Saturday, July 15, 2023

Upcoming Deep Dive on Michael Brecker's Practice Notebooks w/ Rick Margitza, David Demsey, Luis Palacios, and Sher Music Co.

This coming Thursday, 7/20/23, at 2 PM EST I'll be live streaming a discussion with some of the foremost experts on Michael Brecker. We'll be exploring what's in his recently published notebooks and how he practiced and used what's there. Rick Margitza, world renowned saxophonist and Brecker transcriber, is joining us from Paris. David Demsey is joining us from the Michael Brecker Collection at William Paterson University with Brecker's original notebooks in hand. Luis Palacios, who did a dissertation on Brecker's playing and hails from Northwest Nazarene University, and Chuck Sher and Larry Dunlap from the publisher Sher Music Co. are joining the discussion as well. There will also be a Q&A as part of the event, so bring your burning questions.

You'll be able to watch the live stream and ask questions here:

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Achieving Your Best Sound from Low B♭ Through Altissimo

Earlier this month I presented at the International Saxophone Symposium on voicing, embouchure, and sound, and I thought I'd shrae the presentation slides here. I'm still working on incorporating all of this new info into an approachable method that still relies on your ears. More on that soon...

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Interview with Tim Armacost: The Jazz Saxophone Book


There is a great new resource out there for aspiring and developing jazz saxophonists called The Jazz Saxophone Book. It's pretty epic in scope, and addresses a lot of less treated subjects, which is great, including techniques for creating variations, playing out via melody, and developing mastery of your creative art. 

Tim and I had a really interesting conversation about the book and lots of different aspects of improvisation and saxophone playing. Check it out below:

Music I've Been Listening To: Michael Brecker, Pernille Bévort, Tim Armacost, and Ben Wendel

Hey, I've recently discovered some great music I wanted to share.

I listened to Michael Brecker back in high school but only sporadically since then. Recently, I rediscovered why he is so awesome. I found two albums where I think his sound and improvising are just soooo good. Here's a song from each of them:

A player you likely haven't heard of before, Pernille Bévort is a fantastic sounding saxophonist and one of the great saxophone voices from Scandanavia's jazz scene. She recently released a live album with a chordless group - Bévort 3. It was actually recorded in front of a live audience during covid, at Jazzhus Montmartre (Dec 5, 2020) and then Skuespilhuset’s Foyer (July 16, 2021). Here's a track from the album:

Tim Armacost recently wrote a jazz saxophone book, which I'll have something on for you all soon. I was checking out his playing too, and it's really great. Here's what I was listening too:

Last but not least, one of my very favorite saxophonists is Ben Wendel. If you haven't listened to this guy's playing or writing here is my favorite track from his 2020 album:


Monday, February 7, 2022

10mfan Celebration Tenor Mouthpiece

 I recently had the chance to play the 10mfan Celebration tenor mouthpiece. It has a warm and flexible sound that you can push pretty easily. It's one of the best altissimo-playing jazz pieces I've played, so that was really notable.

I recorded a blues on the mouthpiece in the video below. I also have a couple of clips from solos live on a gig below that. The mouthpiece is definitely worth checking out.

Live Clips

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Learning Altissimo: From Low B♭ to Over Four Octaves Up

 This post takes you throgh the basics of voicings, to overtone practice, and finally to altissimo practice and fingerings. Feel free to contact me with any questions at


Voicing is a combination of your tongue, vocal cords, and soft palate position. You can use it to stabilize and tune notes, change timbre, and inflect and stylize your sound.

Sciency Explanation: You are tuning a standing wave that the reed is creating in your mouth. You control the wave, and the wave affects how the reed vibrates, which then affects how the standing wave in the sax vibrates. Mark Watkins’s book, From the Inside Out, is an in-depth resource on this.

Voicing tendencies

Low Register: Your tongue is high in the back of your mouth. Your vocal cords are in a relaxed open position, similar to breathing.

Upper Register: Your tongue moves forward towards the reed. Your vocal cords come closer together, similar to making an “h” sound.

Altissimo Register: Your tongue continues to move forward and hovers beneath the reed. Your vocal cords come closer together and grow taught. Your lower jaw can move forward a bit.


Octave Jumping Exercise

This exercise is meant to help you recognize two of the basic movements in voicing. Only the combination of techiques in the third step is mean to be used regularly. 

