Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: Aaron Drake Mouthpieces

I've recently had the opportunity to play a number of Aaron Drake's tenor mouthpieces. It was a fun opportunity, and the mouthpieces were all easy playing, solidly designed, and generally free-blowing. One of Aaron's interesting design features is a metal ring around the back, which is used on all of the mouthpieces I played except his Reso model. Interestingly and probably not by coincidence, the sound of these metal-ringed mouthpieces is a bit streamlined, somewhat similar to the compact but beautiful sound of a good metal Otto Link. It's also worth noting that each of the mouthpieces come with its own ring ligature. The ligatures were easy to use and secured the reed nicely, though you'll see in the video that I preferred my two-screw metal ligature sound-wise.

Note on perspective: Because mouthpieces can sound different while playing it yourself versus while listening to a recording or listening to someone else play it, I'll focus my tone-related comments on what I heard from behind the horn while playing. Then you can, of course, compare my comments to the tone of each mouthpiece on the video.

NY Jazz
The New York Jazz model is a great mouthpiece. It's designed to be versatile across R&B, Funk, and Jazz. It's very comfortable to play, and it has a balanced resistance, not too much or too little. The altissimo comes out easily enough, though some of the other mouthpieces sing a little better in that area. The tone has a nice core to it. There are a good amount of mids and highs in the sound that give it a solid presence, and it's easy to hear the definition of the tone while playing. I felt that the timbre lies just on the brighter side of the dark-to-bright spectrum, and it has plenty of edge or punch to it. I'd play this mouthpiece on a gig without thinking twice.

Drake's Reso model is meant to recall the Otto Link "Reso Chamber" mouthpiece (Seamus Blake & Ben Wendel play Reso Chambers). The mouthpiece is really fun to play, in that it allows you to put a lot of air through the horn and makes it feel like you can really push it hard playing-wise. I played a number of gigs on this mouthpiece, including one outside, and it was always up to the task. That's a big ask for a large chamber mouthpiece. Besides having plenty of power, the mouthpiece also stays true to the original Reso Chamber with a big spread sound. While it does have warmth, I didn't perceive the sound as dark per se, more a flexible middle-of-the-road timbre, which can also be pushed brighter. The altissimo register was easy and responsive. Overall, this is a very fun mouthpiece to play.

"Son of Slant"
The "Son of Slant" model is Drake's take on the classic Otto Link "Slant Signature" mouthpiece. I played both the medium and large chamber models, and as I preferred the medium chamber, that's the one I included in the video and the one I'll focus my comments on. This mouthpiece has a free-blowing resistance that akin to a vintage hard rubber Otto Link. The resistance is comfortable and on the lighter side. The tone is spread, with a nice mix of core and edge that give the sound definition. Importantly, the sound also has some power and volume to it. The mouthpiece really accomplishes its design goal of delivering a "vintage feel with a modern delivery."

Bergonzi Master Series Mouthpieces
I also played both of Drake's Bergonzi Master Series mouthpieces. One of these was the Bergonzi Master Series "EB" model, which is based on Jerry Bergonzi's personal Early Babbitt Otto Link mouthpiece. This mouthpiece is fun to play, but because the sound is so spread, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable playing on it long term. Of course, Jerry Bergonzi gets a big, dark, and spread sound, so that's really what you're expecting. The resistance of this mouthpiece feels comfortable, including the altissimo register which sings easily. If you're looking for a piece of equipment that will bring you closer to Bergonzi's conception, you should definitely check this piece out.

The Bergonzi Master Series "Slant" model is its own unique design. It has a warm, spread sound, though not as spread as the "EB" version. The sound has some core to it giving the sound a bit of focus making it easier to hear while playing.  Similar to the "EB," the timbre is on the darker side. Also similar to the "EB," the altissimo feels very easy to play.

I really enjoyed playing these mouthpieces. My favorites were the NY Jazz and the Reso, but each mouthpiece has been designed to appeal to players looking for a different type of sound and response. For those of you who are still on the search for a mouthpiece, I highly recommend checking out Aaron's work.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Instrument Materials Can Make a Difference

There has been a long going debate about whether the type of material an instrument is made out of makes a difference in the produced sound. Some great musicians have argued that they hear a difference, but there have also been studies that have not been able to prove or corroborate that. In terms of saxophones, this debate affects discussions on hard rubber vs. metal vs. other types of mouthpieces, lacquered vs. delacquered vs. relacquered saxes, and whether or not the alloy of the saxophone metal matters. Basically, the discussion starts with someone saying, "I hear a difference," and then someone responding, "That's the placebo effect." Well, that conversation can now change.

