Thursday, March 16, 2017

PlayWind by Buffet Crampon

A new resource for saxophone students, as well as other wind players is the PlayWind Website and App by Buffet Crampon.  You can get lessons and pointers that range from beginners to advanced, and it's all FREE!  You can also download the app to your phone or tablet so you can take them anywhere.  Here's the link to the website.

Along with other free sites that teach saxophone this is a welcome addition, and so anyone can learn saxophone even if you don't have any qualified teachers where you live. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Legere Signature Reeds: A Review

Back when I was still working in music retail, one of the perks of the job was getting samples of new saxophone accessories from the sales reps that came into the store, usually because the reps wanted me and the other employees to assess the merchandise and provide feedback on what we thought of the product.  One day the sales rep from Legere Reeds was in the store and offered me a sample of their new Signature reed, which wasn't yet released on the market but was about to be.

In the past, I had tried various other synthetic reeds, at first, because I didn't want to wear out my good reeds from extended practicing, and also because I wanted to find a synthetic reed that was more consistent than cane and yet still had a warm center to the tone and would last longer than cane.  The very first synthetic reed I tried was a BARI.  Next was Fibracell, then Fiberreed, and even Rico Plasticover, which is a cane reed with, as the name implies, a plastic coating.  However, I found that it wore out as fast as a regular reed, and the other thing I didn't like was that the coating would flake off.  I didn't like the idea of ingesting plastic flakes.  I finally tried Legere reeds, and while I did like them, I found them better for keeping for practice so I could save my cane reeds for playing.  I still was looking for a synthetic reed that could still give me the tone I got from cane and could play at a gig but wouldn't wear out quickly. 

I normally play a 2.5 reed with my Meyer 6M mouthpiece, but I found that with the other synthetic reeds, the strength indicated on the reeds were not matching with the equivalent cane reed.  For cane, I used either a Vandoren 2.5 Java reed green box, or LaVoz medium.  With LaVoz, I found the medium would fall within the 2.5 to 3 range.  I like a softer reed, but not too soft, for a good combination of a warm tone and flexibility.  Most of what I play is retro, mostly big band swing and standards.  When I play big band, my tone shows a Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges influence.  When I do a small groups like a quartet, I tend to have a more Paul Desmond influence.  So I wanted a synthetic reed that could get the kind of warm tones these players did, and so far none of the synthetic reeds I had tried gave me that.

So, on the day the sales rep from Legere offered me a sample of their new Signature reed, I didn't hesitate to take one.  I took a 2.5, because he assured me that they matched in strength to cane.  I wasn't going to take his word for it so I immediately put it on my mouthpiece and grabbed a P. Mauriat 67R alto off the wall and strapped it on, put the mouthpiece on and started playing.  Well, I was really happy with what was coming out the horn.  The sound was warm, but a tad brighter than the cane reeds I used, but that was a good thing in this case, because it wasn't thinner tone, but more like a cleaned up tone.  I still had the darkness I like, but without the muddiness.  To be sure, I also tried it on other brands of horns; a Yamaha EX-875, a Buffet 400, a Selmer Series II and III, and Reference 54, a Cannonball Brute.  It played equally well and with clarity of tone on all the horns.  I was really happy with this, and this reed became my preferred reed for practice and gigging.  The tone was consistent and the reed allowed me to be flexible with it, none of the stiffness I found with the other reeds.  Altissimo was easy, and I could play softly with warm subtones, or push it without the harsh edginess I would hear in the other reeds.

This was in 2010, and I didn't have to replace the reed until two years later, and since then, have only had to buy a total of 4 reeds.  Three that I played consistently and one that I always keep in reserve just in case.  If you're a player that has also been looking for a synthetic reed that is consistent in tone but is flexible enough to adapt to your particular sound and style, this is the reed I highly recommend.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Evolution Of Saxophone Doubling

Still dealing with various personal and financial issues right now so I am not finding the time for writing my own articles or going out and play testing different saxophones.  However, I did come upon this article and it is very informative, so I thought I would share it with all of you.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Setting Something Straight

I have been dealing with some health issues lately and so haven't been playing or looking at any new or vintage horns lately.  However, not too long ago, someone commented on a review that I did for the Phil Barone Saxophones "I was looking for a serious review of these horns. Sounds like you got one free or are best friends with Phil. Too bad. I just want an honest hard review."

