When I started listening seriously to jazz about three years ago, I knew that saxophone players like Phil Woods, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and Charlie Parker got very different sounds on the instrument than I did. They sounded so…cool. Their sound was relaxed, yet full of motion. They could scoop into notes without ever sounding corny, and the variety in their tone colors was amazing: from fat and loud to whispery and fuzzy.
I couldn’t make any of those sounds on the saxophone and I didn’t even know what some of them were. The jazz saxophone sound was so far away from my own sound, and the differences stood out to me.
I didn’t start sounding more like the jazz saxophonists until I started transcribing and playing along with their recordings. My first experience with transcription was in a jazz improv class in which we were asked to transcribe a solo by the guitarist Wes Montgomery. It was a great experience for me in discovering that I could figure out which notes were being played, just by using my ear. However, I completed the transcription using the piano and missed out on learning about Montgomery’s style for my saxophone playing. As soon as I started started using my saxophone to play along with jazz recordings, I started getting a more authentic jazz sound.
As I played with more jazz recordings and strengthened my ears, suddenly things about the playing of classical musicians were standing out to me. The high notes of the clarinet masters sounded so sweet and buoyant, not at all harsh and pointed like mine. Elaine Douvas’ low G on the oboe sounded soft and velvety, not harsh and pointed like mine (are you seeing a pattern?).
Even more ear-opening and inspiring was going to hear live performances. At the New York Philharmonic in particular, my head would shake in disbelief of the sounds the woodwind players were creating. They created huge sounds that resonated throughout all of Avery Fisher Hall, but nothing sounded forced or edgy.
These were all concepts I explored in my warm-up sessions, as described in my first article on this topic, How Wes Montgomery Helped Me Play Bach. During my warm-up sessions I played along with recordings of classical musicians I admired, working both to sound more like them and to attune my ear to the sounds I wanted to create. Working entirely by ear (using no written music), I figured out the notes being played, as well as the ways in which they were played. The more I played along with recordings, the closer I got to sounding like them.
My ears got stronger because of this practice, and I started listening for more than just tone quality. I started to hear musical phrases in new ways. I would play what I thought was a good phrase, and then listen to a recording of a master musician playing the same phrase. I would quickly realize that my phrase was not as well developed as I thought.
This idea of playing along with recordings for the improvement of musicality amongst classical woodwind musicians is what I will explore for the rest of this article.