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 vintage 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/