Jazz/Blues Saxophonist Tucker Antell Shares His Story And How He Approaches Practicing (Exercise Included!)
Tucker Antell is a New England native, but being raised in various states across the US, began his career in Sarasota FL. He started honing his musical craft by sitting in with retirees who took him under their wing and taught him the ropes of Jazz. Tucker explained:“Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the opportunity to play those classic standards every week with veteran musicians was one of the most formative and valuable experiences of my musical education.” As Tucker progressed with his musical education, he began studying with such jazz titans as Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone. In 2009, Tucker graduated from the Jazz Studies program at the New England Conservatory of Music and to this day has shared the stage with such musicians as: Larry Goldings, Anthony Wilson, Hal Crook, Chris Cheek, Antonio Sanchez, John Lockwood, Bob Gulloti, Bruce Gertz, and Bob Moses just to name a few. In addition to being an active sideman with various groups in the Boston area, his latest project, The Tucker Antell Band, features Tucker’s hard-hitting blues-infused compositions which draw from his love of classic Blues music.While Tucker keeps a busy performance schedule, he also enjoys teaching saxophone and improvisation throughout various private institutions in the Boston area and regularly conducts music clinics/masterclasses at local colleges and public school systems. If you would like to get in contact with Tucker, please reach out to him on his website (Contact Tucker) or follow him on Instagram (@TuckerAntell).
ZS: Why did you choose the saxophone?
TA: It’s actually kind of an uneventful story, but I laugh to think that my whole life has been shaped by it. I was 10 and just wanted to take up an instrument. I really enjoyed the recorder in my 3rd grade class so I figured out that other woodwinds are similar. I went into a music store with my mom and pointed at the sax hanging on the wall, and that was it—I was hooked for life.
ZS: As you moved and lived in various states, who do you recall helped you grow as a musician and why?
TA: First off, Josh Langston was my first ever teacher. He is a classical saxophonist and taught me the fundamentals: scales, embouchure, articulation, vibrato etc… That was a very good start and I am really glad that I had someone to show me proper technique from the get go as it helped me avoid many bad habits later (I haven’t seen him in probably over 15 years, I wonder what he’s up to!). Then came trombonist and educator Greg Nielson who first gave me chord scales, play-a-longs, recordings and invited me to sit in with his group. He had a home studio and I got my first recording experience — including with then 92 year-old Al Galladoro. Sarasota Florida was a great place to learn Jazz and I was lucky I had Greg as my middle school band teacher, as he helped me in so many ways! I even remember we would drive together to a big band rehearsal where I got to play with other local pros reading down charts (Man I was lucky!). There’s lots of great people that I’ve had the pleasure to know and learn from over the years — I guess the thing I am grateful for, is that they took the time to show me how it’s done, not go easy on me, but also give me a chance to try things out and just go for it. I remember my first couple jazz albums were a Michael Brecker and a Joshua Redman album — Two Blocks From The Edge & Beyond respectively. They were given to me by the worship pastors in the church band I volunteered in at 13 — even then it was people like that who would give me nuggets or point me in a direction (in this case literally gift me a couple CD’s) that made a huge impact on my life.
ZS: What material do you find yourself practicing the most these days?
TA: I confess: I’m a bit obsessed with patterns and shapes. Though I also feel I’ve made the most progress from day to day or week to week when I’ve spent time transcribing and playing along with solos (and this usually shows up in my playing more immediately and has a more lasting impact) I spend more of my actual practice time exploring every avenue I can find within a given concept. The best of both worlds is when I sort of “mine” material from a solo I’m learning. I sometimes view transcribing as just that: sifting through the musical material to find gold nuggets that I can take with me. When I find one I like, I take it and explore it in every key, but also move it around in various ways: half steps, whole steps, minor thirds, major thirds, around the circle of fourths etc… I like to work on things ascending, descending, back-wards, forwards, alternating and rearranging the directions…
For instance, I recently practiced a 4-note cell like D-C-G-F all descending (Reference PDF Below).
1.) I first decided how to categorize that in my head for purposes of quick-recall, but also so I can quickly move it around however I like without thinking too hard. It’s almost as if, for the file in my head containing those four notes, I like to title the file, or put a tab on it so I can quickly access it later. In this case, I thought of that one as F — so the relative numbers would be 6-5-2-1. Now I can practice it chromatically up and down by just thinking of key of F, key of E, key of Eb and each time I’m playing four notes for one thought.
