After many decades of playing with some of the world’s finest musicians, many in NYC, in all different contexts, I thought it might be helpful to put some of my ideas concerning section playing to paper, or computer, as the case may be. While this article is specifically directed towards baritone saxophonists, most of these ideas should be helpful to all instrumentalists.
Many an aspiring baritone jazz soloist will quickly come to grips with the idea that he or she will spend a great deal of time playing in sections of various types and most likely dealing with numerous doubles to boot. Next to and maybe including lead alto, I feel that the baritone is perhaps the most interesting of the saxophone chairs. What makes it so interesting to me, is the fact that we are roll players. Much like a utility player on a baseball team, we play many different positions, or rolls as I like to think of them. The key to good section playing is to identify and be aware of what that roll is at any given time, as it often changes many times within a given piece of music.
Take the big band for instance. Traditionally, the big band consists of 5 saxes: 2 altos,
(sometimes soprano and alto), 2 tenors and a baritone. Much of this big band writing has the baritone doubling the lead alto down an octave. At this point, my focus is on the lead alto player listening carefully to his phrasing, his nuances, his vibrato or lack there of, and his time. ie: Where he puts the beat. Is he on top, behind, or right down the middle. My roll is to follow him and give him the support he needs. Sometimes, the section is playing in 5part harmony, or at least the bari is not playing in octaves with the lead alto. In this case, it is important to listen to the balance of the harmonies. I try to give my notes the intensity or volume necessary to contribute in balancing the chord. I’m looking for the right blend. By the way, there is nothing a lead player hates more than having the second alto or lower voice playing lead. Sometimes the baritone is playing the lead. This requires a different attitude. You are the guy setting the sound and attitude for the section, and let us not forget how often we are playing the roots for chordal settings. We are the foundation, and we set up the overtones for the rest of the section. The pitch is crucial. Try playing a little sharp or flat and listen to the chaos ensue. Sometimes when a long chord is being held, I’ll play the bass note a touch louder than the rest of the section, not to show off, but to give a better foundation.
Here are some additional rolls we play. While playing with the brass section, be it trumpets, trombones, or both together, I try to feel like a brass player. I often double tongue to match phrasing. Once again, I am ever aware of the lead player. Often we double the bass trombone. For several years I played in a section that included bass trombone, tuba, and baritone sax, tripling each other. In this case, I considered the sound of the tuba, round and resonant along with the edgier tone of the bass trombone. I put myself right in the middle creating the effect of a single tone with 3 different tone qualities.
Playing with the rhythm section has other challenges. If I’m sharing a line with the upright bass, I think of the resonance of that instrument, and my notes take on that resonance. When playing with an electric bass, I adjust my tone and attack to match it.
The facility with which a pianist executes his bass line requires me to be lighter and more precise.
What about playing baritone with woodwinds? Obviously, we can very easily overshadow them. I used to play with Don Sebesky’s ensemble, and have had the joy to play much of his music. One day I was reading a part and it said play the bari “Quasi bass clarinet”. A little later it said play “Quasi bassoon”. A few bars later it said switch to bassoon. I laughed. The point is, you must always listen for the blend and find a way of fitting in. If you think of the sound, instead of just barreling ahead unaware of what’s around you, you learn to adjust your sound appropriately. You must play lighter and softer. Of course, it helps if one has experience playing other woodwind instruments to really get this.
I often find it valuable to take my focus off of my own playing and focus on another instrument. Try for instance to focus your attention on the drums, when you feel comfortable with your own part. Have confidence in what you are playing and get out of the way so to speak, locking your attention to the ride cymbal or bass drum or whatever is expressing the time in the strongest way. Using your attention in this way, substantially improves your time. It gets you out of being too self-conscious and lets your innate musicianship rise to the surface. My generation, I believe due to lots of a particular type of big band experience and a particular time feel we grew up with playing in jazz groups, tends to play a little behind the beat. The bigger instruments such as the baritone sax also have the added difficulty of immediate response, having to fill up the horn with lots of air and can very easily emit the sound a little behind the beat. Much of today’s music is not behind the beat, but right on or ahead of the beat.The above mentioned directions have substantially improved my time feeling. I’ve had the great fortune for several years now to play with Steely Dan and have learned an enormous amount about time from listening to drummer Keith Carlock in just this way. Our bassist Freddie Washington and I are often playing the same lines, and I lock onto him like a laser to get the right feel. The horn section consists of Jim Pugh on trombone, Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Walt Weiskopf on tenor and alto, and yours truly on baritone. All of us have done lots of studio section playing as well as playing in a variety of contexts over the years. Time, pitch, blend, and all of one’s section playing skills are necessary to give this music it’s due. The section feels as if one guy is playing. I’ve learned more from listening to my fellow section mates than from almost anywhere else.
The sax quartet and orchestral playing are another thing altogether. Often different equipment will be necessary to achieve this. I’d like to give this last piece of advice. A professional should be prepared. Having different mouthpieces, reeds, and even horns are not a sign of weakness, but show a deep understanding and commitment to what is required to play the particular music you are playing during the moment you are in.