Friday, February 9, 2018

Preview: TM Custom Tenor and New Records

Last summer I visited Tenor Madness, one of the main vintage sax shops out there. I played some pristine Mark VIs, a couple relacquered SBAs, and a bunch of other vintage and modern horns. I also played their horn, the TM Custom. I really liked it, but it had rolled tone holes, which typically gives a horn a more spread sound than I'm used to. As a reference point, Selmer horns, like VIs and SBAs, have straight tone holes while Conn 10Ms have rolled tone holes.

I had sold my VI and been on the hunt for an SBA that I could afford. I ended up getting a relacquered SBA from another shop, but after a few days I realized that the sound really thinned out when I pushed it hard, and so I sent it back. My next try was a Selmer Series III, which had ended up being a little too dark sounding and too resistant for me, so I kept looking. While at the JEN conference in Dallas I ran into a buddy, Jeff Pifher, a very good player, who let me play his pristine original SBA (the horn in the linked video). That was an eye opener. It was a great horn, but it wasn't the perfect horn I thought it would be. 

In the meantime Tenor Madness had come out with a straight tone hole horn. I went ahead and bought one, and I've had it for about a month now. It's a fantastic horn, and I'll be writing a detailed review with a video in the near future when things are a bit quieter for me.

I'm also excited for two recording projects that are coming to fruition. A collaborative project, R.O.C. jazz collective, I'm part of will be releasing a EP very soon, and my new record, with a bunch of original tunes, will be out sometime this summer. Lots of exciting things all around.

Lastly, I don't know that I've really said it here on the blog, but I'm teaching jazz and woodwinds now at College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, so anyone out here in the northern mid-west that wants to play, hang, or take a lesson, please let me know! 

Monday, February 5, 2018

"Light On The Other Side" from New EP

I'm super excited to announce a new collaborative recording by myself and some great musicians from Rochester, NY (Sterling Cozza, Oliver Haynes, Stephen Morris, and Jakob Ebers). This is "Light On The Other Side," composed by Sterling. The full EP will be out in the next couple weeks, featuring compositions by myself, Sterling, and Oliver.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review: Quarter Tone Technique for Saxophone

I've been interested in working on quarter tones for a few years now ever since playing with Colin Gordon while we were at Eastman together. When the situation called for it, he'd play these nasty quarter tones lines, and it sounded really great. I've been working on them myself using a new book by Brandon Dixon called Quarter Tone Technique for Saxophone. The book is primarily written from the context of classical saxophone repertoire. However, the technique is universal, and the book is proving to be a fantastic tool.

Pitch and Tone!
For a lot of musicians quarter tones are pretty far out there, and many may not feel musically compelled to tackle them. One of my initial reasons for wanting to shed them was to work on my ear for intonation. As I've practiced quarter tones my ears have definitely opened up. I listen more minutely for pitch, and the sound of a quarter step becomes more and more distinct as I improve.

One thing that came as a complete surprise was the idea that practicing quarter tones makes for a great tone exercise. The book hints at this when it suggests that students have already worked on overtones and altissimo and specifies that overtone technique is vital to playing quarter tones well. As I practiced quarter tones the first time, it quickly became apparent that they required some hefty voicing (subtle tongue position, vocal chord positioning, and other muscle movements that focus the oral cavity), and after a practice session my voicing was more fully engaged, my tone was more alive, and the horn felt easier to play, similar to the result of practicing overtones. It also appears that playing quarter tones uses voicing muscles in different variations than overtones making for new possibilities and fresh practice.

Fingerings, Exercises, etc.
In terms of layout, the book is easy to use. It introduces one quarter tone at a time, giving a number of fingering possibilities and a short set of exercises to cement its sound in your ears and fingering in your muscle memory. The first exercise is typically a linear quarter tone passage. The five exercises that follow use the new quarter tone in various ways, and I find them musical and interesting.

Following the section of quarter tones fingerings and exercises comes a small section with exercises to help you improve your ear and tone production including octave jumps and small intervals within the whole step (quarter tone, half step, 3/4 step). I'm looking forward to tackling these, as I've already sensed an improvement in my ears just working on the quarter tones by themselves.

The next sections consist of scales and chords derived using quarter tones. The chords can be pretty difficult to hear, as they often defy tonal expectations. Next comes a set of etudes that draw on quarter tones. Most of them are based on classical compositional ideas, though one is written in a blues style. Similar to my comment about the chords, these etudes can be difficult to hear as they aren't hinged in tonality or even the normal twelve tones. For some they will prove to be too far out. Really, jazz saxophonists will want to go check out Brecker's and Coltrane's interesting use of alternate fingerings that sometimes sound like quarter tones and Steve Lehman's more intentional use of quarter tones to get an idea of what kind of jazz vocabulary already exists out there in quarter tone land. Lastly, the book also offers a short guide for composing with quarter tones for saxophone, which could be helpful no matter the style.