  • 2003 study: demonstrated that "the magnitude of the induced wall vibration depends on the material from which the instrument is made and its wall thickness"
  • 2005 study: showed that damped trumpet bell audibly affect the sound
  • 2007 study: similarly found "big differences" in harmonics in damped bells
  • 2009 study: simulation showed that wall vibrations can affect the acoustic impedance, which affects sound
  • 2010 study found the same effect on bell damping 
  • 2013 study: demonstrated that "axial vibrations of the bells of brass wind instruments can lead to audible effects in the sound"
  • 2013 study: demonstrates that wall vibrations of the bell affect french horn sound 
  • 2015 study: found further experimental support for axial vibration of the bell affecting sound for brass wind instruments
My guess is there are more studies that I haven't found yet, but this is enough to show that science is not only open to the idea of wall vibrations affecting the sound of an instrument, but various studies are closely examining the issue and repeatedly finding experimental support for the idea. 

As far as this discussion goes for instruments in general, from what I've read it seems like wall vibrations may make a much bigger difference in non-cylindrical instruments, especially when a bell is involved, so instruments like trumpet, french horn, trombone, and yes, saxophone! 

Last but not least, for those wondering whether lacquer could affect the sound, from back in 1981 the answer is yes. From the abstract, "the effect of lacquering an instrument, though small, is not musically insignificant."

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Transcriptions Books: Mark Turner - Transcriptions & Essays and Chris Potter - Dreamer is the Dream

For your consideration, these are two really great transcription books authored by an accomplished NYC-based saxophonist, composer, and educator (and handsomely bearded) Jeff McGregor. The books feature Mark Turner and Chris Potter, two of my favorite saxophonists, so I may have a bit of bias here.

Mark Turner - Transcriptions & Essays
This book is something like an encyclopedia of Mark Turner solos. The book's 35 solos cover his entire career, including solos from one of Turner's most recent album, Lathe of Heaven, spanning back to his first album, Mark Turner. The book also covers important collaborations like all the Fly Trio albums and Mark Turner's work with Kurt Rosenwinkel. In total there are nearly 200 pages of transcriptions here, and that is just solos as the book doesn't include the heads.

Another cool feature of the book is that besides covering albums, it also covers well-known videos too. Here is the youtube playlist Jeff (the author) assembled, putting all the solos in one easy place.

At the end of the book, there are a series of short insightful essays. Backed with plenty of quotes from Mark himself, the essays explore his approach to music, covering Turner's influences, his use of the blues, his harmonic concepts, etc.

Notation-wise the book is clean and well written. Accidentals and rhythmic content are all easy to read even in the three unmetered selections. One aspect that is a bit less easy to approach is Turner's altissimo, which he is famous for. Most of the altissimo register playing is notated in ledger lines, which some saxophonists are fairly comfortable with. Personally, I find that 8va notation makes the content easier to read, but that being said, I did find that with some practice the ledger lines were becoming more and more readable, and as Jeff pointed out to me, learning to read up in the stratosphere like that is part of Turner's world, who has no problem reading up there. Overall, the book is beautifully presented with intuitive notation and detailed chord changes.

Here is a link to pick up a physical copy of the book: Mark Turner - Transcriptions and Essays.

I highly recommend the book, as I've had a lot of fun and learned a lot working out of it. Here is me playing the first couple pages of Turner's solo on JJ from Fly:

Chris Potter: The Dreamer is the Dream - The Complete Compositions with Transcription and Analysis
Another awesomely complete book, this transcription book covers both the compositions and Potter's solos from his most recent album, Dreamer is the Dream. Each tune is presented with an analysis of the composition, a transcription of Potter's solo on the track, and Bb transposition, Eb transposition, and concert lead sheets of the tune (found in the appendix). Similar to the essays in the Turner book, the introductory essays to each tune include commentary by Potter illuminating his approach to the composition and improvisation.

