It never ceases to amaze me how certain saxophone players shape even the simplest melodies in their own special way, thereby providing a personalized rendition of just about any song. Even though a beautiful saxophone sound is the foundation, using special sound and playing techniques invariably adds a special “kick” to their playing. I have already touched upon some of these techniques in previous JUPITER workshops: growls, subtones and fall-offs. This time, I’d like to focus on a technique that seems just perfect for pop and jazz ballads—bendings.
The term already suggests what this is all about: a note you play is bent upwards and/or downwards, or gradually moved towards the desired pitch. Another way of looking at it would be to say that the player bends their saxophone tone into shape. As such, bendings take some time, and so they are usually applied to rather long notes.
The most important part of bendings is to vary the intonation, i.e. the pitch, of your saxophone. We usually start out by playing the notes in the usual way, after which we cause the note to drop a little by loosening the lower lip. Both the lip and the jaw slide downwards, causing the pitch to drop. We then pull the pitch back up by retightening the lower lip.
Let us begin with a few notes in the middle, lower and upper saxophone registers. The tempo should be comfortable. Each note lasts four beats. Play them at the correct pitch during an entire beat, then lower the jaw as far as you can on the next beat, only to gradually return to the original pitch on the third beat. Be careful not to move the lower lip abruptly: slow and steady position changes are called for here.
The first two exercises clearly show how bendings are indicated: by means of a small arch that seems to be open-ended at the top. Whether or not to play such bendings is a matter of interpretation, however. Some saxophone players like to use as many bendings as possible, while others don’t apply them at all. That explains why the bending symbol hardly ever appears on a score, because each player is allowed to decide for themselves where and how to use bendings.
Here are a few more “musical” exercises
If the fourth exercise reminds you of the B-part in “The Girl From Ipanema”, that is intentional, for this is the perfect song for a whole lot of bendings.
Especially for Solos
Bendings are chiefly used in solos—by just one saxophone, for that is when they sound their very best. I myself do not recommend them for entire brass sections, because if each player bends the notes differently, the entire section sounds off. Remember to apply this technique during your next solo, though.