"These pieces were written for my own use, as exercises and studies for the saxophone.
Each is a portrait of, and an homage to, a distinguished practitioner of a particular art, to each of whom I owe a debt of gratitude, for their instruction and inspiration
The form is constant: after a brief introduction, evocative of the personality of the subject, a series of repeated patterns unfolds in strict sequence, until the portrait is complete, then the introduction returns, leading to the improvised middle section, which is based on the mode implicit in the introduction. When this section has been filled to the brim, the main set of motifs returns, thus completing the picture." - Steve Lacy, Findings: My Experience with the Soprano Saxophone, p. 79-80
This is the most concise guide available for this first set of toughly mysterious, austere pieces penned by Steve Lacy in 1983. It's a classic gambit of his: easy-to-understand performance rules that give no indication of the immense challenges of execution.
To be clear, it's not necessarily the finger patterns that pose the greatest difficulty (although a couple of these pieces could definitely be called "knuckle busters"), nor the articulations nor the rhythms. It's the repetitiveness of the etudes. It's the repetitiveness of the etudes. It's the repetitiveness of the etudes.
Forgive me if that reads as being too cutesy or glib, but that very awkwardness is the point. These pieces constantly run the risk of being cute or silly or obvious or (worst of all) boring. What Lacy called "dead art" (I loved how practical Steve could be. He instructed all of his students to play art that was "alive," because making art was indeed a matter of life and death). At every moment of performing these pieces I ran the risk of standing outside of myself, outside of the moment and dwelling on how simple this thing was. The melodic-harmonic-rhythmic elements of these etudes are of such simplicity that I could easily become embarrassed playing them because I'm just saying the same thing again, I'm just saying the.... You get the picture.
I began working on these pieces in 2002 while attending the New England Conservatory and performed one of them ("Hustles") at a recital. Steve helped me as much as he dared that year. He wasn't sure if they were performable on the baritone saxophone, but after hearing my initial attempts he gave it his blessing. I've been whittling away ever since. Twenty years of the same little phrases played over and over and over again. In 2021 I decided to force myself to record them so I could move on to other vistas. At this point in my life and in my relationship to these 6 compositions, "mastery" is neither the point nor a consideration. Only point-of-view and relationship-to-the-materials are.
I've found a kind of equilibrium with the first volume of Practitioners. And in doing so, I'd like to think I've made a little headway in my life's project of recalibrating and reconceptualizing how the baritone saxophone is heard. It's a musical instrument, a tool for expressing and sounding. It has a given range and a method of operation, but that's it. That's almost all one can objectively say about the instrument. Just about everything else is subjective, is stereotype, is prejudice. One can play as quietly, as gracefully, as flexibly as one desires on this instrument, the only legitimate limitations are those imposed by physics and the player's imagination.
I will admit that I've altered some of these pieces. Sometimes it's a change of key (starting "Hurtles" on written A instead of Ab), sometimes it's a drastic change of fingering patterns (I play "Hubris" and "Heebie-Jeebies" at the same pitch as a tenor saxophone), there are a couple of alternating octave transpositions (all of the introductions except for "Hustles.") and in one case there's a makeover of some rhythm and phrasing (the 3rd section of "Heebie-Jeebies"). These are to accommodate the sound-production issues native to the baritone saxophone. These issues being pitch clarity and precision of musical gesture. Much of what Steve wrote in his etudes happens in the bottom register of the saxophone and that makes sense given his life-long focus on that area of the soprano sax. At this point in time I don't think anyone needs to emphasize the low-end of the baritone saxophone. Remaining in that register of the instrument is no different from playing the soprano saxophone exclusively in its highest register. Put another way, reminding every listener just how low and loud the baritone can be is at best silly and at worst boring. The baritone can sound beautiful and interesting in multiple registers. Moving sections of these etudes suits both my instrument and the music. I hope it helps open your ears to the infinite possibilities of this misunderstood, occasionally maligned musical instrument.
Finally, this recording is another aspect of my constant wrestling with the area of american culture called "the jazz tradition." It's a funny thing about traditions in the U.S. We cling so tightly to various vectors of activity all in the name of "maintaining" or "respecting" a tradition. But I think deep down white people fear that it's a self-induced illusion. Ever since the European colonists showed up on this continent, a primary justification for expansion, slaughter, colonization and creativity has been the myth of the self-created citizen. The person who strikes out on their own and makes what they will of the world and their life. And while this can inspire one with dreams of unlimited personal freedom, underneath those dreams is a subterranean fear that it's all smoke and mirrors since we have to lie to ourselves to make this way of life tenable. The more closely we cling to a tradition, the more likely it is that we're committing ourselves to an unstable illusion.
This is an overlong way of saying that as a European-American, I have been bequeathed the gift and curse of making my own traditions. Yes, I can borrow (and even outrageously mimic) other folks traditions, but whatever I term "tradition" is such simply because I desperately want it to be rooted in some kind of (any kind of) theorized past. I can claim all kinds of artifacts (songs, improvisational tactics, rhythmic articulation) as being talismans of a "jazz tradition," but every time I went to the (now long-passed) "Jazz" section of a record store, I could always find *so* many sounds that turned these talismans into cheap trinkets. Every time I play, every sound I make is an articulation of, an expression of an "american tradition" as I hear it. It partakes of everyone's sound and so takes place in none of them.
This uneasy conviction of mine has made me feel like a space alien in these parts. And like any respectable, U.S.-born space alien, I've gone about constructing a "jazz tradition" that makes the most sense to me. In this "jazz tradition" there is little daylight between composition and improvisation (they exist on a continuum of musical activity), there is no set repertoire (there are a multitude of personal repertoires) and creative music produced in the past fifty years was made using clear, utilitarian principles that are often different from the principles that preceded them because the name of the game in this "jazz" is to be a conservator of one's personal sources by innovating in one's public utterances.
These are all the considerations that went into making this record. I'm glad I've waited as long as I have to make it. It's all the better for that. I hope you take pleasure in the time you've given to it.
released August 12, 2022
Josh Sinton - baritone saxophone
Recorded June 18, 2021 and March 21, 2022 at Oktaven Studios
Recorded and mixed by Ryan Streber
Mastered by Luis Bacque
All compositions by Steve Lacy
A Brooklyn-based creative musician, a baritone saxophone operator, a bass clarinet manipulator, recently returned to flute-blowing. Trying to become a better listener every day.
Album titles with an * indicate physical copies available