Swing, Swang, Swung – The Jazz Saxophone Book by Tim Armacost Teaches All the Things

Tenor sax player Tim Armacost has taken all that he knows about music and brilliantly placed it into the new book The Jazz Saxophone Book (Sher Music, 2022). A large spiral-bound book full of clear instruction, easy-to-follow examples and personal commentary, this book is a friendly and highly accessible helping hand for sax players just starting out or those who didn’t learn the basics and want to enhance their craft. Included are numerous tips for developing what is already inside the player’s repertoire; how to interact with audiences; how to find the solo breaks and how to insert yourself intelligently and creatively; and much more. He advises listening, practicing and probably most important to the soul of improvisation, “tinkering.”

Armacost is an impressive player in his own right, having played with many iconic musicians and taught in university settings in the US, Japan and Europe. He is in and/or leads multiple ensembles: trios, the NYSQ/NYSQ+ Big Band, the Tim Armacost Chordless Quartet/Quintet and Armacost Shiina Quintet/Big Band. His playing exhibits a nimbleness, depth and sense of fun. Check out his hip, jumping CDs Khartoum and Time Being.

How long have you been playing sax? Give a brief background on the bands and collabs and where you play recently/upcoming gigs.

I started on flute when I was 8, clarinet when I was 10, and switched to tenor at 15 when my little brother started outblowing me on alto. Been playing the same tenor (Couf Superba I) and mouthpiece (Berg Larsen 105/2) for over 40 years. Crikey.  

My most regular project over the last 15 years has been the New York Standards Quartet (NYSQ), with David Berkman and Gene Jackson, and a few different bassists, most recently Ugonna Okegwo. We’ve made 7 recordings and toured all over. Our streak of 15 years in a row touring in Japan got broken by the pandemic, but we’re ready to start a new one…

I play with Emilio Solla’s Tango Jazz Orchestra, which won a Latin Grammy last year, and his smaller group, Inestable de Brooklyn. He’s an incredible composer and pianist from Argentina, living in NYC for the last 10 or 12 years.

My newest leader recording comes out in a few months. I’ve been playing gigs lately with a great rhythm section including Jim Ridl, Kenny Davis and Rudy Royston, and I added Joe Locke on vibes for the new recording. The working title for the disc is The Inevitable Note, which is also the title of one of the videos for the new book. 

Another project that started before the pandemic that got put on hold is a quartet with Gary Smulyan, John Patitucci, and Al Foster. We have a gig coming up on February 25-26 at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown, NY, and we’ll record in April, adding Tom Harrell on trumpet. 

Lots to look forward to!

What issues have you identified through the years that you thought about including in a book?

I moved to Amsterdam for an adventure when I first started out, and began my professional career there.  After a year of just performing, I was offered a guest teaching job at the Sweelinck Conservatory, which turned into seven years. I had a great time touring all over Europe and teaching in between. In Europe, I was mostly teaching individual students, and when I came back to the US, I wound up coaching ensembles as much as individual lessons. So the book became a compilation of my suggestions for ways to practice to become a more creative improviser and ideas for how to be a better player in a group context. 

How did this book come about?

I had the idea two years ago to write a short book on melody. It was something that I thought might be useful, and I had a few ideas about how to practice to become a melodic storyteller. I went to the JEN conference in New Orleans, and went down to Chuck Sher’s booth to say hello and see if he might be interested in a little book I was thinking about writing on melody.  We’d met a few times before.  When I told him what I was thinking about, he responded, “That’d be great, but why don’t you make that a chapter in a longer book?”

I told him I’d think about it. The next morning I woke up with the idea for what became Section Two of the book, “Anatomy of a Song.” I made up an outline, and we decided to go for it about a month later. I had no idea what I was getting into!

What are some of the most common questions or challenges that sax players have?

There’s always the question of finding a good reed, of course….but I think it’s more interesting to talk in terms of how fragile the music is. It can sound really muscular, but what I’m getting at is that there are a lot of things that have to be in place for the music to take off. Your sound has to be clear enough and strong enough to be heard and, more importantly, felt, by the rhythm section.  Your time has to be solid.  You have to be able to play in tune.  You have to know the tune – definitely better for improvising if you know the tune by heart. You have to be able to play, hear what you’re doing, and also be aware of what the people around you are doing. 

If you can get all these things on a solid footing, you have a good chance to experience the miracle of swing. Since it is quite a bit of work to cover all of these bases, I think the two biggest challenges are: creating an efficient practice routine that is consistently fun and gathering performance experience. 

What was your biggest challenge coming up as a player?

I was really lucky to have great teachers early on, so getting my equipment together and learning the language of the music was just a whole lot of fun. It took time for harmonic theory to settle into my brain, but I really enjoyed that process as well. 

For me the biggest challenge was getting work experience. I didn’t take the traditional path of going to one of the big music schools, which might have put me in closer touch with some masters who could have pointed me towards a good sideman gig….and also I grew up playing, but didn’t really decide to try my hand at being a professional until I was almost out of college. So in that sense, I was a little late to the party.

Europe was an amazing place to be as a young musician. There were quite a few gigs, and I had a few of the older musicians in Amsterdam take me under their wings and show me around. On the one hand, I was removed from what my contemporaries were doing in the US, so when I came home it took me a little longer to find my footing. On the other hand, I got some really interesting life experience out of living overseas while I was learning tunes and trying to get it together. 

