Graeme Blevins is a busy guy.
He has spent years touring with pop queen Kylie Minogue, performed and recorded with Phil Collins, toured the world with Kyle Eastwood, and also finds time to play with new music pioneers the Delta Saxophone Quartet. Graeme Blevins really has done it all. In this ‘Player Profile’ he tells us about how he manages to balance all these different styles of playing.
What have you been doing lately?
I never really aspired to work with pop bands, but when the opportunity came up it was an incredible experience. I really enjoyed working with Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, and Phil Collins. They are incredible people, and a pleasure to work with.
Like a lot of things in this industry, I got into those gigs through contacts. I started working with people who were in those circles. Playing is really important, but unfortunately in the pop scene, so is image. In pop bands there’s a call to be young, and back when I started out I was! The opportunities didn’t come about through an agent or through a fixer though. It’s sometimes just about being in the right place at the right time.
The healthiest advice that I was ever given was to focus on your own projects. I never set out to do so much pop work. So don’t just concentrate on trying to get into pop, but if other projects spin off into pop then that’s great.
I’ve kept the playing at the forefront of what I do but about ten years ago I went to Rome to the Red Bull Academy to study music production. Now I’ve got a studio in Chiswick with a grand piano and Protools HD, and I’m also writing and producing a variety of different music.
Producing, writing, and mixing is an aspect of my musicianship which I love. So today, I’ll be practising baritone for a pop gig I’ve got on Sunday, and then I’ll be spending about 2 hours cleaning up vocals and starting to mix tracks for a guy’s album then playing a jazz quartet gig tonight. That’s the variety I love.
I trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). I was lucky enough to be educated by Roger Garrood, Graham Lyall, and Jim Cook. And now they’ve got the incredible Jamie Oehlers teaching there. I was also taking classical lessons from Mark Walton, so from a saxophone point of view, I couldn’t have asked for better teachers. It was a very well rounded early jazz education, and the classical training was great for learning
fundamental technique on the saxophone.
“The best advice I’ve ever been given:
Focus on your own projects!”
I studied both jazz and classical saxophone at school, but by the time I got to WAAPA I was definitely jazz focussed. I kept up the classical study but it was too difficult to fully apply myself to both disciplines.
I do enjoy the variety. It never truly comes together, but if I can do some great jazz gigs, interspersed with a Delta Saxophone gig, then some more contemporary gigs or recording sessions, then that’s a great balance. But it’s a difficult balance to achieve.
Keeping fit on the road
Maintaining your sound and technique can be difficult when touring. Interestingly, some pop shows like Kylie Minogue are all on click track, so I always had the computerised click in my ear. When doing a show like this your sense of time can actually improve, but it’s not great for your sense of “swing”.
So as the crew was packing up I would often find a room and play for an hour at the end of a gig. Occasionally I would try and play with someone else in the band, or sit in with a jam session on the road somewhere. The horn section of the band even put on a couple of gigs in a few different places.
I also kept busy transcribing or writing music on the bus or on the plane. That is really helpful for keeping my ear in too.
There is something to be gained from playing the same thing every night for a while. It can really formalise all the fundamentals of your technique. As long as you don’t do it for too long! I find if I’m monitoring my intonation, power, air flow, all of that, I get something from every show. There are obviously always areas to improve.
Also, there is so much to learn from the other musicians you work with.
I did a small tour around America and Europe with the Phil Collins band. It was a 19 piece lineup that had a bunch of the original “Funk Brothers” members who played on all those Motown hits in the 1960’s. Bob Babbitt was on bass and Chester Thompson was on drums. It was a different equation altogether from the Kylie tour, because I was getting schooled by one of the best bass players and the best drummers who ever lived. There was no click track on that gig!
Also, it turns out Chester Thompson is a huge jazz fan so at sound checks we would play jazz tunes. That gig was all music, it was incredible. It definitely made me a better saxophonist and a better musician.
