Avery Dixon has been blowing us away with his awesome sax playing on America’s Got Talent – so how can we get some of that energy into our own playing?
In my Funk Sax Jam, we’re going to look at how to capture Avery Dixon’s style, technique and energy and apply it to our saxophone playing.
I’m going to show you 4 building blocks or licks from Avery’s “Higher Ground” solo. And then we’re going to put them into context and jam them out on our saxophones – so we can start to create that same energy and that same atmosphere and vibe.
Why Funk Sax Jam
Now you might be thinking, this sounds like it’s going be complicated. But don’t worry. It’s dead easy to get started with this. And if you grab your saxophone and play through this with me for the next few minutes, you’re going to see a massive improvement in the way that you approach playing in this particular style. Because hands down, this is my favourite way to understand a player, their style, and their approach to improvising.
Now, I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been away on holiday. So I’ve not been seeing America’s Got Talent, but I saw Jay’s video on BetterSax about Avery’s solo. And I thought it was fantastic. He outlines 10 points and that’s a brilliant starting point to understand what’s going on with Avery.
But I wanted to take things a little bit further and dig into the nitty-gritty of how we can use that style of Avery Dixon and apply it to our playing.
The Minor Pentatonic
So right out of the gate, pretty much everything that Avery Dixon plays in this Higher Ground solo is based on a single minor pentatonic scale. Jay mentions this in his video too. If you listen closely, it’s pretty obvious you can hear it.
So on the alto saxophone, we’re talking about the C minor pentatonic, and for the tenor saxophone, that’s the F minor pentatonic scale.
Now I’ve got a full PDF for you and a backing track that you can use to work through this jam session in your practice room. you can grab them from the Sax School Locker, along with all of our other free resources, using the link below. It’s completely free.
Now it’s a really good idea to get familiar with those pentatonic scales over your entire range. So I have a fiddle around with it and see if you can play that scale all the way up and all the way down.
Building Block #1
So let’s check out the very first building block. Watch the video to see how Avery uses it in his solo.
So, this is what building block one looks like when it’s written out. Simpler than it sounds – right?
It’s just eighth notes or quavers, but just watch out for those grace notes on bar four, where we’re going from G flat or F sharp, down to F natural.
By the way, if you want some tips on grace notes, check out the video that I did recently about grace notes. It’s a technique that Avery uses through this solo.
So to move smoothly from the G flat or the F sharp down to the F I’m not using the middle finger. I’m going to use my alternate G flat fingering here. So that’s my index finger on the F. And then I’m reaching around with my ring finger and pressing down this alternate F sharp here.
If you’ve got one of those keys on your saxophone, definitely use it for this pattern.
Grab your sax. And let’s have a play through this slowly at 60 beats a minute.
Now the real magic sauce with this pattern and all the patterns we’re going talk about today is the way that you play them, and the energy that you use. So I’m going to play it through for you now at full speed. But I’m going to use more strong articulation, more air, more energy, and see if I can make it more exciting.
Building Block #2
Let’s check out the second building block for our Funk Sax Jam and see how Avery uses it.
Now, this is a cool syncopated rhythm. And I love this because Avery himself uses the same rhythm, at least two times in the solo. See if you can spot the other time that he uses it.
Now, the underlying feel of this tune, although it’s written in four for you here on the chart, is a 12/8 feel. So each beat or each main pulse in the bar is subdivided into three subdivisions. And that shuffle feel – that triplet feel – is what gives this its cool sound. And that’s also the rhythm that Avery is using in this particular pattern. Have a listen to the way it sounds slowly.
So again, we’ve got some grace notes here, just like in the first lick. We’ve got a G flat down to F natural. Don’t forget to use that side key. And then between the first and the second bars, we’ve got another little run down where he is just using a pentatonic scale, but doing it fast.
Now, if you find it difficult to get the grace notes, or these runs in, don’t worry about them. You can just leave them out for now and focus on the main notes. That will still give you the same style and energy that we’re talking about here. Again, this comes to life when you play it faster. So this is what it sounds like when we’re doing it at full speed.
Building Block #3
Let’s move on to building block 3 and see how Avery puts it into action.
Now, I love this line. It’s quite simple, – it’s just a pentatonic pattern. But because of the way he’s using it, it’s building up so much energy and excitement and anticipation. And it’s a fantastic lick or building block for us to think about using in our solo.
Now Avery uses this lick later on in the arrangement. For our funk sax jam session, we are just going to use the very first A section of the tune. But because it’s based on the pentatonic scale, it still works over the chords from the first section as well.
