Jazz Articulation, Accents, and Proper Tonguing

June 9, 2015

Some saxophone & clarinet students have difficulty with jazz articulation, because they have not learned to tongue properly.  They begin each note with a constriction in the throat, which sounds as if the student were humming into the mouthpiece.  The beginning of the note is fuzzy and indistinct.

Proper articulation of accented notes should begin with the tongue touching the reed.  Classical teachers describe this as “tip to tip”:  the tip of the tongue touches the tip of the reed, sometimes in “double lip” position.  This results in a pleasant, light articulation, such as one would expect to hear in Mozart.  For more aggressive jazz and rock styles, it is possible to rest the tip of the tongue on the lower lip, so that a point on the top of the tongue slightly back from the tongue tip touches a point on the reed slightly back from the reed tip.  I refer to this technique as “top to top”:  the top of the tongue touches the top of the reed.

The following exercise will help you develop a more expressive, accented articulation.  Play along with the audio track provided here, while reading the chart shown below.  (if the chart is too small or unclear, right-click inside the chart and save the graphic to your desktop.)  Bb instruments begin playing at bar 1.  Concert key instruments start on the third line (bar 9), and take the d.c.  Eb instruments begin at the last line (bar 45), and take the d.c.   The clarinet is on the left, the alto saxophone on the right.  To hear both, set your balance in the center.



January 25, 2015


Even many accomplished musicians never learn the fine art of playing by ear.  I owe my ear to a uniquely inspired teacher.

Here’s a 1963 picture of “The Downbeats” with our matching red blazers.  I’m the towhead on the right with the clarinet.  Our pianist had an unnerving habit of calling off complex Broadway arrangements he had worked up at home.  During this show, he started playing “I Could Have Danced All Night” (from My Fair Lady) in C.  I was doing all right, until we got to the bridge.  It modulates into the key of E major, which put my clarinet in F#.  Suddenly, i was awash in a sea of 6 deadly sharps, like an accidental waiting to happen.  I felt about as graceful as Charlie Chaplin on ice skates.  I wished i had skipped the gig and gone surfing.

Three days later, i met Alvin “Al” Learned, the founder of the legendary Westlake School of Jazz.  Al promised to arm me with the tools i needed to calmly navigate those crazy situations.  In the ensuing weeks, Al walked me through the 9 exercises now comprising Unit One of New Ears Resolution. He also showed me how to learn standards such as “All the Things You Are” and “Body and Soul” in an innovative new way.  Rather than tediously memorizing tunes as before, Al encouraged me to study their underlying logic with the same insight the song writer brought to the piece’s original conception.  My repertoire mushroomed, my confidence multiplied.

I soon purchased my first $25 Conn alto sax and started gigging with “The Viscaynes,” a surf band formed by Mark Turnbull.  Their material was largely in the unwieldy guitar key of E, which put my alto in the unthinkable key of 7 sharps.  Because of Al’s revolutionary approach, this no longer posed a problem.  I told Mark about Al, he too started taking lessons, and  to this day, we still converse in “Al speak.”

All of the music you have ever heard in your life is stored away in your brain, and you will be able to access it through your horn by exercising the synapses you tap into with “New Ears.”  Transform your own improvisational approach today with New Ears Resolution .

Happy New Year, Sonny Rollins!

January 1, 2015


What a great way to ring in 2015!  We watched “Labor Day” on Netflix, and then I revisited Sonny Rollins’ 1998 CD “Global Warming.”  Sonny has a wonderful ability to compose simple melodies that swing.  And, of course, the unique way he develops motivic material during his solos is legendary.   Solos brimming over with life and joy.  I just had to pick up my horn and play along.  Here is the lick that emerged, Adolph Sax’s new year’s gift.

NEW YEARS EVE LICK 2014 2015Try playing along with this melodic minor phrase in all 12 keys using this background track.  If you have trouble transposing it, email me for a free chart.  Or download “New Ears Resolution” and learn how to play any melody in any key by ear.

Sonny Rollins’ Solo on “Blues for Philly Joe”

April 3, 2012

Sonny Rollins is renowned for his unique approach to thematic development, which is somewhat similar to the way Beethoven worked in a piece such as his famous Fifth Symphony.  His solo on his original tune “Blues for Philly Joe” (named for drummer Philly Joe Jones) is a perfect example of this type of development.  Parts of the solo are so rhythmically driven, one can imagine that Rollins was consciously emulating the way a jazz drummer would approach a solo.  Here is a great blues lick that works well over the IV chord (bars 62-63).  Doesn’t it sound like something Cannonball (a great blues master) might have played?  Try playing it in all 12 keys. If you can’t figure out how to transpose it, leave a comment below or email me for a free copy of the figure in all 12 keys.



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