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SOTW columnist
Jody Espina
Jody Espina



Jody's book and CD recommendations for this article: (more details)

"Top Tones for the Saxophone" by Sigurd Rascher.
A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation
- Jamey Abersold Play-Along
The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, Compiled and Edited by Tim Price
Cannonball Adderly Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly
UKBuy this from amazon.co.uk
Miles Davis Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
UKBuy this from amazon.co.uk

Saxophone Books for Sale:

Sue Terry Practice Like the Pros by Sue Terry
UKBuy this from amazon.co.uk
Larry Teal Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal
UKBuy this from amazon.co.uk
Absolute Beginners Absolute Beginners:
Alto Saxophone
The Complete Saxophone Player Book 1 by Raphael Ravenscroft
The Rough Guide to Saxophone:
The Essential Tipbook
by Hugo Pinksterboer
Blues Saxophone:
An In-Depth Look at the Styles of the Masters with CD (Audio)
by Dennis Taylor
The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone by Richard Ingham
Masters of Jazz Saxophone : The Story of the Players and Their Music by Gelly, Dave
Jimmy Dorsey Saxophone Method: A School of Rhythmic Saxophone Playing by Arnold, Jay
Mel Bay Presents Jazz Saxophone Licks, Phrases and Patterns by Berle, Arnie
Technique of the Saxophone: Chord Studies by Viola, Joseph


Selected Jazz Improvisation Books for Sale:

Thinking in Jazz
Thinking in Jazz:

The Infinite Art of Improvisation by Paul F. Berliner
Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It by Jimmy Amadie
Improvising Jazz by Jerry Coker
Jazz Piano & Harmony : An Advanced Guide (w/CD) by John M. Ferrara
Tonal and Rhythmic Principles : Jazz Improvisation by John Mehegan
Thinking in Jazz
Vol. 3, The II/V7/I Progression: A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation (Book & CD Set)
Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long Series
Jazz Improvisation by David Baker
Modern Jazz Piano : A Study in Harmony by Brian Waite

Sheet MusicSelect Sheet Music from 4000 sax titles


On Being a More Interesting Improviser

by Jody Espina

My last article for Sax On The Web, was dedicated to the adult amateur saxophonist. Thanks to all of you who wrote me with such positive feedback. This article is dedicated to any saxophonist who is interested in improvising. Beginners will find some helpful ideas here about how to construct an interesting solo. Advanced players will probably know everything in this article, but sometimes being reminded of good ideas can freshen up our playing.

      We all know that an improvising jazz musician is telling a musical story... The same conventions that apply to a good novel also apply to a good jazz solo. You need an interesting premise (motif), or opening chapter. There should be character development (development of motif) as well as an interesting or satisfying conclusion. Other elements of a real page turner of a book or a captivating solo are conflict and resolution or tension and release. The intensity of a good book or a solo will have peaks and valleys. In music these exciting and calm moments can be achieved through the use of dynamics, space/rests, speed/length of notes, and the range of pitch (low/high notes). 
        The first three tips in this article are so simple and common sense that you may think that you don't need to pay much attention to them. I believe that the players who diligently practice the first three tips will be rewarded for their efforts with more applause from the audience at the end of their solos and more respect from their fellow musicians.

       Ideas 4-6, fall under the tricks and licks category. These may take more time and practice before you'll be able to use them in a solo, but the way a chef uses spices to give food flavor, these tricks can liven up your soloing.

     Important note: These tricks and licks will not make you a better player. If used effectively, they may make you a more interesting or entertaining player.  Fancy tricks and licks can't replace replace solid fundamentals like good tone, intonation, time/swing feel, phrasing and good technique. Therefore, my recommendation is to stay with your normal practice routine and add one of these tricks at a time.

1. Space is the place - Play less notes and put space in between your ideas. This may seem like a cheap trick but it's not. This simple and easy to do suggestion will immediately make you sound better. Almost all of us including me would have more success with our solos if we would economize on notes and give the listener time to digest our ideas. A great way to practice this is to imagine that you're trading one or two bar riffs with an imaginary player. Play something then leave the space while you imagine what the other player would play. Don't worry about there being dead space. Most rhythm sections will jump all over those spaces and before you know it you'll be in a real dialogue with the rhythm section. John Coltrane asked Miles Davis's advice on how to end a solo because Trane was having difficulty finding a place to end. Miles answered in his raspy whisper, "Take the horn out your mouth." Space is the place - Take the horn out your mouth.

2. Go long .... and high  - Another simple but very effective trick is to play a high note for about as long as you can hold it. Used at the right moment in your solo, this is almost guaranteed to get the crowd on your side. The shape of a solo is important. Jamey Abersold explains this very well in Volume 1. of his play along series. For example, you can start a solo in the low or medium range of the horn and as you develop your ideas, start to play higher and higher and perhaps faster and more notes, building to a well timed very long high note.

