Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Saxophones - The Old, the New and the Baritone

The question “what make of saxophone is right for me?” is one that most saxophonists have pondered at one time or another and it is a subject about which some players hold very strong, almost religious views. Particular makes, models and serial numbers are sort after and paid for with ever increasing amounts. And thanks to the advent of eBay, that holy grail of horns may just be a click or two away, with “Buyer beware” being the maxim to keep in mind at all times if this is your preferred means of acquisition.

By and large, I was spared the prolonged search for a quality instrument. Thanks to my saxophone teacher at the time, who located an instrument for me, I have played the same Selmer MK VI alto since the late 1980’s. It was built towards the end of this famous run of horns and so doesn’t belong to the mythical period of manufacture sort after by many, but I always liked the sound I could make on it and to my ears anyway, it does seem to be improving with the passage of time.

In essence, it is true to say that if you play the alto, there is a large choice of quality makes and models, modern and vintage horns, to choose from.

For players of the soprano saxophone, the modern instruments do have a number of clear advantages. Yes, there is a wonderful quality to the sound that a MKVI soprano can produce, but there are tuning issues with many of these horns. Technology has without doubt improved since the time of their manufacture and so in turn has the general construction and intonation of the soprano saxophone. You could say that this once wild and uncontrollable horn has been somewhat domesticated and there are now a number of modern instruments available to a contemporary soprano saxophonist. The fact that Soprano masters David Liebman (a Keilwerth) and Wayne Shorter (a Yamaha), choose to play modern instruments speaks volumes in support of this evolution.

The tenor saxophone is an instrument that I choose not to play for reasons that I won’t go into here although, I could make the claim that I have listened to the tenor more than any of the other saxophones. (yes, John Coltrane would make up a substantial amount of that listening time, but perhaps that is a topic for a later blog!)

For players of the tenor, the vintage horns do seem, still, to be the instrument of choice. This is providing that a; you can find an instrument and b; once found, you can afford the price tag.

Many of my friends are Selmer devotees and within this group I would say that the Super Balanced Action (SBA) would be the prize horn to play. Of course many years have now passed since the last one of these rolled of the production line and finding one of these instruments is becoming increasingly difficult.

The MK VI is of course the best known of all the vintage horns and as this was the model preferred by so many of the past greats including John Coltrane, I don’t imagine the popularity of this saxophone to ever diminish.

The American horns have certainly had a revival during the past decade or so and whether this can be attributed to the scarcity of Selmers or not, they are certainly worth considering. A good Conn is undoubtedly a beautiful saxophone.

This brings me to the last of the big 4, the lowest of the mainstream saxophone models and in terms of the vintage versus modern debate, the most interesting and slightly confusing of them all. This is, the wonderful world that is the baritone saxophone.

The baritone is a horn that I have come to rather late, but, perhaps in part because of it being in the same key as the alto, I have fast developed a great affection for the tone and feel of the “plumber’s friend”( as a certain Sydney bass player likes to refer to my baritone).

Before I settled on my old low Bb Buescher, I searched high and low (perhaps that should be low and lower) for a horn and I didn’t have any particular preference for old or new, low Bb or A. I just needed to find a baritone that I liked. As my search progressed however, I started to realize one fundamental thing about the baritone saxophone and that is that is that all of the current manufacturers seem to have forgotten how to make them.

I think this regression began from the moment that the low A became part of the standard range (one semi-tone lower than that of the other saxophones). This truly was a Spinal Tap moment in saxophone design. It is the saxophonic equivalent of “amps that go to 11” the classic “one more must be better” approach.

I confess that I have played a handful of baritones that do play well down to low A. The MK IV in particular does seem to cope with this extension, but nothing that is currently made seems to be able to achieve the richness that is routinely achieved by the vintage horns.

