Tag Archives: saxophone

Dave Liebman at the 2013 Detroit Jazz Festival

This past weekend was something special: three disparate sets by Dave Liebman over as many days and stages at the Detroit Jazz Festival. I mentioned my excitement in my last post, and the performances met and exceeded the hype. Not only was it three days of The Master, but each performance featured a group I hadn’t before seen live.

Saturday’s headliner at the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage was Saxophone Summit: Lieb, Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane, Billy Hart, Cecil McBee, and Phil Markowitz. This burnin’ 75-minute set consisted of four tunes from the group’s debut album Gathering of Spirits: “Alexander the Great,” “The 12th Man,” “Tricycle,” and Trane’s “India.” After a bit of a loose start – mainly because of sound – it was off to the races with “Alexander the Great,” and the momentum let up not once. It may have just been the mix (i.e., balance) but it sounded as if the scoring was a bit different in parts. Either way I liked it. Cecil McBee’s dark bass lines gave the set a sinister undertone which I greatly enjoyed, and Jabali‘s driving yet unpredictable drumming continually propelled the group forward. And hats off to Phil Markowitz for such tasteful accompanying. He’s unafraid to both fill out the texture with dense harmonies and not play at all, and he knows exactly when to do both. “Tricycle” was perhaps the highlight, as each saxophonist got an opportunity to play in his own style – separate from the others – within the same piece. Lieb and Markowitz played a lovely improvised duo that could be transcribed and held up against most contemporary classical compositions; Lovano nimbly let loose over McBee and Hart’s drunken dance; Coltrane and Hart created an intense, fiery atmosphere reminiscent of the elder Trane and Elvin Jones. This led into Trane’s “India,” featuring Ravi on sopranino (with a great tone, something rarely heard on that instrument!), Lovano on tenor, and Lieb on soprano (and wood flute for the intro). Whatever was left of the metaphorical roof was decimated with Liebman’s final solo and Billy Hart’s drumming.

liebrich
(photo by me)

Sunday’s set at the Absopure Pyramid Stage was a duo performance by Lieb and longtime collaborator Richie Beirach. I was particularly excited for this concert because one of the first Liebman recordings I remember experiencing was Tribute to John Coltrane, which features a superb duo performance of “After the Rain” into “Naima.” (And, having purchased so many Lookout Farm, Quest, and other related recordings since then, I was ready to see the real deal in person.) They kicked off their hour set with a lovely tenor/piano rendition of “‘Round Midnight” that traveled quite a stylistic journey: a gentle ballad to bookend frenetic, chromatic solos, finished off with an exploratory cadenza. Liebman showed that, while he’s a Mt. Rushmore-level soprano saxophonist, he’s also dangerous on the tenor. Next was Beirach’s haunting “Testament,” followed by Wayne Shorter’s “Prince of Darkness” and an intense “Footprints.” Their duo rendition of “Footprints” was more intense than most versions I’ve heard by full groups, with Lieb’s characteristic soprano stylings and the pair’s ultra-chromatic approach in full flight. Closing out the set was Liebman’s “Tender” and the Quest classic “Pendulum.” The latter was a nice whetting of the audience’s appetite for the next day’s performance.

quest
(photo by me)

On Monday, Quest was featured at the Carhartt Ampitheater Stage, and it was a wonderful way to complete this triptych. Quest is a hard-charging acoustic quartet consisting of Liebman, Beirach, Billy Hart, and Ron McClure. Originally running from the early ’80s to ’91, Lieb exclusively played soprano with the group until the 2005 reunion. Living in Michigan, I thought I’d never be able to see this group without traveling to the east coast or overseas. (I’ve contemplated the former once or twice in the past.) Seeing them perform was a masterclass in ensemble communication. (The same could be said for the Lieb/Beirach duo and the now-defunct Dave Liebman Group.) Their musical empathy with one another allows for near telepathy, making the music unpredictable. They play without a safety net, and as a listener you know you’ll enjoy wherever they take you, even if it’s a complete mystery. They opened the set with a no-holds-barred “Pendulum” – their de facto theme – with Liebman on tenor. After the melody’s opening salvo, the group took off. Slowing things down a bit, next up was a treat for me: the Lookout Farm-era “M.D.” (Liebman). Of course, even Quest’s “slower” moments are rife with intensity, but they followed that up with a “Footprints” that took no prisoners – I thought his poor soprano would explode – and a “Re-Dial” that featured a complex collective improvisation. Beirach then demonstrated his command of both composition and improvisation on “Elm,” a beautiful ballad and now standard. (Or, rather, what best suits this quartet as a “ballad,” something still too strong for some listeners.) Much to my surprise, the group then played Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” featuring Lieb playing the wooden flute exclusively. In my review of DLG’s Ornette Plus – is mine really the only review of that album? – I praised DLG’s ability to create an almost electronic soundscape. Well, Quest may have one-upped that rendition, as they created a complementary haunting atmosphere with Lieb at the helm but with acoustic instruments. No pulse, just flowing sound and texture. It was definitely a highlight of the weekend. They then concluded their set with a version Wayne Shorter’s “Paraphernalia” that made Circular Dreaming‘s studio cut seem tame. Each time Billy Hart played his fleeting rock rhythms, I’m sure Danny Carey and Vinnie Paul felt a tremor in The Force. I’m surprised the stage remained standing at the performance’s end.

