to in order to help it “stick.”

Both exercises are built off of the relative minor of the Eb major pentatonic scale. I’ve assigned them to the C-7 chord; however, you can also use them with the EbM7 and Eb7 chords, as well as a few other chords which I’ll leave it to you to work out in your head and your playing. My concern here isn’t to deal in depth with theory and application but simply to give you something you can wrap your fingers around. You can trust I’m doing my best to gain command of them too. We’re traveling this path together. Practice diligently–and, as always, have fun!

Good-Bye, Phil Woods: In Honor of an Alto Sax Legend

When I got the news last night that Phil Woods had died the day before, on September 29, 2015, I was stunned. Not Phil Woods! Not my main man, my hero on the alto sax whom, among all the luminaries of the instrument, including even Bird and Cannonball, I have admired and learned from the most. Not Phil.

But of course, why not? We all go at some point, and Phil was eighty-three and in poor health. He had lived a full life; he had seen a huge slice of jazz history and carved his own considerable niche in that history; he had accomplished things that most musicians only dream of; and in the process, he left a legacy of music richer than the mines of Moria.

I first heard of Phil back in my early twenties in music school. I heard him described as a “lyrical” player, and while I didn’t know what the word meant, I determined to find out. So I purchased an album of Phil’s titled I Remember, and “lyrical” acquired meaning through melody and timbre. Here was this beautiful tone, so full of warmth and joy and body, married to an incredible sense of swing. And here was a way with a ballad that just . . . well, I listened to the tune “Paul” over and over and over, mesmerized. The way Phil played it—so beautifully, so sensitively, so full of emotion—moved me to tears. I mean that most truly. Phil Woods could render a ballad with such sublimity and freshness and, above all, sincerity, that I would quite literally weep. His solo on Michelle Legrand’s “The Summer Knows” took my breath away the first time I heard it, and it still does. Lyrical? The word doesn’t begin to describe what Phil Woods could do with an alto sax.

But of course, ballads were just a part of what Phil played with excellence. He could cut through the most harmonically complex changes—bop tunes such as “Hallucinations”—at frantic tempos with an ease and inventiveness that left other players, even the most accomplished, in the dust. And you always knew it was Phil playing. There was no mistaking that sound and that approach.

I heard Phil play live three times. My most memorable was with my brother Pat, who, when I visited him years ago in Port Townsend, Washington, had made reservations for dinner at Jazz Alley in Seattle. There I sat, dining on steak while Phil and his combo blew incredible sounds from the stage just twenty feet from our table. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Now Phil is gone. The man and the horn that blazed their long, meteoric trail across the jazz firmament have flamed out at last. But like Bird, whom he so deeply admired, Phil lit a torch whose brightness burns in the horns of countless altoists worldwide. Phil Woods has many children. I am proud to be one of them.

Thank you, Phil. You gave this world much beauty, and you showed the way beyond Bird for alto players like me. Now you reside among the legends. You will be missed. And the music you made ensures that you will never, ever be forgotten.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: Part 2

Having dispensed with my rambling prelude, in part 1 of this article, to the question “What is jazz?” let’s get to the question itself.

What is jazz?

The answer used to be fairly simple, involving such concepts as syncopation, swing, improvisation, and African-American roots. The formats in which those elements played out were fairly straightforward. There was Dixieland. There was swing. There was big band. There was bebop.

But wait . . . bebop? In its day, there were those who maintained that bebop wasn’t jazz; it was cacophony, confusion, a bunch of chromatic scales played lightning fast and signifying nothing. “Let them beat their brains out till their flatted fifths are gone, then they’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest,” taunted Louis Armstrong in “The Boppenpoof Song,” but his abilities as a prophet didn’t match his brilliance as a trumpet player. Today no one would seriously contest the prodigious contribution of bop to the evolution of jazz.

