Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Elemental saxophone sounds

Saxophone player Keefe Jackson and cornetist Josh Berman from Chicago came to Nashville last night to play a show at Dino’s. It was very jazz-rooted, heavy on contrapuntal textures and low on extreme technique, much of it in the middle ranges of their instruments. The two have played together a lot, and they’ve worked out pretty structured approaches and trade off and combine fluently.

Jackson surprised me, pleasantly, with his sound which has a pre-bop softness to it. It was somewhere in the range of Lester Young, but that wasn’t quite it. I was trying to explain the difference and said most guys have a tenor sound that is harder, more like wood than cloth. Later I realized an even better way to get at the difference would be to use the elements in Chinese medicine: water, wood, metal, earth, and fire. Jackson has a water sound. Chu Berry might be an earth sound. In most contemporary players you hear wood, metal, or fire, passing from a muscular, thick sound to something more strident until you get to shrieking freak-outs.

Chinese medicine uses music in healing practices based on these elemental qualities. It also assigns sounds to the elements: shouting, laughing, singing, crying, groaning. I found something on-line that lines those sounds up with the elements wood-shouting, fire-laughing, earth-singing, metal-crying, water-groaning. I don’t know if it always lines up that way.

I’ve at times thought about the idea of approaching improvisation as a cycling though those sounds, following the natural progression from one state to the next. Anything formulaic gets old, but it suggests a variation on the typical Western structure of development, climax, denouement. The Chinese sounds would be more circular, although you should still be able to have forward motion with it.


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