Loren Stillman Shares a Killer Practice Routine and Much More

Loren StillmanA glitteringly  inventive saxophonist and composer, Brooklyn’s own Loren Stillman spins sonic worlds of wonder. With impressionistic shades of traditional jazz  punctuating his utterly modern playing and compositional sensibilities, his multiple recordings have garnered rave reviews from publications such as The New York Times, Cadence, Jazz Times, Jazziz Magazines and Downbeat.

Stillman comes armed with an dangerous array of skills acquired via intensive musical education including lessons with a list of legends which includes Dave Liebman, Lee Konitz, Ted Nash, Dick Oatts, and Harvey Pittell, Loren has performed alongside Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, John Abercrombie, Carla Bley, Joe Lovano, the Vanguard Orchestra, and the list continues on and on.

The Interview

Doron Orenstein: What was it that inspired you to make music your life?

Loren Stillman: I began playing alto saxophone at the tender age of 7. I was inspired by my uncle Mike Stillman, who played in the Bay area of California as an amateur saxophonist; he worked for IBM during the day. On a visit out to California, he played his alto for me and that became my life’s passion and work. The sound of the alto really struck me at that age, I knew I needed to play at that very moment.  Since those fond beginnings, music has revealed true personal meaning and identity to me.  The daily discovery of music through sound combined with the dedication it takes to be “good,” was and is certainly enough to keep going.

DO: What do you find yourself practicing the most these days?

LS: Due to a lot of traveling these days, I find it a bit hard to practice as regularly as I would like.  I do a lot of thinking about improvisation and sound during these crucial times. I feel like this time spent is equally as important to time spent with the instrument.  It has really helped develop my internal ear and core sound from a mental standpoint, when put in a musical setting there is a deeper connection to playing “what I hear.”

When I am able to practice for long periods, I spending time working on sound through overtone production.  Matching overtones, playing scales using overtone fingerings and doing 3-2-1 or 4-3-2-1 or 6-4-3-2-1 (or any combination of the above mentioned) exercises, referring back to Joe Allard and Sigurd Rascher’s approaches towards saxophone playing.

I also spend time improvising: getting better at thematic development and connecting intervals and scales in different contexts.  These contexts can highlight chord changes (standards or my own tunes), or can be isolated to a main theme regarding intervallic motives and connecting motives.  In practicing improvisation, I’m really going for melody-driven ideas.  This sometimes takes the form of using just whole notes and half notes to get my mind inspired and geared towards melody, then adding quarters and eights.  Then combining all levels of rhythm in relationship to the most simple and basic, providing layers of melody, creating structure and backbone to an improvisation.  My main goal in practicing is to be as creative as possible at all times, and to be free within whatever context I might be relating to (form/harmony/non-form/rhythmical structures, the list goes on).

DO: What have you been listening to lately?


  • Bartok Violin Concerto Number 2: Transcribing parts of melodic passages I think are nice to my ear, learning these in twelve keys.
  • The Complete Works of Igor Stravinsky: Sony Music Group just put out a 22-disc set of the entire works of Stravinsky.  Some things I’ve heard a lot in the past, some newer pieces I’ve been checking out for the first time.
  • John Coltrane- Transition: What’s is there to say? A brilliantly soulful recording of one of the best bands of all time.
  • John Ludington: a great singer songwriter from Northern California, an album in particular called Attic Window.
  • Van Dykes Park- Song Cycle: An amazingly ethereal rock style opera, not sure how to explain this music other than “nothing I have ever heard before.”
  • Warne Marsh and Sal Mosca – Vlm 1: I believe this is from the early 1980’s.  They play a tune called Shakin’ Out which is based on Body and Soul, Warne Marsh sounds like a million bucks, and plays a solo which sounds to me like he’s playing in twelve keys at once.

DO: What would you say is the skill or attribute that’s helped you the most as a musician?

LS: I think the ability the listen and respond.  I’m involved in many different genres of improvised music, which require different skill sets.  In the long run they have made me a better musician and improviser.  The key element to playing in a group with other improvising musicians is to listen and respond to what is going on in the moment. It’s also important to get beyond the physical limitations of the instrument, so ideas can be more fluid and effortless.

DO: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?

LS: Growing up, my best friends mother, her name Karen Griffen, was a flutist in the Metropolitan Opera.  She also played with the New York Philharmonic, and did a lot of studio work in the 1970’s and 80’s.  She was a “monster,” on the instrument in other words.  I remember being at their house, realizing that I had never heard her practice in all my time of being over.  So I asked her how she stayed fit and ready to play such demanding music.  Her response was “I just remember how it feels!” I will remember this forever as being such an important lesson to learn from a professional musician at the height of a wonderful career in music.

DO: What’s the next musical frontier for Loren Stillman?

LS: I just finished a tour of Europe as a leader of my own band for the first time.  Right now my musical frontier is to continue bringing this group on the road.

DO: For those new to your music, which recording would you suggest they pick up?

LS: This is hard to answer.  I think some of the best music I’ve made hasn’t been recorded.  There’s always an element to studio recording, which makes musicians tense up just a little more than normal.  I made a recording with my band; Bad Touch called Like a Magic Kiss, which I think, captured a carefree attempt in the studio.

DO: What’s your saxophone equipment setup?

  • Mark VI Alto and Soprano
  • Alto mouthpiece: Metal Otto Link Tone Master from the early 40’s (I think).  I’m not great at remembering the vintage of my gear..
  • Reeds: Rico Reserve 3.5
  • Soprano:  Same reeds with an old Selmer D soloist

For more on Loren, make sure to check out his online home at www.LorenStillman.com.

Loren doing his thing live:

Photo by Naoki Iwane