My other complaint with the modern instruments is the weight. A modern low A baritone is not a soloing horn to be played standing for two or three sets, not without some serious gym sessions in preparation! These modern instruments seem to be built for some other purpose entirely and I suspect that this is to produce the inevitable and all too frequently occurring low A. Baritone players should stand together on this overuse, put the note up an octave and be done with it! Or, you could choose a low Bb horn and save yourself the trouble of lugging that extra couple of kilos of brass around for one extra semi-tone. Save your back AND get that beautiful low Bb baritone sound!

In my quest for a baritone saxophone, I played close to 30 instruments over a period of about 5 years. The vast majority of these new baritones were just plain ol’, downright terrible. This was and is alarming for such a mainstream instrument! It really does seem inescapable that the low A fundamentally changes the shape and proportions of the instrument, and therefore changes the entire character and response. Far too much is lost and not enough is gained to justify this one note.

I played an alto with a low A when I was in New York many years ago, it was a MK VI and it was so out of tune, it may well still be for sale. Thankfully, for the alto, the low A experiment has been long forgotten. Why is this not the case with the baritone?

I know that there are a couple of present day manufacturers that do still produce a low Bb baritone, but I suspect that the market being the size it is, not enough research and development goes into these instruments, and the examples I managed to find and play were nowhere near the level of a vintage Bb Conn Transitional or 12M, Martin, Selmer, King or Buescher.

I sincerely hope that one day in the not too distant future, the folly of the low A is put aside and a manufacturer is able to re-discover the lost art of making a baritone saxophone with the tone and power of the instruments of yesteryear. Perhaps of equal importance, is that saxophonists demand this of the manufacturers. If the lower notes are so attractive there is always the option of playing these and many more even lower ones on a bass saxophone, an instrument vastly underrepresented in the ranks of saxophonists since its demise between the two world wars. I would also put out a call to all arrangers and composers to resist the urge to write low As for the baritone and perhaps together we can return this instrument to its former glory. Otherwise I fear that the next step may be some bright spark suggesting that the answer to all our problems is to add a low Ab to the baritone, I mean, it’s one more, surely it’s got to be better?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Composer’s Notebook

Having just completed my first folio of compositions for publication, I thought that I would post some thoughts and reflections about the process, hoping that this is a good use of the medium and that it may be of some interest to someone somewhere.

Many of the pieces that I have included in this volume of 30 compositions were among the first that I composed upon my move to Sydney in the early 1990s. Some of these are still in my repertoire. Nevertheless, the process of preparing a final manuscript, ready for print was a long and sometimes arduous one.

Ultimately, it has been a valuable exercise re-visiting these early works. The fact that all but two of the pieces, have been recorded by various groups greatly assisted the process, providing, along with my original hand written charts, a point of reference.

There were numerous changes to melodies, rhythms, forms, harmonies, even titles. This was one of the many positives of the project as it revealed a clear path of development. Having to make definitive choices was a challenge and throughout I was often reminded of why I love to improvise. The ability to work through ideas in real time, manipulating rhythms and notes and never having to settle on a final solution to a musical dilemma – unless you want to. This approach is obviously tricky in printed form, so decisions had to be made.

After a lot of thought, I decided to select only alto pieces for this first volume. Mainly because the Alto is my main horn and the bulk of my compositional work has been for this instrument. It was difficult to leave out Bb compositions, the melodic ranges of which didn’t fit easily into the alto key. The soprano has been a feature of my trio and the Mara Ensemble and it is an instrument on which I am trying hard to achieve my own voice. But in terms of a coherent and concise volume of original pieces, it seemed that focusing on the alto was going to be the best solution. There are ways around the publication of multiple transpositions. Separate editions for each key, as in some Real Books and the Charlie Parker Omnibook or multiple keys in the same edition, as in the Jamie Abersold playalongs. In the future, I do hope to offer Bb, concert and bass clef editions for download, but this is still some way off.

The advent of powerful music software has been such a giant leap forward for musicians, that life before their introduction is almost unimaginable. I am in complete awe of the great composers of the past, dealing with the processes of composition and arrangement without the latest version of Sibelius or Finale. What would Mozart make of all this? I recently wrote an arrangement for a quartet of improvisers and string orchestra. The learning curve here was a straight line jutting straight up in the air and even with the assistance of Sibelius 6 I had my work cut out!

