Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Improvisation and fabrication

As an undergraduate I had the great honor of studying with the legendary saxophonist Yusef Lateef for a time. Yusef's on another level in terms of the thought process and execution of improvised music. Notice that I said "improvised music" rather than jazz or bebop. (His own term for the kind of music he plays is autophysiopsychic music, meaning music which comes from one's physical, mental, and spiritual self. Read all about it here.) Yusef's got an incredible wealth of knowledge, but is highly picky about terminology. Jazz, he contends, is a deragatory term derived from a colloquialism for the male ejaculate. And he professes to not know what bebop or any other stylistic label is or sounds like. If you go to Yusef and want to learn to play bebop, you should tell him that you'd like to learn to play in the style of Charlie Parker or Cannonball Adderley, and so on. Once you get on the same page w/r/t terminology you'll be fine.

For Yusef, improvisation is complete and utter spontaneity. If you begin playing with preconceived ideas or parameters of any sort, you are not truly improvising. As I got deeper into my studies with Yusef, I said to him that it seems as though the more you learn--the more licks you play in twelve keys, the more vocabulary you internalize, the more tunes you know, the more scales and patterns and patterns and patterns you drill, the more great artists you transcribe and learn to perfect their every nuance--the harder it becomes to truly improvise. His response was simply, "You understand."

I've always wrestled with that issue as an improviser and to know that it was something that concerned even a great master made me feel better. When I play an improvised solo in a jazz style, I often feel as though I am putting everyone on. Like it's not really "improvised" because I've practiced so hard to be able to make all the changes in a stylistically correct and hopefully somewhat hip way. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel this way when I hear other jazz players improvise. To the contrary, I even find it exciting to listen to the best Brecker clone even if I know every single lick that he/she is ripping off. I just could never find my voice as a jazz artist the way I feel as though I've found it as an interpreter of composed music.

Yet recently I've had to improvise in music that's not in a jazz style. See I formed this band with this drummer guy from Boston, who is not only a world class percussionist but also an extremely accomplished improviser. Part of what we do, well what our biography says we do, is "play music that treads the boundary between composition and improvisation." So when we work with composers, we like them to leave us some room if they're willing. Not only that but sometimes we just get up on stage and play. Me, Tim, and his laptop. This type of playing suits me. It allows me to draw on a sonic vocabulary that is not constrained by the parameters of style. We play what we hear. It's exhilarating, refreshing, and utterly freeing. And it's more along the lines of what I was searching for when I studied with Yusef.

N.B. Heather's recent post about experiencing Sun Ra in her car reminded me of a funny story Yusef once told me in a lesson. One day he was walking down a street in New York City when who should happen to be approaching him but Sun Ra. They were friends and so Yusef said, "Hey man, what's going on?" Sun Ra replied, "I just got back from Venus, man." The look in Yusef's eye was priceless as he told me this. He thought clearly that Sun Ra must be nuts but he decided to humor him. "Oh yeah, man. Well, what was going on there," he replied, laughing as he recalled the encounter. Now some people might think Yusef is on a different planet but his reaction to Sun Ra's statement that he'd just returned from some interplanetary travel proves that he's firmly on the planet Earth.
Praised by The New York Times as "an inventive musician . . . fresh and surprising," saxophonist Brian Sacawa has firmly established himself as an important contemporary voice for his instrument. He is active as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician throughout the United States and is the co-founder of the new music duo Non-Zero with percussionist Timothy Feeney.

He has given premieres of over thirty works by both established and emerging composers, including Michael Gordon, Bright Sheng, Andrew Mead, Oliver Schneller, Ken Ueno, Beata Moon, Hillary Zipper, and Scott McAllister, among many others. Named the Baltimore CITYPAPER’s Critic’s Choice for Classical Music in 2002, he is the recipient of awards for solo performance from both national and international competitions.

Sacawa's versatile career has led to appearances with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony, Harvard Group for New Music, New Music Brandeis, Bargemusic, and at meetings of the ISU Contemporary Music Festival, World Saxophone Congress, North American Saxophone Alliance, and New England Saxophone Symposium.

Brian holds degrees from the University of Michigan, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where he studied with Donald Sinta, Gary Louie, and Lynn Klock. He has recorded for the Equililbrium, Naxos, and BiBimBop recording labels.

See Brian's other blog
Sounds Like Now