Funkifize is one of Tower of Power’s most famous songs, and this is the definitive recording. The tenor solo is short, but iconic. For years I assumed that this was Lenny Pickett, and then I learned that it was actually Skip Mesquite, the original lead tenor player for TOP.
Sadly, Skip passed away a few years back, but his work will live on forever.
The opening is the hardest part – a cold start on altissimo E, held out pure and clean for three bars before devolving into a wash of overtones. With these high solos, I have to hear myself, so I only use one earphone, which makes it harder to match pitch with the soloist.
The fourth bar is one of those effects that I think is impossible (and impractical) to duplicate exactly, but I did my best to approximate what’s going on.
The rest of the solo is straightforward, and super funky!
I don’t know the full back story behind how Skip left Tower and Lenny came on board, but it’s clear from this recording that Lenny Pickett didn’t invent the style from thin air, he was heavily influenced by those who came before him (as is always the case).
If you want to better understand your heroes, listen to who they listened to!
I have to admit that this solo is a bit beyond me, but the completionist in me couldn’t post Part 1 without at least attempting Part 2.
The name of the game with this one is Placement. The high notes need to go HIGH and everything else needs to stay low! It’s easy to just psych yourself up for the high notes and rely on the brute forve method to belt them out with a lot of air, firm embouchure, and a fast airstream. But if you overdo it, EVERYTHING goes up high!
So this solo is a great exercise in control. You’ve got to get up and down from the high notes gracefully without losing control on the sensitive notes like G and G#.
Once you make it to the one chord, you’re pretty much home free (although I managed to crack the high A-Ab). Pay attention to the articulation and phrasing – he really sells the simple eight note lines with articulation. There’s some nice triple tonguing during the fade as well.
I may have exhausted my collection of ‘achievable’ (for me) Lenny Pickett solos, but we’ll see. Tenor month isn’t even half over yet. I should have paced myself better…
This track is almost the opposite of Oakland Stroke. It’s another instrumental jam, but this time it’s a slow groove. There are no difficult technical passages, but the altissimo in this one is killer!
Twice he walks down altissimo F-E-D, which is definitely pushing the limits of what I can pull off. But it’s great practice. My old nemesis altissimo G also figures prominently in this track as well when the band goes to the four chord.
I’m working on part 2. I have it transcribed, but it’s a bit harder to play than part 1 so I need some more time in the woodshed before I’m ready to post it.
This is a short one, but a fun solo to play. Only eight bars, and it really moves. If you’re looking to learn Lenny Pickett solos, this is an excellent one to start with. It’s pretty straight forward, and only goes up to altissimo G. Just slow it down and take it bar by bar.
I’ve been struggling with altissimo G on tenor. I can play almost a full octave above that much more consistently, but G eludes me. I’ve tried a bunch of different fingerings with no luck.
I found a blog post by Donna Schwartz that had some good general advice for altissimo which I’ll sum up as:
Pre-visualizing the note in your head/ear by listening to it and singing it
Priming your embouchure by singing the pitch into your mouthpiece and then playing.
These help me a lot for the upper register (above altissimo D), where you absolutely have to have the pitch in your ear to hit it. But the G was still problematic.
Then I discovered that my front ‘fork’ key was opening the palm key F too high. I adjusted the screw to lower it as much as I can and the G speaks much easier now. I’d like the key to be even lower, but that’s a job for my sax tech the next time I see him.
Once you’ve checked out the tenor solo a few times, go back and listen to the rhythm section a few times. It’s mind blowing to hear how intricate the Tower of Power grooves are, especially at this tempo. My band has played this groove a bunch, and every time we have a new keyboard player work with us, we spend at least an hour in rehearsal on this groove. You can’t just blindly comp on a feel like this. Every instrument has their part to play, and they all fit together perfectly like a puzzle.
Another classic solo from an early Tower of Power album. Soul Vaccination is one of their signature tunes, and this is a great solo. It’s actually fairly easy to play up until the last two bars if you can slow things down and break down measures 7-10.
I still struggle to figure out what Lenny is doing with the false fingerings over middle E. In bar 7, he’s clearly going down to D#, but I don’t think that’s what he’s doing in bars 8 and 10. I’m using a combination of D#, alternate # (with the low C key added), and dropping the octave key. But I’m not exactly achieving the same effect that he is.
Lenny pulls off the last two bars super cleanly. I cracked the high G a bit but I was happy that I could get up there at all! He does a bit of a shake on it, which I think is just done with the embouchure (like vibrato).
Note: The pitch on the recording that I have was off by at least 50 cents. I compensated for it in my app so it would be correct. I tried adjusting my horn to play where it was, but it throws the horn out of balance too much when I push it too far. The video I posted uses the original (unaltered) track, so I post-processed my performance to match it. Don’t be surprised if you have a hard time matching your pitch to the original track!
I’ll keep digging through my L.P. solos to see if there are any more that I can work up. I definitely have a bunch that are just beyond me right now (Knock Yourself Out, Squib Cakes, Ebony Jam, etc.), but we’ll see if I’m braver by the end of the month…
This is probably one of my favorite Tower of Power songs of all time. It’s also one of my favorite LP solos. Doctorfunk used to perform this one, but it’s in a bad range for our singer. I definitely miss playing it.
