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10 YouTube Videos that Define the Saxophone

The saxophone is an instrument of seemingly unlimited musical possibilities. It can declaim like a trumpet, whisper like the human voice, rhapsodize like a violin, and scream like Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” I will never forget hearing John Zorn play Piram with his Masada band for the first time, such a sick combination of bop and free jazz that jumps out of your headphones and scratches up your walls before swanking its way off into the night. Everyone knows the saxophone also has fantastic sex appeal. I remember going to a Boney James concert a few years at a park in Tampa, FL with some college friends. He brought down the ampitheatre about half-way through his set when he danced around and seduced a blonde in the crowd while playing his well-known “Into the Blue.” The saxophone is also a symbol of academic music. People love to explore the timbral possibilites and spectral characteristics that accompany the instrument. Having studied the instrument from this perspective, I can say by sheer experience it definitely has its nerdy side. Some people treat it like a lab specimen to be prodded and experimented on with reams of pedagogy, dissertations, and performance practice opinions.

Having played different styles of music using the instrument I wanted to put together a definitive list that represents the instrument as I know it today. In this internet age and for your learning convenience, I choose only artists that are found on the great equalizer, YouTube. I stick with what I know and ask you to post something you think maybe should be added on. Who knows, maybe I can learn something from you!

1. John Coltrane-Giant Steps;

Giant Steps is the ultimate equalizer for jam sessions. No one calls this extraordinary chart unless they know it and know it well because the chord changes are simply grueling. It’s the perfect way to make an impression or sneak a quiet exit if someone else calls your bluff. When I was learning it, I often heard that Coltrane planned the riffs he played for this solo. It was at this point that I realized improvising is not a matter of playing chord changes but a matter of employing rhythms and patterns to make a statement. Giant Steps simply must be known, slowly and with lots of patience.

Coltrane is known for his sheets of sound, rapid arpeggios up and down the instrument, but I also love him for his ballads like Naima. He knew how to play melodically when it counted most and was sensitive to the musical environment around him. It’s important to note that he was not known as a saxophonist until he reached his late 20s and not as a featured soloist until his early 30s. Just goes to prove sometimes the later bloomers are the best.

2. Artur Mendes-Balafon;

Mendes just got a job teaching at the superior conservatory in Lisbon, Portugal, which is significant considering he is only 24. I know little about him save that he collaborated heavily with the composer of the piece, Christian Lauba. And he’s my Facebook friend with a bright musical future. A balafon is, of course, a Malinese xylophone made of bamboo that sounds with an exotic flair and a characteristic rattling sound that sets it apart from western xylophones. Listening to the composition with that instrument in mind is important to understanding how it’s supposed to sound—endless melody.

This piece is important because it explores a new way to play the instrument. It isn’t macho and it doesn’t bring the house down with flashy fingers at first. But try to play it and you quickly realize it has to groove, breathe, and sound effortless in between awkward intervals and stamina-challenging phrases. Some people say this kind of writing for saxophone will redefine the way people hear the instrument much like Chopin redefined the piano with his études. I just like listening to it! It grooves in a way I’ve never heard before.

3. Andreas van Zoelen-Glazunov Concerto;

Glazunov had an identity issue as the ‘other’ Russian composer in Paris. He stuggled for years to get recognition, and this was the last piece that he wrote before he died in 1934. He did not love the saxophone. He did not love expressionism and the modern new styles developing in the 20th century. And he missed Russia. Voila, you have the perfect recipe for the only Romantic saxophone concerto in the repertoire. A jaded, bitter, alcoholic Russian who wants to go home and just do something, anything, to distinguish himself from that Stravinsky guy. The bulk of his compositional efforts had ended two decades earlier after a somewhat implicit realization that his seemingly conservative music was becoming a whisper of times past.

There are a million different interpretations for this piece because saxophonists try and superimpose their own style on top of the Romanticism, which is a different issue. I do not endorse the man playing this piece as much as I do the actual work. Most (all) of the recordings are poorly counted or have a lousy tone or are played out of tune one YouTube. But it’s still a beautiful piece, and Mr. van Zoelen puts a great effort into it. Eugene Rousseau’s recording of it is also quite well known.

A central mystery surrounding this music lies in the dual listing of Glazounov and an A. Petiot as composers of the work. Since Glazounov was living in Paris at the time after the Russian Revolution, he found in Petiot a way to obtain royalties for his work in the face of diplomatic tensions between France and Russia. Today, the two names are intertwined with this music to such a degree impossible to separate because of international copyright and author’s rights.

