My James Carter Experience

I’ll admit it, I’ve never been a huge fan of James Carter. I’ve always felt his tone was rather harsh and his playing style was somewhat unconvincing at times. By this I mean he played every other saxophone exactly as he plays his tenor. Soprano, Alto, Baritone, and Bass are all subject to the Carter experience. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a unique tone and style. After all isn’t that what we all strive to have? But I feel he leaves a lot of the nuances of the particular horns behind when he applies his brand of playing to them.  Carter seems to dominate any horn you put in his hands.

Don’t agree? There is something that you can hear and feel when you hear a musician who has worked out every corner in his sound on his chosen horn. That horn for Carter is clearly his tenor. He seem to know how to coax out every conceivable tone the horn can make both pretty and ugly. Yes, I said ugly. Have you heard him scream through the horn? It’s abrasive and rough on the ears. When he applies this coaxing to the other horns in the family that I feel like he’s leaving a lot of tonal  possibilities on the table.

Now with that out of the way I have to say that I still believe the things I’ve said above but also that the man is a genius. The very things that I dislike about him are some of the things I have learned to like in him. He is a musician who is not afraid to reach beyond the current conventions and play anything in anyway.Why not play Satin Doll while slap tonguing every note on bass saxophone? How about a squeaking  screaming, growling rendition of My Funny Valentine?  His passion and volatility are worn on his shoulder as he plays and its infectious.

I would dare someone to present to me a living player who’s complete disregard for the modern playing conventions has changed the way tenor players and other saxophone players in general have seen their horns. Sure, many of his “advanced” have been used in rock and roll for ages but bringing them back to jazz is his legacy. Youtube is a wash with his performances and finding one to suit your needs is easy. Perhaps his online presence is his next greatest legacy.

In all I have come to appreciate his musicianship, technique, and playing outside of expectations. I am still unconvinced of his baritone and bass tone. Just not my cup of tea.  Check out this Master Class.

Extending the range of the baritone saxophone has been quite the adventure for many saxophone players. Like many I did not start on baritone, instead I began on alto then migrated to the baritone in college. Throughout the pre-bari time I spent countless hours working over the Top-Tones book by Siguard Rascher. I had extended my range to a confident 3 octaves on most scales and arpeggios. That was short lived when I moved to playing the baritone.

Why was it so difficult? The main difficulty was that it felt as though no harmonic was lining up the way they did on alto,  fingered a Bb and out popped an A. My private teacher didn’t have a great explanation initially for this other than to pull the note down with my embouchure. It was a short time later that he explained that “Low-A” bari’s will play altissimo notes a half step lower due to the extended length of the horn when compared to a “low-Bb” horn. This made sense for me as my Buescher 400 bari felt more alto like in the altissimo range than my YBS-61.  This put me on the quest to find charts which applied to the “Low-A” bari and facilitated smooth transitions between notes. After all if it is cumbersome or awkwards to finger then there is an increased risk that you’ll miss the note at the exact moment you need it.

Ronnie Cuber altissimo chart from The Saxophone Journal

One of my favorite players, Ronnie Cuber, shared his fingerings for a few notes in a back issue of the Saxophone journal. Of course these fingerings are the ones he made up so that he could get around his horn. Which is a Mark VI for those who don’t know.

Cuber is not the only baritone player to extend his range successfully. The late Nick Brignola had a masterful tone in the upper registers. For a more modern player listen to the baritone player Jeff Suzda. His use of altissimo is both in good taste and beautiful on the ears. In recent weeks I’ve been in contact with him about his use of altissimo and he has forwarded me his fingering chart which is very fluid and comparable Cuber’s but more extensive. Suzda’s finger chart: Jeff Suzda’s Altissimo Chart for Baritone.

Of course the most important question to ask yourself before you head down the altissimo path is: why do it at all? The baritone is the lowest of the saxophone voices common in today’s music and is almost never called on to play in a range comparable to an alto. So why invest effort to learning to play into a register that is both difficult and, even when played well, still sounds somewhat odd. Imagine Avi Albrecht singing Alvin and the Chipmunk styled falsetto. For those not familiar with his powerful baritone voice consider Josh Turner or Randy Travis taking their voices in to the stratosphere.

For me the reason for the extended range is a personal challenge to be enjoyed by my wife and cats. I don’t play in to the range at a show unless written. For me, just knowing that I have that in my tool box is enough. Although there is a sadistic pleasure in playing the solo trumpet part of MacArthur park in altissimo while the solo trumpet is trying to figure out who’s messing with him. They never suspect the baritone player.  By the way,  I only did it twice for effect during rehearsals. Thankfully the other sax players never gave me away.

TAKE AWAY: Good luck in your personal quest for extending the range of your baritone.  You owe it to yourself as a musician to own and utilize the Top-Tones book. It’s benefits go far beyond just altissimo. It will improve your ear, mind, air support, and embouchure.