We all love listening to recordings of our favourite saxophone solos – but what about the story behind them?
What is it like playing sax with Average White Band, on their iconic solo Pick Up The Pieces?
So today I’m talking with one of our Sax School tutor team members, Fred Vigdor, who also happens to be the sax player Average White Band.
Playing sax with Average White Band
And Fred plays with another sax player called Cliff Lyons. Those guys have been touring and playing sax with Average White Band for years. And that means that they’ve been doing iconic solos, like Pick Up The Pieces for years too.
So what has it been like playing that amazing solo? How has it developed over time? And what are the demands on those guys as saxophone players, performing theatre shows constantly with such an iconic band?
Enjoy this conversation with Cliff and Fred. There’s just so much great information in here. They share behind-the-scenes insights about what it’s like performing with the Average White Band.
And we also talk about how they approach practice, intonation, timing, working on their skills, and staying sharp when they’re performing on the road all the time.
Joining Average White Band
Fred has been a member of AWB since like 1996 – more than half of the life of the band. So that’s a long time. But Cliff joined later in 2015.
I wanted to know how different is the AWB gig to other stuff that you they do now they were doing before that. Were there any particular challenges?
“First of all, having to do a memorizing gig again after not doing it for so many years,” says Cliff. “[I’d been] doing mostly reading gigs, like doing Broadway and session work and stuff. Having to memorize a show under the gun – that was the first thing. Can I still do that? Luckily I can.”
Cliff played for Broadway shows for 7-8 years, and still does so. “ I’m still doing some subbing,” explains Cliff (substituting for another musician). “I’m doing a little subbing on this Michael Jackson show right now. …I do mainly shows that are saxophone. I’m a decent clarinet player and an alright flute player, so as long as it fits in with my skillset, I’ll take a shot at it.”
Playing as a sax section
Before Cliff joined AWB, there was a period where there Fred was the only sax player. How did they get on with forming a sax section when Cliff joined?
“Even before I joined, Roger Ball, who was an original, was the only saxophone player for a long time,” explains Fred. “Malcolm [Molly] and left the band, and it was just Roger and he was using a harmonizer”.
“So when I came in the band, that’s what I did. And I was playing the gig for 15, 18 years with the harmonizer. I was playing keyboards and, and singing and it was, it was just stuff to kind of keep me interested and keep me on my toes for the gig.”
Things changed when Fred was preparing to leave the band because his wife had a job overseas. “My wife had gotten a gig in the Middle East and Cliff was my call to take my place. And I said, ‘why don’t you come on the gig and watch what I’m doing and watch how I’m navigating with the pedals and, and the keyboard and where I’m singing.’ And so he came on the gig and we were doing it together.”
“And then my wife’s job offer fell through,… And then Cliff and I talked it over and we said, We have to convince these guys to keep us both because it sounded so good,” explains Fred.
With both saxophones, it sounded like the original AWB sound. “The original sound of the band is two saxophones. And… as soon as we started playing it was undeniably, infinitely better, exponentially better.”
Two sax players
As well as sounding better, playing in a sax section was more fun. But it was also a challenge.
As a solo sax player, Fred had more freedom. “I would make up parts sometimes. I wouldn’t necessarily play what was on the record…and I could change it every night if I wanted to,” says Fred.
But with another sax player, they had to work together. “Once Cliff was there, we both had to agree on what we were going to play every night. And that was a challenge.”
Learning from recording
Surprisingly, Cliff records most AWB gigs, to see how they can make the performance even better. “You go back and you listen to it and you say, okay, that we’ve got to cut off this note here, or we’ve got to attack it differently, or that line doesn’t work,” Cliff explains. “And then we’d talk about it and work out something and just change it on the next gig.”
This is actually a really good piece of advice for anybody new to this whole process of learning how to play in a band. Whether you’re just one saxophone player or you’re in a section – it’s a great idea to record your gigs and listen back.
“It’s about criticizing yourself,” says Cliff. . If you ask people how you sounded tonight, most of the time… they’re going to say, oh, you sounded great. But you’ve got to go back and listen to yourself and say, okay, this, this worked, this didn’t… Sometimes can be the opposite of what you think when you’re doing it.”
I wanted to know how the solos develop over time. So when I come and see Average White Band three nights in a row, are the solos going to be something that Fred and Cliff have curated over time and they’re going to be pretty much the same? Or are they always changing? Or do they have basic structural ideas that they stick to?
“I would say there are certain tunes I approach from a similar melodic kind of point of view each time,” says Cliff. “I’ll use it as a launching pad. I play “A Love of Your Own”, which has this initial pre-solo, which is like a short eight-bar solo. And I kind of have a template that I use for that, that I know will start and end in that, in that context and, and have a nice arc to it and quickly get out of it.
“Then for the longer solo, I found myself definitely having a pattern, for a long time, of how I’d approached the beginning of the solo. And then I realized I was boring myself and probably everybody else in the band! So I said I’m going to change how I start my solo. And that took me in a different way.