3. Could you repeat that please? - What's worth playing once is probably worth playing at least four times.  Using exact repetitions or slight variations allows your listener to follow your train of thought better. In other words, when you play a nice lick, don't just abandon that little gold nugget. Let us see/hear it again. Turn it around for us, so that we can get a good look/listen. Go back and listen to some of your favorite improvisers and see if there are any cases of motif and development, which usually contains a healthy dose of repetition. 

Stop Right There!
The tips mentioned so far are enough to change your playing dramatically. On your next solo, try and do these four simple things. Or better yet, record yourself playing a solo with a play-along or a live band. Don't use any of my ideas. Just play as you normally would. Then record yourself while you consciously use the four ides below.
1. Play less notes
2. Put space in between your ideas.
3. Repeat and make variations on the good ideas.
4. Build to a climax with a long high note.
Now try and listen to both recordings as an impartial listener would. Which one is more interesting?
4. Growl - Ben Webster, Earl Bostic, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, Clarence Clemens, Boots Randolph, Gato Barbieri, and King Curtis are just a few of the great players who have used the growl to great effect. Growling conveys intensity and soul. It seems impossible to play without conviction while growling. I don't think that I'm the best growler in the world so I wanted to get an experts advice. I asked my good friend Steve Goodson, if he would elucidate us on how he teaches someone to growl. Steve is an expert on most things regarding the saxophone whether it be playing, teaching or the mechanics of the horn. I think that as a player Steve would describe himself as a honker and a wailer, a rock and roller, and a growler, which makes him very qualified to give us this lesson. Let me say this before we go to Steve's advice: In order to make the growl effect, the player has to actually produce a pitch or growl with his or her voice while simultaneously playing notes on the saxophone. The note from the sax and the sound from the voice mix combine to make the growl.

Steve Goodson on Growling: "When I teach growling, I give the student a lesson in physiology: at the junction of the mouth and the windpipe (where the bend is), there's lots of stuff that tends to vibrate: the soft palate, the uvula, and a bunch of other tissue that I can't name. This stuff will all get into a sympathetic vibration if the player produces the growl too high up in the throat. The result will be an uneven growl and a potential blockage of the air stream.  I have the student listen to me by placing their ear very close to my throat so they can see where I am producing the growl. Of course the most common problem with beginners is that they use too much of the growl effect. I have the student play long tones and learn to gradually introduce the growl into the note, and then to gradually reduce it. This gives them a broader palette of sounds to use. It is not uncommon for the beginner to experience some irritation in the throat while learning this technique. I suggest a gargle with Jack Daniels." (Authors note: The Jack Daniels falls under the category of definitely don't try this at home. By the way, when I listened to Steve's throat he was growling at a low B concert. J.E.)

5. Flutter Tongue
The resulting sound of the flutter tongue is somewhat similar to the growl so that if you can't do one, hopefully you can do the other. To hear what the flutter should sound like, play your horn with the bell facing directly into an electric fan. That's the sound. If you're unable to get the flutter I guess you could bring a powerful fan to the gig and blow into it. (Authors note: Unlike the growl, I'm very good at the flutter tongue.)

Step 1. Roll your R's the way you would if you were saying a word in Spanish which begins with R. To do this, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth right where the ridge is. To find the ridge start with the tip of your tongue where your teeth and the roof of your mouth meet. Keeping the tongue against the roof go away from the teeth until you feel the ridge that leads back to the soft pallet. Lightly place the tip of the tongue at the edge of this ridge and get some air moving out of your mouth until the tongue starts rolling. Then, do that while you're blowing the sax. If you don't succeed right away, try to remember what it was like learning to whistle. It may have taken quite a while, but you kept trying and you kept having different people demonstrate it to you.  Keep trying!

For some reason I like to use the flutter tongue in conjunction with the harmonic minor scale, getting a snake charmer kind of sound. For example: Let's say you're playing over an F# minor Funk groove, (your key) and normally you would play a Dorian Scale. That's like an F# major scale with the 3rd and the 7th note flatted by a 1/2 step. You can usually fit in the Harmonic Minor Scale over the same minor funk* groove place for the "snake charmer" type of sound and with the flutter tongue, it can be funny and effective. The Harmonic Minor Scale is like a major scale with the 3rd and 6th degree flatted by a half step. Goof around and have fun with this one, but like all tricks, don't overuse it. (* I use the term funk very loosely. It could be almost any minor one key groove.) 

6. Cannonball lick
This lick is taken from Cannonball's solo on Love for Sale, from the CD, Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly (Blue Note BST 81595). The All Music Guide calls this CD, (which also features Miles Davis on it) "Absolutely essential". For the transcription I recommend getting this excellent book of transcribed solos: The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, compiled and edited by Tim Price (Hal Leonard HL006763244). Besides the little lick that I'm pointing out here, pay special attention to the articulations in this solo. Tim did a great job including this extremely important aspect of Cannonball's sound. Bear in mind that it's difficult for most mere mortals to play as fast and clean as the great Mr. Adderly. Don't be discouraged. Play the lines as slow as you need to, but do the articulations. Articulations or the lack of articulations are one of the main reasons why many inexperienced improvisers just don't sound as popping as the Jazz greats. Before I get to the lick and while I'm on the subject of articulation, let me say this: Saxophonists - please don't only transcribe and copy other sax players. Trumpet and trombone players are usually better at articulation then we are. Listen to some Freddie Hubbard and Frank Rosolino and copy some of their articulations. Now you're popping.

