Neil Sharpe is a Sax on the Web Contributing Editor with an extensive experience with the emotional and psychological aspects of performance, health, and well being.
He is the author and co-author of three professional texts and numerous peer reviewed papers. Neil and his sax have terrified the unsuspecting since the 1950's.
About Sax on the Web Sax on the Web (SOTW) is a
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It covers many aspects of saxophone and saxophone playing in
articles written by several experts. An integral part is the SOTW Forum with 30,000 registered members from beginners to prominent
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Part 1: White Trash, Michael Brecker, Philip Glass
By Neil Sharpe
"I used to occasionally hang out with Mike Brecker in NYC. We would both be sitting in with Paula Lockhart who had Howie Wyeth playing drums…Brecker told me that two of his favorite players were Jim Pepper and Jon Smith."
“Jon’s sound is instantaneously recognized, something only a handful of players have, with a tone that’s as big as a house, and a big vibrato that’s characteristic of a gospel singers…If I were putting together a horn section, Jon would be my absolute first choice.”
“I have followed him since he left Edgar Winter’s White Trash…I couldn’t leave Antone’s until I knew he’d played his last note of the night.”
Late Night with David Letterman Band Austin American-Statesman
“Never mind the superlatives, [Jon Smith plays] some of the highest caliber blues to be found…One longtime blues veteran compared his playing to Cannonball Adderley, saying ‘Smith is so good, he’s almost out of control’.”
When I received an email from the legendary sax player, Jon R. Smith, asking if I’d be interested in doing an article about the great players out of Louisiana, I immediately telephoned him…but with a different proposal. What if we talked about his fabled career of more than 40 years and still going strong, including a 2009 tour of Europe and Germany with
Here's Jon with The Boogie Kings, Jon coming in at 2:58:
Our edited conversations follow:
“Brother, the first real horn I ever had was a King Super 20. I wasn’t really fussy about it. The same applied to the 9* Levelair mpc, I picked up in ’63. But, I just made up my mind, that I was going to whip that horn and mpc, and not have them whip me. I made it work. They’re what I play today.
Some players waste a lot of time searching for a particular horn or a mpc, rather than spending that time learning how to play. There’s no such thing as a horn or a mpc for jazz or for r&b and so on. They’re not going to give you a jazz sound or a r&b sound, or a rock sound. What it comes down to is your voice, your sound. That’s all a mpc or a horn is going to give you.
I’ve always worked real hard on long tones and putting a lot of air through the horn. You don't learn by playing a bunch of short, fast notes. You develop by playing long tones. I used to stand in front of a mirror and played a single note as long and as hard as I could, while maintaining a steady, even tone. In the beginning, I did it so hard and often that I'd get pains in my jaw and stomach, but that's how I built up the embouchure and muscle structure. Fill up the horn with air. That's what gives that big fat sax sound.
As for reeds, for years, I played a 5 reed; it was such a stiff special that people called me ‘The Popsicle Man’. Now, I play a 3 1/2 plastic covered Rico. They’re the only ones I’ve found with good consistency. Get a bad reed, and you’ll get a stuffy, cottony sound because it can’t vibrate.
The other really important thing, if you want to be any good at all, is to fit inside the music. Lee Allen, in the his landmark recordings in the ‘50’s (such as "Slippin' and Slidin'"), was a relatively ‘simple’ player, but his phrasing, articulation, and ability to go to the heart of a song were perfect. He flattered the music and didn’t try to make the music flatter him. Too many players go in and try to make the solos all about them. A recent example happened at a music festival in Texas. They had a bunch of sax players up on stage. When they first started out, things were all right. Then, in the middle of the song, the leader points to one sax player, then another. Their solos had nothing to do with the song, but everything to do with them- a whole lot of ‘Look at me’s’. What a mess! When they finally went back into the song, it was wrecked. They were completely out of synch.
You want to pick up a vibe from another player and create a connection, a feeling, like you’re having a great conversation with someone. Today, too many musicians, especially sax players, don’t do that. They’re so busy thinking about what they’re going to say, that they don’t listen to what another player is saying and feeling. Fit yourself into the music and get the ego out of the way.
