Saxophonist Greg Fishman is an excellent player and educator currently residing in Chicago Illinois. We first connected with Greg several years ago after he published one his first books, “Jazz Saxophone Etudes,” and he has since expanded his catalog to include more than a dozen publications.
Thank you, Greg, for taking the time to do an interview with us and for sharing your advice for up and coming musicians!
Name: Greg Fishman
Location: Chicago, IL
Profession: Saxophonist and Educator
Years Playing: Since the age of 12 (clarinet) 13 (sax) – 33 years
School/Major/Degree: Masters of Music Jazz Pedagogy, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, June 1999
Bachelor of Music Jazz Studies, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, 1991
When did you first begin seriously studying your instrument?
I started on clarinet at age twelve, saxophone at age thirteen.
Who are your greatest influences?
Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson, Johnny Griffin, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Forrest, Wardell Gray, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker.
Who did you study with?
Rick Schalk, Joe Daley, Mark Colby, Dave Liebman, Larry Combs, Alan Swain, Hal Galper, James Moody and Joe Henderson.
Who or what gave you the confidence to pursue music as a career?
I knew from the age of thirteen that I wanted to play music professionally. From a very young age, I felt that it was my calling in life, almost like a religion. My love of the music, along with encouragement from my teachers gave me the confidence to pursue music as a career.
What are your thoughts on what it takes to be successful as a performer?
To be a successful performer, you need the ability to communicate through your instrument and interact with the other musicians on stage. You also need the ability to play each note with intent. Imagine that each note you play is like a word in a sentence, and those sentences are telling a musical story. Stan Getz, my original inspiration for playing the saxophone, had a famous quote that I just love. Stan said, “I never played a note I didn’t mean.” To me, those are words to live by.
This is a very broad question, because it can be interpreted several different ways. Looking at the question from the perspective of being a saxophonist, I’d like to emphasize the importance of studying the music of the past masters, learning lots of tunes, and spending time at the piano to develop a good sense of harmonic context.
From the perspective of being a musician, everyone needs to develop the skills to play interactively, communicating with all of the musicians onstage. I think of playing as a dialogue, not a monologue.
Addressing the questions from a business perspective, the same skills are needed in the music business as you’d need to be successful in other fields. You need to be professional. By that, I mean that you need to be on time, and dressed well for the gig, and prepared musically to do a great job. You also need the ability to communicate well through your writing. Letters, emails, newsletters, blogs, posts, tweets, etc. Everyone needs to learn how to manage their own website and to build a fan base. We are truly living in the age of communication.
There is also a large social aspect to success. Networking is of great importance. You can’t do everything from your computer. You need to get out into the real world and travel and meet people in person. Go beyond your hometown. Your world vision becomes expanded each time you travel and meet new people. Also, stay in touch with friends and colleagues.
What are some of your goals musically for the future?
I have goals as a player and as an educator. As a player, I have many recording projects and book projects planned. I want to add to my current discography (five CDs with “Two For Brazil,” three with pianist Judy Roberts, one with pianist Jeremy Monteiro, and one with pianist Eddie Higgins). I have several quartet albums of originals already in the can, which will be released in the coming year.
I’m also going to be recording some more Brazilian music, standards and bebop tunes, and at some point, I’d love to do an album with strings, as well. Lately, I’ve also been enjoying rediscovering the flute and clarinet, which I played much more in my early years.
My educational goals involve many more book projects. I also want to continue to expand my international student base on Skype. I already teach people all over the world, with Skype students in South Korea, Hong Kong, South Africa, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Mexico, Canada, and throughout the United States. Skype is an amazing way to meet and teach people at home and around the globe. For the first time in my teaching career, I actually have more students on Skype than I do in person. It’s very exciting to see the great progress made by all of my students around the world on Skype. Eventually, I plan on visiting many of the countries where my students live, giving concerts, clinics and masterclasses.
On the subject of educational goals, I’m very excited to announce that my books will be coming out as ipad and android apps in 2014. They will have special features, such as automatic page turns, coordinated with the play-along recordings. You will also be able to purchase one song at a time for the apps, so if you want to buy one etude, a page of hip licks, and a duet, you can do that, and piece the books together in any order you like. Currently, Jazz Phrasing for Saxophone – Volume 1 is available as an iPad app. It’s available at the app store, under the name Phrasing.
What inspires you to continue to pursue music?
It’s limitless. With each passing year, the musical experience gets deeper and more meaningful for me. You could be playing (or listening) to the same song for ten years, and then you play it or hear it today and notice something new about it. To me, that’s a magical thing.
Have you ever come close to giving up and how did you overcome that feeling?
