Getting a full, resonant, singing, “fat” sound is the aim of many a saxophonist. For some it means a continuous quest for the right setup. And without a doubt, equipment plays a significant part. Certain horn, neck, mouthpiece and reed combinations help optimize resonance.
But no matter what your equipment is, you can always fatten your sound through well-directed, efficient practice. And that’s what I want to talk about here.
There are many specific exercises that can help you improve your sound: holding long tones at various dynamics, overtones (and other voicing exercises), vibrato studies, playing melodies slowly and more. These all can help you to bring more power, color and depth to your sound.
But there is one area of study that many saxophonists don’t consider when working on fattening their sound: practicing wide intervals. Nothing has helped me more to increase resonance, volume, flexibility and presence in my sound than the regular study of wide intervals. (It has significantly improved my access to the altissimo register, as well.)
I’m talking about regular, disciplined practice of intervals larger than thirds (4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, octaves and beyond).
Two ways to fatten your sound
Working with wide intervals impacts your sound for two different reasons:
1. Optimum Resonance– The primary challenge in playing wider intervals is flexibility. It is much easier to play from “C” up a whole step to “D” than it is to play from that same “C” up a major 7th to “B”. (And it’s at least as difficult, if not more so, to play from the “B” down a major 7th to “C”.) To play wider intervals clearly, in the correct register and in tune, and with good response, you must have great control over voicing and airstream. Voicing involves the necessary changes/adaptations in your oral cavity (soft palate, tongue, etc.) to allow the sound to resonate optimally. These changes in the oral cavity must be made in conjunction with an effective, constant, yet flexible, airstream. And both voicing and airstream need a free jaw to work efficiently. (In fact, a stiffly held jaw interferes with saxophone voicing much that same way it interferes with how a singer would voice a note.) The challenges of voicing/airstream/jaw freedom are magnified as intervals get larger. As the voicing/airstream becomes more efficient, resonance increases. In the simplest sense, for your sound to remain “flexible” enough to move through wider intervals, it must be resonant. (To be clear, I’m not talking about volume, i.e., “loudness”. I’m talking about efficiency.)
2. Auditory Illusion-Whenever any pitched musical instrument is being played primarily with wide intervals over a large range , it gives the illusion of a fatter sound. The great tenor saxophonist, Bennie Wallace (himself a master of wide intervals in improvisation) once told me a story about listening to a concert in which Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea played back to back sets on the same piano. Bennie said that when Monk played, the piano sounded “just enormous” compared to when Chick Corea played. Now, to be clear, Chick has a beautiful tone and touch on the piano. But Monk’s angular melodic approach to his solos created an auditory illusion of a larger sound. When you improvise with larger intervals, you just sound bigger.
Two ways to approach/organize wide intervals
1. Within the octave– Perfect 4ths, tritones, perfect 5ths, augmented 5ths/minor 6ths, major 6ths, minor 7ths, major 7ths and octaves, to be specific.
2. Octave displacement- By displacing a particular note of a scale or chord, you get larger intervals (9ths, 10ths, etc.)
Here’s a short exercise to challenge and improve your flexibility in voicing larger intervals:
It’s a C major scale displaced to cover a large part of the natural range (no altissimo) for the saxophone. Play it slowly and legato, first the scale in its natural order, then the displaced version. Use various dynamics and think about your jaw being free, your air stream steady, and your oral cavity responsive. Aim at keeping the color and intensity on the displaced scale as uniform as when you play the scale in its natural order. If it is particularly challenging (or seemingly impossible) to play this exercise, it’s a good indicator that your note-voicing skills need work. (It’s also possible that your reed/mouthpiece setup is less than optimum, too.) Once you’ve memorized the pattern, work on putting it into other keys.
Introducing perfect 4ths
The smallest of the” wide” intervals are perfect 4ths. By gaining fluency in 4ths, you’ll improve your fingering technique, airflow/voicing skills, and, as a bonus, expand your improvisational vocabulary. Every major scale can be arranged into perfect 4ths by starting on the 7th degree of the scale and ascending:
You can also arrange the scale by displacing some of the 4ths to convert them into descending perfect 5ths:
Practicing your major scales organized in 4ths and 5ths can really begin to open up your ears when you improvise (as well as give you more melodic options). Here’s a downloadable pdf with all the major scales organized in these two ways:
These scale studies are a great way to improve your sound and your ear. By learning to anticipate the sound of the movement in 4ths, you’ll improve your voicing skills, and your tonal conception. Some of these exercises go well up into the altissimo. If any go beyond your range, you can transpose the octave to put them within range. However, I encourage you to use these patterns to begin to extend your range. These exercises will also prepare you for the next exercise: applying 4ths and octave displacement to create a modern sounding jazz line.
Taking it into improvisation
The use of wide intervals in jazz improvisation goes way back. If you listen to some of the early jazz piano players, you can hear lots of “vertical” movement.
And in post bebop jazz, wide intervals are distinctively woven into the tonal vocabularies of saxophonists such as Eric Dolphy, Charlie Rouse and Bennie Wallace. These days, there is something distinctively modern about hearing wide intervals in a jazz solo. Artists such as Donny McCaslin, Mark Turner, Ellery Eskelin and Chris Potter construct lines of unusual angularity.
Here’s a little pattern over the ii-V-I progression that incorporates 4ths (and a 5th):
The line starts over the Dm7 by moving in two ascending perfect 4ths and a descending perfect 5th (D, G, C, F), then goes up a perfect 4th again to the +9 of the G7 chord (A#, spelled here enharmonically as Bb) then descends stepwise on the diminished scale to resolve on the 3rd (E natural) of the C major7 chord. The movement over the G7 is a well-worn bebop cliché. When it is proceeded by perfect 4ths and 5ths, it gets a kind of modern sounding facelift. Play it a few times to get it into your ear and under your fingers.
Now I take this line and displace some of the notes:
I start by going down an octave and moving the first four notes in ascending perfect 4ths. Then I drop the Bb down an octave, so that it moves up a minor 7th to the Ab. Finally, I displace the last note (B natural) up an octave to ascend a major 7th. The line is now constructed primarily of 4ths, 5ths and 7ths. Play this a few times (again, to get it into your ear and under your fingers). Notice how it fits very well within the bebop language, but with a slightly more angular sound. Also notice how the overall sound of the line changes in saxophone tone color, sounding somewhat bigger.
Here is a downloadable pdf in which I present both of these lines in all twelve keys:
Feel free to make more octave displacements in this line. Do the same with some of your other favorite bebop lines. As you begin to explore wider intervals in improvisation on a regular basis, your sound will naturally fatten up, becoming more vibrant, flexible and voluminous.
If you’d like to delve more deeply into practicing wide intervals and learning how to apply them over chord progressions as you improvise, please consider my pdf book, The Vertical Saxophone-A Methodical Approach to Wide Intervals: Technique and Improvisation. And feel free to contact me through my blog if you have any questions, or you’d like to book a Skype lesson with me.