So I have a couple of different ways I approach the beginnings of solos and it can, and sometimes the instigation the drummer kicking me in a certain way, or the keyboard player playing some different chords, will take me to other places. So it’s kind of a group effort. I think, how the solo develops… especially on a ballad where you can have a little give and play with it.”
So on the one hand it has to be similar to fit into the arrangement, so everyone knows what to expect. But on the other hand, you want to be creative and keep it interesting.
Playing sax in Average White Band, Cliff and Fred often have to fit in with a planned structure with their solos. In most songs, the length of the solo is pre-planned.
“Cliff and I each have one solo a night that is extended,” says Fred. “Cliff does A Love Of Your Own and I do Put It Where You Want It…. It starts down here and it has to end at a certain spot. And in between we could do whatever.
“And we’re taking inspiration from something the guitar player might do… You also want some inspiration because you have to get it from somewhere. Rocky who plays the drums with us – when I play my Put It Where You Want It solo with him, he’s constantly trying to mess me up, to keep me on my toes. And he succeeds quite a bit! It’s gotten to the point where we’re laughing about it on stage because it’s so ridiculous sometimes. And I don’t know if anybody else notices or not.”
For other, more structured solos, there’s a plan which as sax players, Fred and Cliff need to follow.”Each one is going to be 16 bars or eight bars, … it has a definite arc and you know where it’s going to start and where it’s going to end,” says Fred.
Some solos are more challenging than others. “I’ve been playing a solo on If I Ever Lose This Heaven which is a bit of a minefield, harmonically,” says Cliff. “Some notes work and don’t work… It’s not one harmonic idea you can stick with. It’s almost like playing over Giant Steps! So I try to find common notes at work through the chords and just change the identity notes, whether it goes to a minor or major or dominant or whatever.”
“It is harmonically the hardest song in the book. That’s why he’s playing it!” says Fred.
Pick Up The Pieces
Fred and Cliff have been playing sax in Average White Band in the iconic Pick Up the Pieces for a long time. So I asked them how the arrangement has evolved.
“We have three arrangements for Pick Up The Pieces on any given night. Because, our leader Alan, is a stickler for ending the show is at exactly the right time that we’re supposed to play. If it’s a 90-minute show, we will play 90 minutes. We won’t play for 91 minutes,” explains Fred.
Depending on the time available, the band might play the full version, the shorter Rock and Soul version, or the Rock and Soli version.
This is a version originally arranged by Arif Mardin and recorded by The Atlantic All Stars. It includes a soli (a written section played by everyone), which was played at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1977 in a performance featuring Michael Brecker.
“It’s an amazing recording,” says Fred. “Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Sonny Fortune, tons of guys. Everybody that was on the Atlantic record label played on this in this big band… And it’s got a soli and we’ve adapted it for two saxophones.”
With 3 versions of Pick Up The Pieces to choose from, the band need to focused. “We never know what we’re going to do,” says Fred. “And there are a couple of things within the show that is like that where we have to look at Alan on stage, and it’s like, are we going here or are we going here? Because it’s a time thing. …Sometimes we’ll be shorter if people are not up dancing… But if they’re dancing, we’ll look at him and if he backs away from the microphone, we know we’re going to play the longer version….So we have to be on our toes”.
The Pick Up The Pieces Solo
The solo in Pick Up The Pieces has also evolved over time.
“When I was originally in the band, I was playing the whole solo,” says Fred. … “but now since Cliff’s in the band… We break up the solos, so I’ll play 16 bars,…Cliff will play 16 bars on the next chord, and then we will trade fours after that. I’ll play four bars. He’ll play four bars and we try to kind of play off each other. So it also builds excitement when we do that.”
With Cliff on alto and Fred on tenor, sharing the solo in this way adds fun to the process. “It keeps it a true jazz context where, where I never know what he’s going to play and never knows what I’m going to play,” says Cliff.
“I try to take the end of what he played and build on it,” says Fred.”. It’s like a married couple, completing each other’s sentences!”
How to handle multiple saxophones
If you’re new t0 playing sax in a band with 2 or 3 other saxophones, there are a few things you need to think about, technically.
Playing in tune with each other is crucial, says Cliff. “We’re always trying to lock in with each other. We sometimes we point our horns right at each other so we can hear each other acoustically. Because there’s a lot of unison stuff or tight harmony stuff in the horn arrangements on this. And we always were trying to like to make it just ring,…that’s continually gotten better since I’ve been playing in the band.”
It’s not just about tuning. Playing as a tight sax section is also about articulation. “Phrasing-wise – how we articulate a note, if it’s short, punchy when we’re cutting it off – we cue each other and then we’ve kind of agreed with what sounds best. … The saxophone is such a flexible instrument pitch-wise, and you’ve just got to find where it rings and find that centre of the pitch. And I’m always trying, searching for that,” says Cliff.
“Cliff is the reason why we do, we sound good,” adds Fred. “Because you’re playing lead alto in a big band or something like that, everybody’s kind of supposed to follow you. But Cliff is a really good listener because he can match what I’m doing…we kind of do meld very well together, I think. And I think it’s mostly because he’s listening. …We’re both trying to listen. Like neither of us is going, this is where the pitch is and this is the way it should be. We’re listening to each other. Because when it comes together, it is cool. You can feel it, you know, it’s a visceral thing.”