This solo really moves. It’s amazing to me that he was able to pull off some of these lines at that speed. I broke the solo down and practiced it at 50% speed for about an hour before speeding up. At 50%, it feels do-able, and then you listen to it at full speed and your
head just spins.
Take a minute to appreciate the arc that he creates in just 16 bars. The first five bars are pretty laid back – funky and in the pocket. building to a mean growl, and then closing the phrase in the six bar with a faster run. Then he puts the pedal to the metal for the next six bars closing with a crazy altissimo run. He winds it down for two bars, and then caps it off with double-time bebop runs over the changes for the last two bars.
There are a lot of signature licks here: Lots of repeated notes alternating against false fingerings, with quick pops up the octave and right back down. Once again, there are some killer altissimo licks. All the way up to high E, but this time at breakneck speed!
It kills me that he was only 20 when he recorded this.
As I mentioned, it’s Tenor month! So I thought I’d get things kicked off with a bang and start with a Lenny Pickett solo. It’s only one page, but he packs a lot in there…
Lenny Pickett is well-known for a few things. He burst on to the scene while still in his teens as the tenor soloist for Tower of Power, where he made his mark with his virtuostic use of ‘extended’ techniques like altissimo and circular breathing.
He left TOP in the 80’s and eventually landed on Saturday Night Live where he’s been sax soloist (and eventually, musical director) ever since. You can hear his amazing playing over the opening and closing credits.
Fortunately, he collaborated with TOP on this album, which has some great soloing on it. Both of the solos open with a straight tone that then adds a flutter tongue effect (where you roll your tongue while playing).
In the fourth bar of the second solo he uses an alternate fingering for middle E (in the staff). This is a signature move for him, and I’m just guessing that he’s closing the low C key to achieve this effect. If anyone knows of a better alternate fingering, I’d love to try it!
There are several spots where he quickly alternates between low B and altissimo B – a three octave spread!
Then there are the altissimo runs. Starting cold from altissimo E and walking down – three different times in the same track, and slightly different each time. This is a real challenge for me to pull off at all, but he makes it sound completely effortless and musical at the same time.
I’m still on the Prince train, and I don’t see any sign of it slowing down any time soon! This time it’s the live NPG version of the incredible ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
The liner notes don’t actually say, but I’m reasonably certain that the sax soloist is Brian Gallagher again. I read somewhere that it was Kathy Jenson (from the Hornheads), but I’m pretty sure that’s not true. I’m only familiar with her as an Alto/Bari player, and not tenor.
I really wish I could do this one justice. It’s a monster of a solo! The 5th bar is what really killed me, so I mercifully cut out the worst of the audio from my track and ducked the rest. But I got back on track the next bar. I can (barely) hit that high F#, but I can’t get up and down from it nearly as gracefully as Brian can. It’s amazing how fluidly he does it.
Interestingly enough, Candy Dulfer hits the exact same concert E her solo. It just fits. It’s high on Alto, but much easier to play than on Tenor (for me).
This is another solo that’s virtually impossible to read – you have to listen carefully and slow it down to really internalize the rhythms. The lines that he creates are so ornamented and intricate that there’s no other way.
I can’t believe that we lost Prince this week. I’m still in shock over it. So I process the loss of this artist like I always do: by immersing myself in their music. I could write for pages about what his music meant to me, but I’ll save that for another time.
I wanted to find a suitable sax solo from his catalog for the blog. Prince worked with many great horn players over the years (Maceo, Candy Dulfer, the Hornheads), but he doesn’t often feature saxophone solos on his studio recordings.
I was familiar with the tenor solo on Sexy MF, but I had always assumed that it was Kenni Holman (from the Hornheads) playing it. But when I did my research, I found out that it was Brian Gallagher, who also passed away very recently at far too young of an age.
The track (and solo) are very funky, with a hard driving rhythm. When Doctorfunk was in the studio working on our album “Second Opinion“, we were having a hard time getting the track for my song “Better Get Hip” to come together. Jeff Tamalier, our producer, told the guys to think of the groove from Sexy MF. They didn’t even have to listen to it. Everyone knew exactly the type of feel and energy this track captured. I’m sure that you can hear the influence if you listen back to the track. I hope we did it justice!
Because Prince was so protective of his copyright (and because the lyrics are so explicit), I kept the volume on the original track very low, just loud enough to hear the solo in context. There is a radio-friendly edit of the track, but it doesn’t include the sax solo. I also age-restricted the video on YouTube just to be safe.
Recently, I was able to participate in a group effort to transcribe another amazing solo saxophone performance by Chris Potter. This time it was Cherokee done in 10 keys over almost 13 minutes.
Steve Neff was one of the key contributors and describes how the effort came about on his blog.
My contribution was chorus 5, spanning pages 11-12 below. Big thanks to all who were involved in the effort, especially Steve. Due to a family emergency, I threw two pages of rough notes and rhythms over to him in email and he was able to proofread and combine with the rest of the choruses.
Although these solos are amazingly complicated, they aren’t as hard to transcribe as you’d think. Chris is such a clean player that the lack of rhythm section makes it easy to hear each and every pitch if you slow it down enough. The hard part is taking those pitches and making them into something readable. Since there is no frame of reference for time, you have to make a lot of subjective judgment calls.
I’m mirroring the finished work below for ease of viewing on the web. And no, I won’t be posting my own video of me playing along because this is way above my skill level at full speed!