January 1, 2015

Auld Lang $yne

For working musicians there are few things worse than being home on New Year’s Eve. Not only is a New Year’s gig typically profitable (as in double scale), but also a musician’s pride takes a big hit if they are not working. I played my first New Year’s Eve gig in 1966 while still in high school. I don’t remember why it happened, but I got a call from a drummer who led a Ukrainian-American band and needed a saxophone player. This was not an easy gig. We played hand written charts, mostly uptempo polka-type material. It was challenging sight reading. The two things I recall the most were: my first and last shot of whiskey; and the $30 I made. For a 16-year-old, making $30 playing the saxophone was significant. Since 1966 I estimate that I’ve only spent four or five New Year’s Eves at home, but I only remember that first one and the one I played last night.
Last night’s New Year’s gig was one of the better ones. My four-piece band played in a beautiful hall for ballroom dancers. The band was a hit and the dance floor was never empty. And these folks can really dance. They know what they want, and it is a challenge to hit the tempos and grooves they practice to. Before the evening was done we had played a cha-cha, a polka, several waltzes, numerous jitterbugs, a samba, two disco tunes, and even a slow Muddy Waters blues. I am fortunate to work with guys that take it all in stride, and feel a certain sense of satisfaction in playing all these styles, as do I.
During these kind of gigs there is usually a memorable moment, and last night was no exception. I’ll remember one of the dancers who came up to make a request. This man was expecting to have a conversation with me while I was playing my saxophone. If you’ve ever played a saxophone you know it’s difficult to talk at the same time, so I simply leaned over and he whispered in my ear, “how about ‘Could I Have This Dance’?” In between phrases I said, “you got it,” and we played the Anne Murray waltz as our next selection.
A band leader always has obligations and tasks that sidemen happily do not. Beyond the contracts and negotiations, there’s the responsibility for basically running the evening. In the case of New Year’s Eve, you dare not miss midnight. As the evening went on, we did a few “check your horns” those annoying plastic noisemakers that are distributed on all the tables, and a few cracks about only having a few minutes to make good on your 2014 New Year’s resolutions. I always try to time it so that we end a song about a minute before midnight. One feels a sense of power as you intone the countdown, whether your watch is off or not. With a drum roll you count down from ten and launch into the required “Auld Lang Syne.” I can never resist adding that wide simpering vibrato that was so famous with the Guy Lombardo saxophone section. It seems that this band rang in New Year’s on television forever, at least in my childhood memory.
Some gig-less musicians will say they decided to take the night off. Right. Translation: no one called. Musicians don’t like to admit they were home on New Year’s, and I’m already hoping that the group we played for last night will call soon to book us for next year.

December 8, 2014

Christmas Béla Fleck Style

Most major artists eventually record a holiday album. Sometimes it’s by choice, and on other occasions they’re encouraged to do so by their record label. Christmas and holiday music must sell; year after year we see new releases on the market. When an artist decides to do such an album, they gather a circle of arrangers and, combined with their own ideas, try to find a niche. Their musical choices are many, especially in the case of an instrumental record. Eliminating the vocal opens up multiple possibilities for recasting familiar tunes. They can experiment with a significant list of musical elements, including: tempo, tone, dynamics, time signature/groove, instrumentation, and an overall general style.
One of my favorite holiday CDs is Béla Fleck and the Flecktones “Jingle All the Way” released in 2008. Artists like to put their own spin on old songs, and Béla and the Flecktones put the “12 Days of Christmas” into a centrifuge and spun it on high speed. It’s as if the goal was to combine every possible instrument tone, time signature, tempo, dynamic and musical style into one 5:18 cut.
The normal line-up of Béla, bassist Victor Wooten, reedman Jeff Coffin, and percussionist Future Man, is augmented with string bass, mandolin, clarinet and the Tuvan Throat Singers. The possibilities are endless.
When I spoke to Béla, in 2004, he described his creative process:
Béla Fleck
BF:    I just write a lot. And I’m always screwing around with the banjo and stuff pops out and then I try to figure out what’s going to be good for the group. And a lot of times I just take what I think is the best song and what makes it the best song to me is hard to put my finger on but I’ll just have something and I’ll think well this is — there a bunch, I might have 20 things that I come up with, this one I think is special. It’s usually something about the melody or the chords that’s different enough to either be — it has to either be so simple and strong and striking in its simplicity that it’s better than the other simple tunes that I’ve written or that the other guys have or whatever, or it’s got to have a complexity that’s interesting but not necessarily offputting. Just I’m looking for a certain intangible something. But when I find it I know it.
The TwelveDays of Christmas” arrangement was a collaborative effort between all four Flecktones. The fun begins before the song actually starts. The audible countoff can best be written: 1, 2, hey, ack!
Following four measures of bass drone, the banjo offers the first day of Christmas in a swinging fashion, at a civilized tempo of 116 beats per minute.
On the second day the soprano sax states the melody with a loping cowboy feel. The song perks up, modulating a half step higher and sprinting at double the original speed. But don’t get used to it, after a few frantic bars they shift gears back to the original key and tempo. These fellows are toying with us.
A graceful waltz and an ascending whole step modulation is employed for the third day. Béla indulges in a terrific wrong note at 0:32, worthy of musician/comedian Victor Borge.
Enter the guest mandolinist, with a bluesy fourth day of Christmas, and so it goes, one after another, an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of time signatures, melodic embellishments, and tongue-in-cheek musical commentary.
Here are some other highlights:
At 2:44 a bubbly Lawrence Welk-sounding orchestra, meets a Klezmer band, complete with clarinet lead.
At 3:55 the soprano sax floats serenely over what can only be described as an intense rhythmic battle between the rest of the band.
And the most striking moment, at 4:36 a choir of unearthly voices intone variations on “five golden rings.” The only possible thing that can follow that is a reflective moment of silence.
This carousel of sounds finally concludes with a collective band scream. We have seen the Flecktones on three occasions, and there was never a music stand on stage. As I listened to this complex arrangement I felt sure they would never play it live. How could all this meticulous chaos be memorized and accurately performed without the music? I underestimated these awesome musicians. Watch this entertaining live version here.
The entire CD is a marvelous match of magical arrangements and impeccable musicianship. If you want to challenge yourself, try singing along with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ semi-psychotic version of this Christmas classic.

