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Saxophone Lessons Learned

Working with Singers

Every Saxophonist has times that they must work with singers yet little is taught to make this a value to the music and keep singers from hating us.

How do you work with a singer, as to contribute to the music?

    There are 2 elements to Saxophone Playing in Pop Vocal Music today.
  • 1. Playing fills around the vocals, filling the holes and Sax lines or Song parts.
  • 2. Solos including Intro, Outro and solo sections in the middle of the song.

I will address each in the order they appear in a song.

Song Intro - Saxophone Entrance

The intro of a song sets up the song and singer. It is the first thing or first impression a listener hears as a song begins.

How do we approach a song intro?

One of my pet phrases around here is "Appropriate." What is the song's feel? What is the energy level the singer is coming in with? Is there any part implied by either the orchestration or melody for this song?

In the studio, a producer might already have an idea as to part, double this or that, or play similar to the melody based on the changes for the intro.

These are all good places to start when playing live too.

Most the time a singer is going to enter with less energy than the end of the song to build the energy and develop the music. When you hand off to the singer at this entrance, it is important to make it a smooth change. I tend to play more simple, less range and volume, and listen for what other musicians are doing for further direction.

You can't play the best thing you know, right at the top, because the song will only get worse from there. I don't copy a part in the intro, note for note, unless directed to. I tend to listen to what's happening and work with it, while filling a little more personal lines when the other line stops. I play it in between. If there is something to work with in the track, I'm stealing that idea and looking for the places to make it a little more featured, a little more mine, rather than just doubling that line.

If there is nothing to work with, I need to hear the song to get ideas from the melody or maybe the same changes I am working on have a part later on in the song and I can introduce that idea and bring the continuity of the song together with my part.

The point is to listen and work the song more together thematically, rather than just adding another unique idea that might not be appropriate or improving.

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Other ideas would include letting the first half of the intro go by and just introducing the sax as something to stay tuned for because its in this song and coming back. If you end up playing a very strong, thematic part; You might want to work with it, repeat it and develop it as the song develops. Many songs have an Intro that is repeated as an Interlude, maybe between Verses. This is a great time to render another version of that intro with a little more sizzle.

The hand off is often a line played to the singers starting note. That does not always work but can be really cool. It needs to be tapered and getting out of the way as you hand off to not compete with the vocal entrance. I see it as a relay race. Hand off and taper is the moment the two of you are side by side only to hand off the "focus" to the most important thing right now.

I prefer overlapping and taper to stopping right before the singers entrance because it still shows courtesy to the singer and makes it sound seamless in between.

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Playing Saxophone Fills

This same approach to overlapping with taper works great for fills too. In studio, you need to listen a few times to start getting a feel for where the holes are. Live, I want to see the singer's lips and hear them good. SO many sax players are starting fills too late and then walking all over the singers next line because they were not ready. To play good fills, you first must get started at the top of the hole you were supposed to fill. Quick digression for examples sake:

Example 1.

I worked with Peter White for 6 years. He was my most annoying "Fills" boss, ever! He wrote his music to feature his instrument (Acoustic Guitar), fair enough; but he wanted lots of sax dancing around him to greater capture that Smooth Jazz Sound and develop the music with a more playful attitude.

When I first started working with him, I wanted to kill him. I was pretty good at this stuff already, but no matter how much I tried, Peter would yell at me, "Too Late!" He did not play the lines the same, especially the ends of the lines. He did not even play the lines sometimes. He expected total freedom and mind reading from his "Saxboy."

I had to stay glued to his hands while checking his eyes all night long. If I saw his fingers start to pluck, I tapered and got out of the way. If I saw him look at me or saw his pick move away from his guitar I started to play. He said, "If you HEAR the hole, it's already too late."

I learned to watch and anticipate his playing so I could start a short fill as he was ending his line. We played together a lot, sometimes 2 shows a day, 1 to 2 hour shows with long sound checks and rehearsals on the road. He demanded this attention 100% of the time. It was really frustrating sometimes but made me really good at catching the top of the hole so I could be ending my fill in time to get out of his way. Peter was very adamant about how over powering Saxophone is to an Acoustic Guitar; and while overlapping was important, getting out of the way with good taper was too. Playing on top of him really pissed him off.

Example 2.