4. Charlie Parker-Donna Lee;

New York City. Minton’s Playhouse. 1940s. This piece defines Bebop. Written by Miles Davis, just about everyone gives Charlie Parker the credit for it. It makes up  the kind of repertory that had cutting contests where people like Roy Eldredge and Dizzy Gillespie would compete on stage to see who could play the best solo. Some people might say they were being egotistical and big-headed but maybe they were just tired of listening to bad musicians. Much like Giant Steps, people will not call Donna Lee unless they have something meaningful to say on stage. Both charts are tough for different reasons—Giant Steps has more exotic changes based on major 3rd intervals with a relatively simple melody while Donna Lee has burning head (melody) followed by traditional and quickly modulating changes

Anyway, Charlie Parker is the genesis of modern American jazz. If you’re reading this and don’t know what I’m talking about, he’s the most important name I have on this list.

5. Ornette Coleman-Lonely Woman;

The first time I heard Ornette Coleman, he was playing with Pat Metheny on their duo album, Song X. I had no idea what they were doing. Ornette Coleman has made his career out of doing things people don’t always musically understand. While playing gigs in Texas clubs, it is said that he was once beat up and had his saxophone destroyed for his playing style.

Although he doesn’t sound as eccentric as he did in the 1960s, his mark on American jazz is singular. He strove to play between the cracks of chords instead of playing all of the “right” notes and plays with a raw yearning quality few saxophonists of his generation dared pursue. Lonely Woman is a snapshot of one of many highlights of his career from the 1959 album, The Shape of Jazz to Come.

6. Tim McCallister-William Albright Sonata;

Tim McCallister is a bright face in the world of the American academic saxophone. He teaches at Arizona State University, but his real gig is exploring the artist’s path, which means he is a very busy performer. After debuting at 16 with the Houston Civic Orchestra, he has played all over North America and Europe. Most notably, he performed with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic in the premiere of John Adams’ City Noir. 

Of all the movements, the second movement of this Sonata perhaps most deserves comment.  It is dedicated to the memory of composer George Cacioppo who died unexpectedly on 8 April 1984.  Cacioppo was co-founder of the ONCE group, an extraordinarily prominent avant-garde Ann Arbor group that achieved international notoriety for several seasons in the 1960s, and mentor to two generations of composers.  His music and personality rest at the foundation of Albright’s thinking.  His Sonata provides lasting testimony not only to an important contemporary mentor, but also to an abiding interest in historical models and a fascination with new adventures for the virtuoso alto saxophonist.  “La follia nuova,” like its Baroque antecedents, is in a chaconne-variation form, although at one point the sections jumble together, or intersect.  The Sonata explores some of the more haunting, brutal, and passionate possibilities of this instrument within an Apollonian/Dionysian aesthetic.

Two-time Fulbright Scholar William Albright spent the vast majority of his professional career at the University of Michigan, where he played a significant role in the ascension of the composition department to world-class status.  A student of Olivier Messiaen, Max Deutsch, and George Rochberg, Albright’s music stands out for its vibrant eclecticism and convincing use of tonality or atonality to convey the music at hand.  There is no wasted space nor wasted notes here; his music remains concise, passionate, and compelling.

7. Rudy Wiedoeft-Saxophobia;

Rudy Wiedoeft played saxophone before it was cool or even known as an instrument. Even though he played in New York, his sound typically reminds me of the Storyville and ragtime era that existed in New Orleans as jazz was developing. It may be a stretch, but I think of his role as comparable to the pioneering work Scott Joplin did for ragtime piano although their social status’ were, unfortunately, worlds apart.

The sound is tinny, laughing, virtuosic, and a reflection of the flapper era of the 1920s when cultural excess was the norm. Unfortunately, Wiedoeft outlived his own musical usefulness and found himself out of work by his 40s. Today, his music enjoys a renaissance, especially among saxophonists in Europe who still remember his style with the same vogue it enjoyed at the beginning of the 20th century.

8. David Sanborn-Pearls;

With six Grammy awards, a platinum album, and 6 gold albums, commercial saxophonist David Sanborn has a musical output that simply cannot be ignored. In the late 1980s he had his own Late Show with NBC and has engaged in film scoring on occasion during his career. Sanborn developed into something beyond just a saxophonist, but a musical icon and ringleader for discovering new and talented acts. For all his success, it’s important to understand that Sanborn is not a jazz musician. He doesn’t view himself that way and most of his critics don’t either. He picked up the saxophone as a therapeutic remedy for childhood polio and simply let his sound develop out of his appreciation for the musicians he heard around him such as Red Prysock, Jackie McClean, and Cannonball Adderley. The end result blends R&B, Rock, Funk, and whatever else catches his ear at a given moment.

