Composer, saxophonist and bandleader Tim Garland is regarded as one of the best musicians to come out of the UK.
For years he has been part of Chick Corea’s bands and was awarded a Grammy in 2009 for his work him. I spoke to Tim about his amazing career and how he approaches learning saxophone.
NM: So you started out studying composition then came to saxophone a bit later?
TG: Yes, I sort of swapped halfway through the course because I was too impatient to write everything down! I’ve got a bit more patience now. For the first year and a half I was at the Guildhall School of Music, I was studying composition. I hadn’t touched the saxophone for a few years. Then I suddenly had this epiphany that that was what I wanted to do. They very kindly allowed me to change studies.
NM: Was sax your first instrument?
TG: I actually started on clarinet. Now my bass clarinet playing is pretty good but my clarinet is dreadful!
NM: What was it that caused that epiphany do you think?
TG: My composition teacher was telling me, “You haven’t done much this year, have you?” and I was thinking why that was, because I like to be active, I like to do a lot. I think it was the beginning of summer, so the sun was coming out, and I found a couple of old jazz records and I remember just putting them on – I don’t remember who it was, maybe it as John McLaughlin or some Chick Corea, something like that, – and I kind of just froze, because it had been a while.
I had been involved in all kinds of contemporary composition, which I love of course, but going back to records that I probably bought when I was about sixteen, I just knew that was what I wanted to do. So I blew my grant money on a saxophone – I spent it all, I don’t know how I managed to live! Because there was no question in my mind.
I think if the Guildhall had said no, I would have just left the Guildhall. I really thought that was it. I was about twenty one or twenty two.
I then went and had a lesson with John Harle and it was John who persuaded the Guildhall to take me.
NM: A good teacher to start off with!
TG: Yes and it turned me around. And I never stopped composing. So it’s taken the best part of two decades to join everything together in various ways. Sometimes the composition has taken over and sometimes the saxophone has completely taken over. Over the last four years I’ve felt some of the things I’ve been able to produce – especially the orchestral things – have been the kind of synergy that I envisaged.
NM: I’ve not met many sax players who have two such strong streams – the composition and the playing. It’s brilliant because the two things really go together.
TG: When I was younger and I was looking for the right kind of band to join, and maybe later to form, the kind of pieces I would write were half music I deliberately couldn’t play, in tempos or keys or things that I would find difficult. SO I would write a piece that would force me into mastering that little thing. And the other thing you can do of course is that you can find out who you really are as a player.
So I would think, what do I sound best on? Then I would write something that really flatters the things I know I can do. And when you are writing for a lot of other people as well, you are trying to entice from them something really improvised, something really new. Perhaps you are writing a particular set of changes or a particular tempo which will stop them going onto autopilot. Hopefully in a creative way!
NM: I guess that is what it’s about, understanding that player and how to draw the best out of them. When you made that change to saxophone being your main focus, what was your main inspiration in terms of playing style?
TG: I think my earliest influences were quite funky really. I was listening to things like The Crusaders, then I remember getting into Keith Jarrett a lot. Jan Garbareck and Dewey Redman both played in Keith Jarrett’s band for some time. Also I remember someone bought me a Zoot Sims album early on, and that sense of swing never left me. It took me quite a long time to attempt to play swing because I always felt that it was such an American thing and I felt very European in a way. I remember listening to “Jazz Today” on [BBC] Radio 3 back then and hearing Stan Saltzman.
I think of the British people who influenced me, the very first person was Tony Coe. I’m from Canterbury and he actually lived down the road so I met up with him when I first started – that was very awe-inspiring. Some of those early influences, although they are hard to detect, I can still hear them myself. They never actually went away!
NM: So how did you assimilate all those influences? Did you transcribe?
TG: I had a saxophone from being about fourteen. I had a lot of albums, and I would listen to a lot of prog rock as well! I would play along to records, but then composition sort of took over. So by the time I was seventeen or eighteen I had more or less stopped the saxophone to develop composition. Then there was three years or more when I didn’t touch it – I actually sold it!
