Monday, December 26, 2011

Phil-Tone Equinox Tenor Mouthpiece Reviewed

Today I'd like to present a lesser known brand of mouthpiece, Phil-Tone. I recently heard about the brand, and now I've had the opportunity to try their newest model for tenor, the Equinox. The best introduction I can give this piece is that it is one of the extremely few hand crafted mouthpieces with a very reasonable price.

The Equinox' warmth, brightness, and power make it a flexible and usable piece. Most importantly it has a well balanced and unique tone with its own mix of dark and bright tone qualities. While having an overall round sound the piece has plenty of volume which results in a healthy projection and definition of sound.

The great construction and design of the mouthpiece give it a consistent playability throughout the range of the horn extending up into the altissimo register. The Equinox has a certain free blowing feel which is a great balance between power and expression. You can really push the piece without any distortion in the sound, and at the same time inflection and expression come easily. I will warn that the mouthpiece does have such an expressive ability that it could be easily exaggerated. Someone coming from a less easily inflected mouthpiece should expect a transition period in this respect.

Overall, this is a great mouthpiece. I'd like to add that I had a noticeable transition while my embouchure got use to this mouthpiece. This piece most likely has a slightly longer facing than my Otto Link which resulted in my adjustment period. Transitions and adjustments are necessary and expected with almost any new piece of equipment so no surprise there.

Here is a sound clip on the Equinox:
Blues Excerpt on the Phil-Tone Equinox

Conclusion: This is an affordable handmade mouthpiece with a flexible and unique tone.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Selmer Mark VI Reviewed

After recently acquiring a Selmer Mark VI I thought it was only appropriate that I write a review of the horn considering it is arguably the single most important model in the history of the saxophone. After only spending two weeks on it I have to admit that I am floored by a saxophone I once thought over hyped. A lot has been said about these horns and I know I'm being a little redundant, but I feel like I can still add a little something to the conversation.

I'd like to start with the horns strongest points which, in my opinion, are its overtone thick sound and its supportive response. The tone is dark and bright all at the same time, and it sounds especially alive when compared side by side with various other horns. One of the really cool things I have found is no matter what acoustical space I'm playing in or what reed I'm using I feel like I get a full and vibrant tone when listening from behind the horn (while playing). Those perceptions have also proven correct when I have heard the same or better back on a recording. To top it off the Mark VI has plenty of carrying power and punch while the tone remains warm and beautiful.

I would characterize the feeling of blowing through the horn as being supportive and responsive. It's not as free blowing as other models (low resistance or back pressure was one of the qualities that I admired in my Selmer Super Balanced Action), however the horn works extremely efficiently with my air. At first I felt the slightly more resistant feel was hand cuffing me, but after hearing a few recordings of myself on the Mark VI I am convinced that the horn is simply putting my air to better use making it easier to produce a full sound 100% of the time. I am also convinced that the horn is more responsive making it easier to play more fluidly, more technically, and more expressively. It has taken a little getting use to, but it has definitely been worth the effort.

Other strong points include solid intonation and comfortable keywork. Something I'm not quite enamored with is the right hand thumb rest. I haven't quite adjusted to it and my thumb gets fairly uncomfortable during long periods of playing.

I would also like to throw my two cents down on a couple of other issues. My particular Mark VI is a factory relaquer and had a pick up in the neck at some point. I've played around eight Mark VIs very recently, including a pristine completely original 5 digit Mark VI, and my relaquer & neck pickup VI completely measures up to every other VI I've played. I just thought I'd let you know before you go drop 12 grand on a horn! That being said I did play a Mark VI that had braces built onto the side of the neck and that was a terribly dead horn. Do be cautious because there are certainly bad VIs out there. 

I know there are hundreds of recordings of players on Mark VIs, but I thought I'd give you a few clips which you can compare to my other reviews.

Solo on Black Narcissus (comp. Joe Henderson)
Solo and melody out on Fall (comp. Wayne Shorter)

Conclusion: Selmer's Mark VI truly is a fantastic sounding and fantastic playing horn. Depending on what you are use to playing there might be a transition period, but it has definitely been worth it in my case.

Friday, December 2, 2011

P. Mauriat 66R Tenor Sax Reviewed

Recently I had the chance to really get to know a P. Mauriat 66R Tenor, which was a very positive learning experience. The horn has a large number of strong points, and only a couple of weak points. This particular saxophone is on my list of favorite modern horns, which is a very very short list.

One of the 66R's strongest points is the fact that blowing through the horn feels extremely similar to a vintage horn.  There is only a very light back pressure to the horn similar to a Mark VI or SBA. The amount of sound out for effort in is well balanced. Basically, its easy to scream or play at a whisper, and the horn is very easy to inflect and achieve your personal sound on.

The keywork of the horn feels great. I played this horn for a week, and by the time I was done I preferred the keywork and setup over my SBA and it felt weird going back. I played 4 different P. Mauriat tenors, and of the 4 only 1 had the spring pressure set up uncomfortably heavy. The 66R that I spent the week playing felt near perfect in terms of the keywork and setup.

The intonation of the horn is also very good. The palm keys require less work that I'm accustomed to keep in tune, and there were a number of other notes and registers on the horn that felt like it took less work to keep in tune. At the same time, the horn does have potential problems with intonation for different reasons, which I'll explain shortly.

The sound of the tenor is sweet, warm, vibrant, and big. The horn definitely projects as well. All of this should add up to a near perfect horn, however there is an Achilles' heel. The sound of the horn is SO warm that it doesn't quite have enough punch or edge to keep the player behind the horn completely informed of the sound. This interprets into having some difficulty hearing yourself clearly when playing very fast. There is also potential danger of intonation problems in result of this sound attribute. Finally, it also means that you have a kind of fixed warmth to your sound, which some players will dig and others won't. Every saxophone has its particular characteristic sound, and it's something you'll either love or won't.

Here are two clips from a live performance on this horn live at Twins Jazz in D.C.
AloneTogether66Solo.mp3      IsotopeSolo.mp3

Conclusion: This is a fantastic modern horn that blows like a vintage horn. It has great keywork and good intonation. The sound is sweet and vibrant, however it will be too warm for some players.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Recording and Perception

Artistic beauty is difficult to pinpoint. Being extremely subjective, it can vary from one end of a spectrum to another depending on the individual. Beyond that the individual's vision and perception of beauty can be a changing measure. As musicians we listen for particular sounds that attract us, and the evolving musician, the active and seeking musician, learns to hear new facets of sound and expands or refines his or her personal definition of beauty in sound. An evolving perception of sound enables the musician to overcome barriers and enter new soundscapes previously unheard by that individual.

Just as the rest of art and music, the sound of the saxophone is interpreted differently by different listeners. No matter the interpretation an evolving perception of sound enables the saxophonist to reach beyond his or her current capacity. A beginner player is not capable of hearing the nuances in intonation or clarity of tone that a more experienced player hears, and for that reason the beginner more often plays out of tune or with a muddied sound. Hearing sound more deeply enables progression and evolution as saxophonists and musicians.

