Free "Professor of Sax" Collection Merits a Gold Star

Mark Sabbatini BY

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As trash-talking goes, getting schooled by the "Professor Of Saxophone" is of questionable caliber. But Miles Osland is in no danger of losing face if words fail him—he wields a horn capable of bludgeoning even the most forward-thinking rebel punk in the classroom.

Some professors put students to sleep lecturing from the book, while others bring classes to their living rooms for political discussions accompanied by authentic homemade food from the region in question. Osland, in a collection of more than 30 free songs downloadable at his Web site, is a top-tier member of the latter group with remarkably creative performances in a variety of genres from modern classical to progressive sax quartet to traditional big band.

Osland, director of jazz studies at the University of Kentucky, has taught in the region for most of his 20-year career. He's recorded about 15 albums and at least as many educational CDs, in addition to writing numerous books and leading a number of international composing projects. The 22 downloads on his main MP3 page offer a great range of general listening from each of his albums, but those wanting to dive deeper into the sonic qualities of the saxophone and advanced playing techniques will find a healthy collection of additional tracks on his books page.

Common to nearly all of the albums are Osland's razor-tone woodwinds, jumping liberally around scales and octaves in finger-flapping bursts and sharply defined phrases. He gives contemporary arrangements of popular tunes like "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" swinging intellect without losing their quick-hook gratification. Even pieces like "Prelude To A Kiss" with performance and audio seemingly mired in the 1940s are deliberate, turning a dull initial listen into a study of recording technique.

His best work elevates a blend of techniques to match the more complex compositions. The nearly nine-minute "Movement 3: Rhythmic" from the upcoming Commission Impossible by his saxophone quartet and a university orchestra features a progression of neo-classical, unaccompanied freeform and ethnic fusion. His tone coasts soothingly on the easygoing rhythms, and stabs with growls and tongue slaps during the organized chaos from the ensemble.

There's also plenty of quality from simpler concepts, such as the freeform collusion of drums, vibes and sax on "Obligato," which is largely based on an evolving three-note vamp. "Night In Olneyville" is among several sax quartet pieces with varying qualities of note, this one being heavy on percussive articulations. One of Osland's small chamber university ensembles delivers loose and spirited soul on the south side of the "Union County Line." The horn-drenched, driving-beat fusion of "New Kid In Town" is reminiscent of Dave Weckl's recent funk groups, with better sax work and minus the masterful drum solos. Latin, African and other ethnic forms are also featured.

The "lesser" moments are more a plateau between peaks than a real letdown. His lyrical soprano sax duet with pianist Raleigh Dailey on "Title Goes Here" from their Inclusivity album is pleasant, but lacking the unique character of the standout tracks (their "Absolution" duet executes the concept at higher level). "My Home Kentucky Home" is solid big band, but again nothing inspired within its three minutes. "Prelude's" spot-on emulation of Duke is impressive, but a better academic experience than a listening one. The audio, while professional, is in noticeably lower in quality and volume on a few tracks.

The educational tracks from the book page are the equal of an artist's workshop before a concert, offering insight that makes it easier to appreciate his performances, but not likely to appeal to a broad audience. He discusses horn, mouthpiece and microphone techniques, for example, before a rehearsal room take of "Absolution," but the audio is far below the studio version. Listeners can also hear him and other players such as Bob Mintzer playing songs and solos while following along on digitally scanned leadsheets.

Osland isn't an overlooked talent, as his albums generally earn praise from reviewers. But he hasn't gotten a lot of press, given the length and scope of his career, at least for the Google-minded. With a limited presence of is albums outside his Web site, his collection of downloads might not get the attention it deserves, but few who come across it will dispute he is anything but a class act.

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