Needless to say, it was an amazing weekend. (…and I didn’t even discuss the great performances by Charles Lloyd and John Scofield!) I know that Dave is often considered “a musician’s musician,” which he definitely is, but I’m confident that he garnered many new fans over the weekend at the world’s largest free jazz festival. The NEA Jazz Master consistently demonstrated to the Detroit audience why he deserves to be counted among the pantheon of the jazz greats.

Beyond the Horn

(NOTE: I’m aware that some sweeping generalizations are made here. I intend to deeply sift through this further down the road.)

I play many different styles of music. Regular readers may already know this but, for example, in the last six months I’ve gigged in the following styles: Americana, folk/singer-songwriter, cocktail/wallpaper jazz, “jam band” (for lack of better term – improvisatory rock), sound/ambient, musical theater (Annie), rock. And I’m already in the process of lining up further disparate gigs over the next few months. I’m well aware that I’m not unique for doing so. A number of my colleagues and peers do the same, and there are many musicians in general that do so. However, one supposedly “limiting” factor is that I’m doing all of these gigs on saxophone (tenor, soprano, alto; plus the occasional flute and/or clarinet).

The jazz-, musical theater-, and classical-oriented stuff is no big thing in the sense that there’s already a place for me. In the latter two cases, the music is precisely notated in such a way that there should be no deviation from one performance to the next. In jazz, the history and vocabulary provides a natural context for the horn regardless of who I’m playing with. However, many of the other styles – notably rock, indie, and others of such ilk – aren’t common settings for my instrument. And in those cases where sax is often used, especially in older rhythm and blues and rock and roll styles, it’s performed in such a specific manner that eschewing such conventions – growling, squealing, blues-ing – can be jarring. It’s not that I dislike such affectations – quite the opposite – but over time they created a box that largely remains today.

Over the last four decades, the saxophone has been a sort of cameo rock instrument. (Before then it was often a staple.) When present it is noticeable. It usually seems to be the case that it’s “band + saxophone” as opposed to a band that happens to have a saxophone as a mainstay. There are of course exceptions to this rule – my beloved Dave Matthews Band springs to mind. In the case of DMB, the sax originally substituted the position of lead guitar (trading such responsibilities with violin). Also with DMB, the music has enough jazz-, jam-, or crossover influence to comfortably allow a variety of instruments to fit in. Another band known for marathon concerts, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, of course features sax (the late Clarence Clemons, now his nephew Jake Clemons and Eddie Manion). However, even with The E Street Band, the heavy guitar presence sort of places the sax within the aforementioned box. (Disclaimer: I’m not intimately familiar with Springsteen’s deep cuts, but these are my impressions having explored his catalogue as much as I have.) Just picking one song off the top of my head, “Rosalita” definitely follows in the “rock sax” tradition. Even Pink Floyd‘s use of the saxophone stayed mainly within this vain – e.g., “Money,” “Us and Them,” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pt. 1” (the latter being perhaps my favorite PF song). There’s even a hint of it in Ron Holloway’s playing with The Warren Haynes Band (last week’s MTH-V). Or you could just listen to some George Thorogood. Or Bob Seger. Or…you get the picture…

It’s worth reiterating that I have nothing against the above sax examples or style at large. For the most part, I quite like all of them. But they passively reinforce the stereotypical “rock sax” sound – a near-anachronistic rhythm and blues punch in the face of the 70s, 80s, 90s, or 2000s listener. It’s as if the saxophone stayed in the fifties and sixties while rock continued to evolve alongside it over the next four decades.

