Feature Friday Q&A With Wayne Escoffery Part I

Ah, nothing beats the bliss of a Friday afternoon, right? And to improve your good mood even more, we have a new Q&A series with the Grammy-Award-winning tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery! 

Escoffery has experience front lining, around the world, in Tom Harrell’s working quintet, as well as being a member of The Mingus Dynasty, Big Band and Orchestra, and teaching jazz improvisation at the Yale School of Music. 

And now we’re lucky enough at Night Is Alive to have Wayne Escoffery featured in our albums My Ship and Old New Borrowed & Blue. And with Christmas being just around the corner, be sure to be on the lookout for our upcoming album, Christmas Ain’t Like It Use To Be, featuring Wayne Escoffery!

So, without further ado, let’s get to know this remarkable musician! 

JK: Was music a big part of your household when you were growing up?

WE: Well, my mother was an avid listener of classical music and old school R&B music. But she was not a jazz listener. I basically grew up with my mother, but for the first few years of my life when my father was in the house he did listen to and play reggae music. He was an amateur reggae guitarist. So, there was exposure to that from a very early age, but for most of my childhood, it was with my mother, and she was a big fan of classical and R&B music. She would have it on casually in the house as background music. Music was always playing but it was never something that was discussed much or was a huge part of our lives. 

JK: Do you have a most beloved song from your childhood?

WE: Not in particular. But for sure, I myself was always a big fan of the young Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. My mother played that a lot. And also, choral music, she played a lot of choral music. So, no specific song, just certain artists, like Michael Jackson—he’s definitely one that resonated with me and all the artists surrounding him. You know, Motown era music. 

JK: Yeah, definitely great music! So, I saw that at age 11 you joined the New Haven Trinity Boys Choir and began taking saxophone lessons. 

WE: Yeah, the boys’ choir was really my first formal introduction into music, so really, I consider the voice my first instrument. And yes, after that, at around 11, I started playing the tenor saxophone actually, which is somewhat unusual as a lot of older players start playing the clarinet or alto saxophone first.

JK: What inspired you to join the choir?

WE: Well, two-fold—my mother’s love for choral and classical musical and also, growing up in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven is a very diverse place and while there are a lot of areas that are well-to-do, there is also a lot of poverty, so there were lots of areas, things ad environments that my mother wanted me to stay away from. She was definitely big on keeping me busy. When the director of the New Haven Boys’ Choir visited our elementary school looking for choir boys, he saw some talent in me and my mom right away suggested I join the boys’ choir. It was a pretty serious organization, so that pretty much kept me busy at least three days of the week. 

JK: Hmm I see. Clever of your mom! And then you started playing the saxophone.

WE: Yeah, I would basically go to choir practice with saxophone in hand and before or after choir I would have saxophone practice. Not necessarily playing jazz music, just band music. 
If you’re looking for some more Wayne Escoffery, check out our albums My Ship and Old New Borrowed & Blue, both of which are available in our store and on all major music platfor

What is a reed? What is a double reed?

What is a reed? What is a double reed?

If you’re not a musician, when you hear the word ‘reed,’ you probably think of the tall, slender green leaf that grows and sways on the outskirts of ponds and lakes. But did you know that the mouthpieces of woodwind instruments, like the clarinet, oboe, and saxophone, are all made from the hollow stems of these plants?

Giant Reed (Arundo donax)
from Wikipedia.org

The cane of the Arundo donax, which is also known as the giant reed plant, is stripped of its leaves, and left outside to soak in the sun, resulting in a nice golden-brown color.  The canes are then dried by the wind, and aged for a few years, until they are placed inside a humidity-controlled factory where they are cut into smaller tubes and split into four thin pieces. Next, the cane is cleaned, cut, and sanded into a shape that is flat on one side and conical on the other. Finally, it’s time for the most important step—the reed-cutting process. With a blade, the red is shaved, gently and carefully, from the back toward the tip and then lastly, the very top is cut ever so precisely. 

Sounds like a lot of work for such a tiny, fragile, thin reed? Well, you’re right—it sure is a lot of work, but for good reason. The reed is what vibrates and creates sound. Without a reed, the instrument simply cannot be played. That is why many professional oboists and bassoonists will purchase cane—already sanded into a flat-conical shape—and cut their reeds themselves.