This is where my personal journey comes in. The times I have made the most progress as a saxophonist have been two time periods following being recorded professionally. Each time during the session I heard my sound on the recording more honestly than I'd been hearing it while playing, and each time I heard a defect or something about my sound I didn't like. From there I was able to hear and identify that quality while I was playing and begin to address it. I've been writing this blog for a year, and that has meant a year of regularly recording myself. During this time period I have had many of those sound realizations on a small scale, and all together they've made a huge difference. I've made strides in the clarity, control, and nuance of my sound.

I think it's important to point out that I didn't just listen more carefully. I identified the problem in the sound, and then experimented using my knowledge of saxophone technique gained through private study and masterclasses, through studying great players' sounds and approaches, through my own experimenting, and, significantly, through studying the knowledge that survived Joe Allard. The process has been trial and error in many respects, but it has been a continuous and definite progression forward.

Just as an illustration, following are two clips. The first is a recording made about a year ago when I first started the blog, and the second is from my most recent blog post. I'd also like to mention that these recordings were made on the same horn, mouthpiece, and brand of reed.

Early Recording     Recent Recording

Friday, October 28, 2011

Rico Jazz Select Filed Revisited

Sometime last year I reviewed Rico Jazz Select Reeds, and I've recently tried the Filed version again so I wanted to post an update. I accidentally purchased two boxes at the store, and before I realized my mistake I had opened the box! Disappointed I had made such a blatant mistake I slapped one on anyways, and there was something alluring about the sound. I've practiced with them this week, and decided to re-review them this week.

Here is a quick list of the highlights:
  • Clear & balanced sound
  • Sufficient punch or edge created by the reed
  • Fairly easy to keep a clear sound even after embouchure fatigue
This combination creates a reed that is malleable and easily shaped by the player, as opposed to reed that shaped the player's sound for him or her. The RJS filed reeds are much like a mouthpiece with a medium baffle that sometimes offers a wider sound palette than one with a high baffle.

As far as consistency goes, if you expect the same you get from most brands of reeds you'll be happy. Here are a couple clips from a recent playtest.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chris Potter's Solo on "Ducks in a Row"

In 2009 my brother John and I recorded our debut album, Uncertain Living, and asked Chris Potter to guest on a couple tracks. We were floored when he agreed to do it, and when it came time to record we were doubly floored by his playing. So much, in fact, that we transcribed his solos. I personally transcribed his solo on my composition "Ducks in a Row." Following are a link to an mp3 clip of the solo (I'm only sharing because I own the copyright to the music), links to the transcription for Bb, concert, and Eb instruments, and a fairly thorough analysis of Potter's solo.

MP3 ClipChris Potter's Solo on Ducks in a Row.mp3
Transcription PDFsTranscription in BbTranscription in CTranscription in Eb


Note: I'll be referring to the Bb Tenor transcription in the analysis.

Harmonic Approaches

There are three main harmonic approaches found in this solo. One is Potter’s use of both chord tones and upper extensions of the chord to form basic musical building blocks with a different tonal center than the original root of the chord. Another is the anticipation and delayed resolution of certain chords. The last is his ability to create chord progressions that coast over the top of the original underlying chord. He uses this approach to melodically and logically arrive at destinations far away from the original chord and then to get himself back again.

The first two approaches are used primarily in the solo’s first section, which happens over a moving chord progression. Following are examples of the first approach in which chord tones and upper extensions become other musical sounds. Potter extracts a number of different sounds from these chords, and one of the most prominent is the pentatonic scale and its variations. In measure 1, Potter plays notes forming an F minor pentatonic scale (F Ab Bb C Eb) over an original F#Major7(#11)/F chord. The F minor pentatonic scale is formed using the 7th, 9th, 3rd, 11th, and 6th of the F#Major7. Because this is a slash chord the bass is playing an F and the F minor pentatonic sounds strong and natural. Potter uses a filled out F minor sound in measures 5 and 7 over the same F#Major7 chord. On the F#Major7 in measure 3 Potter uses a Bb minor pentatonic scale (Bb Db Eb F Ab), which uses the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th of the F#Major7. In measure 15, on the same chord, he uses a simplified Bb minor sound. In measure 9 on beat 3, during the same chord, he outlines an Eb minor arpeggio (Eb Gb Bb Db), which uses the 6th, root, 3rd, and 5th of the original chord. These same type of formations are used over the other major chords that occur throughout the solo up until the vamp, which starts in measure 25.

Dominant chords receive a necessarily different treatment. A D713(#9) in measure 12 has both a B minor triad (B D F#) and an Ab Triad (Ab C Eb), which use the 6th, root, and 3rd, and the #11th, 7th, and b9th of the D7. Potter plays an A major pentatonic b6 scale (A B C# E F) over the G7(#11) in bar 18 using the 9th, 3rd, #11th, 13th, and 7th of the chord. In the first half of both measures 23 and 24, Ab13#11 and Bb13#11 respectively, there are augmented major 7 arpeggios based on the 7th, 9th, #11th, and 13th of each chord. Potter plays a major arpeggio off the 9th, #11th, and 13th on the second half of measure 23, and on the second half of measure 24 he plays a variation using an augmented triad instead off the 9th, #11th, and 7th. Generally there are a lot of triadic colors of all types as well as a few extended colors.

The delayed resolutions and anticipations happen consistently in the first section of the solo. The first anticipation occurs in measure 4 which is a D13(#9). The last half of beat 4 includes the note Db which does not relate to the D13(#9), but it is the 5th of the chord that follows in measure 5. In measure 6, which is DbMaj7#5, there is an Ab on beat 4. Ab, technically dissonant to DbMaj7#5, works as an anticipation being the 9th of the F#Maj7#11 that comes in the following bar. In bar 7, an anticipation on the last half of beat four includes the two notes of E triad, B and G#. The B only works in context of the chord that follows in bar 8, an F#min7 chord. In bar 8 (F#min7), the 4th includes an A# as a resolution, which is an anticipation to the F#Maj7#11 in bar 9. Beat 4 of bar 9 (F#Maj7#11) includes the notes G and A as part of a clear DbMaj7#5 sound in anticipation of that chord in bar 10. There is a possible anticipation using an Ab major triad (Ab C Eb) on beat 4 of measure 12, which also works as an altered sound over the measure’s chord D13(#9), but the Ab triad could also be seen as an anticipation of the F#Maj7#11 in the following bar. Another anticipation occurs on the second half of beat 4 of bar 15, where a D is played foreshadowing the E713(b9) that follows in the next bar. These are all the significant anticipations in the solo.

Delayed resolutions happen less often, but they are another way Potter varies harmonic rhythm. The first delayed resolution happens on the first beat of bar 3 (F#Maj7#11) where he continues to play the same DbMaj7(b6) sound that he played in bar 2 (DbMaj7#5). The other delayed resolution happens in bar 21 (EbMaj7b5) on the first beat where Potter plays an Ab minor triad (Ab B Eb), which is a continuation of the Dbmin11 sound that happens in the preceding bar. There is also one instance in bar 10 where not only is the chord from the preceding bar (F#Maj7#11) continued over the DbMaj7, but the resolution could be argued to not come until beat 3 or 4 or even not at all. Delayed resolutions, though few, do play a part in creating the malleable harmonic canvas of the solo.

