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Clock Works with Off the Cuff

March 23, 2015

Friday saw the first performance of my new guided improvisation suite Clock Works at Exeter Phoenix as part of the Vibraphonic Festival. The band was jazz-meets-contemporary-music ensemble Off the Cuff made up from musicians I play jazz with, members of Exeter based composers group Echoes and members of previous ensembles like the Scratch Orchestra. The suite in four movements, each exactly 10 minutes long is controlled by stopwatch (phone apps). Although we were making no attempt to hide the phones or disguise the countdown to set the stopwatches going at the start of each movement, the audience were clearly puzzled and intrigued by how, amidst such apparent free and chaotic playing, there were still clear points when the feel or harmony changed and where certain players stopped or started to play. In fact, at the end of the piece I was asked to explain to the audience how the piece worked. The musicians were paying close attention to the score throughout and this clearly gave the impression to some of the audience that it might all be written. This is also something that happens in jazz gigs: people new to jazz assume that musicians are reading the dots rather than just following chords or a melody which they haven’t yet got around to learning.

Rather than create 10 different parts for the suite I had opted to produce just three: a concert part and parts for the Bb horns and Eb alto sax. This had the advantage of letting all the musicians see everything that was supposed to be happening at any point. The disadvantage is that the musicians are seeing a lot of information which isn’t directly about what they have to play themselves and because the piece was played completely unrehearsed, there were a few instances when people were playing who shouldn’t be and visa versa. In a largely improvised piece this is no disaster. It is also impossible for musicians to be lost for long in Clock Works: you just look at the stopwatch and slot right back into the score. Hopefully it’s a piece that will evolve with repeated playings. I don’t plan to rehearse it for future performances either: better to keep it fresh and unpredictable. The intention was always to compose a piece which keeps the energy and freedom of free improvisation but adds shape and contrast. The logistics and economics of a band that large always prohibited rehearsal. What I will do is go through each of the 10 copies of the score highlighting specific instructions for the instrument in question. There are also a few places where the instrumentation in the background needs paring down to bring the soloists out more.

In the second half of the concert, we played a short piece by Emma Welton called Generation: Water Study (Wave), part of a series of compositions she is writing based on the sounds created during electricity generation and in this case by wave power. It involved a lot of key clacking on the saxophones and brass and swelling glissandi and was very effective. This was followed by a live coding session by Tim Sayer: as the musicians improvised following a set of simple rules in response to cues generated by his laptop, Tim generated electronic sounds and triggered samples in real time. We ended with a 10 minute free improvisation session in which a couple of the audience members also participated.

My thanks to all the musicians involved, to Exeter Phoenix who hosted the event and also to the Vibraphonic Festival who helped promote it.

Bridge Jazz Club rammed again

March 7, 2015

The Bridge Jazz Club which I host each month at Exeter Phoenix had another great turnout on Wednesday. The house band was myself on tenor sax with James Clemas on keys, Kevin Sanders in double bass and Gary Evans on drums so quite a classy rhythm section. As well as new faces amongst the listeners we were treated to performances by previously unheard musicians in the jam session. Among these was another new double bass player to the area, Valere Speranza who sounded great on Kevin’s bass. A couple of months ago we discovered the fantastic Ron Phelan in the same way. As usual I was struggling to fit in all the jammers who wanted to play: 3 saxes, flute, trumpet, 2 guitars, vox, 2 pianists & 2 drummers! I had to get the house band to ration their solos to get everyone in.

Next month is the fourth birthday of the club which we are celebrating with a latin Jazz evening. I will be playing sax & congas along with fiery trumpet player Tim Sayer, the awesome Matt Johns  on keys, fine double bassist Jim Rintoul and the excellent Jim Newton on drums. Jammers are asked to bring latin tunes for this one on Wed 1st April. Don’t forget your bongos!

Off the Cuff update

March 6, 2015

As well as my new suite Clock Works for improvising ensemble, 10-piece band Off the Cuff will be performing a new work by composer Emma Welton. “Generation: Water Study (Wave)” is part of a series of works based on sounds created during the generation of electricity. The score is due to arrive in the post soon but I do know it is scored for piccolo, 2 alto saxes, 2 flugelhorns, bass clarinet, washboard and unplugged keyboard! 

Also on the bill is live coding by electronics whizz Tim Sayer. Tim is promising a simple score for the ensemble and during the performance he will be manipulating the sound and at the same time projecting the computer code he is using to do so onto the wall. Tim’s piece is called “The Cue Garden”.

My own 40 minute piece in 4 movements, has Off the Cuff playing amongst many other wonderful things, “time no changes”, “changes no time” and the syllabic structure of latin text as a rhythmic framework for improvised solos against a wash of rising and falling lines in the other instruments.

The event is part of the Vibraphonic Festival and is on Fri 20th March 8.30pm in the Top Studio at Exeter Phoenix. Tickets are £7.50 on the door or in advance from me. Only 40 tickets are available and they are already selling so it’s probably a good idea to get in touch with me ( and buy yours now!

