The Story of Military Band Saxophonist Geoff Vidal, Along with His Favorite Exercises
I recently took a trip down to San Diego to visit family and was able to meet up with Chris G (IG: @chrisgsax) who has created some great content under his YouTube Channel Positively Progressing. During our hang, Chris shared with me one of his fairly recent II-V- Tuesday videos and this one was featuring saxophonist Geoff Vidal. I have been checking out Geoff’s playing over the past few months since I have seen him posting much more on his FB/IG account.
At the end of our hang, Chris was able to get me in contact with Geoff, and Geoff was nice enough to meet with me and share his story, what he teaches and practices, as well as his thoughts on being a musician in the military. If you haven’t heard or checked out Geoff, please see a short bio below to get you up to speed.
A native of Cape Cod, MA Geoff Vidal received his Bachelor’s degree in Jazz Performance (’98-’03) from UMASS Amherst where he won several Downbeat Student Music Awards as an outstanding collegiate soloist. In 2003, Geoff was accepted into the prestigious Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and immediately following he moved to New Orleans where he lived and toured the country with Brandon Tarricone’s Brotherhood of Groove until Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005.
Geoff moved to New York City in the wake of Katrina and quickly ensconced himself as a much sought-after woodwind player in many big bands and small ensembles among the likes of the Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the Artie Shaw Orchestra, the Fat Cat Big Band, Cecilia Coleman Big Band, and Etienne Charles’ Creole Soul.
In 2010, he released his debut album “She Likes That” on the Arts & Music Factory label to critical acclaim. In 2012, Vidal took first place in the first ever Detroit Jazz Festival Saxophone Competition earning a featured spot performing at the 2012 DJF. In 2013 he enlisted in the United States Army and joined the West Point Band, stationed at the US Military Academy at West Point, where he currently serves as Sergeant First Class. He resides in Cornwall, NY with his wife Stefanie, son Louie and daughter JuJu.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? And how did you decide on the saxophone of all instruments?
GV: I grew up in Falmouth, MA, a small town on Cape Cod which is in between Providence and Boston. My grandfather played the saxophone so when I was in 4th grade, and it was time to pick an instrument for band, my mom said you’re going to play saxophone like my dad and that was it. I didn’t come from a musical family and it was the alto saxophone that I started out on. What was interesting is by the time I got to 5th grade, the band director wanted to give me private lessons. My band director was a clarinet player by trade but she was a life-long educator and must have seen something in me so she literally had me order all these books such as all the Joe Viola books, Omnibook, and a few other books that I would sight read during our lessons.
During this time, I was also playing soccer with my friends and not really shedding so for about a year I would meet with her, she would pick a page from one of these books, date it, and then I would sight read the music. When I reached 6th grade, my band director had me switch over to tenor saxophone and continued the same type of lessons.
At this time, my main thing was sports. I was kind of a super jock who also happened to play tenor saxophone in the very small town I grew up in. When I went into 7th and 8th grade I was a soloist in jazz band but during this time I didn’t know what jazz was, I wasn’t listening to jazz, and certainly did not even know about the jazz scene in New York. The saxophone came really naturally to me and reading music also came very naturally to me. I don’t remember ever really struggling with the instrument or with sight-reading music.
When I entered high school, one of my really good friends was another saxophonist and he was studying with a local sax player named Roger Gamache. I went with him to one of his lessons and thought, “maybe I should study with this guy” because I kinda stopped playing saxophone at that time. Roger Gamache was a bandleader of a big band called Stage Door Canteen that played at restaurants and weddings. When I started studying with Roger, I was told to pick up some Lennie Niehaus books in terms of how to approach Jazz articulation, then I picked up a Ferling book for saxophone etudes and that was the road I was on but I didn’t practice; which must have been frustrating for him. My freshman year of high school, Roger told me that if I was serious about playing jazz then I needed to go to the Nimrod restaurant on Sunday afternoons because this really incredible piano player was hosting a jam session (I didn’t even know what a jam session was). This was my first introduction to playing tunes. I remember seeing the Real Book there and thinking “I have one of these at my house” since my Grandma used to send me my grandfather’s real books. Eventually, I kept going back to these jam sessions to continue learning to play tunes. One day, it was the day before New Year’s and Roger came in and asked me “what are doing tomorrow night?” I said I didn’t have any plans and Roger said “good, I want you to play with my band and bring a tux.” I ended up showing up to the gig in a navy blue sports coat, black pants and I borrowed a clip-on tie but it was my first gig and I played 2nd tenor. I remember getting a check for $50 dollars and I couldn’t believe it. After this gig, I started working regularly with the band which was around 1994-1995, my freshmen and sophomore year of high school. I was still playing sports at this time but my sophomore year I tore my ACL and that was a clear fork in the road since I couldn’t do anything for 9 months but luckily I had my horn.
