Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Holidays


T'is the season, and I want to take this time to wish all of my readers the happiest of holidays, and may you find your dream horn under your tree this year.  I want to thank the many readers world-wide that have encouraged me to keep this blog going.  I was pleasantly surprised by how many readers I had world wide. This of course encourages me to step up my game and make this blog even more informative and more accurate.

I want to thank all of my readers from the following countries: US, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium (the birthplace of Adolphe Sax), Denmark, Italy, Spain, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, and even New Guinea. 

May this year bless all of you with the fulfillment of all your dreams, and a saxophone to go with them!  See you next year!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Johnny Hodges: An Appreciation

While I have often cited Benny Carter as my chief influence on the alto sax, my very first influence was Johnny Hodges.  The first time I heard that lush, lyrical and absolutely haunting tone, I knew why I chose the alto sax as my main horn.  Johnny made it sing like no one else, and Charlie Parker even called him "the Lily Pons of the alto sax", a reference to a very popular opera singer of the day.  No one has ever sounded like Johnny Hodges.  Some have imitated him, but no one has really ever quite duplicated him.

John Cornelius Hodges was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 25, 1906.  Harry Carney, the great baritone player and his bandmate in the Ellington Orchestra was a neighbor.  He began by playing the piano and then the soprano saxophone, in which he was largely self-taught. When the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet came to Boston to appear in a show called Jimmy Cooper's Black and White Revue, Hodges, then 14, went to see the show and stuck up a friendship with Bechet, who encouraged him and gave him some lessons on the soprano. Eventually, Hodges would make a reputation for himself around Boston before moving to New York City in 1924.  He played for not only Sidney Bechet, but also in the bands of Lucky Roberts, Lloyd Scott and Chick Webb, before finally joining Duke Ellington's band where he would be the featured soloist for the rest of his life, with the exception of 1951-55 when he left the band and went solo.  However he rejoined the orchestra in 1955 and was there until his death on May 11, 1970, from a heart attack in his dentist's office.

Johnny, along with Benny Carter and Willie Smith, was one of the original big band alto stylists.  By that time, he switched to alto saxophone so as not to be compared to Bechet, and only played the soprano rarely, and after being featured in Benny Goodman's famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 playing a soprano solo, never played it again after that.  He was given the nickname "Rabbit" because of his fondness for lettuce and tomato sandwiches.  His tone was lush, lyrical and smooth, and he excelled on ballads and slow blues, always emphasizing tone over technique and flash, although if you ever listen carefully, there is a tremendous amount of technique and control needed to play the way he did.   He made frequent use of glissandos, making the saxophone sound as if it used a slide instead of keys.  Ellington wrote many pieces with his various soloists in mind, as did Billy Strayhorn, his alter ego, and they wrote probably more for Hodges than just about anyone else.  Among them, my personal favorite "Prelude To A Kiss", and also, "Isfahan", "Jeep's Blues", "Daydream", "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", among others.


While Johnny Hodges spent the majority of his career with Ellington, and aside from his hiatus from the band from 1951-55, Hodges also recorded with Lawrence Welk, Billy Taylor and Oliver Nelson.  He also made recordings with Billy Strayhorn without Ellington, and other Ellington sidemen.  He was a big influence on Ben Webster, whose smooth tenor was based on Hodges alto.  John Coltrane also cited Hodges as his main influence, and even briefly played in one of Hodges bands during his hiatus from Ellington.

On stage, it was often hard to reconcile the stance and lack of expression in Hodges' face with the expressive, lush and swooping tone coming out of his saxophone.  Ellington stated that women in the audience often swooned when Johnny played a ballad.  When I hear Johnny playing a ballad or a slow blues, it just makes me close my eyes, sway and go "yeeeaahhh!"


 In Ellington's eulogy of Hodges, he said, "Never the world's most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes—this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges. Our band will never sound the same."

"He gets an idea, thinks up a countermelody, and you end up with a whole new song," said Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown of Hodges.

