November 28, 2010

In Search of A Sound

Music is a combination of sounds, and with jazz music our listening experience can vary from the relative simplicity of the piano-bass-drums trio to the complexity of the Duke Ellington Orchestra consisting of 18 or so musicians, each with his own individual sound. What makes the sound of any individual jazz musician compelling is a complex issue. Since high school I’ve been in love with the sound of Cannonball Adderley. His saxophone sound is buoyant, emotional and deep-bodied, and it’s a sound I have tried to emulate as best I can. At the same time I can’t separate Cannonball’s alto sax sound from the sound of his band, especially in the Joe Zawinul years of the 1960’s. Those two things together represent my favorite jazz sound. I got to see Cannonball and his band a few times and I feel safe in saying that Cannonball’s sound was a direct reflection of the man that he was.

The subject of an instrumentalist’s sound was often discussed in our jazz archive interviews. The artists who had their formative years in the thirties and forties took great pride in finding a sound that distinguished them from their fellow players. Harry “Sweets” Edison in particular talked about the importance of not sounding like the guy sitting next to him in his interview in March of 1995:

SE: Most of the musicians in those days demanded respect because they were an artist. And they were all individualists. Everybody had a sound of their own. They could be identified on the record. Like if Billie Holiday would sing on the record you’d know it’s nobody but Billie Holiday. She’s the only one sounded like that. If Louis Armstrong, he can hit one note on a record, and you know it’s Louis Armstrong. Nobody sounded like Lester Young. Like Coleman Hawkins. Like Bunny Berigan. Like Benny Goodman, Chu Berry, Dizzy Gillespie. They all had a sound that they could be recognized. And that was our ambition in my day to not be an imitator, but an originator, you know. And as they used to say they’d rather be the world’s worst originator than the world’s greatest imitator. Because there’s nobody like the man that first sounded like that. You can never capture his feeling. So we all wanted to be individualists. I made many, many records with Billie Holiday and it was always a joy just to be in her company because she was just absolutely — I met her when she was about 19 years old. And what a voluptuous, beautiful girl she was. She was absolutely just gorgeous. And she had a sound that when you hear her on a record, you know that’s Billie Holiday. And that’s what we strived for in those days. Nowadays it seems like musicians have their idols and they don’t venture any place else but what their idol is playing. Like Charlie Parker. All alto players sound like Charlie Parker. All the tenor players nowadays sound like John Coltrane. All the trumpet players either sound like Miles or Dizzy. So there’s no originality nowadays with the musicians.

MR: Well, you know finding that original sound I guess is not that easy.

SE: Well we did it.

MR: You sure did.

Of course there are mechanical considerations for what makes a sound on any instrument. On a saxophone you have multiple factors, the horn, the mouthpiece, the reed, et cetera, but a 2010 interviewee, baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan basically dismissed these technical considerations when it comes to what comprises an individual’s sound:

MR: I could tell that sound, in the general sense of the word, seems to be very important to you. Because when someone asked you about the biggest difference between playing alto and moving to baritone it was all about the sound.

GS: Um hum. Well to me in music, general sound is first. Sound comes before anything. I mean if you listen to all the great musicians in this music, they all have individual sounds. That’s the first thing that you hear that grabs you, right? If you listen to, just the tenor saxophone, right? John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Don Byas, Frank Wess, and the list goes on and on, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Georgie Auld, they all play the tenor saxophone but they all have — Al Cohn, Zoot Sims — I could go on all day — Tina Brooks, Hank Mobley. You know they play one note and you know who they are immediately. And to me that’s like the defining thing about being a musician, and for me the most important thing is your sound. And I’ve given a lot of thought and a lot of practice to try to really develop a sound that’s personal and unique to me, because that’s the first thing that people hear. I mean you could be a great technician but if you don’t have a good sound no one’s going to want to hear you and you’re not going to be able to get past your sound. And it’s really the identifying characteristic of who you are as a musician. And your sound is not in the instrument, the sound is not — in my case — it’s not in the saxophone, it’s not in the reed, it’s not in the mouthpiece and it’s not in the ligature. The sound is something that you carry within your very being. And that’s what comes out. So take someone like Sonny Rollins, right? I think that if you gave Sonny Rollins 50 different tenor saxes, 50 different reeds and 50 different ligatures, he’s going to sound like Sonny Rollins, with some variation because maybe the instruments aren’t comfortable. Maybe his comfort level behind the instrument isn’t the same. But essentially what’s going to come out is Sonny Rollins. Because his sound is not in the instrument. And I tell that to my students. I say don’t look for the magic instrument, because there’s no magic instrument.

