Though many creative collaborations in jazz have occurred between drummers and saxophonists, there is little talk of the actual craft of such collaborations. One might assume that general rules of jazz apply to any size group. But the saxophone/drum duo is a valuable practice and performance activity in its own right, much like solo performance. Since I am a saxophonist I will use the phrase ‘saxophone/drum duet’, but the principles will apply to any woodwind and percussion duet.
Personally, I love the saxophone/drum duo as a medium of expression, and all three of my independently released solo albums have been primarily sax/drum based. This is because it is such a huge challenge, and also really fun to workshop material that setting. I particularly remember one particular session with drummer Gord Graber where we played Well You Needn’t for over three hours (!). Well, it started out as Well You Needn’t and by the time we ended it had morphed into 12 bar blues in at least eight keys, several Charlie Parker tunes, the first half of the RUSH album Hemispheres, and an Armenian folk song…among other things!
The advantage to working this way is that you can use any and all of the techniques I have previously discussed on this blog (quarter-tones, chromatic axis concepts, suizen techniques, etc) with ease not only as improvisational ideas but compositional tools as well. This process is also a good gauge of your musical skills, as there is nowhere to ‘hide’. All of your training is on display all at once, and it is up to you to present and pace it as wisely as possible. It is also a great embouchure builder, as you must spend the majority of the time covering the textural, lyrical, harmonic, and melodic aspects of the music.
If you do not study percussion or rhythmic forms, working with a trained drummer can be a great rhythmic education. I would even bring along a notebook in case you hear rhythmic material you wish to transcribe and systematically work into your playing. And since you don’t have several instruments present, you can really focus on the drummer and gain new insights into what the experience of playing with a saxophonist is like for them. And believe me, as many bad drummers as there are out in the world, there are exponentially more saxophonists with bad time and limited rhythmic vocabulary. Working with a (good) drummer is a way to guarantee you are not, or will not, become one of them. And be sure to wear the proper earplugs for extended playing, always, as exposure to long periods of sound causes permanent damage to your hearing, even at medium volume.
First of all, it is important to establish what repertoire you are going to work on. Are you both interested in developing original arrangements, composing new works, or finding agreeable structures to improvise over? Which do you think would be good forms to work with considering your interests? In this format surprisingly enough, the less complicated the form the better. The impulse is to fill up space to cover the “missing” parts, even though there is nothing wrong with a naturally minimal format. Playing a barebones cover of Body and Soul for example with whispering snare brushes could be a very profound musical moment.
This format is also an excellent place to explore harmony with great freedom. Will you work with vertical or modal harmonic structures? Can you simultaneously maintain a structured line while improvising around it? This is also an excellent opportunity to explore various theories of harmonic stability or instability as you use consonant and dissonant tones in relation to each other. There is also the concept of key. Will you be modally modulating from C harmonic minor to the C major scale, or sticking to formulations of the diatonic modes alone? Will chromatic notes be ornamental, or modulation points into harmonic abstractions? Will you create several key centers at once or stick to more traditional tonality? There is no right or wrong answer; so harmonic exploration can be one of the ways you and your percussive partner can explore your shared collaborative soundscape.
This is also an amazing opportunity to explore sound on your instrument, as opposed to “notes” which imply a focus on rhythm, melody, and harmony primarily. Timbre variation, circular breathing, slap tonguing, and other techniques are great avenues of creativity when presented with taste and forethought. Will you improvise around transitions from slap tonguing to multiphonics, or would you rather create a particular mood, or mimic sounds from the environment? Will these sounds be part of an overall fabric of sound or be composed into discreet musical moments? Will you be creating a contrasting soundscape to your drummer’s work or be contextualizing it?
Don’t forget to also explore language forms. There is no reason why you can’t incorporate text or speech into your work, especially if you speak more than one language. Can you use grammar structures as organizing principles for your music? What about the rhythms of speech patterns? Can verb conjugation provide a rhythmic structure over which you can work out sonic versions of propositional logic? It would be interesting not only to look into it, but also attempt a musical setting of it in concert.
The saxophone/drum duet is a fascinating mode of expression, and worth exploring for any woodwind professional in any style – explore it in depth, and often.
© 2012 Daniel Schnee
© 2013 Daniel Schnee.danielpaulschnee.wordpress.com