Johnny Hodges played a Conn 6M saxophone, then switched to the Buescher Aristocrat "Big B", then the Buescher 400, and finally a custom made Vito, made in France, just for Johnny.  He left behind a rich musical legacy with one of the greatest orchestras and composers in jazz, as well as his own orchestras and collaborations with other bandleaders and musicians.  Although I can't imagine anyone who plays the saxophone not knowing who Johnny Hodges is, just in the event you are not familiar with him, or need a reminder, I have included links to his music to reacquaint you with one of the greatest saxophone masters ever.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4EnjP2NGcE





https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgVm4NLMBcI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iJU8ec0DWk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZA_JxaA1ddA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad_NFvmyPvA










Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review: 5 Phil Barone Saxophones


I haven't written an article in a while because some new events are unfolding in my life, nice ones I might add, and I am preparing for a location change as well.  However, that is still going to take some time, so while I'm still in New York City, I will be taking in as much of the music scene as I can, and as always, visit with, jam and hang with all of my musician friends.  Where I will be going in about a year will be a gorgeous place, but with no jazz or general music scene, and it will be my goal to make one, since the potential is there.  Where this place is I will not discuss until I am actually there, suffice to say that it is a beautiful place, my version of paradise.  I will write about that when the time comes.

Anyway, as some of you who are regular readers know, I retired recently, which has given me more time to concentrate on more of what I want to do.  I have returned to getting back to my artwork by doing a lot of pencil sketches, and of course writing articles for this blog and visiting shops and friends and trying out their saxophones.  The only time I can write a review for a saxophone is when I have access to them, whether visiting the various shops in NYC, or playing on a horn or horns a friend owns and plays.  I am especially interested in reviewing brands and models that are not ordinarily reviewed but that I find worthy of consideration. I also am more and more interested in reviewing brands that have the look, sound and build quality of a professional saxophone, but are priced in the intermediate range which would be more affordable to the working professional who is not a "star" but is still a skilled player in need of an instrument that can meet their requirements and fit within their budget, as well as the student who wants to step up and have a better quality saxophone but can't afford a top professional model.

I have a friend who is one of those saxophone players that is by no means a star, but is always working because he is not only a great player, he is an excellent sight reader (my sight reading is so-so), is reliable, when called is always on time and dressed appropriately for the gig.  He can handle just about any style, though I don't think he does classical.  He also travels a lot and plays in Europe and Asia quite a bit.  His main sax was always tenor, a Selmer Mark VI, but he decided to expand his range of saxophones in order to get even more gigs.  Of course, the biggest problem is that a good saxophone is not cheap.  Even a student saxophone of decent quality can be over a thousand dollars, and an intermediate over $2000, and top professional $2500 and going up, and up.  My friend wanted to have the full range from soprano to baritone, which is quite an expensive proposition to begin with, which can amount to what the cost of a luxury automobile could be.  He ended up getting saxophones made in Taiwan that are branded and sold by Phil Barone.

Phil Barone started out in the business as a saxophone player and technician.  He also started modifying mouthpieces for his clients, eventually producing his own line of mouthpieces which have gotten very favorable reviews. Eventually he marketed his own line of saxophones, built in Taiwan, ranging from soprano, both straight and curved, all the way to baritone.  His saxophones come in a wide variety of finishes which include gold plate, silver plate, vintage bronze, unlacquered, black nickel, honey gold lacquer, vintage gold lacquer and vintage bare brass. He has two model lines, the Classic and the Vintage. The Classic is more or less a copy of the Selmer with similar bore size and bell size and has a more focused sound from having a little more resistance.  The Vintage has a larger bore, a bigger bell flare, which gives it a somewhat punchier, more spread out sound. It has double arms on the low Bb and C keys, and has additional engraving on the bow, the bell top and the neck. There is also a small brace that stabilizes the G# left hand pinky cluster.  Quite an impressive range for a proprietary brand. 

The saxophones my friend had that I played were the Classic straight soprano with gold plate, the curved soprano with silver plate, the Vintage alto with honey gold lacquer, the Classic tenor with vintage bronze lacquer and the Classic baritone with the vintage gold lacquer.  For the sopranos I used a Jody Jazz HR 6, for alto my trusted old Meyer 6M, for tenor a Jody Jazz Red 6 with the baffle removed (actually, I lost it but never used it anyway), and for the baritone an old and rarely used Meyer 5.  I used a Rovner ligature on all of them and as of now, I am using almost exclusively Legere Signature reeds, 2 1/2, because I have found, at least to me, that they have the warmth and response of cane, but are consistent, and last a lot longer than even a whole box of cane reeds.  Sure, each one goes anywhere from 25 to 40 dollars, but so do whole boxes of reeds and you will still go through at least several boxes of cane reeds before you need to replace one Signature reed.  That's just me.

I decided to start from soprano and go in order all the way up.  I started with the silver plated curved soprano.
The silver plate was just gorgeous, and there was beautiful engraving on the bell top as well as the bell.  The finish was even everywhere I looked, no bubbles or blobs.  I also found no soldering blobs anywhere, everything looked neat and tidy, and that turned out to be true for all of the Barone saxophones I played that day.  Normally, I don't like curved sopranos because for me with my large hands, my fingers always squish together on all of the curved sopranos I've played.  My fingers seemed to have a little more room to move on the Barone, and so allowed me to feel looser playing it.  The key response was positive, very smooth and even.  I didn't feel any play in the keys, and whether it was that way out of the box or if my friend's tech fine tuned it, regardless, the keys felt and responded well under the fingers.  As with all the saxophones I try, the first thing I always like to play is a ballad and a slow blues to evaluate it's sound, which to me has always been the most important factor. Playing long, expressive slow notes is as far as I'm concerned the best criteria for judging how good a saxophone will be. Mechanics are important for speed and proper execution for sure, but none of that will mean anything if the horn doesn't have the sound you're looking for, provided you know what kind of sound you want. This soprano really surprised me. The sound was rich and deep.  The tone, for a soprano was more on the dark side, not bright or shrill, projecting clear across the room, and man could it sing.  This also surprised me because generally I find silver plated horns fairly bright, but this horn had a depth and complexity that frankly, I have never experienced on soprano. It was more like a lighter alto, a la Paul Desmond.  Intonation on a soprano can be tricky, but it wasn't an issue here. However, it also had real bite to it when you pushed it, but never seemed to get to that place where your ears begin to ring.  It definitely got a thumbs up from me.
 
Next up was the Classic gold plated straight soprano
This soprano, like many modern sopranos came with two necks, one straight and one curved. I opted for the straight neck because I prefer straight sopranos.  The gold plate along with engraving was gorgeous, and if you didn't know it was a Barone you would think it's the most expensive Selmer soprano.  The sound of this soprano seemed a little more refined, something I would definitely use on a classical gig.  In a modern context, it would be great for jazz or pop ballads and blues. I couldn't see this as used for rock, but then, a good player can take any saxophone and make it work for their style of music. Intonation again was very good for a soprano, and key and tone response was excellent.  Thumbs up again.

Next, the Vintage alto with honey gold lacquer
The alto is my main horn, the one that I find really fits my musical personality, the one I have played far more than any other saxophone.  The Barone Vintage alto had a very nicely "toned" honey gold lacquer finish, the kind of finish I prefer if they all looked like this. It had a very rich golden hue, and with the extensive engraving on the bell, bow, bell top and neck, really gave this saxophone a very classy appearance.  Of course, cosmetics mean nothing if it doesn't sound good, akin to a woman who looks gorgeous when dressed up and made up, but when she speaks, sounds like Lina Lamont from "Singing In The Rain".  With a larger bore and larger bell flare than a Classic, I assumed it would be a freer blowing horn, and it certainly was. The sound was big, deep and really rich. It was a very flexible saxophone in that I ran the gamut from jazz to blues, rock and pop, and threw in a little classical (of which I only really know three pieces, "The Old Castle", "Claire de Lune", and the saxophone parts to "Bolero"), and it played it all.  I found it to be a very expressive horn, and to be honest. could give my old Conn and any Mark VI or other top name horn a good run for its money. I could easily make this horn my regular gigging horn without any qualms.  Thumbs up again.

Next, the Classic tenor with vinatge bronze finish
I mentioned that my friend was primarily a tenor player and this PB Classic vintage bronze sax reminded him of his Mark VI, and was the first Barone sax he ordered.  He told me that he didn't always want to take his Mark VI to some of the gigs in bars where the crowd wasn't as well behaved as in some other venues.  After playing this for a while, he found that it was every bit as good as his VI and he sold it to get the money to put towards the other Barone saxes he wanted to buy.  The Classic vintage bronze has the look that is popular on many modern saxes that look to emulate the worn look of older horns. On some saxophones with similar finishes, it can look a little cheesy and artificial, but in this particular sax, the finish was well done and really looked as if it had been played for 50 years.  Sure enough, the sound was classic tenor, with a smooth velvety voice, like Lester Young or Ben Webster, but also could push it to get that Coleman Hawkins sound as well as the sound of the great R&B saxophonists.  I could see why my friend decided to go with this horn and sell his VI.  I especially like this horn on ballads and slow blues. Another thumbs up.

Finally, the Classic baritone with vintage gold lacquer
Frankly, I was reluctant to try the baritone.  As I have previously mentioned, the baritone just doesn't seem to be my horn, and I never could get a decent sound out of one.  I always ended up sounding like a tuba that has indigestion.  So I wasn't sure whether or not I could properly evaluate one based on my own experience.  However, I decided that I might as well give it a try and see what I can do.  As it is, I always use a sax harness even for the alto, because of a strained neck, and I highly recommend one if you're going to play baritone.  The vintage gold lacquer is also known as cognac lacquer on other brands, and has a nice hue that would remind you of an old gold lacquer horn that has darkened over a long period of time.  The first few notes I played were not very clean or impressive, but after a few minutes I found the right place on the mouthpiece for me, and started getting into my groove.  Once I got a handle on the horn, I got a very different sound than I would have expected.  On the soprano, alto and tenor, I tend to have a smooth darker sound, the kind I like for playing the music I like.  I really thought that I would get this tubby, almost farty kind of sound, but instead, I got something almost cello-like in tone.  I could see this kind of a sax in a classical sax quartet. I even got some of those Gerry Mulligan like sounds out of it. This could make me want to pick up a baritone.  Well, not really, because I still didn't feel that it was exactly right for me.  However, the fact that I got my first decent sound out of a baritone has to say something for this sax.  So based on my limited experience with baritones, it still gets a thumbs up.

Each one of these saxophones were well made, well finished, and had superb sound, key action and ergonomics.  They really were as good as anything out there and considering it's a proprietary brand, that was even more surprising.  The most amazing thing about these horns was the price. I have not seen or played saxophones this good at the price these were going for.  I would even say that they are as good as anything I have played at any price.  My friend told me that regardless of how inexpensive these horns were, if they didn't perform up to expectations, he would have returned them and looked for something better.  After all, his livelihood depends on it.  The saxes from soprano to tenor are all under $2000, except for the gold plated Vintage alto, Classic and Vintage tenors which are only slightly above that, but you won't find a top quality saxophone with gold plating even at those prices, so it's an amazing value.  The baritones are all under $4000, even the gold plated one.

The reason the cost is so low is that Phil Barone sells saxophones directly from his website and out of his shop in New York City, so there is no middleman to jack up the prices, and aside from his website and Facebook page, he does no advertising.  His saxophones come with a contoured hard case, a Phil Barone mouthpiece, strap and polishing cloth.  My friend says the mouthpieces that came with the saxophones are so good that he uses them, except for the tenor, where he still uses his 1950's Otto Link metal 7* Florida mouthpiece. Phil also sells his custom mouthpieces and sells custom saxophone necks.

I would highly recommend these saxophones if you're a working professional on a budget or an advanced student that needs a better horn.  You would be hard-pressed to find a saxophone with the looks, sound and quality of this sax at these prices.  As a proprietary brand, the resale value will definitely not be as good as in a name brand, but then, this is a horn for playing, not collecting, and play it will.  For more information, click on the link below:

http://www.philbarone.com/

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Paul Desmond: An Appreciation


Lately I have been going through my digital music library and taking taking all the recordings of the saxophone players who have influenced me the most and creating separate play lists dedicated to each artist.  The idea is to have everything I have of that artist in one place so I can spend some time listening to just them.  Playing the alto sax, I started with my main influences on that horn; Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, etc., and will expand my lists to include tenor players, as well as the few baritone players, soprano players, etc.  I listen for what makes them unique, their tone, their harmonic approach, the devices each one uses that are as identifiable as one's handwriting.  Every player will have musical devices that they will use over and over again, no matter how harmonically sophisticated they are, and when you listen to anyone long enough, you begin to hear what they are.  Just like when a person talks, using phrases or expressions unique to the individual, so it is with music, another language.  In the coming weeks, I will write articles on those saxophone players I spend the most time listening to.

Although Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges are my main influences on saxophone, Paul Desmond has also been a big influence on my playing.  He came along at a time when Charlie Parker created a new jazz language, and everyone followed.  While Paul Desmond definitely admired Charlie Parker, he forged his own sound and musical identity not beholden to Parker.  His sound was light and airy, his lines melodic.  His improvisations were thematic, and as a result, he could play one chorus after another and not repeat ideas, yet he never meandered aimlessly, he just made his statement and then made room for someone else.  Many called his music cerebral, but I disagree. He did have a highly developed intellect and great sense of humor, but the lyricism of his playing showed a man with a deep sense of beauty.  His use of altissimo (notes above the normal register of the saxophone using alternate fingerings) sounded so effortless you would think that they were a normal part of the saxophone's range.

Paul Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco in 1924.  His father was Jewish and his mother Irish-Catholic. Later on, when he changed his name to Desmond, he joked he did it because "Breitenfeld sounded too Irish".  He began on the clarinet when in high school.  During WWII he was drafted into the US Army, but he joined a military band and never saw combat.  Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond first met in 1944 when Brubeck tried out for the 253rd Army Band which Desmond belonged to.  According to Desmond, he was taken aback by the chord changes Brubeck was playing at the audition.  After they were both discharged, Paul Desmond got a gig with the Jack Fina Orchestra.  After finishing with Jack Fina, Paul Desmond approached Dave Brubeck and convinced him to hire him for a group and in 1951 the Dave Brubeck Quartet was formed.  The group stayed together until 1967, but Brubeck and Desmond still played together on and off until Desmond's death in 1977.  The most famous composition in the Brubeck repertoire is "Take Five", which was composed by Desmond.  During his time with Brubeck and after the break up of the quartet, Desmond did other projects as sideman or soloist with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Jim Hall, the Modern Jazz Quartet and others. Paul Desmond played a Selmer Super Balanced Action with a M.C. Gregory 4A-18M mouthpiece and Rico 3 1/2 reeds.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet (l. to r. Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright)

Paul Desmond was not just known for his music, but also for his dry wit and sense of humor and clever use of puns.  Many of his "Desmondisms" have become famous.  For example, when seeing an old girlfriend in the company of an old but obviously rich gentleman, Desmond remarked "So that's how the world ends, not with a whim but with a banker".

Other Quotes and Desmondisms:

 I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini.
 
I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.

I was unfashionable before anyone knew who I was.

I’m glad [Ornette Coleman] is such an individualist. I like the firmness of thought and purpose that goes into what he’s doing, even though I don’t always like to listen to it. It’s like living in a house where everything’s painted red.

On the secret of his tone: "I honestly don't know! It has something to do with the fact that I play illegally."

Of writer Jack Kerouac he said, "I hate the way he writes. I kind of love the way he lives, though."

His response to the annoying banality of an interviewer, "You're beginning to sound like a cross between David Frost and David Susskind, and that is a cross I cannot bear."

Walking into his record label's office and seeing a large potted plant "With fronds like these who needs anemones?"

That wit and dry sense of humor could also be heard when playing his solos, in the quotes he uses. It is a popular jazz game to insert a quote from another song into a solo, and while for the most part the quote sticks out, even from the greatest players, Desmond had a way of playing it like it was actually part of the song he was playing, and it often has taken me several listenings to realize what the quote was.  For example, in "Blight Of The Fumblebee" from his recording with Gerry Mulligan "Two Of A Mind", he inserts a quote from J.S. Bach's 5th Brandenburg Concerto, which is integrated so well into his solo it sounds as if it was written in.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RZbByVdiBI

At Montreaux, Desmond plays a beautiful version of a song called "Emily" which was the theme for a movie called "The Americanization of Emily", and he quotes a song "Would You", which was used in the classic movie "Singing In The Rain".  He integrates the quote so subtly that the only indication of him having played it is the self-pleased smile he has after playing it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZbahdBHv9E

Paul Desmond had a taste for Scotch whiskey and was a heavy smoker.  He was also known to have dabbled in LSD.  When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he quipped to the doctor that his liver was still healthy.  Paul Desmond played his last concert with Dave Brubeck in New York City in February 1977.  On May 30th 1977, Desmond passed away.  He was cremated and his ashes scattered.

Paul Desmond may not have been a musical innovator, but he was an original in every sense of the word. His tone is instantly recognizable when you hear it, his way of phrasing and use of counterpoint unlike anyone else's, and his lines are sheer beauty.  His love of melody could make you forget that his improvisations were filled with original and complex changes.  As he said:

“Complexity can be a trap. You can have a ball developing a phrase, inverting it, playing it in different keys and times and all. But it’s really more introspective than communicative. Like a crossword puzzle compared to a poem.”

Here is more of Paul Desmond




 



















Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thoroughly Modern Sax


When I began this blog 5 years ago, it started on a whim.  I never wrote much of anything in the past except for what I had to write for school, and that never turned out too well anyhow.  However, I love the saxophone and saxophone music and sax players (most anyway), and so it is a natural thing for me to just sit down and write my thoughts and to be able to play different saxophones and write about them in order for people who want to play, or even those who have played for a while, choose a saxophone that would be right for them, both musically and financially.  I am lucky that I have worked in the business and though retired now, still know lots of people in the business and so always have access to new and vintage saxophones that I can play to my heart's content and then when I come across something new or different, I can write about it here. 