Group dynamics is what makes a band click. I always try to listen to what each member of the band is saying to make sure my solo fits into the song and into the band. And remember, you don’t have to say a lot to say something! A great sax player may be capable of riffing off a whole ton of notes, but they also know that sometimes a very few notes is all that needs to be said.
When I go into a session for jazz, I’m going to play a solo that fits the music, sometimes a more modern sound with straight tones and sometimes no vibrato. But, if it’s blues gospel, I’ll use techniques like vibrato and growl. This approach has led to recordings with a wide array of musical artists such as Sarah Vaughn, Randy Newman, Peter Maffay, Rick Derringer, Junior Wells, and Sonny Landreth.
Solo Excerpt- "I Believe to My Soul" from Willie Tee's album "I Believe In My Soul"
And that’s another thing. Know your limitations. Great r&b players don’t try to be jazz players and vice versa. I’ve seen some jazz players come in and play bebop riffs over r&b and rock n’ roll. They’re playing way outside the music and not fitting into it. It’s a mess.
Fit yourself into the music and get the ego out of the way. Give space to the other musicians. Those things must always prevail over technical ability and a particular style. It’s your job to keep the song alive and flowing, not to try and drown it.
Players like Lee Allen, Plas Johnson, Sam Butera,
and Gene Ammons [listen to "Jungle Strut"], could say everything that needed to be said, to really push a song ahead, with just a few notes.
King Curtis is another great example. The sessions he did with The Coasters were one of my favorite records. In ’62, I was touring in the Northeast and saw him with ‘The King Pins’, featuring Cornell Dupree, Bernard Purdy and Billy Preston on keyboards [check out "Soul Twist"]. What a monster player! He had a big influence on me. With the Coaster records,
he had that unique style that only Boots [Randolph] came close to. I sat down and learned every one of Curtis’ Coasters solos (which includes "Yakety Yak").
At the time, some players thought it was too corny a style and too commercial, but it made those songs really move. That’s what playing is all about. Same applies for the great Junior Walker, an enormous r&b player.
Some musicians only will play a specific genre of music. That’s fine, but if you want to make a career out of music, the bottom line is, if you’re not playing, you’re not earning. I know some great, great players out there who are starving. That’s because they look at music as if through a straw, with a very narrow view; if they can’t play bebop, they won’t play anything. Which is fine if that’s your choice and you fully understand the consequences in terms of making a living and supporting a family. That’s why I like playing with musicians who approach the music being played at that moment with total focus and devotion.
Bobby Charles, one of America’s all time song-writing treasures, and a true creator of that 50’s
rock n’ roll sound, gave me my start back in ‘58. I did my first recording session with him when I was 13 years old. He had a four track-recording machine and we laid down some great cuts [Bobby's early songs for Chess often featured Lee Allen on sax, e.g. click here to listen to "Take It Easy Greasy".
Chart hits Bobby Charles has written include, “Walking to New Orleans”: Fats Domino- #6 Billboard; “See You Later Alligator: Bill Haley and The Comets-#6 Billboard; “I Don't Know Why I Love You But I Do”: Clarence Frogman Henry- #4 Billboard]. Highly respected in the music industry, Bobby’s last CD, "Last Train to Memphis"
won applause from all corners, and
featured guest artists that included Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton, and Maria Muldaur. And check out his CD ‘Wish You Were Here Right Now’, released in 1995 on Stony Plain, which I played on.
Brother, if you wanted to learn how to play, I mean really play, there wasn’t a better spot in the world than Louisiana in the 1950’s. Our gathering spot was Vinton, Louisiana, close to the border of Texas. Had a ton of clubs. Rock, rhythm and blues 24 hours a day. The drinking age was supposed to be 18, but no one kept track. Playing in clubs at the age of 13 or 14 wasn’t unusual. The club owners didn’t monitor the ages of the band members. As long as you kept things straight and went into the parking lot or a backroom during breaks and not into the club, you were o.k.
Jon Smith: ‘6-3-4-5-7-8-9’
You could play a gig from 8 to midnight. Go to another club until 4 a.m. Move to a new room and rock to 7 a.m. They’d close for an hour to swamp out the places, throw open the doors, and start all over again. That’s where I met Edgar Winter and Jerry Lacroix. We were just three young guys, playing sax. That became our mutual bond.
