Big Band Work

Since just before Christmas I’ve had the opportunity to play live with four different big bands in just over three months. I know for some people that is not a lot of work but for me it’s probably more big band work than I’ve done in ten years or more. Many years ago I used to do lots of big band work but there’s just not that much call in my area anymore. I mean, I could probably play with a different rehearsal band every night but I can’t do that for many reasons and I like to have something to work towards rather than just always rehearsing towards no gigs. (First two photos in this post are courtesy of Chris Convery. Chris is a great guy, and excellent trombonist, and an awesome photographer)

Toys for Tots Christmas Concert with the Ken Ebo Big Band

I have done every one of these since the concert series started about a dozen years ago. I think we’ve had two cancelled for inclement weather over the years but all of the ones we have had have been incredibly fun and over the years we’ve helped collect a lot of toys (an unwrapped toy is the cost of entry). The band is fronted by Ken Ebo who is in the marines and teaches at the school of music. He’s an amazing trombonist, singer, and arranger. We do Christmas music from Stan Kenton (with actual French horns), Harry Connick, Gordon Goodwin, Tom Kubis, and other notable writers, arrangers, and band leaders. We have two singers (including Ken, who does an amazing job on Harry Connick tunes), a color guard, and even Santa Claus makes an appearance at the end of the show.

Ken Ebo Christmas

Ken and I after my feature - Christmas Time Is Here

Ken and I after my feature – Christmas Time Is Here

Backing Up Bobby Shew

In January, I had the honor to play in a big band backing up the amazing and timeless Bobby Shew. Bobby came to Towson University as part of the Towson University Jazz Festival and they put together a Jazz Festival Orchestra made up of local pros and former TU students and alumni. For the record, I was a student at TU for several years but ended up getting my degree elsewhere.  First and foremost, Bobby was amazing both as a player and as a person. Second, we had the additional honor of having Denis DiBlasio (baritone saxophonist, clinician, performer, and alum of the Maynard Ferguson band) join us for a couple songs. Finally, the band was absolutely smoking. This was made even more interesting/fun because we did all of it with only one rehearsal. We got the music ahead of time and were just expected to know it. We had about an hour before Bobby got there and then an hour with him. There were a couple weird issues with tempos that were incorrectly marked on the parts but overall it went very smooth. I felt crazy old because all the other saxophonists were half my age but they were very gracious and played their butts off. #whippersnappers

Bobby Shew w/the TU Jazz Festival Orchestra

Bobby Shew w/the TU Jazz Festival Orchestra

 The Hank Levy Legacy Band

Recently, a new movie was made called Whiplash about a drummer’s experience playing in a college big band with an abusive and demanding band director. I’m not going to go into too many of the specifics of the movie except to say I don’t necessarily agree with the portrayal even though I thought the acting was impeccable. That said, one of the interesting things about the movie for me is the title and the big band chart to which it refers. Whiplash was written by my college jazz band director (Towson University – see above), Hank Levy, for the Don Ellis big band and it’s a chart that I played extensively in my college career as well as post college in some incarnation of the Hank Levy Legacy Band. I could probably go on for a long time about Hank and his writing but I will save that for another post possibly and simply say that Hank loved to challenge the norms of the time (the 70’s to the 90’s) and one of the ways he challenged them was by writing “time” charts – using odd meters. For example, Whiplash is in 14/8. He also was nothing like the character portrayed by JK Simmons in the movie…quite the opposite really.

Anyway, I had the chance to sub with this band at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club a couple months ago and I’m actually playing with them again this Sunday at Towson University. Playing these tunes is like revisiting an old friend. While odd meters can be challenging at first, it becomes as second nature as more “normal” time signatures once you wrap your head around it. The problem isn’t really reading and interpreting but soloing can be a bit of a mind bender at times. Luckily, Hank was always very good at subdividing the bars into patterns of 2’s and 3’s (sometimes the 3’s are further subdivided in half but usually only on the slower stuff) and keeping those pulses in your head makes it easier to stay in time. Also, being a sub I only have to worry about soloing on a couple tunes and both of those are in 4 so I’m set. The concert is a guest artist spot and all of the proceeds benefit the Hank Levy fund at the University so come on out if you are in the area.

