Saturday, June 25, 2011

Children at Play by Ben Britton's Unconventional Riot

My kids think it's pretty cool to be on the cover.
After a lot of hard work, I'm excited to announce my newest recording, Children at Play.  The title is inspired by a comment Dave Holland made about his record, Prime Directive. In the liner notes he explains that his prime directive is to have fun, and I see it the same way. Jazz musicians a lot like kids. They often get to do  what they like best, play. This recording and the compositions on it fit that theme of having fun, at least for me! Take a moment and listen to the track previews, read the reviews, and check out the studio footage.

Listen to the Music
(Click on a link below to listen.)
Children at Play Preview
Partly Preview
Good Times Preview
Download the Music

Get the full EP on iTunes by clicking here.
The EP is also available at other online retailers like emusic, napster, and zune.

Ben Britton – Tenor Sax, Composer
Matt Davis – Guitar
Gabe Globus-Hoenich – Drums
Jordan Berger – Bass
John Britton – Trumpet on “Partly”

Reviews by Music Critics
"a tight, swinging trio of straight-ahead tunes with some subtle musical twists and turns, and a mix of gentleness and wildness that amalgamates..."

--Bruce Lindsay,, read the full review here.

"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. "

--Victor Pinto, Sax on the Web, read the full review here.

The EP's first review is out! Click here to read a nice review by Carl Abernathy.

Reviews by Fellow Saxophonists

These are some nice things fellow saxophonists have said about the music.  They are all fantastic musicians and part of the rising generation of jazz saxophonists, and their positive response to my music has meant a lot to me.
"Unconventional Riot is the debut project for saxophonist Ben Britton as a leader. This a fine example of saxophone playing at its highest level. The level of command of his instruments as well as harmonic control is something to be praised. Ben plays with a knowledge and skill level well beyond his age. I love the blend of intelligent compositions rooted in strong grooves. This blend pushes the listener and also makes his music easily accessible. The songs explore elements of rhythmic development while dealing with complex meters. Ben soars through the changes and meters so naturally it's easy to forget actually how difficult some of the things he is playing are. This is a true testament to the hard work and effort put into this project. Ben is an important voice with a very new sound and concept that I think will flourish in the future."
-- Brian Girley,
"Britton has obviously delved deep into the history of the saxophone during his own studies, developing his own personal improvisational voice among those of the acknowledged past and present titans of the tenor sax. Always musical and coherent, Ben’s fiery musical thoughts and remarkable technical facility grab the listener’s attention and hold it steady while embarking on a musical journey..." & "Britton has demonstrated that he’s put as much thought and preparation into presenting his music so that the composition tells its own story as he has into his saxophone playing."
-- Matt Marantz, click here to read the full review,
"This fiercely-grooving Philly band, augmented by a couple of NYC defectors, is something you can't afford to miss. When an inspiring and talented group has the ability to go anywhere, and takes full advantage over a whirlwind 24 minute EP, it leaves you thinking 'When is the next record coming out? I'm buying it!'"
-- Cam Collins,
"Many composers of today have made conscious use of odd time signatures in their compositions; Britton is no exception. Unlike many of his peers however, his decision to utilize odd meters in this track especially, directly reflects the approach of the record. Upon listening to this track, I was reminded of how as children we struggle with the task of learning how to walk. Whether by intention or interpretation, the form of this track had me in reminiscence of my challenge of learning this elementary task. What is definitely clear is that Britton, along with his cohorts, have mastered not only the task of walking, but can keep heed with the best of them."
-- Adam Larson , click here to read the full review,

Ben's solo on an alternate take of "Children at Play"

Extended preview of John's solo on "Partly"
This is the actual track and final audio from the EP.

Matt's solo on an alternate take of "Children at Play"

Unconventional Riot Live @ Chris' Jazz Cafe in Philly
Introduction to Ben's composition "Ducks in a Row"

Altissimo Crash Course: Beginner through Advanced

Update 4/1/2014: New post on altissimo with additional insight, Easier Altissimo & the G-sharp Key.

Altissimo can be a fickle friend. I remember a few years ago at a Chris Potter masterclass someone asked something about how he had mastered his altissimo register. He replied that he just goes for it, that he wasn't even always confident it would come out, but he keeps going for it and working on it. Sometimes altissimo can be like that, a leap of faith, so today's post is designed to take some of the mystery out of it and give your confidence a boost as you explore the upper reaches of the saxophone. The article will explore low note overtones as an introduction to voicing (focusing your vocal tract), more advanced techniques and detail oriented work to help intermediate and advanced players improve their voicing control, and altissimo fingerings and exercise ideas.