But when I got to Guildhall [and switched to sax] I really got a kick because they said if I didn’t get a lot better on the saxophone by the end of term, I would be out! And although I didn’t take the jazz course I was able to straddle the two areas of classical and jazz. That was the good thing about the Guildhall, because this was way back; a lot of people are doing that now but this was twenty five years ago.
I had a little manuscript book and I would fill it. I would be listening to things all the time and I would write down phrases, maybe a whole chorus, it could be Keith Jarrett, Stan Getz, Michael Brecker, anything that struck me. I would always put the chord sequence there so that I could hear that it had a context. And I would learn these phrases.
There must have been about ten or twenty different people that I went to; there were quite a lot of piano players actually, not just saxophone players. And because I had done so much composition the notation wasn’t a problem for me. I know some people shy away from it and do it by ear, which is also really good!
I filled about two books full of these things. And in my final year I ceremoniously threw them away! I thought, I’m going to leave this course and all of that is out of the window – if I haven’t absorbed it by now then I don’t deserve to be playing!
NM: That’s a very pragmatic way to go about building your vocabulary though.
TG: Yes, and then you play something until it’s not just imitation but assimilation, and one or two of these phrases get joined together and before you know it, it’s becoming a language which you are using freely. And then you realise that some of the things that you have lifted, essentially, from someone, eventually you’ll hear that they got it from someone else and you go back and back. You learn a lot about the history that way. And eventually things mature, then you will write music which hopefully will encourage you away from working in primary colours, things which will force you to think, and things which will encourage you to interact.
A lot of the things that I like the most about the album which we’ve just completed is that there’s a natural sense of interaction. It doesn’t sound forced. Asaf Sirkis the drummer and myself have been working together for twelve years and I was really pleased with the amount of interplay there. I think one of the most precious things you can do as an improvising musician is true collaboration. You can make anything come to life then. It’s never about one person, it’s always about something interactive. It’s my favourite kind of jazz really.
NM: As a listener that’s wonderful too, I can hear it in your album – for me my favourite albums have that interplay, and collectively you’re worth more than the sum of each of you.
TG: Sometimes it’s those moments when the crowd really come to life on a gig – it may be the saxophone player or the trumpet player holding a high note, but I bet you anything, the drummer is doing something underneath which is kicking everyone’s butt! It will be something someone does, and you won’t really be able to trace an origin. Hopefully if the band are four or more strong people, then there will be that equal footing and everyone will have space to throw something really great into the pot.
NM: How did you get started with Chick Corea?
TG: I did an album called “Enter the Fire” in 1995, and that was the first time I had done something more obviously urban and American-influenced in the sense that the rhythm section was really swinging. And I felt by that time I was ready. Before then I had been doing more eclectic sort of things, like Lammas which was a group that had a lot of Celtic influences, which is still very close to my heart.
I felt that I really needed to start playing with some new people. I did that album and we didn’t complete it. Jason Rebello, a wonderful piano player, went away and stopped playing for a little while. For a year and a half I sort of forgot about the album. Then my wife Mandy pulled a wardrobe away from the wall one day and there was this CD – not even in a case! – behind there. And she said “What’s this?” and I said “Crikey, that’s the master, that’s the only copy that exists of the album so far!” But it was about three tracks too short.
So I put it on, and I thought “You know, this is actually quite good!” I was a little bit down, I needed to play with some new players, and didn’t have any kind of record deal. But Mandy persuaded me to get the guys back together and complete the album, as Jason was back playing again. So I did, and Linn Records picked it up. I guess I’ve just about broken even on it now!