Similar to the Turner book, this presentation is very clean, with easy to read notation, detailed chord changes, etc. This book makes a little more use of 8va than the Turner book, but it still has plenty of ledger line altissimo, inviting the reader to step up their game if needed.

Like the Mark Turner book, this is a very complete and detailed book, completely worth your time and study. Highly recommended!

Here is a link to pick up a physical copy of the book: Chris Potter: The Dreamer is the Dream, and here is a link to get the digital copy: Chris Potter: The Dreamer is the Dream.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Leaps and Sounds: 12 Contemporary Etudes for Jazz Saxophone

Leaps and Sounds is an etude book by Adam Larson, a great NYC saxophonist. Before I go into any detail, here are a couple of my favorite players, Ben Wendel and Walter Smith III, demoing a couple of the etudes:

As the name implies, the etudes are inspired by larger intervals, the kind of thing you can hear in jazz saxophone as early as Coleman Hawkins. I've personally always been fascinated by the idea of using large intervals in improvisation, and I've been inspired by players like Hawkins, Eddie Harris, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin, and Ben Wendel, who all have a knack for using leaps of various types. Adam Larson has been similarly inspired, which shows in his playing and compositions (see below), and in these etudes. Additionally, the etudes make good use of the extremities of the saxophone range, meaning the altissimo and the lower register. This approach, when combined with an effort to maintain good sound and control, makes for the development of some serious saxophone technique.

Each of the etudes is written over the changes of a standard, including "Take the A Train," "Cherokee," "Alone Together," "Have You Met Miss Jones," "Green Dolphin Street," etc. To provide a bit more challenge, some of the etudes are in a-typical keys. For example, "There Will Never Be Another You" is usually played in concert Eb, but the Leaps and Sounds etude based on those changes is in concert E.

As far as presentation goes, the book is neat and clean, and the notation is detailed and easy to read. There are a couple of places I would have preferred more use of 8va notation, but the book does typically use 8va notation to good effect, making the altissimo notes easy to decipher.

Overall, I think the book really delivers on the premise. It provides musical and interesting practical applications of larger intervals in modern bebop improvisation. You can get the book as a physical copy or as an E-book. Also, if you're a bass clef reader, and are interested, the etudes have been adapted by a trombonist and are available in a bass clef E-book as well.

For those of you who aren't convinced yet, here is Adam Larson playing his tune McWendel (think Donny McCaslin and Ben Wendel):

Last and least, here is me giving a go on the etude based on "Have You Met Miss Jones?":

Monday, July 30, 2018

Retro Revival Mouthpieces: Tru-Res, Tru-Slant, Crescent, Super D, & Modern-Line Bob Sheppard Signature Series

This past week I had the chance to play through five of Retro Revival’s tenor mouthpieces. I currently play a “vintage” series Otto Link, which is a modern mouthpiece inspired by the 1950s  vintage Tone Edge often referred to as the Slant, so I was excited to try Retro’s high end remakes of iconic Otto Link mouthpieces. First and foremost, all of the Retro Revival mouthpieces I played are very good. As you’d hope for from high end hand finished mouthpieces, each mouthpiece plays evenly from the bottom up through the altissimo register. They all have a healthy amount of resistance that facilitates a big tone and easy altissimo. Check out the comparison video to hear how they sound, and I’ll include a short write up about each of them below.

This is the darkest of the five mouthpeices and appropriately so as it’s a remake of the Otto Link Reso Chamber model from the 1940s. The tone is thick and warm with a nice core. Despite the dark tone, it has plenty of power and volume making it comfortable to play. As I already mentioned in the introduction, this mouthpiece and all of the others feel and sound consistent throughout the registers, and the altissimo feels good and sounds easily.

This mouthpiece is a remake of the Otto Link “Slant Signature” Florida era Tone Edge. It has more edge than the Tru-Res, but the sound is still lush and warm overall as well as a bit spread. It has a little less resistance than some of the other pieces and is fairly malleable in terms of sound, meaning I can easily inflect and change the timbre. Like the Tru-Res, this mouthpiece has plenty of volume (comparably more than the “vintage” series hard rubber Otto Link that I typically play). 

This mouthpiece is a remake of a 1950s New York Otto Link Super Tone Master. Tone wise it really delivers. It has a warm sound with some punch. In other words, it has both the edge and darker timbre you’d hope for from a good vintage New York Super Tone Master. It has a fairly balanced resistance, just a touch on the heavier side. Like all of the other mouthpieces, the altissimo feels great pops out easily up through the stratosphere.