Every jazz musician is a product of what he or she listens to on the way up. Some musicians tend to grab onto one or two artists for their sources, while others may sample from a wider array of sounds, and not only the sound of their own instrument. Musicians often say they get ideas about their sound from players who don’t play like instruments, it’s more about conception, phrasing, and note choices.

The “Three ations” from Clark Terry is often quoted when the discussion of sound and absorbing influences comes up. Clark was interviewed in 1995 by Joe Williams, the late singer, who was helpful us with our then-budding archive.

CT: We call them the “ation stages,” you’ve got to go through them “ation stages.” Everybody imitated somebody as the first step. The first cat didn’t hear nothing but railroad tracks. He imitated that [scats]. Or whatever. You’ve got to imitate something.

JW: You go from imitation to assimilation, from assimilation to innovation.

Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion also spoke on creating a sound and quoted fellow saxman Pepper Adams who summed it up even more succinctly:

MR: You were influenced by Charlie Parker. Is that a fair statement?

JD: Well sure.

MR: Wasn’t everybody I guess.

JD: I guess, sure. I mean I was never good enough to copy anybody … [but one time] when Pepper spoke he says “well you know when you copy from one person that’s plagiarism. But if you copy from everybody it’s called research.”

Tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts was interviewed in 2003 and has been featured on hundreds of recordings and related the practical considerations that influenced his sound:

MR: You’ve got a very distinctive sound. And I’m wondering was there a period of trying different mouthpieces and all that, and were you trying to sound like somebody to arrive at your own thing?

EW: No it evolved through the music business. The only person I ever really tried to sound like was Trane. Because that was where I’m coming from. That’s where I plugged into. Everybody has someone they emulate when they’re a kid, when they’re learning how to play. And so Coltrane was it for me. I developed my sound, interestingly enough, from playing pop music. When you play pop music, when you play pop solos on all of these records, and you have eight bars in the middle of the tune and then you get to play on the fade while they fade it out and then the DJ tries to fade it out as fast as he can, as soon as they hear the vocal end and the saxophone start you’re out of there.

MR: It’s their cue.

EW: Unless you bought the record, and then you get to hear the saxophone solo go for like twenty bars at the end of some of these things. But on the radio as soon as the DJ hears the saxophone solo you’re out of there. So anyway, I started working on my sound and concentrating on my sound when I realized with pop music, in order for it to be pop music, it has to be within a certain genre. It’s set up a certain way, production-wise it’s set up a certain way, harmonically it’s very simple structured music. As a soloist within that genre you can’t do anything harmonically. You can’t play chromatically through that music. You can’t do anything in that music that is intricate or evolved on a technical or harmonic level. Because at that point it’s not pop music. You take that music to a different place and it’s out of context with the music, therefore it is not right for the music. So you don’t go to a pop session and play a Charlie Parker solo. So what happens is the idiom of the music is so simple harmonically that the only way you can establish a style is to have a sound that is recognizable. So that when you play one note, when you play three notes it’s recognizable because it’s a unique tone quality. And I recognized that in the music. And so I developed my sound. It’s a combination of the stuff I grew up listening to, it’s a combination of Coltrane with a softer edge, but it’s still that center and it’s still that intensity, but it’s just very simplified.

The essence of what makes a musician’s sound distinctive and identifiable remains mostly undefinable and magical. It’s the same magic that makes a melody stick in our head, and the same magic that makes a particular improvised solo a classic.