I've stated this before, and I will say it again.  I have played the saxophone for most of my life.  I have worked in music retail, have learned a lot of information from my trusted old tech and the other techs I come into contact with.  I look up information on saxophones all the time.  I write the various manufacturers building horns today, and I research all the information I can about vintage horns.  That goes with what I had already learned from my father and other players when I was young.

While I hardly consider myself a great player, I still love to play and the saxophone always will be my main instrument of choice.  I started this blog because I also enjoy discussing my favorite instrument, and the greats who have played and play them now.  I do not consider myself an "expert", especially because I am not a technician, and only know how to do the most basic adjustments to the horn.  However, I still have done my research, and when I write something, I try to make sure my facts are straight.

When it comes to reviewing a saxophone, one thing really needs to be made clear.  I do not ever receive any free instruments or products.  All of my reviews are based on my having handled them and playing them.  There are other reviews on the web where they get into a detailed discussions about mechanics, how it performed when they played this scale and this key, how their mouthpiece affected its sound, etc.  All of the saxophones I've played for review were either in the shop when I worked in music retail, or belonged to friends of mine who allowed me to try out their saxophones.

 My reviews are based on a very simple criteria.   The first consideration is always the sound.  Then there is build quality.  Is it solidly put together, are keys and posts properly aligned and nothing loose or rattling because of poor workmanship or QC, are there solder blobs visible anywhere?  Is the lacquer evenly applied?  As far as mechanics go, how it plays is not only determined by its design and materials used, but in a large part to how a technician, both at the factory and in a private shop, adjusts and regulates the action.  I have always suggested that no matter how well a saxophone plays out of the box, it's always a good idea to have tech go over it.  I found that even vintage saxophones, with their very different ergonomics play smoothly and in tune when a tech who knows what they're doing has worked on them.

When I do a review, I make it short and simple.  The fact is, most of my readers are not professionals, or are semi-professionals who hold day jobs and play their instruments on weekends at local bars or clubs, and the articles that get the most hits are the ones discussing beginner or intermediate saxophones, or pro saxophones on a budget.  The questions I get from them are usually in regard to what choices to make in buying their first or step up horn.  The choices today are greater than ever before, and it's confusing for many novice players.  I try and help with these reviews, not confusing anyone with long technical details, but with getting right to the point about how the sax sounds, feels and responds.  I try to lead them to their best choices based on my own experience with these horns.  It's the only way I know how.

When I worked in music retail, I was able to play and evaluate saxophones from the top professional brands to the no name horns.  Most of my readers are not professionals, and most of them cannot afford 6 grand or more for a saxophone, yet still want a quality instrument.  There is no question that if you buy a Selmer, Yamaha, Keilwerth or Yanigasawa, you're getting a top quality instrument, and also no question that in most cases, you're going to spend a small fortune on it.  Other brands have come out that can now offer professional level sound and build quality at a fraction of the price of the Big 4.  Yamaha and Selmer are also building instruments catering to the beginner and experienced student, so this is a very important part of the market.

Again, when I find saxophones that are of a professional build quality and sound, but are comparably cheaper than a more famous name, I will rave about it.  I get nothing for it from the manufacturers.  Nothing.

Anyway, once I resolve, if I can, any of my health issues, then I will get back to going out and looking at and playing more saxophones and then posting my reviews here the same manner I always have.

I'll be back!!!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax

This post will be brief today, but important to all saxophone players.  Today is the 202nd birthday of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.  I won't bother to go into its history as it's already well known, but I can't let this day pass without acknowledging the man who created our favorite instrument.  Happy Birthday Adolphe!!  There must be one hell of a jam session going on where you are right now.