As I said, I generally need to stay away from long rehearsal cycles (or more than a 2-1 rehearsal to gig ratio) but there is one noticeable exception that I will talk about more in depth in my next post.


That’s a Lot of Gear to Haul Around

Crystal Visions Makes the Best Posters

Crystal Visions Makes the Best Posters

Yesterday was a crazy day not just because I had two gigs. Also not just because the time in between then was supposed to be one hour and they were an hour apart not counting tear down and set up time. In addition to these things I also had to take a ton of gear as it was two different bands. The first gig required tenor and EWI along with my rack that has my hardware synth rig, a mixer, and my in-ears as well as stands, and my iPad for reading music. The second gig was alto and bari along with stands, a change of clothes, and again my trusty iPad. In between, I also brought a cooler with some food since I wasn’t going to have time to eat dinner except in the car. It was a lot to deal with in one day and I’m lucky I remembered to pack everything and didn’t lose anything in the process. I actually used an app called Wunderlist (task tracking software) to make lists so that I grabbed everything I needed.

The Cat Stayed Home

The Cat Stayed Home

The first gig was with Technicolor Motor Home at the Dundalk Heritage Fair opening up for Three Dog Night. This was a great show for us because we played for a very large and appreciative crowd. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. We also played the gig with 4 subs (out of ten pieces) but you would have never known it because everyone was so well prepared. The sound company did a great job and the logistics of everything were like butter. I even got a special parking space since the crew knew that two of us had to leave early to get to our next gig.  All in all it was pretty much the epitome of the perfect gig.

View From the Stage at the Dundalk Heritage Fair

View From the Stage at the Dundalk Heritage Fair

The next gig was all the way down in Bethesda, MD playing with another ten-piece band in Jr’ Cline and the Recliners. As I mentioned above there was only an hour for turnaround as the first gig ended at 7 and the second gig started at 8. Of course that’s not possible unless I were to really take my life (as well as those around me) in my own hands and I am not willing to drive that crazy. Luckily, the band was able to move the start time back until 8:15 and they played the first two songs without the two of us who were “coming in hot”. The first gig I thought went really well for me personally, the second gig wasn’t as great for me. I played the section stuff well but I just couldn’t get on track from a solo perspective. Part of it is playing Eb instruments with a rock and blues band so I end up playing in C# a lot (that’s like kryptonite for me) but I also just never felt settled in the second gig and that’s a shame because the band was roaring. I mentioned before about the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club being a great venue and it was just as amazing this time. They treated us like gold and we had a really nice crowd there. I’m going to have to really shed C# blues before the next gig to get it under my fingers so I fell better about myself when it’s all over. It’s funny because I’m so used to playing in F# because I usually play tenor on these jobs. You would think it wouldn’t be that hard a transition but it seems like nothing IO play sounds the way I want it to. Oh well, I’ll make it work.

Jr. Cline and the Recliners (taken after the show)

Jr. Cline and the Recliners (taken after the show)

Updates – End of May 2013

Well it’s been a weird couple of weeks for me. May was not a very busy month at least for playing gigs. I only had the one gig and that was a pick-up last minute wedding gig. I was supposed to have another one but the club (who shall remain nameless – although they may well be out of business before you get to see this) seems to be falling on hard times and the gig was cancelled at the last minute. I just have a couple of things to post about and an update or two.

Feast or Famine

Why is it that gigs always pile up when you have to choose only one rather than spreading out so you can take them all? This is a phenomenon I have noticed for years and it’s maddening at times. For instance, I thought I had a gig on the 18th but one of the bands I used to play with years ago called me up to sub on the same night. I had to turn them down but then the gig got cancelled so I got right back in touch to see if I could still take it…only to find out the regular guy had gotten his conflict worked out after not being able to find a sub. If I had known that the one gig was going to be cancelled I would have been working that night. Instead I found myself sitting at home with nothing to do. The same is true for this weekend. I’m playing the Crack the Sky show on Saturday night but the leader of one of my absolute favorite bands to sub with, The Junkyard Saints, called me for the same night. Again, if they were spread out instead of all falling on the same night I would be a happier camper…and have more money in my pocket to boot. I’m sure it’s all just a cognitive bias on my part but sometimes it just doesn’t feel fair. 🙂

Coming Reviews

I have more reviews I want to post in the coming weeks and months but I’m just not quite ready to do it yet. I really like to have time to put a thing through its paces before committing a review to the web. I still need to post a full review of my new Cannonball tenor as well as my take on the Jazzlab Sax Holder. I may be ready on both after this weekend so look for some updates soon. I also want to dig into a couple of reviews on two instructional DVD’s I’ve been checking out. Both are by George Garzone but one is more straight ahead and is very advanced and the other is about playing funky and feels approachable by almost anyone who has a basic knowledge of theory. Finally, I want to post more horn, mouthpiece, and EWI patch reviews and commentary as well.

FINALLY, Some Gigs!

After being idle for the last couple weeks, it looks like June is starting to pick up and that’s a good thing. As I mentioned above I have the Crack the Sky show on Saturday at a place called Blob’s Park in Jessup, MD. This is an all-day festival connected to Dick Gelfman’s Ride Across Maryland which is a charity fundraiser for breast cancer awareness. Crack the Sky is one of the headliners along with Baltimore hard rock mainstay, Kix. On Sunday Technicolor Motor Home will take the stage at the Charles Village Festival near the Baltimore Museum of Art at Wyman Dells. We’ve been playing this festival for several years and before that we used to play it with many of the same people in a band called Expensive Hobby. It’s a great event that is very family friendly. The only issue is whether mother nature will cooperate because they are expecting thunder storms on Sunday in our area.

Crack the Sky and Getting Ready For New Stuff

Last night the Crack Pack horns (same as the Retox Horns – Dave Makowiecki, Jim McFalls, and me) played with Crack the Sky at Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore. The place was absolutely packed and we had a great time. We played two of the songs we recorded for the most recent CD, Ostrich, as well as the “usual suspects” of Skin Deep, She’s a Dancer, Mind Baby, and I Am the Walrus from the Beatles (always the closer). I once again played the Cannonball Raven tenor because it’s really tight and the intonation is pretty well locked in. I am still having trouble with a sticky G# key that is really getting on my nerves but I’m getting better at prepping the horn to limit it as much as possible. I’m mostly annoyed because I took it back where I bought it to have them look at it, it took them ten days to get it done, and it’s still exactly the way it was. I’m going to take it to my regular tech soon.

I’m also getting ready to play some high-profile gigs with Jr. Cline and the Recliners. The first one is in two weeks at the Bethesda Jazz and Blues Supper Club in Bethesda, MD. I’ve played with Daryl before but it was with the smaller club band, This gig is the first of a series with a ten-piece group (three horns) and I’ll most likely be playing alto and bari (bari for sure but it looks like alto will be a double). I’m pretty much caught up to where I was years ago on the bari with the possible exception of some endurance but I’ve been practicing a decent amount on alto to make sure that’s up to speed as well. I was playing alto in New Monopoly but only on a couple of tunes a night. I’m liking it more and more. I just had my horn (Buffet 400) in to the shop for some adjustment and it feels awesome. I’m also really happy with the Phil-Tone Custom (now called an Aurora) that has been my main piece for a couple of years.