Brandon has also made some other useful resources available on his website. These include recordings of each of the etudes, an online quarter tone tuner, a quarter tone transposition tool, and a list of classical saxophone repertoire that uses quarter tones.

If you're looking to learn to play quarter tones, this book a great resource for that. It’s also a less explored method for honing your ears, and it has unintentionally proven to be an interesting way to develop tone and voicing technique, which for anyone who has worked overtones ad nauseum, may come as a welcome surprise.

Quarter Tone Technique for Saxophone on Amazon

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Improvising and Ending Your Lines

Sometimes as improvisers we get stuck in a pattern of ending a lot of our lines similarly. Part of the problem there, is that no matter how cool the content of your line was and no matter how different it was from what came before, too much repetition at the end of the line becomes redundant and static-sounding.

One easy way to work on getting more variation in your phrase endings is to practice ending on different spots of the meter or measure. The fairly obvious options are 1, the & of 1, 2. the & of 2, etc. Given the pattern of alternating strong beats and weak beats in 4/4, ending on 1 and 3 will have a very similar feel, ending on the & of 1 or the & 3 will have a similar feel, etc. The basic exercise I'd suggest is to start out by working out some line endings, either on the horn or even on paper, that end in these different spots. Here is what I came up with:

PDF version
Recording on tenor

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Negative Harmony Made Kind of Easy

I realize I'm coming a little late to the negative harmony scene, but after seeing everyone get excited it about it, I thought people would appreciate a breakdown of the basics. If you haven't watched the interviews with Jacob Collier, definitely check those out to see what sparked people's recent interest.

Inversion is...
The idea behind negative harmony is that there is a inversion-related world of harmony that can be accessed through inverting notes around an axis. An axis is an imaginary center point, either a single note or two notes a half step apart (more on the two notes in a bit), which allows you to measure the intervals above and below it. When you invert a pitch around an axis you simply measure the interval between that note and the axis and then find the note that is equally distant from the axis in the opposite direction. For example, if your axis is the pitch C and you want to invert the pitch D, you measure the interval between C and D, which D is a whole step above C. Then you find the pitch a whole step below C, which is Bb. Likewise, a major third above C (E) would invert into a major third below C (Ab), and so on. What is above is mirrored below through inversion, and vice versa.

In negative harmony, you use an axis that allows us to keep the same tonality. In other words, when you invert the I chord, you want to it to stay a I chord, more or less. For C major, this axis is the pair of notes Eb and E. When you measure intervals above the axis you use the higher pitch, E, and when you measure intervals below you use the lower pitch, Eb. Also, when you invert E, it turns into Eb, and vice versa. This example shows all of the notes in C major (above), starting with the axis pitches, and each notes inversion (below). 

Inverting Chords
Using this axis, a C major triad inverts into a C minor triad, and so a I chord turns into a i chord, keeping our general tonal center stable. This allows us to invert other chords in progressions that arrive to a I chord and still get good voice leading. More on that later. In the example below, you can see how each note inverts. The G inverts to a C, the C inverts to a G, and the E inverts to an Eb.

It's interesting and helpful to note that all major triads invert into minor triads no matter the axis. This is because the intervals simple get flipped. If we step away from negative harmony for a moment and return our axis on the note C, you'll find that the notes of a C major triad, C, E, and G invert into C, Ab, and F, the notes of an F minor triad. Where before there was a major 3rd above the axis a minor third above that, now there is a major third below the axis and a minor third below that. Similarly, under any inversion all major chords become minor chords and all minor chords become major.

Now you have the tools to invert any chord in C negative harmony, but to make things kind of easier, here is a chart showing the inversion of all the diatonic triads in C major negative harmony.

Voice Leading
One of the important features of negative harmony, is that the voice leading for a chord progression stays the same, in a way, under inversion. In the example below I have a ii-V-I and its inversion, a bVII-vi-i. From the ii to the V chords you have one common tone and two pitches that move upward by whole step. Similarly, in negative harmony you have one common tone and two pitches that move downward by whole step from the bVII chord to the iv chord. From the V chord to the I chord there is one common tone, one pitch moves upward by half step, and one pitch moves upward by whole step. In the inversion, iv to i, there is one common tone, one pitch moves downward by half step, and one pitch moves downward by whole step. The voice leading is similar, though the direction the voices move and which members of the chord move do change.