The double edge sword of technology is that for all its power, you still have to learn how to use it. Moreover, you have to learn how to use each new version of it, and God forbid that you make the jump from PC to Mac, but surely this is a topic is best left for another day!

In my case, I had a pretty good knowledge of how to prepare an arrangement with Sibelius. However combining 30 separate pieces into a single, printable form, complete with title page, index, appendix and page numbers, well this is a slightly different undertaking! Let’s just say that next time the procedure will be a much quicker one.

I have been through the process of preparing a CD for manufacture a number of times, and have always taken the view that because a small run, independent CD is going to be sitting next to the latest Blue Note or ECM titles, spend as much as you can and make yours look at least as good. A tall order indeed!

Inevitably, when stocked, my albums are to be found somewhere between Rollins, Sonny and Surman John. Not that I mind this, but they certainly a couple of heavyweights to be sitting beside.

For those interested enough to purchase a copy of my book, I would assume that you already play the saxophone and have got this far owing to an interest in my music. I dare say that the cover design will not be the most important consideration in your decision to buy. So provided the charts inside are correct and legible the cover artwork may not factor too highly.

The overall cost and size of the print run was also a consideration as was binding and the paper stock. As with most things, there are many ways to self publish and I have learnt from years of releasing independent CDs, it is easy to spend far more on a project than you could ever hope to recoup.

Many people seem generally surprised at the small scale at which the majority of artists operate. Most musicians I work with do everything themselves and by this I mean they are their own publicist, graphic designer, composer, producer, IT consultant, accountant, photographer and band leader. This is why it is so important that if you find an artist whose work you enjoy, support them and in the case of musicians, don’t illegally copy and distribute their music. My previous blog contains a few thoughts about this very subject.

I have titled this blog ”The Composer’s Notebook” because this, ultimately, is what my new collection of pieces is, just in a very refined form, but the phrase “Composers Notebook” is also an image that I find mysterious and romantic. For me it conjures up images of dusty rooms filled with books and manuscripts piled up in towers, old pianos, roll topped desks, music stands and ancient clockwork metronomes, collections antique instruments and gongs and cymbals. All this generated by two words. An amalgam of all the studios I have ever been in, from my first piano lessons to now.

I do have a notebook by the way and I do use it to store up ideas – some of the most seemingly insignificant scraps have metamorphosed over many years. I am in the process of writing new repertoire for a recording in December so will be revisiting the notebook once more…

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What’s mine is yours?

What follows are some thoughts on a topic that has fired up the grey matter of a many before me. In fact, you might like to skip the next few hundred words and be content with the following statement.

“If you copy music that you have not paid for you are stealing.”

OK, simple enough. So if you are happy with that, I’m happy too.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that and since the arrival of cheap mass-produced audio technology capable of copying music in the privacy of your home, this has been a growing problem, albeit a relatively insignificant one until the ground breaking, world changing, life altering, arrival of digital audio. Combined with personal computers and the internet, mass illegal downloads have become the new reality.

Now, we aren’t talking about the music piracy of the 1980s. More often than not this amounted to making a dodgy copy of "A Kind of Blue" on cassette so that you could listen to it in the car for a couple of weeks until it got chewed or it melted. Today, the piracy we are talking about is the ability to make an absolutely perfect replica of the original in a matter of seconds, add to this the technology that makes this replica available, via the internet, to whoever wants to download it free of charge, anywhere in the world and we are talking about a change to the musical landscape of colossal proportions.

Why am I concerned about this? Well as a professional musician, believe it or not, I do attempt to make a living from my music, and this includes the sale of my music via recordings.

It seems to me that a change is taking place in the attitude of music consumers. There are now many music fans around the world who know nothing about life before the digital age. They have no direct knowledge of the technologies that were in place before the digital revolution. An ever growing percentage of the music buying public don’t know what it’s like to order an LP from the local record shop, wait for six weeks for it to arrive from a warehouse somewhere in Germany and then crowd around a turntable with a bunch of friends to hear it reveal it’s mysteries.

