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Greg Fishman Interview

Part 1

by Ed Svoboda
Greg Fishman

Ed Svoboda (ES)
We are sitting down with Greg Fishman, Chicago based tenor Saxophonist, educator, and composer. Today is June 8th, 2005. The new book, Jazz Saxophone Etudes is getting rave reviews. This is the fifth book from Greg. Tell us how Jazz Saxophone Etudes came about?

Greg Fishman (GF)
The idea for writing etudes came from one of my teachers, the great Joe Henderson. I had the opportunity to study with Joe in the late 80's. We were working on Coltrane's tune, "Countdown," by writing an etude based on its chord progression. He told me that writing an etude was a very effective way to memorize the changes to any tune.

After that advice, as I was learning tunes, I would write a one-chorus etude that was basically like a written-out improvisation. However, after writing out a few etudes, I noticed that the etude concept was a great way to focus on anything I wanted to improve. I started to write etudes that would focus on very specific problems in my playing, and they had a positive effect on my playing right away. I remember that I wanted to improve my control of starting points in my phrasing, so I started writing etudes where every phrase started on the upbeat of beat two, or the downbeat of beat four. Another thing I wanted to improve was my ability to play long streams of eighth-notes, so I wrote an etude based on that idea. I also wanted to train my ear to hear smooth voice-leading, so I'd write a chorus based on voice-leading, and then I'd write phrases based on the voice-leading. After a few months of this type of practice, I noticed that my improvised solos had much better structure. I started to think of the etudes as improvisations in slow motion. It was a way of training my brain to think along a certain path, which was based more on composition than on playing licks.

As I got more into teaching, I started using etudes with my students. When we'd work on a standard tune, I would give the student one of the etudes I'd written for myself, or, in the case of more advanced students, I'd tell them to write an original etude and bring it with them to the next lesson. Sometimes I'd write half of the etude, and tell them to complete it, trying to make it sound not like an exercise, but like an improvisation. If someone were to hear them playing their etude, the listener shouldn't be able to tell that it was something that was written out.

The book has been over five years in the making. It was a challenge to write, because it had to meet so many goals simultaneously. I felt that there was a need for a book that demonstrated the concept of soloing for players who knew their chords and scales, but were not yet fluent in the language of jazz.

I thought about the collective goals of all the players who would be using this book. When I was a student, what did I want more than anything? I wanted to sound like a professional level jazz saxophone player. With this premise in mind, I decided to write etudes that sounded more like professional level solos than typical jazz etudes.

Jazz Saxophone Etudes demonstrates the use of theme and variation, sequence, voice-leading, long streams of eighth-note lines, phrasing, and syntax. Syntax is a major factor in the creation of an effective solo. It's the order in which musical events occur. The etudes also clearly demonstrate common bebop devices, such as ornaments and enclosures. The etudes are also designed so that you can play any of them without accompaniment, and still hear every chord change.

Jazz Saxophone Etudes was originally going to be a book of a dozen etudes without any play-along CDs. I initially printed up a small quantity of books and used them with my students. I also gave the book to two of my former teachers, Mark Colby and Dave Liebman. I asked them to try the book with some of their students and let me know if they had any suggestions. As it turned out, they both had some very valuable suggestions which inspired me to go beyond my initial concept of the book.

Mark Colby liked the etudes, and saw that his students were getting a lot out of them, but he felt that they'd get even more out of the book if I included a play-along CD. This way, the student could hear my articulation, inflection, and all of the nuances which are just impossible to put on the page. Mark also suggested that I should have extra rhythm section tracks for extended blowing.

Once I decided to include the play-along CD with the book, I was faced with a new problem. In order for the etudes to feel comfortable on the horn, they needed to stay in the key in which they were written. I felt that transposing the etudes would destroy the idiomatic quality of the etudes. It would be like playing a Charlie Parker alto solo which had been transposed to the tenor's key. You can play it like that, but it doesn't feel as comfortable as the original fingerings Parker used, and you usually have awkward octave jumps because of the difference in registers.

After much thought, I finally came up with the solution. I decided to have the rhythm section transpose keys to accommodate the saxophone player. This way, you could play the etudes on alto or tenor and use exactly the same fingerings, reading the same written part. When we went into the studio to record the play-along tracks for the book, I had just one set of saxophone charts, but two different sets of rhythm section charts. One set of charts was used to accompany the alto, and another set of charts, in a different key, was used to accompany the tenor. For example, the etude, "Irving Park Road" is written in A Major on the page. That means that when the alto is playing it, the rhythm section is in Concert "C," but when the tenor is playing "Irving Park Road," the rhythm section is in Concert "G." So there are now two play-alongs included with the book: an "alto version" CD and a "tenor version" CD. The rhythm section had to record 48 different tracks to make the play-along CDs. There are the twelve etude tracks, with me playing each etude on tenor, and then twelve extended tracks for soloing, with just the rhythm section, and no saxophone. Then, we recorded the twelve etudes again, this time with me playing them on alto, followed by the extra rhythm section-only tracks for the tenor accompaniment. This approach allows for maximum flexibility. For intermediate level players, it means that the etude lays perfectly under your fingers, whether you play alto or tenor.

However, for advanced level players, it means that you can work on your transposing skills and play the etude on alto along with the tenor version CD, or play tenor along with the alto version CD. This exercise will give you a great physical workout on the horn, and improve your sight transposition skills at the same time. Or, to focus more on your ear training skills, memorize the etudes and transpose them on tenor with the alto version CD by ear, or vice-versa. If you like, you can just solo over the rhythm section in the two different keys and make up your own solo. It's completely up to the player. This approach allows a wide range of players at different playing levels to use the book. It also provides increasing levels of complexity for players who are working their way through the book. For example, once a tenor player has mastered all of the etudes by playing along with the tenor version CD, he can go to the next level, and play each etude along with the alto version of the CD, transposing each etude up a fourth. Of course, the etudes won't lay as comfortably in this new key, but by the time you reach this level, you should be able to handle losing that idiomatic comfort level of the etudes in their original keys, and start pushing the limits of your playing. As a matter of fact, my really advanced students work the etudes in all twelve keys, and that is a real challenge! So the great thing about this book is that the player will not outgrow it. The book will present the player with new challenges as he or she reaches higher levels of playing.

Once again, just when I thought the book was ready to go on the market, I got some more excellent advice, this time from Dave Liebman. I had given him a copy of the book when he was in Chicago for a masterclass. I contacted him a few days later to see what he thought of the book. He told me that he really liked the book, but felt that I should add a theory section, so students could get a deeper understanding of the compositional devices used in the book.

Based on Dave's suggestion, I decided to add a style and analysis section to the book. However, as a supplement to the information in the book, I've also posted several in-depth theory articles on my educational website. This way, students can learn the etudes from the book, and still do further research into my concepts on the website. This allows me to continually add new and useful information for the people who are working out of the book. So, after five years of development, I am very happy to finally have Jazz Saxophone Etudes on the market, and I'm grateful for Mark and Dave's great suggestions.

Fishman Interview Part 2
Greg Fishman:Biography
Created: September 19, 2005.
©2005, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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