When measure 25 hits a D7 vamp begins, and Potter switches his harmonic approach and begins to create progressions that shift over top of the vamp to explore territories that have some, little, or no relationship to the original D7. The first hint is given in measure 29, which starts out with an enclosure of the 5th (A) of the chord but then shifts to an enclosure of Bb and then Eb suggesting an EbMaj7#11. The Eb tonality is resolved back to the D7 in the following measure much like a tritone substitution resolving to its I chord. The Eb material could be drawn from either the D altered scale (D Eb F F# G# A# C) or from an actual shift in the implied harmony to EbMaj7#11. In measure 34 Potter plays on Ab Major or F minor and then continues to Bbmin7 in the following measure. The Bb minor is then resolved back to the D7. Since Bb minor shares so much in common with Eb7 the resolution back to D7 is again very similar to a tritone sub resolution. In measure 36 Potter picks right back up with the Bbmin7 and resolves it to an E tonality accentuating the consonant notes E and B only. Following on beat 4 of measure 37 and continuing on into measure 38 Potter descends a minor 3rd to DbMaj7#11 foreshadowing the descending minor 3rd motion that happens in measure 39. Following the DbMaj7#11 material he moves to an Eb7 tonality. The Eb7 is resolved in the following measure but only for a moment. In measure 39 Potter moves through a progression of tonalities descending in minor 3rds spending only 2 notes on each tonality. This is the bare minimum of the 5th moving to the root. The progression moves through the tonalities D, B, F and D, but then he breaks from the pattern by defining a B minor triad on beat 4 and then moving down to Bb minor in measure 40. This entire progression is ended by a climatic ascension back into D7 in measure 41.

Coming into measure 45 Potter begins his harmonic explorations again. The last three 16th notes of measure 44 (Ab B F) define an Ab dimished triad, which is used to tonicize the augmented Eb triad which comes on beat 1 of measure 45. The Eb augmented triad is decorated with neighbor tones, and it is followed by consecutive ascending parallel sounds seen very clearly by the top note of each phrase which ascend in whole steps. Because augmented triads are symmetrical at the Major 3rd they each could be called by 3 different names, but for the sake of simplicity I will refer to them from their lowest note which also happens to be the first note of each phrase. The ascending parallel sounds consist of the original Eb augmented triad at the beginning of measure 45, followed by an A augmented tonality, and in the second half of measure 46 a B augmented triad completes the parallel ascending sounds. The first tonality could be alternately analyzed as an Abmin(Maj7) when analyzed starting from the Ab at the end of measure 44. This alternate analysis illustrates the ascending voice leading which happens with the lowest note of each consecutive phrase (Ab to A to B). Combining the augmented triads in measure 45 results in the Eb whole tone scale, which could have been the source for this progression. This Eb7#5 again suggests the tritone sub of the V chord, which is exactly what we get as the final B augmented triad resolves to an A half-diminished in measure 47 with a neighboring Ab diminished triad in the second half of the measure, which resolves through descending half step voice leading (B on beat 4, Bb on the and of 4, and A on beat 1 of) back to D7 in 48.

Potter finds another point of departure in measure 51 where he superimposes F7 which continues through measure 52. A fully diminished F#7 arpeggio is introduced in Measure 53 which becomes an Ab7#9 arpeggio. On beat 2 of measure 54 there is a quick appearance of an E major arpeggio which is followed by an F#min7 arpeggio continuing through the end of the measure. This is followed by a descending Emin7 arpeggio in measure 55 and then an Ebmin7 arpeggio. Following, in measure 56, comes Bb minor pentatonic, and from here we get our familiar resolution from Bb minor to D7.

The last significant harmonic departure comes in the second half of measure 67. On beat 3 there is a quick appearance of a B tonality (B and D# only), which shifts to Ab major going into measure 68. The Ab major is followed by Db major, which resolves back up to D7. The Db major shares all its notes with Bb minor and Eb7 and appears to be another variation of the Bb minor or Eb7 to D7 resolution.

The most common theme appears to be the exploration of the Ab Major scale including Bb minor, Db Major, and Eb7. Potter gets a lot of mileage out of a few sounds by creatively varying the way he uses them. There were also some directional progressions like the tonalities descending in minor thirds in measure 39 and the descending minor 7 arpeggios in measures 54 and 55. Potter manages to completely depart from the D7 tonality in all of his harmonic departures, and he manages to take the listener with him through his musical logic and melodic ingenuity.

Melodic Structures

Potter uses many of the normal melodic elements you would expect to find in a jazz solo including modes of the major scale, melodic minor scale, and diminished scale, arpeggiation of major, minor, augmented, and diminished sounds, and blues and pentatonic sounds. Potter decorates these sounds approaching and surrounding goal notes using both neighbor tones from the original scale and chromatic neighbor tones. As discussed above these sounds appear in consonant settings as well as in very dissonant setting. When used dissonantly the natural strength of these melodic structures give the ear something to hold on to. One device that he uses, less easily explained by traditional jazz theory, is his intervalic structures or lines which are formed primarily by a common interval or set of intervals.

The first appearance of an intervalic line is in a consonant setting starting in measure 31 continuing to the down beat of measure 33. The main interval used is a tritone and is the naturally occurring tritone in D7, C to F#. These notes are decorated by chromatic lower neighbors B and F, which are twice played consecutively giving the line a second tritone. At the beginning of the line the C and F# tritone takes aural precedence, but as the line progresses the B and F tritone becomes an important part of the line.

A progression in measure 39, mentioned earlier in the harmonic analysis, also has a very strong intervalic component. This line consists of ascending perfect fourths descending in minor thirds. After the line breaks its sequence the perfect fourth remains an integral part of the phrase. The opening sequence of perfect fourths does imply harmonic movement but also stands by itself without the harmonic implications due to its intervalic integrity.

Other than these two examples the melodic sounds in this solo are generally easily defined, and Potter mostly uses conventional melodic techniques here. It is his unconventional harmonic setting and rhythmic setting of the common material that keeps it fresh and personal.

Use of Rhythm

There are a wide variety of rhythmic techniques used throughout this solo. Hemiolas, diminution, poly-rhythmic phrases, as well as the idiomatic techniques of triplets and alternating accents are all found in the solo. Potter tends to intermix all of these techniques freely giving the rhythm an element of unpredictability.

The opening pre-vamp section of the solo is characterized by shifting in between 16th note based rhythms, 32nd notes, 16th note triplets, and even the occasional quintuplet or septuplet. Hemiolas also help create rhythmic interest in the prevamp section. The first hemiola begins on beat 4 of measure 7 and is formed from four 16th note triplet beats. Three of the triplet beats are given the pitches of a descending triad and the fourth is a rest. The hemiola continues until beat three of the following measure where it shifts into a snaking descending pattern. The phrase is ended by two consecutive occurrences of the original hemiola pattern displaced by the inserted descending pattern. A diminution forming a hemiola is found in measures 15 and 16. The original rhythmic pattern is made up of two sixteenth notes of an unvarying pedal pitch on the upbeat followed by an 8th note of a varying higher pitch on the down beat. The pattern is introduced on the second half of beat 1 in measure 15. The diminution is found on the second half of beat 4 in the same measure when the pattern is shortened to a hemiola group of three 16th notes. The first 16th note receives the original pedal pitch and the second 16th receives the varying higher pitch. The third 16th of the group is simply a rest. This diminution of a duple pattern forming a hemiola gives the phrase a strong forward energy.

