A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist outlines concepts and exercises that will help you shape your sound and achieve an ideal tone no matter the context. Endorsed by world renown saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman.

Get it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or as an ebook. Find out more here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Easier Altissimo & the G-sharp Key

Recently I was looking at some fingerings in a Michael Brecker transcription book, and on a couple of the palm key related altissimo fingerings, the book suggested holding down the pinky G-sharp key. I tried adding G-sharp to those two typical altissimo fingerings and the notes were definitely easier to play and there was a noticeable improvement in their tone quality. A little while later I decided to experiment with holding the G-sharp key down for every altissimo fingering I could. I was pretty excited about the results. Because using the G-sharp key lowered the resistance on many of the notes in the altissimo register, my tone, ability to play expressively, and technique all noticeably improved. It really made a big difference.

Altissimo G

The first fingering where I found that adding the G-sharp key makes a noticeable difference is on altissimo G (this is on tenor). In fact, I had a student try adding the G-sharp key to the altissimo fingering he was using when working towards G, and he was able to play and sustain the note for the first time ever. For those of you who are still working on ascending into the altissimo register, I would suggest slurring up to G from F-sharp, and, of course, use the G-sharp key.

Altissimo G (w/ G-sharp key addition)

Note about G# and A

For the fingerings that I use on altissimo G-sharp and A, adding the G-sharp key doesn't actually open the G-sharp tone hole, so there is no benefit with those two fingerings. However, I do find myself holding down the pinky G-sharp when I am playing altissimo phrases that pass through G-sharp and/or A because that way I have less to coordinate when I arrive to either G below or any of the higher altissimo notes above.

B-flat on Up

Here are my fingerings for altissimo B-flat up through D all with the G-sharp key addition. The added key really makes a difference in this range.






For altissimo E-flat up through dog-whistle G, I literally recycle these same fingerings. The added G-sharp key continues to make things a bit easier in this extreme register.






For a general approach to the altissimo register, please check out a previous post, an Altissimo Crash Course. Also, thank you to Bret Pimentel for his very useful Fingering Diagram Builder.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Melodic Chromaticism in Improvisation

I realize the blog has been quiet for a little while now, but that seems to be one of the side effects of being in school again and going for a doctoral degree. Anyways, you can expect a few articles over the next few weeks.

When jazz musicians first learn to play chromatically in melodic improvisation, it is often limited to the chromatic vocabulary that is integral to the jazz language, and, for some players, it can be difficult to explore beyond that. I'm going to lay out a simple concept that will hopefully give us more approaches to melodic chromaticism.

When I say melodic chromaticism, I have a specific definition. I am not referencing chord substitutions or scale substitutions like a tritone sub or the half-whole diminished scale on a dominant chord. I am referencing a more specific concept, and that is how specific chromatic notes relate to the diatonic chord/scale they are presented on. A simple example would be how the note D-flat relates to the mode C mixolydian (C7). I'm asking questions like where can D-flat go? How can I use the note D-flat in context of C mixolydian?

What are the Chromatic Tones and Tension Tones?
A basic approach that helped free me up when approaching melodic chromaticism, is to focus on the chromatic and tension notes as a set of options instead of focusing mainly on the chord tones or notes of the scale, which are beyond memorized at this point anyhow. On a C7 what are your chromatic options or other dissonant options? Assuming that the sus4 color is not being employed, the dissonant tones will be D-flat, E-flat, F, A-flat and B. You might raise an eyebrow at the F, but, though the F is diatonic to C mixolydian, it is definitely a dissonant note or, in other words, a tension tone. F-sharp has not been included in our list because, though it is chromatic to the key, it can be used as consonant note over the chord or a tone of resolution (the sharp 11). E-flat and F are also both blues notes when C7 is a tonic chord, like in a C blues or over an extended C7 vamp, which means you can use E-flat and F as dissonant resolution tones when invoking a blues color in those contexts. Below you can see the mode C mixolydian on the left (the chord tones for C7 are hollowed out), and on the right you can see the chromatic and tension tones.