Then along came Coltrane. Repeat the scenario. A lot of jazz buffs couldn’t stand him. Sheets of sound? Endless modal droning? That ain’t jazz, or so said the purists—then. Today it’s a different story; Trane has a lot of children and grandchildren. The thing called jazz broadened, embraced another icon, and forged ahead. Then came fusion, and more cries of protest. So it went, and so it has gone, and so it goes. Cool jazz, Latin jazz, free jazz, acid jazz, nu jazz, smooth jazz, punk jazz . . . from Miles to Trane to Ornette to Zorn and beyond, the list goes on, and after a while, I feel bewildered and my head hurts. Look, I just like good music, and I like improvisation, and I admire combinations of artistry and skill at a high level, and it gets to where I honestly don’t care all that much about categorizing it. This article can’t begin to cover all the complexities of a subject that so many, many writers have already addressed, and will continue to address, in far greater depth.

So in the remainder of this post, I want to share what a few others, both musicians and non-musicians, have to say about the nature of jazz. Nothing definitive, just personal, insightful, and even humorous.

Responses to the Facebook Survey

The first to respond to my question “What is jazz?” was keyboard man Bob Van Stee: “Good question. Allegedly, Louis Armstrong was asked, and his response was, ‘If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

My good friend Ed Englerth wrote, “’Jazz is restless.’ [It can be played on] any instrument. I prefer jazz that has improvisational elements, but [it] can be written out as well.”

Camera artist Myrna Jacobs doesn’t play an instrument, and her husband, Dan, is a superb jazz trumpeter and flutist. Myrna shared in-depth:

I think a lot about jazz, and to some extent why it isn’t popular music (for the most part). But what I’ve decided is that what often passes for jazz today isn’t really jazz. It lacks life and is static, trapped in some other time, much like classical music. Creating in the moment, being true to your own emotions and being in touch with the time and place you live. A willingness to get emotional with the music is so vital. I don’t play jazz. I listen to it and, honestly, feel that much of what is played is not good.. simply copies or ideas of what it should be, rather than it just being musicians who love playing, love creating, know how to listen and being willing to put themselves out there emotionally through their notes and spaces. Great jazz can take you someplace… to another world. It’s not even about the right chords (though it plays a part and doesn’t ‘feel right’ if the player doesn’t know them in his gut). I am a huge fan of jazz music that doesn’t isolate soloists . .. but rather, all the players in the band are part of the solo in some way. They are all listening and knowing when to contribute, like a conversation. Most of all I guess that jazz at it very ultimate is a conversation…. sometimes a soloist has a lot to say, like a monologue . .. but like, in conversation, the others come in and ‘nod’, accent, repeat parts of what was said.. take off on it.. use the idea, the concept (musically). It’s not just a speech… but a conversation. I love Dixieland for the beat.. for the interplay of instruments. I love big band when it’s exciting and the power that can be generated by that many instruments is used effectively… and when it is written so that it is not just one solo after another with no relationship to each other in any way. I love a duo… of whatever instruments are used… when they are playing together.. creating together.. moving the conversation forward Sorry… I could go on and on. I have thought about this a LOT and talked about it a lot, trying to figure out why so many people do not like jazz.

Trombonist Jason Lester offered the following thoughts:

Jazz is typically defined by having extended improvisation relative to predefined melodic material: it is further distinguished from the stuff of “jam bands” and blues by harmonic content– ii V I’s, extended chords, elaborate harmonic substitution. Instrumentation is not a factor, as Bela Fleck and many other groups have demonstrated. The boundaries of jazz are (and always have been) designed to be stretched and blurred: third stream, fusion, acid, etc have allowed players to stretch and blend. This symbiosis brings new life to both jazz and to the genre it hybridizes with– some of the best Rock sax solos were dealt down by cats like Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins; bringing in guitarists like John McLaughlin and Mike Stern gave Miles an entirely new sound. But improvisation and harmonic content are still the signature elements.

