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Miles Osland: Packing a Mean Sax

by Jeff Worley

Photo of Miles Osland playing sax

When you hear the word “research,” you might imagine a man in a university greenhouse, clipping small samples from soybean plants to study under a microscope.
You might imagine a woman in a darkened lab, watching a green rain of particles in a laser-scattering device to determine their physical and chemical makeup.

What you almost surely wouldn’t imagine is Miles Osland. A professor of saxophone and director of jazz studies at UK, this cool sax man was the recipient last year of a $24,000 UK Research Support Grant. Osland used this grant to commission three works by major international composers who have proven themselves to be “technically adventurous,” he says, and last year he traveled to Sweden, Brazil and England to work with them. All three works are being performed this year at UK and will be released along with many other newly commissioned works on a two-CD set titled “Commission Impossible” on the Sea Breeze label (California) in early 2006.

But what does any of this have to do with research?

“Yeah,” says Osland, who seems to like talking about music almost as much as playing it, “usually this kind of money goes to fund projects in medicine or the hard sciences, but my project, titled ‘Development, Documentation and Dissemination of New Works for Saxophone,’ is fully in keeping with the stated goals in the university’s strategic plan of expanding knowledge through research, scholarship and creative activity.”

Last May at UK, Osland was the featured soloist in the last of the three commissioned performances outlined in his grant proposal. “The Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra,” by English composer Mike Mower, was premiered by the UK Wind Ensemble at the Singletary Center for the Arts. The other works resulting from the research project include “MOSAX Overdrive for Saxofonqvartett” by Sweden’s Anders Åstrand and “Four Miniatures from Brazil” by Brazilian composer Hudson Nogueira. These two works are for saxophone quartet.

Saxophone Research

Leaning back slightly in his desk chair, talking about jazz and other musical influences, his fingers testing the keys of a favorite alto sax on his lap, Osland strikes you as the real deal. His black hair is combed straight back and cinched in a ponytail. Through his small, wire-rimmed glasses his eyes are alive with the intensity of a man happily lost in his subject. And the room’s accoutrements bear witness. A considerable library of neatly shelved jazz CDs lines one wall. A full set of drums anchors a corner. A larger-than-life Duke Ellington beams down from a timeworn poster, and next to the Duke is a blown-up photo of contemporary saxman Michael Brecker, who, Osland says, is technically “an absolute wonder.” And on another wall you can’t miss the two Kentucky personalized license plates that trailed Osland around the state for years: UK JAZZ and MOSAX. This is Music World, and the man is clearly into it.

And when asked exactly how a sax man does research, he is quick and to the point: “Learning and playing new music in a performance is our research. Let me show you.”

Photo of Miles Osland and David HarperIn his office in UK’s Fine Arts building, Osland works with David Harper, a junior music major from Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Harper is this year’s Lewis Award winner, a College of Fine Arts scholarship worth $10,000 over four years.

On his black metal music stand, he opens Mower’s concerto to the final cadenza in the third movement, some 20 minutes into the composition. Hundreds of tiny notes, like arranged buckshot, bounce across and down the two pages. “Our research can focus on developing and using new techniques in our performances, and combining these techniques in musically exciting ways,” Osland explains, tightening a reed onto the mouthpiece of the sax and letting his fingers run through a silent drill on the keys.

“The first technique Mower inserts here is what’s called ‘altissimo,’” says Osland. “It’s a way to get an octave or two above what’s thought to be the highest range of the saxophone.” Using an advanced method of “voicing” the embouchure—the positioning and use of the lips, tongue and bottom jaw pressure—along with unique fingerings, Osland launches a ripple of notes skyward. It’s a technique with attitude and altitude. It’s music that flies high. Then he lands back in a more normal range. “A few bars of altissimo can be used as a surprising, melodic statement.

“Mower follows this with what’s known as ‘slap-tongue.’ Listen.” Osland surrounds the mouthpiece and reed with his lips, then sends a series of staccato bursts of air into the sax. The instrument emits a few explosive slaps; for a few seconds, it becomes a pitched pop gun. “It’s a neat technique,” says Osland, laughing. “It introduces the element of surprise and also adds a percussive touch to the music.”