November 6, 2014

Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax
A few weeks ago I was chatting about music in a small circle of classical musicians. I happened to mention that the saxophone is one of the few instruments that was actually invented by one person, as opposed to an evolution over the years. One person commented, “yes, and we’ve been cursing Adolphe Sax’s name since its invention.”
This comment was only partly in jest. The saxophone has its lovers and its detractors, but it is indeed one of the few instruments we can cite as an invention. Most instruments evolve over decades and even centuries. The flute used to be made of wood. The piano came from a long line of keyboard evolutions including the harpsichord and the clavichord. And the trumpets lived without valves for a long time.
Today, November 6, we note the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax. Mr. Sax was born in 1814 in the town of Dinart which was part of France, later annexed by the Netherlands. It was common at the time to follow in your father’s footsteps as far as a trade. Adolphe’s father was a cabinetmaker and inventive enough to provide musical instruments for a Dutch army band when ordered to do so. Adolphe took to the business of instrument making, eventually producing a new and improved bass clarinet and exhibiting nine music related inventions at the 1840 Belgian Industrial Fair Exhibition.
Paris was the capital of musical life in France and Adolphe moved there to seek his fortune. His idea to combine the fluency of a woodwind instrument with the power of a brass instrument was met with encouragement by the composer Berlios, also a music critic. This stamp of approval encouraged Adolphe to pursue production of seven different sizes of saxophones and the instrument gained popularity in opera orchestras as well as military bands. The rest of Adolphe’s life was not happy in a storybook fashion. He spent most of his energies defending himself from lawsuits from other instrument inventors who claimed they conceived of the saxophone first.
One of his sons, Adolphe-Edouard, followed him into the business and maintained his instrument making workshop, which was eventually bought by the Selmer company. To this day Selmer still has the highest reputation for their saxophone manufacturing.
Adolphe Sax received his patent for the saxophone in 1846, making it the youngest of the wind instruments and far too late to have been written for by the great Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers. Adolphe never knew that the saxophone would become the most popular of jazz instruments on another continent and be the first choice of many young musicians in the fourth and fifth grades.
The seven sizes of the saxophone have been whittled down to mostly the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. But if you would like to hear the whole gamut of the instrument, including the bass and the massive contrabass, I suggest looking for the album by Scott Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist who played every size of saxophone when he recorded “Thinking Big” on Arbors Records in 1997. Mr. Robinson’s obsession with saxophones, especially the contrabass, is well known in music circles. When I interviewed him in 1997 he related how the story of his frantic search to acquire a contrabass ended with success:
Scott Robinson
MR:    You have an album coming out with a contrabass?
SR:    Yeah. That instrument I never even dreamed of getting, because there’s so few in the world, there’s like a dozen in the world. But I did happen to meet somebody in Rome, I told them I was looking for old instruments, and he says, “oh there’s this giant saxophone in an antique shop.” And I really didn’t believe him, because people say, “oh yeah, it’s like higher than that door.” And then you go look at it and it’s a baritone. That kind of thing happens all the time. But this guy was for real. His name was Enrico. And he was for real with this. And he sent me pictures of it. And I was out of my mind, you know I couldn’t sleep. But there again, the guy didn’t want to sell it. But he had it just standing up in his antique furniture shop, and he had canes and umbrellas and stuff down inside it. And that took two and a half years. Finally the guy parted with it and my friend brought it over in a big box the size of a phone booth. I picked him up at the airport and we brought the thing home, and it’s just unbelievable. And the amazing thing is how small the bass sax looks next to this. The bass saxophone just — I busted out laughing. We dragged them both out in the yard and we stood them up and the contrabass and then the bass sax is just down here.
MR:    So this is an octave below a baritone sax?
SR:    Yeah. But it seems proportionately larger somehow than what you would think. I mean it’s at least twice the size of the bass sax. Amazing. Taller than me and I’m six-four nearly.
You might want to view Mr. Robinson playing the contrabass in this story on CNN.
When rock & roll entered the scene in the 50s, many wind instruments were replaced by the electric guitar. Perhaps because of its ability to convey intense emotion, the saxophone survived and is often featured in many rock & roll instrumentals. Our previous blog detailing more about the instrument, “The Saxophone Survives,” can be read here.
In addition to its popularity, the saxophone also must be the most misspelled instrument. Please note the O in the middle, not an A, as I have seen countless times.
Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax.