Friday, October 2, 2015

Playing in a Sax Section

In the past year I learned that one of the most important activities to developing musicianship is playing in small and large groups. This is one of the aspects of musical development examined by Music Learning Theory, and many of their claims are supported by field studies though I don't know if this one has a specific study attached to it. I have found that this rings true in my own personal experience. Playing in the practice room is one thing, but actually playing with other musicians well requires a lot more skill.

Playing in a sax section offers some unique opportunities for development. If you are able to play with more experienced players you'll have the real time opportunity to learn the style appropriate to the music. To do the job well you have to learn to listen. You have to listen to the section leader, the rest of the section, and the rest of the group.

If you feel like you can just hide in the section because there are so many other musicians than you're probably approaching the music and situation pretty poorly. Instead, you should take opportunity to learn and fit in, which will, in the end, make you a much better player.

Following is a quick overview of playing in a sax section and how to make the most of it:

  • If you are the lead player, you need to establish style including articulation, dynamics, vibrato, bends and other inflections. If you are holding down a different chair, then you should listen to the lead alto for their cues.

  • The lead player also establishes technical execution as well including cut offs and where to breath in longer phrases. Again, as a section member, you should listen to the lead alto and do your best to follow him/her.

  • When playing with the full ensemble, the lead alto should be listening back to the lead trumpet for his stylistic interpretation and technical execution. 

  • Lead alto needs to play strong enough to lead the section, and section players need to listen to the lead to maintain balance and pick up on his stylistic and technical cues. It's also good form for the lead alto to verbally tell the section what he wants in specific musical examples.  
  • All players in the section should listen to each other to blend timbre, intonation, and volume. If they don't listen, they can't do it. 
  • Each player should be sensitive of their volume so that they blend with the section, but they should be able to hear themselves clearly enough to manage intonation, style, etc. When playing with good voicing and embouchure technique they should be able to hear themselves distinctly even at a low volume, so they don't necessarily need to play loud to accomplish these goals. 
  • A strong bari can help balance the timbre of the section and work towards a rich full sound.

Great Sax Sections
These are some of the great sax sections historically and currently.

Duke Ellington Orchestra
Sax section members over the years (incomplete list): Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Willie Smith, Jimmy Forrest, Harold Ashby, Joe Temperley, Barney Bigard, Hilton Jefferson, Geezil Minerve, Skippy Williams

Count Basie Orchestra
Sax section members over the years (incomplete list): Lester Young, Frank Foster, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, Don Byas, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Illinois Jacquet, Marshal Royal, Billy Mitchell, Serge Chaloff, Herschel "Tex" Evans, Paul Quinichette, Elvira "Vi" Redd, Jimmy Forrest, Tab Smith, Charlie Fowlkes

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra)
Current sax section: Dick Oats, Billy Drewes, Rich Perry, Ralph LaLama, Gary Smulyan

Maria Schneider Orchestra
Current sax section: Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro, Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson

Dave Holland Big Band
Sax section: Antonio Hart, Mark Grosser, Chris Potter, Gary Smulyan