the metal frisbee, the metal softball

i drove over to my alma mater a couple of weeks back, in search of a ticket to hear our president speak. you know, the one from chicago with big ears and a nice lefty jumper.  i rolled into iowa city at 12:30, eventually located the obama headquarters, and parked like them duke boys in front of a law firm.  the democratic reps were putting away all of their regalia and, when i sheepishly approached them, offered me the final ticket.  i snagged it, walked to eble and bought up a bunch of sheet music, and eventually made my way to the pentacrest.  i successfully passed security and meandered into the cluster of college kids.  the rain was drizzling, so I threw my hood up and listened to the live music.

kevin “b.f.” burt was doing a solo set, playing a bunch of blues stuff.  he has a great voice, gets around on the guitar nicely, and can handle the harmonica that’s strapped to his face.  old al green and bill withers charts stood amongst classic blues tunes, and the soggy crowd ate it up.  He was really putting on a clinic with these tunes.  I am not a blues fan, meaning that I don’t go to blues gigs or buy blues records.  I must admit, “b.f.” was getting it done and I was digging it.  the congregation of curious and zealous hawkeyes were showing him love too.   how can the blues, a equally niched art form, appeal to so many casual listeners while jazz music often turns people away?

my friend james biehn invited me out to a blues jam session several years ago.  not really my hang, but i respect jb and wanted to go hear him in his environment.  woah - that guy killed it, marking the first time i had ever heard someone play the blues and had it really connect with me.  i sat in with he & his friends later that night, and proceeded to take a big deuce on a blues jam.  i couldn't stop playing bebop lines and free jazz angles, even though i was floundering mightily while attempting to get inside of the simple groove the band was putting down.  the blues - it sounds so easy, but is so hard for me to play.

the trick, i have since decided, is to water it all down and deal with the necessary components of good music.  generate ideas that you can repeat, ideas that you can sing, develop those ideas, ride the dynamics of the solo like a surfer, and occasionally rip off a handful of fiery licks that augment what you're doing.  the difference between jazz blues and blues blues, in my opinion, is the intent.  blues guys are holding their heart out in front of you and wringing it for all it's worth.  jazz guys stick their axe out in front of you and try to jam all sorts of wild shit into a simple form with hopes that it all looks good on paper.  

i attended a performance masterclass thingy at the university of northern iowa a few years back.  the guests were the dave binney quartet; craig taborn, thomas morgan, dan weiss, and binney himself.  they are incredible musicians and have been a part of many many wonderful recordings.  during the q&a, one of the students asked the players to do a blues.  the idea would be to provide a universal song form that everyone could follow (instead of their intricate originals) and gain a deeper appreciation for their collective artistry.  they refused.  seriously.  were they backing away from that challenge or just so stubbornly driven by their own pursuits? however they sliced it, it sure was a buzzkill.

i totally get it, both sides now.  i feel like i'm kicking a bad habit.  sticking to my guns and following my newfound criteria keeps my ideas more genuine and accountable, and certainly at the risk of sounding like i can't get around the horn.  i often think of that scene in "the jerk" when steve martin is leaving the house and says all he needs is that lamp.  playing blues, for me, needs to be about resistance and efficiency.  i mean, really - do i need the paddle game too?

fighting the urge to dump the contents from my limited bag of tricks all over the stage floor will certainly require more artistic maturity out of me.  i am constantly reminded of joke/story about the young bull, the old bull, and the pasture of cows.  that's sort of a crass synopsis of being thoughtful and patient.  daniel tosh's summarization of the summer olympics gets my point across, and is definitely funnier.


i still have a crush on paula abdul

people will occasionally ask me how old i am or, in an effort to be mathematically sleuthy, in which year i was born.  i try to hide my age from all inquiring minds, but i fear that my salt & pepper beard and receding hairline (both qualities that my wife, who rarely reads this, just loves) are giving me away.  and my pop culture references that get blank responses from my students.  and probably a bit of my fashion sense, but at least folks are nice enough to let that slide.

i am a product of the 80s.  i grew up on long distance dedications, super fudge, the millennium falcon, tab, moonlighting, donruss, charles in charge, and the lost art of the mixtape.  in an effort to resist the local country radio station, i pledged my allegiance to Q102.5.  they played "all of today's best music".  without knowing any better, i cut my teeth on steve winwood, simply red, duran duran, etc. my first real solo (you know, out in public) was the opening six bars of "greatest american hero" in some lukewarm medley of pop tunes for middle school band.  i followed up my debut with a solo version of the willie nelson/julio iglesias sensation "to all the girls i've loved before" that following summer at the union county fair, backed by a choir of bleating sheep.

i would never practice out of my lesson book.  i would try to just sightread the songs in my weekly band lesson, mistakenly thinking i had mr. rissler fooled.  instead, i would spend many saturday afternoons playing along with the radio (in some pretty lousy keys) while my mom was perched behind her sewing machine, one eye on the seam and the other on the clock.  the jams on the fm dial often had nice saxophone solos tucked into them.  even some tv shows featured the king of instruments.

i'll confess that i have a penchant for and respect the pop saxophone guys.  i dig lenny pickett's snl stratospheric lines, gerald albright's cutting tone, kirk whalum's robust sound, branford's work with sting, and brecker's laundry list of pop appearances.  participation ribbons go out to marc russo, clarence clemons, ernie watts, and charlie dechant.

my guy for the longest time was eric leeds.  he played with prince on a bunch of my favorite albums, including "parade" and "sign o' the times".  what a great gig!!!  he played so great in a supportive capacity, never calling for the ball but was always in the right place at the right time.