That education with the big band was tremendous for me. Roger would hire great players from time to time like Bill Pierce, Andy McGhee, and Greg Abate. So, I was sitting here and I didn’t know who these players were but knew they were very good. I was absorbing this vocabulary in a very “sink or swim” mentality. When I moved to 1st tenor, since having listened to these great players, I learned how to construct a 8 or 16 bar solo which fit this music well. I reached a point with my studies with Roger and he said I needed to go study with someone better than he was so he sent me to a great sax player in Providence, Mitch Fortier, who played a lot with the band. I studied with Mitch and he showed me the importance of transcribing as well as my first exposure to Michael Brecker. I was working with this big band a lot all through high school and even at this point I still didn’t know about the jazz scene in New York or what jazz school even was. I only applied to one school which was the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and was accepted.
Before heading to college, my grandma sent me a big box packed to the brim with those packing peanuts and inside this pleather gig bag was my grandfather’s Mark VI tenor which I knew was a great instrument but I didn’t know much about it till later. While at Amherst, I studied with Lynn Klock playing in sax quarters and working out of the Larry Teal book (Lynn was one of Larry Teal’s students) and my jazz lessons were with Adam Kolker who is a great Brooklyn saxophonist. Jeff Holmes was the big band director and I actually ended up playing lead alto for most of my time at Amherst in this band since I had my doubles pretty well together.
During my time at UMASS, I had the opportunity to work with Yusef Lateef which was incredibly instrumental and also ended up winning a few Downbeat Student Music Awards with the UMASS Jazz Ensemble I. I quickly started gigging quite regularly in the area working with a lot of local groups and wasn’t really dealing with school that much. I actually ended up dropping out of school three classes shy of my degree and those were some pretty dark times looking back on it, but at that same time I was introduced to some great opportunities during this time.
In 2003, I went to The School Of Improvised Music; which was a little workshop ran by Ralph Alessi in Brooklyn and got to work with Ravi Coltrane which is where my long tone routine came from and something I teach all of my students. Going to Brooklyn for the first time was great, meeting new players, and just a few months later I did Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead at the Kennedy Center.
After the Kennedy Center, I was still out of school and a friend of mine said there is a band in New Orleans and they are looking for a tenor player for a tour and that I should send them a tape. So I sent a tape in and got the gig. The band leader flew me down to New Orleans to rehearse for a week and then we toured the rocky mountains to play improvised funk music. The band was called Brandon Tarricone’s Brotherhood of Groove.
Sam Kininger from Soul Live was on this gig too. It was a local New Orleans band and New Orleans was an incredible experience. I came back from the tour with a little money in my pocket and the band leader said I needed to move down to New Orleans to play full time with the band, which I ended up doing for a couple years. Once Katrina happened, I ended up moving back to New York in 2006 and called all the musicians I knew to let them know if they were in need of a tenor player, I was available. A few months following Katrina, I made my move to New York.
We all have New York stories, but I remember pulling out the magazine to check what jam sessions were happening and I went to Smoke first. I remember being at the Smoke jam session and after playing a couple tunes, hanging and listening, there was one point I remember hearing “Put Frahm in, put Frahm in!”. Joel Frahm had always occupied a spot in my mind as this mythical legend and I remember first seeing Joel while I was at Amherst and he completely blew my mind.
Naturally, Joel goes up and absolutely destroys and at the end of the night I spotted him at the bar and knew I had to go up and say something, and he couldn’t have been nicer. Joel did hear me play and was so complimentary when he didn’t have to be and let me know he had a gig every Tuesday at this place called the Bar Next Door in the Village, and that I should bring my horn.
So I basically went to the Joel Frahm school for the next two years where any Tuesday night I could be there, I would be there. Then I got introduced at the jam sessions at Fat Cat.
This one particular jam session at the Fat Cat was run by this very eccentric guitar player named Jade Synstelien who would yell at you during the tune if you weren’t swinging or playing the changes. I would play a few times and then we started to hang musically and non-musically and he started telling me about his big band. After subbing on the two tenor chairs for a few months, I got into The Fat Cat Big Band as a permanent member and we played every Sunday night for about five years. It was a small big band, but for me, the first time I had ever gotten my ass kicked by a trombone player, this one in particular named Michael Dease and Mike was playing circles around everyone. Dan Pratt was the other tenor player in the band and Sharel Cassity was the alto saxophonist. This is when I started shedding and began working at the Fat Cat and booking groups which is a whole other story.
