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!

Monday, April 26, 2021

Interview with Ben Kraef on a New Release, Jazz Gallery

I recently got to talk to two talented saxophonists and get insights into their playing, practice, composing, and recording and performance experience. I'll be posting a second interview with Matt Steckler next week, who writes for a sax quartet + rhythm section. Be sure to come back and check that out. 

First up is Ben Kraef. If you haven't heard his name before, that's likely because he's based in Berlin. A very talented player with a robust sound and inventive melodic approach to improvising, Ben has recently collaborated with Andreas Lang and Anders Morgans on a record called Jazz Gallery, which you can hear on Spotify or Youtube. All of these guys are serious players, having performed with guys like Jerry Bergonzi, Walt Weiskopf, John Patitucci, Marcus Gilmore, etc., and the record is fantastic. I definitely recommend adding it to your playlist ASAP. Here's something to get you started...

Ben was kind enough to answer some questions about his development as a saxophonist and improviser as well as about this particular project. Here's our conversation.

ES: I’ve really enjoyed listening to the record. When getting ready to record a big project like this, what does your practice look like? What kind of things are you doing to get ready?

BK: I’m truly happy to hear that you enjoyed listening to it! I try to really get into the material, to be so familiar with the music that I don’t have to think too much in the moment of recording. This means that I know it by heart, know what is going on on all the three levels - melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. The first thing I do is to play the tune on the saxophone, getting familiar with the range and how the harmonies sound and ‘feel’ on the horn, particularly concerning original music. The saxophone was my first instrument, so I don’t visualize a keyboard or guitar fingerings or a musical staff, like many other saxophonists do.

Even though I’m a terrible piano player I then usually sit down at the piano to dig into what’s going on harmonically, especially when there are unconventional chords or harmonic movements.

Now, you don’t always have the luxury of preparing for a gig and recording. Often enough I go to a gig or into the studio and have to deal with music I’ve never seen or heard before. In those situations I rely on my experience and knowledge. As a jazz musician you basically train from early on to deal with spontaneously changing situations constantly challenging your comfort zone.

ES: I personally find the dryer sound of a studio and the disconnected feeling of being further from my band mates to be a challenging situation for performing music. Then there is also the added nerves of recording, making something that you’re going to put out into the world. What strategies or techniques do you use to deal with studio recording? Is there anything you do to help make yourself musically comfortable?

BK: You are absolutely right about that! I always really enjoy being in the studio. I like the process of taking time to create and play music and spending a whole day hanging out with fellow musicians. At the same time a studio never feels totally natural to me. I guess it’s the lack of an audience and like you said the usually very dry acoustics. Then, depending on the studio itself, you often are tucked away into a separate cabin or room, hearing the others only via headphones. I always prefer recording in one room without headphones because I can hear and see, hence interact and communicate better with the others. Unfortunately, that is often not possible.

The you have to deal with the awareness of recording something that will be there forever and you got to deal with your own expectations and those you think others have of you. You want to play as perfect as possible and create something that somehow has an impact

on people. That at times can feel overwhelming and the best way is to question the this perfectionism imminent in our society and take a step back and think about what music actually is. Is it a product? Is it an ego trip? Is it supposed to reach people? And who do you want to reach with it and how? Technically or emotionally?

These are all questions we should ask ourselves.

Concerning myself, I found that the music that really affects me might have certain imperfections from certain point of views, but overall is timeless in the atmosphere it projects and the message it transports.

Regarding my own playing, I enjoy most taking risks and searching for moments in which i surprise myself and my colleagues. I strive to keep it interesting and unpredictable for the listener, the other players, and last but not least myself.

ES: One of things that really stuck out on the recording is your tone. It’s big and full of life. What have you done to develop your sound over the years? What would you suggest for saxophonists just starting to develop their sound.