Let’s have a listen to what it sounds like slowly.
How simple is that? And don’t forget, we’ve got that little grace note E flat up to F on the last note. Have a listen to the way it sounds though when I speed it up, and put some real energy into it. I love that lick – so cool. And you can just imagine how you can extend that lick over your whole range.
Building Block #4
Let’s look at building block 4 and see where Avery uses it in his solo.
Now just like building block 3, this fourth building block is so simple, but it creates so much energy and excitement. He’s literally coming down a pentatonic scale with the addition of A natural in there as well. But it sounds fantastic.
And there are some little grace notes at the start, and also at the end of this phrase.
I’ll put the metronome on and play it for you slowly so you can see how all the bits fit together.
Now that run at the end is just a pentatonic scale, but going down. If you are finding that tricky, leave it out. But if you want to try it, just start by going super-slowly and see if you can gradually pick up the speed, so that it sounds more convincing.
Okay, so I’m going to play this final lick full speed with loads of guts and energy. Have a listen to how funky this sounds.
Funk Sax Jam Session: Rules
I hope you’re feeling warmed up and you’re ready for a jam with me. Grab your saxophone. Let’s get stuck in.
Here are the rules for how our funk sax jam is going to work. So we’ve got 4 building blocks and in our backing track, we’ve got 4-bar phrases. So each building block is 2 bars long.
Play the Building Blocks
So I’m going to go first and play the first building block twice. I’m just going to play the building block by itself.
And then I’d like you to play that building block twice as well. When you do it though, listen to the way that I’ve played that building block and see if you can copy the stylistic things I’m doing, not just the notes.
Copy my Style
So we’re getting the notes right. But I also want you to think about the articulation, the energy, the excitement, the enthusiasm. We need to see if we can create all of that in our building block as well.
Simple 4 bar solo
Then I’m going to go through my 4 bars another couple of times, and I’m going to use the building block as a bit of a launchpad for creating a 4-bar solo. I’ll be drawing on the pentatonic scale for my note choices. Don’t worry if you don’t play the same notes as me, just think about the idea that I’m coming up with and try to create something that has got the same sort of energy.
So in my 4 bars, I’ll be using the 2-bar building block and then building some other notes around it.
I might use the building block first and put some other notes after it.
Or I might put some other notes first and then the building block second.
Or I might just use part of the building block and play around with it to come up with an idea.
To be honest with you, I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. Let’s wait and see. But I’m going to do that for 4 bars. Then you get to do it for 4 bars.
Then I’m going do it a third time for 4 bars. And then it’s you again for 4 bars. that’s it for the first building block.
And then we’ll go through that same process with the second building block.
And then we’ll do the same for the third building block and the fourth building block.
Keep it Simple
This is going to be great fun! Now, most important – I want you to keep your improvising simple.
I don’t want you to worry about copying my notes exactly. I’m not gonna write out a transcription of my solo. Instead, what I want you to do is to come up with your solo ideas based on what you are hearing.
Now, there’s no wrong answer here, but you’ll get a lot more value out of this exercise if you come up with your things, rather than trying to copy what I’m doing exactly.
Sound like fun? Okay, great. Grab your saxophone. Whether it’s an alto or a tenor or a soprano or a bari sax, let’s have some fun doing a jam.
Join me in the funk sax jam on the video.
I hope you enjoyed our funk sax jam!
So what’s the next step after this? Once we’ve got these four licks down – these four building blocks – and we’re starting to capture the style, then we can start to morph this into our solo. We can combine all four of those building blocks and start to create a whole solo that uses elements from it. So we are drawing our inspiration from those building blocks, but then we’re making up our own thing.
I’m going to put the track back on now and just have a blow through a few bars of the solo, seeing if I can combine those different building blocks. See if you can identify each of those building blocks as we go through it.
I reckon this is the sort of exercise that you should be doing over and over again. And that’s why I’ve made the PDF and the backing track for you. Don’t forget to click the link, or if you’re already registered for the Sax School Locker, you’ll find it inside there. Print it out. And for the next couple of weeks, have this in your practice routine where you’re jamming through and coming up with ideas.
Now I’ve go to tell you the more that you do this exercise, it’ll become easier and easier to come up with convincing-sounding solos yourself. Plus, you’ll be able to create that Avery Dixon energy in your playing. And how awesome is that?
And then when you’re ready, go check out this lesson next, where we look out another jam in another style.
Plus if you want to develop your improvising skills further, plus explore hundreds more video lessons and masterclasses, Start today with Sax School