Once the vamp starts there is a stronger emphasis on the16th note subdivision. Though the subdivision becomes more stable there is still a wide variety of rhythmic techniques present. In the first measure of the vamp, measure 25, Potter starts a short phrase on the second half of beat one. The first note of the phrase is then used to start a variation of the same phrase only this time its played starting on the beat. This is a rhythmic displacement of a similar phrase, and it strengthens the groove. There is a diminution in measure 29 when a pattern of four 16th notes played on beats 2 and 3 is shortened to a group of 3 16th notes on beat 4. Potter also shifts the accent from on the beat on beats 2 and 3 to off the beat on the second half of beat 4. More rhythmic displacements can be found in measures 37-38 and 39-40. One last example of Potter’s use of rhythm is a poly- rhythmic phrase starting in measure 61. Its starts with a quintuplet spanning beats 2 and 3 moving into a triplet. The phrase continues shifting between triplets and groups of 4 over three 8th notes on the last three 8th notes of the 7/8 measures. Though the subdivision switches back to duple in measure 66 the 4 over 3 continues to be found in the next 7 bars until the end of the solo. These examples were the more prominent examples of rhythmic variations found in the solo, but, as mentioned in the introduction to this section, there are other techniques and examples found throughout the solo.


Potter is extremely creative both in harmonic movement and in rhythmic variation. He manages to take the same melodic material traditional jazz musicians have been working with for nearly a hundred years and make it sound fresh and appealing. Similar to Charlie Parker, Potter drives his lines forward rhythmically giving the solo a continuous forward momentum building lots of energy on the way. It is also important to note that even in his most climactic moments there is a strong rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic accuracy. The strength of this solo is shown in these climactic moments where Potter continues to creatively improvise despite the velocity and intensity of his playing. His creativity, sometimes unconventional, and clearly expressed ideas make this a truly great solo.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Up Tempo Playing: Common Problems and Fixes

Charlie Parker, one of the best up tempo players
Today, I want to write about playing fast tempos. It's something I think most people enjoy hearing, and something we all work on at some point or other. Today's post is aimed at addressing a couple of common problems that manifest themselves more dramatically when saxophonists play at fast tempos. The fact is that when we play music that is more technically demanding it's easier for us to lose focus and we often do, so here are two of the major things you can easily lose sight of.

Tongue Position, Air Support & Playing Up Tempo

Tongue position and breath support are easy enough to let slip a little especially after you've been playing for a while. Simply being aware of your air support and tongue position can have a great overall effect on your playing. For those of you who are asking what this tongue position nonsense is, I'm talking about the position of the back of your tongue in the back of your mouth. That is part of what helps focus your air and therefore affects your sound and intonation. A low tongue position results in dead and often unsupported sound as well as low intonation problems. A high tongue position focuses your air, sends it faster through the saxophone, and results in a more vibrant sound, a generally supported sound, and less work for your embouchure. Here are two examples, the first with a low tongue position and the second with a higher tongue position (forgive the reediness of the reed).

The first has unsupported sounding messy intonation, and you can even hear the extra pressure my embouchure is giving to try to compensate in the extra edge, fuzziness, and more strained sound.  The second clip in contrast  has a more supported in tune sound, and the sound is freer and more relaxed as my embouchure is doing less work.

A great way to train your tongue position is through doing various overtone exercises. I also suggest experimenting with different tongue positions while recording yourself and see what you can figure out. As far as air support goes, it's widely known that good air support is required for a good sound even when playing softly.

Articulation, Time & Burning

Articulation can be problematic for several reasons. A major problem can present itself when our articulation interrupts our tongue position. Interrupting tongue position interrupts the focus of the air flow and then wreaks havoc on our sound.

Here is an exercise, allegedly suggested by Joe Allard. Play a nice loud low Bb. While sustaining the note tongue the note repeatedly, but tongue it with the lightest possible articulation. You should maintain a high volume while tonguing very lightly. I have found that this exercise trains my tongue to maintain a good position while articulating. I often use this as part of my warm up, and I find my articulated playing is immediately better afterwards.

Another common problem with up tempo playing and articulation is when a player doesn't articulate much at all. The result is often not fantastic time, and playing that is less rhythmically interesting due to total lack of accents. Accents add depth to the rhythmic palette and are a significant part in the up tempo playing of guys like Bird and Cannonball. Following are two examples. The first lacks articulation and the second includes it.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Keeping a Loose Enough Embouchure

Coltrane's frowing embouchure
The frown is my embouchure of choice.
I often write about things I discover in my own practice, and today's post is the result of a few years of discovery as well as the result of some good advice from guys like George Garzone.


Embouchure problems come in many forms, and two of the most common are too tight and too loose. Symptoms of an overly loose embouchure include:
  • Exaggerated inflections, sounds immature and uncontrolled
  • Out of tune (often flat) and out of control sound
  • Unsupported sounding, difficult to maintain an even tone
Symptoms of an overly tight embouchure include:
  • Strained, tense sounding
  • Can sound very edgy depending on lip position
  • Inflections and vibrato don't sound clear or effortless (sound strained)
  • Smaller sound

Chris Potter Sound Comparison

So that we have a clear idea of what I'm talking about check out the following clip of Chris Potter. Listen to how lipid and clear his sound is starting around 2:20. All his inflections sound very easy and his sound overall comes off as effortless (Not that he's not working! He just doesn't let it show.).

Now check out Potter blowing on a different album. Listen to his solo starting around 3:50. This time you can hear many of the symptoms of the overly tight embouchure. The tone doesn't sound as effortless or as beautiful as the first example.
The Wheel

My point is just to illustrate the difference and to show that an overly tight embouchure can get the best of us (wrong reed, exhausted chops, etc.).

The Problem

The root of the problem is that a too tight embouchure is doing the job that your air support and tongue position should be doing (If you are wondering what I am talking about with tongue position you should read this post, here, which gives a number of voicing exercises in preparation for altissimo.) Other causes can include a too thick reed strength or chop fatigue. Even if you do have good breath support and tongue position an overly tight embouchure can be a pain to correct. Often your lip muscles won't respond nicely to your conscious command to chill out and relax. Once they are in the habit of being too tight they need more than conscious thought to convince them to relax. They need to feel that the work they are doing (keeping things in tune) will be carried out without them.

Your first job is to make sure you are doing overtones or other voicing exercises and playing with good air support. If you are doing these things than you are practicing good saxophone intonation habits and are ready to loosen up your embouchure.