Play low E on the saxophone, and without pressing the octave key, make it sound an octave higher. Try to do this using three different methods:

  1. Focus on bringing your vocal cords together, closer to an “h” feeling.
  2. Focus on moving your tongue forward and underneath the reed. This is more difficult, and you’ll still need to use some vocal cord positioning too.
  3. Use a balance of both techniques, which is what you should be doing as you ascend the range of the saxophone.


Playing overtones on saxophone consists of playing higher partials than a given fundamental fingering by manipulating your voicing and embouchure. The sax produces overtones according to the natural overtone series, more or less (they’re not in tune, especially as you move beyond the low B♭ fundamental fingering).

Overtone Series on Low B

Why practice overtones? The voicings required to play overtones are good approximations of the ideal voicings used to play across the range of the horn. Practicing overtones is the most effecient way to learn to voice correctly, which is imperative for successfully playing altissimo. Also, improving your ability to play higher overtones improves your voicing for everything up to that point. As you improve your voicing, your sound and response across the sax’s entire range will improve, and the horn will feel generally easier to play.

Overtone Practice

  • Long Overtones w/ Exaggerated Smooth Vibrato: The vibrato helps make sure your embouchure is in a good formation with pressure in the right places and not hampering the reed from vibrating nicely. IMO, this is the most important form of overtone practice.
    • Focusing on the easiest fundamental fingering for a given overtone and expanding from there will lead to the fastest progress. For example, you can play the D above the staff using a low B♭ fingering, a D fingering (with low C♯ held open), or a G fingering. Figure out which one is the easiest and devote the majority of your practice to that fingering until it sounds great. Then work on getting other fingerings to sound just as good.
  • Legato and Staccato Articulation on Overtones: Start with repeated articulation on the same note, and then progress to switching between different overtones.
  • Bugling and Scale Exercises: This consists of switching smoothly between overtones. Add legato or staccato articulation to your bugling practice when you’re ready. Scale exercises are actually more challenging slurred, at least while ascending.

Overtones and the Octave Key

When practicing overtones, I generally like to use the octave key for the second overtone and above, though not on the first overtone which is just the octave anyhow. Using the octave key on the second overtone and above encourages you to relax your embouchure. It can actually be more challenging at first because it negates some of the support your embouchure provides and forces you to rely more on voicing.

Bugling and Scale Example Exercises

This is just a sample of some possibilites for up through the third overtone on C. Obviously, the overtones continue. You should create or find similar exercises that extend beyond these. One resource is my book, A Complete Approach to Overtones.

Techniques for Getting to Higher Overtones

In a perfect world you would be able to learn manipulate your voicing and embouchure and play all the overtones in short order, but in reality, it can be pretty tricky to learn how to voice overtones well. Following are some cheats for getting up to the “next” overtone. Once you can get a new overtone to speak, work on holding it out, getting a good sound, and adding vibrato.


1.       Slur to the overtone fingering from the normal fingering:

2.       Slur up by step from the nearest overtone you can already play: 

3.       Finally, try using a palm key (D, E, F) or side B like a second octave key.


Altissimo is the register above the keyed range of the horn. Playing high is cool. 😊

Practicing overtones above the horn’s normal range is a helpful way to learn to voice altissimo, but focusing your practice on the easiest and most stable fingering for a given note will help you make the fastest progress. Most often, the easiest fingerings in the altissimo register are not the same as the ones typically used to practice overtones.

Altissimo Practice

  • Altissimo Long Tones w/ Exaggerated Smooth Vibrato: Again, achieving a smooth exaggerated vibrato will help you get your best sound in this register.
  • Legato and Staccato Articulation on Altissimo Notes: Start with repeated articulation on the same note, and then progress to switching between different altissimo notes.
  • Scales: Play slurred and articulated, slow and fast.
  • Written, Memorized, and Improvised Music: You can practice anything in the altissimo register. Play written music up the octave or up two octaves. Play songs you know in the altissimo register in various keys. Improvise in the altissimo register. The sky is the limit. Cliché, I know.

Altissimo Fingering Chart

Following is a fingering chart up through the middle of the saxophone’s 5th octave. These are fingerings that I’ve discovered from talking to great players, checking out altissimo books like Sigurd Raschèr’s Top Tones, Ben Wendel’s Path to Altissimo, and Paul Perez’s Playin’ in the Attic, as well as coming up with different fingerings myself. These fingerings work really well on tenor. Your mileage will vary on other horns.