Clock Works

March 2, 2015

I have a very busy week ahead with four gigs in five days and an orchestra rehearsal on the one night off. The action starts on Wednesday at the Bridge Jazz Club which I run at Exeter Phoenix, an opening set from me with the house rhythm section followed by a jam session. Joining me in the house band this month: punchy pianist James Clemas, fine double bassist Kevin Sanders and drums legend Gary Evans recently back from a year or so at sea. Music starts at 8.30pm and door entry is just £6 or £4 for jammers including a free raffle. After a rehearsal on double bass on Thursday with the wonderful EMG Symphony Orchestra, I have two gigs with the Ronnie Jones Quartet as part of a Villages in Action Rural Touring Scheme: Friday evening in Bigbury and Saturday evening in Talaton. Ron will be on drums with myself on sax, Joss Kidd on guitar and David George on bass. Finally on Sunday afternoon I will be playing more jazz with super pianist Philip Clouts at the Royal Oak in Ashburton. Check out my gig diary for details of these and other gigs.

poster colour 2 lo resI am now promoting a rather special gig which will happen in the Exeter Vibraphonic Festival on Friday March 20th. This is a performance of several works for the large improvising ensemble Off the Cuff consisting of vox, flute, 2 saxes, 2 brass, bass clarinet, keys, double bass and drums. The programme includes Clock Works a forty minute suite of mine in which the process of musical events is controlled by a timer. Certain harmonies, occassional ostinati and motifs are given at certain stages but throughout the piece, the players have plenty of room to improvise and interpret the given material. There will also be live coding by electronics whizz Tim Sayer and a new piece by Emma Welton. Tickets at £7.50 are limited to 40 for this one so do contact me to buy one in advance. Otherwise it will be first come first served on the door. This promises to be a very special evening of improvised music from a band packed with talent from the South West’s jazz, classical and new music scenes.

B normal and B unnatural

February 19, 2015

It takes a while to get many of my beginner saxophone pupils, young or old, to use the word “natural” to describe notes without accidentals. Unless they happen to have had some previous musical training it often takes a while to get them into the habit of using it and to stop using comical phrases like “B normal”, to which my stock reply goes “as opposed to B abnormal then?”. Often it also takes a while for the penny to drop that Ab and G# have the same fingering and much, much longer before students work out when it’s correct to use one rather than the other to describe a particular note. Let’s face it, most of us hate C flat and E sharp and don’t start me on double sharps and flats.

Correct usage aside, I think that there’s a case to be made for inventing a new type of accidental, the “unnatural” which would designate either a raised or flattened note. It would function in much the same way as the “alt” on a dominant chord symbol: the alteration is left to the discretion of the player just as long as it’s clear that the expected, unaltered note shouldn’t be played. C7alt could then be precisely described as “C7 unnatural 9, unnatural 5″ using whatever symbol we invented to designate “unnatural” perhaps a squiggly (~).

There’s also a case for inventing some new key signatures. How about one flat (Eb) for C melodic minor? I mean the Jazz minor scale, the one that English musicians call the ascending melodic minor scale, a name which a rather fierce Russian piano teacher once told me is just a bit of English nonsense: the scale is correctly called “melodic” on the way up and “natural” on the way down. That makes sense to me but whatever you call it, it would be much neater to have a correct key signature instead of having to use the key signature of the relative major and then have to use accidentals all over the place. In the case of C jazz minor this would be one flat (Eb) instead of 3 (Bb, Eb, Ab) and a natural sign on every A and B. Now that is abnormal!

I’m sure the idea of inventing new key signatures will be warmly welcomed by the classical music establishment (!) but I think us jazzers should seriously consider taking up the idea.

In my next blog post about sound production on the saxophone, I will be looking in more depth at the use of the tongue and cheeks.

Congas out of the Closet

February 11, 2015

We had another great turnout at the Bridge Jazz Club at the start of February. Once again we were scratching around to find extra chairs to seat everyone. The house band was my current quartet featuring Matt Johns on keys, Jim Rintoul on double bass and Tom Wright on drums and we did an opening set of my original tunes. As usual it proved difficult to fit everyone in for the jam session: I didn’t quite manage to get around everyone twice. We had great performances from Mike Sayers, Godfrey and Tony White on sax and in Tony’s case also flute, Charlie Mason and Matt Hannam on guitar, Harry on keys, Andy on trumpet, and Richard on drums. Sorry if I’ve overlooked anyone. Next month on 4th March I will be joined by an excellent rhythm section of James Clemas on keys, Kevin Sanders on double bass and Gary Evans on drums. The club meets in the Voodoo Lounge at Exeter Phoenix on the first Wednesday every month.