First Steps

A great (challenging) altissimo method
The first step to unlocking the altissimo register, as most altissimo players will tell you, is learning to focus your airstream. Overtones are a fairly simple way of learning to focus your airstream using your vocal tract, back of your tongue, and air support. For those of you who aren't familiar with overtones, they are a series of higher pitches which can be coaxed out of a lower fundamental fingering. If you haven't tried this before you'll want to start by fingering a low note, low Bb for example (one of the easiest notes to produce overtones on), and making it sound an octave higher without pressing the octave key. It's very simple to do and you've probably already done it by accident. Try to do this by raising the back of your tongue, supporting your air using your stomach muscles, and narrowing the back of your throat. Try to avoid tightening your lips too much. You'll probably get a higher note on your first try.

Practicing overtones allows you to practice focusing the muscles in the back of your mouth that will eventually allow you to extend the range of the saxophone beyond high f or f#. They will also allow you to play your normal range with a fuller and more vibrant tone.

One of the first overtone exercises I give young students and one that I still do each day is as follows (as prescribed by Walt Weiskopf). You can apply this to any scale, but basically you play the overtone version and the normal version of each scale note. The basic idea is to be able to one, produce the overtone, and two, match the fullness of the overtone with your normal pitch. Here is what it looks like written out:

The circle whole note heads represent the fingering used and the diamond note head represents the desired pitch.  You'll notice that there are two different overtones that produce the higher Bb and we'll want to practice both of them.  Each note can last as long as you'd like, and I often play these notes very long and multiple times as I'm doing this exercise for a warm up.  Here is what it sounds like in a basic format without repeating any of the notes exactly as written above: Bb Overtone Scale.mp3

Intermediate and advanced players will want to tackle the above exercise with a couple other concepts in mind. You should be able to apply vibrato to each of the overtone without losing the overtone even slightly. The easier and clearer the vibrato sounds the better. You should also try to achieve perfectly clean entrances.  The clean entrances aren't always easy, and your ability to nail the overtone from its entrance might vary from day to day. With a little extra focus on your embouchure you should be able to clean the entrances up which results in more dependable control over overtones and altissimo.

All players should take the time time to extend the range of their overtones.  Play each one long and add some vibrato.  The easier and clearer the vibrato sounds the better. Here is the overtone series on low Bb written out through high F.  Many players run into difficulty after the 2nd octave Bb, and at this point it would be good to work hard at refining the overtones you are able to produce as well as experiment with overtones off of different fingerings. Again, all of these can be produced while holding a low Bb.

You'll soon find out that even though you can play up to high F or F# on your saxophone it might not be easy as pie to play that high F as an overtone using low Bb. Practice makes perfect. Some techniques that might help include playing and holding the regular fingering first and then switching to the regular fingering, or singing the desired note just before you attempt the overtone.  There are various tricks for getting the overtones to come out, which can be helpful. Many players feel satisfied by just being able to hit the overtone briefly, but they don't progress beyond that. Playing the overtones long is important as it refines your voicing ability through endurance and mental focus. Working towards consistently being able to hold out overtones will improve your overall control, and it will bring you closer to achieving other more difficult overtones.

Flexing Your Overtone Muscles

As your overtone range extends, and really even before that, its important to do flexibility exercises. The point of flexibility exercises is to increase your ability to jump between overtones in the series as well as clean up those jumps. As you learn to jump cleanly between the overtones your ability in your normal playing to jump cleanly from low notes to high notes will improve also.

There are many overtone flexibility exercises out there, and you should feel free to make them up or adapt others to your ability. Here is one based on a bugle call that I run through each day. Its all based on the low Bb fingering and requires you to be able to play Bb's overtones up through high F.

I used regular notation to clearly show the rhythm.  Each of these pitches are overtones produced while holding low Bb. You should practice starting each of these overtones with your airstream only and slurring as you descend from higher to lower, and you should practice tonguing each overtone as well. Either way the entrances should be clean. You could also play this exercise in the key of B, C, or C# by simply playing the same series of overtones off of those respective low notes.  I normally play this exercise slowly, so I can concentrate on the clarity of each overtone as I go.

Extending Into the Altissimo Register

If you've been able to get through a lot of the material up to this point you should start experimenting with the altissimo register. At this point we are ready for some altissimo fingerings. Why not skip the lower note overtones and start with the altissimo fingerings? Overtone practices ensures that you are developing good focus in your vocal tract while the altissimo fingerings are easier to cheat on and play with a tight embouchure and less vocal tract focus. The skills you learn working on overtones will allow you to go higher and get around easier than a too tight embouchure would ever facilitate or allow.

