“Not Amsterdam, not San Sebastián, definitely not Paris,” I repeated over Skype. “I want to work with you guys.” My intentions were clear. Having studied in environments not so well known for saxophone my entire academic life, I wasn’t about to change now. “There will always be plenty of institutionalized saxophone players to fill the educational voids between Europe and the States. I’ve fulfilled my degree duties to the M.M.” For my part, after a master course with Messieurs Lauba and Ducros in Rouffach, France last summer (for me more affectionately known as Christian and Richard), I knew where I wanted to finally polish off my saxophone studies. Bordeaux was calling.
Upon first meeting Richard four months before that time, I had been familiar with his music only through YouTube. I figured he was probably a Lauba spcialist. Of course, that is true. Ducros really is the best interpreter of Christian’s contemporary œuvres, so not surprisingly it’s also true that they work out of the same studio in Bordeaux. I knew there would be no problem getting along with Richard the first time I met him, hanging out at Le Eight pub on the line 3 bus route just at the edge of Bordeaux city limits. Musically, I was all too wary of specialty saxophone players who carried great enthusiasm for one particular style of music and a great deal of ignorance for the rest. So when I finally realized over a beer and game of billiards that we both liked Michael Brecker and had obsessed with playing fusion jazz, I was ready to jump out of my skin. Finally, a hybrid professional saxophonist who embraced Coltrane, Mintzer, Glazunov, Scelsi, and Villa-Lobos alike. In Richard, I found a kindred musical spirit who recognized that ignorance was a ticket to mediocrity. He accepts he may not live to dominate every musical style, but he happily will borrow and utilize diverse influences in his musical personality.
When you walk into his studio, it looks like the typical bachelor pad. There are oranges lying around the occasional empty wine bottle set next to a half-eaten baguette and bar of dark chocolate. The table is filled with odds and ends, mostly knick-knacks. Old concert programs, an Aquitaine color-coded wine region poster, screwdrivers, bottle openers all clutter the table—the occasional CD sent from fellow musicians such as the Birdcatchers and Zzyzx Quartet tend to accumulate here as well. The dishes are always clean for some unfathomable reason. The coffee table is stacked high with MacWorld and Crutchfield magazines and the walls are filled above my head with CD’s. Brandenburg concertos, Saint-Saëns symphonies, Bill Evans, and Stan Getz are kings of music in this house. Where there is wall-space, I see an enormous promo ad from some early movie music Richard played years ago. In the main room where they work, I find Programming Linux for Dummies, full scores of the Glazunov sax concerto, an occasional music history book, and an ample collection of the Great Adventures of TinTin. At the workstation to my right, I find a couple amplifiers, an E.W.I., a keyboard hooked up to a MacBook station running Logic Pro (Richard likes to write pop music too), and a bunch of reeds with squiggle marks all over them. Clothes in the transition of going from clean to dirty or dirty to clean are draped over armchairs. Two alto saxophones are neatly packed away with one sitting out next to a bass guitar, fax machine, pogoplug web server, and wall piano. In the back room are two dressers filled with saxophone reeds. There must be thousands of them in there, saved over time to ensure the best reed with the best sound is always available—if you can find it.
As a teacher, Richard is focused, almost nervous at all times. He speaks enough English to get by, and little by little I try and employ more of my French to speed the communication. He is sincere and eager, but more than anything he is a fastidious technician in the workplace. He knows the exact sound he wants for himself and for me too for that matter, and he uses his studio to iron the wrinkles out of the music. He respects the style at hand and of course drives me to do the same. From him, I have developed an obsession for playing with a clear classical sound when required, overall, always in tune. He has helped me realize that my sound is not always consistent, which has interesting implications that extend to all aspects of my life. Working with Richard has taught me that music is not a job, it is an effort in artistry. You breathe this stuff, you obsess about it because you’re passionate for it, and you carry sharp opinions about others who make it. You must listen more than you practice at all times. Classical, jazz, pop, tin pan alley, it all goes in the box to give you a foundation for communication. This is the kind of education I never grasped when I was pursuing degrees, that is to say this emphasis on listening. Musically, they instilled inside of me a passion to hear with more focus and clarity, and without a doubt it accounts for the greatest of debts I owe to both Christian and Richard.
Richard is always respectful. We work in a musical laboratory, and although sometimes he chooses to use the scalpel to make a point, we understand the issue is to fix the music and not degrade a person’s sensibilities. Normally, we eat together afterwards, a simple meal of bread and wine (normally, such a meal is reserved for before the crucifixion), duck and carrots perhaps as well. He is also a generous person. The choices that he makes in helping me include loaning me mouthpieces and reeds, especially at the beginning when I had a great need for settling in and little €. He recognizes the financial price I paid when I came here and jumps at the opportunity to help if he sees a need.
Musically, we have spent more than our fair share of time working on Bach. The evenness of fingers has been a major project, and although I previously regarded this as a strength, I’ve learned to drive myself to technical perfection because of Bach preludes and partitas. Playing Bach has also driven me to improve my tuning. I know of no other music as intonationally delicate due to the fact that each interval requires the utmost of clarity to be within the style. Otherwise, the effect becomes muffled and fuzzy. The implications here are obvious, as playing in tune carries to every style of Western music at varying degrees. Regardless of how well you play in tune, working with Richard has taught me that an acute awareness of it is at all times essential. We have also worked to a lesser degree on the Wiedoeft and Matitia repertoire, which has jazz tendencies with classical sensibilities. It is light. It is fun. It sounds so French to my ears, and it is good for casinos and restaurants. Perhaps surprisingly, we have spent little time on Lauba’s repertoire. I polished Worksong and Balafon, and will meet with them one more time before I return to the United States to play a rough draft version of Bumble Beebop, a new étude Lauba composed in November for me to premiere. For those who are counting, this is the 21st étude of its kind. Within it, I hear Gershwin, Parker, and Coltrane all filtered through a very French sophistication. It swings hard and crooked, and there is no reflective introduction as in most of his études. Finally, we reviewed and rehashed the only great concerto for saxophone written by Alexander Glazunov. Alongside perhaps the Chamber Concertino by Ibert, it is the only classical saxophone work in which you can play it each year and have it worth your time and money as a player. Lauba also wrote an étude dedicated to Richard and intended as a subsitute for that briefly hashed out arpeggio cadenza most people normally play. It has found a degree of success among Russian musicians, and I did take the time to work this up with the two of them as well. It is meant to be spectacular like any good cadenza, but above all, sentimental.
It is a mistake to consider Richard a one-track musician. He is in reality firmly rooted in three styles, able to play the classical saxophone repertoire, early New Orleans jazz charts, and of course contemporary Lauba. He is the only classical saxophonist I am aware of who makes his living almost exclusively off of gigs and the occasional master class—no university or conservatory teaching for him. Like a secretive scientist or even the great Fred Astaire, he works so that noone will know until the time is right and he is ready. If, however, you think his obsession in the studio would lead to boredom on the stage, you might be in for a surprise. From him I have ultimately learned that the stage is the place to let go of yourself and launch your music to the public. Nothing else matters in those moments, it is only you and the music at hand. This is Richard Ducros.