Primary Sources

I spent most of January in a bit of a musical rut. Practicing was a challenge, I barely listened to any recordings (new or old), and I could hardly think about music without getting at least mildly annoyed. Part of it probably had to do with getting musically overloaded around Christmas. I acquired and listened to so many new recordings between the end of November and beginning of January that I just needed to give my ears and mind a rest. Also I had few things to play for, which definitely worked against me. My proactive reaction to this a couple weeks ago was to “get back to basics,” starting with listening. So what did this saxophonist listen to to stoke the embers? Yep, you guessed it: Smashing Pumpkins.

…?

Over the course of about a week, I listened to almost the entire SP catalogue (I tried to not be too completist about it…). That constituted the bulk of my listening, with a smattering of other 90s bands sprinkled in. Ah, good old 90s rock – you really can’t beat it. While it wasn’t entirely conscious, it took me about 10-14 days to listen to anything remotely saxophonic or “art music”-esque. On the surface one may consider these two disparate groups (the aforementioned rockers & sax/contemporary styles). However, just a couple days into this regimen I was happily practicing and brainstorming, ready to forge ahead once again.

I did not listen to the above bands/styles to remind myself of why I play saxophone. Rather, I listened as a reminder of why I started to become passionate about music in the first place. Smashing Pumpkins was the first group I made a deep connection to. To an adolescent Mike Teager, SP was music. The incredible variety on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) showed me that a rock band could be multi-dimensional, and that the musical possibilities could be endless. Gradually, this led to TOOL and Dave Matthews Band, then to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and also to the classical realm (Wagner & 20th Century music, specifically), etc. This lineage continues to expand, right up through present day, but it’s always healthy to return to the source. (Though, I must say that 16 years later I’ll still put Mellon Collie up against any masterpiece in another style. There’s enough diversity and nuance to busy any musician, from the amateur to the academic.) For too long, I feel like I got a bit lost in secondary and tertiary sources – artists and groups I later discovered through a long aesthetic evolution. After a while, it got to the point that I lost touch with those original, primary sources of inspiration. It reminded me of a great quote by Oliver Nelson:

“…I finally had broken through and realized that I would have to be true to myself, to play and write what I think is vital and, most of all, to find my own personality and identity. This does not mean that a musician should reject and shut things out. It means that he should learn, listen, absorb and grow but retain all the things that comprise the identity of the individual himself.”
– From the liner notes to Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961)

Now I feel armed and ready for a couple recording projects I’ve recently taken up, as well as some gigs coming down the pike. (Note: of course the recording endeavors also played an integral role in my rejuvenation.) Concurrently with my mental recharging, I thought a lot about personal sound/style, what that means to me, and how to describe it. (I’ve always had an abstract but consistent idea of what it is I’m after, but describing it in words is another story.) Hopefully I’ll start to document that process in some sort of ongoing series here in the relatively near future. Until then, I’ll be in the woodshed…

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