I went over to America, and I’d already met Joe Locke the vibraphone player, and he had heard some of the Lammas stuff, which he really liked. I’d always loved the vibes from the days when I was listening to Chick Corea and Gary and Mike Mainieri. So I called Joe up and I ended up staying over there. I went into Joe’s place and he said “You’ve got a new album haven’t you? Let’s put it on!” I hadn’t taken my coat off and immediately the “Enter the Fire” album was on. Then the phone rang, straight away, and it was Billy Childs, – Billy is a wonderful piano player from California. And he said “I’m in town! I’m just round the corner!” so he had travelled almost as far as me to meet in this little Chelsea apartment in Manhattan.
So Billy came over and he listened to the music, and he said “This is really good. Have you got another copy, there’s someone I’d like to give it to”. And that person was Chick Corea! And I remember all of that happening, and I hadn’t taken my coat off from the airport! The connection had been made within twenty minutes of me being in New York.
A whole year went by after that before I heard from Chick’s manager and that was to say “We have a tour starting in three or four days, it’s a month long, we’ll send you the music.”
My wife was about to have my son so I was able to be there for the birth and then immediately go off on tour carrying the music under my arm, which I’d not even seen. The first day was a big concert in Germany. There was no rehearsal but we managed to get a little room in a hotel and Chick had a teaspoon which he tapped on the back of a chair and that was the rhythm section!
Then it was just me and the other two horns. We just ran through the parts quickly with Chick tapping out the beat on a spoon, then Bam! We were on stage! And that was thirty gigs in thirty days. Then I came back and I saw my son!
So that was in at the deep end. And I guess with all the experiences I’d had up to that point, Chick was obviously very confident that I could handle it. Maybe if he’d called up earlier I wouldn’t have been ready for whatever reason.
NM: And now you’ve been playing with Chick for a few years?
TG: Well my son is seventeen this year! I’ve done about four different bands with Chick, but stretched over that time. He has so many projects so seasons have gone by without me working with him. He’s been off doing wonderful things all the time. Sometimes I’ve done a writing project, or I’ve done the Touchstone band, or a quartet with Marcus Gilmore. I remember when Marcus was about eighteen he was an amazing drummer – he must be in his late twenties I’m sure by now. This band which he formed more recently called the Vigil, around 2012, is a bit more fusion with the electric and we’ve done a lot of work together. So that’s when we’ve started to work more constantly together.
NM: So if you have a limited amount of time and you want to pick up your saxophone and do some maintenance work, what’s the one practice device that you go to?
TG: I’d probably try to link it into a piece that was coming up, rather than doing an exercise that wasn’t related in any way to the material. So I’d try to get the exercise from the piece that I was going to play. There’s nearly always something in what you are going to play which is causing a challenge, maybe the tempo, or a series of intervals.
So then you play till you get to the bit which you are trying but you evidently can’t do. Then that’s going to be the next half an hour, right there, just working on those, very often with a metronome. So for example if you are working on a 4/4 piece of some kind, just put the metronome on the fourth beat of the bar, rather than just have the metronome on the off-beat.If you want to get some kind of groove together, just have it on half as many times then you have to be there to provide the rest of the beats.
If youcome with an attitude of rhythm right from the start, it does have a knock-on effect. The placement of a note affects the timbre of it – it’s all connected.
There is perhaps a tendency for people to look at rhythm as some sort of separate thing. They get their scales and patterns together and then they’ll see if they can apply them to this rhythmic grid. But maybe it’s actually better round the other way – where’s the feeling here? If you listen to people like Joe Henderson, whom I’m really fond of as a saxophone player, sometimes you get the feeling that he’s so deeply in the beat that he could play almost anything. He’s got such a convincing articulation behind his notes, you can feel that beat deep in there.
NM: Maybe the reason it sounds like that is because he has internalised the beat – that’s the foundation of where his playing is coming from. I find through Sax School that a lot of adult learners find timing really difficult. I think it’s really useful to think of it that way – that the rhythm has to come first.
TG: You could think of it as though you’ve got to find some pitches in order to play the rhythms, and that would be the reverse of how some people think. I’ve had a lot of classical training and in a way that’s how I was taught. It was only when I started to record myself a lot and listen to myself back [that I noticed].
