This past week I had an opportunity to take a lesson with Walt Weiskopf, an amazing saxophonist and great teacher. I had studied with him during my undergrad at Eastman, and on various occasions I had heard his philosophy on inflection. It came up in our lesson this week, and I think, for the first time, I really understood the points he made.
The basic premise is that inflection can be problematic for a number of reasons. It can detract from time feel and content, and it can become a crutch. Walt is an advocate of minimal inflection for those reasons and others. I would like to outline those points in detail because many of them get at the basic mechanics of improvisation, and whether you play with heavy inflection (Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Chris Potter) or much less (Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Walt Weiskopf) you need to understand how to deal with inflection. You do not want it detracting from your playing no matter your aesthetic. Following is a laundry list of guidelines that will keep you on the right track.
- One of my favorite points that Walt made was that inflection takes time, just a moment, but it often adds time to the execution of an idea. Because of this it can detract from time feel and groove. It can ruin the forward momentum and feel of an improvisation if you let time feel take a back seat to inflection. Don't do it!
- Inflection can also detract from content. Walt made the point that you can only focus on so many things at a time, and if inflection becomes your priority, content can suffer.
- I would add that inflection can get in the way of execution of an idea. Sometimes an idea is hard enough by itself and trying to inflect it adds to the difficulty and stunts your ability to play it. This has happened to me, and I have heard it happen to the best of players.
- Inflection easily becomes habit. A great exercise, Walt's suggestion, is to improvise while trying to keep your playing free of all inflections. This will show how much of your inflection comes by choice and how much comes by force of habit. Every inflection should be an artistic choice.
- Finally, inflection can become a crutch. As an improvisation progresses, some player rely more on inflection to carry their solo, instead of musical content. It can be a tell-tale sign that you are uncomfortable or running out of steam. At times like these it is important to keep focused and continue improvising creatively instead of resorting to a stylist-only approach.
I realize that is all pretty negative, but sometimes a good dose of cold hard reality is the best thing to improve your playing. For some, these guidelines will result in less inflection, and for other it will mean they need to execute their inflection more carefully, avoiding detracting from the groove or the execution of their content. Again, no matter the aesthetic, these guidelines can be helpful in maintaining a high level of playing and in focusing your improvisation.