Sunday, 22 April 2012

Heading For Africa

On the plane for Lagos in a few hours. 

Work takes me there but I will of course be bringing a horn. I may be one of the few that (at least in some ways) looks forward to going to Nigeria. Most of the friends I talk to respond, "you're going WHERE?" Nigeria is the fabled land of the world's sixth or seventh largest oil reserves and NEPA - Never Expect Power Always, in Tony Allen's immortal words. 

Back in February, I wrote about my musical experiences in Nigeria in 2008 and put up a few videos. Nigeria was one of the highlights of my musical renaissance and I hope to expand upon that this year and take my playing up a notch through osmosis (and practice and performance with local bands). 

The difficult decision was which horn to bring. My King Super 20 is too special, my Mark VI too valuable to risk damage or theft, so I packed up my Buffet SDA tenor a little while ago. It has a sturdy build, plays easy top to bottom, has accurate intonation, and I will get used to the keywork after a week or so. A good compromise I hope; this is the horn I had with me in Abuja in 2008. If I miss one of the other horns I can swap out after a while. 

I will be posting some interesting stuff over the next couple of months. Always an exciting time; I don't know what but I do know that musically, it will be good.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Two of Penang’s Best Young Saxophonists

Today I’ll feature a couple of young players who are already deep into the horn in their teens. Hopefully you will hear much more to come from these two. 

Emily Brokaw: Emily is 17 years old and soon to graduate from Dalat International School. She has been playing for more than 6 years already, since entering middle school at Dalat, which has an American-style band program. She chose saxophone because both of her parents were professional saxophonists! Emily’s mom, Valeri Brokaw, is the middle school music director at Dalat and also directs the high school jazz band (along with a ton of other duties; Valeri is extremely hard working and you’d be hard pressed to find a nicer person). Dalat has the best school band program on the island and Emily is Dalat’s premier saxophonist. 

I asked Emily a few questions about her interest in the saxophone and here is what she wrote: 

  • I currently play both tenor saxophone (a Yamaha intermediate horn) and alto saxophone (currently, a Selmer Mark 7). 
  • My favorite music: Concert band - anything by David Holsinger (Gathering at the Ranks of Hebron and Havendance) and Holst's First and Second Suites; Jazz band - Take Five, Blues in the Night, most anything; Solo work - Tableaux de Provence by Paule Maurice. 
  • Most memorable performances were in the 2010 and 2011 South East Asia Honor Bands and all [Dalat] Fine Arts concerts. 
  • Future plans: I plan to study music education in university [in the U.S.] next year and continue playing in ensembles of all sorts. 

Emily is still a bit shy of improvisation but I am sure that will change as she progresses. You can catch her solo on Take the A Train with Dalat’s jazz band on YouTube. 

Jackie Ashkin: 15-year-old Jackie plays alto and has been playing for 2-1/2 years. In middle school, to my delight, she decided on saxophone. Valeri Brokaw was her first instructor. Jackie is a fast learner and traded in her POS Yamaha school horn for a vintage King Zephyr circa 1937 once we found out that she liked playing. If you like playing on a YAS-23 you will LOVE playing on a Zephyr! 

Jackie has a great voice and has been singing in school since about fourth grade. In Kazakhstan she performed for the International women’s group at age 9, singing in both Russian and English and playing dombra, the local two-stringed instrument. She continued with voice lessons in Malaysia and the ear training has paid off in an accelerated ability to play sax. In Dalat’s high school concert band she gets the chance to play every day, which keeps her chops up and has seriously improved her sight reading. She has played in Dalat’s jazz band for the past two years (both on alto and as featured vocalist – see the A Train video), and she has paid her dues in town doing section work with the Northern Jazz Ensemble big band. 

On stage with Jackie at the G Spot, Summer 2011
Last year I started taking Jackie out on gigs with me and basically just threw her in at the deep end. She had her first professional gig at age 14, at this point has performed in public quite a bit for her age (although never enough). She is learning to improvise by ear, as opposed to reading her solos like most of her peers, who are either scared to death of having to improvise or else sound like a bleating billy goat when they do. She is not afraid to get up on stage, she knows what sounds good, and she is her own worst critic. She intuitively understands key concepts like swing and syncopation and knows that music is all about sound, not about dots on a page. A big advantage is that she has actually listened to the greats of the tradition (Dexter, Jug, Dolphy et al.) and knows what a saxophone is supposed to sound like. Jackie currently plays on a Johnny Hodges-era Buescher Aristocrat (ca. 1936) that gives her the intonation necessary to play in concert band along with the flexibility to play jazz. You can see Jackie in action on our YouTube channel. A 15-year-old already playing Trane and Miles and improvising with originality. 

Go girls!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Rain Sultanov, An Under-Recognized Master

In 2007 I spent some months on a work assignment in Azerbaijan. Needing my jazz fix, I checked out the local music scene and found that the main man on tenor in Baku is named Rain Sultanov. I looked him up. The first time we met he was playing soprano with piano accompaniment in the lobby of the Baku Hyatt, a high class lounge gig. 

Rain came by my hotel room one afternoon; I had picked up a DVD of Trane from the Jazz Casual series (1964) and was watching it on my laptop. Rain got his horn out of its case and just started playing along with Trane. My jaw dropped. He is a stunningly good player. 

I tried to talk him into regular lessons but he declined and gave me a few tips here and there instead, the kind of tips you can practice for years (you sound pretty good but try this with your phrasing...). For about a month he loaned me his Mark VI tenor to play on. We stayed in contact on and off for the time I was in Baku and then I was gone. 

I understand that in his high school days, Rain was the best clarinet player in the entire former Soviet Union. He spent some time playing in Germany, has recorded albums of both straight ahead Trane-influenced jazz and original jazz-Azeri fusion, but otherwise he is virtually unknown outside his homeland. I was pleasantly surprised to find him on the bill at the Penang Island Jazz Festival in 2010.

The Penang festival is a mix of mostly pop and fusion groups with an occasional hard-core jazz act thrown in, and Rain’s quartet was that year’s hard core act. His main stage set, I fear, was way over the head of the crowd which was expecting the Swingle Singers. I had the opportunity to jam with him after hours at the midnight jam on the last day of the festival, and he blew me off the stage on Impressions. I am pretty much fearless when it comes to jamming but this is one case where I was embarrassingly outclassed. I thank Rain for letting me sit in with him although he knows that. The video above is Rain and his quartet doing Giant Steps later that night, December 6, 2010. Elchin Shirinov is smokin' on keys and Rain's brother Ramin is on drums.

Jackie receiving instruction from Rain Sultanov. ""
Rain came by the house the next day and gave Jackie a sax lesson which she will not forget for a long time. It was a real treat for a young 14-year-old player to get a one-on-one with a world class performer. I hope Rain is keeping his gigs and recording projects up and finding wider recognition outside of Baku. He is a skilled and dedicated player and deserves it. Here is the link to his official web site.