Between Fat Cat and Smalls, there was so much music happening all the time and being surrounded by so many incredible musicians it became very clear to me that I either had to get better or figure something else to do. I was working office temp jobs during the day and then was trying to hang and play music when I could.
Around this time I began writing some music since I had access to one or two gigs a year at Fat Cat with my band. I made a record in 2009 on a very small label out of Greenfield Massachusetts.
Eventually, life was getting really hard in terms of making ends meet merely climbing the big band circuit ladder. Being that I did not go to school in the city, I could see that certain opportunities just weren’t available to me. I noticed going to Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, New School, etcetera opened various doors, so I decided to finish my degree. I completed two of the three classes online and my last class was a conducting class which I was able to complete down at Queens College.
After I had first moved to New York, a college buddy who was a tenor player in the West Point Band’s Jazz Knights reached out to me about auditioning for the band and I was like, “sorry, sounds great but there’s no way I am joining the Army.” But when he reached out to me in 2012, I was at a point in my life where I was just beaten down with the New York thing. For me, I was just being honest with myself, maybe if I was a little younger and was not in a relationship then I could go to Small’s till four in the morning but I couldn’t do it, I had to be functional.
I started looking at the Army gig as a strong possibility. When I looked at all the pros and cons, it really seemed like a no-brainer since I loved big band music so much, and the Jazz Knights were a fantastic big band. So while finishing up school, I was also practicing for the audition and was called in to do the live audition.
It was an interesting audition for sure. I remember the whole band was in the audition listening to me play flute and clarinet. After demonstrating my doubles, we all went to lunch and after that, were then placed in the full big band and each of us who were auditioning had the opportunity to solo on this chart.
Now this chart had lots of chord changes and as I was listening to the other player solo, I knew he was done for because he could not play these changes. All my life I had been for the past 7 years reading challenging chord changes which I was able to play through. A couple days later I got the call offering me the position and a few months later I shipped off to bootcamp and the past 8 years have been a lot of fun.
ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned growing up playing the saxophone that you have passed on to your students? What do you find yourself practicing these days?
(sheet music for the following exercises is included below).
GV: When I work with students I teach them the exercise I learned from Ravi Coltrane and if done properly it takes about ten minutes. It’s basically a strength training exercise that is done super slow:
- starting on middle C# and going up a ½ step
- back to C#
- down a ½ step
- back to C#
- up a whole step
…and so on, spreading the interval equidistant to itself until you reach one octave.
I then repeat on middle C, B, and Bb making sure I get through the bottom of the horn.
I would take lessons locally from players Joel Frahm and John Ellis and one thing that I found interesting was that these guys were playing on really hard reeds. I started to play on harder reeds and I experienced much more flexibility in terms of tonal colors and timbre which allowed me to play different styles of music more effectively. I think having the flexibility in your embouchure is key and something that I teach my students and work on myself.
The importance of air is also something I work on with my students and even suggest that they cover their walls and mirrors with post-its saying “Big Air” because you need someone to force you to remember to put the right amount of air through the horn at first. I apply this concept with intervals, scales, chords, etcetera, and I use creative ways to get through all 12 keys. When I combine this concept with the eight departure points within a measure of four beats (four down beats and four offbeats), the results are pretty exhaustive application of any particular sound from almost any possible direction
I’ve been particularly interested in major triads ascending and descending in whole steps as of late and I’ve found some interesting shapes when applying the Margitza method of shape direction while manipulating the direction of the harmony.
For example, starting on a Bb major triad in root position, and ascending in descending whole steps (Bb-D-F/C-Eb-Ab/Db-Gb/Bb etc). The real fun comes when you switch direction of the triads (up/down & down/up). I really dig how the inversion changes instead of remaining the same when ascending in whole steps.
Exercise Sheet Music
- Ravi Coltrane Long Tone Workout
- Major Triads (starting in root position) Descending in Whole Steps
- Major Triad Pairs Descending in Whole Steps Ascending in 1/2 Step Sequence (???) – Bonus
ZS: Who are some of your favorite saxophonists and why? What have you learned by listening to these players?
GV: Stan Getz was the first saxophonist that I really fell in love with – especially his sound, even though I don’t think I sound anything like him. I remember one of my first CDs in high school was Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio. I also remember finding Joe Henderson’s Musings for Miles tribute and thought that was great. I listened to a lot of Michael Brecker and tons of Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, and Seamus Blake. Recently I have been gravitating towards Seamus Blake who has a lot going on.
What I have learned from all these incredible players is the importance of having a concept of your own sound. Something identifiable and inspiring. That is what I strive for and what I encourage my students to search for.