Adolphe Sax's statue in his hometown of Dinant, Belgium

Chris Potter playing am original Adolphe Sax tenor, ca. 1859

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My Approved List Of Student Saxophones

The summer is now over and I am back after taking some time off to enjoy some time away.  I hope everyone else had a good summer as well.  

The most frequently asked questions I get from readers of my blog are usually from beginners wanting to know "if so and so or such and such saxophones are any good,  they were advertised on eBay or I saw one in my local music store and the price was right", etc.  If you look through eBay's listings, you'll see a glut of saxophones with lots of different names, and very often, they don't even give you a name, just advertise it as "gold lacquer alto, tenor saxophone", etc., You look at the price, it looks good, and you may think, it's cheap enough and it looks good in all the pictures, so I'll get this for my kid or for myself because it's good enough to learn on.  Most beginners really don't know that much about saxophones when they're starting out, and to see so many "names" and types being sold new and used all over the internet can be confusing.  This often leads to sometimes being ripped-off by a shady dealer, or in most cases buying an inferior instrument that is badly constructed, has shoddy keywork, simply won't play in tune no matter what you do.  When a beginner's parents or the beginner themselves buy that kind of horn, because it's cheap and it's "good enough to learn on", they end up frustrated and think that they are not any good, not considering that it's the saxophone itself that keeps the beginner from making any progress.

Though I have written blog posts on beginning and intermediate before, I want to update and expand on it for beginners so that hopefully any questions that I have been and will be asked can be answered.  Hopefully, the information you get here will help you select the best saxophone for you to learn on.  When you are starting out, regardless of whether you are a child or adult, it's important that you get all the information that you can and spend your money wisely, so that you can spend the rest of your time learning and making music.

First, let me give you a run down on all the real name brands on the market.  Many of the questions I get are often "is "this" or "that" saxophone any good?", and the fact is I never heard of it, because it's either just another Chinese sax dumped on the market, or possibly a store or proprietary brand, meaning that a music store or perhaps a repair tech contracts a company, usually located in China or Taiwan, to make saxophones with their name stamped on it.  It's a common practice which is also known as stenciling and has been done for many years.  I will get to these a little later in the article.

I want to start out with brands that have earned a reputation for making fine quality saxophones, whether for the professional or the student.  Some of the brands listed are fairly new, but have already marketed saxophones that have earned a good reputation for quality and sound.  Others have been with us for a long time and have been so because of the fact that they have been consistently making saxophones of the highest quality.  All but two of the manufacturers I will list make a full line of saxophones from student to professional, and these are the brands you should always consider first before plunking down your hard-earned money.  Okay, here are the names you should know.

Selmer: The most famous name in saxophones, and most famous for their professional saxophones, they also make, through their various subsidiaries, intermediate and student saxophones.  

Conn: Conn was at one time one of the greatest names in saxophones, but after WWII, the fortunes of the company declined as well as their quality.  Eventually it came under the Selmer umbrella and is now known as Conn-Selmer, and they make a line of student level saxophones.

Yamaha:  Yamaha makes some of the best saxophones in the world, student and professional, and the 23, which is now the 26, is probably the highest quality student saxophone on the market, as well as the best selling one.  

Keilwerth: Keilwerth, based in Germany, has been making top quality professional saxophones for many years. They were recently acquired by the Buffet Group.

Buffet: Although more famous for their clarinets, they have been building saxophones longer than any other manufacturer on this list.  They built their first saxophone only 20 years after Adolphe Sax invented it.  While their saxophones have never been as popular as Selmer or the other brands, they have always been of the highest quality, and it's possible to get used Buffet saxophones like the Dynaction, Super Dynaction, S1 and Prestige saxophones, all high quality professional horns at a good price. 

Yanigasawa:  Yanigasawa builds some of the best saxophones in the world today.  