For anyone who has been reading my blog from the beginning, you know that I started out still thinking that vintage saxophones were superior to their modern counterparts in build quality and tone.  At one time I believed that if it wasn't made in the USA, Europe (particularly France and Germany) or Japan, than it was simply not very good.  At one time I would have been right, but there have been developments in the industry and improvements in saxophone design and production that have made me do a complete turnaround in my thinking.  When saxophones like the Conn M series, Buescher Aristocrats and 400's, King Zephyrs and Super 20's, Martin Committees, and of course Selmer Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action and Mark VI's were made, they were the best of their time.  There are still a number of players who prefer to play vintage horns today, particularly Mark VI's and would not even consider a modern saxophone.  They still have the belief that the old horns sound and were made better back then.  The reason for this thinking stems mainly from the fact that the more a fine instrument is played and the longer it is played, the more resonant, or "broken in" it will sound.  However, if an instrument is not well made, you can play it every day for a hundred years and it will still sound and play like crap.  

For many years, there wasn't any saxophone, including any Mark VI I've played that sounded better than my old Conn 6M.  Of course, the ergonomics of the horn left much to be desired, but for the longest time I thought that had to be the trade-off for a saxophone that I considered better than any modern horn, and I thought that for a long time.  I have changed my mind considerably in the last five years.  I have also completely changed the way I look at saxophones coming out of Asia other than Japan, particularly Taiwan.  When I lived in Taiwan from 2000-2001, I had seen and played many saxophones made there, and they all looked good, but quality was still questionable.  It was mostly quality control.  The metals were traditional brass, and they built horns with copper, silver and nickel finishes, and they sounded alright if they were properly regulated.  Most of the time I found there was a little sloppy work in the soldering of the posts, regulation of the key heights and placement, and there weren't any real qualified sax techs anywhere in Taiwan that I knew of, except for maybe one or two in Taipei (I lived in a city called Tainan in the south west) that could properly set up a horn.  However, since that time, as a necessity, they have upped their game considerably and at this point there are Taiwanese companies producing world class instruments, something that was unthinkable 15 years ago.  For some time, the Taiwanese companies were and still are building student and intermediate saxophones for the more established names, but now they have established themselves in the world market, with their own brands and in my opinion, are building some truly great saxophones, and very importantly, at prices that a working professional on a budget can afford without compromising on quality, sound and playability.

The next country for ultra-cheap saxophones of dubious quality has been China.  Again however, things are improving there as well. Because of the cheap labor, many established companies have contracted Chinese manufacturers to build student and intermediate saxophones for them under their name.  The thing about Chinese and Taiwanese factories is that they are new and modern, and they use the same kind of machinery that all of the major manufacturers use.  It's really all a matter of quality control, quality of the brass and the individual parts and properly training the workers to perform the tasks required in building saxophones.  The majority of the process of building a saxophone is repetitive and done by machine, and it doesn't take any great skill, just being conscientious in doing the job well.  The rest is up to quality control.  If strict guidelines are in place, and each instrument is thoroughly checked and gone over by a qualified technician before it is packed and leaves the factory, then no matter where it's made, it should be a decent enough instrument.  This is why Yamaha for example, builds their 26 and 480 saxophones in China with no loss in quality, because of their quality control.  Indonesia and Vietnam are other Asian countries where passable instruments are being made.  There are no more saxophones being made in the US anymore because it's just too costly to do so.  The Powell Silver Eagle was a noble effort to bring a superior US made saxophone to the market, but it proved to be too costly and so the project was discontinued.  

As for the big 4 manufacturers, Selmer, Keilwerth, Yamaha and Yanigasawa, they continue to build top grade saxophones and their product is improving all the time.  They all utilize computer programs to better analyze brass composition and create a more consistent alloy, key placements and heights, acoustics, etc.  This alone has helped make modern saxophones better than ever.  It was a necessity anyway.  Music has changed quite a bit in the last 150 years or so since the saxophone was invented.  The modern saxophone player must play a greater variety of styles and an increased range from the 3 1/2 octave range of older saxophones to having to play a 4 plus octave range, and that requires extra keys, tone holes and a change in bore size, neck diameter, etc.  Intonation is also more accurate on modern saxophones because of the improvements in design.  Also, let's face it, ergonomics are better and keywork is slicker and more positive than on old saxophones, including the Mark VI.  While the Mark VI was the template for all modern saxophone design, there has been a continuous tweaking and improvement in key placement and heights, and the newest saxophones feel better in my hands than even a Mark VI, at least in my experience and opinion.  There have also been other design improvements that make having to adjust keys and key cups less often than like on many old saxophones.  Braces and posts that secure key rods so they remain more stable and do not bend or move as easily.  Stronger bell to body braces that also add to the resonance of the saxophone, improvements in the neck, a very crucial piece of the sax, as well as expanding the bell bow.  These improvements allow a freer flow of air and less turbulence in these parts of the saxophone, allowing the sound to come out cleaner and freer, and in the newest saxophones, playing down to Bb is easier than ever,  as is reaching the highest notes.  I recently played the Buffet Senzo, and if you read my review of it, you know that they redesigned the bell bow, and low Bb was the easiest and smoothest I have ever played on any saxophone thus far, and they utilized computer programming to come up with just the right dimensions for the bow.  