I’m not saying that this is necessarily a good thing; I’m not arguing that vinyl is the only format for audio, and I could certainly have done without the six week wait, but one thing for sure, we appreciated the value of the music, it was not cheap. If you wanted to hear Eric Dolphy live in Berlin, you waited and you PAID for it.

Today, it is not uncommon for students to be listening to their ipods where every track in the play list has been downloaded illegally. This is not hearsay; I know it to be true. I also know that the students in question would have no difficulty in purchasing the music legally – but why bother when they can get it for free? And there you have it, the mind-set has shifted, music has become free, a valueless commodity! This philosophy is, of course, completely at odds with that of the musicians who have invested vast amounts of time, creativity and money in producing the music in the first place!

As I mentioned in my opening, many people have pondered this and related topics as the technology has evolved. Check out Tenor saxophonist and composer Ellery Eskelin’s thoughts on the subject. http://tiny.cc/8x7IV

You can also check out British pop singer Lilly Allen’s blog here http://tiny.cc/iH3rQ but even more eye opening are some of the comments below it!

For a different approach, here is a link to a rave on the subject by altoist and composer Steve Coleman. http://bit.ly/1cGfuf

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My High Five

This article was originally published on Frank Presley's web site http://www.jazzandbeyond.com.au/ but, I thought I would add it to my blog and if you like the idea of musicians discussing some influential gigs, click the link and check out Frank's page.

My High Five

Anyone who has already posted their High-Five, or indeed anyone who has challenged themselves to come up with their own list of desert Island discs, the problem is not so much what to put in but what to leave out.

As a professional saxophonist there are a great number of performances that I have been lucky enough to be a part of that I could easily have included in the list below. But it seems that a list of performances at which I performed belong in a category of their own, a little different to being an audience member.

But… the one performance I would like to mention, one that I was on stage for, took place in 1994 on the banks of the Danube in Budapest. I was a member of Jackie Orszaczky’s band, the Grandmasters.

We were told later that there were more than 10,000 in the audience that night. So many, that the roads at the back of the park had been closed for the duration of Jack’s appearance. Towards the end of our set, Jack told the crowd that “all cultures have the blues…and here is one of ours.” The vast sea of screaming fans fell silent and Jack sang the traditional Hungarian folk song, “Sir Az Ut”, accompanying himself on electric bass with the three horns (James Greening, Jason Cooney and myself).

I am sure that all musicians have moments that confirm for them why it is they do what they do. This is most definitely one of mine.

1. Sun Ra – The Knitting Factory, New York City 1992

This was one of those completely stunning gigs, the full significance of which is still dawning on me. Looking back, I now know I was present for the final moments in a unique chapter of musical history.

Sun Ra was very ill – I think he had had a number of strokes and he seemed unable to move very much at all – except for his hands. The gig was upstairs at the Knitting Factory in Greenwich Village and we had arrived pretty early, to make sure of a seat. When we entered the upstairs performance space, Sun Ra was already sitting at his keyboard.

By the time the rest of the band took the stage the house was full to overflowing! They played what I can only describe as free big band music – but even this description puts a straight jacket around what actually took place – the band played with so much freedom and energy.

It was obvious that even though Sun Ra was physically not in great shape, musically he was inspiring the musicians to reach great heights of creativity and commitment and the audience went completely nuts for the duration of the performance. At the end of the gig (and encore) there still was no satisfying the crowd’s enthusiasm. Sun Ra, after what seemed like a very long time, began to move in his chair, over several long minutes he struggled to his feet and fell, instantly, back into his chair. The audience went crazy…”Sun Ra, give it to him…he deserves it…” screamed a particularly enthusiastic audience member. I couldn’t have agreed more!

2. Steve Lacy with the Engine Room, the Basement, Sydney 1999

This gig was very special for many reasons, not least of which, the unbelievable playing of Roger Frampton. Despite being gravely ill, Roger played at such a high level, and with such invention and virtuosity that Roger on stage by himself would have made for an unforgettable performance.