P. Mauriat:  A relative newcomer to this group, P. Mauriat, based in Taiwan, quickly became a major player with their line of quality professional saxophones, and their horns are being played by many top professionals.

Antigua:  Based in Texas, their saxophones are made in Taiwan.  They were mostly known for making good quality student and semi-pro saxophones which were also widely used by high school and university bands, but with their ProOne model designed by Peter Ponzol, have entered the high end professional market. 

Cannonball:  Based in Salt Lake City Utah, started by Tevis and Cheryl Lauket, their saxophones are made in Taiwan and they make a full range of high quality mostly professional saxophones, but also have a student line.

 Chateau: The newest name on this list, their professional and semi-pro horns are already getting a lot of attention for their high quality, great sound and price point.  Made in Taiwan, their parent company Tenon, also makes Steve Goodson's line of top quality professional saxophones. 

Jupiter:  Based in Taiwan, Jupiter acquired a good reputation for building good quality student and semi-pro saxophones, and have also entered the professional market.  Their saxophones were widely used by many high school and university bands.

Proprietary brands are instruments made by a manufacturers, usually in Taiwan or China, for a retail store, repair shop or mail order/internet dealers with either the dealer's name or a "brand" name which is exclusive to that business.  Usually large retail stores will create a store brand in order to offer a cheaper option for students and players on a budget.  This works if the business in question has an on-site repair department that can adjust the horns before they go out, and also maintain them after they are purchased.  It's important that the store or service you buy your saxophone from can back their instruments with a good return policy and warranty that covers repairs at least in the first few months.  If the store has repair facilities, even if you buy some cheap Chinese horn, at least they can service it.  If the shop doesn't have facilities, and something goes wrong with it after the return period has expired, and you can be sure something will go wrong, and that bargain you bought won't be such a bargain.  Before you buy, make sure of all these things before you lay down any money.  As far as buying from a private seller, you always take risks, as you have no guarantees and the horn may not even be in playing condition.  My advice is always buy from a reputable dealer with a repair department, unless you know this person really well. If you don't, you will be losing, not saving money.  I would also stay away from eBay for buying a student horn, unless it's being sold by a reputable dealer that will back it up. 

Now I will go into the brands and models of student instruments that I recommend.  If it's not on this list, I never heard of it, and chances are neither has anyone else.  Just stay away from them no matter how attractive the price.

I haven't discussed renting an instrument because in most cases, rental instruments are no name, or older name brands that have never been properly taken care of, abused, and in general not very good shape.  Again, if you decide to go the rental route, just be sure that the place you rent it from has a repair department.  If the horn is not properly maintained, that will lead to the kind of frustration that can cause someone to quit.  

My personal list of the best student saxophones 

Hands down, the top student saxophone is the Yamaha YAS and YTS 26.  It is also the priciest, but for good reason.  It is solidly built, and has the best resale value of any student horn.  You may eve be able to find used 23's, the 26's predecessor in good playing condition at a great price.  The 26 is also available as a tenor.

 Yamaha YAS-26

If there is any drawback to this model, it's a minor one.  It doesn't come with a high F# key, where other student models do.  However, its solid construction and reliability negates that.

The Cannonball Alcazar is a well made student saxophone that has the look of an intermediate horn.  It gas a high F# key and has a balanced tone
Cannonball Alcazar

Antigua Winds began by offering a wide range of instruments for students and have been used by many high school and university bands.  Though they have graduated to building high quality professional saxophones, they still produce excellent entry level horns.  The AS and TS 3100 saxophones have a range up to F# and a well balanced tone.  

Antigua AS3100

Though Selmer is most famous for its high end professional saxophones, they offer several lines of student and intermediate saxophones.  The Prelude AS711 is a good beginner saxophone, having all the features of a Selmer saxophone.  Range to high F#, also available as a tenor. They also have a 400 and 500 student line, but I have found them to be rather flimsy.  The AS711 and the TS711 are much better choices.  I had a TS711 at one time, and after being properly adjusted by my tech, was used for some of my gigs where I needed a tenor.  It did the job just fine. 

