Playing the Sax Again after a Forced Hiatus

Back in April 2012, I wrote about how it felt to pick up my sax again after weathering the worst case of bronchitis I have ever experienced. In short, after three miserable weeks away from my horn, it felt wonderful to pick it up again. I was rusty and had a little ground to reclaim, but that was okay; where my technique had suffered a bit, my creativity seemed to move to the forefront, and my playing felt fresh. A year-and-a-half later, I'm here to share a similar experience. And I'll begin by saying that I'm truly fortunate--graced, blessed by God--to be able to write about it, because I could be dead. It was no nasty cold that took me down this time but a bad car crash in Indiana last November. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but, sitting in the front passenger seat of the car I was traveling in--which was mine but with a friend driving--I took the brunt of the collision. Upon emerging from the car, I could tell that something was wrong with my chest. I felt no pain at the moment, just discomfort, but I had a hunch that would change pretty quickly, and it did. For the next several days, my chest hurt pretty badly. I figured I had bruised my sternum, perhaps even cracked it, and probably sustained several levels of injury involving my muscles and ribcage. Four or five days later, the pain gradually began to subside, but it took yet another week or so before I was able to cough freely or sneeze without ruining myself for the next hour. Finally, last week, I picked up my sax for the first time and blew. I'd like to tell you how great that felt, but "great" isn't the right word. It just felt...normal. Kind of flat, really--like pretty much any practice session in which I haven't felt particularly inspired but practiced anyway because I needed to. As best I could, I simply picked up where I had left off before the accident, playing through the Bird tunes "Confirmation" and "Ornithology," including some transcriptions of those solos, and reacquainting myself with a couple of dominant seventh patterns I'd been working on. But wait a minute. Both of those tunes are pretty complex bebop tunes, and a year ago, I couldn't even play "Confirmation." To be able to just jump back in the saddle with it after five weeks of not even touching my horn--that tells me this last year in the woodshed has been a profitable one. I've raised my baseline of ability on my instrument; music that once seemed formidable has been internalized. I've had two practice sessions since, and last night's felt great. Time to work on some new ideas as well as brush up on the stuff I'd been working on prior to the crash. But here's the take-away: Developing musical proficiency isn't about emotion or instant gratification. It's about discipline. Your practice sessions don't have to feel creatively inspired; they just have to be consistent. You just have to stick with it. If you do, and if you practice the right stuff, then you'll grow. A farmer's job is to plant his seeds, water them, and nurture them. If he does, then the seed will germinate and grow, and in due time, the farmer will reap a harvest. That's how it works. It's not about inspiration; it's about hard work and dedication, and the same holds true for learning to play jazz or any kind of music. Get your priorities in place and the moments of inspiration will come.

Jazz Improvisation: Some Assembly Required

Last Monday night, on my way home from a rehearsal with Big Band Nouveau, I got to thinking about how different jazz improvisers sound from each other. In our sax section alone, we have three solo voices, each of them distinct. Mike Doyle,  our lead tenor man and band leader, is an eclectic mix of influences, though I would say that his roots are in hard bop. Isaac Norris, our other tenor player, is working his way into increasing complexity, but he clearly comes out of the smooth jazz tradition. As for me, the lead alto guy, I'm steeped in bebop and hard bop tempered with some of the contemporary concepts of Michael Brecker. All three of us play the saxophone, but each of us plays it differently. And this is true throughout the world of jazz. Hand five seasoned trumpet players the same set of chord changes set to the same groove and backed by the same rhythm section, and each trumpeter will handle those changes in a personal way, using a vocabulary that includes many of the same ideas as the other players, but in an individualized manner; and also incorporating other ideas that are utterly unique to the musician. I used to think there was a "right" way to play jazz, a sort of standardized approach that separated the real deals from the neophytes and the outliers. I don't know where that notion came from. Probably my own black-and-white thinking as a young man, due partly to my need to define things in order to learn them and partly to my tremendous insecurity. Now I realize that jazz improvisation is like a vast arboretum filled with all kinds of trees and plants, with trails that wind across terraces and hillsides, through emerald woodlands, and over sun-gilded meadows. All kinds of beautiful living things grow there, and somewhere in that magnificent landscape is a plot of land you can call your own and grow what you choose to grow. You get the same gardening implements and essentials as everyone else: your instrument, the structural elements of music theory, the legacy of great jazz soloists to learn from, the water of practice, and the rich soil of your own ever-increasing experience. But what you grow with these things is up to you. You start out by learning how to play your instrument. You expand by exploring music theory and how other musicians have applied it to their art. And ultimately, you find your own voice. Your instrument is not your voice. Music theory is not your voice. Technique is not your voice. The styles of other players are not your voice. YOU are your voice. Your voice resides within you, and everything else is just the tools for discovering it, releasing it, and continuing to cultivate it. Jazz does not come pre-assembled. In fact, it is anything but prefab. The best you can say is that all the tools and materials are at your disposal. But the assembly is entirely up to you. Just know this: whatever you come up with--whatever work of art you create, whatever tree you grow in your part of the arboretum--will be exactly the right way for you to play jazz if you work at it with diligence and integrity. Remember, it takes time to grow a tree. Enjoy that tree, that living thing God has entrusted to you, in all its stages. There is no rush, no place to arrive at, only a life experience to invest yourself in. Work hard, but breathe easy--and enjoy yourself.