Before the advent of computer design, workers had to rely on their experience and lots of guesswork in building the saxophone.  As I noted in my article on the Mark VI, Jerome Selmer had told me that during the run of the Mark VI, workers did not work from a set of plans or blueprints.  They used their experience and a little imagination and initiative in building the Mark VI, and they continuously changed things without any consistency in how it was done.  Jerome Selmer even joked to me about it, and said if the worker had a good night before, like in the company of a lady, he did a good job the next day.  If he had a lousy night or was in a lousy mood for whatever reason, it was not so good.  This certainly would explain why I find each Mark VI different from one another, and it makes no difference what the year of production or serial number is, regardless of what anyone believes or has been told.

Another thing about saxophones being built today compared to vintage saxophones is that modern student and intermediate saxophones have achieved a quality at a price point that was not possible even 10 years ago.  In fact, many of the so-called intermediate saxophones that are coming out of Taiwan for example, look and play like a top grade professional saxophone without the price, which makes them an attractive and very practical alternative to the Big 4, regardless of how one might wish to own a Selmer, a Keilwerth, Yamaha or Yanigasawa.  The Yamaha 480 is marketed as an intermediate saxophone, and it's made in China, yet it's still a quality instrument, and having played it fairly extensively, I found it to be a good alternate or back-up horn for a pro player.  Excellent keywork and good tone at a good price.  The Buffet 400 line is a saxophone I have written a lot about, because it's another saxophone made in China under a company that is known for top notch instruments, and their quality control is also very much in place, and so here is another intermediate priced saxophone for the pro player that doesn't skimp on quality.  Chateau saxophones, made by Tenon Corporation of Taiwan, is making excellent saxophones at a price that seems impossible for an instrument of such high quality, playability and tone.  This is a new line that so far has impressed me the most of all the new brands that have hit the market.  P. Mauriat saxophones were one of the first new saxophone brands to have established themselves in the marketplace when it was completely dominated by the Big 4, which was not easy to do, but they were able to do so by offering a saxophone that was a little different than what the others were making, and then getting endorsements from top level pros.  

At this point in time there is a greater choice of quality saxophones for players of all levels than at any time in history, and that's a good thing. It puts instruments in the hands of more players or would-be players than ever before and at prices to match one's budget.  With improvements in design and technology, a student can now afford a saxophone that will not just be "good enough to learn on", but actually good to play and that the student doesn't have to fight so as not to get discouraged early on.  For the working pro, who may often need to double and have more than one instrument, it's possible to have a pro level horn without the cost, since the majority of pros are not famous headliners pulling in thousands or millions a year, but just getting by doing what they love.  Most of the working pros I know are playing saxophones like Cannonball, Jupiter, Yamaha 62's or 480's, and others that are not the Big 4, but certainly are performing as they need them to, and looking the part on stage.  Even my old friend Chuck, who for years would only play Conn Chu Berry altos, has gotten a greater number of gigs, as well as having to play a greater variety of music, and realized that the old Conn did not cut it for many of these gigs, and so he finally broke down and got a silver plated Jupiter, which is made in Taiwan and he found he likes it.  Even a few well-known players I know have traded their Mark VI's for Selmer References, P. Mauriats, Yamaha, Yanigasawa and Selmer Series II and III saxophones.  So there it is.

As  for me, as much as I still love my old Conn, I am finding the newer saxophones just so much better in every way.  Sure, there is a special quality about the Conn because it has been played for many years and also the sentimental value it has and still holds for me.  Just the same, there are things that I cannot do on the Conn that I can with modern saxophones, especially in the range of the horn itself.  As for sound, well, they are sounding great out of the box, and can only get better with time.  I no longer hold on to the belief that vintage is better, because I have played enough of modern saxophones to convince me that they are better now than ever.  
