There are many altissimo fingering charts out on the web. Following are the fingerings I use on my Selmer Super Balanced Action tenor.  They've worked on most vintage tenors I've tried and many modern tenors. Every horn can be a little different, and you'll want to explore some of the various options out on the web.
Diagrams courtesy of the 'Fingering Diagram Builder' on Bret Pimental's woodwind blog.

I recycle the fingerings from Bb through D to continue upwards onto Eb through G.  Also, the first fingering in the chart, E, I use as a substitute for the regular palm key E fingering when I'm launching into the altissimo.  The normal palm key E most often has a fuller sound.

If one particular note is difficult feel free to skip it and find the next note up that is possible for you.  Don't get hung up on progressing chromatically.  Find the fingerings and pitches that work for you, and then work on refining those by playing them long, adding vibrato, doing bends, experimenting with articulation, etc. As you challenge yourself and gain more control on the notes you can get out the other more challenging notes will soon become possible.

One of the obvious things to do as you work on mastering these fingerings is to play your scales into the altissimo register. Make sure you start below the altissimo register so you also work on the transition between the normal fingerings to the altissimo fingerings. Advanced players will want to work on articulating scales and other exercises, patterns, and melodies in the altissimo register.

Eventually you'll be able to continue the overtone series into the altissimo register as well. Here is a more complete overtone series on Bb written up through 4th octave Bb.

The 8va indicates sounding an octave higher and the 15ma indicates sounding 2 octaves higher. Play each of these long. Be able to play them softly and clearly. Add a clear vibrato or even try some deep bends. Do your best to keep the sound clear and distortion free as you try out different things. Practice the entrances and get them clean as well. These overtones can be more difficult than the altissimo fingerings, but once achieved will help players continue to refine voicing control.

Putting it to Practice

Finally, for those of you looking for a way to continue developing your skills beyond this. Simply put, improvise up there. Set a lower limit, a lowest note, let's say 2nd ledger line C or palm key D, and don't go below that limit. Practice improvising lines that go over the transition and go as high as you'd like. Pick something easy at first like a blues or rhythm changes, and progress onward from there. I saw Chris Potter demonstrate this exercise on Giant Steps at the same masterclass I mentioned earlier. The sky is the limit. Here are a couple of my practice sessions. The first is a slightly simpler approach and the second is a somewhat more chromatic versions.

Ben Plays Altissimo Blues.mp3      Ben Plays More Altissimo Blues.mp3

Today I've also released my new recording, "Children at Play". If you've enjoyed the blog or my playing please take a moment to check it out here. The post has previews of the tracks, studio footage, and reviews from great sax players like Matt Marantz and Adam Larson. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Introduction to Improvising with Large Intervals

Need some large interval exercises?
Throughout the music's history the occasional jazz musician has been interested in creating melodies and improvisations that incorporate larger intervals. Anything larger than a major 3rd usually qualifies. Coleman Hawkins was one of the first saxophonist to incorporate them, and many have followed since then including Wayne Shorter, Eddie Harris, and modern saxophonists like Mark Turner and Chris Potter. Larger intervals have always interested me, so I wanted to share some of the ways that I've worked on them.

Developing the Technique

Before you can start improvising these lines you'll need to have the basic ability to play large intervals cleanly on the saxophone. Following are a couple sets of exercises that worked well for me.

This first set of exercises is based on a scale. Lets start out using the C major scale and the interval of a 4th. Start out on the first note, C, and jump up a 4th to F. Then start on the 2nd note, D, and jump up a 4th to G. Repeat the process unil you reach your upper limit, whether it be the top note of the scale or some real or imagined upper limit of the saxophone. Then descend in a similar fashion. Keep all the notes within the scale meaning you'll sometimes play an augmented 4th. Here is a one octave example written out:

This is a very limited example.  You could play this exercise with any scale, and more importantly with any interval. I would suggest trying it with 5ths, 6th, 7ths, and octaves. The object here is to be able to play quickly and more importantly, cleanly. Pay attention to intonation, entrances, and tone quality.

Another set of exercise I found really helpful are from Walt Weiskopf's book "Beyond the Horn". These are based on 7th arpeggios and octave jumping. The idea is to ascend up the 7th arpeggio 2 octaves and then descend, however you jump to the opposite octave for each arpeggio note. Here it is written out for CMajor7:

Again practice for cleanliness, tone, and speed. This might not sound great, but it's a fantastic technical exercise. Apply it to any 7th arpeggio or variation you'd like.

A Simple Start

An easy way to get started creating with larger intervals would be to write a simple vamp or bass line. This is no longer just an exercise, so work to make it sound musical. You might want to combine larger and smaller intervals, but there are lots of ways to approach this. Here is a simple vamp that serves as the bass line in my composition, "Ducks in a Row":

You don't need anything long or elaborate, just something simple and fun to work with. Once you've got something you like, try improvising using the vamp as a jumping point, creating variations, etc.