How do they Resolve?
The next question is where do all of these chromatic or tension notes resolve? Following is a graphic of all the resolutions by step, with the dissonant tone first and then a possible resolution. (blues note resolutions are indicated).

You should also think of these option in context to the key. So, when C7 is a tonic like in a C blues, then you have the blue note options shown above, but if you are on a C7 in a standard tune where the key center is F, then those blue notes option change to match the the key of F. The feeling or color of the other chromatic/tension tones will also subtly change depending on your key center.

Applying it in Improvisation
By focusing on the dissonant tones as a basic set of options you are able to approach them in a variety of ways. You can use them as passing tones in a scalar passage, as neighbor tones, as appoggiaturas (dissonances approached by a leap), or various combinations of these. I would suggest improvising in a vamp setting over a single chord as exploring all the option I just listed. In a future article I'll go more in depth into these melodic gestures.

I have given you the options over C7/C Mixolydian, but each chord/scale will have its own unique dissonant tones and resolutions which I encourage you to explore and memorize them. In the next few weeks look for more articles including a couple easy techniques to improve altissimo and overtones.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Keep Your Sound Alive!

I recently received a question via email, and as the whole exchange was fairly instructive I thought I'd share it here. To paraphrase the question, a player wrote to me concerned with the fullness of their sound on a particular horn. They felt that the horn sounded dead and had been thinking of switching horns or taking other drastic measures. Here were the main points of my response:

1. Neck Strap Height. Make sure your neck strap is sufficiently high. A neck strap that is adjusted too low can result in an unsupported approach to embouchure which produces a certain deadness in the sound.

2. Mouthpiece position on the neck. If your mouthpiece sits too far in on the cork (meaning pushed in to move the pitch center sharper), you can end up with an unsupported embouchure again, this time compensating for a pitch center that would be too sharp with an embouchure with sufficient pressure for a full sound. For the following to work, you have to have a good sense of pitch and intonation. To experiment with this pull out or push in your mouthpiece by just a millimeter. If you go a little too far in (on the sharp side) you'll hear a deadening of the pitch, if you are a little too far out (on the flat side) you'll feel a certain tightness of embouchure that doesn't allow for fluid inflection or full depth of tone. Dead center you will find that you have a comfortable embouchure and a fuller sound.

3. Ligature position. You can also maximize the fullness of sound by finding the optimal ligature position on your mouthpiece (meaning it's position towards the front and back of the mouthpiece). The ligature affects which parts of the reed vibrates and different ligature positions produce different timbres and response to air flow and articulation. Experiment moving you ligature to different positions to find out what you like the best. You'll find the further you put the ligature back on the reed the more core or mid range vibrations you will hear in the sound. If you go too far it can begin to sound dead as you lose highs. I've found an optimal position for me that is a good balance between highs, mids, resistance, and response to articulation. I initially wanted a few more highs in the sound but I instead opted for a stronger core which has the added advantage of being slightly more responsive to articulation. 

4. Long Tones, Overtones, and Multiphonics. Finally, players who practice long tones especially overtones and multiphonics tend to have more vibrant tones. Even just a day or two of going without my regiment of overtones results in a deader tone. Daily maintenance in the area keeps my tone alive and vibrant.

Alright, good luck with everything, and please consider experimenting with my suggestions before making a decision on the horn!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Phil-Tone and Theo Wanne "Tribute" Tenor Sax Mouthpiece

It's been a while since I reviewed a saxophone mouthpiece, but with Phil-Tone and Theo Wanne's latest collaboration there seems to be good reason to write one. I've reviewed various mouthpieces from both of these creators in the past, so it was interesting to see what came about when both of them put their heads together.

The mouthpiece is called "The Tribute", and the name points to the creation process by which it came about. Phil and Theo raided their mouthpiece collection and picked a special  example of a Florida era Super Tone Master Otto Link, one of the all time classic tenor mouthpieces model. Then they worked together to recreate its sound and playability without any modernizations.