Selmer Prelude AS711

You have already read my reviews of the Buffet 400, and I highly recommend them as an entry level pro model.  However, Buffet also has a good quality student model, the 100, available as alto and tenor.  It looks very similar to the 400, but less engraving, single arms on the lower keys instead of the double arms, and available only in gold lacquer.  Range up to high F#.  

Buffet 100 Alto Sax

Jupiter began by marketing high quality student and intermediate saxophones that were widely used by high school and university bands long before they entered the pro market.  The JAS 1100 alto and the JTL 1100 tenor are their student saxophones, and are worthy of consideration.  

Jupiter JAS 1100 Alto Sax

The P. Mauriat PMSA-57GC alto saxophone is listed on their website as an intermediate step up horn, but its price point is below that of a Yamaha 26, which makes it worth considering.  

 P. Mauriat PMSA-57GC Alto Sax

Chateau is the newest kid on the block, but already their professional and semi-pro saxophones are getting positive reviews.  Based in Taiwan, their parent company Tenon, also makes high end professional saxophones for Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet line.  The Chateau VCH-222 is their student sax, and it is as solidly built as their professional saxophones.  The light rose brass finish indicates that it has a higher copper content, which gives the sax a richer more complex tone, and is unheard of for a student sax and at this price point.  It also makes a great back up horn for a professional.

Chateau VCH-222 Alto Sax

Keilwerth and Yanigasawa at this time are only making high end professional saxophones, and even used models command a high price.  However, sometimes a bargain is out there, so you should always be on the lookout.  

When you go to the websites of the larger retail stores, you will often see their "specials", store brand saxophones on sale as a more affordable option from the name brands.  However, the quality of these horns are always inconsistent and more often very questionable.  

Jean Baptiste is the store brand for Sam Ash, and the consistency of quality of these saxophones vary from one horn to the next.  They are made in different factories in Asia, either China or Vietnam.  Their JB290AL saxophone however is a good beginner saxophone and is inexpensive as saxophones go.  The plus side, Sam Ash has a liberal return policy, warranties and repair shops to back the horns.  The down side, if you live near a Sam Ash it may not have an in house repair shop and they have to send the saxophones out to another store that does, and that always takes time.  If you order from the internet, you know the whole thing of having to pack it and ship either to return or repair it and it takes even more time. Regardless, it's better than buying a saxophone that isn't backed by anything.,currentPage:0

You may not live near a music store and so you may have to rely on the internet.  Here are some online shops that you can look into, in the US and abroad.  This is a fairly comprehensive list of links, and I highly recommend doing some research, check prices and services, and even contact them and ask questions. 

Many smaller mom and pop or local music stores will sell or rent cheap Chinese made saxophones for students.  However, be warned, if they do not have a repair shop on premises, when something goes wrong with the horn, you're screwed, unless you already know a repair tech.  If you rent or buy the horn, it may not be in real playing condition and it can lead to frustration, where you may think it's you, but it's the instrument, and then quit before you give yourself a chance.  So always make sure the place you buy or rent from can back up the horn.

So there is my list of approved saxophones for beginners.  Anything not on this list that you buy or rent you do so at your own risk.  Remember, it's not a bargain if it can't play in tune and is poorly constructed.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Benny Carter: An Appreciation

Very few musicians in the history of jazz have had such a long and varied career as did Lester Bennett "Benny" Carter.  He emerged during jazz' early years, would become one of the triumvirate of big band alto sax stylists, the other two being Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith, wrote big band arrangements that would define the sound and instrumentation of the modern big band and would go on to be the elder statesman of jazz until his death in 2003 at the age of 96, a career spanning over 80 years.