Phil Collins was a dream to work with – a real “musician’s musician”. He had such a clear idea of what he wanted out of every tune and wouldn’t stop until something was as he wanted it. But as a person he was so down to earth, caring and welcoming. Even working with Phil in his home studio, was a great experience. It was an inspiring and real life-changing lesson on how to be a human being!
The Kyle Eastwood band
Working with Kyle Eastwood’s band was an amazing experience. It started in 2006. I saw pretty much the whole world with that band! It was incredible to play jazz-groove based music, really appreciated by people all over the world, with some of your best friends.
As a player, that gig had very different demands. There was a lot of improvising; I’d get about ten massive solos a night! Kyle is a bass player, so the trumpet player and myself effectively became the front line of the band with lots of soprano features and tenor features. It was really rewarding, to be paid money to travel around the world improvising. Especially in 2014, that was a very rare thing.
Delta Saxophone Quartet
I first started playing with the Delta Saxophone Quartet in 2006. We did an album dedicated to the music of a band called the Soft Machine, called “Dedicated to you but you weren’t listening”. I think it was the first time the ensemble has incorporated effects pre-and post-production, like delays, and reverbs, and some minor effects which made a textural difference to the ensemble.
So moving on from that we commissioned classical jazz genius Gwilym Simcock to write us a piece for the saxophone quartet based around the music of King Crimson. It incorporates some effects, some looping, and also includes Gwilym on the piano.
I love that ensemble; it incorporates the improvisation and the classical training, and all the players are incredible musicians who are experienced in jazz and contemporary classical music, so it’s a really diverse palette that we can draw from.
It’s very challenging as a player. At my feet there will be a delay pedal, which is controlling the feedback of the delay, with a mixing desk with the whole of the ensemble fed into it, so at various times I can apply delay or effects to members of the ensemble, and there’s the loop station, and then there’s just the intonation and the stamina required to play soprano saxophone for an hour and a half. It’s exhausting! But I love it.
Graeme’s Sound Tips
For me, getting a great sound on sax is all about making sure that the reed is vibrating as much as possible. So that means making sure that the lip on the bottom of the reed is not constricting the sound.
The reed strength has a massive say on this; if the reed is too hard for your set-up or your embouchure, you are going to struggle to allow it to vibrate freely. I actually found through injury, I had to go from a 3 reed on my tenor mouthpiece to a 2.5, and my sound opened up. Thats not to say some people can’t make good sounds with harder reeds! This is just the system that works for me.
But it took the discipline of doing that for a month for it to open up. So the concept I adhere to most is to almost use the softest reed you can, while maintaining the intonation, because if the reed is too soft for you it can be flat in the top register. So you don’t want that.
But if the reed is as soft as you can handle, then you should be able to get all of the tone variations out of it with your embouchure, your throat position and your technique.
That’s the tonal concept I recommend, but as I said, there are many different concepts that work for different people.
Graeme Blevins: Mouthpiece Choices
Regardless of what I’m playing though, tone is the most important thing to me. I use a metal 9 star Otto Link mouthpiece on my tenor. It’s a pretty standard piece, but it gives me the flexibility to play in different styles with the power I need.
For example Kylie was very pop, but Phil Collins was more of a Motown kind of thing. I might get called to do a session on a film that requires a really warm or low down subtone and I find that the Link mouthpiece can offer that flexibility, while allowing me to have “My” sound.
I have even played Romeo and Juliet on that mouthpiece, with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. I tried a bunch of classical mouthpieces, but the Link still sounded better in the hall, and the conductor was happy!
Sometimes I have been tempted by other mouthpieces but the lack of flexibility has made me stick to the Link 9 star as that flexibility is so important to me.
Graeme’s favourite warm-up exercise
Major scales in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths and 7ths.
Playing through these over my whole range while really focussing on tone quality is an amazing workout. I use my metronome at all times to make sure I’m keeping everything even. I find this to be the single most effective exercise for boosting your technique if you do it right!