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.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Intonation and Your Ideal Sound

One of the most satisfying musical experiences is listening back to a recording of yourself and hearing your tone and improvisation match up to your aspirations, or come pretty close. If you record yourself on a semiregular basis, and you should, then you will notice that the most successful recordings usually have a common element – good intonation.

Intonation has an incredible effect on tone quality. To some this might sound counterintuitive, but there are number of tone problems that are directly related to intonation. It’s true that there should not be a huge difference in tone quality between a saxophone tuned to A440 versus one tuned to A445. However, the problem enters when the mouthpiece placement on the cork tunes the instrument flatter or sharper than the saxophonist’s ears and expectancy or the other instrumentalists he or she is playing with. As musicians we listen for intonation constantly, and though some are more sensitive than others, our ears constantly track it. When the saxophone mouthpiece is placed too far in or out on the cork, your embouchure responds in an effort to correct the issue. In result your embouchure and voicing is affected, which can really mess with your tone.

Luckily, there are a few indicators that can help you know if your mouthpiece placement on the cork is interfering with your technique. These include resistance, vibrato and inflections (bends), and timbre. Playing either with a mouthpiece that is too far out (flat) or too far in (sharp) can negatively affect all of these. That being said, adjusting for flat intonation generally has more pronounced effects so we will start there.

Too Far Out
Generally, musicians have a good notion of when they are playing out of tune if they are flat. For some reason, flat intonation has a very distinct and unpleasant sound. That’s a good thing because you can hear it and adjust your mouthpiece position accordingly. However, when the mouthpiece is only a little too far out, you might miss it as your embouchure will tighten and bring the pitch up. If the mouthpiece was not too significantly out of adjustment, this can partly remedy the intonation problem, but the tighter embouchure then causes other problems.

First, the added tightness increases resistance, which feels a lot like playing on a reed that is too hard or harder than it otherwise should be. This becomes particularly pronounced in the altissimo register, which becomes more difficult in result. Two, the tighter embouchure is less flexible, so vibrato and inflections sound and feel more strained. You would feel like you cannot bend notes with the same ease you usually do, and your vibrato would sound shallower and require more effort. Lastly, your sound becomes smaller and the timbre loses some of it vibrancy and brightness. So, if you feel like your reed is playing harder than usual, you are having more difficulty playing expressively, and your tone is smaller and deader than usual, it is quite possible your mouthpiece is positioned too far out on the cork.

Too Far In
Adjusting for sharp intonation has its own disadvantages. The automatic reaction in this case is to loosen the embouchure and drop the jaw in an attempt to lower the pitch. Again, if the mouthpiece is close enough to the ideal position on the cork, then this can partly remedy the intonation, but a new set of problems surface. Resistance decreases, and in some instances can make it feel like the reed is just too soft. Because the embouchure is looser, vibrato and inflections become easier. This flexibility combined with the potential for accidentally bringing the pitch too high can result in inflections sounding exaggerated and messy. Depending on the amount of embouchure adjustment, the timbre can lose its punch or definition and even become distorted and grainy in extreme examples. The key things to watch out for here are too little resistance, exaggerated inflections, and fuzzy sounding or grainy timbre.

Equipment Problems
Other problems can fight against your intonation even if you have your mouthpiece placed perfectly. Reeds affect intonation just like they can affect everything else. If a reed is too soft or so old that it plays as if it were too soft, you will likely have problems with inflections and with intonation in the high register. Softer reeds require good voicing technique in order to keep from going flat in the upper register. While players with good voicing, who have worked on techniques like overtones and altissimo, will be able to focus and keep uncomfortably soft reed in tune in the upper register, other players will find it more difficult. Beyond that, the reed will also be overly sensitive resulting in exaggerated and messy inflections. On the other hand a reed that is too hard invites a tighter embouchure, and this often results in sharp intonation, especially as you go higher.

Another potential pitfall comes in ligature placement. If the ligature is placed too far back on the mouthpiece, then the reed is more easily affected by embouchure pressure. This means that you are more likely to play sharp, even if you have the mouthpiece placed appropriately on the neck. This is particularly true in the upper register.

Intonation Practice
It’s also important to spend time periodically practicing intonation. This gives you a chance to figure out generally where the mouthpiece should be on the cork and trains your ear to detect intonation problems and keep them in check. One imperative exercise is playing with a drone. Tuners usually have built in drone features. Use your ear to work on tuning at the unison, octave, perfect fifth, perfect fourth, and then the other intervals as well. Work on jumping up and down the octave while keeping good intonation. Even better practice is to play in a small ensemble with a horn section where you can focus on staying in tune during unison and harmonized sections. Another important way to check intonation is to put on a tuner while playing normally. While you either improvise or play from memory, watch the tuner and see if you are generally flat, sharp, or in tune. This can give you a good idea if your mouthpiece placement is correct.

Working on your ears and honest practice are probably the most important factors in sounding good consistently. However, knowing what to expect when things are off and how to adjust is important too. Working out the details of intonation will help you avoid compromising your sound and technique, and put you closer to playing and sounding like you envision. Good luck!