I have never even come close to giving up music. However, the music business can be very difficult. It’s not an easy career choice. It’s my true love of the music that always helps me overcome any feelings of wanting to give up. I’ll listen to some old favorite recordings, and that always inspires me to keep going. Some other things that inspire me to keep going: I’ll be performing at a gig or concert and get a great response from the audience. Also, just sharing the music on a high level with fellow band members. These things are always inspiring.
What are some of the things you enjoy most about your career as a performer/recording artist?
I love the fact that I can travel around the world, meet new people and play music together, even if we’ve never met or spoken before. I’ve played concerts in different countries where I didn’t even speak the same language as the musicians, yet we communicated on a very deep level. That’s a very satisfying feeling. Also, it feels great to share the music with listeners. I once played in Japan, and a fan came up and told me that he’d lost his entire family in the horrible tsunami a few years ago. He told me that hearing me play for a set of music provided him the only hour of peace he’s had since losing his family. That comment moved me very deeply, and it made me very thankful that I could do something in my career that would have such personal meaning to someone.
Tell us about your series of books?
I have five different series of books for saxophone. They all come with play-along CDs, and each series teaches a specific concept.
“Jazz Phrasing for Saxophone” (Volumes 1 – 3) The phrasing series features stylized melodies that sound like standard tunes, and helps the player develop a great tone, good breath control, and a great sense of musical balance. Theme and variation is a key component of this series, and just playing the songs will help the students develop a good sense of strong thematic development.
“Jazz Saxophone Etudes” (Volumes 1 – 3)
This was my original series of books, and they were written to help my students learn how to solo like a professional over chord changes to standards and bebop tunes. I use key elements in the jazz language, including: voiceleading, streaming eighth-note lines, sequence, enclosures, chord substitutions, etc., to demonstrate how a pro player would approach soloing over a set of changes.
Although they’re called “etudes,” these are really more like solos, because they don’t sound like exercises. These etudes were written idiomatically for the saxophone. In other words, they’re designed to lay well on the horn, and they’re based on the great jazz traditions of saxophone playing.
Another unique feature of the books is that there’s just one written part. This ensures that the etudes lay great on all saxophones. The rhythm section on the play-alongs were recorded in two different keys. This avoids the “Omnibook on tenor” effect of having lines that don’t lay well under the fingers.
“Jazz Saxophone Duets” (Volumes 1 – 3)
This series was written to feature two altos, two tenors, as well as
alto lead with tenor playing the second part. They teach players to hear
two independent lines at the same time. The writing style is in the tradition of the classic two saxophone groups, like Al & Zoot, Stitt & Ammons, etc. All of the songs are based on the chords of popular standards. The play-alongs feature four different versions of each duet, so students can hear both saxes play each song, and then gives them the choice of playing lead, second, or having just the rhythm section, with extra blowing choruses.
“Hip Licks for Saxophone” (Volumes 1 & 2)
This is my latest series, and was the most challenging from a writing standpoint. Just creating the format took many years. I wanted to provide books that would be more useful than just a bunch of random licks.
In the past, lick or pattern books typically go one of two routes: They either give you twelve licks in one key, or one lick in twelve keys. My books do neither! I provide a unique lick for each key, giving twelve separate licks, each based on the weight, texture and timbre of the note, based on how it lays on the horn. This provides players with a real-world vocabulary that builds equal facility in all twelve keys, while providing twelve-times the melodic material of the other approaches. The book is a lot of fun to play, and it’s the fastest way I know to develop ears, fingers and jazz vocabulary, all at the same time. For [those] interested in seeing me demonstrate some ways of practicing with the “Hip Licks” books, please visit YouTube and do a search for “Greg Fishman Hip Licks.”
“Tasting Harmony“ (link goes to Eb edition – here’s the Bb Edition) is a book and CD adaptation of an ear training system which I developed for my own use during my formative years. It features each note harmonized eighty-one different ways.On the play-along CD, a vocalist sings the circle of fourths, while a pianist accompanies her, reharmonizing each note as different degrees of varying chord types. Each track is just 44 seconds long, and it’s great for training yourself to hear #11’s or #9’s…any note can be targeted for training. I also like the system, because it’s portable…you can listen to the tracks in the car or while jogging, and sing along.
Regarding the titles of all of the songs in my books, they’re all based on Chicago street names. Originally, I was going to just number the etudes, etude number one, number two, etc., but I thought that was too boring. Then, I was going to have some kind of clever play on words for the chord progression, like switching Green Dolphin Street to Blue Whale Boulevard, but I decided that was a little corny. Finally, I decided on the streets of Chicago, my hometown. The etudes often came into my mind while I was driving. Some were named for streets I drove while going to or from gigs. People liked the concept of the street names with the first book, so I stuck with it. Now, I’ve written over ninety songs with Chicago street names!