After a few bars of slap-tongue, Mower introduces a passage that calls for fast alternate fingerings. “This lets you do some up-tempo stuff and add a rippling sound.” To demonstrate, Osland plays a few measures at a slower tempo, then says, “Here’s what this sounds like as written.” His fingers fly up and down the keys, the notes cascading wildly, as if in free fall. This sound gives way then to trilling between two notes (one of the major techniques used by blues sax players) and adding some note-bending. “Bending is done with the embouchure—but you have to keep your airstream steady,” Osland explains.

The final technique in this cadenza enables a sax player to, paradoxically, hit a lower note than the sax can play, below B-flat. “The lowest note on a sax is B-flat. But if you stick your knee in the bell, you get a half-step lower.”

Stick your knee in the bell?

Osland laughs. “It’s a cool technique that I’ve never seen written in any classical piece—watch this.” He plays down a scale, note by note, until low B-flat sounds. Then he lifts his left knee and inserts it halfway into the bell of the sax. B-flat wobbles a bit, then falls lower.

“Mower masses quite a few techniques here, but he doesn’t do it to just show off the technique of the performer. They’re appropriate to what’s come before in the concerto; everything in this final cadenza makes good musical and harmonic sense.” And when Osland premiered this piece last April at UK’s Singletary Center, the audience obviously thought so, too. The 300 or so listeners stood and gave him—and the Wind Ensemble—a long and hearty standing ovation.

“This concerto is probably the most demanding piece of music I’ve ever attempted—the hardest to research, develop, practice, and perform,” says Osland, his eyes suddenly a bit weary from the memory of that exhausting performance. “But one way I think about the experience is, all the new ways I went about practicing and learning the piece will be reflected now in how I teach. So my students will be the ultimate beneficiaries.”

musical notes

Since he’s been at the University of Kentucky, Osland hasn’t let much (blue)grass grow under his feet. He’s published five compositions—for jazz orchestra, jazz ensemble, for little big band, and for saxophone ensemble—with a company in Los Angeles. He has made eight commercial recordings as a leader or co-leader, the most recent titled “In the Land of Ephesus.” And five of his recordings have been submitted for Grammy nominations by Sea Breeze Jazz Records, a well-respected label in jazz.

Osland has made 20 educational recordings, 11 of these resulting from an annual four-week summer session at UK called May Band. “For the past 11 years, the students end this session by recording a CD of new music for a publishing company to distribute for demonstration; some of this music is written by the students, although most of it is from West Coast composers already in the publisher’s catalog.” This CD goes out to some 1,500 jazz band directors in middle schools, high schools and universities around the country. “This instructional recording includes two- to three-minute excerpts of each tune, so it’s a sampler of sorts. And it’s got UK’s name on it.”

Photo of Miles Osland's recent CDs

In addition to his current $24,000 UK Research Support Grant, he has garnered awards and fellowships from the Lexington Arts & Cultural Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

And then there’s Miles Osland the author. He has also found time to publish six books, the most recent titled The Music of Eddie Daniels (published by Warner Brothers), and has published over 75 articles and reviews on saxophone technique and jazz improvisation. This work can be found in the country’s leading music publications, including Downbeat, Saxophone Journal and Jazz Educators Journal.

But outside of performing, nothing seems to give Osland as much satisfaction as teaching. “I love working with students and seeing them improve, sometimes immensely, in just a semester. There have been a couple this past semester that just took off—wow!—and sometimes the students don’t see it as easily as the teacher.”

He adds that the excitement of seeing a student improve is magnified in an ensemble setting. One of the most noteable, Osland says, was the 2003 student jazz ensemble, which under his direction won top awards at the 36th Annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival in Illinois. Out of the 36 ensembles to perform, only six big bands received an outstanding rating, and of those six, UK was the only ensemble invited to perform during the awards concert.

“I can honestly say that our ensembles, year after year, are truly among the best in the country—the students are amazing,” Osland says. In the past, other ensembles directed by Osland have won the “Outstanding Jazz Ensemble” award at the Elmhurst and Notre Dame jazz festivals nine times, and five of their recordings have received four-star reviews from Downbeat and were submitted for Grammy nominations.

Deflecting “too much credit” for the excellence of these student groups, he underscores the importance of a “very special” colleague in the School of Music—his wife Lisa. “She directs the sax quartets and also teaches students one-on-one in the studio.”

