How Dry I Am

Could this possibly be any cooler?  Of course not.

Could this possibly be any cooler? Of course not.

Years ago, I was having a conversation with a fellow saxophone player about playing styles, and he made a comment that left me a little bewildered.  He said: “I wish I didn’t have such a beautiful tone.”

Huh?  Isn’t that what we all strive for?  But then he elaborated: “I can sell anything just through my tone.  The ideas don’t have to be any good.  The ideas can suck, in fact, and it won’t make any difference.  Because my mediocre ideas are being delivered with such a beautiful tone, and that’s all anyone hears.”

I didn’t believe him then, and in any event, I thought his ideas were pretty good at the time and it was just typical musician self-effacement, designed to counteract that other tendency we have.  But he did have a point: a beautiful tone can hide a multitude of sins.

There are many possible tones, of course, and wind players particularly spend years and shopping bags full of mouthpieces trying to capture ‘the one’.  I have pretty much come to the conclusion that you are most successful when you are sounding like yourself, whatever that may be.  But just in terms of listening, I must confess my ear is drawn to the drier, vibrato-free sound that cuts to the bone.  Even though I don’t pursue that personally, except on flute…because maybe I don’t really have that whole ‘flute vibrato’ thing happening.

On soprano, the best example of ‘dry’ is Steve Lacy.  His tone has such depth on that most pernicious of saxophones, but he never sweetens it up a la Bechet.  He also avoids extraneous notes, playing just what is needed and no more.  His record ‘Reflections‘: Steve Lacy Plays Monk’, where he is joined by Mal Waldron, Buell Nedlinger, and Elvin Jones  (whew!) remains one of the great interpretations of Monk’s terse compositions.  And Lacy’s tone is the perfect match.

On tenor, and continuing the Monk theme:  Charlie Rouse.  Before I knew much about jazz, I was attracted to Monk because I liked the look of the album cover (remember album covers, kids?).  My ear wasn’t ready for what happened once the needle hit the turntable (remember turntables, kids?).  After Oscar Peterson, Monk sounded like he was from another planet: the Planet of No Extra Notes.  But when I heard Charlie Rouse light into ‘Pannonica‘–in the higher register of the tenor, but totally eschewing any sweetening whatsoever–well, my world was changed.  Here was a world never trod by the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, and gutsier than Lester Young by half.  It was a sound that said, “Don’t BS me, kid.  I’ve been around the block once or twice.”  Rouse was the perfect foil for Monk, and it was evident in every note he played.

An aside: Rouse came to Eugene, Oregon while I lived there in the early 1980’s and played a gig at The Electric Station, a seafood restaurant with a large bar that had regular live jazz, usually locals.  Rouse was travelling light.  He came alone and formed a pickup band of people who normally played the gig.  They were all good players, but a little awestruck at performing with the Charlie Rouse.

For his part, Rouse didn’t make things particularly easy on them.  There was no rehearsal, and his count-offs were New York style–inaudible and blistering tempos.  At one point, he called ‘Lady Bird’ and then launched into ‘Half Nelson’.  Sure, it’s the same chord changes, but if you’re not familiar with the tune, and you’re on stage, and you’re a little spooked to begin with–well, let’s just say the beginning of the tune could have gone smoother.

Then a bit later in the set, Rouse leaned over to the pianist and said, “Lay out.”  Which in jazz parlance means, “Don’t play just now.”  Unfortunately, the pianist thought he said, “Play out”–meaning play something ‘outside’ the changes.  So the pianist launched into a crashing series of diminished chords, alterations, kitchen-sink style what have you–then looked over to see Charlie Rouse holding his tenor, staring back at him in open-mouthed horror.  But I digress.

On flute: the choice here is a little tougher, since there are many jazz flute players who left vibrato behind in the fifties and sixties.  But my favorite is still Frank Wess, because to my ear he perfectly translates the jazz vocabulary onto the flute without turning it into a smaller, more shrill tenor saxophone.  He understood perfectly how to balance percussive tonguing and lyrical lines, so his ideas sing without turning the flute into either an irritating tom-tom on the one hand, or a bowl of oatmeal mush on the other.  Let’s face it…I dig Frank Wess.

And conveniently enough, the AJW is doing Basie next season, so I’m spending some extra time on flute myself.  I hope to be able to do his ‘Cute’ solo justice.  If not quite Frank Wess, at least not Jerry Lewis.


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