Add to this John Pochee and Steve Elphick at their creative best and you are starting to get the idea.

Now, add to this mix arguably the greatest improvising soprano saxophonist the jazz world has known and you can see why I am not the first to include this gig in this High Five column.

3. Jan Garberek and the Hilliard Ensemble – Sydney Opera House, 8 Feb 2002

 In terms of an all round concert experience this is one of the best live performances I have ever heard.
The sound of these five musicians in the Concert Hall was simply stunning. The intonation was so good it was frightening and the amplification was so subtle that unless I had heard the effect of it myself, I would not have believed this kind of live sound was possible.

I had high expectations for this gig as I am a fan of Jan Garbarek’s and I was also familiar with the recordings he had done with the Hilliard Ensemble.

The simplicity of the concept and the purity of the sound were breathtaking and the effect was only heightened by the vast space of the Opera House Concert Hall.

4. Bennie Wallace tribute to Coleman Hawkins – Chicago Jazz Festival 2004

This gig was a completely unexpected bonus at the end of what had already been an amazing day. I had just performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival with Ten Part Invention and it was only after this I discovered that Bennie Wallace would be performing on the same stage later in the evening.

I first heard Bennie Wallace when Colin Hoorweg (the drum lecturer at the Canberra School of Music) played me a track from a Bennie recording with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Big Jim’s Tango on the Enja label – if you want to track it down). I was instantly taken by how distinctive he sounded. He had such an original approach to his lines. I still believe he is one of the most strikingly original tenor players around.

Hearing that first track (around 1989) was the beginning of an ongoing quest to get my hands on Bennie’s recordings. So, all those years later, to discover that I was actually performing on the same bill as Bennie Wallace was something of a coup. (Of course we also had backstage passes and could hang out in the green room too!)

Bennie’s gig was really something very special. Bennie played arrangements of tunes with a small big band that formed a tribute to Coleman Hawkins. It was a heavy line-up that included Ray Anderson on trombone and Herlin Riley on the drums. For me the completely mesmerizing highlight of the gig was when they played the traditional tune “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and Herlin Riley put down his drum sticks and played the deepest, jaw-dropping groove on the tambourine. Not a gig or a day I will forget in a hurry.

5. Ornette Coleman – Sydney Opera House, 24 Feb 2008

This was such a recent gig and one that many of you reading this may have been to. For me, Ornette is so special, his sound, his conception, his writing, his commitment to his art. I was actually a little nervous about going to this gig, not wanting to be disappointed by the possibility of hearing one of my idols not at the peak of his powers. When Ornette shuffled onto the stage I feared the worst…until he played his first note.

I know not all the seats in the concert hall at the Opera House provide the same sonic experience but from where I was sitting Ornette sounded like and Angel. As good as all of my favorite Ornette records -only better!

There was something about seeing him play live that helped me to understand more about his music. I have found that since this gig I am hearing another level on his recordings too.

For me this concert was also a lesson in performance and concert craft, in the best senses of those words. He chose a wide selection of his music from across his whole career and his decision to finish the night with Lonely Woman was sublime.

Ornette played with a sense on joy and almost child-like enthusiasm for the music…an inspiration.

I should also add that I was lucky enough to meet Ornette after this concert; of course, this only added to the already overwhelming experience of hearing him play.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Welcome Blog - The First Post

Thanks for stopping by. I will try to keep these posts brief and save the larger things for the website. If you haven't come via there on your way here, you might like to stop by at http://www.andrewrobsontrio.com/ Also, if you simply cannot wait for blog and web page updates, you can get even more up to date with my musical activities via twitter.

The big news of the moment is the launch of Lingua Franca, the new album from the World According to James. We will be peforming at the Sound Lounge on October 10th, so Sydney residents please make a note in your diaries! Lamplight Records will be there with the portable CD store and we will be only too happy to sign copies for you. For speedier access to the new CD, you can order a pre-launch copy at http://www.lamplightrecords.com/