Solo music

photo: Justin Snow

Solo performance has a long history in improvisation and free jazz, and as a format for an instrumentalist it presents many challenges: How do i sustain “interest”? (DO i “sustain” “interest”?) How do i communicate structure/form? What is my attitude toward the work? The audience? With only one person playing, what does silence mean?

As a young saxophonist, my heroes/models were Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, both formidable players with keen interests in solo performance. I’d always admired that work, but felt that my strengths lay in interactive group playing. That was likely good cover for the intimidation i felt in the face of their examples.

Braxton’s 2 LP Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 has long been one of my favorite recordings. On it, he documents ten solo alto pieces, along with solo (and characteristically unconventional) performances of three standards: “Red Top”, “Along Came Betty” and “Giant Steps”. In constructing his solo compositions, Braxton breaks down his personal language into constituent parts and focuses on one or two language components in each piece, developing them freely over the course of four to seven minutes.

Even more influential to me was Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Solo’, a 5' 34" piece from his 1975 Nessa LP Old/Quartet. [This album was reissued by Nessa in 1993 in the 5 CD box set The Art Ensemble 1967/68. See my blog entry on this album here.] On this performance, he constructs a line which flows amongst a variety of instruments: alto saxophone, celesta, gong, Bb clarinet, bike horns, harmonica, percussion. The multi-instrumental approach of the AACM players was always something that meshed with my proclivities, so ‘Solo’ really did it for me.

My friend Dave Gross has always been interested in and comfortable with solo playing, and has prodded me to try it on several occasions. Back in the Winter of 2009, he finally succeeded in getting me to book a solo set at The Outpost in Cambridge. Despite my initial trepidation, i was very pleased with the results: a half hour structure of reed instrument improvisations linked by percussion and prerecorded sound and text pieces entitled Mute. You can listen to and download the March 4th, 2009 performance on this page. There is a program “booklet” (in PDF format) including the texts there as well.

Shortly after that performance, Dave then talked me into undertaking a solo tour with Vic Rawlings in May ’09. We drove a loop basically out to Chicago and back, playing eight shows in as many nights. On a couple of stops i collaborated with local musicians, and Vic and i finished the tour in Pittsburg with our first duo performance. (This performance ultimately developed into Symptomatic.) The rest of the evenings were solo performances, over the course of which i developed a modular piece which integrates the wide variety of my chosen sound sources—several reed instruments, game calls, percussion and cassette tape loops—into a single cohesive performance.

A video of my performance from the first night of our tour—in Easthampton, MA—is up on YouTube here. (Vic’s duo with Chris Cooper that same night is here.) In this instance, i am still figuring out what i'm doing, just beginning to develop the piece.

The photograph at the top of the page was taken by Justin Snow at a performance of this piece in Cambridge, MA, at Weirdo Records. Justin also wrote about the show on his blog, here.

Two years later, in the spring of 2011, having procured a celesta, i undertook a project to transcribe and perform Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Solo’. The story of that project is here.

back to  [ music ]