The Loosening

This is a simple and painless process. Push your mouthpiece further in on your cork than normal. Now play along with an in tune sustained pitch like a tuner note. Keep a straight tone, good tongue position, and solid air support. At first you should be a little sharp (as long as you normally play in tune). Hold out the pitch evenly (no vibrato) and let yourself match the pitch. Don't slacken your air support or lower your tongue position. Let your lips gradually relax into your new intonation set point. Once you feel like your playing in tune experiment and see if your sound is more relaxed, easy to inflect, etc. It definitely should be. If not try pushing the mouthpiece in a little further and repeat the process.

After you feel like you've sufficiently loosened your embouchure play for a while and reintroduce the sustained reference pitch whenever you feel those overly tight embouchure symptoms creeping back in. This will reconfirm to your embouchure that it can remain sufficiently loose as your intonation will become sharp when they are too tight.

Doing this I'm able to maintain a sufficiently loose embouchure even with a reed that is a little too hard or out of whack. The basic function here is letting your lips relax by pushing in the mouthpiece and then giving yourself a reference point. Revisit this exercise any time you need and you should be able to maintain a sufficiently relaxed embouchure.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Follow up on Rhythmic Ideas

I wanted to follow up on my post of rhythmic ideas with some recordings to demonstrate a few of the concepts.  Rhythm needs to be felt as well as understood, so hopefully these recordings will help.

The following are just a few points from original post found here

  • Try connecting a few melodic ideas you would normally play separately, or just try extending a phrase  farther than you normally would.
                     Extending a phrase.mp3
  • Try playing a series of shorter phrases, or break up a longer phrase into shorter phrases. Also, try breaking up longer phrases by inserting held notes.  
                     Breaking up a phrase.mp3

Cross Rhythms and Polyrhythms
  • Experiment with basic cross rhythms, grouping your 8th notes into melodic ideas that accent every third or fifth note.
                     3 over 4 cross rhythm.mp3    5 over 4 cross rhythm.mp3
  • Try the most basic polyrhythm, triplets. Try playing phrases of continuous triplets instead of 8th notes.
                     8th notes vs. triplets.mp3

Friday, September 23, 2011

Saxophonists Shauli Einav & Matt Marantz

Last week I wrote about Brian Girley, an up and coming saxophonist, and today I want to introduce two more young saxophonists, Shauli Einav and Matt Marantz. These two guys have completely different approaches to music and are both playing on a very high level.

Shauli Einav's Opus One

Shauli Einav's most recent record, Opus One, is a meeting of the jazz tradition and Einav's heritage which he seemingly effortlessly combines in interesting and imaginative ways. Throughout the recording Einav draws from musical elements of Israel, traditional jazz, and from today's jazz. He manages to blend everything without sounding cliche resulting in an original and beautiful album.

The writing on the recording is fantastic. Einav combines his influences writing compelling music that is not predictable and keeps you wanting more. The musical elements drawn from his heritage are incorporated in a way that strengthen the compositions and expand the jazz idiom. Most of the tunes have a memorable and unique approach when compared to each others, which keeps the writing and the record sounding fresh.

Einav's saxophone playing also draws from his various influences. These elements combine to form his very personal voice on the saxophone. While he draws from many places he is still first and foremost a jazz saxophonist, and you can clearly hear his mastery of the jazz tradition. His strengths as a player and a writer, combined with the great playing of his fellow musicians make for a great recording.

Stop by to find out more about Shauli Einav and get the album.

Matt Marantz' Offering

Offering, Matt Marantz' debut album, serves as a bold statement of his musical personality. The music is clearly drawn from the more recent generation of jazz, and Marantz creates its beauty through its depth of harmonic and melodic language. Marantz has painted a complex soundscape matching his modern yet very approachable aesthetic.

Marantz' saxophone playing is on display in this record. He has mastered the saxophone to the point that he effortlessly communicates his musical ideas with ease and beauty throughout the record. His improvisation draws from today's genre of saxophone playing, and his approach to sound is clear, emotive and never sullied. His playing is one of the strongest aspects of the record, and the record is worth checking out just for that alone.

The band is tight and comfortably weaves through all of Marantz' intricate compositions. Each member makes a strong contribution to the album. Most importantly, Marantz leads and shapes the group with his impelling compositions and excellent playing.

Go to to grab the album.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tito Puente Masterworks Live & Brian Girley's Faith

I'd like to share that a recording I performed on, ‎"Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!", was nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album at this years Latin Grammys. I'm excited to have performed on a nominated album! Click here to see the nominees.

I also wanted to share an amazing record with you from a saxophonist of the up and coming generation.

Brian Girley's Faith
Faith is Girley's debut recording as a leader and is an impressive fusion of his melodic and singable writing with the virtuoso and intense solos from the entire group. The recording is multifaceted and represents a range of influences. It remains deep, complex, and musical, while still appealing to the general listener.

Girley's musical instincts are on display throughout the record. Both his improvisations and compositions have beautiful architecture which ebbs and flows in a way that keeps the listener interested and engaged. Brian is a fantastic soloist as well. His melodic lines, harmonic approach, and intensity serve as a sure foundation to his improvisation. Go check it out... now!

Featured on the record are cohorts Julian Shore, Gilad Hekselman, Linda Oh, and Ross Pederson.

You can hear the music and get it directly from Brian's website here.

Track Listing:
1 Could Be Something
2 Bass Intro
3 My Cross to Bare
4 Faith I
5 Judas Kiss
6 Faith II "the backsliders prayer"
7 Mating Complex
8 Cover 2
9 Enduring

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rhythmic Ideas for Improvisation

Sometimes players spend a lot of time learning harmony, scales, and related concepts for improvisation, but they don't always spend enough time developing their rhythmic command. Today I wanted to give you some different ideas for practicing and expanding the rhythmic element of your improvisations.

Syncopation and Articulation

Time feel is defined in part by the which notes are articulated and accented. Here are some simple ideas to expand your ability to articulate and accent in different ways:
  • Practice the most basic jazz articulation, tonguing the upbeats.
  • Grab an omnibook or transcribe one of Charlies Parker's solos, and play along with the recording. Make sure you are articulating and accenting along with him. You'll find he alternates between upbeats and downbeats depending on the phrase.
  • Experiment with some of your favorite melodic ideas, accenting their various peaks (like Charlie Parker often did). Experiment accenting other notes in the phrase instead. The more you familiarize yourself with the possibilities you'll find combinations you like and come back to.
  • Try tonguing every third note, which creates a 3 over 4 cross rhythm.
  • Experiment with different kinds of articulations in various combinations including legato, staccato, or tonguing every note in a given phrase.
These concepts can all be heard in the solos of rhythmic players like Parker, Rollins, and Potter.


The rhythm of a phrase is equally as important as its melodic contour. Following are some techniques for developing the rhythmic framing of your melodic ideas.
  • Try starting on different points in the measure including each beat (1, 2, 3, 4) and the & of each beat as well.
  • Practicing beginning your phrases with different rhythmic values including eighth notes, quarter notes, longer held notes, and various triplets.
  • Make sure you punctuate your melodic ideas. Give each phrase an ending, as opposed to playing running 8th notes ad nauseum. 
  • Also, experiment ending the phrase at different points in the measure and ending with different rhythmic values.
  • Try connecting a few melodic ideas you would normally play separately, or just try extending a phrase  farther than you normally would.
  • Try playing a series of shorter phrases, or break up a longer phrase into shorter phrases. Also, try breaking up longer phrases by inserting held notes.  
These techniques are meant to give you more possibilities. Take what you like and throw out what you don't.

