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!

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