I have been writing a lot of charts to get ready for the gig because there is no Eb book and it’s just too mind-bendingly hard to sight transpose the Bb book for me. I am still using Muse Score for this because it’s both free and (at least for me) very easy to use. I like the fact that I can enter everything  need with the computer keyboard and a mouse so I can work on charts wherever I have access to a computer. I’ve achieved a great comfort level with this entry method and can get through several tunes an hour if I’m not too distracted. I don’t even bother printing them out because I read everything from my iPad these days. I just export as a PDF, upload them to my Dropbox folder as a backup and then grab them from the pad. If I was doing more charts I would probably consider going for Sibelius but for my purposes, this free program does everything I need.



It’s been a while since I posted and there are quite a few reasons for that. I was in South Korea on a business trip and the jet lag coming home really hit me hard. I was home for a week but I really didn’t feel very well the entire time. I followed that up with another business trip to San Francisco for the Game Developer’s Conference. I got back from that on Saturday morning (the 30th) and had a gig in Leesburg, VA that night and then another one on Sunday afternoon. When that was all done, my family and I went on vacation to Ocean City, MD for a couple days. The end result is I didn’t get a whole lot else done and that definitely included the blog. I’ll try to get back on track starting with this post.

The two gigs were a lot of fun. I played with Technicolor Motor Home in Leesburg, VA at a club called the Tally Ho (here is their FB page). The Tally Ho is a relatively new club that opened in an old movie theater in downtown Leesburg. I think it’s only been open for about 8 months but they are off to a great start. They’ve had (and continue to have) lots of great artists in to play. The staff is incredibly nice and everyone seems to know exactly what to do. The club has its own PA and lights as well so you can travel light to get there. We had a pretty decent crowd considering we were very new to the area and they more than made up for the number with their enthusiasm. We also had a great young singer/songwriter named Andrew Sales (can’t find his web presence anywhere right now) open up for us and he did an outstanding job. One very cool thing was the owner of the venue came up and talked to each of us at the end of the night. He’s a really nice guy and it was a very nice touch that was much appreciated. Here’s a video from the gig but the sound is a little weird because the camera was just picking up some monitors and not the mains:

Also of note for that gig was we had three subs for the gig: one of the guitars and both backup singers. The band still sounded great even though there were a couple of interesting moments. 🙂 It’s a tribute the musicality and professionalism of the whole band but especially to Andy Shriver (guitar), Amber Letters, and Jen Smith (vocals) as they were right there with little or no rehearsal time.

On Easter Sunday we did something a little different. One of the big concert venues in my area, The Recher Theatre, is closing its doors as a concert venue and reopening as a dance club. It is a sad circumstance but many musicians and bands took the opportunity to pay tribute to a great club that had meant tons to our careers and to support charity at the same time. I think there were over 20 bands involved and the festivities started in the early afternoon and went all the way to closing. Many of the Technicolor folks were tied up with it being Easter and all so we created a miniature version of the band that we called Technicolor Mini Van for the event. It was Glenn Workman on keys and lead vocals, Ben Sherman on guitar, Mark St. Pierre on drums, Anthony Setola on bass, and me on tenor. We ended up going on early so we had a little bit more than the usual allotted time (30 minutes) to perform. We were able to cover a lot of ground and it was extra fun because we really opened the solo sections up quite a bit. I don’t know if there is any audio from our portion but I’ll try to find out. As I said, I’m very sad to see this hall go away but I’m thankful for all of the years we had to play there and for the great care they gave us. Special thanks to house sound man Keith Nachodsky for making everything sound great over the years and for spearheading this wonderful event.



Busy Weekend

Friday night I got to do one of my favorite things. I played with Technicolor Motor Home at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis. It’s the second time we’ve been there and the second time we’ve sold the place out. It’s not a huge venue but it has a great vibe and thee have been some amazing acts on that stage so it just feels great to be up there. It’s always a great time when I play with these guys especially playing with my partners in horn section crime, Dave Makowiecki and Jim McFalls. It was a great night and here are some samples:

Last song of the night after over 2 hours of playing..still a lot of energy going on:

A little EWI action on this one.  The chromatic harmonica patch was a free download from EWI Reason Sounds.  It was a melodica on the original recording but this gets the job done.

