Monday, March 28, 2011

Not For Sale: My SBA

I changed my mind - the SBA stays. I apologize to any hopeful potential buyers. At my gig today I played a Mark VI for part of the gig...  Sorry, Mark VI owners, but, on the gig, my SBA won fair and square.  When I say won, I just mean it sounded more like me.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Vandoren Optimum Ligature on a Link (Reviewed)

Recently, my attention has been turned to ligatures. I was experimenting with some different ligatures on my Florida era Otto Link metal mouthpiece, and I arrived to the conclusion that the modern Otto Link ligature not only works well but sounds fantastic. On the way to that conclusion I revisited my Vandoren Optimum ligature.

It's a somewhat lesser known fact that the Optimum Ligature made for the metal V16 tenor mouthpiece fits very nicely on a metal Otto Link tenor  mouthpiece. It definitely needs to be considered as a third major player in the Otto Link ligature arsenal. In my opinion the #1 player is the original ligature produced by Otto Link. The two 2nd prize winners are the 2 screw metal ligature made for Selmer's metal mouthpieces and Vandoren's Optimum V16 tenor ligature. Of course, a Rovner ligature also fits, but I don't recommend them because of their extreme dampening quality.

So, just how well does the Optimum work? Importantly, it secures the reed very well, and you can easily put a lot of pressure on the reed for a very tight hold. As far as sound production goes, the ligature definitely plays a role. No matter which of the three interchangeable pressure plates you use, the Optimum enhances many of the deeper overtones and adds a rich tone quality to the Link. It also rounds out the sound of the Link, which unfortunately takes away from the definition of the tone.

The three pressure plates seem to each be a variation on a theme. They all sound like gradients of the rich round tone I described above. I personally preferred the pressure plates with the four raised dots near its corners. This plate seemed to alter the sound the least from my perspective.

As always, the proof is in the playing. This was recorded nearly a year ago now, when I was using this ligature  on the regular basis - SchlomoSoloExcerpt.mp3 (I'm using my preferred 4 dot pressure plate here)

Conclusion: The Vandoren Optimum (Tenor V16) ligature serves as a valid alternate ligature for a tenor metal Otto Link mouthpiece. It encourages a warm rich tone, however it rounds out the tone to such an extreme that it takes away from the tone's definition.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Improvisation Kickstart Part II: Motif Based Improv

In the first post I suggested writing out a solo exploring some concept or idea, and gave you an example solo that I'd written out over the changes of All Of Me.  Well, this time my suggestion is even more ambiguous.  The exercise is to improvise using a motif or small musical idea, and the point of the exercise is to force you to create new lines and practice a more complete improvisation.  Focusing on motifs tends to make you play new things as opposed to following the normal lines and variations you might usually play while soloing.

The motif or musical idea you pick can be anything.  The only rule is it needs to be simple and short enough that you can remember it and easily use it.  Then, you improvise on it changing and varying it freely as you go along.  Rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic variation summarize the possibilities, and you'll probably do all 3 at the same time as you explore a given motif.  First, try the exercise without chord changes.  Improvise on a motif over one chord, a vamp, a free texture, or some other context that doesn't force you to follow the harmony.  Once that becomes comfortable and fun, try the exercise over a simple chord progression, maybe a 12 bar blues.Finally, try the exercise over your favorite tunes.

For my example, I chose to improvise over the chord changes to Donna Lee.  Normally, I would be starting and stopping a lot as I try to iron out any kinks during the exercise, but for the sake of the listener I push write on through in this example. The exercise starts out with the following motif:
In the first half of the first chorus this idea gets morphed, varied, and eventually changed into arpeggio-type lines. Various versions of this line reappear throughout the entire example. Going into the second half of the first chorus a new motif is introduced, which  consists of 3 descending notes which are repeated down an octave.  This new motif is explored for the entire second half of the chorus.  Throughout the example other ideas are introduced and explored.  I'm not keen on analyzing my own playing in depth, so I'll spare you the details, but here is my example of motif based improvisation for today:

Ben Plays Motif Based Improv.mp3

Friday, March 11, 2011

Saxophonist's Check List

Today's post is a list of important items that we saxophonists should keep in mind, probably on the daily basis, to avoid getting into bad habits.  With saxophone, at least for me, it seems easy for bad habits to creep in unnoticed, so the following is check list I created to keep myself focused and playing my best.

Note to last week's readers: I put my horn in the shop for the weekend (who knows a horn in such bad repair could feel so good?), so I don't have the promised explorations during improvisations article and exercise for you today.  However, it will be here next weekend.


