Altissimo and Productivity

In middle school, and early on in high school, I remember loving Saturday Night Live… which, for me, means “classic” SNL which, because I was born in 1974, means John Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson (sigh) Jan Hooks, and Dana Carvey, mainly. But a highlight of the show–and what I always wished they’d include more of–was seeing (or at least hearing) Lenny Pickett wail on the tenor saxophone, as he did on the closing tune, week after week:

I’d wait through the R.E.M. and Randy Travis and Linda Ronstadt for those little clips of the house band… they were almost always the best band on the show. And every night, during their closing song, I remember hearing that screaming altissimo of Pickett’s and wondering, “How does he do that?” and wishing I could, too.

I wished that in middle school, in high school, and when I was in college. I even caught an episode of SNL shortly after I came to Korea, and joined a rock band (i.e. I’d started playing again) and though the comedy kind of bored me, Pickett’s upper register was still as solid as ever, a thing of beauty to be envied and adored… and wondered at.

Well, I still think it’s phenomenal how he uses it–and that’s the bottom line–but I ain’t wondering quite so hard anymore about the mechanics of hitting those notes, at least.

Today was a real breakthrough. I was talking to a friend the other day about hitting altissimo notes, and how happy I was to finally be doing that. He commented on how he’d always found that the harder part of altissimo wasn’t just hitting the notes, but using them productively in playing.

Which is a fair observation, and fit in line with what I had planned next, and what I started with today. Here’s the thing: I’ve been hitting G3 for a month or more now, and started to be able to use it in improvisations about as easily as any of the other notes on the horn… which I figure is likely because I decided to treat it like any other note, and integrate it into my scales and arpeggios. I’ve been expecting to do the same with all the other altissimo tones I master, a few at a time.

So today? For the first time in my life I managed to play all my scales-of-the-week (I’m doing Mixolydian modes and dominant 7th arpeggios) from Bb1 to Eb4. Every scale went up into that altissimo register, and in fact all my scales from Eb to Bb were three octaves or more. It wasn’t all perfectly smooth, of course–but then, a couple of weeks ago, neither was my G3, and these days I hit it very reliably. Every note did get played, though!

On top of that, I also managed to get my overtones working a little higher — holding the 1st and 2nd overtone above low-D, sustaining it all the way up to the palm keys. It seemed a week ago like an impossible task, but it’s starting to happen, as I develop an increasingly finer sense of how my mouth and throat need to be voicing those overtones. Again, it probably didn’t sound like much to anyone else, but to me, it was a breakthrough!

I should probably post soon about the one big change in my setup to which I believe some of the credit for my sudden breakthroughs go: while it wouldn’t have happened without daily practice, I believe my new mouthpiece is helping me immensely… or, rather, that the mouthpiece I played on until recently was holding me back, and changing it is the best thing I could have done to continue my progress.

More on that next time.

4 thoughts on “Altissimo and Productivity

  1. I don’t know why, but my computer did not update any of the entries in your website until yesterday. For more than a month, the latest entry I saw was the one on supporting the writing workshop. Anyhow, nice to see that you are doing well, and even more to the point, having an enjoyable time.
    “Classic” SNL. I guess this really brings out the generation gap, but for me, the classic SNL will always mean the eight guys and gals in the Not Ready for Prime Time Players (even Chevy Chase). If you haven’t seen it, check out “The Pepsi Syndrome” sometime, (though you probably won’t get the commercial references) and join me in wonder that one of the talking mimes in that sketch is now a US Senator (and by all accounts, a very good one). And yeah, the sax was amazing back then too.

    Junsok Yang

    1. Junsok,

      Ah, I can explain that: the Writing workshop post was a “sticky” post. I “unstickied” it yesterday. I didn’t know they were stickies on the RSS feed too. I’ll see if I can make it be otherwise.

      That skit was pretty funny, and actually, I guess I was just old enough to be exposed to the ads (in the daytime and early evening?) when I was little to get most of the commercial references, like “uncola” or “I coulda had a V8!” My trying-to-be-objective impression is that SNL basically started out killer, and has been on a long, slow decline since then. And that, no mistake, what is “classic” SNL for me is not up to as high a level as the stuff you managed to be just enough enough to see. I suspect that’s everyone’s experience of SNL, though!

      You got me wondering who the sax player was during the time period this was from, and it looks like it may have been Lou Marini (about whom I don’t know anything) and David Sanborn, who was later a celebrity and a big name in the sax world (more of a smooth jazz player, still around too); he was replaced by Michael Brecker in the early 1980s, which is astonishing to me, as Brecker became a major saxophonist around then; and Lenny Pickett was the next in line (who came to that gig from Tower of Power, another big-deal group of the 70s), and has been in the position even since.