BK: Thank you Ben, it’s good to get that feedback because I was always striving for a big sound. What I really love about the tenor aside from it’s range of expression is the big and dark sound it can produce. In fact my first two CDs ever were Coleman Hawkins’ The High And Mighty Hawk and Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson. Hearing these two giants really fascinated me and left a mark. After that I discovered Eddie Davis, Ike Quebec, Arnett Cobb, Dewey Redman and many more. I always remember when I first heard Illinois Jacquet’s entry on Stairway to the Stars with Johnny Hartman, that literally blew me away. What I’m getting at is that listening and discovering recordings and artists that you dig are essential. Somehow certain things catch your attention right away, meaning that they resonate with a certain aesthetic you already have in your mind or ear and others help shaping and developing your sound further. What I want to highlight too is that listening to saxophonist live is quintessential. It’s such a physical and acoustic instrument, that really capturing its’ real sound with all the dimensions on a recording seems impossible. It will always be a different experience.

So listening comes first and then the work you put in comes second. Know what sound you strive for and pick the equipment appropriately. We intuitively do that because we look at what our heroes play as a reference and try that and take it from their on our journey to the perfect setup. For many of us that’s a never ending one.

Creating a sound is no secret and it’s about how much time you invest in practicing it. The method of learning the saxophone hasn’t changed and there are no shortcuts. It’s going through long tone and overtone exercises and the more you run through them (mindfully) the more you will reap the rewards. You have to learn how to connect with your core and its’ strength that produces the stream of air, which you then have to earn to control that. Learning to breathe right is the key. Dave Liebman compiled a few breathing exercises in his  Developing Your Personal Saxophone Sound. He also explains how posture, breathing, position of your jaw and tongue are all interconnected and how the influence the production of sound. This goes back to the great Joe Allard and Sigurd Rascher who really dug into sound production and control. They also put out some exercises which everyone should look into.

And, last but not least, practicing outside really built up my sound. The first time I played outside I really felt like my sound was as thin as a weed, and immediately gone. The more you play outside the more you will automatically create a sound that engulfs, creating a virtual room since you don’t have any walls that do that for you.

ES: On a similar note, you have a great approach to improvisation and personal stylistic voice, which is something many jazz musicians strive for. How did that develop for you? Would you have any advice for others looking to find their voice on the instrument? Also, what are some of your favorite improvisational exercise or ways to approach practicing improvisation?

BK: I consider myself an intuitive player at the core. That’s how I started playing and I felt that has always been my stronger side. I had to work on the intellectual part more.

The key is to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. Keep refining the things you do really well and put slightly more work into the things that don’t come that easily to you.

For example I never had a ‘real’ practice routine or schedule. I would just play and then stumble upon something on which I would linger. Somehow I always found it tough to play long tones for fifteen minute, scales for half an hour, before moving on to the other stuff. I kind of gave up on that and try to find a mix. That is just how I practice and learn best.

I started playing by just listening to music and playing along records before I really knew what was going on. I followed my ear and automatically copied and tried to add stuff to what the musicians were playing on the track. So my advice is to listen a lot and copy the things you like. You don’t always have to transcribe whole solos. That makes sense if you want to check out a solo as a whole and take a look at the bigger picture. Just as important is that you take small bits you really dig and learn them. Run them through different keys, all over the instrument. Take the next step and understand where the material is derived from, what the scale or chord behind it is. Like that you can build your own personal vocabulary that still has a reference to whoever or whatever your approach is based on.

Check out as many different players as possible, you’ll get some input and still stay with the few you like the most anyway. Get your hands on music for different instruments such as violin or oboe or even harp and just read some pages before you start your practice routine. If you really like a certain piece then stay with it a bit longer and internalize it.

ES: Any suggestions for working on intonation? Is that something you’ve focused on in your practice?

BK: I just started practicing intonation in a more focused and effective way maybe two years ago. That happened mainly through teaching and looking for answers to questions posed by my students. Of course at some point you are familiar with your horn and its’ weaknesses, the best example being the palm keys which tend to be too sharp on most saxophones. But our ears can also fool us and we can easily go sharper and sharper. That’s what has happened throughout the centuries with European classical music and the concert pitch, resulting in A= 440 Hz or even 443 Hz, depending on the orchestra. It used to be 409 Hz in the 18th century for A concert!

The soloists wanted to project better and rise above the orchestra and tuning the instrument slightly higher helped them to get that brilliance and shimmer above the rest of the band.