I'd like to say up front that this mouthpiece does accomplish its goal. It is very similar to the examples of Florida era Links that I've played. That being said there are many variations within the spectrum of Florida era Links, and an example of that is my Florida Link which is a USA (later vintage) and has a slightly smaller chamber lending a more poweful and brighter sound. There really is a spectrum of sounds that various Florida Links produce from brighter to darker, but what unifies them is the core sound with its complexity and depth.

"The Tribute" lands someplace on the darker side of the spectrum and certainly nails the complexity and depth of tone. Its sound reminds me a lot of the classic jazz tenor tones from the 50's. The piece also has punch and power which you expect from a Florida Link, however I prefer slightly more punch or edginess from a mouthpiece. Overall, the tone is deep, has a good presence, and produces a blend of dark and bright timbral qualities leaning towards a warm sound.

The piece plays fantastically. It feels very balanced in terms of resistance, meaning isn't too hard or too easy to blow. That seems to be built into the architecture of the Florida Link and transfers nicely to the Tribute. It plays evenly from bottom to top, responds fantastically, and that results in a great playing experience. The mouthpiece really stands out in that regard.

Here is an example of me playing the Tribute: Solar on the Tribute

Conclusion: Phil-Tone and Theo Wanne's "The Tribute" is a warm and powerful mouthpiece with a complex and somewhat dark tone. Its playability and response are fantastic.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Matching Reed Strength and Mouthpiece Placement to Tone

Tone is a combination of quite a few different elements, and every optimization you can make will help you get closer to your ideal sound. Reed strength and mouthpiece placement on the neck are two important factors that help determine your tone quality and your comfort level while playing.

Cannonball Adderly (who played on 2s!)
Matching Reed Strength to Tone

Reeds can have a huge effect on tone, and even once you have settled on a brand and style you like you'll still need to make sure you have the perfect match for in size. The general rule is the bigger the reed the darker the tone and the softer the reed the brighter the tone. This is fairly common knowledge, but I'll explore some of the finer details.

The harder end of the reed strength spectrum attracts many players, and has its own virtues. As you go to harder strength reeds the resistance increases and the tone darkens. When you get to reed strengths towards the very hard end of your comfort spectrum, which is determined by your setup and physical make up, you will notice a very raspy quality, a decrease in volume and an increasingly muted quality to the tone. You know when a reed is absolutely too hard because it will be difficult to control the tone in the context of normal playing (practicing or in bands, etc.).

My preference is the softer end of the reed strength spectrum. As you go to softer strength the tone brightens and resistance decreases. At the very soft end of your comfort spectrum you will have to depend on air support and focus in order to stabilize the pitch and the tone. Sound becomes very susceptible to inflection. While harder reeds require very developed embouchure driven chops, softer reeds require well developed air support driven chops. You know when a reed is absolutely too soft because it fails to provide proper resistance to your air column. The sound thins and becomes overly bright.

The spectrum of reed strength is often misunderstood. Some players and teachers espouse increasing in reed strength  as if it was a ladder and the goal was to climb as high as possible. This is entirely wrong, and I'll give supporting evidence in just a bit. An entirely different, but equally wrong, misconception is that once matured all players will be playing on the same reed strength, around a 3 or 3.5. Dealing with the latter first, we all have different physical make ups, different levels of resistance built into our saxophone and mouthpieces (and even different cuts reeds!), and different approaches to playing. One player might get their best sound at 2.5 strength reed and another player will get it at 5 strength, and those two players could sound very alike. What feels like a harder reed to one player can feel like a softer reed to another. We are individuals in terms of our person and our equipment, so one size will never fit all best.

As far as the feeling that we need to be always climbing the reed strength ladder, this is been proven false by so many great players over the years. Cannonball Adderly played on strength 2. Charlie Parker started on harder reeds and then switched to softer reeds mid career. Michael Brecker played on softer reeds as well. This is really just an extension of the fact that the same strength reed will feel different to different players, and that each player has their own preference in terms of tone.