Benny Carter was born in New York City in 1907 in San Juan Hill, the area that is now Lincoln Square and Lincoln Center.  He received his first music lessons on piano from his mother when he was a boy.  His cousin was the well known jazz trumpeter Cuban Bennett, and from that his first instrument of choice would be the trumpet, an instrument that he played even after achieving his fame and reputation on the alto saxophone.  When he moved to Harlem, he lived down the street from Bubber Miley, Duke Ellington's trumpeter at the time.  He eventually put down the trumpet and picked up the saxophone when he found he couldn't play it as quickly as he wanted to.  He started out on the C-Melody saxophone, having been inspired by Frankie Trumbauer, famous for his association and recordings with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke.  He eventually switched to alto, and by the time he was 15, was already playing professionally with the likes of Rex Stewart, Earl Hines, Sidney Bechet, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

He made his first recordings in 1928 with Charlie Johnson's Orchestra, formed his own band a year later, then went on to play with Fletcher Henderson in 1930-31, becoming the band's chief arranger.  At this time he also led the Detroit based McKinney's Cotton Pickers, then returned to New York in 1932 to start his own band.  This band would include legends like Leon "Chu" Berry, Sid Catlett, Dicky Wells and Teddy Wilson.  In fact, Benny's bands would be the launching pad for many other jazz greats.  It was always said that if you made the cut in Benny's band, you would make it anywhere.  Besides the aforementioned players, others who would get their start in a Benny Carter led band would be Dizzy Gillespie, who wrote Night In Tunisia while with Benny, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Art Pepper, Max Roach, to name just a few. 

In 1935, Benny Carter moved to Europe to record with Willie Lewis' Orchestra and also became staff arranger for the BBC.  He would travel around Europe and play with the leading musicians in Scandinavia, Holland and France.  In Paris, he made some memorable recordings with Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins, with two of the numbers, "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Crazy Rhythm" reprised in New York City with Hawkins on his classic recording "Further Definitions" in 1961.  After returning to the US prior to the outbreak of WWII, he moved to Los Angeles, and besides forming bands out there, also arranged and composed for Hollywood films.  He was also instrumental in integrating the music unions, enabling black players to receive the same scale.

The musicians that Benny has played with and who have played for him is virtually the Who's Who of the history of jazz.  The respect that he garnered from other musicians earned him the title of "The King", and it was a well earned one.  Here are just some of the things that other greats have said about Benny Carter. 

"The problems of expressing the contributions that Benny Carter has made to popular music is so tremendous it completely fazes me, so extraordinary a musician is he" -Duke Ellington

"You got Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and my man, The Earl of Hines, right?  Well, Benny's right up there with all them cats. Everyone that knows who he is calls him "King".  He is a king" -Louis Armstrong

"Everybody ought to listen to Benny Carter.  He is a whole musical education" -Miles Davis

"He can play as many notes as anyone, but he makes it all look so easy" -Cannonball Adderley

Benny Carter on himself:
"In all honesty, I think I just played what I felt was right for me.  I think I would have done the same thing, even if I'd been born later, when Charlie Parker was influencing everybody. The truth is, I never gave it much thought.  I just played what I had to play."

Benny retired from performing in 1997, mainly because he felt that due to his declining health, he wouldn't be able to maintain the high standards he set for himself.   On July 12, 2003, Benny Carter passed away, but left behind a musical legacy that is unmatched in the history of jazz. 

I first met Benny Carter in 1979, when he came to New York after resuming doing live performances after a long layoff.  He was my main influence on the saxophone, and when I had the chance to tell him so personally, he was humble and gracious about it.  After that, he would be in New York 2 to 3 times a year to perform, and I would be at every show.  Eventually, he would find the time to sit with me for an hour or two when he was in town, and as Miles Davis said, "he is a whole musical education".  We didn't have formal music lessons.  I only played for him once, and what I played was copped from his solo from "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set" on Further Definitions.  He smiled and said he liked my sound.  Hearing that really rendered me speechless.  Maybe he was just being kind, I don't know, but in any case, the time spent with him will always be one of my fondest memories.

Here is Benny Carter and Mel Martin discussing Benny Carter's life in music

Benny Carter in action