“I always thought that I would end up on one of the coasts—New York or Los Angeles. But what I have learned is that I can do exactly what I want to do right here in the Bluegrass. I am in a very fortunate position: I get to satisfy my ‘teaching habit,’ yet still advance myself as a recording and performing artist. And, of course, being the recipient of fellowships and grants such as the UK Research Support Grant has helped immensely. It’s really tough for a musician-scholar to find funding, so I really appreciate the support.”

Miles and Miles

It’s a natural question: With a name like Miles, wasn’t Osland destined to become a jazz musician?

“Well, it’s interesting,” he says, laying the sax aside for the moment. “I’m adopted, and the story goes that my adopted father saw Miles Davis in San Francisco a couple months before he and my adopted mother received me, and he was so inspired by seeing Davis that he named me Miles. So, yes, I guess I had to become a jazz musician. Neither of my parents had any musical background whatsoever. I have a secret fantasy that I’m the product of some great jazz musician’s one-night stand,” Osland laughs.

He adds that when he was growing up in Escondido, 30 minutes north of San Diego, his mother played the bigger role in sparking his interest in jazz. “My mother, a lover of the ’60s West Coast Cool School of Jazz, was listening to Dave Brubeck all day on phonograph. When I was 10 years old, we sat down and had a serious talk about what instrument I should play. She put on ‘Take Five,’ and I listened to the Paul Desmond alto saxophone solo on that. Then she put on a Pete Fountain/Al Hirt recording, and I listened to the clarinet on that, and then there was a Herbie Mann recording on flute. I ended up choosing flute because of that recording.”

But there was just something about the sax that called out to him. Osland listened and listened again to his mother’s Duke Ellington albums, featuring Johnny Hodges on sax, and to Cannonball Adderley. “I took up the sax at age 12 and haven’t put it down since. Probably of all the instruments I play, the sax is the most versatile. Maybe one appeal, especially of the tenor sax, is that it’s so close to the range of the human male voice.”

Along with flute and saxophone, Osland also plays clarinet, piano and drums. And he says that he “can get around on the guitar a little bit,” too. “In high school, I was in a rock and roll garage band. It was great fun, but thankfully there are no recordings that exist from that musical chapter of my life.”

musical notes

After receiving a bachelor of music degree at California State University, Northridge in 1985, Osland decided to go cross-country for his master’s degree, to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. At that time Eastman boasted perhaps the best teacher of saxophone in the country, Osland says—Ramon Ricker. Eastman and Ricker didn’t disappoint: Miles was very happy there and wound up in 1987 with a master of music degree in performance, jazz studies and contemporary media, with an emphasis in saxophone.

But outside of performing, nothing seems to give Osland as much satisfaction as teaching. “I love working with students and seeing them improve, sometimes immensely, in just a semester. There have been a couple this past semester that just took off—wow!—and sometimes the students don’t see it as easily as the teacher.”

Photo of Miles and Lisa OslandLisa and Miles Osland, front and center, at an Eastman School of Music band competition shortly before they graduated in 1987. They married soon after graduation.

His days at Eastman were rich with music, and his personal life took an up-tempo swing as well. He met another student, named Lisa, who was just as serious about the saxophone as he was. Then they got serious about each other and were married shortly after they graduated. “Ray Ricker, the man who brought us together in the first place, was the best man at our wedding,” Osland says.

Miles also met someone at Eastman who would turn out to be instrumental in his career path. Osland was a member of a summer session orchestra at Eastman and met a trumpet player named Vince DiMartino, at the time a professor of music at the University of Kentucky. DiMartino was an Eastman School grad, and he and Osland really loved each other’s playing. DiMartino at the time was lobbying to get a sax professor at UK, and someone who could also take over the jazz ensemble he’d been heading up for 17 years.

“I got the job and have been directing the jazz ensemble and heading up jazz studies and saxophone studio ever since,” Osland says. “It was this connection that got me here.” And although DiMartino left UK in 1993 to become the first distinguished artist-in-residence at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, he and Osland still cook up some hot jazz together. “We’ve had a Big Band together ever since I’ve been here—going on 16 years now. We play the last Monday of every month at Comedy Off Broadway, out at Lexington Green. It’s a real fine ensemble of musicians, all from Central Kentucky.”

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