As a former oboe player, myself, I know, firsthand, how crucial, complex and finnicky a double reed can be. If you do not have a quality reed, your instrument will be out of tune, or it may even squawk like a dying flamingo! I can’t tell you how many times I showed up to band practice with a reed that had accidentally cracked in the case, and my oboe wouldn’t make a single sound at all! That is why you always pack a back-up, or two, or three. 

Anyway, you may still be wondering, what is the difference between a reed and a double reed? Well, it’s actually quite obvious when you think about it—a single reed only consists of one piece of finely manipulated cane and thus, must be attached to a mouthpiece, while a double reed has two reeds that vibrate against one another to create a sound. A double reed twists into the top of the instrument, standing alone, while the single reed is fastened directly onto the mouthpiece. 

Now, check out the song below, which features the wonderful Wayne Escoffery on saxaphone, to hear a single reed in action! 

John DiMartino, Joe Magnarelli & Wayne Escoffery – Tell Me Why

Despite the fact that a saxophone is made of metal, it uses a single reed, which classifies it as a woodwind, not a brass instrument. As you listen to the sax solo in this tune, you can think about and appreciate all the hard work that went into make the reed! 

And if you’re looking for more jazz music that merges the musical artistry of new songs with the jazz classics, check out our recent release, Old New Borrowed & Blue, which is available on all major music platforms and in our store today!

This post was written by Blog Editor, Jacqueline Knirnschild. 

What is embouchure? Why is embouchure so important?

Just like its spelling, the concept, and acquisition of embouchure is a bit tricky. Simply put, embouchure refers to the way in which a musician uses his or her mouth to play a brass or wind instrument. Sounds easy enough—you just blow air into the instrument, right? Nope. Think again. In practice, embouchure is much more difficult.

Beginner musicians can spend months, developing an embouchure. That’s because it involves not only precise calculation and manipulation of one’s facial muscles, lips, tongues, teeth and breathing, but also habitual strengthening, training, and setting of all those muscles. To merely produce a steady sound on the oboe—which is the instrument with the most difficult embouchure—can take three months or longer. 

Even when a musician isn’t actively playing, it’s recommended that he or she flex the key muscles in short bursts to build up that habitual muscle memory. Some oboists practice with exercises, and even by holding a pencil in their mouth. Talk about dedication to your art! 

Why, though, is embouchure so gosh darn important? Well, embouchure determines whether an instrument plays in tune, at its full range, and with a clear tone. It’s a very exact process that can result in your instrument making either a beautiful crooning, like a warbler’s song, or a horrid honking, like a dying goose. 

With woodwinds, if you put the mouthpiece too far into your mouth, there will be too much vibration and not enough control. On the flip side, if the mouthpiece is not far enough into the mouth, no sound will be generated at all because the reed will not vibrate. With a brass instrument, the sound is produced when a player buzzes their lips into the mouthpiece. Muscular contraction and lip formation also play a role in changing the pitch of a brass instrument.

Now that you’re more familiar with embouchure, you might be more in awe of jazz musicians, and more appreciative of the countless songs that include woodwinds and brass. As you listen to the following tunes, think about all the diligence, time, and patience that these musicians put into developing their excellent embouchures! 

Gerry and The Pacemakers – Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying

Since the oboe has the most difficult embouchure, we wanted to find a popular song that includes the underrated, double reed instrument. Listen carefully to this 1964 tune to see if you can spot the clear, bright, and robust sound of the oboe (I’ll give you a hint—it shows up early on)!

Lorca Hart Trio – Discoveries

This 2020 tune opens with the talented Ralph Moore on the tenor saxophone. As you listen, think about his embouchure. A good saxophone embouchure requires the lower lip to rest against, but not over, the teeth—like when pronouncing the letter “V’—and the corners of the lips must be drawn in. 

If you’re looking for more jazz songs that include woodwinds and brass, check out the albums in our store, and on all major music platforms!

This post was written by Blog Editor, Jacqueline Knirnschild.