Whenever I play with a rock band – sitting in or regularly – I’m compared, consciously or otherwise, to this tradition. (And I mean a real rock/pop band, not just a funk/fusion band that features an electric guitar.) Though I always appreciate it, I can’t help but laugh a little each time I’m told something to the effect of, “I didn’t know what to expect when I saw the saxophone” or “that was really good [or different, in a positive way]!” Because I know that that comparison took place at some point in the performance, even if only for a few milliseconds. And why shouldn’t it? That old R&B – the real R&B: rhythm and blues – sound is deeply embedded in that aural combination of “band + saxophone.”

By no means do I think I’m going where no saxophonist has gone before by avoiding this hangup. To cite a current example, one of the many things I love about Bon Iver‘s sophomore album is Colin Stetson‘s saxophonic contributions. (“MTH-V” on Bon Iver is here.) He plays throughout the material but is rarely at the sonic forefront – his presence is felt as well as heard. And his choice to mostly play the bass saxophone (with some alto and clarinet thrown in for good measure) is definitely unique in a rock setting. He is effective because he adds another noticeable, functional layer without sonically drawing attention to himself. If you were to just sit down and listen to Bon Iver straight through, you wouldn’t necessarily consider it “band + saxophone” (or “band + French horn,” etc.), but rather just a band.

(There are of course other modern/recent examples – Morphine springs to mind.)

When I’m playing with a band – rock, folk, jazz, or anything remotely along those lines – I don’t necessarily think of myself as the saxophonist per se. Instead I’m just another musician in either a lead or supporting role. Or both. Idealistic? Perhaps. But it has an effect on my thinking and consequently my playing. This of course is part of trying to find one’s “authentic voice,” to quote George Carlin. A primary goal for any musician or artist of any kind is to hone one’s craft to the point of developing an original voice/POV. This shouldn’t exist in a vacuum – ideally I should sound like me regardless of style. As I’ve said many times before, I grew up on rock and pop music. The sound is buried in my DNA. If anything I just see myself as another guitarist without getting hung up on the instrument hanging from my neck.

In Teag & PK, for instance, I have a lot of room to explore. There are just two of us – Matt (guitars, vocals, effects, electronics) and myself (saxes, flute) – and we cover a lot of stylistic ground from experimental ambience to straight-ahead songs. (More on that here and here.) The ambient improvisations are “easier” than the songs in the sense that the sonic landscape is wide open and there’s mostly no form. The more indie-esque songs are challenging at first because it’s often tricky to figure out where and how to implement a monodic instrument without getting in the way of Matt’s chords and voice. We can’t always have countermelodies – that’d get old fast. And I don’t want to just stand there as the de facto soloist in the final act of every song. So instead I find other ways to fit and truly collaborate: subtone a bass line, offer responsorial phrases, play an occasional counter-melody, regularly switch instrumental for timbral effect, etc. In a number of songs I’m able to fill out our sound without distracting from Matt’s singing; it’s truly a duo instead of an alternating singer and soloist.

Regarding straight-ahead rock, I’ve recently been sitting in with The Fencemen. (They’re rock with a capital R-A-W-K.) It started as a one-off recording contribution but I’ve since sat in on a couple live shows. As a bit of an experiment on their part (I’m guessing), they gave me carte blanche on the last gig’s entire set. I did my homework – happily so; their upcoming debut album is great – and did what I thought was best for each song. The band’s instrumentation of vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and keys is already sufficiently full, so above all else I intended to stay out of the band’s way. I gave myself some legitimate “parts” that simply enhanced the texture in some areas, other times I soloed. And other times I simply acted as a second guitarist, complementing the primary guitar parts. At no time did I stress over where to put a saxophone. Instead I thought about where I, not my instrument, would fit. (And if the answer was nowhere I’d lay out.) I didn’t want to just add sound for the sake of adding sound. I wanted to do fit inside what was already there. And it seemed to work. (For the most part, at least.)

