On My Practicing: An Update

Original Post (updated at end of post):

I have stopped posting here regularly about what’s going on with my return to playing the saxophone (because my practice log notebook, though no longer daily, is publicly available to anyone interested), but I’m in a contemplative mood about it all now, so I figured I’d post.

In exciting news, the overtone exercises I’ve been doing at the advice of Phil Barone had been paying off. I really am a lot happier with my tone than I have ever been, and I’m getting a richer sound. Not only that, but I’m getting pretty good at voicing overtones, too–at least, down on the bottom end of the instrument. (I’m still struggling with voicing overtones on notes higher up on the horn, and am nowhere near being able to play full scales within partials, as Frank Fontaine suggests:

… but I’m a lot closer to that than I was a couple of months ago. (I can play half-scales, on the bottom, but can’t keep the harmonic going as I go high up on the horn. Still, its a big step forward for me.)

In other news, I’m pretty consistently able to play my altissimo G, just above the high F#. (I figured out an unusual alternate fingering that works well for me on my Yamaha.) That’s a huge achievement for me, and for one thing it means I’m on the right track, because I’m effectively voicing that high-G correctly. I haven’t managed to figure out any other altissimo notes yet, but I also haven’t spent much time on that. When I do focus on it, I’m sure they’ll come.

I’ve been moving away from the old approach of putting on play-along tracks and running through tunes. I don’t think it’s a bad way of doing things, but I started to find that playing the tunes freely, without accompaniment–trying to feel the movement between in the harmonic colors in my head, and then put them out through the horn–was getting me farther in terms of actually mastering tunes. And what do you know, but just as I was starting to think I was onto something, I checked out the video Jazz Improvisation: Developing A Personal Approach with Joe Lovano and he pretty much reinforced that idea. Lovano emphasizes unaccompanied, legato exploration of tunes as a way of really getting to know them, an approach he emphasizes so much that it’s even mentioned on his instructor page over at Berklee:

I do a lot of unaccompanied playing and try to get everybody to do that, as well. It’s important to develop a solo unaccompanied approach—to learn a tune on your own on your instrument, not playing along with a record, but embracing your own sound. Every time I play, I want to have a joyous feeling when I embrace my horn. Because jazz, to me, is your personal expression on your instrument. Every time you play is a summation of where you’ve traveled as a player, and that comes out in your music. It’s not how fast you can play this lick, or this pattern. It’s developing an approach that lets you be free on your instrument to execute your personality within whatever kind of music it is.

So since I was working on the transcription of “Ornithology” from the Charlie Parker Omnibook, I figured it might be worth working through the ur-text of that tune, How High the Moon–not just because that’s one of the tunes Lovano explores in the video, though that’s a happy coincidence, but also because I’d been reading recently about the relationship between “Ornithology” and “How High the Moon.”

I’ve also been working through Sonny Rollins’ solo on “St. Thomas” from Saxophone Colossus, and garnering a few insights, such as:

  • Rollins is all over the natural-7/b9 harmonic minor voice leading tones: the C-natural and the A# on or going into a B7, and the Bb and G# on or going into an A7.  There’s other chromatic stuff, especially in little curled-up strings of notes, but that harmonic-minor stuff is interesting. 
  • Rollins does have a few basic licks he builds things off, like the the little triad that starts out eighth note runs over and over in measures 9, 21, and 25 of his solo, for example. Which says something about retention, or about having ideas prior to starting a solo, or, well, I don’t know which it is. But that’s necessary for something as structured-yet-organic as this.
  • I keep running across little tiny things that suggest to me that what I’ve heard about Rollins’ early approach being influenced by hearing Charlie Parker on the tenor might actually be true. (Obviously he did study Parker’s music–and if his own music isn’t evidence enough of that, I even remember reading an interview with him, back when I was in high school and writing an essay about the relationship between jazz music and substance abuse, where he said everyone did drugs because they were convinced it would help them play like Parker, because everyone, including him, wanted to play like Parker.)
  • The hardest thing about playing along with Rollins isn’t matching his subtle rhythmic nuances, or keeping up with his fingers: it’s hearing that bright, brash, unquestionable secure tone and how it makes your own tone sound weak and thin by comparison. But, you know… one must keep pushing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this practice of transcribing and memorizing solos by other players, though. Not just because, well, it’s hard work, but also because it’s so commonly held up as something crucial, and because I have this sense I can feel my own development happening as I play through these transcriptions… in a couple of ways. In one way, I can feel myself internalizing bits and pieces of the vocabulary of jazz, which is good. But I also can feel myself sliding toward a sense of thing where this is how music is made, if you know what I mean. Not quite a doctrinaire approach, but sort of a sense of privileging one way of doing it.