When deciding on an altissimo fingering, at first prioritize ease of playing. Once you can hit the note consistently and beautiful, then find a fingering that plays most in tune!

Download Ben's Altissimo Fingering Chart for tenor sax.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Today's post is an interview with another saxophonist/composer, Matt Steckler. He has a new recording with Dead Cat Bounce, a fun group consisting of saxophone quartet + rhythm section. He's done a lot of great writing for the group, and I'm stoked he took the time to answer some questions. I'm sure you'll find some insight and inspiration for your own practicing and writing here.

How do you approach writing for a saxophone quartet?

MS: Dead Cat Bounce being an impure quartet (bass/drums added), my approach here is likely different from others'. I'm more likely to take inspiration from rhythms and grooves and metric intricacies before other elements, because I know I can make them cook with that lineup.

What are some of your favorite approaches to harmony and voicings?

MS: It's important for me to be faithful toward whatever the moment calls for in a passage... and be consistent once I've made a choice. Voice leading is paramount. From there, any block harmony feeds off the melody note's function in the chord. It's not a 5-piece sax section from a big band, so the really thick voicings don't apply the same unless the bassist is involved... and often I'm content with triadic or quartal writing (sometimes with slash chords) to evoke other genres. And like Ellington, I enjoy discovering chords that don't have a perfect name for them.

What about musical textures or roles for the different sax players in the band?

MS:I LOVE defying expectations with player roles. Bari doubling bass lines, 2 + 2 higher/lower lines with horns, horns being timekeeper while rhythm section phrases things, polyphony and heterophony, etc... that's all in play. i like to give the drummer hand drumming and mallet roles, the bassist playing percussively, the saxes playing on their mouthpieces, everyone singing during a shout chorus, and so forth. And because Mingus is a huge influence... moments of rubato and accelerando like in his more extended works are really important for me to evoke.

Have you had any writing experiments that just didn't work very well, you know where you decided that something just didn't work very well for a sax quartet? 

MS: All the time, LOL. Usually, the ones where the computer plays it back fine, but humans can't replicate it. So I've learned to sing through parts and hear music internally before writing it down.

You've got to study with a lot of great jazz musicians. What are some of the most interesting or helpful things you've learned from them?

MS: Jerry Bergonzi taught using rhythm cells - breaking up triplets and running hemiolas - that I keep coming back to for improv and for feeling time in different ways. Danilo Perez had great advice for breaking up my phrasing in different, unexpected ways. Jim McNeely actually taught me how to play through a lead sheet on keys with all the voices present, and to open up my arranging beyond textbook approach techniques. I've learned from great classical musicians, as well as great iconoclasts just in one-off masterclasses.

Any general helpful takeaways from jazz school? Any things you wish were done differently?

MS: The institutions were helpful for networking and having access to a lot of information in one place. But I wish I had trusted my instincts more once I learned that info, and not gotten into my head so much around other really talented musicians. You have to develop a strong inner core to deal with all that.

This release is a live release, and I was wondering about the challenges of doing a recording like this. How was post-production? Did you have the freedom you wanted to edit and mix the recording?

MS: Well, this was the most hands-off release from this band production-wise. It was a live recording and we wanted to keep it in that spirit. I will say a general note, that even in the studio the saxes are tough to have tons of control over because there aren't that many iso booths, and the quartet plays with chemistry best in one room... but that means you have to sometimes take what you get, warts and all. But that's a beautiful thing too, and kind of a lost art since the advent of Pro Tools and crazy attempts at separation. The mistakes on old Blue Note records are part of what make them what they are.

Tell us about your saxophone and jazz practice routines. What have been some of the most helpful things you have practiced over the years? What would you advise prioritizing?

MS: Definitely the aforementioned things from my teachers. In addition, I vocalize and use movement as much as I can off the horn in order to make the horn an extension of me. I use Joe Allard techniques to work on my sound, timbral flexibility and consistency in all registers. I transcribe on occasion, but only aurally now and balance that with other types of testing my aural memory. Often playing free will develop my ear, and any pattern or exercise routines should grow organically from a specific musical problem I'm trying to solve. Otherwise it's devoid of context, and too far removed from making music.

How about writing? How did you work on developing that? What's helped you the most there?

MS: I wrote instinctively great ideas long before I knew how to write "correctly." That's important. But, it's also important to write things that are playable. So it's a balance between the farthest reaches of my imagination and the limits of reality. If you don't take risks, though, there's no point.

Thanks for taking the time, Matt!