Sounding “Young”


Here’s my answer to a young saxophonist who asked me to evaluate his playing at a competition where I was a guest on the judicial panel.

(He didn’t win, by the way.)


“Concerning your playing, I have very few recommendations. You pretty much got every judge’s approval at the semi-finals and we all had you hands down as the overall winner. Basically, you lost points during the finals because some of my co-judges felt that you weren’t assertive enough during the straight-ahead/swinging part of your presentation . I guess they were looking for more fireworks and visually-projected dedication. But to be honest, I would have played it exactly as you did. I don’t believe in excessive body movements, squealing, circular breathing, growling, multiphonics, unnecessarily long-held high notes or any other types of showboating. These are affectations and tricks that less skilled players resort to in order to get “house”. Uninitiated listeners usually eat this stuff up, but it is trickery at it’s best and is shameful behavior for true artists, such as yourself, to resign themselves to. Research any video of the icons of this music and you will observe that most of them played with Zen-like focus and stood quite still. All that moving around creates subtle changes in the position of your mouthpiece and will alter your intonation as well as your grip and hand position – thus affecting your accuracy and articulation.


Personally, I listen for how a player develops his story and how coherently they get their ideas across with detailed phrases and concise statements. I’m from the super clean technique school. Many players get by solely on slurring everything, playing with really loud volume or with a series of crowd pleasing licks. I don’t support this approach to improvisation. Fortunately, you are not plagued by these types of issues. Basically, I think the main thing is for young players not to give away their age when they play.  This is a common subject of discussion with older players. It seems that younger players tend to crowd each bar with an enormous amount of content when simpler statements would be more effective. Young musicians also always tend to play far too many choruses during a solo. This is the giveaway that they are either in a rush to “say it all” or that they don’t gig enough and it makes them sound “young” and unrefined. I know about this because I used to be one of those players. It takes a while to develop the ability to know when to lay back and when to dig a little deeper. 


So, stand a bit more still and don’t overplay (AKA sound “young”) or you’ll be out of tune and will bore everyone to tears…. "




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4 Responses to Sounding “Young”

  1. Negrodeath says:

    Personally, I enjoy both approaches (exhuberant and zen-like) – it depends on what it comes out of it. Maybe it’s just because of my fondness for rock music and its theatrics. Still I think your advice has been good, because a young musicians should first of all focus on the development of his solo. You can overplay later, if you want too, but don’t concentrate on pleasing with overplay while learning.
    One nasty question: what’s your take on James Carter? Personally, I love his music and playing as much as yours, and I couldn’t think of two more different musicians! :)

  2. Greg Osby says:

    I’ve played extensively with James with the World Saxophone Quartet and can honestly say that he is absolutely the loudest saxophone player that I have ever heard or played with. He certainly knows how to project his sound. James has also put in a healthy amount of time studying the styles and approaches of several masters who are completely overlooked these days – Ben Webster, Illinois Jaquet, Gene Ammons, Arnett Cobb, etc. Knowing these styles gives him a sonic and conceptual advantage when playing certain tunes and especially ballads. He’s a true fan of the instrument and I have a great deal of respect for him.

  3. Negrodeath says:

    Great! I was asking ’bout James since I often read complains about him, that he’s an exhibitionist and an overplayer etc. Comlains that sound superficial and superficially may remember the advices you’ve given the young sax player.
    About James’ study of Webster, Ammons Cobb, Byas, Thompson: that’s the first reason I loved his music the first time I heard it. I love the big-toned Hawkins-rooted saxophone players, a way of playing which is a bit too much forgotten nowadays.

  4. Peter Wisely says:

    Hi Greg, I’ve read trough your posts and each one is awesome, I find myself taking a step back after reading them and reevaluating my own playing. I don’t play the saxophone but I do play and certain times when I feel that I am lacking the “words” to say I revert to a showboat tendency. But I’ve also noticed that seasoned players can do this as well what would be a way to avoid this or avoid playing to many choruses, should one replay a part that they have already done? I know that the ideal answer would be learn and practice more parts, but at times I can find myself blanking out and not knowing what to play.

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