Cross Rhythms and Polyrhythms

Cross rhythms can easily add intensity and energy to a solo while polyrhythms add another level of rhythmic interest.
  • Experiment with basic cross rhythms, grouping your 8th notes into melodic ideas that accent every third or fifth note.
  • Try the most basic polyrhythm, triplets. Try playing phrases of continuous triplets instead of 8th notes.
  • Now play cross rhythms with your polyrhythms. Group your triplets into melodic ideas that accent every second, fourth or fifth note (Ouch!). Also, try articulating every other triplet note similar to a basic jazz articulation.  
If you've made it this far you should be able to think of some other things to try out all by your lonesome.

To finish it out, here is a solo over a Bb blues where I use a fair amount of the above ideas.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Enlightened Ligature by Theo Wanne (Reviewed)

The last of this set of Theo Wanne reviews is something affordable, his Enlightened Ligature. To me, ligatures are a funny subject simply because there are so many options out there, yet I have't found many that I like or would recommend. The Enlightened Ligature comes pretty close to the mark though, and is available for a large selection of mouthpieces.

A ligature needs to be functional, easy enough to use, and provide the closest version of the sound you're going after. So, how does the Enlightened Ligature measure up? Its definitely functional, meaning it holds the reed securely and easily. It's fairly easy to use, at least a little easier to use than the traditional ligature for a metal Otto Link. Finally, the sound is focused, powerful, and light on its feet.

Sound clips from the play test, Enlightened Ligature + Florida era metal Otto Link:
Ben Plays Enlightened Lig.mp3Ben Plays Enlightened Lig 2.mp3

Comparison with my vintage metal Link ligature:
The vintage Link ligature does not hold the reed as tightly as the Enlightened ligature, and is slightly more annoying to use. The vintage Link ligature sounds more spread, has a somewhat darker tone quality, and is a little more versatile in terms of tone color.

Comparison sound clips:
Ben Plays Vintage Link Lig.mp3, Ben Plays Vintage Link Lig 2.mp3
Ben Plays Modern Link Lig.mp3

I included the modern link ligature sound clip so you could hear something that really contrasted with the Enlightened ligature. The modern link ligature has a much darker and warmer sound than both the vintage link ligature and the Enlightened ligature.

Conclusion: The Enlightened Ligature is a very functional, easy enough to use ligature with a focused, powerful sound.

Note to readers: If you'd like to get updates on the blog please take a second and follow me on Facebook or Twitter below.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Theo Wanne Reviews: Gaia Metal and Hard Rubber

As I mentioned last week, Sam Ash recently started carrying Theo Wanne's mouthpieces, so I've had a fresh infusion of mouthpieces to review.  Today's subjects are the metal and hard rubber versions of the Gaia, which are Theo Wanne's interpretation and modern version of a combination of classic vintage mouthpieces.

Metal Gaia

Metal Gaia from all side
Much like the previously reviewed Theo Wanne pieces, the metal and hard rubber Brahma, the metal Gaia's tone has a solid core somewhere in between dark and bright. The overall tone of the mouthpiece leans slightly towards the bright side. Its tone is fairly similar to my Florida era metal Otto Link, with the Gaia having more color but less presence. The metal Gaia's tone color does have some flexibility. I could push the mouthpiece towards brighter and darker colors fairly easily. A lack of flexibility in tone color and a one sided sound were two of my major complaints against the previously reviewed Brahma, but the Gaia is more flexible and malleable making more variations in tone color possible. The piece has plenty of power. The sound has enough punch to make it immediate and cutting but not so much that it becomes edgy or abrasive. Overall, the piece can achieve a sound that is beautiful, versatile, and powerful.

The feeling of blowing through the mouthpiece is very comfortable. There isn't too much or too little resistance. You can easily push the mouthpiece to its limit without fear of losing control or feeling uncomfortable. There is, however a variation in the resistance. There is something unique about the resistance in the Gaia, the difference being that a more traditional mouthpiece feels like it takes or accepts more air, however you can push the Gaia as hard as you'd like without any problems.

In terms of control the mouthpiece leaves little to be desired. The dynamics, articulation, and register changes all responded smoothly and very quickly as you'd expect from a high quality hand finished mouthpiece.

Here are some clips from my play test session:
Ben Plays Giant Steps on Metal Gaia.mp3
Ben Plays on Metal Gaia.mp3

Conclusion: This is a flexible mouthpiece with a powerful and colorful tone leaning slightly towards the bright side of the spectrum. It feels great and unique to play and has no glaring flaws.

Hard Rubber Gaia

3D right?
The hard rubber version sounds very similar to the metal version. It has the solid core, plenty of power, and a nice mix of highs and lows. The main difference between the two versions is just the fundamental difference between the sound of a hard rubber mouthpiece and a metal mouthpiece.

Playing the piece does feel somewhat different however. The hard rubber Gaia feels a little more resistant than I'm used to. That resistance is even throughout all registers of the horn though. I wouldn't say the resistance is too much but it is apparent.

The control of this mouthpiece, like its metal counterpart, is flawless. There are absolutely no road blocks in terms of articulation, changes in dynamics, changes between register, and changing between full tone and subtone.

Here are some clips from my play test session:
Ben Plays Giant Steps on Hard Rubber Gaia.mp3
Ben Plays on Hard Rubber Gaia.mp3

Conclusion: The hard rubber Gaia has flexibility, punch, vibrance, and a nice mix of highs and lows in the tone. The mouthpiece is slightly more resistant compared to its metal counterpart, but it has great control and feels good otherwise.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Theo Wanne Reviews: Brahma Hard Rubber & Metal

Theo Wanne's Brahma, both hard rubber and metal models, are under review today. These have recently become widely available, at least out east, through Sam Ash. Sam Ash is honestly becoming one of my favorite music stores due to carrying a nice assortment of sax stuff (my reeds are pretty well priced too).

The Brahma models are part of what Theo calls his "Performance-Line", which is basically the little brother of the "Pro-Line" in terms of cost. A cheaper production process gives the Performance-Line a few hundred dollars advanctage, however these are still costly mouthpieces - $435 for the metal Brahma and $375 for the hard rubber Brahma. 

So, what do you get for your $400?

Brahma (Hard Rubber)

The hard rubber Brahma's tone is a nice mix of bright and dark. Its sound has a solid core, which side steps any complaints of a thin sound, but it also has some brighter overtones in the sound giving it power and projection. I do have a complaint, and that is that the mouthpiece is somewhat one sided in its tone color. Though you can push its tone color boundaries, the tone doesn't feel as malleable as some other mouthpieces I've played including Theo's Pro-Line pieces which I'll review in the near future.