Sixth and Seventh Chords
If we extend the harmony there are some basic patterns there too. Major sevenths invert into minor sixths and vice versa, and minor sevenths invert into major 6ths and vice versa. For example, Cmaj7 inverts into Cmin(b6), and C7 inverts into Cmin6 as shown below.

Have Fun
The point of all of this is to experiment and find new chord progressions. My example here is based on a ii-V-I. I inverted the ii-V and got Bbmaj6 and Fmin6 and then left my tonal center C major alone. This example only uses diatonic chords in the original progression but you can invert chromatic chords too like V7 of ii or tritone substitutions, etc. Try things out and see what you like. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

New Video: Alone Together

Here is a video of the jazz standard Alone Together I recorded with Blake Pattengale for his booking company, Gray Bookings. It starts off low key and just builds from there.

Battling the Sticky G-sharp Key

The sticky G-sharp is probably the most common mechanical problem for saxophonists. Usually, a quick cleaning with pad cleaning paper or a dollar bill does the trick, but it can become a real problem if it starts sticking soon after you clean it. Here are some additional fixes to consider.

Unstick the Pad
The conventional wisdom that gets passed around is to clean the pad with pad paper or a dollar bill, but a bit of liquid soap and water  (or just some water in a real pinch) can go a long way. Use a toothbrush if you can to be thorough. If you are in a bind and need to play immediately, then I would suggest not dry cleaning the pad afterward, or dry cleaning and then reapplying the liquid soap and water. The soap's slipperiness helps keep the pad unstuck and ready to go. However, Dr. G over on Saxontheweb suggested that liquid soap can gum up when it dries and make things worse. I haven't had this problem, but to be on the safe side make sure to use only a little bit of soap and a lot of water. Alternatively, lighter fluid or hydrogen peroxide can also be helpful in cleaning the pad. Dr. G also suggested something called Runyon Pad Dope, which seals the pad and helps avoid sticking (I don't have any personal experience with this stuff).

Similar to liquid soap, a little bit of light oil will also keep the pad unstuck. Use an oil applicator to get the oil right onto the pad groove. Do not use cork grease. That gums up the pad and just makes it stick more (believe me, I've tried it). Both the soap and water method and the oil method keep the pad unstuck for a longer period than the dry cleaning method.

The dry cleaning method with a dollar bill or pad paper does have its advantages though. It can remove grime from off the pad or the tone hole ridge. When you clean the pad with paper/bill make sure to apply pressure onto the G-sharp key cup, making it more difficult to pull the paper/bill out from between the pad and the tone hole. That gives your paper/bill more leverage against grime or whatever is coming off. 

Avoiding Buildup
A last fix is to put some absorbent paper between the pad and the tone hole when storing the horn. This helps keep the pad and tone hole cleaner all around, reducing stickiness.

Increasing the Spring Tension
G# spring bending freely.
G# spring in its normal position
If you have a reoccurring problem, something that comes back within minutes of cleaning, and your G-sharp key feels very light, you should consider increasing the spring tension. When you press the G-sharp key, it lifts a small mechanical arm that allows the G-sharp pad to open. There is a metal spring that lifts the G-sharp pad and key cup, and sometimes it just needs a little extra power. You can increase the pressure by simply bending the spring in the direction of lift. This is a pretty simple procedure, so take it easy and just give it a shot. However, you should be aware that increasing the tension by too much will make it so the entire set of spatula keys requires more pressure, so easy does it here. Also, this should only be considered a long term fix if the spring tension was too light to begin with.

First, find the spring that lifts, or is suppose to, life the G-sharp pad open. Depending on your saxophone the easiest access to the spring may be on the left or right side of the bell. Then, lift the spring off of the little metal protrusion holding it in place and let it bend freely. Next, bend the spring near its base further in the same direction that opens the G-sharp pad. Repair techs generally bend the spring with needle nose pliers or a similar tool, but anything will work in a pinch including your fingers. Don't put a crimp in the spring or overbend. All that is needed is a slight adjustment. Next, applying pressure at the end of the spring, so as not to undo the work you just did, put the spring back against the little metal protrusion where you found it. Again, repair techs use a spring hook tool, but you can do it with just your fingers if you have to. It seats easily into the little ridge, and your G-sharp key is now ready to go again, now with more pressure!

Power Combo
All of the above will get your G-sharp key functioning better. If you have a reoccurring and frustrating G-sharp problem, then I'd suggest the following process: 
  1. If the spring tension is too light, bend the spring as outlined above.
  2. Clean with liquid soap, water, and toothbrush.
  3. Dry clean a few times with a fresh dollar bill or pad cleaning paper.
  4. Apply some light oil.
If that doesn't do it, stop chewing gum and playing sax at the same time!