Friday, October 25, 2019

Rereleased Recordings and Something on the Way

I'm happy to share couple of exciting things. First, I have a new recording coming out, hopefully before the end of the year, called Tane and Anahera. It features a set of tunes for octet and quintet, and the octet music is based on a sci-fi epic that I've written (or least written in my head!). The music has a decidedly futuristic vibe, and the band is fantastic. I'm pumped to share the music with you all.

Second, I've rereleased my recordings. I've had various mishaps with releases in the past, and now they are all cleaned up and available on all of the mainstream music platforms (Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, etc.).

ROC Jazz Collective
This recording was made in 2017, and it features some great musicians who were all in Rochester, NY at the time. The recording features Sterling Cozza on piano, Olivery Haynes on Trumpet, Jakob Ebers on Bass, Stephen Morris on drums, and myself on sax. Oliver, Sterling, and myself contributed compositions for the recording, and my two tunes are Life Pass and Striving. Give it a listen:

Children at Play
This 2011 EP was recorded in Philadelphia with Gabe Globus-Hoenich on drums, Jordan Berger on bass, Matt Davis on guitar, John Britton on trumpet, and myself on sax. The tunes are all my writing, and they were some of my favorites that this band played. We performed regularly in Philly, and we also played in NYC and D.C. The music on the recording is an eclectic mix of jazz, rock, and Afro-Cuban. Here are the links: 
This was my first recording as a leader. My brother John and I co-led the recording with a great group of NYC-based musicians. The rhythm section features Jeremy Siskind on piano, Austin Walker on drums, and Taylor Waugh on bass. We also invited Chris Potter to play on two of the tracks from the album, my composition Ducks In a Row, and my brother's composition Anticipation. The recording turned out great, and we also had a big release show in NYC that Chris joined us for. You can see a transcription of his solo on Confirmation from the performance below. Here are links to the album:

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Kenny Garrett & Jazz Articulation

One of the subjects that doesn't get enough attention from jazz teachers is articulation. I've posted guidelines for it before here. Today's post is a follow up with a transcription. I thought I'd show the alto players some love, so I took a Kenny Garrett transcription, and transcribed the articulation. Here is the solo from Song 8 (solo starts around 57 seconds, and it's burning):

And here is a link to a PDF of the transcription.

You'll notice some unconventional markings on the transcription. I've used the letter d to mark notes that are tongued with a doodle tongue. A doodle tongue is essentially when a player gently places their tongue on the reed off-center for the entire duration of a note. This creates an articulation at the beginning of the note, mutes the note, and then pops out the next note when you release the tongue. Both of these techniques are integral to jazz saxophone articulation. They've been around for a hundred years, and they are rarely taught or marked on transcriptions. In fact, this is the first time I've wrote them out myself.

You will also see the notation (s s) under notes. For these, subtone both of the notes. Also, doodle tongue the first note, and hold the tongue on the reed through both notes. Because you are also subtoning, you will likely need to use the tip of your tongue. Release the tongue to articulate the note that follows.

Hopefully, this transcription helps you figure out some of the more subtle parts of playing improvised jazz. Good luck!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Podcast Interview

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Nick Maneila on the Everything Saxophone Podcast. We talked about my books on sound and overtones along with some of the new techniques I’ve been developing.

You can check it out here:

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition

For those of you who haven't heard, there is a new sax competition starting this year in memory of Michael Brecker. There has been an extension on the application process, so you can enter until April 30. There is serious prize money involved ($12,500 first prize), and a chance to perform at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.

To be eligible you need to be 30 or younger as of July 1, 2019, and you cannot have had a signed record deal. See the website for more details.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Basics of Voicing

In my last post I wrote about the a data-rich, super-awesome saxophone book, From the Inside Out. In that post, I explained the basic concept that adjusting your tongue and vocal cord position affects the sound and pitch of the saxophone. Many players, including my past self, have the misconception that air speed or air direction are the fundamental processes in voicing, but as the book shows, it's actually tuning the resonance of the vocal tract that is important. What everyone was right about all along is that you accomplish this through tongue and vocal cord position.

What is Voicing?
Voicing consists of adjustments done inside your mouth and body that affect saxophone playing. These adjustments include tongue positions, vocal cord position, and how open or closed your vocal cords are. Voicing is necessary to get a stable and good tone across the range of the saxophone, and it's important to developing a personal sound, virtuosity, and extended techniques.

