For my birthday I decided to gift myself a couple lessons with a musician that I have admired and in many ways fashioned my own playing style after. He’s been in the jazz scene for decades and recorded with just about everyone of note for the past 40 years. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I emailed him and setup a lesson. It was very expensive compared to what pro lessons cost in my area. For example, I have 2 extremely famous national touring jazz saxophone artists in my home town that charge 1/2 of what this Pro charges. But I was happy to pay what it took to be able to learn from a music hero of mine. What I got for my time and money was a peek into the life of a really experienced jazz musician and the person behind the album covers.

 

We scheduled over an hour of playing time virtually. Like most people who give online lessons he uses Skype. I’ve never been all that happy with audio quality of Skype but I decided to hookup my MXL condenser microphone and Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface and dialed him up. I was quite internally excited to have one on one access with a musician for whom I owned nearly his entire solo discography. After introductions and some long anecdotes I played through a tune then he played a bit.

 

First thing that caught my attention was that his tone was huge! Even through Skype’s mediocre audio quality the sense of size and depth was clear in my studio headphones. I tried not to giggle when he took his turn on charts as I was so surprised that he sounded so large even when he wasn’t trying to blow the house down. The second thing was that his versions of standards had a few different chords than iREalB or the Realbook I used. This is a recurring theme as I’ve played with other professionals who complained that these sources either oversimplify traditional chord chords changes or just flat have them wrong.

 

Now a few days before the lesson began I emailed him my background, playing weak spots, some tunes I was working on, and what I wanted to get from the lesson. I admit the list was expansive but I was planning on buying multiple lessons if the first was a success. During the lesson we had lots of down time as he hunted down charts or pulled up an old recording. I could tell he was winging it.

 

In some ways I was hunting for the secrets of his style. Hoping that a few lessons would give me insight into his approach to playing. The technical how’s and why’s of his unique musical vision. What i got in addition to some brief playing moments were tales from the road, some details of his health.  If I didn’t communicate my needs in a way he understood then I may have been the  problem.

 

What I learned from him directly:

  • Memorize the melodies of the tunes, don’t be dependent on the Real Books
  • Embellish the melody
  • Don’t be afraid to arpeggiate the chords
  • Play with recordings of your favorite artists. Try to mimic them exactly.
  • I have a Mulligan type vibe when I play

What I learned from my experience:

  • I have a Mulligan type vibe when I play 🙂
  • I need spend more time with all of my chords especially dim and half-dim chords
  • I need to send him the charts ahead of time.
  • I need to be a bit more firm about keeping the lesson moving and the anecdotes more brief.
  • There is no secret sauce, no mojo just practice and time.

 

TAKE AWAY: Neither one of us was truly prepared for the experience. While I enjoyed the personal anecdotes and reminder of musical fundamentals I didn’t feel like I had accomplished all that we could have in the time I paid for.  What I experienced about personal tone will stick with me though.

In October I wrote about trying to find more information about the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra (NWSO) group as they had faded into obscurity since the 1990’s. At the time of writing that I was waiting on the arrival of a few of their albums. I’ve been a fan since I first heard this album back in 1994. This group of brilliant musicians is unique as it is has a contra-bass saxophone and sopranino saxophone. At the time of this recording finding either of these instruments was about as hard as finding a sober person in Boston on St. Patrick’s day. Simply stated difficult but they were out there if you knew where to look.

The first thing that caught my eye was the great cover art. I love CD’s for many reasons but first among them is the cover art. Yes, you can get your media play to download the art but more often than not you don’t get the liner notes or CD facing art.If you buy the CD from a local used record store you may even get unusual bonuses like old business cards, or artist signatures.

Compare Don’s contra-bass (left) to Art’s bass (right)

Let’s start at the big fish in the saxophone pond, the contra-bass saxophone. Today there are other options for this hulking behemoth. Eppelsheim contra-bass saxophone that is more compact and lighter looking than the vintage monster that Don Stevens plays on the album. Don’s unusual Buffet (Evette-Shaefer) Eb contrabass saxophone has a big booming sound on the album and definitely makes an impact on everyone who see it in person. At 6’8″ (2.03 m) tall and 45lbs (20kg) a contra-bass is not for weak of body or with small lung capacity. Aside from the shock value the contra-bass does add value to the group. It extends the range of the bass voicing to that of the lower register of the organ. This allows for broad and very rich chords that do not feel as though they are missing something.

On the other extreme is Rach Cztar on sopranino. ‘Nino is not an instrument for the faint either. It is a wickedly difficult horn to play well and it’s propensity to go out of tune is legendary. I own a ‘nino and I find it’s intonation to be very sensitive to reed and and mouthpiece changes. Clearly experience and dedication has given Rach the ability to tame the dragon and allow it to ring like a bell in the thick arrangements the group performed.

Musically this group likes thick chords and arrangements which feel more like big band than small’ish saxophone group. This is a godsend as quartet arrangements often feel like parts are missing or not covered well.  Often it’s the low range that falls short. Big saxes are expensive, rare, and require a lot of extra consideration just to move them from point A to point B but their contribution to the sound of a group is immeasurable. Listen to the bouncing bass line and you realize that this is a sound that can not be replicated on a bari or bass sax, you have to have the range and punch to hold down the bass. Perhaps the best side effect of having bass and contra-bass in the same group is that it frees the baritone from being the bass voice in the group. In quartets the baritone holds down the bass line but in groups like this the baritone can be free to be the solo voice without the fear of the bottom dropping out of the chords.

The musical selection on this album cover the 20th century quite well up tot he 90’s and makes for easy listening. In fact many of the videos circulating on YouTube of this group is from concerts in which they are playing songs from this album. Including the crowd favorites “Bugler’s Holiday”, “Casbah Shuffle“, and “Tiger Rag”. As you might have experienced the YouTube versions of videos are of lower quality than the studio recordings on this disk. It is because of this I have to recommend listening to the disk over watching the videos. The sound quality is much better and the details you get from a studio record trump the visuals of a contra-bass sax dancing across a stange.

Line Up:
Rach Cztar: Sopranino, Alto, Duck Call
John Davis: Alto, Tenor
Ann Stamm Merrell: Baritone
Art Springs: Tenor, Bass, Vocal
Don Stevens: Soprano, Alto, Vocal
Kristen Strom: Soprano, Alto, Vocal

Guests:
Ashwin Batish: Tabla
Wince Lateano: Drums, Tam Tam
Galen Lemmon: Timpani

Get this album on Amazon like I did