I was married to a chick singer for a minute and worked with her 7 days a week. If I was made at her I would be rude, point the sax at her and play over her. I know, pretty childish, but that's the facts. Earlier in our 10 year work relationship, I learned to work around the vocals. I would play guide tone lines behind her but at a very low volume and then brought out the fills when she was not singing. She always said I did that very well. It makes the singer love you when you honor them my not noodling while they are singing. Playing a bunch of jazz lines while the singer is singing makes it hard to sing. She was an Italian/Irish girl and was very good at telling me if I was blowing it.

Example 3.

I work in a club band that the guitarist is always stepping on my lines. We play jazz cover songs with the sax taking many of the melodies. He is not very aware and it is not really malicious. He just plays fills every time the line starts for a song. It drives me nuts and leaves me just standing there on stage some times out of frustration, waiting for a chance to play the dang melody without the clutter.

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Fills - What to play

We discussed the when to play but what about the notes in the fill?

A fill should compliment the part just played or set up the next part to be played. In blues tunes, it can be as simple as call and response. The singer does a line and you play it back. In Pop Music, the goal yet again is to be appropriate. Play the same vibe as you just heard. You can work your fills to develop from fill to fill, or just keep playing off the singer. The goal is to make the song better because you are playing. If it sounds better when you lay out, you are doing it wrong. If the singer hates you, you need to try a different approach or check on that late night job at the gas station because the sax player will be fires long before they fire a singer from most vocal bands.

Appropriate fills are going to take what's going on and work with it, around it and thru it.

Sometimes the best thing you can add to a section of the song is space. You don't have to play all the time. I remember a band leader telling me I was the best sax player he had ever used because I knew how to just stand there. That was a huge compliment to me because I was always hearing about different sax players that could not just shut up for a minute. Just because you know how to play fills or lines does not mean it is some thing you need to do on every part of every song. If a painter used red all the time, the interest in one painting over a another might begin to seem redundant. I always say, "Leave them wanting more. The last thing you want is someone saying, "That's about all the sax I can take."

I might play on the Intro, and then let the first 2 Verses go by before coming back in on the Chorus. If there is a sax solo, I tend to play more aggressive fills and with more energy from the solo and thru the vamp to the end.

Of course, this all depends on the song, but ideas, even general in nature, can help us understand better how to do these fills.

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SOLO Time

This is the easiest part for most sax players. Ideas for those learning would include playing the melody and working from there. If the solo section is the same an interlude you have already played, start with that idea and develop it from there. Be appropriate to the energy of the section. If it starts out, full blown; then you need to start out screaming. If it breaks down and builds, go with it. Listen to what is happening and work with that. Elements of the melody, harmonic structure, previous parts you have played, background to the section, and overall spirit of the song will need to stand out and shine at this point.

A Solo is your time to shine. Step out into the light and go for it. Then be ready to hand that "Focus" back over to the next soloist or singer and begin being a support player. It is not all about you for long. It is all about you for 8-32 bars so enjoy and step back to your previous roll.

When I was with Peter White, I had to be told this. It was such a process to learn how to read his musical mind, that when it came to a solo I was not stepping up to the plate and swinging. Peter told me to steal the show for that minute and a half and then get back to making him look good. Not those exact words, but that's what he meant.

I think this applies most everywhere. Even if you are the boss, the audience will notice and dislike you taking all the attention and praise. If you are a sax player working with singers, you have to be able to let them shine, support and honor them by being kind and appropriate, and then go to the plate and kill the song. Then hand it back over and make them sound great again. Sax players that practice this will be more likely to be searching for investment counselors than debt consolidators.

It's just a concept.

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If this is selling out for you, than don't do it. I get to wear my Sax Player Greg Vail hat a lot. I don't have to wear it all the time. I have found that great leaders are not insecure. They have no problem allowing the other talent on the stage to shine. Learn how to wear 2 hats. Be supportive and generous and then be the star. I think it makes sense.

Now to the Vamp or Outro

With all this said, the Vamp Out kinda takes care of it's self. Generally the most energy, loudest section takes all that has preceded and mixes it all up with higher energy and further thematic development. Many times it involves trading solo lines or call and response with the singer. At this point, a little more playing on top of each other is cool but still needs to be working for the singer or other soloist and be appropriate for the song and the natural development up to this place.

Vamp out can be anything goes. You just need to maintain the same logic and consideration that went into crafting all the sax parts to this point.

Always make the performance better because you are contributing. The song should sound lame with out the sax parts and cool because they are there. For that matter, the band should sound better with you there and really miss you if you are gone. Be supportive and be the star, and know when to do which.

And last but not least, Be Appropriate to the music in every area of your performance.

by SAXBOY

Copyright (c)2005 SAXBOY


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