I’m in big trouble. I have fallen in love. The problem is, she’s high maintanance. She’s expensive. But she’s beautiful:
Ever since my ears first laid eyes on her beautiful sounds my brain has been racking itself to figure out how I can own this monstrous (in size and price) instrument. I might have come up with my silliest, least realizable idea yet.
I’m going to take the instrument out to the streets and play. I know. I know. I disdain playing live. I disdain busking as a concept. I don’t know how to play any songs! But I’m going to do it. And I am going to do it in jazz style.
For a long time I’ve been thinking about playing my alto on the streets, improvising one long endless ballad. The rewards of this would be two-fold. First: I could PRACTICE the horn and not annoy any neighbours. Second: I might be able to buy a cup of coffee at the end of a day.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “How do you go from buying a cup of coffee to buying a $5,000 instrument?”
You’re conclusions are probably the same as mine: stupidity. But that’s ok. Love will make fools of us all.
People think that free-jazz/free-improvisation is self-indulgent. I agree – but I think it misses the point. A virtuoso (Lang Lang banging away at Rachmaninov) is self-indulgent too. He indulges the worst features of a performer and the basest desires of the audience. Everyone might as well have gone to the circus and watched the trapeze act.
But free-jazz/free-improvisation indulges one person’s pure musicality against another person’s pure musicality. If an audience wants to be there, to hear the music and to hear connection, they are welcome. But the music does not depend on an audience – all that is needed are two players and the will to play.
I do most of my music making at home, alone. I overdub, cut and paste, pretend I can play the accordion and hopefully at the end of an afternoon I may have a track that sounds nice. But I long for the interaction that continually draws me to listen to free music.
This week I met with an old acquaintance who has an interest in free music and plays the drums. Here is a snippet of what we did:
I also made some recordings of myself playing the drums. And when I had some time later on in the week I put a bass vamp over the drums and did my best Cecil Taylor imitation over top of them:
I’m quite pleased with my piano playing on this. The piano is my favourite instrument, but I think it is the instrument I’m worst at. Practicing the piano is a very public thing to do and when the only material you have to play is what is inside of you, that’s hard.
The piano is also the hardest instrument to mic – but with the aid of my handy new Zoom Handy Recorder H2 I have actually been able to record some good piano sounds.
This also lacks the visceral punch of music played in the moment by a group of people. One day I might just have the balls to start a piano trio.
I know it’s self-indulgent to put seven minutes of yourself free-improvising on your music blog. But I have over 30 minutes of recordings of drums-saxophone duets, so I don’t think I was as indulgent as I could have been.
(The wonderful drums on the duet are played by Matthew Dunn.)
I’ve been feeling distracted lately. Distracted by the mess of instruments, records, cds and books that I somehow manage to pile around me. It’s as if I’m building fortifications.
About a month ago I decided that it was time to clean, purge and organize. Easily said, agonizingly done. Deciding which records to keep and which to discard is not so easy. It sound stupid, but it feels as if I’m making important life-altering decisions.
I was also ashamed to find many of my consumptive enterprises left to rot, collect dust or forgotten. Of the 104 Haydn symphonies (I bought them all, on an impulse, on sale in a box) I’ve heard ten. Of Mahler’s nine (again: an impulse, a sale, a box) I’ve actually sat through two without wandering away. Chaos without, chaos within.
So I’ve made some rules – all of them broken before the cleaning-gutting-purging was even half-finished – to try to keep myself on track.
1)Don’t put on music unless you want to hear something specific
2) Don’t buy more music – you have enough
3) Don’t wander (mentally or physically) while you listen
It’s helped. The first real fruit of this labour has been Mozart. I know, I know – discovering Mozart is no big shakes. He’s only been top of the pops for 200 years. But actually hearing Mozart, discovering the joy in a perfectly voiced, phrased and placed melody line, has been a revelation. Five years ago I thought he was fluff. (Why then did I impulse-buy the complete piano concertos? On sale, in a box, not heard for years!)
This has led me to some other rules about my own music making:
1) Use a predetermined ensemble of instruments, understand how it works together and write music for the way it sounds.
The ensemble that I have decided on (inspired by Mozart’s wind-band music) consists of:
2 Baritone Euphonium
2 Alto Clarinets
2 Alto Saxophones
I would love to have 2 flutes and 2 trumpets to brighten the sound. My non-western flutes are a little too idiosyncratic and my trumpet playing doesn’t even blow – it sucks.
I’m about to turn 27 and I want everything to be as neat and clean as possible.
For my day job I work in a junk-store. While this doesn’t sound glamorous, it has its benefits. Over the years I’ve picked up a few instruments for the stable, including the two closest to my heart: my clarinet and my guitar. Aside from the material comfort (a steady income) and the material gain (clarinet, accordion, guitar… etc.) the store is also a place where I can go and make noise.
As part of my musical fitness regime, I show up to work every morning an hour early and blow my brains out in the basement. This is hard work.
The saxophone, or any single line instrument, presents an array of challenges for the restless improviser. Without any fixed background it is easy to meander, to flounder, to squeak and fart your way through the morning. To remedy this I do a couple of things; I try to play blues choruses along with practice loops; and I play compositions by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and (on my more cogent mornings) the immaculate Thelonious Monk.
Playing the blues is a challenge because after two choruses, if a person isn’t really trying, the blues becomes very boring. It is a struggle to keep myself interested. Playing Monk’s music is always a lesson in the power of pure melody.
When these two tricks fail me, I have a back-up. One, is listening to the Cello Suites by J.S. Bach. The other is listening to Steve Lacy. Steve Lacy is a profound musician (a beautiful portrait of him is on youtube), as simple as he is complicated, as melodic as he is noisy. Lacy is a true spirit of the late twentieth-century, and an inspiration for single-line instrumentalists. His solo performances of his own music and Monk’s have provided me with enough musical nourishment to get through even the darkest mornings in the basement of the junk-store. Lacy wrote tribute songs to pay homage to his heroes. While these solo themes are not even worthy of being named in his honour, they never-the-less represent my commitment to the sax right now – a commitment that exists, in part, because of his recorded legacy.
Solo Sax Themes, January 18, 2010
As promised, this site will feature successes and failures. I recorded these solo miniatures at home, where I get incredibly self-conscious playing the sax. It is a loud instrument, and I’m certain that my neighbours can’t abide it. While I tenuously blow as softly as I can, they are next door wanting to blow their brains out. And not in the solo saxophone kind of way.