Some horn section goodness and some wonderful guitar work by Ben Sherman:

I played the Cannonball Raven on this gig with my Phil Barone Super New York mouthpiece and Rigotti Gold 3 1/2 M reeds. It was a struggle because I was still having a devil of a time with the G# key sticking.  I made it through the night but it drove me crazy the whole time and I had a really hard time feeling settled.  I took the horn to L&L Music in Gaithersburg where I bought it and they are looking it over and adjusting it as a warranty repair so I’m hopeful that it will be great when I get it back. With the exception of the sticking key (which could be attributed to a bunch of things) the horn felt absolutely awesome…very tight and punchy and it just looks awesome.

This week I’m playing a LOT of bari in a big band setting. Every year a local private high school called Archbishop Curley has a night of jazz featuring their students and an alumni band along with a guest act. I didn’t go to Curley but I have a few friends there and I’ve subbed with the alumni band numerous times including every chair in the sax section at one time or another. I think this will be my third concert with them and the first for me on bari. We had a rather long rehearsal this evening and we will have two more before the concert on Saturday night. I’m playing on my Selmer bari with my Lawton 8*B mouthpiece and it’s really starting to feel a lot more comfortable…maybe I don’t need to get some mouthpieces refaced after all. Oh well, I already sent one off to Mojo (Keith Bradbury) so it’s a done deal anyway. I’m also using an inexpensive reed alternative – Woodwind brand from the Woodwind and the Brasswind. I ordered the jazz cut in a 3 and they are playing really well for me right now. I also have some La Voz MH that I have prepared in the rotation as well. We’re only doing 5 tunes for the concert but it looks like it will be a lot of fun. I think there are a few tickets available for “All That Curley Jazz” but it appears to be another sellout this week. 🙂

Crack the Sky CD Release Party

Friday night we had the CD release party for the new Crack the Sky CD called Ostrich. I mentioned before that my usual horn section, The Retox Horns, is also the Crack Pack Horns when we play with Crack the Sky.  We were able to record three songs for this CD and two of them were in the set for this show along with 4 other songs from the usual rotation.  The gig was at Club 66 in Edgewood, MD and we played to a packed house of very excited people. Harford County, MD is my old stomping grounds so there were a lot of people I knew there.

Club 66 is a private BYOB club in an old VFW hall next to a working gas station. It’s not very fancy but it’s a very homey and comfortable place to play. They built a special stage just for the horn section with its own entrance from the green room. I call it a loft because it’s way up above the regular stage – even above the PA stacks. Crack the Sky always uses this room to tune up the show before going out to other venues but this weekend the other venue cancelled at the last minute.

Check out Happy, Happy, Happy from the new CD played live. The dude that’s putting his thumb up and pointing is showing you where the horns are.

Two notable things about this show. First, our usual trombone player, Jim McFalls, was unable to attend so we had one of his former students play.  Darius Jones is an excellent up and coming trombonist who is now living in NY where he is getting a graduate degree at NYU He is also an adjunct professor at NYU. He did a great job with very little prep time and this is not an easy book by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a blow especially for brass players and there are some really tricky rhythms to deal with.

Second, I used the Cannonball tenor and it felt absolutely wonderful for this gig. I used the fat neck and the horn felt really big and open which is perfect for a rather loud gig like this one.  Intonation was excellent and the horn felt very comfortable for me – like I’ve had it for years. My partner in crime, Dave Makowiecki (trumpet) said he really liked the sound of it and he’s been pretty vocal in the past if I brought something out that wasn’t cutting it.  I remember an incident years ago where I borrowed a Keilwerth from a friend out to a gig. I played one song on it and Dave just turned to me and said, “No” so I put it away. 🙂 I had no such issues this time around although he did say he missed seeing my old, road-worn Mark VI.