The mouthpiece has a healthy amount of back pressure or resistance, actually a bit more than I'm use to or like (on my Florida era metal link).  However, the resistance is in no way extreme and is very even from the bottom of the horn up through the altissimo register.  The resistance did allow me to push the mouthpiece to loud volumes without losing control.  That tends to be the trade off - more resistance often equals more control at higher volumes.

The mouthpiece was easy to control in almost all aspects including intonation, articulation, and dynamics. It responded quickly and easily. In this way it was everything you'd expect from a near $400 mouthpiece. I would like to say that you can get this level of control for somewhat less money. Both the Saxscape mouthpieces and the new "vintage" model hard rubber Link provide a similar level of control and quality at a lower price.

Here are a few clips from my play test:
Ben Noodles on Hard Rubber Brahma.mp3
Ben Plays Giant Steps on Hard Rubber Brahma.mp3

Conclusion: The hard rubber Brahma is an easy to control & powerful mouthpiece with a solid & not too bright sound. However, it lacks flexibility in the tone color department, and in my opinion it's not worth $375 as there are equal or better hard rubber mouthpieces available for less.

Brahma (Metal)

The metal model has a very similar tone to its hard rubber counterpart. It sounds a shade brighter from behind the horn (meaning while playing), but the mouthpiece doesn't necessarily come across as noticeably brighter in the sound clips. It retains a powerful solid core of sound and has a nice mix of highs and lows. Even more so than the hard rubber model, the metal Brahma's tone is one sided and has a somewhat limited tone color palette.

The feeling of blowing through the mouthpiece is very comfortable. The resistance is at a nice intermediate point, not too much and not too little. I felt like I could comfortably push the mouthpiece to its extremes, but I never felt like there was too much back pressure while blowing. The level of resistance was even from the bottom to the top of the horn. I was surprised that the mouthpiece, though tip opening was the same as the hard rubber model, taxed my chops much more quickly. That would be something potential buyers should be aware of.

The control of the mouthpiece is again everything you would expect. It responds even more quickly to dynamic changes than the hard rubber version, articulation feels quick and easy, and intonation is flexible and easy to adjust. Honestly, this is a very good mouthpiece, and I'd probably recommend it over some modern metal mouthpieces with comparable prices or greater. However, a much cheaper alternative might be a modern Otto Link Super Tone Master which has a larger palette of tone colors, though the sound might not be as powerful or immediate.

Here are some clips from my playtest:
Ben Noodles on Metal Brahma
Ben Plays Confirmation on Metal Brahma

Conclusion: The metal Brahma has a powerful tone which isn't too dark or too bright though it is very one sided. It feels great to play and has the control you'd expect for the price.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Improvising with Large Intervals on Standards

A few weeks ago I posted an introduction to improvising using larger intervals, and I wanted to continue that train of thought with some ideas on how to get started using large intervals over chord changes.

Drop 2 Triads

Arpeggios are the saxophone players quickest tool for outlining the harmony, and, though in their basic form are made up of smaller intervals, they already create an intervalic mood. Voicing arpeggios in more open voicings (not closed position where their notes are as close as possible) will transform them into large interval constructions. The easiest large interval voicing is the arranger's 'drop 2' voicing. The basic idea is to drop the second to highest note in the original structure to the bottom. This is illustrated with the C triad below. The E, the second to highest note, is dropped below the root, and the interval construction transforms from its original 3rds to the combination of a 6th and a 5th.

Arrangers use this voicing technique, especially in horn sections, to fatten up the sound and give the top note clarity, but when you arpeggiate these type of voicings you discover large interval harmonic building blocks.

I would suggest mastering your drop 2 triads in their various positions throughout the range of the horn. The triads will be applicable as not only basic harmonic illustrators, but also as illustrators of the upper extensions of the harmony Below is an example of all the drop 2 inversions of the C triad arpeggiated throughout the range of the saxophone.

For those of you who need some application suggestions, the C triad can be used for CMaj7, C7, B7sus4(b9), BbMaj7(#11), Bb7(#11), Amin7, AbMaj7(#5). G7sus4, F#7(b9,#11), FMaj7, Fmin(Maj7), Emin(b6), E7(#9,#5) Eb13(b9) D7sus4, Dmin11, C#dim7(Maj7), and I probably missed some!

Hopefully, its obvious that it would be worth it to lay the foundation by learning your major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads in all keys in all drop 2 inversions (though you'll want to learn them in normal closed inversions first).

7th Chords and Rootless Voicings

The next step is to apply the drop 2 technique to your favorite 7th and 9th chords (and beyond).  Experiment and see what you come up with. A bebop line might transform from:


This is a very limited example, and the applications of these arpeggiated drop 2 voicings are only limited by creativity or closed mindedness.

One final suggestion is to apply the drop 2 technique to rootless voicing, similar to the voicings a piano player might comp with in their left hand. The two common 4 note voicings build from the 3rd (3,5,7,9) and 7th (7,9,3,5). So in C major in closed position they would be:
When piano players comp they switch the voicing they according to what will maintain the smoothest voice leading. They try to maintain smooth motion and avoid leaps moving from one voicing to the next. Following is a classic example of a 2-5-1 in C using these rootless voicings:
What I've found helpful, is to practice arpeggiating drop 2 versions of these voicings through chord progressions. This has extended my harmonic vocabulary and brought these large interval constructions to my fingertips instead of the being left in the recesses of my mind. Here is the 2-5-1 in C arpeggiated with drop 2 voicings:
I'd like to stress that these are just tools, and just like you wouldn't spit out arpeggio after arpeggio in a solo, these are not meant for verbatim insertion! 

To sum everything up I'd like to play an example of this. Due to being on vacation I won't be able to record something today, but check back later in the week for a recording of Confirmation applying these concepts to the improvisation.

Finally, I recently did an interview with Doron Orenstein over at covering various musical topics. Check it out here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review of Children at Play by Victor Pinto

Today's post is an extended review and analysis of my newest release (published on Sax On The Web) written by peer saxophonist Victor Pinto. Victor is a very talented up-and-coming saxophonist who recently relocated to New Orleans as well as a jazz enthusiast with an inclination and gift for writing.

"Modern jazz" is a word that bears several meanings for jazz aficionados and musicians. The most conservative of them generally use it as a derogatory word to summarize an over-intellectual, dissonant style which uses technique, harmonic and melodic complexity for their own sake. For the rest of us, "modern jazz" is the continuity of a great tradition carved through a century of innovation, exploration, audaciousness and struggle, incorporating ideas from African, European and Oriental musical traditions.

Ben Britton's Unconventional Riot's 3 track EP Children At Play is the perfect example of the latter. His first effort as a leader of his own band, Children At Play features Gabe Globus-Hoenich on drums, bassist Jordan Berger and Matt Davis on guitar. Ben is also joined by his brother John on one of the tracks, "Partly", which is only fitting considering the Britton brothers co-lead the 2010 self released album Uncertain Living. The presence of a comping guitar as part of the rhythm section instead of the more traditional keyboard yields a lighter, more ambiguous and evocative sound. The same intervals resonate in very different ways on a guitar than on a keyboard, and the instrument's idiosyncrasies limit the number of sounds which can be played at the same time which, again, creates a rather refreshing sonic landscape.