  • Embouchure and Aural Cavity - Each day I need to check to make sure the corners of my mouth are more or less frowning and getting the tension off my reed.  I need to check to make sure my bottom lip is in the right untucked position (like when you say the letter V) that gives me the expressive tone I'm shooting for.   I also need to make sure that my lower jaw and embouchure aren't to tight putting undue pressure on my reed allowing me to get a clear crisp sound.  I battle that last one by doing various overtone exercises at the beginning of each practice session.  Finally, I need to check that I've taken in enough mouthpiece.  If I'm not vigilant I tend to backup on the mouthpiece, which again puts more pressure on the reed and doesn't allow me to be as expressive as I could otherwise.
  • Articulation - This is another technical aspect I have to check each day or can easily go out of whack.  I make sure that I'm not letting too much of my tongue come into contact with too much of the reed.  If my tonguing is too heavy it tends to add extra resistance to the feel of playing and it distorts the overall sound of my playing.  Tip of the tongue to tip of the reed works great in my case. It also helps me to specifically practice articulating while constructing improvised line to really lock it in for the day.
  • Sense of Time - To keep my rhythmic feel accurate I have to daily practice with a rhythm section of some sort (live or play along).  Metronomes have their place too, but in order to really make it happen your best shot is play with the real thing (drums, bass, and chords).  I try to hit various feels, straight eighths, odd time signatures, and modern swing, as each feel requires its own rhythmic conception to be played with forward propelling motion.
  • Sound Conception - I've recently noticed that if I take a few minutes and specifically practice the inflections and sound textures that I feel our part of my personal approach I more quickly arrive to the sound concept I want that day (as opposed to just practicing long tones, etc.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Quick Addition: Writing Out a Solo (for Beginners)

Interest was expressed in an easier example of the written solo exercise, so here is a written solo I composed over a simple blues progression. The concept I chose to explore was neighbor tones, both neighbor tones from the appropriate scale and chromatic neighbor tones or tones a half step away from my goal chord tone.

In this example I've used neighbor tones to approach the chord tones 1, 3, 5, and 7 of the different chords.  I used various neighboring tones and up to 3 at a time.  I approached chord tone 1 or the root of of various chords in measure 1, measure 7, and measure 8.  I approached the 3rd of various chords in measure 5, measure 9, measure 10, and measures 11-12.  I approached the 5th of D7 in measure 10, and I approached the 7th of various chords in measures 5-6, leading into the downbeat of measure 8, and leading into the downbeat of measure 11.

Some other concepts beginner or intermediate players might think about using as a focus for a similar written exercise might include:

Scalar Passages
Delayed or Anticipated Resolutions (delaying or anticipating the next chord change)
Common Substitutions or Alterations (#11, tritone substitution, etc.)
Varying the rhythm of phrase beginnings and endings

There are really limitless options and you should pick something that challenges and interests you.

Here is the PDF of the my written exercise of G blues - Blues ex.pdf

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Improvisation Kick Start: Writing Out A Solo

Writing out a solo does two things for me. One, it helps me memorize the changes of an unfamiliar song quickly, and second, it gives me the chance to develop some ideas more carefully than I otherwise would be able to. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be improvising, and I'm usually happier with the more spontaneous feel of an improvised solo. However, writing out a solo for practice purposes gives me a chance to dig deeper than I usually would into a certain concept or number of concepts. By the way, this isn't an original idea at all. Lennie Tristano had his students writing out exercises back in the 1940s, and the Lee Konit'z tune, "Subconcious-Lee", actually started as one of those exercises.

What concepts be those? Well, for this example, shown below in tenor key, I combined polyrhythms with bebop over the changes of "All of Me."

Here is a clip of me playing the exercise - All Of Me Etude Ben Britton.wav

I concentrated on repeating polyrhythmic groups of 3s and 5s, and to illustrate how deeply you can explore a concept in one chorus here is the full list of polyrhythms: a repeating pattern of 5 eighth notes in measure 7, a repeating pattern taking up 3 quarter notes spanning from the last 2 beats of measure 7 through the down beat of measure 12, a repeating pattern of 3 eighth notes in measures 13 and 14, a repeating pattern of 5 sixteenth notes starting on the 2nd sixteenth note of the last beat of measure 21, a short repeating pattern of 3 sixteenth notes starting in the middle of the first beat of measure 23, and finally another repeating pattern of 3 eighth notes in measures 27 and 28. Mixed in with all that is some bebop language, chromatic voice leading, and rhythmic shifting, which just kind of found its way in there while I was writing.

After writing out the solo, I practiced it for a while. I actually practiced the hardest parts away from the horn while driving in the car, just memorizing the lines and thinking through them at tempo. Now, I'm at the stage where I'm improvising and experimenting with different polyrhythmic ideas using ones similar to those I've written out as well as delving into unfamiliar territory.  Next post I'll talk about the next stage of the process which is carrying the that heavy experimentation, which musicians sometimes feel more comfortable doing while writing, into improvisation.

For anyone interested below are links to high quality PDFs of my exercise on the changes of "All Of Me" for tenor, alto, and concert.

All Of Me Exercise for Bb instruments - PDF
All Of Me Exercise for Eb instruments - PDF
All Of Me Exercise for C instruments - PDF