Pearls is the title track from the first album of his I heard while in high school. It has a yearning imploring quality that reminds me of something saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo would do, but on a more intimate and commercial level. To close your eyes and listen to it is to embrace everything this Tampa-born saxophonist has to offer. Sanborn has become the face of the instrument for fans around the world. Known exclusively as an alto player, he plays with a characteristically laser-like sound that cuts to the forefront of the mind and captures the attention of his audiences. I have grown up loving his music, and although I’ve distanced myself from emulating his sound in recent years, his musicianship (and success) must be respected.

9. Michael Brecker-The Mean Time;

Michael Brecker was a college freshman from Philadelphia who dropped out of Indiana University and dared to move to New York City instead of staying at the Jacobs School of Music. He stands alongside Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins as one of the most influential tenor saxophonists of all time. Some of the highlights of his career include his work with his brother, trumpetist Randy Brecker in their Brecker Bros. group of the 1980s. He also is one of the seminal members of Steps, a fusion band founded by Mike Mainieri. For the Return of the Brecker Bros. album of the early 90s, he was heavily influenced by Paul Simon’s African bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco to distinguish music from Northern and Eastern Cameroon, or the difference between music from Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Ultimately, he became known as a soloist who defined the fusion jazz tenor saxophone sound. His style and approach are admired by saxophonists and the public alike. He died of leukemia in 2007, but not before he came out with a final album released with an all-star cast of Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, and Brad Mehldau. “The Mean Time” comes from this final album entitled Pilgrimage. Brecker was an authentic musician; it didn’t hurt that he was a class act human being either.

10. Kenny Garrett-Sing a Song of Song;

In yet another example of elite saxophonists who skipped the academic track, Kenny Garrett stands as one of the most influential alto saxophonists of his generation. Hundreds of saxophonists just like me spend years of their lives trying to emulate his sound. He got his first break playing in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band and became especially well known after he got a call to play with Miles Davis.

I am particularly drawn to Garrett’s musicianship because, much like Davis, he has consistently refused throughout his career to rest with one particular sound that works with his audience. He has an album which calls to roots in Africa, a tribute to John Coltrane, a live recording featuring groove-oriented crowd pleasers, a disc full of original music inspired by his draw to the orient and especially Japan, and even a piano-less trio album. Whether the music calls for bebop, funk, gospel, or just a jam session, Garrett consistently pushes the envelope to express himself in a new way and connect with his audience.

Two things that I appreciate about him most come from the concerts where I have seen him at work. It was the end of the concert in Madrid and he was playing his last song he often calls to close out a night, “Happy People.” As the song was heating up, he called for the sound technician to turn on the lights so he could see the people. He had to repeat himself at least five times until someone went up and translated to the booth what he was saying. What ensued was a unique connection between artist and audience that I will not soon forget, a joyful celebration of music and humanity, and a great excuse to dance too! Garrett also reaches out to the next generation. When I saw him in St. Louis, he had found a 23-year-old drummer named Ben Nicolas to hire for the tour. He was working his first gig outside of the church and brought a major injection of youth into the group. By reaching out to talented young musicians, Garrett ensures that jazz will continue as an influential beacon in American music.

“Sing a Song of Songs” has a catchy melody that engages and shows off a great deal of musicianship without appearing frivolous.

Planning vs. Living: A Dilemna

Maybe you have just finished school. Whatever it is, it comes with degree of recognition. You have finished the course, perhaps won the race even. Big or small, it does not really matter. It is what comes next that we contend with. Your curious neighbor, water cooler co-worker, maybe even the newspaper reporter all have the same question. What are you going to do now? What’s your plan? Where are you going next? Zig Ziglar, John Maxwell, and Brian Tracy (to name a few) have made careers out of helping people take control of their lives, that is to actively choose their course of direction.

For the sake of our discussion the concrete question I pose is this: What are the facets and what is the balance between actively visualizing a lifestyle or career goal and leaving matters to develop on their own? Understand, the main issue here is time. The only thing we all really have to do in life is, well, die. We all have a finite amount of living to do. I know a number of people, some quite successful, who insist that their accomplishment never came on the back of a game-plan or formal strategy. It just sort of happened and they were there, right place, right time.