Ornithology: A Charlie Parker Alto Sax Solo Transcription

OrnithologyThe beboppers of the 1940s and 1950s advanced the use of contrafacts,* and the godfather of bebop, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, used them liberally. After the many tunes he wrote over the chord changes to "I Got Rhythm," the contrafact he probably recorded most was the tune "Ornithology," which utilizes the changes to the old standard, "How High the Moon." I have no idea exactly how many recordings exist of Bird holding forth on "Ornithology." I only know that there are lots. The tune was clearly a favorite vehicle for Parker, and the transcription shown here captures his first 32 bars of an extended flight. I hope to transcribe the rest of it in time, but the process keeps getting interrupted by other priorities, so for now at least, I thought I'd share this much of Bird's solo with you. It's plenty 'nuff to whet your chops on. Charlie Parker not only had a phenomenal technique, but an equally amazing melodic concept. Both are on display here. Just click on the image and enjoy soaring with Bird. If you enjoyed this post, visit my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions for many more transcriptions, licks and technical exercises, and educational articles on jazz. ---------------- * Contrafacts are new melodies set to the harmonies of preexisting tunes.

Building a Baseline of Ability: Revisiting an Oldie-But-Goodie Music Post

The problem with blogging is that old material tends to get buried beneath new posts. Jewels are lurking down there in the sedimentary layers, and they deserve to be brought back to the surface from time to time. Some of them surprise me. I think, Did I write that? It seems like someone else sharing wisdom and encouragement with me that I can benefit from today. Such is a post from back in May 2010, two-and-a-half years ago, which I titled "Mastering the Sax: Building a Baseline of Ability." I hope you will find it helpful and encouraging, as did I in rereading it.

“Round About” Jazz Etude for Bb and C Instruments

Yesterday I published an etude that I wrote based on the chord changes to the Jamey Aebersold tune "Round About." The tune is included in the second CD of the 2-CD set Dominant Seventh Workout (number 84 ins the Aebersold jazz improvisation CD series). Since my instrument is the alto saxophone, it was natural for me to write the etude using the Eb transposition. But of course, the whole world doesn't play Eb instruments. So I promised those of you who play tenor sax, trumpet, flute, and other Bb and concert pitch instruments that I would provide transposed charts for you. Here they are. The top chart is for C instruments and the bottom one is for Bb instruments. Click on the images to enlarge them. If possible, use the Aebersold accompaniment for "Round About" or have a pianist comp for you as you play the etude so you can hear how the lines work with the harmony. If you enjoy these exercises, look here for more, along with insightful articles, transcribed solos, and tips on jazz improv. CORRECTION: Now that this article has been posted for a while, naturally I've noticed a transcription error in the C and Bb charts. (The original Eb chart is fine.) Since you can easily make the correction mentally, I'm going to simply tell you what it is. In measures 3-4 and 19-20, the chord symbol should not contain a sharp sign. The correct chord in both locations is as follows: for the C chart, A7+4; for the Bb chart, B7+4.