My first gig came at 15, and soon after that, I was off on the road with a Louisiana drummer named Dewey Martin, (later of Buffalo Springfield), Randy Meeks on piano, singer Dale Hawkins [who immortalized the song “Susie Q”], songwriter extraordinaire Larry Henley [e.g. “Beneath My Wings”, written with Jeff Silbar-#1 on Billboard; The New Beats’ “Bread and Butter” that went to #2].
A lot of the music business is about being in the right place at the right time. Usually that means a lot of hard work to put yourself in that position but, sometimes, lady luck can make a big difference. Such as the time I was on a job up in the Northeast, sharing space with Link Chamberlain, a really good jazz guitarist. I was coming out of a music store in New York City, when I ran into my old buddies Edgar Winter and Jerry Lacroix. Seems that Edgar’s brother, the terrific blues guitarist Johnny Winter, had got them an audition which led to a recording contract with Clive Davis and Epic Records. They asked if I’d be interested in joining the band. A three-story house had been rented in Woodstock, New York. Halfway through the question, I’d already started to pack!
We put that record together like they used to do at Cosimo Matassa's famous J&M studio in New Orleans. Back in those days, a lot of musicians in Louisiana couldn’t read music, so they’d sit down and work our ‘head arrangements’ while in the studio."
[In John Broven’s excellent book, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans,
he quotes Alvin Red Tyler who described how, "Lee Allen and myself would get together and come up with the riff. We would create that song in the studio. You know it was trial and error…And we would make the thing up right then, nothing written, so we actually got by without an arrangement fee and this is why so many independents came to this city. Now in a sense this may have been why some of the things were so groovy, they were done how we felt, not how it was written…if you do it out of your head, either it lays right or it doesn’t. If it grooves, it’s gonna happen". And it happened in a major way with Little Richard's smash hit album, "Here's Little Richard" on Specialty Records, later named by Time Magazine to the Top 100 albums of the 20th Century. As Mac Rebbennack (Dr. John) describes in Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, "Little Richard had things before but he was not successful until Lee Allen and Red Tyler put that sound on him and put that good hard rock feel on him. It was the New Orleans sound that got Little Richard across and since he's left that sound behind he's never been successful."]
"Edgar and I would sit by the piano in that Woodstock house, and decide what we wanted to do and where; whether to voice or to play it out, and so on. The band would work on the arrangements for 6-8 hours a day, and we’d do the occasional gig to try out the music.
When I showed my grandmother pictures of the guys in the band, she took one look and exclaimed: ‘You guys look like a load of ‘White Trash’.’ And that was it. She’d given us the name for our band!
‘Edgar Winter’s White Trash’
was a huge success in 1970, followed two years later by the album ‘Roadwork’
that hit ‘Gold’ in sales, again featuring horn arrangements by Edgar and myself. We reunited again in ’78 for the album ‘Recycled’.
The first White Trash album was recorded at Columbia Studios in New York City. A number of other recording studios were in the same building.
One afternoon, a guy walks into the control room and says he’s looking for horn players to help out on a track he’s doing. I said ‘Sure’ and walked up the stairs to another studio. Turns out the guy was Felix Cavaliere of the group the ‘Young Rascals’
[who already charted Top 10 hits on Billboard, including three number #1’s, “Groovin”, “Good Lovin”, and “People Got To Be Free”]. The album he was working on was ‘Peaceful World’. The other sax players he’d recruited included sax legends Joe Henderson, David Sanborn, and Joe Farrell. Not a bad horn section! Felix and I have remained friends over the years, including the occasional gig, and did a later album, ‘The Island of Real’.
While I was touring with ‘White Trash’, an interesting group, ‘Dreams’,
opened for us one night. They featured a truly gifted sax player by the name of Michael Brecker.
Michael was a wonderful guy, always in total command, who could do more with one note than any other musician I’ve heard. The last time I saw him perform was the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival Japan. I was playing with the great Albert Collins at the time and at the end of our shows Michael Brecker and I would go across the lake to see David ‘Fathead’ Newman.