What was the inspiration for starting them?
The original inspiration started when I studied with Joe Henderson in the late 1980’s. He suggested that I write an etude over each tune, to “have something else to hang your hat on, besides the melody.” It was a great idea, and I started giving some of these etudes to my students who needed help with soloing over changes. The students really liked the etudes, because they were short, fun, easy to understand, and they lay great on the horn.
Mainly, the etudes made them sound like pro players, not students running their scales. It was easy for my students to take the musical concepts I presented in the etudes, and use them in their own solos.
Although the etudes were originally written for myself, and then for some of my students, I started getting requests from other teachers for me to share the etudes with them. One of good friends and former teacher, Mark Colby, suggested that I record the etudes and put them out as a play-along book. I had originally submitted the book to Hal Leonard for publication around 2002 (I’d written three Stan Getz transcription books for them in previous years). They rejected the book, thinking it was too much of a “niche” book, and too narrow in focus, musically. (Of course, that’s exactly what I was going
for—a very focused, niche market book).
That same year, I went on a tour in Japan with Michael Brecker. It was an incredible experience, and I got to be friends with Michael. While traveling on the tour bus in Japan, I mentioned the etudes to him, and he told me to send them to him when we returned to the states. I thought that maybe he was just “being nice” by telling me to send them, but, the day he received them, he played through all of them and called me on the phone! He told me to start my own company, to publish the book, and that he was going to endorse it. He loved the etudes and told me that they were going to help a lot of young players. He sent me an endorsement blurb for the back cover of the book, and that was the very beginning of my publishing company. “Jazz Saxophone Etudes” came out in 2004. Michael was the kindest, most humble person I’ve ever known. Every day, I think of him and thank him for his encouragement. After ten years of publishing, the books now sell in over thirty countries, and are standard texts at many high schools and colleges throughout the world for jazz saxophone majors. Gary Keller, at University of Miami, was the first professor to make the book a core part of his curriculum.
What was your lamest gig and how did you learn from it?
The lamest gig was one private party event where the combination of the crowd noise and band volume level was so loud, I couldn’t hear myself play one note all night, and my ears were ringing loudly and painfully for days afterwards. I learned to always have a set of foam earplugs with me to protect my ears when things get too loud.
What was the best?
There have been many. I don’t think I could narrow it to one. Highlights include the tour with Brecker in Japan (I didn’t play with Michael, but with my duo, (Two for Brazil) in sixteen cities throughout Japan; playing with my wife, pianist Judy Roberts at the Northsea Jazz Festival in Holland; and at the Monterey Jazz Fest are also highlights; doing an intense, impromptu two-tenor and piano after-hour jam with Harry Allen on one of the Jazz Cruises. Honestly, any gig, even if it’s at a little club or restaurant, has the potential to be the best gig ever. It doesn’t have to be in front of thousands of fans. It’s about the musical connections you make onstage in the moments when you’re playing. You just never know when it’s going to be one of those incredible, memorable, breathtaking nights of music. The music is always great, but there are those few nights a year, when you’re just inspired, and everything’s working just right, and it’s magical.
We can’t control when those happen, but the potential for those nights is there on every single gig. So, never hold back your playing for “the big concert.” Always play your very best, no matter what the situation.
Hobbies other than Music:
Classic TV shows & Movies; Honeymooners, Route 66, Perry Mason, Dick Van Dyke, Sunset Boulevard, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, etc.
What would your advice be for an up and coming, young musician?
Practice hard. Master your instrument.
Learn lots of tunes.
Study the masters.
Find your own voice.
Be respectful of older musicians and of the great musical traditions.
I’m proud to be a Rico reed artist. I play Rico Royal #3 on tenor and #2.5 on alto. I also play Rico Jazz Select #3 soft on tenor and baritone.
Selmer MK VI tenor saxophone #80,xxx
King Super 20 tenor saxophone #501,xxx
Selmer MK VI alto saxophone #55,xxx
Yamaha 62 Silver plated
Yamaha 62 baritone
Yamaha 221 flute
Selmer Series 10 Clarinet
Tenor: Bobby Dukoff “Hollywood” model from the early 1950’s. #5
Alto: Meyer Bros. from the 1950’s #7 M
Baritone: Berg Larsen (Doc Tenney modified) 130/2
Clarinet: Eddie Daniels classical mouthpiece by Backun
Where can we find more information?
New releases and projects coming up:
I’m just completing a new book of my teaching analogies. This book features many of my playing and teaching concepts illustrated by famed New Yorker Magazine cartoon artist, Mick Stevens. The book will be available by early 2014.