For the low notes the tongue is high in the back of the mouth, similar to saying a long u vowel (as in "you"), but the front and middle of the tongue are lower than the back. Obviously, the front of the tongue needs to be below the reed. As you move higher the tongue pivots towards the reed. From the fluoroscopic images (basically x-ray) in From the Inside Out, it's clear that the back of the tongue also lowers for the middle register and then comes back up a bit for the palm keys.

The vocal cords are a bit more elusive, but there are some tendencies. Perhaps most importantly, there are tendencies across the saxophone family for how open or closed your vocal cords are. For example, for low notes the vocal cords are more open, like when you take a deep breath, inhaling through your mouth. For the middle register, the vocal cords are somewhat open. For the palm keys they move very close together, like whispering an "h" sound.

The vocal cords also pivot up and down. It's notable that most of the saxophone's range across all the saxophone family generally have a higher than at-rest or relaxed vocal cord position. For example, while playing low notes the voice box is generally a bit lower than the middle register of the saxophone (the exception being the soprano sax), your vocal cord position should still higher than the voice box's relaxed or at-rest position. Following are the tendencies for vocal cord position throughout the entire range. Focusing on just the first register (without the octave key), on tenor and baritone, the voice box raises as you ascend through the first register until you switch registers and engage the octave key. On soprano and alto, the voice box does the opposite and lowers as you ascend through the first register. As you ascend and switch registers to D with the octave key, all of the saxes except the alto show the voice box lowering (the alto has the voice box rising at this transition). As the saxophone ascends towards the palm key register, the soprano maintains a similar vocal cord position, the alto and tenor both show slightly lowering voice box position, and the baritone shows a raising voice box.  For the palm keys, all the saxophones, except soprano which shows a raising voice box, show the voice box lowers in comparison to the middle range. Needless to say, it's complicated and it's certainly not uniform across baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano.

Octave Jumps
One way to introduce manipulating voicing is to change the octave of a note without the octave key using either tongue position or vocal cord position. Try the following exercise:

Start with a low E or F, and then as you play move your vocal cords close together, like you are whispering an "h" sound. Simultaneously, move your tongue closer toward the reed. As you combine these two movement the upper octave will sound without engaging the octave key.

There you have it, two basic movements of voicing. Of course, it's much more complicated then these two exercises let on, but they are a good start to understanding the flexibility you have. Practicing these independently for just a few minutes today made me more aware of my voicing and allowed me to get up to 4th octave Bb (4 octaves above low Bb), using conventional alissimo fingerings, something I've never done comfortably before.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tongue and vocal chord position: Myth vs. Reality!

I've recently read From the Inside Out, a book that I feel is one of the most important contributions to saxophone playing and teaching ever. The author, Mark Watkins, has spent 23 years researching the inner workings of saxophone playing. He's taken myriads of fluoroscopy videos, essentially x-ray videos, showing what happens in your body as you play the saxophone. He also used in-mouth cameras and sensors to measure airspeed to investigate the physiology and physics of sax playing. The book was just published last year, and Watkins has also made a series of videos accompanying the book available which show the inner workings of various fundamental and extended techniques.

Myths: Airspeed and Direction
In the first chapter of the book, Watkins challenges the common conceptions of speeding up the air or changing the direction of the airflow with the tongue or vocal cords. Changing airspeed with the tongue has always been my go-to explanation of voicing. Like many others, I've always thought that you raise the tongue to speed up the air, essentially shooting it at the mouthpiece. Watkins destroys this misconception and argues that tongue and vocal cord position, instead of affecting airflow speed or direction, affect the acoustics of the vocal tract with a resulting effect on your saxophone playing. It's an argument rooted in physics and his research that proves itself even more useful to saxophone playing than traditional voicing pedagogy (i.e. the traditional take on tongue and vocal cord position).

For example, the typical pedagogy is that the higher the note, the faster the air needs to be. Essentially, the tongue should be high enough to create a fast enough airstream to execute high notes. Meanwhile back in reality, sensors close to the reed show that airspeed does not increase for higher notes. In fact, for some professional saxophonists, the airspeed slightly decreases in the upper register. Using fluoroscopy imaging, Watkins also shows that the tongue isn't necessarily getting higher in the mouth for high notes. Similarly, he shows that the idea of changing the direction of the air with the tongue doesn't work physiologically, and references acousticians who demonstrate that the diffusion of air before it reaches the reed makes airflow direction negligible. However, both of these mistaken notions point to the very correct idea that moving your tongue is essential for good saxophone playing.

