So by now, you’re likely to have seen the latest viral video craze – the “Sexy Sax Man. ” If you’re lucky enough to have spared yourself, allow me to explain: the video features Sergio Flores playing the memorable saxophone riff from George Michael’s first single and 1984 megahit “Careless Whisper.” The video has gone viral because Flores delivers the song in the great tradition of Tom Green and Jackass: inappropriate and random settings, erotically dressed, complete with pelvic thrusts.
When I first watched the video, I immediately recognized the saxophone riff, but couldn’t remember from where. That got me thinking about composition – some of the most effective and long-lasting music features riffs or tunes that get stuck in our head, no matter the context of the music. For instance, I guarantee you recognize the opening melody of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Have you ever seen the 40th performed? A chance, but not all that likely. And yet you recognize the melody…how can that be?
This past Sunday afternoon at the Frist Center here in Nashville, saxophonist Jeff Coffin gave a free concert and lecture as part of the Jazz on the Move series entitled “The Art of Composition.” Mr. Coffin spoke about all of the musical elements which can be utilized to make an effective composition. What really struck me about the presentation was that all of his tunes sounded familiar, even the ones that I hadn’t heard before. I believe the reason for this is that Mr. Coffin’s compositions would often marry one or two slightly complicated elements – (i.e. a twisty melody or tricky metric meter) with simplicity in other elements (i.e. dynamics and articulations that clarify the phrase lengths). The combination of a few complex elements with the simplicity of other elements made the composition sound clear and deceptively simple.
This was the final composition played by Mr. Coffin this Sunday. Take a look and have a listen.[audio:http://www.evancobbjazz.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Mad-Hatter-melody.mp3]
As you already know, Jeff Coffin is world renowned for his saxophone playing. When taking a closer look at his soloing however, we can see that his improvisations reflect the same ideals as his compositions: a combination of informed simplicity and just enough complexity to keep every listener guessing. It makes sense when you consider the nature of improvisation as spontaneous composition. Consider this quote from jazz icon Jimmy Heath, from an interview in the New York Daily News just yesterday.
“Improvisation is spontaneous composing, with a given structure,” he says. “The good improvisers will always have a pattern that they’ll repeat in different strata of the harmony. If you listen to people who are also writers, the way they play a solo is like they’re composing as they go along.”
Now have a listen and take a look at Jeff’s solo on The Mad Hatter Rides Again from his 2005 album Bloom.[audio:http://www.evancobbjazz.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/The-Mad-Hatter-Rides-Again-solo-edit.mp3]
Which brings me to this coming weekend’s Nashville Jazz Workshop Jam Session. The featured guest this month is also a saxophonist who is especially talented at crafting elaborate solos that seem composed, but start with “simple” riffs. Like the Sexy Sax Man, he also has a history with horn section pelvic thrusting, as you can see at 1:40 into this video of the famous Gloria Estefan HBO concert from 1996. Jokes aside, this saxophonist won a Grammy Award for his work with Arturo Sandoval and his toured the world in numerous professional settings many times over. I hope you’re as excited as I am to hear the very talented Kenny Anderson!