Michael was from a completely different school than I. The East Coast sound and John Coltrane had been his major influences. But that’s true to every sax player. Although I never tried to emulate another player, my influences included Lee Allen who had the biggest, most well rounded, full-bodied saxophone tone. I listened to a lot of his solos and was overwhelmed by what he could say, even though it was in a relatively narrow range.
Another great player was Plas Johnson, who always sounded a little different from any of the other Louisiana players. I fell head over heels in love with his tone. He had that huge tenor sax sound, and played on big tip openings like Berg’s .160 and .170. Sound wise, I think he is one of the greatest sax players on this planet. I couldn’t believe how big and huge his tone was on “Pink Panther”.
Although we all have different influences, in the end, we are all good conscientious players expressing ourselves as best we can. That’s a mistake I see too many players make. Each of us has our own unique, distinct, speaking voices. Why do we think, it will be any different with the sax? Coltrane and Michael were tremendous players, but each spoke in his own unique voice, style, and tone. That’s what every player needs to do. Develop your voice as best you can. Then you’re going to shine.
Today, I see too many younger players put too much pressure on themselves, trying to sound like someone else. It’s pointless. Your voice is your voice. The other thing is, never stop exploring and developing your sound. I’m still trying to get bigger and better. That’s what keeps it interesting; you never know what you may find.
Louisiana always has been blessed with great musicians. Like Mac Rebennack a.k.a. Dr. John, a terrific guy, a friend for years, and a TREMENDOUS musician and songwriter. When people see a group, often the first thing they latch onto is the name, next “the look”, and then if the band hits them hard in the first few notes, they’re sold. Mac had all of those things down cold, especially with the voodoo imagery, billing himself as 'Doctor John, The Night Tripper'. I’ve done a lot of gigs and tours with Mac, including his first album in ’69, ‘Remedies’, although I didn’t receive a credit due to the producer Charlie Green, who didn’t put session musicians’ names on albums.
Another friend, from back then, is the great drummer/singer/actor Levon Helm,
who I met while he was playing with Dale’s cousin ‘Romping’ Ronnie Hawkins. Levon later would form a really innovative, outstanding group, ’The Band’.
Levon and I have kept in touch over the years, including sitting in on ‘Midnight Ramble’ that he started a few years ago up in Woodstock.
Then came the phone call that introduced me to a new world of music…
My long time friend, and fellow horn player, Dickie Landry,
who had moved to New York City, called to ask if I’d be interested in playing with him on a new gig…with Philip Glass!
The musical jump from White Trash to Philip Glass wasn’t as drastic as some might think. In the early 70’s, Philip’s music was very structured, based on extended reiterations of brief, melodic fragments that wove in and out of an aural tapestry.
Although playing with the Philip Glass Ensemble –usually seven musicians playing a variety of instruments including keyboards and woodwinds, amplified and fed through a mixer- required long hours of practice, when written out the music was relatively straight forward and not that difficult to play.
Playing with Philip was a unique experience. The music was very repetitive, allowing one to fall deeper and deeper into it, until it became like a meditation, placing you in a kind of a very relaxing, musical trance. This could lead to what they call ‘The Zone’, where it seemed as if I’d stepped outside my body and watched myself play. When that happens, all distractions disappear, including the drunks and hollering from the audience. You’re not thinking about what you’re playing, you’re just sitting back, in perfect peace and contentment, letting the music flow.
That’s one of the secrets of performing. If you’re thinking about being up on the bandstand, if you’re conscious about what you’re playing and what’s going on around you, you’re not ‘playing’. Too many players want everything tightly organized and arranged; that gets too mechanical. When you’re playing, forget about all the scales and chord progressions and things you’ve learned; just go out, let your fingers do the walking, and see where the music leads. Another way of looking at it, if you’re laying in bed and you’re aware of laying in bed, then you’re not sleeping. And when you’re dreaming, you’re not thinking about dreaming, you’re just dreaming. It’s the same with music; if you’re thinking about playing, you’re not playing!
Don’t let distractions take you away from the music. You can be aware of things without having to think about them. Tune into the musicians around you, to what they’re saying, to where they’re going. Slip into the rhythm. Be free within it.
Jon Smith: ‘I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday’
In Part Two, Jon talks about his new CD, session work, Albert Collins, and the cold, cold heart of the business of music.