ZS: How have you seen the music business change since you started playing the saxophone and where do you see the music business moving in the near future?
GV: Honestly, I have been so far removed from the music business side of things over the past 9 years since enlisting that I’m not really sure how the industry has changed. I mean, I know that streaming is hurting artists really badly but that’s how people consume music these days and that you have to tour to stay relevant and afloat.
When I was in New York, I made a record, hired a publicist, got some gigs, and packed the room but could barely get another gig at the same room again for whatever reason that was. It’s a hard life.
One thing I severely underestimated was having savvy business chops, even basic chops. It only takes a few clicks to see who has it figured out like Chad LB and Adam Larson. The saxophone thing to me is the easy part and there are tons of killing players but there are not tons of killing saxophone players that have their business savviness together.
What I realized in 2012, was that my time was so much more valuable than what I was getting paid for. For example, I would wake up and take the train from Brooklyn to do an unpaid rehearsal at the 802, then a train out to Queens for a session to meet new players and network – for free, then train back to Brooklyn, change, and go back to Manhattan for a $15 big band gig, then go to Smalls to catch the end of someone’s gig, and then rinse and repeat. Day after day.
All the while, any time I was in my apartment, I was practicing other people’s ridiculously hard music that when I would get my one or two gigs a year, I barely knew my own music because I never had time to shed it. I understand why you have to do it and think I could have continued to progress but for me it looked like a life I wasn’t really willing to go with and that is why I looked at the gig with the Army. The Army gig has been great but I don’t play as much awesome creative music as I did before joining the Army.
From my viewpoint, more players are far more accessible via social media and sharing their music. I think from the music business standpoint, either touring or teaching is the main way players are going to make a living in the near future but the current rate for playing at venues needs to be a livable wage.
ZS: What advice would you give to someone who is considering joining the Army/Navy/Air Force etc. to specifically play music? What are things you wish you would have known before enlisting?
GV: For me, I auditioned for the lead tenor chair in a big band and after two months of reporting to the band we were told that the big band was essentially going away for good. I was disappointed to say the least but I understand, at the end of the day, it’s a job and you’re in the Army after all and you do what you are told.
Regardless of the type of music I play, I have fun and just love to play music. I had a conversation with the trumpet player, Jonathan Powell and he reached out to me and wanted to talk about the Army gig. I laid it out that these opportunities with the premier bands – West Point Band, Army Blues, etcetera are fantastic and there are some great players like Clay Pritchard and Xavier Perez who are in these groups today.
These premier band gigs are few and far between. If you win the position, it’s yours essentially until you retire. These opportunities in particular are an incredible way to take care of a family – big picture things. When I was considering the military bands, I looked at what I was giving up such as the New York Music scene, but at the same time I was going to gain stability, the ability to take care of my family, health insurance, send my kids to college, and still have an opportunity to do creative things on the side.
Even outside the premier bands, I would highly recommend high school kids check out the Army bands when evaluating going to college. I didn’t know these opportunities existed when I was in high school or even in college. If you are looking for a career in music, these premier band openings are about as good as it gets, but it really comes down to what are you willing to sacrifice.
ZS: What projects are you currently working on?
GV: I am putting a new band together called the Geoff Vidal Rhythm Project. Brand new music, all pretty much composed since the start of the pandemic. I’m revamping my whole online presence, and looking forward to recording this music at the end of November for a release in 2022. It’s more groove-based music than straight-ahead but that’s just where my ears are at right now and the band is full of stone cold killers.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
GV: I think to a certain point gear is important. Finding a setup that you are comfortable on is the most important thing to me. I personally like a versatile setup because I need something that will sizzle and get the pop and cut but also something that is warm while playing background jazz gigs at a general’s dinner reception.
If I hadn’t inherited a Mark VI, I wouldn’t be playing on a Mark VI. My parents could not afford one. All my other saxophones are very strange instruments. I think the player is the most important part but there is gear that I like.
I was really skeptical about the neck thing but I ordered one of Jack’s necks at BSS [Boston Sax Shop] and was completely blown away at the response and overall buzz of the horn. It reminded me a lot of how my Conn New Wonder vibrates and now I tell players to definitely consider them as an option of opening up their sound.
- Saxophone: Tenor: Selmer Mark VI (57,XXX)
- Mouthpiece: Tenor: John Thomas Hard Rubber (.130)
- Reeds: Rigotti 3.5 Light
- Ligature: BSS Superlative Ligature (Silver-Plated)
- Neck: BSS Heritage Neck
Instagram: Geoff Vidal