Merry Christmas!

Just a quick post to wish anyone who is reading this a happy and healthy holiday season. It’s always a busy time but I did a really quick and dirty version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas playing along with the Aebersold track. It’s just a one-take wonder but you get the idea. I was definitely too close to the microphone but I didn’t want to obsess over it. My buddy Roland Rizzo (an excellent sax player by the way) helped me with the mix by adding a little compression and some high-end rolloff in the EQ. He also gave the whole thing a touch of reverb and made the balance better than what I had.

I am also uploading a big band version of Yo, Tannenbaum from the Gordon Goodwin book. This was done by the Ken Ebo Jazz Orchestra I played with a couple weeks ago but the recording is probably 6 or 7 years old. I hope you find some enjoyment in them and take them in the spirit in which they are given. For the gear heads out there, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is My Phil-Tone Eclipse on a Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series with the fat neck. Yo Tannenbaum was most likely a Strathon Adjustotone on my Selmer Mark VI.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,

More From Emma White and Artscape 2012

While they were filming the documentary-style video I posted earlier, they ended up capturing a ton of raw footage.  Today Emma posted a full version of Aretha’s Baby I Love You from that footage so I thought I would share.

I like how the horns for this song are just minimalist, well-placed hits and some choice long tones with interesting harmonies.  The key when playing playing stuff like this is putting the note exactly where it’s supposed to be because even a single quarter note played on the beat can have as much attitude as a whole Tower of Power tune if you do it right.  Once you are placing the notes exactly where they need to be in time then you need to listen to your trumpet player (or know him really well from years of playing together) and cut off exactly when he does.  The release is just as important as the attack.  The same is true if you’re doing a fall.  Many sax players like to fall chromatically all the way to the bottom of the horn but I always try to be out with or maybe just slightly before the trumpet because it’s their section.

I also get to play about 8 bars of “get hot quick” sax in the middle.  As much fun as it can be to have an open, extended solo to really explore all aspects of a song, there’s something visceral and intriguing about having to make a bold statement in just a few bars.    Something that fits the style and will hopefully give people something to remember as a counterpoint to all the wonderful singing going on and the funky rhythm section.  I’m not saying I think I always pull this off perfectly but it’s always a great and rewarding challenge to try.

I know I said this before but if you’re in the Baltimore area (or Nashville, NYC, or LA these days) and you get a chance to see Emma sing definitely go to hear some cool songs and some great singing.


The Crack the Sky CD Is Out!

EDIT: the YouTube videos got pulled so I will upload some audio snippets soon.

It actually came out a couple of weeks ago but with all my recent travel I just wasn’t able to post about it.  The new CD is called Ostrich.  My regular horn section, the Retox Horns, recorded three songs for the album although when we are with Crack the Sky we are called the Crack Pack Horns.  In some ways it’s kind of like “FINALLY” for me because many years ago I had joined the original Crack Pack Horns when I took Ellery Eskelin’s place on the bari chair.  We were in the studio for Crack’s World in Motion album and we got all the way to showing up for the record release party before finding out that the song we did was completely re-recorded with a different feel and we were no longer even on it.  I think that was over 20 years ago so it’s nice to finally be on this CD and I’m especially happy with the way it came out.

The first song we did was one we had already played live with the band: Your House is On Fire.  I played tenor and bari on it and of course my usual partners in crime are Dave Makowiecki and Jim McFalls.

The next song is Happy, Happy, Happy.  The horns don’t come in until about the 2 minute mark but then we’re in until the end.  This is a funky little groover with some fun guitar work.

Finally, we played on an interesting little story piece called Pole Dancing at the Hollywood. This one is also pretty funky and I like the way the horns are laying back against the driving beat.

You can find all the songs on You Tube (like I did) but support music and buy a copy either from the website or at a show.  You can buy the CD for less than a couple trips to Starbucks and you’ll get more long-lasting enjoyment from it.