Super D
The Super D is also a remake of vintage Super Tone Master, specifically from the “double ring”  or “double band” models from the 1950s. This piece differentiates itself from the Crescent in that it is a brighter and edgier sounding piece. It has a noticeably higher baffle, and the difference in the recording is very audible (all five of the mouthpieces sound distinct from each other). The resistance feels balanced leaning just a bit towards the heavier side. There is enough resistance so that you can really push the piece to high volumes. This mouthpiece is bright enough that I’d readily recommend it for contemporary styles of music like rock, funk, etc. While this is a very nice mouthpiece, I do feel like it gets a little bit more of a contemporary sound than some of the vintage Super Tone Masters I’ve played.

Modern-Line Bob Sheppard Signature Series
The Bob Sheppard model is an original design by Retro Revival, unlike most of their other models which are remakes. The mouthpiece is somewhat brighter and has more edge than the other two hard rubber mouthpieces, but it still has a nice thick tone. Personally, I could play it comfortably in a bebop setting or a more contemporary setting. Like all of the mouthpieces, it’s even throughout the registers including altissimo. Similar to the Tru-Slant, this piece has a little less resistance than the others, and it also has good flexibility of sound.

In terms of recreating iconic vintage sounds, Retro Revival is doing a great job, though the Super D seems to be a bit more on the contemporary side. Meanwhile, their Bob Sheppard model, is a fun and solid original contribution. Importantly, all five of the mouthpieces play very consistently from low B-flat up through the altissimo register, and they all produce some serious volume. Overall, these are some really fun to play and great sounding mouthpieces.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Couple Overtone Hints for Bb and D

Following are a couple of tips to help your overtone practice, though the first will also help with your sound generally.

Low Bb and the Lower Lip
First, I'll start with overtones on low Bb, which can be sometimes be squirrelly or unstable. Essentially, overtones on low Bb can be more sensitive to embouchure pressure than overtones on other fingerings. That means if your embouchure is putting too much pressure on the reed in some form or other, the first octave overtone may be completely elusive. Similarly, the second octave overtone can also be somewhat difficult, especially for beginners.

One way to combat too much embouchure pressure is simply check your lower lip position. Often, with more lower lip rolled in against the reed, it is easier to exert pressure on the reed and there is more contact between your lower lip and the sensitive part of the reed, since the lip is necessarily closer to the tip of the reed. Try rolling your bottom lip further out then normal. For example, when you say a long "v" sound you place your top teeth on your bottom lip in the same location that would be good for saxophone playing. Try recreating that same bottom lip placement on the reed. Another method is to form your bottom lip like you're sucking your thumb. That also creates a good bottom lip placement.

Overtones on D
Various overtones on D are out of tune and difficult starting with the second octave and higher. Recently, I reviewed a manuscript by Mark Lanus on altissimo, and he suggested using the low C# key along with the D fingering to stabilize the D overtones. I've tried it on tenor, and it works really well. Thanks Mark (and thanks to Bret Pimentel for his fingering diagram builder)!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

More Fluid Improvisation: Tapping with your Left Foot

Tapping the meter, different than just tapping the beat or pulse, can help your improvisation. Tapping the meter reinforces the harmonic rhythm and the general rhythmic structure helping you to both lock in to the groove and to more intuitively audiate or predict how your improvised lines will lay on the changes.

Tapping the meter consists of tapping on the strong beats. Following is a list of common meters and their metrical emphasis:

  • 4/4, tap on 1 and 3
  • 3/4, tap on 1 
  • 6/8, tap on the dotted quarter note
  • 5/4 (most typical), tap on 1 and 4
  • 7/4 (most typical), tap on 1, 3, and 5, though I also usually add one more tap on the "and" of 6 or 7 depending on the line
Recently I've learned that meter is processed by the right side of the brain. Considering the right brain controls the left side of the body, a possible conclusion is that it would be more natural to tap the meter with the left foot. I've found this to be the case. Tapping the meter with my left foot, particularly when I could use the reinforcement like in an odd time signature, helps my improvisation sound better, more fluid and interesting. Give it a shot, and leave a comment if you find it helpful.