The title track "Children At Play", is built around a very evocative and playful melody. Based on several transforming motives, the fast-changing feel confers a mood swinging quality to the tune. Whether you have kids of your own or reflect back on your tender years, it's easy to hear the connection between the feeling of this tune and childhood experiences of wonders, discoveries and occasional stumble.

Opening with a gradual introduction of the rhythm section, first drums then bass and finally guitar, the band kicks it in a little harder when Ben introduces the first few notes of the melody. The flawless transitions between odd and even meters throughout the piece never sound forced and Ben and his rhythm section navigate through them very naturally.

There is a very interesting contrast between Ben's solo and Matt's. Britton's powerful yet lyrical tenor saxophone concept contrasts in exuberance with Davis' more intimate intervention. The difference in intentions reveals the depth in Ben's composition. The great jazz musicians of the past have left us with many unique interpretations of now "standard" jazz tunes. The reason behind these classic tunes' popularity is this very quality that they are flexible enough to allow for radically different treatments and, even transfigured far from their original versions, retain their identity. "Children At Play", with its two contrasting improvisations, gives us a taste of the possibilities of this quality composition.

“Partly”, the second tune on the EP uses several of Ben's favorite compositional devices: evolving motives and the juxtaposition of improvised sections to written parts in the heads. Introduced by the rhythm section playing chords moving in thirds, the A section of the head is based on a motive evolving with the underlying harmony, displaced rhythmically and treated with a series of additions and substractions. Taking the form of a call and response dialogue, the B section features John improvising the responses to Ben's parts on the head in. Both calls and responses are improvised on the head out. This is somewhat of a classic compositional device in jazz that has unfortunately fallen out of favor and it feels great to hear it used so appropriately.

The tune is reminiscent  of The Britton Brothers’ Uncertain Living - an LP really worth checking out by the way; it's a great sounding album that did not generate enough buzz for its quality - obviously because of the two brothers' reunion but also in the way it is constructed and in the mood created by the combo.

John Britton's very expressive trumpet playing is remarkable in its subtlety and variations. Despite the fact he favors a softer touch, John can display great velocity on demand and he never shies away from more powerful moments. Some of lines he improvises surprise by the false impression they’re about to come to an end, only to  keep on going for a few more bars and concluding in a naturally coherent way.

Inspired by his brother's handling of the framework laid out by the tune's chords, Ben makes a smooth entrance with a very lyrical, soft restraint. Listening to the rhythm section's controlled reactions to Ben's lines is a delight. Matt Davis’ guitar work, first laying down sound textures with the use of sustained chords, volume crescendos, and later switching to a more rhythmic comping is perfectly complimentary to Globus-Hoenich’s subtle drumming, gradually transforming scarce punctuations into a full drumming eruption. The melodic and rhythmic backbone is exemplary held by Jordan Berger.

Worth noticing is Jordan's bass solo. Far from the recent trend towards a focus on the possibilities for extreme speed and intricacy of the instrument, Mr. Berger demonstrates his ability for creating lines that are both inventive and naturally melodic. His use of double stops, motives, hard plucking of lower notes, inventive rhythmic figures and (dis)placements throughout his solo makes a really coherent statement.  The natural tone of Berger's bass takes the center of the stage in this softer passage centered on his instrument. Although more frequent nowadays, the departure from the common recording techniques of the 80's and early 90's, which prominently used a bass pickup captured straight to the console, resulting in a dreadfully unnatural and unpleasant tone, is a very appreciated treat.

"Good Times" is probably the least architectural tune on the EP but also the most to the point, the most primal. It is in sharp contrast with Ben's other compositions which are much more intricate and thought out. Musicianship is best revealed in its simplest form; a sustained note, a simple melody, space and silence. The center point of the piece is definitely the opening line. It is used again for the second section of the head, quickly followed by a series of distinct fragmented melodies and improvised sections, marked by breaks.

The deep pulse of the groove is punctuated by Jordan Berger's throaty bass tone and repeated patterns accenting the offbeats. The rather simple nature of the bass lines contributes to the compulsive and hypnotic aura of the tune. Accompanied with a fierce delivery of cymbal magma and powerful kick and snare pounding, both improvised excursions by Matt Davis and Ben Britton are pushed to new heights. The dissonant nature of the harmony and the rhythm section trance-inducing drive especially propels Ben's improvisation, turning his tenor saxophone’s sound into an intense cry through which it sounds like he is inspired to take more chances.

The tune ends with a skillfully crafted drums solo before Jordan Berger lays down is initial bass line and reintroduces another statement of the melody minus the first section of the opening head.

Ben Britton's saxophone sound is definitely worth writing about: it is indeed the epitome of the jazz tenor saxophone tradition. You can hear the influences of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and more modern players like George Garzone, Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin. However, Ben sets himself apart with a very unique tone and phrasing he uses to make a very intense statement. Powerful and raw at times but lyrical and organic when the music asks for it. Ben's masterful display of instrumental technique always serves a musical purpose and allows him to take a lot of chances, melodically and rhythmically, with great success making his improvised excursions always unpredictable and exciting.

Putting a musician's tone into words is not an easy task not only because the way we hear sound vary widely among individuals but also because an accomplished artist will put meaning in the way he/she shapes his/her tone. Some sounds also just don't have words to describe them. One thing for sure though, the most emotional players, but this is especially true for wind instruments, sing to us. Ben definitely displays this vocal quality through his horn, especially in his unique way of voicing the higher register of the horn and his approach to vibrato.

Overall, the audio engineering work on the album is of very high quality but leaves a few things to desire. For one, the rhythm section could sit more forward in the mix, especially bass and drums. Jazz, or any style of music heavily focused on rhythm, requires a solid rhythmic backbone that stands out. The groove-based feel of the tunes would have also benefited from a fatter, more impactful tone coming from the rhythm section side. There are also a few discrepancies when it comes to acoustic spaces. For instance, some elements of Gabe Globus-Hoenich's drum kit sound strangely distant while others stand out.

The amount of reverb on modern jazz guitar is best limited to just the right amount so it adds presence, enhances the size of the natural tone of the instrument rather than drench it an unnatural halo of church-like echo. Matt Davis' personal preferences are just that, personal, but a little less reverb would have generated a tighter rhythm section sound and a clearer voice coming from his instrument.
Children At Play is a great debut album for 27 years old Ben Britton. Although inspired by his peers, Ben's compositions and the sound of his band clearly deliver something different which can only get more mature as time goes by. It is no little feat to get a band to sound as tight and instinctive as those great bands which now serve as models upon which a standard of quality is based: Miles classic quartets and quintets, John Coltrane's and Wayne Shorter's quartets, Chris Potter's "Underground" band, etc. Unconventional Riot is clearly heading in the right direction and we hope for a lot of gigging and touring for this Pennsylvania based band so they can keep treating our ears with such exciting releases and mature as their musical experiences as a band deepens the deep rooted seeds of interplay planted in this album.