Anyway, I just want to highlight how our ears perceive the sharpness as brilliance and that can easily get out of hand if you loose the reference point.

I find that practicing intonation within a scale is not as effective as with intervals. Somehow it seems more of a challenge for my students to play intervals from a 6th on and more so once you go bigger than an octave. Playing a major 2nd in tune is easier than a 9th and it becomes more difficult the bigger the intervals are. I find it really important that you know pitch should be. Once you mastered that you are free to follow your aesthetic ideal. Being out of tune is a strong effect and can really create a particular atmosphere. Imagine you were a painter and choose to use red in your paintings. Maybe you want a subtle reddish tone all the time or just spots of red here and there. It’s your personal decision, but you should know what the context is and be in control.

ES: Last but not least, what are some of your favorite moments from this record, and it’s totally OK to be self-centered answering this and point out some moments in your own playing you were very happy with. That’s why asking!

BK: That’s a tough one! This recording was quite unusual because I had never played that little for such a long period of time in my entire life, due to the pandemic. Playing with other musicians again really was a trip! I find that it has a certain freshness as well as roughness to it which I like. It reflects quite well the situation at the time, the excitement to play as well as not having played with other people in a while.

In my opinion it turned out to be a really nice vibrant and diversified album, with surprising little twists and turns, different grooves and moods.

Thanks, Ben for talking with me and giving us some great insights. Good luck with everything!

Friday, March 26, 2021

Live-stream of Facing West Tonight!!! Double Sax Quartet

 Hey everyone,

My college is hosting a live-stream of a fantastic jazz quartet featuring not one, but two great saxophonists, Doug Stone and Donnie Norton. In fact, on a few tunes, there may even be three saxes (yours truly). 

The show is today (3/26/21), and it's free on zoom and starts at 8 PM MT (10 PM EST). Here's the link:

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Musician's Toolbox Interview

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by some friends at the musician's toolbox podcast. We had a nice discussion on writing music and fiction that go together, practice-experimentation to find the best most efficient methods and exercises, and succeeding at the music school thing. It was a nice conversation and definitely worth listening to if any of the above interest you. Here's the link: 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Upcoming Live-streamed Show, Podcast, Reeds and Intonation, Upcoming Books!

 Happy New Year everybody!

Hopefully, 2021 will be a heck of a lot better than 2020, though that's yet to be seen. I know it's been quite a while since I updated the blog, and now I've got a bunch of exciting stuff to put on here.

New Sextet: Sound Expression
I'm super excited to debut my new group, Sound Expression. We'll be playing a live-streamed show on January 16th, at 7:30 MT. You can tune in live, or you can watch the show after the fact. You'll find more info here:

Interview Doug Stone's Tenor Talk Podcast
A great saxophonist and my good friend, Doug Stone, has been doing a podcast on jazz saxophone. A couple of months back I was on the show and we had a lot of fun talking about my album/novel project, saxophone sound, and technique. You can check it out here:

Reeds and Intonation
One of the bane's of some saxophone players is intonation in the high register, and that has definitely been a challenge for me in the past. In non-beginners, the most common problem I hear is sharp intonation in the upper register, and it's interesting to see the difference for some players even on regular B versus B an octave higher. Sometimes, there can be close to a quarter step difference between these two notes without an effort to keep the pitch down. I recently discovered that reed strength can be a major contributor to that. 

Playing on a reed that is too soft for your setup and chops can result in a reed that is too sensitive to embouchure pressure. Some embouchure pressure is absolutely required to play in the upper register (there can be too much, but that's a different issue), and a reed that is too soft will significantly flex with that embouchure pressure, closing up the space inside the mouthpiece and raising the pitch. Playing on a slightly harder reed strength can minimize this effect. One of the most important indicators that reed strength may be at the heart of your intonation problem is that the intonation in the lower octave is pretty spot-on and the intonation in the higher octave is sharp unless you correct it through voicing or jaw movement. I've suggested moving up a reed strength to quite a few of my students who have had this problem, and it has consistently helped. I hope that helps some of you sax players out there looking for an intonation fix.

