Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lessons From Sidney

A couple of years ago I was talking to one of Atlanta’s first-call saxophonists. We were talking about what music we like to listen to, and I said that I tended to play Sidney Bechet or so-called free jazz more often than mainstream hard bop. He replied that he had never heard Bechet.

In spite of being dumbfounded, I think that I was able to respond politely, suggesting that he might find Sidney’s music worth checking out. But trying to play jazz without knowing the work of the early giants seems like, I don’t know – studying physics without reading Newton. You’re just cutting yourself off from a lot of possibilities.

That got me thinking about what, if anything, I’ve learned from Sidney Bechet. I’ve been listening to his music for 35 years, and aside from the enjoyment I’ve gotten from it, I’ve picked up some musical lessons along the way – some obvious, some subtle; some general, some specific. What Sidney has taught me:

Know the melody, know the chords, and know how and why they fit together.

Don’t try to sound like anyone except yourself.

The descending tritone (six to flat three) is a powerful interval. (But don’t overdo it.)

Playing with conviction can paper over a lot of cracks.

Be your own rhythm section.

You can turn a note into a blue note by messing with the pitch, messing with the timbre, or both.

Whenever possible, play with musicians better than you. (Sidney was only able to do this when he played with Louis Armstrong, and maybe not even then. But his records with Louis certainly find him more involved than when he recorded with young revivalist bands.)

Whenever possible, sleep with Tallulah Bankhead. (Note to self: no longer practical. Ann Hathaway?)

Don’t run changes, improvise melodies. Although…

Sometimes running changes can be effective. (But don’t overdo it.)

Tuning is both absolute and relative.

Mix it up – long notes, fast notes, pretty notes, growled notes.

Always try to hold the last note of “Saints” longer than everyone else. (Okay, perhaps this is not Sidney’s best lesson.)

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