Which isn’t how it works in SF. We have this sense you should read, and the best writers I know urge reading extensively–not just genre fiction, but also outside of genre fiction. Reading everything, checking it all out. (Which is, incidentally, what Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Coltrane and all kinds of people did too.) One doesn’t feel like one necessarily has to internalize and “master” the Golden Age of SF in order to write modern SF, though it’s good to have a sense of what’s been done before.

That makes me think of an interview I read with Henry Threadgill over at Do the Math. Threadgill argues that young jazz musicians are not only unaware of music outside their chosen genre–that they don’t know Hindemith or Strauss–but that even inside jazz, a kind of homogenization has happened in education and in how people “master” it. (And that a lot has been left out of that.)

Threadgill himself argues against transcription and especially against playing others’ improvisations by rote memorization, which is interesting–he’s the first musician I’ve heard of to advise against it, and even his interviewer, the accomplished Ethan Iverson (who himself posts lots of transcriptions on his site) expressed surprise at this practice.

(Though, note: Threadgill does describe listening very broadly, and listening very intently. He talks about getting together with other musicians and, for fun, singing different parts of a tune as performed by a specific group on a specific album, because they all knew and could sing all the parts. He’s not counseling ignorance, just counseling against building muscle memory around artifacts derived from others’ musical voices when you need to be developing muscle memory around your own voice. If that makes any sense.)

Certainly in Threadgill’s case, listening widely and not doing other’s solos has paid off: the music he makes with his groups sounds not quite like anything else on Earth:

… though for someone invested in making a living through music, Threadgill may not be the first example you’d choose to emulate. I dunno. But I kind of feel like he’s right about this. I’m not sure how strong that feeling is, but I think there is something to it.

For me, I’m taking it as advice to listen widely, and to be careful how much I set out to emulate any one figure, how long I work on (and how much I elevate) anyone else’s example of how this music can be done, lest it become my own picture of how this music ought to be done. The listening widely, at least, I can do here. I am wishing I could take a lesson, just one or two, from someone here, just to see whether a saxophonist further along than me could tell me what she or he would be working on at this point… but the top saxophonist in Saigon is doing things a little remote from what I’m interested in (at least, to judge by what I’ve seen at his club), so that will have to wait. But I can listen, yes I can.

(It’s one of life’s great ironies that, while I live only a couple of blocks from the best jazz club in town, for the first time in my life, the jazz that’s played there seems to be mostly tourist-oriented smooth jazz that doesn’t excite me at all.)

Speaking of Do the Math, I’ve become somewhat addicted to the blog. It’s a literal jazz goldmine, and every time I got there, I find something new and very worthwhile. When I finally get copies of Bibliotheca Fantastica in my hand, I want to send Iverson one of my copies as a way of saying thank-you for the amazing wealth hes shared there… and of course because I think he might get a kick out of my Stravinsky story in it, what with him being such a Stravinsky fan.

(That might be a while yet, though. My adventures with the Vietnamese customs office have me very leery about having any books sent here.)

Another site I’m finding invaluable is the forum at Sax on the Web, for obvious reasons.

As for me and the saxophone, I want to look a little more at the science of altissimo and overtones (more here), and keep at it with my regular scales and other technical exercises (including some of my old study books, especially my book of Ferling studies that came in the mail the other day and which I’ve started in on), … and spend a little time every day trying to play against new things, things other than, you know, established stuff that’s been done before. For now, that’s my route.

UPDATE (a few hours after posting): Well, there it is: not long after posting this, I did my evening practice and lo and behold, I was suddenly able to voice the 3rd harmonic (high Bb, off the low Bb fingering, and the same for B natural, C, and C#) without any problem, just, pop, there it is.  I still can’t go up and down within the partial playing scales, but this is forward movement.

Also, I played “Polkadots and Moonbeams” at Mrs. Jiwaku’s request and she was shocked at how much I’ve improved in the last couple of weeks. Which is nice.

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