Exercises for developing your pitch
I asked Cliff if he had any particular exercises for developing his pitch on saxophone.
- Practice matching notes on keyboard with your note on saxophone
- Try this with long, held notes on the keyboard (drone notes)
- Work on intervals in the same way – playing the fourth, fifth note of the scale etc.
- Practice matching your pitch with guitar players or keyboard players when you’re playing melody.
Recording is a great tool for checking your pitch too, says Cliff. “Recording thing is a crucial thing. I always tell people, you know, the tape doesn’t lie,” Cliff explains. “I go back and I go, wow. I was out of tune on that. And if you’re playing with a keyboard or guitar, usually you’re the problem!”
Playing with other instruments
Whether you’re playing with another saxophone, or with other instruments such as guitar or keyboard, tuning and articulation is essential, says Fred. “You’re going to be playing unison lines with a guitar player or the keyboard player, or something like that. And the same rules apply. … you want to be in tune with them. And you don’t want him to be playing the third note long and you’re playing it short.”
These details are what makes a performance really great. “The audience won’t know -‘Well, that’s why it doesn’t sound right’ – but if it’s right, and you do it right, they will know it sounds better. So it doesn’t just apply to two saxophones. Those are just general rules of playing with other musicians. You have to listen and consider those things.”
Playing in time
Timing is also key to play well as a band. “ I’ve always got the hi-hat cranked in my ears, so I can hear the subdivision of the beat, where the drummer’s put it,” says Cliff. “Because sometimes we’re on big stages, you can’t hear the drums acoustically too well. And if the horns are blasting away sometimes you’re hopefully not losing the time. So it’s a combination of trying to play in time and in tune.“
Tech Set-Up on Stage
Both Cliff and Fred wear in-ear monitors when they playing sax with Average White Band.
“So we are wireless,” says Fred. “We have wireless microphones and wireless in-ear monitors so we can walk all over the place. And also we can face each other when we play, for pitch-wise. We do that a lot on the show.”
In-ear monitors help Cliff and Fred to keep in time. “I have the overhead [mics] of the drums and I have the hi-hat because that is where you’re hearing most subdivisions,” says Fred. “And also the guitar, because the guitar is doing a lot of 16th-note rhythms as well. So you want to be able to lock into that stuff. And we both have that in our ears.”
“In this band is very, the horn parts have to be precise with like 16th subdivisions and stuff. So if you’re off a little bit, it’s gong to drive everybody nuts,” says Cliff. “It’s going to take the life out of the tune”.
I wanted to know about Cliff and Fred’s set-up on saxophone.
Cliff plays on a versatile set-up which suits many different styles of playing.
“On alto, I’ve been playing like just a stock, Selmer metal mouthpiece, that’s probably from the late sixties or early seventies with a G-facing, and medium La Voz reeds, pretty much forever,” says Cliff. “And I play it on straight-ahead jazz stuff. I play it on Broadway and I played it in this. For me it’s, it, it can kind of straddle all the worlds. It’s got some power when it needs it, but it’s not overly bright. And, it can, it can be flexible.”
By contrast, Fred’s set-up is bright.
“I’m using the Jody Jazz Super Jet. It’s an 8* star. It’s bright and loud. It’s bright and loud. I have to tone it back a lot,”, says Fred.
Getting the balance right
This brings up another important consideration when you’re playing with another sax player – balance.
“If I can’t hear Cliff playing what he’s playing, then I’m playing too loud. So, in addition, to worrying about articulation and tuning and where we’re ending notes, we have to be conscious of the balance. Because he’s playing the lead voice, and I tend to play loud. “So I have to rein it back.”
This is something that has developed since Cliff joined the band.
“When I first came into the band, [Fred] was the only sax. He could do whatever he wanted. So he was just on 11 all the time! He had to fill that role of bigger than life… with just one horn.”
When Cliff joined, they needed to work as a section to achieve a balance. “And so we worked on balancing it out… so in some sections he’ll duck down, so he’s just a little bit under me on more subtle harmony things. And sometimes we’re both just blasting too!” says Cliff.
“When we’re playing in unison, we don’t have to worry about [balance]” says Fred. “But when we’re playing parts where we’re split in harmony, you have to be considerate. Nobody wants to hear the bottom harmony in this kind of stuff. Interestingly enough, Pick Up the Pieces is the only song that the tenor has the lead voice in also, which is interesting.”
See Average White Band Live
See Cliff, Fred and the Average White Band live – check out the tour schedule here:
Developing YOUR saxophone playing with Sax School Online
If you’re interested in levelling up your skills on sax so you can perform in a band, we’ve got everything you need.
- Develop your technique
- Learn jazz standards
- Songs in every genre
- Learn to improvise
- Get advice from our tutor team including Fred Vigdor from Average White Band!
Get a 14 day free trial here.