Reality: Tuning the Vocal Tract
What research has shown is that the position of your tongue and vocal cords tune the vocal tract, meaning the space in your mouth and throat back to your vocal cords. That tuning affects the sound, pitch, etc. that the saxophone produces. If the tuning is bad enough the notes won't sound (think low or high notes that don't speak nicely).

To very briefly sum up the general tendencies Watkins found, for low notes the back of the tongue is high in the mouth, and as you ascend in pitch the tongue moves forwards towards the reed and lowers for the middle register and raises a bit for the palm keys. The vocal cords are somewhat open for low and middle register notes and very close together for high notes. I found this very interesting because I'd arrived at fairly similar conclusions for tongue position, but I was pretty ignorant of how the vocal cords operated.

In a future post, I'll go into more specifics on the research on voicing and what I've found in practicing and teaching. For now, just obliterating the common idea about airspeed is good enough for one post!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Some Cool Saxophone Books: The Saxophone, Planet Sax, Developing a Personal Sound

I've been checking out a bunch of sax books recently, and I wanted to share a few.

The Saxophone: The Art and Science of Playing and Performing
This is a very interesting book. It was just published a couple of years ago, and it introduces quite a few new concepts and methods for learning and playing saxophone. Some of the concepts, new and familiar, that I've enjoyed include:

  • Readying abdominal support before starting to play.
  • Using your vocal cords to help start a note cleanly (especially helpful for the low register).
  • Using your vocal cords to double tongue.
  • Practicing with a double lip embouchure to encourage a high tongue position.
  • Using concepts from singing to learn voicing.
There are lots more, but those have been my favorite so far.  Some of the concepts seem to overreach in terms of too much specificity. For example, Harle suggests that you need to direct your air in very specific ways for each note, but the overall concepts are beneficial. I should also say that while Harle's pedagogy is very interesting, it's not up to date with the current research on acoustic processes involved in playing saxophone. For example, there is no evidence that saxophonists can meaningfully direct their air while playing, though there is a lot of evidence that the actions players take to 'direct' their air affect the acoustics of the vocal tract and resulting sound and response. That being said, there's plenty to take away and learn here.

It's also worth mentioning that this book is written from the perspective of a classical saxophonist, Not only that, but it's written specifically with soprano and alto in mind. While the author, John Harle, does say that the book is meant for saxophonists of all styles, there are some parts that I haven't agreed with. For example, Harle suggests that a clarinet-like angled entry for the mouthpiece best supports airflow and results in your best sound (think higher neck strap position and pulling the butt of the sax towards you). However, it's difficult to get the crisp, flexible, and vibrant sound jazz players get using that angle, though Dave Sanborn would beg to differ. In short, the book has a few concepts that lend towards a classical saxophone school of thought.

The book available in a very nice 2 volume box set, and it's definitely worth checking out though.

Planet Sax: 26 Etudes for the Maturing Student
Sam Tobias sent me a copy of his new and very fun book to review. It's intended for middle school and high school saxophonists, but adult intermediate students will find that it's a good challenge and good music. The etudes explore lots of rhythmic aspects, large interval leaps, various registers of the horn, lots of key signatures, some unfamiliar modes, and each etude has its own unique style. I'll personally be using these etudes with students who are working on improving their reading skills, as it's a great fit for that. My only complaint with the book is that some of the swing etudes feel like they aren't fluent in the actual style, though I think that may be a result of the concepts the etudes are focusing on. Overall, I highly recommend this book for intermediate level saxophonists looking for a good musical challenge.

Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound
This book is a classic that I've been revisiting. The author, Dave Liebman, intended it as a summary of his experience teaching and playing and his time with Joe Allard, an important teacher for many jazz and classical saxophonist and clarinetists. If you haven't checked out Joe Allard's teaching, you definitely should. Liebman, of course, has his own take and a very easily understood approach.

Highlights from the book include breathing exercises based in yoga, tongue position and voicing, overtone exercises, an Allard-inspired concept of embouchure, and an approach for learning jazz-centric expressive devices. While some of Liebman's explanations of how saxophonists voice notes are outdated, all of the exercises are very good. I highly recommend this book to jazz saxophonists working on developing their sound and technique.