2.) Next I will change the order and play 1-2-5-6 ascending chromatically and descending chromatically. Then I will alternate them (my personal favorite for many patterns and shapes) so for instance: While ascending chromatically I would play F-G-C-D (1-2-5-6) then D#-C#-G#-F# (6-5-2-1) then G-A-D-E (1-2-5-6) and then F-Eb-Bb-Ab (6-5-2-1). I will do this up and down before applying all of this to whole step movement, minor third, major third etc…So for instance an alternating direction ascending major thirds pattern using this shape starting on F would look like: F-G-C-D (1-2-5-6 in F), F#-E-B-A (6-5-2-1 in A), Db-Eb-Ab-Bb (1-2-5-6 in Db), D-C-G-F (6-5-2-1 in F). BUT, still there is more be to explored! In each of these the shape is either completely ascended or descended: 1-2-5-6 or 6-5-2-1. I like to take something like this and change the order of the notes to experiment with the shape, often in a case like this by taking the whole step groups and reversing their order i.e. 2-1-5-6, 1-2-6-5 or 2-1-6-5. Now there are three more derived shapes that can ALL be taken through each of the exercises above. The possibilities are many (my math says 96 sequences not including mixing and matching the different shapes or extending beyond fourth movement), and even in writing this I’m realizing it’s a lot more confusing to think about without playing it.
3.)Finally, thinking about each cell of 4 notes as one thought helps consolidate the mental energy and before long I can think big picture and play long stretches of notes while thinking MUCH less than it takes to write it all out. Something I find helpful while trying all these variations out is not only to think of the big picture movement of the cells — in other words: Ok, so with a minor third movement ascending, my keys to hit are going to be F, Ab, B, then D. You should also take note of the connection between the cells — What I refer to with my students as the “train car method”. Say you want to move the original shape up in major thirds ascending, F-G-C-D will connect to A-B-E-F# with a descending perfect 4th from the D of the F cell, to the A of the A cell. Thinking this way doesn’t require you to think of the big picture augmented triad in your head, but rather to play a cell, then jump down a fourth and start again. Sometimes this method is much easier because there’s a simple half-step slide to make the connection. Other times this makes it more complicated. I find that employing both simultaneously to varying degrees is my favorite method. Almost like working a math problem backwards to double check your work, knowing that there should be a fourth-interval connection will reinforce that you did make the correct jump from the F cell to the A cell.
I find when doing this to any cell of varying length and shape, that certain orderings, whether ascending vs descending or moving in either half steps whole, minor thirds etc… that certain ones really stand out as laying well on the horn or having a particularly intriguing sound or just strike me a certain way. These are the ones that I usually write down and try to use later on a tune or try and incorporate into my playing. Conversely, some movements and directions don’t sound great or are awkward OR the connections between them have unison notes which can either make it sound either super hip or super choppy. So, although I will try and run through every possibility for my own challenge, mental exercise, and thorough sound-searching, I definitely will discard a lot of it for practical purposes and select my favorites for playing. You may find that you have changed the original idea so much that you have certainly made it your own!
You can get a shape or idea from ANYTHING. I have taken pieces of melodies for instance, the opening line of McCoy Tyner’s Passion Dance works great, but also any simple 4 and 5 note tetra and pentatonic scales like the one above. Currently, I was just taking the chromatically slippery punchline to Take The A Train(See PDF) and moving that around all over the place for some hilariously-satisfying results! Though I may never use it, always challenging myself and thinking critically in the practice room yields the most satisfaction and enjoyment on the bandstand.
ZS: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?
TA: A wonderful lady and mentor who hosted a weekly jam session in Florida named Ruby Vinson, who sadly passed away almost 10 years ago now, once told me that when it (in this case music or a particular gig or band) stops being fun, walk away. Ruby was always very joyful in her music-making and I took her motto to mean never let anyone or anything steal your joy in making music — if it does then it’s not worth it.
ZS: What Current Project are you working on?
TA: My first album as a leader is currently being mixed and so all my efforts went into that project and I’m very excited about the release TBD. It features Jake Sherman on the B3 Organ, Lee Fish on drums, Carl Eisman on guitar and Jason Palmer on a few tracks also. All originals of mine I’m pretty happy with how it all went and I hope to book some CD release shows in the winter/spring. Very blues-infused; there’s a few straight shuffles on it and I just love the classic B3/Tenor/Guitar combo!
ZS: What’s your current Setup?
- Soprano: Selmer Series 1
- Alto: Conn New Wonder II 238xxx
- Tenor: Conn 10M Naked Lady 263xxx
- Soprano: Soprano Planet “Open Sky” Link
- Alto: Johannes Gerber NY Bros
- Tenor: Johannes Gerber Octa Supreme 9* or a BD Hollywood Dukoff 6* refaced by Ted Klum
- Soprano: La Voz med
- Alto: La Voz med
- Tenor: La Voz med
- Soprano: Whatever will fit haha
- Alto: Whatever will fit haha
- Tenor: Whatever will fit haha, but currently using a Flexitone ligature
- The Hiscox cases really fit the Conn’s like a glove!
- Just Joe’s Sax Gel Strap — awesome neck strap
MGH By Tucker Antell Video:
Tucker Antell Lesson Video