I have this idea in my head that musicians fill their head with musical concepts. They define how that person approaches the music that they play, and you can break their concepts down into various levels. In this way a jazz musician might be said to have a solo concept that helps govern their approach to soloing. You might break that down further to say someone has a given kind or sort of jazz standards solo concept, you might say for them that solo concept is really well developed, but maybe that their free jazz or baroque cadenza solo concept is lacking or maybe under developed. You might break it down further and say that they have a good harmonic concept, rhythmic concept, phrasing concept and so forth, up to the point where you’re either talking about things you can’t really verify or observe meaningfully.
This idea isn’t new and I’m not claiming to have any bold new insights either. Just so we’re clear.
So where this all ties into my composition project is that I am coming up with a lot of resistance in trying to write out a saxophone solo. There’s a lot of warning bells that should be going off already, given that I’m trying to write something to make it sound like it was improvised, but here we are.
At the heart is the problem of putting into writing a style of play that was developed by improvisers who are using techniques that are highly idiomatic to their instrument. The problem is in learning how to write those techniques out without having actually learned them myself. As is the case for any instrument, its construction will determine what musical tools the player has access too, and will push them towards some common play elements, either because these elements of play are easily attainable on the instrument, or because they are very suitable for the style of music they are in, and so forth.
The saxophone is an instrument where facility is gained very easily, and so good musicians eventually become able to present some pretty amazing sonic feats. It’s an instrument with:
-A wide pitch range
-A wide dynamic range (though tends towards being loud)
-A capacity to be played very quickly
-A capacity for sustained notes for a moderate length
-A capacity for a very wide range of articulations
-A capacity for a wide range of tones or timbers
-An ability to switch between the above qualities on a dime
I call the saxophone the “note hose”.
So I play bass, it’s my primary instrument. I also play a forgivable amount of piano, which is to say that when I play the piano, you’ll likely be able to forgive me for doing so. As a result the only instrument that I have facility with lacks a few of the qualities of the saxophone, and so the approach of a saxophone player is a little alien to me.
The bass is an instrument with:
-An extremely wide pitch range
-A wide dynamic range (though tends towards being quiet)
-A capacity to be played somewhat quickly
-A capacity for sustained notes of indefinite
-A capacity for an extreme range of articulations (divided between pizz and arco playing)
-A capacity for a range of tones and timbers
-Some capacity to switch between the above qualities quickly
To me the key differences are of course the difficulty associated with quick play on the bass and the difficulty involved in developing the wide range of skills needed to articulate across the great length of thick string. Professional bassists are very expressive, but younger bassists lack access to the flexibility of articulation and control that saxophonists soon gain. There are clearly other qualities that could be investigated in each instrument, but I digress.
I’ve listened to a trillion saxophone solos, sure, and have even transcribed some on the bass, but yet I don’t feel like I have the whole conception of the instrument in place, and so I don’t know how to really nail the part. I feel like I’m writing a western script for a Hollywood Western long before anyone in Hollywood thought to learn about native american history or culture, and any sax solo I would write would be like putting Italian actors in red face. Those old screen play writers meant well, as I do with my alto sax solo, but that’s clearly not enough.
So the solo is written now, and I think it’s fine. In the end my solution was to put in my mind’s eye and ear the impression of a sax player who I knew well. I knew they’re style of play pretty well, have had the opportunity to see them play live a bunch of times, and I had and still have a bunch of their records on hand for reference. As I wrote out the solo I tried to figure out if it was something that would compel them, if the solo would be fun for them to play, if they would sound good doing it, and if they would have anything to say about it and what that might be. Through this process I arrived at the solo that is now in Penny, Pound, Inch, Mile, and the process seemed to work quite well. I feel like I ended up with a solo that would match their style, but not one that was ripping off their lines or copying their approach. The solo is clearly my own, but it takes lessons from a great player.
In this way I think the task of developing a saxophone player concept was made easier. Typically I understand people better than I understand music, and by allowing that asset to have nurture an area where I had a deficiency I was able to avoid the issues of not having much practical experience on the instrument, and instead contribute something suitable for it that a native saxophonist may not have figured to play.