It’s been a little while since our last guest post here, and we feel incredibly fortunate to be able to bring you another one. This time, the words, thoughts, and music are courtesy of altoist and composer Matana Roberts. As anyone who has seen Roberts perform knows, she invests her playing with a tremendous depth of passion, as well as a clear appreciation and respect for the tradition. Not that she shies away from tweaking that tradition when it is required. Here are her thoughts on six solo horn performances, some solidly in the tradition and others exploring the outer reaches.
The Alone Saxophone
I spend a lot of my listening time these days investigating and re-investigating solo recordings and live concerts across all genres of sound performance. It has in some ways become one of my favorite ways to check people out, and to communicate some of my own sound ideas. I feel you can really hear the creative core of a sound maker in a way that you can’t hear in a collective group. In a group there is the collective core which is incredibly beautiful in itself, but at times it can be overwhelming. As a performer, I enjoy solo exploration because there’s no room for that kind of mind circus and, frankly, it’s hard. The process of the actual challenge and act I find immensely satisfying.
I like how in the process of doing, it acts as a very valuable centering practice, taking you somewhere else, sometimes someplace new, as a creator; alone. At the same time, it can also remind you of places you might need to return. This is can be a distressing realization, but it’s much more gentler a prodding than what you might be confronted with in a collective effort. On a purely aesthetic level, it’s an honest encapsulation of live energy matter between a lone artisan and their chosen machine and possibly their witness audience, that no matter how hard they might try, will never be repeated quite the same way again. That in a nutshell is the joy of improvisation as performance/life practice to me.
So in the spirit of this poetic waxing that Destination: Out has so kindly requested, I have listed 6 solo alto-centric recordings that have been influential to me purely as an alto saxophone player. My own creative core is about personal sound first and foremost. These recordings helped me to make my way towards embracing this personal ideal. These are not in any particular order or preference. Enjoy!
PRELUDE TO A KISS
10 of Dukes + 6 Originals
Senators : 2002
Mr. Lacy’s sound is one of very distinct order. I feel I can hear his predecessors, but I can also, incontestably, hear him. His sound is immediately identifiable. This particular recording is also very special to me, because it was sent in the mail by Mr. Lacy himself, during my first few epic years of NYC Living (i.e., combat). Along with it came a postcard that simply read, “Keep up the good work, I can hear you all the way here!” I was able to have a few lessons with him on solo playing, which was really monumental because I felt I was linking to history in a very tactile way that I hadn’t in awhile.This entire record recreates that tactility for me every time. My favorite track is above.
Steeplechase : 1974
Mr. Konitz, has always been a favorite of mine because he sums up again what I love about sound. The immediate, uncanny identifiable voice. Two notes from Mr. Konitz and you know exactly who you are listening too. That to me is the most important legacy of this oral traditional styled music.
KANSAS CITY LINE
Screwgun : 2003 (rec. 1977)
I became interested in this record after getting the opportunity to play in the last incarnation of the Julius Hemphill Sextet. Playing that music was so much fun. It was really a joy to be around work that was so exquisitely written and just made the saxophones sing, really. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. Kudos to altoist Marty Ehrlich for working so hard to keep the legacy and memory of Mr. Hemphill, who by all accounts, from everyone in the band, sounded like one hell of a character, alive. His music seemed to give off an energy; I imagined his personality to be like from the stories I’d heard, robust, devoted, disciplined, yet warm, and humorous. This entire recording of solo and layered solo pieces evokes that — though my favorite track is this one.
Prestige : 1960
Though the reverb echo on this recording picks a nerve in me always , I still love it every time because he plays with such conviction, and again his sound was so identifiable and fresh. Mr. Dolphy really was an incredible solo player (his bass clarinet solo on “God Bless the Child,” from Illinois Concert, is jaw dropping as well, but since I’m trying to stay saxophone-centric here, i will refrain from waxing poetic on that…. ) Anyhow, this track is off of Far Cry. Really it just haunted me the first time i heard it, as the possibilities it presented were life changing for me and my horn.
TO COMPOSER JOHN CAGE DEDICATED TO CECIL TAYLOR
Delmark : 1970
Now, I know some accomplished musicians who still to this day try to punk this record. All I ever give to that is a head shake. The kind of energy it takes to play an alto saxophone the way he is playing here is almost death defying as well as just incredibly creatively courageous. His own personal sound is very clear here. The only word to describe the way he’s moving around that alto on this is: epic. The first time I heard it, I had to sit down and just, you know, think about it, and the first solo concert I ever saw as an official New Yorker was an Anthony Braxton solo alto saxophone set. It blew my mind in almost the same way this record did. A is definitely for Alto.
AECO : 2009 (orig. Sackville, 1974)
Not trying to do the hardcore Chicago rep here, but this is another record that has meant a lot to me as a solo alto player, I just couldn’t leave it out. Mr. Mitchell and I did a duo concert together in Paris together once. I’ll never forget how steady, calm, and focused he was, while in some ways I was a bit of a nervous wreck inside, standing on the same stage as one of my alto heroes. This record, though recorded early in his career as a soloist, is very much a solid representation of some of the calm and steady exploration I found so inspiring on that stage in France. “Ttum” is my favorite track.
I left a lot of people off of this list, obviously, and only paid attention to ones that were deeply seminal to my early development as an altoist. I do a lot of different things in the name and glory of sound exploration, solo alto exploration is and will always be at the core of all of it. There are so many interesting takes on this creative horn practice, by the way, that are worth hearing/seeing live (while they are still with us): Joe McPhee, Simon Rose, Charles Gayle, Colin Stetson, John Klemmer, Håkon Kornstad, Sam Newsome, Lol Coxhill, Jean Derome, John Butcher, Peter Brotzman, John Lurie, John Carter, Jason Robinson, Gianni Gebbia, Catherine Sikora, Kidd Jordan, David Murray, Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Jorrit Dykstra, Alessandro Bosetti, John Zorn, Bhob Rainey, Jack Wright, Kang Tae Hwan, Masayoshi Urabe, Hamiett Bluett, David Gross, Ken Vandermark, and in the spirit of the Dolphy bass clarinet mention: Lori Freedman. And that’s just the short list of horn players that have taken on the task of the horn alone, either on recording or in live performance. Some of which I have been lucky enough to be in the room for.
One of my all time favorites of the non-horn variety is the bassist extraordinaire Joelle Léandre. But that, alas, is for another essay perhaps…
I hope this list will inspire people to check out more solo offerings and also inspire other sound-makers to keep searching for that solo core. In my experience so far, it only gets richer the more you try.
Lastly, I have uploaded solo explorations of my own here. Most recently in the last year becoming interested in the role of solo sound within certain abandoned architectural frameworks, from different locales of my gypsy musical travels. Take a listen.
Yours Always in Alto,
Ucross Wyoming, Oct 22, 2010
% % % % % % %
Thanks, Matana! We second her suggestion to hear her own solo work, and encourage you to check it out. We should also note that all of the albums above are commercially available:
Finally, if all goes well and according to plan, Roberts will be playing at D:O’s Loft/Lab series in May. We’re already looking forward…
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.