Can any musician learn and become good at improv, or do you believe that you’re either born with it or not?

Both.  I think of it as being similar to learning your native language. Some people are complete naturals.  They are born to be poets or novelists and it happens seemingly without effort. Others work really hard at it and also become poets or novelists. Many people never embrace the language on that level at all, but they can use it to communicate, do business, express love. Everyone’s different, so figuring out how much you have to work on it to get where you want to go is part of the process.  Some people simply don’t have it.  I’m like that with drawing. I’m just not good at it, but my son is and can draw like a pro…..I could probably learn to draw better with a great teacher, but it makes more sense for me to spend time working on music.

What would you say is the key to good improv?

I just spent two years trying to write an answer to that question!  I’ll take a crack at a nutshell answer:  I think the essence of good improvisation is informed singing. If I want to improvise in the jazz tradition, I have to steep myself in the music. I have to learn a lot of jazz, listen to a lot of music, and go out to concerts and observe how it’s done. 

Then in the practice room, I have to learn how to translate the singing voice I have inside me onto the saxophone.  My goal is to sing directly through the saxophone. If I want to do that professionally there are two big long-term projects – I want to continue to close the gap between what I can imagine in my mind and can execute on the horn; and, I want to continue to teach my internal singing voice new things so that my vocabulary continues to grow, which will give me access to greater creativity of expression. 

How does one take the tedium out of learning scales and circle of fifths (UGH)?

Chapter 3 of the book, including 5 videos of me demonstrating some suggestions, is devoted to this very issue.  I hear from students all the time that practicing scales is boring. The first thing I emphasize is that practicing should always be fun.  It’s important to remember why you’re practicing. Is your goal to sound like a robotic player?  Probably not. So if not, how can you practice to sound like you’re having fun?  Have fun while you’re practicing, of course. 

How do we do that, practically speaking? The approach I take is to think of a scale not just as a series of notes to play in order, but as a “field of notes” that make up a key, which you can use to imagine melodies.  I encourage students to sit down at the piano and play a Cmaj7 chord, if we’re working on the C major scale and see if they can find some melodies.  If they are at a loss, I’ll play them a simple melody and have them find it. Then we’ll do some call and response.  The effort then immediately becomes directed toward making music and communicating with the notes of the scale, rather than having it be some technical drudgery that you have to plod through every day, like doing your chores or eating your vegetables.   

Which iconic masters do you suggest people listen to in order to learn your concepts better?

Yet another subject that we could spend a whole day on! In a general sense, it’s natural to gravitate toward the players who you love on your own instrument, but I also want to point out that I have studied a lot of vocabulary from alto players (I play tenor), trumpet players, pianists and drummers. If I learn some lines from trumpeters like Freddie Hubbard or Tom Harrell, I’m getting pure language – it’s not ‘tenoristic’ – so it goes deeper than being something I can just do with my fingers. 

Some of the people whose music I cite in the book include Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Harold Land, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Kenny Garrett, and many, many others….

How should we really be listening to jazz when learning it – what are we looking out for, in particular?

If we want to learn how to play jazz, we need to have it living in our bodies. We have to be able to feel it inside.  For that to happen we have to give the music sustained, active attention. One of the hardest things to do in the world we live in now is to slow down and just do one thing.  I love my computer and my smartphone.  They are the most powerful tools ever invented.  But they are designed to pull my attention away from what I’m trying to concentrate on. So, when I use these new tools to practice, which I do every day, I shut down the mail program on the computer and I put the phone in airplane mode.  I put on headphones, and I give myself 100% to the music. Personally, I think multi-tasking is vastly overrated. 

I love the little “Asides” at the end of the book. Talk about why you included them.

The “Asides” came about for a couple of reasons. One is that I thought they’d be a fun way to break up the flow once in a while.  Especially when working on harmony; sometimes you just need a break for minute.  Another reason is that I wanted the book to address practical things as well as theoretical concepts. I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned on the bandstand, like how to count off a tune in a way that gets the music off to a good start, and how to talk to the audience. A few of them are also subjects that lots of people have asked me about over the years, like, “Should I play licks?” and “What about patterns?” 

Why did you choose Sher Music for publishing this book?

I have found Chuck Sher’s books extremely useful over the years. I use Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book to this day; I bought David Berkman’s Jazz Harmony Book when I audited his course at Queens College a few years ago, and I’m currently working through Jeb Patton’s An Approach to Jazz Comping. When I have to learn a new tune I am always relieved when I can find a lead sheet in one of the New Real Books. They are always trustworthy and accurate.  Chuck is a musician first, and he cares about putting out books that advance the music.  As I said, I was pitching a much shorter book when I went to talk to Chuck in New Orleans, and had no idea how much work it would be to take on this big project. Chuck was actively involved the whole way. He proofread chapters for me and had great suggestions for how to organize things, which was especially helpful when I occasionally lost the thread.  Couldn’t be happier about having a book in Chuck’s catalog.

What do you hope readers get out of the book?

Naturally, I hope the book will be a good resource to guide people toward the music that I love. What I hope for the most is that people get that feeling of, “I can’t wait to practice today. I know what I’m working on, and I can feel myself figuring it out.” If more people get to experience the miracle of swing, that’ll change the world for the better!

Happy practicing!

For more information visit https://www.shermusic.com/9780991077380.php and https://timarmacost.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Tim Armacost/Chuck Sher.

© 2022 Debbie Burke

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