Imagine this: you finish your sound check, go get something to eat, arrive back at your gig, and the 500 + seat club is packed. You have a 1.5 hour set to fill, and you are playing solo saxophone. Then you notice the stage is completely filled with instruments and a massive percussion rig. It is subsequently revealed that you have an opening act: a 10 man piece Miles Davis “electric period” tribute band (on a stage that comfortably holds maybe 6 people!) that dazzles the crowd with an incendiary version of Miles Runs The Voodoo Down for an hour before you begin. Talk about a daunting act to follow!
This actually happened to me at Club Firefly in my beloved second-home city (Osaka, Japan) years ago, and as challenging as it was, it remains one of my favourite memories. To be honest I did have “help” – BOSS chorus, loop, and delay pedals, a wah-wah pedal, and a number of pedal-triggered voice samples – but essentially it was solo tenor saxophone for the entirety of my set, as I used the electronics (very) sparsely so as not to overshadow the actual melodic or harmonic aspects of my improvisation.
Solo performances are a real test of our training and confidence, and a valuable part of becoming a competent improviser, especially for saxophonists as we tend to be the ones most interested and most active in this style of playing. There are a million ways of analyzing melody, harmony, modes, rhythm, and timbre to employ in solo improvisation. So it is important to focus on the essentials to plan, strategize, and organize a set that is interesting and enjoyable to your audience.*
The two most common solo methods are performing standard jazz songs, or freely improvising music on the spot using aspects of whatever compositional, improvisational, or theoretical concepts you are interested in. And the key to successfully doing both is pacing. A lack of pacing is invariably why young saxophonists find solo performance so hard, as they tend to burn through their favourite patterns and ideas over the first 5 minutes, then go blank and struggle to come up with something interesting to play for the rest of the set. “Less” is not only more; less can be turned into much more through pacing oneself, and exploring every nuance of a single idea.
Having some form of set list or overall format to help pace yourself is also a good idea, even if you are freely improvising. There is no universal law that demands that one must not have anything on stage or in mind when they perform a solo concert. If one is doing standards, why not try an all Duke Ellington set, featuring songs not regularly performed or arranged for solo instrument? If one is playing freely, it is not cheating to plan for 6 ten minute songs over an hour. Your “set list” can include a select set of techniques you will explore during each piece. Even if you are into marathon, 40 minute pieces, having a plan for possible directions in the music will help keep the music moving forward in moments where one’s inspiration is waning or shifting.
It is also a good idea to utilize a variety of standard and contemporary techniques when performing solo, such as multi-phonics, timbre shifts, and quarter-tones. Using your voice is an interesting technique that is not commonly utilized. Usually people consider it a novelty technique, a party trick of a type with circular breathing. Harmonizing or matching hummed pitches with your saxophone playing can be very useful and poignant if it is done sensitively.
There are several things you can try when using this technique. The main idea is humming the same pitch as you are playing. Since the saxophone is not acoustically designed to accommodate both hummed and played pitches the two bounce around and compete with each other. Practicing controlling this effect will help you create an interesting drone. But it does take some time to learn to control so be patient with yourself if it doesn’t seem to work at first. A related technique is humming the same pitch as the saxophone and lowering/raising the hummed pitch in and out of tune with the saxophone pitch. I like to lower the hummed pitch down a minor third and back up as a way of creating a momentary harmonic effect while playing a series of melodic long tones. I recommend that you start within the mid to low range of your saxophone and voice for these and any other techniques as the higher octaves tend to sound thin and scratchy.
Another technique is humming a pitch and playing the note an interval a fifth above it on the saxophone. Fifths have a nice sound, and they are probably the easiest intervals to sound with humming. Playing an ‘E’ while humming a lower ‘A’ is a good place to start. I also like playing an ‘E’ and shifting my humming back and forth from ‘A’ up to ‘B’ to create a sense of motion. Switching back and forth between humming and playing the notes ‘E’ and ‘A’ also creates an interesting harmonic switch from an interval of a fourth and a fifth, although holding ‘E’ on the sax and humming an ‘A’ above it (a fourth) is a little harder to hold than the fifth, so this too will take patience and practice. I also like to play ‘A’ on the sax, hum the ‘E’ below it, then shift the ‘A’ to ‘Bb‘, and the ‘E’ to ‘D’, creating another interesting harmonic motion.
Pacing, organization, and modern techniques are an important part of creating solo music for saxophonists, or indeed any instrumentalist. Experimenting with these ideas will help you begin to feel comfortable with and eventually develop your own voice as a solo improviser.
*These techniques are also applicable to duo work as well, as you have more to offer those you would engage in musical dialogues.