My response to Jason:

Given the interplay of other genres with jazz, the lines get fuzzy, don’t they. Improvisation, for instance, has long been a hallmark of rock as well as jazz (though jazz came first). Yet there’s an obvious difference between the extended improvisations of David Gilmour in Pink Floyd and John Coltrane in his classic quartet; both are masterful soloists in phenomenal groups, yet there’s no question that Floyd is rock and Trane is jazz. However, there does come a point in modern music where it’s hard to say whether you’ve got fish or fowl. You’ve mentioned harmonic complexity, and that one hits the nail on the head for me. Even the supposedly static harmony of modalism in jazz involves a complex harmonic approach not just for the soloist but also, significantly, for the rhythm section, and in particular for the chording instruments (e.g., keyboard, guitar). Once you cross over beyond swing feel into rock and Latin rhythms, it may be the harmony that’s the determinant.

Jason again: “The lines really blur when you listen to Steely Dan, James Brown, Frank Zappa, or Medeski, Martin& Wood!”

Finally, Bob Van Stee alerted me to the following video clip in which Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme answer the question “What is jazz?” in their own inimitable way. I can’t think of a more fitting way to cap off this post.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook:

“What is jazz?”

Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I’m quite certain it’s not.

Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they’d opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches.

At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!”

In Light of Today

Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all.

Though, is that really the case?

I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no.

It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It’s not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days.

You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you.

Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not?

The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that’s not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now “What is jazz?” can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion.

In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry “What is jazz?” as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter.

(To be continued.)

Storms and Jazz: A Late Summer Update for 2015

A few months have elapsed since my last post, which covered the Great Galesburg Earthquake.* I’ve been quite busy with book editing and copywriting and with a move in June from Caledonia to Hastings. So storm chasing this year has once again been mostly theoretical. If there’s anything good about that, it’s that missing out on yet another chase season hasn’t bothered me as much this year as it has in the past. There’s a lot to be said for loving what one does but not being owned by it. That’s not to say, though, that there weren’t times this spring when memories of past chases washed over me, and thoughts of towers punching up into the troposphere, of gorgeous storm structure, and of the smell and feel of Gulf-moistened inflow whisking across the prairie grasses toward an updraft base, made me wish like anything that I was out on the Plains once again.

Well, one takes life as it comes, and part of its lesson is to look for and appreciate the good one has rather than bemoan the good one is missing. Lack of chasing has been compensated, at least somewhat, by an increase in musical opportunities. And at this time in my life, I think it is important that I take those opportunities, which are rewarding aesthetically and which augment my finances and pave the way to more gigs, more musical involvements, and a broader future doing the other thing besides storm chasing that I love.

Don’t misconstrue this to mean that I’ve died to chasing. That’s not likely to happen; once chasing is in your blood, it becomes a part of you, and it has been in my blood for many years. No, it’s simply to recognize times and seasons, and to refuse to be shaped by the obsessiveness that is a very real aspect of storm chasing culture. I’m too old not to know better by now, and I’d be a fool not to live by the wisdom I’ve gained. One of what Paul the apostle called the “fruits of the Spirit” is self-control. Restraint. The ability to judiciously govern one’s impulses—not squelching them, but rather, choosing not to let them run roughshod over other very important things in life.

With that little preamble . . . severe storms are in the forecast for later today, and playing my saxophone has been very much in the foreground of my life lately, and this post will cover a little bit about both storms and jazz.

Weatherly Speaking

Yesterday evening I gave a presentation on storm chasing at the William P. Faust Public Library in Westland, Michigan. It was a great time with a small but engaged audience of roughly twenty people. My presentation runs around an hour-and-a-half, including time for questions at the end. However, I encourage my listeners to ask questions during the presentation as well, as I think an interactive format makes things more interesting and develops a connection with my audience.

This presentation was my second at this library and my fourth in all, and in my opinion, it was my best. With each one, I feel more familiar with my material and more at ease and spontaneous as a public speaker. Once I share the ten-minute clip of my March 2, 2012, chase of the Henryville, Indiana, tornado, I’ve got a captive crowd, and I can then move on to basic storm forecasting, supercell structure, and tornado safety, with a strong emphasis on safety. In the process, I make a point of advocating for NWS forecasters, explaining why weather professionals in Michigan have a particularly tough job protecting the public; and of debunking the largely mythical mantra of “We had no warning,” strongly insisting that the responsibility for safety rests in people’s own hands.