It is definitely worth the money and the time to experiment with reed strength. Try a strength softer and strength harder then what you currently play, and give it a chance. You could end up with a better match for the tone you want and your comfort level.

Matching Mouthpiece Placement to Tone

This following section is only for players who have a decent sense of pitch and who naturally tend towards playing in tune. If you have regular problems with intonation, this section is not for you! Mouthpiece placement on the neck is a more subtle customization of tone. There is a span of few millimeters (maybe 2 or 3) on the neck cork in which your saxophone and mouthpiece combination will sound "in tune". Obviously too high or too low will simply result in a sharp or flat sound. With the mouthpiece towards the lower end of the "in tune" spot on the neck (pulled out a millimeter or two from the higher end), your chops close up a bit naturally to compensate and bring the pitch to its center. With your mouthpiece towards the upper end of the "in tune" spot (pushed in a millimeter or two from the lower end of the span), your chops open a bit in compensation. With these reactions comes a resultant change in tone. At the lower end of the window the sound is given a slight edge or pop, and at the higher end of the window the sound is a less edgy and more grainy. I personally find that too much grain or too much edge will just sound like distortion, and I use these sounds more as a guide to make sure I really have my mouthpiece positioned exactly where I want for my ideal sound.

I actually just had a student yesterday who was saying something was wrong with his tone. It sounded spitty to him. I told him to pull out his mouthpiece just a hair (like a millimeter). He did so and his tone was immediately and audibly (most important) improved. A real life application like this takes careful listening and simple digestion of the principle outlined above. Happy playing.

The Hexatonic Scale: Training Wheels for Mixolydian

When teaching, I often find that improvisation students sometimes get stuck when given a major scale or mode of the scale as building material. They can more easily find the melodies that are built into the pentatonic scales and the blues scale, but they have a harder time creating their own melodies using the major scale or its modes. The concepts of creating a melody by ear and drawing on vocabulary from songs, licks and solos doesn't always come easily or right away, so students sometimes find themselves stuck for a period until they wrap their brain around these concepts.

Back to the nature of scales, the pentatonic and blues scales have inherent melodic elements built in, the skips and jumps built into the pentatonic and blues scales and the  flat 5 in the blues scale. Just by playing these scales up and down they automatically suggest certain melodies. The major scale and its modes on the other hand are made up of successive small intervals, and when every note is played in succession they are less suggestive of melody by comparison. The best solution would be to learn the elements of melody, to learn to use larger intervals appropriately, add in chormatic neighbor tones, etc. However, for those students who need a leg up there are the hexatonic scales.

Some of my favorite settings for teaching improvisation are the 12 bar blues progression and dominant chord vamps. Either way you have to learn the mixolydian mode to completely understand your scale/note options in either of these settings. Following is one version of a hexatonic scale drawn from the C mixolydian mode:

This hexatonic could be used over a C7 (C dominant seven), and us built using scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 1. The built in skip from degrees 3 to 5, which also avoids a tension note, gives the scale some inherent melodic content, and students can more easily begin using it in improvisation. Using similar methods hexatonics can be created for other scales and modes as needed.

Monk Competition!

Alright, all you sax players who will be 30 or younger in September of this year, You've got 9 days or so to send in your recordings to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. This year's competition is saxophone (it actually came around 2 years early), and I would be amiss if I didn't write something about it here on the blog. For those of you who are not in the know, the Monk competition is the probably the most prestigious competition in jazz. It rotates through various instruments on the annual basis, and the winners usually end up being pretty successful. Some of past saxophone finalists have included Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Eric Alexander and Seamus Blake to name a few. Top prize is $25,000 and a 1 album record deal with Concord. Pretty awesome.

To put your name in the hat for the competition you have to send in an audio recording, resume, and application in by July 1st. From there they'll select 12 semifinalists who will compete in September. Good luck!

In celebration here is a little of Four in One, a great Monk tune, recorded by myself: