By complete chance, I saw a Facebook share about an upcoming saxophone masterclass (posted by a trombone player no less). Workshops like these always come about when the local music store has a range of instruments from one of their favourite brands that they wish to show off (advertise) via a sponsored soloist. For this workshop the honour went to Brian Smith who last night showed off the Cannonball brand of saxophones.
I’ll admit right now that I’d never heard of Cannonball before. It turns out they are a Utah based company that came about from a husband and wife team’s love of tinkering around with saxophones in order to make the ultimate saxophone sound. Hand finished and tuned, the top end ones are amazingly well engraved and even use quality stones in the keywork. A far cry from my basic Yamaha.
A masterclass and recital, without the masterclass
Calling last night a masterclass would be a bit of a stretch even though it was advertised as so. It was more like a recital and talk but because I’ve been in the habit of trying new things lately (nothing illicit), I attended with the expectation of getting some little gems of knowledge and insight.
Once the pre-event finger foods and mingling had finished, the evening started with Brian performing tenor sax with a jazz trio; a guy call Neil on the electric guitar and very senior but perfectly adept guy on double bass called Kevin. Actually, Brian and Kevin were probably both well into their 70s so it’s good to them still going strong.
Jazz, jazz, jazz
I played so much jazz duet/trio music during high school and uni that I burnt myself out with it. I listened to lots of the Ken Peplowski Quartet and was quite a fan of Woody Herman playing Golden Wedding. I played jazz standards with my Serbian guitarist friend at high school and later played keyboard/bass/clari&sax trios with some guys from uni.
I got a bit tired of the improvisational sound. I’m not sure why. I think it was the idea that, even though I often put forward a decent amount of improv, it always felt like I was never 100% in control. Tracks like The Girl From Ipanema with it crazy chord progressions would totally stuff me up. I would play some out of key notes and I’d have to chromatically bluff my way out of it.
The performances through the night, of which there were five, were the jazz trio style where Brian improvised so much that one barely recognised the actual track he was playing. Impressive. One track was Summertime and you’d only here hints of it; right from the start he was moving the tune every which way. Softly As In A Morning Sunrise was another track they played with the the guitarist and bass player taking a turn at a solo after which the small audience of about 30 would politely applaud. Brian threw in a few good growls, harmonics and ghosted notes all with an amazing saxophone tone.
It felt a bit like the entire night was being improvised (and I’m not just referring to their playing); awkward in that Brian didn’t seem to appear as if he thought he had anything interesting to share besides his playing. With a career as long as his he probably has too many stories. He asked if anyone had questions (more awkwardness) but it was not until the host of the evening, Andrew from Auckland Band Instruments, broke the ice by asking each member of the audience to introduce themselves, that everything started to run a bit more smoothly.
Who’d have thought that that would actually work? Normally that’s a source of more awkwardness but from that point the evening actually lightened up a bit.
Beer in hand, one of the guys introduced himself and said “Sorry, I drove into the wrong place thinking this was an AA meeting, but I’m glad you guys have drinks.”
Ha! Turns out the guy was Brian’s son in law.
Another guy: “In all honesty, the only thing I can play are CDs”
I introduced myself as a clarinet player since the age of 7 who hijacked saxophone later on, did some gigs but has been teaching for the last 14 years.” (humble-brag)
Basically the small audience comprised a few kids with their folks, a few uni guys, older jazz aficionados, Brian’s rent-a-crowd family, and me, sitting there taking notes as if I was a reporter (which is partly true considering I’m writing this now).
Hints and tricks weren’t plentiful unfortunately. Brian’s big emphasis was on making sure one listens to heaps of music; “50% of what you know is from listening,” he said.
“How do you play jazz?” One lady asked. That could have been one of those groan questions but you could see it was a simplified version of “how do you get good enough to improvise on the spot?” I mutter lots of scales and Brian is still pushing his ‘listen’, ‘listen’, ‘listen’ message. You need it to appreciate the swung 8th notes he explained… and lots of scales and arpeggios. Snap. He said it but you heard it from me first.
At some point in question time, embouchure comes up and Brian makes a passing comment about clarinetists having a firmer grip and that the sax and clarinet embouchures are totally different.
Ah, I couldn’t help myself and I chimed in with my embarrassing know-it-all enthusiasm, keen to offer some insight… “They complement each other.” I said and went on to explain the idea that clarinet students get quite tense with their embouchure and its not until they play other instruments such as saxophone or brass instruments that they learn how to loosen up which then gives them much greater expressive range.
I was in my element, perhaps I should have been taking the masterclass part and leave Brian to the recital.
Funny enough, later in the evening a pad of paper was passed to me (high-school-style) with a written message asking if I available to teach and if so, write down my contact number. Hilarious. I wrote down my name and number and passed the pad of paper back to the elder lady via her elder husband whom had passed it to me.
I must have sounded like I knew what I was talking about.
Brian perfectly segued into a story about a singer who used to warm up back stage not via singing exercises but by yoga. That was the singer’s way of opening up the body and lungs.
Brian responded to questions about reed and mouthpiece choice by saying they were very personal decisions “…get a better floor board if that works for you.”
Snap shot of a masterclass
There was a youngster who’d been playing since the beginning of the year and had brought along his sax (I’m a big kid and brought mine too. More on that later). It was really just a good opportunity for the kid to play a brand new Cannonball and demonstrate his mastery of C and G major. What a champ. It wasn’t very successful beyond that though and would have benefitted greatly if there was some preparation. e.g. I’ve seen masterclasses where the student has practised a piece, plays it and then the soloist/teacher basically gives a 15 minute open lesson. They’re quite interesting.
Trying out the Cannonball
With the final jazz recitals completing the evening (of which they finished on a tonic note, having avoided it all night), I had the chance to try out the Cannonball saxophones.
I’ve been playing my cheap Yamaha for ages and never really felt the need to try out fancy saxophones (because the last thing I should be doing is tempting myself with a $4,000 NZD instrument that I would struggle to get $4k worth of playing out of). To play these instruments was like trying out a Triumph Street Triple 2013 after riding my 2002 Honda VTR 250 for 8 years. Sure, you’re just playing a saxophone but doing so with a perfectly well balanced, silky toned, piece of art. The tone was smooth and controlled, the high notes were in tune and sounded easily and the low notes worked (yeah, my Yamaha could do with a service).
The styling and finish of the Cannonball was so spectacular it seemed like such a classy looking instrument would be woefully out of place in a smokey jazz bar. It would be like driving an Aston Martin Vanquish in an Auckland City traffic jam on the Northwestern motorway.
I told the ABI staff that I was most impressed but ummm, no, sorry, I won’t be buying one. Not tonight, anyway. In all honesty, the best I can do is inform students to try them out if they’re interested in buying a new saxophone.
Gee, thanks weather. Spring has decided to make Auckland wet and this was the first time in ages I’ve had my saxophone bungie-chord tied to my motorbike. It was a damp ride home but I’ll admit that as much as I’ve avoided playing jazz, the motorcycle ride home in the rain still had me playing jazz in my head.