Friday, July 29, 2011

Theo Wanne Reviews: Gaia Metal and Hard Rubber

As I mentioned last week, Sam Ash recently started carrying Theo Wanne's mouthpieces, so I've had a fresh infusion of mouthpieces to review.  Today's subjects are the metal and hard rubber versions of the Gaia, which are Theo Wanne's interpretation and modern version of a combination of classic vintage mouthpieces.

Metal Gaia

Metal Gaia from all side
Much like the previously reviewed Theo Wanne pieces, the metal and hard rubber Brahma, the metal Gaia's tone has a solid core somewhere in between dark and bright. The overall tone of the mouthpiece leans slightly towards the bright side. Its tone is fairly similar to my Florida era metal Otto Link, with the Gaia having more color but less presence. The metal Gaia's tone color does have some flexibility. I could push the mouthpiece towards brighter and darker colors fairly easily. A lack of flexibility in tone color and a one sided sound were two of my major complaints against the previously reviewed Brahma, but the Gaia is more flexible and malleable making more variations in tone color possible. The piece has plenty of power. The sound has enough punch to make it immediate and cutting but not so much that it becomes edgy or abrasive. Overall, the piece can achieve a sound that is beautiful, versatile, and powerful.

The feeling of blowing through the mouthpiece is very comfortable. There isn't too much or too little resistance. You can easily push the mouthpiece to its limit without fear of losing control or feeling uncomfortable. There is, however a variation in the resistance. There is something unique about the resistance in the Gaia, the difference being that a more traditional mouthpiece feels like it takes or accepts more air, however you can push the Gaia as hard as you'd like without any problems.

In terms of control the mouthpiece leaves little to be desired. The dynamics, articulation, and register changes all responded smoothly and very quickly as you'd expect from a high quality hand finished mouthpiece.

Here are some clips from my play test session:
Ben Plays Giant Steps on Metal Gaia.mp3
Ben Plays on Metal Gaia.mp3

Conclusion: This is a flexible mouthpiece with a powerful and colorful tone leaning slightly towards the bright side of the spectrum. It feels great and unique to play and has no glaring flaws.

Hard Rubber Gaia

3D right?
The hard rubber version sounds very similar to the metal version. It has the solid core, plenty of power, and a nice mix of highs and lows. The main difference between the two versions is just the fundamental difference between the sound of a hard rubber mouthpiece and a metal mouthpiece.

Playing the piece does feel somewhat different however. The hard rubber Gaia feels a little more resistant than I'm used to. That resistance is even throughout all registers of the horn though. I wouldn't say the resistance is too much but it is apparent.

The control of this mouthpiece, like its metal counterpart, is flawless. There are absolutely no road blocks in terms of articulation, changes in dynamics, changes between register, and changing between full tone and subtone.

Here are some clips from my play test session:
Ben Plays Giant Steps on Hard Rubber Gaia.mp3
Ben Plays on Hard Rubber Gaia.mp3

Conclusion: The hard rubber Gaia has flexibility, punch, vibrance, and a nice mix of highs and lows in the tone. The mouthpiece is slightly more resistant compared to its metal counterpart, but it has great control and feels good otherwise.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Theo Wanne Reviews: Brahma Hard Rubber & Metal

Theo Wanne's Brahma, both hard rubber and metal models, are under review today. These have recently become widely available, at least out east, through Sam Ash. Sam Ash is honestly becoming one of my favorite music stores due to carrying a nice assortment of sax stuff (my reeds are pretty well priced too).

The Brahma models are part of what Theo calls his "Performance-Line", which is basically the little brother of the "Pro-Line" in terms of cost. A cheaper production process gives the Performance-Line a few hundred dollars advanctage, however these are still costly mouthpieces - $435 for the metal Brahma and $375 for the hard rubber Brahma. 

So, what do you get for your $400?

Brahma (Hard Rubber)

The hard rubber Brahma's tone is a nice mix of bright and dark. Its sound has a solid core, which side steps any complaints of a thin sound, but it also has some brighter overtones in the sound giving it power and projection. I do have a complaint, and that is that the mouthpiece is somewhat one sided in its tone color. Though you can push its tone color boundaries, the tone doesn't feel as malleable as some other mouthpieces I've played including Theo's Pro-Line pieces which I'll review in the near future.

The mouthpiece has a healthy amount of back pressure or resistance, actually a bit more than I'm use to or like (on my Florida era metal link).  However, the resistance is in no way extreme and is very even from the bottom of the horn up through the altissimo register.  The resistance did allow me to push the mouthpiece to loud volumes without losing control.  That tends to be the trade off - more resistance often equals more control at higher volumes.