My sister, Diane, came with me and in fact did the driving, and it was a blessing to spend time with her. She’s a busy gal these days, and I’m a busy guy, and we just don’t get to spend much quality time together. So the chance to get away with her for an afternoon and evening was a gift. Plus, now she knows what my presentation is like, and how it can be adapted if the school where she teaches, Forest Hills Northern, wants to bring me in sometime.

All in all, yesterday went beautifully. And now today the potential exists for severe storms this afternoon and evening, contingent upon sufficient CAPE and adequate shear. The SPC even indicates a 2 percent tornado risk, but that’s Michigan for you—just enough to tease, and maybe there’ll be a spinup or two on the east side of the state.

As I write, noon is at hand, a brisk southerly surface wind is playing through the tree branches in the backyard, and breaks in the clouds and a dry slot moving in from the west suggest a buildup in instability. Time will tell, but I anticipate some kind of local chase and am ready to roll.

Music

These past few weeks have been filled with more music than I’ve seen in I don’t know when. I played my first gig as a strolling saxophonist for the VIP pre-grand opening of Tanger Outlets here in Grand Rapids. That was fun, and a nice piece of change, and it was all the more enjoyable thanks to a chance to sit in with Mark Kahny and Bobby Thompson, who were performing onstage at a different location in the outdoor mall.

Then two days later came the first of two Saturday evening gigs with My Thin Place, a collective led by bassist Dave DeVos and featuring Mike Dodge on guitar, Dave Martin on vibraphone, and Ric Troll and Fritz von Valtier alternating in the drum chair. The venue for both dates was the outdoor patio at Sandy Point Beach House, a restaurant right by the lakeshore between Grand Haven and Holland. It’s as idyllic a setting as you can imagine for a jazz gig, and the music this combo performs—a mix of ECM-style tunes, original compositions, and American songbook charts—was the perfect complement to outdoor dining.

After the gig at Tanger Outlets, Mark Kahny contacted me about joining him and Bobby for a gig at the What Not Inn in Fennville. I was delighted! These guys are superb, not only musically but also as entertainers who know how to engage their audience, and we gelled beautifully in that small but popular setting. The result was musical magic. Guys, if you read this, please bring me aboard again real soon. I love making music with you!

Now let’s talk about Big Band Nouveau. Whew! Three major gigs in a week in Grand Rapids, starting with the West Michigan Jazz Society’s Monday evening Jazz in the Park concert at Ah-Nab-a-Wen Park on the riverside; then Thursday night at Bobarino’s at The B.O.B., with a wonderfully supportive audience; and concluding with a Sunday afternoon encore performance at the GRand Jazz Fest on the Rosa Parks Circle stage. What can I say about this band? The charts are contemporary, challenging, and tasty, giving soloists plenty of room to stretch; and the musicians are outstanding—a bevy of strong soloists with individual voices. No wonder this band gets standing ovations! Its star is rapidly—and deservedly—rising, and I am privileged to be a part of it.

To top it all off, later Sunday afternoon I attended Mark Kahny’s annual music bash at his house in northeast Grand Rapids. This was my first time there, and I had an absolute blast. Mark clearly designed his outdoor deck with the idea that it would serve as a stage for performances, and I joined him and Bobby to provide music for a legion of Mark’s fans. He’s been doing music for a long time, and people love him because he loves them. The party is for them, and they come, and it’s a beautiful thing. My old friend Freddy DeGennaro was also there with his guitar, as were several vocalists, and the music just flowed. I left Sunday evening feeling both tired and elated, appropriately depleted yet also energized. It was a great time, and an inspiring ending to a hot, humid, sweaty, and totally fantastic August day.

