Neil Welsh: Multiphonic Monk

Originally published in Earshot Jazz April 2014, Vol. 30, No. 04

By trying every day for a year, how many sounds can be made from a saxophone? What if you stayed away from conventional fingerings and melodies? What combinations of open and closed saxophone keys produce more than one note at a time? Neil Welch was determined to find out by searching through these multi-phonic textures alone, like a private meditation.


For all of 2013, Welch spent about two hours each day, recording his improvisations, writing about them, finding a related image and posting the results on a website, neilwelch.com. One recording was made in the second floor bathroom of Benaroya Hall. Others came from a closet at Chief Sealth High School, the back seat of his car, the practice room hallway at South Whidbey High School, a room in his childhood home in Edmonds, his brother’s apartment in the Haight District of San Francisco, beside a creek in Oregon. One of my favorites came from a highway pullout near Cannon Beach recorded on day 249 (September 6). He dubbed the year long project 12 Moons and is now extending the exploration in a project labeled Continuous Resonance.

People followed Welch’s 12 Moons posts. Some were fellow saxophonists, interested in obscure technical details. Others found resonance in the personal intensity and integrity of Welch’s pursuit. “It’s not a numbers thing,” Welch says. “I can’t pay attention to the number of ‘likes’ on Facebook.”

The daily discipline instilled a persistent question for Welch each and every morning – What am I going to create today? It combined the spontaneity of improvisation with the permanence of a documented recording. Instead of long practice followed by a concert or recording, the process became the performance – the means became the ends.

Welch excelled at musical challenges as a student. On the first day of Jazz Band rehearsal as a student at Edmonds Woodway High School, the new band director quickly realized Welch could not read music. Told that he could not continue in the band, Welch negotiated a reprieve of one month to become musically literate. Not only did Welch master the skill of reading music, he went on to perform with the band at New York City’s Essentially Ellington Contest and won an Outstanding Soloist Award for his mastery of the ballad “I’ve Just Seen Her.”

Welch manages to accomplish musical goals through careful focus and resilient determination. And over the years he has been guided by some of our region’s outstanding jazz educators – trumpeters Jay Thomas, Jake Bergevin and Vern Sielert.

Welch made the journey from his training in classic jazz to his current avant explorations via a 1978 Volkswagen Bus. During a three month road trip across America with his wife at the wheel, he learned to practice very quietly, bouncing sounds from strange fingerings off the dashboard. Occasionally, his wife would say, “That sounds interesting.” Upon returning to Seattle, Welch emerged from the van with a personal sonic vocabulary – earnest, disciplined, meditative and distinct.
Welch’s path doesn’t find shelter in the mainstream. The unique perspective on his instrument provides a personal palette of artistic materials. April showers us with several opportunities to listen to Welch live and interacting with several other open minded musicians.

April 11th 8:00pm-10:00pm with the Jen Gilleran Ensemble
April 13th 8:00pm-10:00pm at Café Racer hosted by Neil Welch
April 18th 8:00pm-10:00pm at The Salmon Bay Eagles Club (Ballard Jazz Festival) with King Tears Bat Trip
April 26th 8:00pm-10:00pm at Chapel Performance Space with the Ivan Arteaga saxophone quartet

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