In some of the European rubato music that I was in to, Kenny Wheeler’s music for example, I was slow I guess to pick up that with some of these phrases that people were playing – whoever the invited guests were who were playing with Kenny Wheeler at the time, – that it was really the placement that was making it. And I still have to work on it.
This is what I still do, working with a metronome, seeing if I can think interval-ically. So rather than playing a set of pitches, think about the gaps between the pitches, even before you think of the pitches. So for example it’s more important to attempt some unexpected wide interval than even to know what note it’s going to. Just as long as it’s wide. Anything just to try and push that sense of surprising yourself, and trusting that your ear will carry you into something musical.
Of course in order to get to that point a fair amount of work has to be done! For people who are learning saxophone as adult learners, I would say get a core repertoire together. There’s nothing more boring in a way than playing loads and loads of patterns, but if you can play something which you know you’re really going to be able to utilise at the next jam session or you’re learning a tune that you know everyone else knows, you can immediately start to really apply it in real time.
NM: When it comes to practising improvising, what would you say is the most important thing to do? When you were developing your improvisation skills did you think about it in terms of harmonic progression and patterns, or did you approach it from a more compositional point of view?
TG: Sometimes I try to encourage myself to find the song – to find something that has some kind of melodic through-line. That’s something that you can hear on the new album. Obviously if there’s something really rocking and you want to come in and turn up to ten straight away, then that’s really great too – the tenor does that really well! But with my better self I try to weave a melody and not rush, to allow something organic to take place.
I think one way of developing that is to do what Louis Armstrong was doing, which was embellishing the melody. So, it’s encouraging people, rather than thinking in terms of patterns and licks, to play the tune again when you start to improvise, but to see what adjustments and changes you can make on the fly.
You’ve always got the melody there so you won’t get lost, and you can really stretch it around, or miss notes out. Of course that’s the genius of Louis Armstrong – you can hear how he’s messing with that. And if you keep going, it starts to sound like mainstream jazz.
You’ve got to really know the material, so learn it by heart if at all possible. I encourage people to think of it as a three stage process: You’ve got the melody – learn that by heart. And then if you can, learn the roots –play them along underneath – it’s like a slow melody – it might be one or two notes a bar. And then you get to the point where you might be playing one and you can kind of hear the other in your inner ear.
Then the third stage is much easier, to fill the gaps and work out the harmonies, because you’ve kind of book-ended it between top and bottom. The first time you do it can take forever, but then it takes half the time the next time, then you start to realise that actually these tunes have a lot of similarities! So the ii V I harmony thing starts to be something that is in your bones rather than a mathematical formula that you’ve learned.
Tenor: Selmer Super-Balanced
Otto Link 8 star rubber mouthpiece
Vandoren 3.5 reeds
“I also have a Bogani tenor which I travelled with for many years, but then I fell in love again with the Super-Balanced Action that I’d had before the Bogani. The best thing about the Bogani is it has a really nice easy low register. But when you are recording a lot or when there’s a microphone in front of you, it’s not necessary to project as you would in a classical ensemble. The sweet spot needs to be about 5 inches in front of the horn because that’s where the microphone is. The Super-Balanced that I’ve got is the best I’ve ever had, and for the last few years I’ve been totally happy with that.
Soprano: Yanagisawa Solid Silver
“I’ve got a couple of these and what I like about them, apart from the fact they’re really in tune, is that you can get more than one sound out of them. Some of the more modern horns have got a ready-made sound, which can be very good – but I’m able to get a darker, breathier sound out of the Yanagisawa as well the bright thing that we all know. I’ve got so used to that kind of tuning that if I played on a Selmer Soprano it would be oddly out of tune. It’s all about what you’re used to. The mouthpiece is an 8, it’s almost as wide as the tenor. The reed is a 3.5 Vandoren.
Check out tour dates and to get Tim’s latest album: http://editionrecords.com/artists/tim-garland/