Speaking of which, another such high-humidity August afternoon is unfolding, and it’s time for me to unfold with it. Dewpoints are ranging from 68 to 72 degrees and the first line of storms has organized east of I-69/US 27. I bid you sayonara, dear reader. I’ve got a shower to take, a book to edit, and, in a few hours, storms to enjoy.

________

* Update: reports of prehistoric reptiles released from magma-spewing fissures remain unverified and should be viewed as suspect.

How to Practice the Giant Steps Cycle: Video Tutorial and Supplementary Material

My preoccupation with John Coltrane’s tune “Giant Steps” now ebbs, now flows, but always continues. I’m not the most fabulous alto sax man who has ever played the changes, certainly not in the league of Kenny Garrett, but I have my own approach, which I strive to make less digital and more lyrical. I’ve even had the temerity to write a book of licks and patterns on “Giant Steps” titled The Giant Steps Scratch Pad, available for instruments of every key.

In the following video tutorial, I share a couple approaches to practicing the Giant Steps cycle that I have found profitable in my own practice sessions. The video begins with a bit of theory; however, the theory behind “Giant Steps” is more than adequately covered elsewhere in greater depth, as in this excellent article by Dan Adler, and it isn’t the thrust of the tutorial. Rather, I address a more pragmatic concern: How do you wrap your fingers around the Giant Steps cycle? The tips I share in the tutorial certainly aren’t the only way you can or should tackle the cycle, but I think you’ll find them helpful. Briefly, I explain how to run both a one-bar pattern and a more extensive two-bar lick through the cycle.

The two patterns used in the video were taken from The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. For your convenience, I’m supplying them for you here. Note that these excerpts are from the Eb edition, suitable for alto and baritone saxophonists; if you play a C, Bb, or bass clef instrument, you’ll need to transpose (though editions of my book are available in your key). Click on the images to enlarge them.

One-bar pattern:

002

 

 

One-bar pattern through the cycle:
003

 

 

Two-bar lick:
004

 

 

Two-bar lick through all three keys of the cycle:
GS 1-Bar Pattern

 

 

 

And now, here is the video. It’s obviously a homespun effort, so please bear with its flaws. I haven’t figured out how to read from my PowerPoint notes and still look directly at the camera, and as for that stupid deer fly that lands on my forehead while I’m signing off and roams around like an astronaut exploring the lunar surface, I wasn’t aware of it till I got home and viewed the clip. You think I’m going to do a redo just for that? It’s part of filming outdoors: mosquitoes setting up drilling operations on my nice, pink flesh, deer flies exploring my noggin—I deal with it and you can too.

Go ahead and chuckle. But if you’re a jazz improviser who’s tackling “Giant Steps,” then I think you’ll nevertheless find this tutorial worth your while.

 

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.

Rhythm Changes: An Etude to Build Jazz Technique

rhythm changes, jazz improvisation, jazz etude 001Here’s a little bop-style etude I created to help build your chops for rhythm changes. No surprises here; I wasn’t striving for cutting-edge ideas but for simple building blocks of jazz vocabulary. Me being an alto sax guy, I’ve written the material in the key of G, which is the alto transposition for the standard “Rhythm” key of Bb. Tenor players, flute players, and so on–sorry for the inconvenience, but you know how to transpose, right? Or just play it as written and hone your facility with the key of G. Click on the image to enlarge it and then have at it. And have fun!

I’ve written in the past about my predilection for rhythm changes as a means of developing a fundamental jazz vocabulary. In their essence, the changes can be construed as simply a succession of turnarounds with a bridge based on the cycle of dominants. You can get as fancy with that as you want to, but the basics are just as simple as the word basic implies.

For more on rhythm changes, click here. I also encourage you to read the point-counterpoint between Kurt Ellenberger and me which evolved out of that post. Whether you love rhythm changes or, like Kurt, hate them, you’ll find food for thought.

If you enjoyed this post, click here for plenty more articles, exercises, and solo transcriptions. Also, a quick plug for my book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. If you’d like a practical, hands-on practice companion to help you master “Giant Steps,” well…that’s why I wrote it.