      Hell of a lineup, really. I guess that’s one thing SNL has always had: a phenomenal sax player.

      1. The classic SNL wasn’t always “good” – I have the DVDs of the first five seasons, and a lot of times, they are a chore to go through. I haven’t seen SNL for nearly a decade now, but my impression always was that the general quality of the show did fall; and if you pick out the best of the sketches, the first four seasons were better than the ones that came after. For me, the later seasons became too repetitive and too crowd-pleasing; more sitcom-esque. While the old seasons had character repetitions (Coneheads, Belushi’s samurai); they tended to be more successful in riffing off “variation of a theme” rather than descend to plain copying, which seemed to happen a lot in the later seasons. I like a lot of the players in the later seasons (Hartman, Farrell, Carvey, Spade, Hooks, Murphy, Fey, Poehler, Lovitz), but the first cast was much more versatile. Just seven guys doing the whole show (with limited help from writers). How many guys are in the cast now? 50?
        I actually recognize most of the guys you name, though my interest comes from the rock side and not jazz side. Would you believe Sanborn and Brecker played on Springsteen’s “Born to Run” on the same song? (“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” though that song probably did not require too much advanced chops). And you can see Lou Marini in the Blues Brothers movie. (He was a side-order cook in Aretha Franklin’s restaurant). One of my favorite sax solos is Sanborn playing “Suffragette City” on David Bowie Live album; and Pickett played in a Meat Loaf song with a great title – “Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere). They probably played all over the place, though. It seems these same guys played everywhere during the late 60s and 70s.

        1. Junsok,

          Yeah, nothing is always “good,” right? But I know what you mean about versatility. I mean, Bill Murray has come a long way, and does really interesting stuff now, for one example. While Dana Carvey’s not in the limelight by choice, I don’t know… I get the feeling that the earlier seasons were special… from the bits and pieces I’ve seen. I haven’t really dug to deep, though.

          One thing I notice is a kind of freedom or fluidity in the “Pepsi Syndrome” sketch that I also noticed in some older Martin and Lewis live stuff. Part of the fun was seeing them screw up and not mind, laughing and having fun with their own little errors and flubs. That, I remember much less of in the SNL of my childhood. It was the 80s: things were more polished, more plastic, more “perfect,” but missing something essential somehow.

          I haven’t seen SNL in ages, so I have no idea how many people are in the cast now, but I find these kinds of sketch comedy shows pretty un-entertaining these days. (Mad TV is another one.) The last time I saw it live, Lenny Pickett still looked vaguely like Joe Lovano.

          I would believe almost any claim involving Sanborn being on an album back in those days, and Brecker, sure… they both got around a lot. I feel like the 60s and 70s a great time to be a saxophonist. Then the 80s happened, and the saxophone solos sort of… I don’t know, I guess I could say that Careless Whisper happened and the whole thing collapsed on itself.

          How many sax players would take a time machine back and make that recording session impossible, I cannot say. There’d be clusters of them…and that’s to say nothing for the saxophonists who’d hurl themselves back in time to make sure Kenny G never got conceived.

          You know, back in those days (the 70s, especially, from what I’ve read) people were actually mounting pickups into the bore of their saxes? (Not that this was particularly a good idea, but that’s how accessible popular music was to the instrument: it seemed worth it to try, and to a lot of people.) It was crazy. You could be a horn player in a rock band, if you wanted, and make a living doing it too, if you were good enough to pass for a with Sanborn to an untrained audience’s ears.

          It’s a horrifying thing to admit, but the sax-solo trope of pop music in the 80s is basically the reason I (and many saxophonists, I’m sure) took up the instrument. Most of them have moved beyond that, of course. But even if I really, really don’t like that stuff now, you know: you have to respect a guy like Sanborn. He’s more of an R’n’B player, but he’s a monster on the saxophone when he wants to be, even despite the challenges created by his having had polio while young. (There’s a ton of sax players who try emulate him, holding their saxes in that weird position, bunching their chins, putting the mouthpiece in on the side of the mouth… Sanborn himself had apparently stated in interviews that it bewilders him.)

          And, to his credit, when Sanborn got a TV show of his own — NIGHT MUSIC — he went out of his way to feature lots of interesting musicians. Miles Davis! That was a killer show. Or Sonny Rollins.

          That show was a kind of musical education for me, really.

          (Though I find it funny, the Rollins/Cohen tune on that video. Rollins can do anything musically, basically, which is why he makes the Cohen tune work. Could Cohen do a jazz tune? He seems to do his same usual–and yes, I’ll say it, limited–repertory even when invited to perform at jazz fests, so, well…)

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