I’ll start out by saying it is important for us to distinguish between different kinds of time. First, there is long-time. I suppose for me that means 5+ years away, although I am still very young. And then there is something in between, which I like to call middle-time. Finally, there is day-to-day, something much easier to maintain an awareness of.  Treating these all the same would be a mess.

When it comes to planning on the long-time, we must not get confused with the to do verb. It’s too elusive and transforms into a distraction that gets in the way of the fundamental to be. Before you can do something you must first be something (thanks Goethe). Through this lens, you will direct the rest of your middle-time and day-to-day. Before you can be a high-powered lawyer or touring musician, you must first work in the library, in the practice room, in debate, and in learning how to listen. In short, you will learn to be diligent.

Not so long ago, I used to run life thinking in concrete long-time goals. Married by 30. Have a house set by 32. Solid famous musician by 28. These can be silly ideas because they dictate a predictable rhythm in life that can stifle opportunity and spontaneity. Let me say it like this: if you’re so focused to do that position of definition before you have taken the time to define what you will be (if you are fortunate enough to get there) once you get there, you might not be ready. You might not have the goods to deliver. Seriously, what’s the joy in life if we define what we will do before we even arrive with a be? Some do because the market was right, they were born in the right family, in the right generation, perhaps even a preferred skin color. Doing is very elusive. Yes, I know I’m speaking as a twenty-something but this is the time to work this be question out; the answer is NOT doing explicit hoops and goals to satisfy our curious neighbors.

After I moved back to the States this summer, I thought I would be staying at least for the immediate future. Family, Kansas, no place like home (and yes, Dorothy really does live next door). When an opportunity to move to Bordeaux, France came up, it was totally unexpected. It was not in my long-time plans. In the end I made the decision to move  based on this concept of “be.” I must be a world-class musician. That means working with musicians who play a hell of a lot better than I do.

Middle-time is the fun part where we get to do a few concrete things that fit in with who we are. That could mean making a move to be with someone you want to work with. Take a class or read a book that fits in with your be concept. Join a group. Take the initiative to learn and gain ground on your own. Never, EVER, expect to be spoon-fed in middle-time. Remember that people are like magnets, so watch what the people you hang out with you are doing and what their attitudes are like, aware that this is how you may be influenced. I think this phase of time is the one that can be most controlled because it is far enough away not to be micro-managed and not so far away that it becomes a silly obsession. It’s a simple-bucket list on the way towards defining your be idea of self.

Nevertheless, day-to-day sucks. It’s Monday morning, the day after Christmas, everything that happens that reminds us we have to go to the real world. . . again. Learn to love it. Smile on it. Live it spontaneous here. Stop your trip along the highway to go ice-skate on the pond with your siblings on Christmas Eve just because you decided it was fun. Do all that goofy stuff maybe you see on Seinfeld or the King of Queens. You’re not a robot or an iPad either. Don’t plan day-to-day any more than you have to because it’s those little moments in life that make everything else a little bit more significant.

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.                                           -The Great and Honorable Dr. Seuss

The 10,000 Hours Myth

I begin by quoting renowned American neurologist Daniel Levitin:

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals… this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

This 10,000 hour theory proposed by pop social science authors (not just Levitin) is enormously empowering, but comes with a big problem. Sitting and working on a single skill set for a given amount of time will make you good, perhaps even excellent. To dominate that ability requires something else: critical thinking. It is not a magic formula where studying a law school book for hours on end transforms you into a powerhouse lawyer. Nor will sitting in front of a piano diligently practicing scales will not turn you into concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Such disciplines are only a part of the equation. Taking responsibility for your own success and failure becomes essential. You must craft yourself, demand the best of your abilities, and most importantly, know when to rest.

In a world of degree plan sheets and major studies programs with award-winning institutions and minor experts in a myriad of subjects, whatever happened to the concept of the individual taking responsibility for their own future? One doesn’t have to read self-help books to come to the conclusion that the stars of our culture always have a point where they actively worked on their own behalf in an effort to achieve something significant. I have had numerous conversations with university professors today who speak of teaching a new generation that believes in an entitlement, a degree of privilege where the people around them should be predisposed to helping them win out. This is the counter-idea of what I am standing for. Until a person chooses to take responsibility for crafting their own image, disposition, and abilities, they will always have an excuse for something or someone around them who didn’t give enough efforts to make them into a winner. Only you have the power to shape yourself—we can give the power away, discount it, ignore it, and otherwise mar it, but its absolute potential remains for anyone willing to use it.