a couple weeks back, the wife and i had a quick dinner at chili's after getting t.j. maxxed out.  i made a pit stop at the bathroom before we hit the road.  as i cozied up to the urinal, i heard a great '80s song through the speakers.  i was all alone, so the lip syncing ensued.  i finished my business, zipped up, and stood still in front of the urinal with the motion sensor.  i didn't want it to flush during the saxophone solo, which i was fingering on my hips.  an old farmer guy, who had obviously just come back from the fair, walked in and gave me the weirdest look.  i waited until the solo was over, then stepped away and let modern technology to do its thing.

that got me thinking ... why has the saxophone fallen out of popularity?  katy perry, lady gaga, and ke$ha have managed to implement saxophone solos into their repertoire.  bon iver and laurie anderson both use bass saxophonist colin stetson, and jeff coffin picked up the sax chair with dave matthews.  jimmy kimmel's bandleader is a tenor player, and jimmy fallon has the occasional saxophonist sitting in with the roots.  but is that it?  tell me we aren't diminished to a caricature of ourselves, with big thanks going to sergio.

some of the best saxophone solos i know appear in pop tunes. below is a snapshot of my favorites, not to be confused with a comprehensive list.  want one?  follow this link to a guy who gives out grades.  and now, in no particular order...

* hands to heaven - breathe
* careless whisper - wham
* you belong to the city - glenn frey
* take me home tonight - eddie money
* maneater - hall & oates
* caribbean queen - billy ocean
* sade - smooth operator
* mediate - inxs
* heart of rock & roll - huey lewis and the news

and this one...


cuddling up with the real book

composer libby larsen did a residency at our school about eight years ago.  she workshopped pieces for various ensemble types, discussed her approach to composing, and pressed the flesh with aspiring musicians and casual community snoops alike.  i got two good things out of her visit:  #1 she told me that she stuffs her pockets with mini candy bars and pops one in her mouth about five minutes before she goes and speaks/teaches/appears in front of people.  many of my students' lives have been saved because of this little trick.

#2 is a lecture masterclass she gave about being a composer in the world.  she referenced a series of lps that accompanied turntables on the retail market in the 1930s.  people that bought record players were immediately exposed to a select collection of classical music.  i remember that when i bought my blu-ray player from best buy, it came with a couple free blu-ray discs.  i never would have seen invincible otherwise. she talked about the struggle that she, and others who champion new music, face in society's climate of artistic expectations.  i'm proud of my latest tune mr. falcon, but i bet most folks at the club would rather hear stella.

i think the gist of what libby preached was that folks may in fact be predisposed to like certain types of music within a genre.  my parents probably figure hearing mozart and beethoven on a classical set is a full meal, and my neighbors will likely go home happy if they hear some louis armstrong and duke ellington at a jazz gig.  ticket sales at major venues definitely support this idea of older means better (i'm looking at you, blue note records).  original tunes or crafty arrangements are nice and all, but the pedestrian listener isn't sure what to make of all the intricacies in your artwork.  i ate a bunch of fancy food on an alaskan cruise this summer and, yeah - it looked pretty cool, but i enjoyed it more if it tasted good.  and it did.  i've got the extra pudge to prove it.  nobody tell tony horton.

i played a jazz casual (do they still call it that) (did they ever call it that) this past saturday with some good friends. the gig boasted fine players and cool guys, but not an ensemble that has rehearsed or put together tunes.  we were assembling set lists for the evening in an attempt to be organized and, i must admit, i kinda got my butt handed to me with the song selection.  boy was i glad that i brought my real book along.  i either am out of touch with what the assumed jazz standards are or need to start learning a bunch of tunes.  a bit of both, i imagine.

among the thorns were invitation - which i really only know from the weird organ aebersold accompaniment that never endeared itself to me, nica's dream - a horace silver tune that i rarely check out, along came betty - a benny golson chart that i last played 10+ years ago with my friend tom sandahl, a tune with cool changes and a forgettable melody, and caravan - an old ellington thing that a bunch of folks like doing, yet i last looked at michael abene's arrangement of it for the jazz corridor project a while ago.

how many jazz standards should i keep in rotation?  i know a bass player who alleges to know over 300 tunes and another saxophonist who says he can keep up to 25 tunes in his head.  i suppose the next question is defining my definition of "knowing" a tune.  with my experiences as a horn player & rhythm section guy, my criteria has changed with time.  know the melody, know the changes, know how to voice the chords, know the lyric, know at least one great recording of this tune, know it in more than just the book key, and know it well enough that i can singlehandedly save the tune from itself.

with that said, i know i am nowhere close to 300 and doubt if i am in 25's ballpark.  geesh - it's kinda embarrassing.  have i spent too much time teaching other tunes in a short time frame and writing/arranging songs that i like (and aren't necessarily from the vaults of jazz hits)?  who decides which tunes are the ones i should be memorizing?  should i quit doing my thing and instead start relearning a bunch of tunes, get my swcc vocal jazz days up and running again?  i don't really want to shed the personal identity i've struggled to discover, but i also should save some face and not need to read angel eyes.  is it time for me to put down the flag of my musical crusade and get back in the shed?

as a side man, which was the case this past weekend, i need to have a handle on a bunch of these tunes. as a leader, the burden and luxury of programming the evening's tunes falls upon my shoulders.  herbie came out with a record many years back called the new standard, and it basically helped remind us that the jams from gershwin, duke, hoagy, and cole porter aren't necessarily a representation of today's music.

i don't plan to stop writing my own tunes and coming up with creative twists to old standards, but i certainly need to get my butt in gear and learn some more tunes.  with my wife's recent n.d.e. and my sister weathering the firestorm that threatened to take her home, i've realized that this life is a short one.  and with that, i think i'll split the difference.