Eventually you're going to want to write a melody, which will give you a chance to dig a little deeper into the colors larger intervals have to offer.  Here is the original melody (it has since been edited) to the A section of  "Ducks in a Row":

If you'd like to see it larger you can find a link to a PDF lead sheet of this tune (and a play-along mp3) at the bottom of the article.

With a large interval melody in hand you should be on your way to improvising with your developing intervallic language. I would suggest repeating this process with some other vamps and melodies, and, of course, practice improvising over the vamps as well. Once you feel ready, move onto something with moving harmony, which can be more challenging. I'll be writing in a future post.

Here is an example of me messing around with my  vamp as an introduction to the song at a live performance.  Though I admit much of what I'm playing is based on smaller intervals, there is a fair amount of larger intervals at various points during the introduction. If you let the whole thing play through you'll hear the melody as well.

Also, here is Chris Potter playing an absolutely fantastic solo over my same tune. Plenty of larger interval lines to check out here.

For those of you who are really interested in using the tune as a practice vehicle here are links to a play-along of it and PDF lead sheets in various transpositions.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tenor Mouthpieces: Meyer & Vandoren Jumbo Java

First, something completely unrelated. This is a video clip from an alternate take I really liked of the title track of my upcoming EP. At this point we had just recently arriving to good earphone mix. Its nice when you can hear yourself (not to mention the rest of the band)! You can also hear and see more here.

For today's post I wanted to explore some common hard rubber tenor mouthpiece you often find in music stores. The Meyer and Vandoren's Jumbo Java are two very common ones.  I thought about reviewing a Claud Lakey as well, but I recently played one for 2 seconds, which was long enough to remember how abrasively bright and edgy those mouthpieces are. I settled on these two, which both surprised me in their own way.

Tip Opening: 7M (nearly an Otto Link 5*)
Reed: rico jazz select unfiled 3M
Ligature: normal metal 2 screw

This is one of the first mouthpieces I owned on tenor and on alto. I loved it on alto and I hated it on tenor. I've always remembered it as alive and beautiful on alto and dead and muffled on tenor. Recent experience has changed that perception for me.

The Meyer on tenor is definitely a warm and dark sounding mouthpiece, but it isn't dead sounding. I was pleasantly surprised by a nice spectrum of overtones that accompanied the overall dark tone. The mouthpiece has enough vibrance to give the sound a bit of presence. The piece definitely had more presence than I remembered, but I don't know if it's enough for most players.  On a side note, that vibrance can quickly be stifled by a badly formed embouchure. I experimented with different embouchures while playtesting and the mouthpiece is very sensitive to how the embouchure is formed. As soon as I put too much pressure on the sides of the reed, the sound died and the mouthpiece sounded dead as dead gets. I've been toying around with the idea of recommending this mouthpiece to students for that very reason. As long as they are paying attention to their sound, it would force them to play with a well formed embouchure.

The ease of playing, flexibility, and response of this mouthpiece are average. In this way it doesn't stand out from the pack. It plays well but not exceptionally in any of the categories. The mouthpiece does play very evenly from the bottom of the top of the saxophone's range though the altissimo register does take more focus than some other mouthpieces.

Conclusion: Though the mouthpiece is a solid entry among darker sounding mouthpieces, it might not have quite enough presence to satisfy the average tenor player.

Vandoren Jumbo Java
Tip Opening: T75 (about a 7* in Otto Link terms)
Reed: rico jazz select unfiled 3S
Ligature: normal metal 2 screw

This playtest toppled another of my misconceptions. I had always thought that the Vandoren Jumbo Java mouthpieces were otherworldly bright, and though these are fairly bright mouthpieces they aren't anywhere near the scary realm of Claude Lakeys!

The Jumbo Java has a powerful bright sound with some warmer colors present as well. The tone is even through the range of the horn, and though the altissimo register isn't as full sounding as the rest of the range it isn't thin sounding either. The sound isn't extremely flexible, meaning there isn't the same large spectrum of less edge to more edge you might be able to access on another mouthpiece, but it does get the job done.

Where the mouthpiece really stands out is in its response.  Low Bb comes out extremely easily both with a full tone and subtoned.  The mouthpiece is very sensitive to changes in dynamics making it easy to smoothly change from soft to loud quickly.  The tonguing, in parallel fashion, also feels effortless as the mouthpiece responds very quickly to articulation as well. Playing the mouthpiece just feels easy overall.

Conclusion:  This is a powerful and brighter sounding mouthpiece that feels great to play.