Well, without further ado, here's the lick: It occurs in the 19th bar of Cannonball's third chorus. These trills on high B, C, and C# are achieved with the right hand index finger. In the same way that you play your side Bb, put your index finger up to the top key of those three side keys. By the way, keep your thumb under the thumb rest where it's supposed to be. You will play the high B and let it sound before you start the trill. Most people who try this for the first time do not trill fast enough and that's why it doesn't sound right. Trill as fast as you can and like everything else; if you need to, by all means start practicing it slowly. For alto players, this lick works great over the Blues in Bb concert. For tenor players, the same lick will work nicely over an F concert Blues.

7. One more thing.
Practice at home, perform on the gig. To be a good improviser you have to practice new ideas and techniques before they can sound and feel natural. But, I believe at the gig you should play from your heart. Play what you're hearing at that moment. There's nothing worse than hearing a saxophonist practice on the gig. To me it's insulting to the audience and the other musicians in the band, and it doesn't show you in your best light. There's room for debate on this issue and there is definitely something to be said for stretching, taking chances and trying things that you've never done before. These are all responsibilities that an artist has. But I also believe that as an artist, you have a responsibility to the audience to show them what's in you heart, not only what's in your head. I personally try and play every solo like it might be the last one that I ever get to play. If I know that it's my last chance to play, I want to go out giving one hundred percent and playing notes that I will literally die for. That may be a melodramatic thought, but I think that everything in life should be approached with that sincerity and intensity. 

I hope this article helps make us all more interesting soloists.

Practice with intensity, Play with intensity,

Jody Espina
[email protected]
e-mail for comments, questions or suggestions.

Book recommendations for this article:

5 stars Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Four-Octave Range by Sigurd Rascher.

In a future article I'll give some harmonics and altissimo ideas, so in preparation for that, I'd like to recommend this book. I get many questions at JodyJazz.com about the altissimo range of the saxophone. My answer is yes, a mouthpiece can make a very big difference in your ability to play high notes. The reed that you use can also make it easier to play the high notes, ie. harder reed = better altissimo. But, the most important thing to know is that your ability to play altissimo is directly related to your ability to control the harmonics. That means learn how to play the harmonics off of the fundamental pitches: Low Bb, B, C and C#. In Top Tones for Saxophone, you don't play any altissimo notes until the back of the book. In the first sections of the book you work on tone consistency, steadiness, control of dynamics and tone imagination. Tone imagination is hearing in your head the note that you are about to play before you play it. This is essential for harmonics, altissimo and actually, all playing. In the next section of the book, there are many harmonic exercises. My advice is to go very slowly through the book and your reward will be altissimo heaven when you arrive at the final section of the book which gives you actual altissimo fingerings and exercises.

A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation
- Jamey Abersold Play-Along
Volume 1.
This is the one that started it all. Take the time to read the information in the first part of the book. There is an encyclopedia of Jazz improv ideas and concepts contained in this gem.

5 stars The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, Compiled and Edited by Tim Price. (Hal Leonard HL006763244)
One of the great transcription books with an excellent interview with Nat Adderly. Even if the solos are too difficult to play at this time, it would be great to buy all of the CDs and follow along looking at the transcriptions while Cannonball plays. Pay attention to his note selection and how each note fits with the chords.

CD recommendations for this article:

5 stars Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly (Blue Note BST 81595) amazonUKlogosml.gif

5 stars Kind Of Blue - Miles Davis (Sony B000002ADT)
The biggest selling Jazz Record of all time and rightly so. If you don't have it, get it. Miles, Coltrane, Adderly, Evans, Kelly, Chambers, Cobb - no need to say anything else. amazonUKlogosml.gif Go to top
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Created: October 25, 2002
Update: October 24, 2015
© 2002-2015 Harri Rautiainen
and respective authors

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Jody Espina is the Director of the Jazz Department at the prestigious Hoff-Barthelson Music School in Scarsdale, New York, and is also adjunct professor of Saxophone and Clarinet at Concordia College in Bronxville, New York.

He is a highly regarded New York City Jazz saxophonist, and is performing also in Broadway orchestras, pop, R&B, and funk bands. Jody has studied with master teachers: Joe Allard, George Garzone, Dave Liebman, Santy Runyon, Joe Viola and the great pianist/composer Joanne Brackeen. Mr. Espina is also President of JodyJazz Saxophone and Clarinet Mouthpieces.

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