Thursday, August 6, 2015

"I'm A Jazz Musician, Not An Entertainer" Part Deux

A short while back, I was scrolling down my Facebook homepage, seeing what my friends had posted. Most of the time it's endless political posts, always showcasing the bias and partisanship of the poster, whether they are based on facts or common sense or not, but also posts from my musician friends, whether posting a music video, or writing about their gigs, sometimes accompanied by pictures, and sometimes just opining about music in general. One of my friends, a bassist, commented on how he was having dinner in a restaurant and they were playing "fusion" style jazz, and that he was actually enjoying it.  It didn't take long for the "real" jazz musicians to make their comments.  One of them wrote "The Creed Taylor Syndrome".  For those who may not know, Creed Taylor produced recordings in the 60's and 70's featuring some leading players like Wes Montgomery and Paul Desmond, but in a more commercial setting, having them play contemporary standards of the time, with orchestral arrangements and whatever improvising the player did was done within the context of the melody, never straying far from it or the arrangement.  I commented that while I am not a big fusion fan, it's still nice to hear melody once in a while instead of the incessant assault of scales and chords and the constant reharmonization of a tune until the tune itself is buried under the weight of all that.  His response was to show a photo of Kenny G, and captioning it "Mr. Melody".  I guess he thought he was being clever and funny, and I guess he thinks that if you listen to and like Kenny G, then you are just not hip and aware, and that somehow there is actually something wrong with listening to Kenny G.  A little snobby, no?  Well, he's not my cup of tea either, and I don't buy or listen to his recordings, but that doesn't mean I think there's something wrong with those people who do.  So I asked him, "How many recordings have you sold lately?  How many people showed up at your last gig, and when exactly was your last gig?"  No response!  I thought so.

I'm not here to tell anyone what kind of music to listen to, but I find it funny and annoying that so many musicians will put down any other musicians if they decide to play more commercially accessible music, or to entertain their audience and play to that audience. Since the dawn of humanity, music was not just an expression of life, but a celebration of it. Music was and is played so that we can have fun, get away from the everyday drudgery or concerns of the day and reconnect to ourselves, and with others.  When I go to my favorite bars and clubs, where many of my friends play, and I see the crowd dancing, cheering, responding to the music, then it's easy to see why they are always getting the gig.  The crowd loves them, and it is a crowd, not an empty room they're playing to.  They get the crowd to have fun, so they stay, they buy more food and drinks, and that makes the house happy, and they book the band for more gigs.  The band is happy because they will get more gigs, which means they keep working.

To my friends who want to stay "real", by all means, stay "real", but don't behave as if somehow you are morally or spiritually superior as a musician because you choose to be a "real" jazz musician, or bitch about why you're not making as much money as someone you think is not up to your standards.  Also, don't think that those players who entertain and play more commercial styles of music didn't practice as long and hard as you, or that they didn't see their fair share of heartache and rejection at not getting a gig or a place in a band, or didn't have to work all those jobs they hated while honing their craft and trying to get work doing what they loved the most.  The difference between them and the "real" jazz musician is that they understood what it took to get those gigs and play in those bands, and went about doing it without all the bitching and moaning I hear from the "real" musicians.

As I said, I'm not here to tell you what to play or what and who to listen to, but whenever you play to an empty or near empty room, whenever you don't get called back for another gig or to be in a band, only you can know why that is, and it isn't from some kind of "injustice", it is because you are not playing what people want to hear and giving them a show they want to see.  Now, I know plenty of "real" jazz musicians who understand the game, and they will take whatever gig, and play whatever style of music is necessary to keep working.  When they can make a living playing music, they will then have the time to kick back with other like players, and play the stuff they really are into.  There are those die hards though, and they are laughable to me, because they are uncompromising about their musical "principles".  They work jobs not related to music that they hate doing, and bitch about it constantly.  They are always criticizing musicians that play more commercial styles and entertain with remarks like "nah, he's just not adventurous, not exploring, not saying anything, doesn't stretch himself", blah, blah, blah!  Okay, but he's making a living playing music, not on a loading dock.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with working on a loading dock or any other kind of honest work, but when you bitch about it because you are not making a living as a musician as you'd like, think about it.  Many of the "real" musicians, when they do get a live gig, play with an attitude of superiority and indifference to the audience.  They play and look like they're having a bad day or life.  Believe me, most people do not enjoy something like that.

It's very hard to make a living as a musician, especially these days.  The most successful musicians I know do whatever they have to in order to earn enough money to pay the bills and support a family.  They take all kinds of gigs, make themselves accessible for lessons as well as use Skype to expand their student base, take all kinds of gigs in all styles of music, dress for the gig, be reliable and on time, and are not afraid to entertain their audience.  They know that those people cheering and dancing and shouting for more are helping them to do what they love to do.  Maybe it's time for the "real" jazz musicians to get real, or please just shut up!