I’ve made good progress with Clock Works, a suite of largely improvised music I’m writing for Off the Cuff, a 10-piece ensemble of jazz and classical musicians. I’ve sketched out 3 of the 4 planned movements and have a pretty good idea of how the fourth is going to work. Once that is done it will be a matter of fine tuning and sending the somewhat unconventional score out to the band so that they can ask questions. Without any rehearsal planned, the score has to be as clear and self explanatory as possible. However the beauty of writing something designed to shape a group improvisation is that even if the form goes wrong, something musical will still happen. Because each movement is controlled by a timer, it also means theoretically at least, that anyone going astray can immediately slot back into the score. The suite will be performed as part of the Vibraphonic Festival at Exeter Phoenix.

I did a very enjoyable gig with pianist Philip Clouts on Friday in the Marine Theatre Bar at Lyme Regis: a tiny room which was packed out. We did three short sets with me playing a different horn in each set: soprano, alto and finally tenor and we went down really well. It was also great to come out of the gig at the end and get a fresh blast of sea air as I loaded the car on the theatre forecourt which is elevated above the promenade. We have a handful of gigs together coming up including slots at Frou Frou in Tiverton and at the Royal Oak in Ashburton. I’ve also been going over the set I will be playing on a few gigs with the Ron Jones Quartet: an opener later this month in Ashburton on the 22nd and then a couple of Villages in Action gigs in Bigbury and Talaton. The set is an interesting mix of mainstream standards and wierd and wonderful Wayne Shorter tunes, all good stuff. My latin jazz band Lightflight is also out later on the same day (22nd Feb) at the Five Bells in Clyst Hydon where i will be joined by Matt Johns on keys, Jim Rintoul on bass and Jim Newton on drums. I’ve just taken the congas out of the storage and given them a bash for 10 minutes to try and warm trhem up and also to start toughening up my hands before the gig. Details of these and other gigs coming up in the next month or so are on my website gig diary.

Rehearsals with the excellent EMG Symphony Orchestra in which I play double bass are in full swing again as we work towards our concert of French music in Exeter Cathedral on 11th April: Ravel, Debussy, Faure, Saint Saens. I’ve found some seriously groovy bass lines in these pieces which I’m recycling for use in Clock Works and for some new jazz tunes. I’m also looking forward somewhat nervously to playing the double bass at an upcoming session of Echoes the Exeter based composers group which I belong to. One of the members is writing a piece for mainly strings and the other string players in the group are considerably more experienced and accomplished than I am. I’m hoping for an easy part!

Off the Cuff

January 8, 2015

Bridge jc Jan 15The gigging year has got off to a great start with a record attendance at the Bridge Jazz Club here in Exeter last night. The house band was myself on tenor sax, the excellent Craig Milverton on keys, double bass maestro Ron Phelan and fine drummer Massimo de Majo. Even as we were starting the opening set, I was running around finding more chairs as people continued to file in and pay the very modest £6 entry fee. We only got through 5 tunes in the set as everyone was tearing into their solos, Craig giving his keys a thorough seeing to and Ron displaying remarkable agility in thumb position on his 5-string double bass along with very skillful chord playing and flamenco style strumming of the strings too. There were loads of jammers. I counted 13 I think including talented young players Tom and Raddon on guitar and keys. In fact we had 4 pianists in the house as well as a few drummers along with the usual clutch of guitarists and sax players. It was great to see Mike Sayers out playing alto again after a spell out of action. I do hope this is a sign of how the club is going to go for the rest of the year as we have to pay increased room hire fees at Exeter Phoenix. Next club night is 4th Feb when I will be with my current quartet line up of Matt Johns on keys, Jim Rintoul on double bass and Tom Wright on drums. My plan is to bring the soprano sax which I haven’t played at the club for a while and to do some originals including a couple of new tunes which have only has a couple of public airings before.

My spring composing project is writing a 45 minute suite for a 10 piece improvising ensemble for performance in the Exeter Vibraphonic Festival in March. The idea is to write general instructions, some motifs, sections of harmony and to let the musicians have a great deal of latitude in how they interpret the “score”. The suite in several short movements will be controlled by timers and called “Clock Works”. The performance will also include video scores by bassist Marcus Vergette and other guided improvisations. “Off the Cuff” takes place at Exeter Phoenix on Friday 20th March. The line up is Pete Canter & Cat Hardy – saxophones, Gill Baker & Tim Sayer – trumpet & flugelhorns, Ruth Molins – flutes, John Welton – baEMG april 2015ss clarinet, Matt Johns – keys, Marcus Vergette – double bass, Coach York – drums and vox TBA.

The year’s gig diary has started to shape up quite nicely with a quartet gig at Swing Unlimited in May, a couple of latin jazz gigs with my band Lightflight, guesting with the Ron Jones Quartet for some Villages in Action rural touring  gigs as well as regular gigs here in Exeter at The City Gate Hotel and the jazz club. There are also some duo gigs with fine pianist Philip Clouts at new venues and also with guitarist Jesse Molins. I also have several concerts with EMG Symphony Orchestra in which I play double bass to look forward to this year including two in Exeter Cathedral. The first on 11th April is a feast of French music including works by Ravel, Debussy, Fauré and Saint-Saëns.

Happy new year


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