Two Upcoming Books
Last but not least, I'm excited to tell you about two upcoming books I've been working on. The first is a science fiction novel, Gravity Leak, which I've posted about before. I'm in the final editing stages, and it will be hitting bookshelves in the upcoming months!

The other writing project I'm pretty excited about is a revised edition of my sound and overtone books. I'll be combining them into one volume that also incorporates the latest research into saxophone voicing, embouchure, articulation, etc. I've learned a lot since publishing these books, and I'm excited to update them and put something new out.

That's all for now, I hope to "see" a bunch of you at my live-streamed show on the 16th!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Gravity Leak: Album Out Now, Book Coming this Summer

I'm very excited to share that my album, Gravity Leak, is out. You can listen on whichever streaming platform you prefer, or you can download it, or you can even buy a physical copy! (Do it!)
This album has really been a labor of love. All of the tunes are my original compositions, and a significant portion of them are based on a novel I've been working on (by the same title). The first three tracks on the album make up a four-part suite inspired by the novel. The first track, "Tane and Ana," introduces the hero and heroine of the story, represented by the sax and trumpet. Besides the general instrumental representations, there are musical elements linked to both of the characters. Part II, "Gravity Leak," follows their discovery and journey to a parallel world. Again, there are musical elements representing specific parts of the story. One of the more obvious ones is the solo battle between the guitar and tenor sax, which is meant to represent one of the epic battles in the story. Part III, "Angel in Darkness," is about a specific event in the novel where Ana, represented by the soprano sax, leads others into a hellish version of the afterlife. The last composition in the suite, "Like Minds," is a musical version of one of the themes in the story, which is that united but different points of view are an important part of overcoming the obstacles that life puts in our path.

Here is a little more context for the story: Tane and Ana live fairly ordinary lives in New Boston, at least as ordinarily as possible in the year 2137 after climate disaster has transformed the earth. Tane, a save-the-world kind of guy, gave up a life of financial success to work at a high-tech wildlife refuge alongside Ana, a driven and talented field researcher. Their daily routine is interrupted when Tane starts having strange reoccurring dreams about a messenger from a parallel world who needs his help. Tane refuses to believe that there is any reality to his dreams until a breakthrough in his friend Cole’s work with gravity manipulation opens up new possibilities. With a potential path forward, Tane decides to help the messenger from his dream world. Unable to let Tane attempt the odyssey by himself, Ana volunteers to go with him. Unsure if they’ll even survive, they begin their journey with a small leap through the first known-to-man tear in space or in other words, a gaping hole in nothing.

While the novel is a fun part of this project, the music is meant to stand on its own. The album features a ton of talented musicians from Rochester, NY and Eastman School of Music, many of whom I have played with for years. The musicians include Luke Norris on tenor sax who plays a killing solo on track 3, Colin Gordon on soprano and alto saxes with a disgusting micro-chromatic solo on the title track, Brandon Choi on trumpet with a beautiful solo on track 1, Jack Courtright on trombone, Oliver Hanes on trumpet, Billy Petito on guitar who wages an epic solo battle on the title track, Julian Garvue on piano with a seizure-inducing ridiculous solo on the title track, Tyrone Allen II on acoustic and electric basses, Daniel Sunshine on drum set, Sterling Cozza on piano, Stephen Morris on drum set with a killing drum solo on the last track, and Jakob Ebers on acoustic bass with the only and definitely best bass solo on the album. The awesome audio engineering was done by Michael Sherman, Rich Wattie, and Mike Craig.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Single Released Today!

I'm very excited to share a single from my upcoming album, Gravity Leak, which will be out at the end of the month on Feb. 29th. This single is titled "Tane and Ana," and it's an original composition inspired by my sci-fi/fantasy novel coming out later this year. The track features solos by amazing trumpet player Brandon Choi and a tenor solo by yours truly. Other musicians on the track are Tyrone Allen II, Daniel Sunshine, Billy Petito, Julian Garvue, Colin Gordon, and Jack Courtright. Give it a listen!

Listen on Spotify, iTunes or Apple Music, Amazon, etc.