Understandably, the above two examples may not seem like much. But I can tell you that, from a horn player’s perspective, the impulse to play a lot of notes is enormous and difficult to temper initially. In classical and jazz ensembles the saxophone often has a busy, featured part. This creates a sort of default mentality of always needing to play similarly in all settings. And on top of wanting to let the fingers fly, a trap I’ve seen a number of people fall into is a stylistic misunderstanding. It’s not uncommon to see a horn player execute jazz licks within pop music. (I guess that whole “knowing your predecessors” thing only applies to jazz and classical styles?) I’m sure part of it may just be the natural defaulting to what he/she knows best. Beyond that, I’m convinced that part of the reasoning is also a mindset that focuses on a traditionally “jazz” or “classical” instrument juxtaposing with a pop style. This then reinforces the reverting to type that often occurs.

I’m not going to allow my choice of instrument limit my choice of style. It’s not that I have “guitar envy.” Obviously I love the saxophone or I wouldn’t have spent all these years devoted to it. In fact, in full disclosure, I’ve played in the aforementioned “rock sax” style a number of times – sometimes that really is the best option. But often it’s definitely not the only option. An instrument is just a means of expression, not an end. And despite all my rage I won’t be just another horn in a cage…

(Photo: Meat Loaf as Eddie in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Duh.)

Gear

I recently decided I wanted to invest in some new hardware for a couple of my saxophones. There are a couple ligatures and mouthpieces that need to be improved upon if not replaced. On top of that, I’ve recently been experimenting with different tenor reeds. While many  saxophonists would find this sort of thing exciting, I don’t.

I’m not a gearhead. Never have been, and likely never will be. I occasionally like to know what certain saxophonists use only out of intellectual curiosity, but it ends there. I care about my own setup of course, but to a certain extent. All of my saxophones and related hardware are of course professional grade, but I’ve never been one to be on the constant search for the “perfect” mouthpiece, neck, etc. Everything I have was selected after much testing and comparing (e.g., my alto saxophone was the best of 13 I play-tested; mouthpieces, etc. were also similarly chosen). Changes have been made along the way, however I tend to largely work with what I have. And even though I have all Selmer saxophones, that is because those are what I was happiest with when shopping around. The Selmer v. Yamaha (Selmer v. Yamaha v. Yanagisawa v. Keilwerth) debate interests me as much as the Apple v. PC v. Linux debate, which is to say not at all.

For many of my peers and colleagues (past and present), such an investment is just the beginning. I can’t tell you how many other saxophonists I know who have spent years searching for the next perfect mouthpiece, reed, ligature, neck, and even horn. Really? Really. I can understand it to an extent. Instrument technology is continually improving, often allowing for more options and flexibility. However, unlike advancements in computer technology, new models don’t necessarily negate their predecessors. I’m sure that if one took all the time spent thumbing through catalogues and/or vendor websites and spent it practicing tone fundamentals, a relatively similar amount of progress may occur.

Before anyone tells me that I think gear is completely irrelevant, allow me to say that I do think it matters, but only to a degree. I believe that once a certain threshold is met, user error is more to blame than mechanical error. Tone and projection can be affected a myriad of ways by a new/different mouthpiece, and that, coupled with personal taste, means that not everyone will play the same thing. When it comes right down to it, you sound like you. If you’re happy with your sound, great. If not, perhaps its time to look in the mirror as opposed to your instrument case. A few anecdotes that have stuck with me:

• In 2003 I saw James Carter milling around the vendor area at World Saxophone Congress XIII. JC is arguably the best technician of the instrument alive today, and he attended the conference (an almost exclusively classical event) simply to test horns, mouthpieces, etc. Being a big fan, I loitered around the vendor area just to hear him do his thing, free and up close. And no matter what he played, he sounded unmistakably like James Carter. I saw walk by one table and presented with a neck screw by one vendor who claimed it would really free up his sound. (!?!) Carter gave him an ARE YOU HIGH? look, tested a horn with and without the magical screw, and claimed nothing changed.

• In 2006 I saw the Dave Liebman Group at Ann Arbor’s (unfortunately extinct) The Firefly. They played two sets, and during the first set I noticed Lieb was playing on a new Yamaha tenor (either an EX or Z model) which was brought by a regional Yamaha representative to court the guru. For the second set, he switched back to his standard Keilwerth (his partner) tenor and still sounded like Lieb. (I attended the show with my friend Drew Whiting, and we both noticed a slight timbral difference at the very bottom of the horn’s range, but we’re both saxophonists and were visually cued to listen in for a difference.) Although Liebman’s tone has changed over the last four decades, I would hardly attribute it to one or two of the hundreds, if not thousands, of iterations his setup has undergone through the years.)