When I look at highly successful people from musicians to athletes to investors and businessman, I see the individual fruit of concrete decisions made to work consistently towards a specific end. This is the second mistake of the 10,000 hours myth: a blurry image of an ultimate outcome is sufficient as long as the hourly quota is met. I remember being told once upon a time that I should aim for the moon and if I miss, at least I will land among the stars. Closing your eyes with hard work and aiming for a positive outcome is not enough! So many people decide to work towards a goal with the attitude that if their goal happens they will be happy and if not they will at least have worked towards a noble cause. You must expect the goal as positively inevitable; come hell or high water, rain or shine, you will achieve the dream.

When Novak Djokovic won his first Wimbledon tournament and Grand Slam title this year, he crouched down on Center Court, reached down, plucked some blades of grass and shoved them in his mouth. He later said, “I felt like an animal. I wanted to see how it tastes. It tastes good,” with eyes wide and his smile contagious. “It came spontaneously, really. I didn’t plan to do it. I didn’t know what to do for my excitement and joy.” If you turned off the TV or left the stadium at center court at that point you might have thought that it was a young man celebrating the completion of a dream. And of course it was, he had just beat ace Spaniard Rafael Nadal, a tennis force in his own right. But if you paid attention to the final interview before he left court, you also would have heard him speak of the completion of a goal he had been focused ever since he watched Wimbledon on TV as a young boy in Serbia. He knew all along what he wanted.

Finally, for all the importance of hard work, life without rest and celebration is impossible. Try and recognize that working fast and efficiently is not like sprinting a marathon (a ridiculous endeavor for me, perhaps not Boston Marathon master Geoffrey Muttai, 2:03:02). Success is built on small, positive actions taken on a consistent basis over a lengthy period. Stop and appreciate the unexpected that will almost certainly occur along the way. It’s part of what makes us human after all. When you’re on, you must be on. But when you rest, take the moment!

25 years of learning

Next week I turn twenty-five. Having 1/4 of a century behind me is significant, so I take a brief moment to reflect on what I have learned up to this point.

1. Think before you speak

2. Practice active listening

3. Don’t expect to master something overnight

4. Sleeping is essential, eating even more so

5. Fear of failure causes paralysis of the mind

6. There is no social unit like the family

7. Respect different cultures and strive to understand them

8. Inspiring people are outward-focused, not inward-focused

9. College degrees are worthless beyond what you make of them

10. The man who learns to hate his physical wealth will be loved by many

11. An artist is someone who finds a gift and uses it to connect with people

12. Sadly, wars still solve problems

13. Strong character should trump a phat resumé

14. Silence and reflection are close cousins to contentment and peace

15. Believing in your own dreams is completely different than having dreams

16. A smile can change everything

17. A thoughtful apology can mend many wrongs

18. Asking for directions is overrated as opposed to planning where you’re going ahead of time

19. You are the problem and you are the solution

20. If you can learn to love yourself, it will be much easier for others to love you

21. Old people almost always know more than you do, being old is a gift worth celebrating

22. Time moves much faster now

23. True love is supporting others, not leaning on others

24. The little things are more important than the big things

25. There’s no place like home

A Time to Remember

The life you are living today will never come again. It is distinct, unique, and will certainly pass just like the sun will set tonight. One of my college buddies, Luke Ausdemore, died on Tuesday night while free diving for lobster in Mission Bay, San Diego. He was a academic year older than me at Oral Roberts U. and loved smooth jazz. We definitely connected on that level. He was always trying to get me to check out the latest Boney James album; we had numerous impromptu jam sessions in his dorm room- always groovy conversations between sax and djembe. I will remember Luke as an encourager, someone who always had a smile and never missed an opportunity to pick you up if you needed it. It’s to his credit that I am where I am today as a musician; he encouraged me to continue pursuing my dreams when I needed it most.

The loss of Luke reminds me to think of  two big themes.

#1- How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone

#2- Who do I have to be thankful to for helping me get to where I am today

It isn’t always easy to think in such broad terms. After all, life moves fast. Christmas is coming. The Chiefs are winning for once. Studies aren’t slowing down. Here, life in Spain is a daily discovery. Sometimes when we take a step back to consider the big puzzle pieces that define our lives it brings the color back into the grayscale moments of the present day. So while the sun is still up, why not take the time to remember someone who was an encouragement to you? Feel free to post on the wall here at my blog if you like, I’m eager to read about your diverse influences. Then consider how you want others to remember  you. As I pause to remember Luke’s full life this week, I remember each day is gift. He lived his 25 fast years to the full. Now that’s some encouragement to live on!