• Throughout my undergraduate study, I had a classmate who was obsessed with mouthpieces, reeds, and ligatures. Every few months his setup would change slightly. (Occasionally he would say something to the effect of, “James Carter plays on _____ mouthpiece. I’m going to get it.”) All that time and money invested in continuing to basically sound like himself, squeaks and all. JC was nowhere to be found. I’m sure one cause for the long-term occasional chirping was that his muscles and mind were unable to focus on his sound via one specific setup.

That being said, my temporary search for new gear continues. Regardless of how annoying it may be (though it of course is always fun to get a new toy of some sort), I can rest assured that purchasing the next ligature or mouthpiece will mark the end of this search, not the beginning of another.

(Pictured above: My toys.)

MTH-V: Michael Brecker

This past Friday (01.13) marked the fifth anniversary of Michael Brecker‘s death. His music and musicianship definitely touches me still. Not only was he one of the tenor saxophone’s greatest technicians, but he played with a deep intensity and emotional to match.

Of the many reasons to love Michael’s playing and ethic, one that particularly stands out to me is his stylistic versatility, having attained a great degree of commercial success in pop music while maintaining a career as a heavy, widely-respected jazz musician. His funk and fusion work with his brother Randy in the Brecker Brothers is of course widely known to most musicians, but his work with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell (if you aren’t familiar with Shadows and Light, go buy it right now), and Paul Simon exposed his name and playing to a much wider audience. (His solo on James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is classic.) And then of course his more straight ahead and avant-garde jazz roots shone brightly in his solo work and that with his longtime collaborators in Saxophone Summit. (His playing was evidence of his deep love for Coltrane’s late period. In fact, it made his passing the day after Alice Coltrane‘s death that much more eerie.)

While there are hundreds of videos I could choose from, I’ve chosen only a few. This first video is from a Vienna performance of Herbie’s “The Sorcerer” with Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Willie Jones III. I saw Michael Brecker live with a variation of this band (with bassist Scott Colley and the always intense Terri Lyne Carrington on drums) a couple months before his disease was made public. Brecker was quite pale, and, though he spent much of the night sitting on a stool or offstage when not playing, he absolutely destroyed Detroit’s Orchestra Hall. Enjoy Herbie ripping it up at the top; Brecker’s solo starts at 3:55.

Just when you thought Brecker had no need for improvements, here’s an excerpt of a 1996 interview with Jazz’s web documentarian Bret Primack:

And what post remembering Michael would be complete with Brecker Brothers’ “Some Skunk Funk”? (With Mike Stern, drummer Dennis Chambers [whom you should recognize from the Stern/Berg post], bassist James Genus, and keyboardist George Whitty.) This is BURNIN’!

MTH-V: Evan Parker Solo

Finally, what I intended to post a few weeks ago.

Over the past couple years I’ve become quite taken with Evan Parker. I hadn’t heard of him until I blindly purchased Boustrophedonone of his two albums co-led with Roscoe Mitchell and their Transatlantic Art Ensemble – a real nice album! (I’ve since purchased the companion Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, & 3, and it’s just as wonderful and intriguing.) I’m thankful I purchased that album, as it exposed me to a truly unique saxophonic voice. In that same spirit of thanks, I found it only appropriate to finally post these videos this week.

For those who aren’t familiar with Mr. Parker, and I’m guessing that’ll be almost all of you, he’s a British free saxophonist. I’d say free jazz saxophonist, however that’s a bit constraining, as you’ll no doubt gather from these two videos. While he has made records in more “traditional” jazz formats, he’s mostly known for his all-out sonic assaults in a variety of settings. One of his biggest contributions has been to the area of solo saxophone improvisation, having released a number of albums in the genre. (Go to this site and select Evan Parker -> Solo Saxophone for an idea.) As a result, I chose these two videos to serve as an appropriate introduction.

These selections come from a live 1985 performance in London. (I’ve spent many late nights captivated by these and other Parker videos.) It’s best to let Parker speak for himself, so all I really should say is:
1. Note his casual execution of a plethora of extended techniques. What’s better is the fact that he uses them as a means to an end in order to properly express whatever it is he’s hearing, as opposed to simply “showing off.” In fact, it regularly sounds as if more than one instrument is being performed.
2. Keep open ears and an open mind. And most of all, enjoy! 🙂

PS – Imagine my excitement to secure this album in, hopefully, the near future…