The mouthpiece was easy to control in almost all aspects including intonation, articulation, and dynamics. It responded quickly and easily. In this way it was everything you'd expect from a near $400 mouthpiece. I would like to say that you can get this level of control for somewhat less money. Both the Saxscape mouthpieces and the new "vintage" model hard rubber Link provide a similar level of control and quality at a lower price.

Here are a few clips from my play test:
Ben Noodles on Hard Rubber Brahma.mp3
Ben Plays Giant Steps on Hard Rubber Brahma.mp3

Conclusion: The hard rubber Brahma is an easy to control & powerful mouthpiece with a solid & not too bright sound. However, it lacks flexibility in the tone color department, and in my opinion it's not worth $375 as there are equal or better hard rubber mouthpieces available for less.

Brahma (Metal)

The metal model has a very similar tone to its hard rubber counterpart. It sounds a shade brighter from behind the horn (meaning while playing), but the mouthpiece doesn't necessarily come across as noticeably brighter in the sound clips. It retains a powerful solid core of sound and has a nice mix of highs and lows. Even more so than the hard rubber model, the metal Brahma's tone is one sided and has a somewhat limited tone color palette.

The feeling of blowing through the mouthpiece is very comfortable. The resistance is at a nice intermediate point, not too much and not too little. I felt like I could comfortably push the mouthpiece to its extremes, but I never felt like there was too much back pressure while blowing. The level of resistance was even from the bottom to the top of the horn. I was surprised that the mouthpiece, though tip opening was the same as the hard rubber model, taxed my chops much more quickly. That would be something potential buyers should be aware of.

The control of the mouthpiece is again everything you would expect. It responds even more quickly to dynamic changes than the hard rubber version, articulation feels quick and easy, and intonation is flexible and easy to adjust. Honestly, this is a very good mouthpiece, and I'd probably recommend it over some modern metal mouthpieces with comparable prices or greater. However, a much cheaper alternative might be a modern Otto Link Super Tone Master which has a larger palette of tone colors, though the sound might not be as powerful or immediate.

Here are some clips from my playtest:
Ben Noodles on Metal Brahma
Ben Plays Confirmation on Metal Brahma

Conclusion: The metal Brahma has a powerful tone which isn't too dark or too bright though it is very one sided. It feels great to play and has the control you'd expect for the price.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Improvising with Large Intervals on Standards

A few weeks ago I posted an introduction to improvising using larger intervals, and I wanted to continue that train of thought with some ideas on how to get started using large intervals over chord changes.

Drop 2 Triads

Arpeggios are the saxophone players quickest tool for outlining the harmony, and, though in their basic form are made up of smaller intervals, they already create an intervalic mood. Voicing arpeggios in more open voicings (not closed position where their notes are as close as possible) will transform them into large interval constructions. The easiest large interval voicing is the arranger's 'drop 2' voicing. The basic idea is to drop the second to highest note in the original structure to the bottom. This is illustrated with the C triad below. The E, the second to highest note, is dropped below the root, and the interval construction transforms from its original 3rds to the combination of a 6th and a 5th.

Arrangers use this voicing technique, especially in horn sections, to fatten up the sound and give the top note clarity, but when you arpeggiate these type of voicings you discover large interval harmonic building blocks.

I would suggest mastering your drop 2 triads in their various positions throughout the range of the horn. The triads will be applicable as not only basic harmonic illustrators, but also as illustrators of the upper extensions of the harmony Below is an example of all the drop 2 inversions of the C triad arpeggiated throughout the range of the saxophone.

For those of you who need some application suggestions, the C triad can be used for CMaj7, C7, B7sus4(b9), BbMaj7(#11), Bb7(#11), Amin7, AbMaj7(#5). G7sus4, F#7(b9,#11), FMaj7, Fmin(Maj7), Emin(b6), E7(#9,#5) Eb13(b9) D7sus4, Dmin11, C#dim7(Maj7), and I probably missed some!

Hopefully, its obvious that it would be worth it to lay the foundation by learning your major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads in all keys in all drop 2 inversions (though you'll want to learn them in normal closed inversions first).

7th Chords and Rootless Voicings

The next step is to apply the drop 2 technique to your favorite 7th and 9th chords (and beyond).  Experiment and see what you come up with. A bebop line might transform from:


This is a very limited example, and the applications of these arpeggiated drop 2 voicings are only limited by creativity or closed mindedness.

One final suggestion is to apply the drop 2 technique to rootless voicing, similar to the voicings a piano player might comp with in their left hand. The two common 4 note voicings build from the 3rd (3,5,7,9) and 7th (7,9,3,5). So in C major in closed position they would be:
When piano players comp they switch the voicing they according to what will maintain the smoothest voice leading. They try to maintain smooth motion and avoid leaps moving from one voicing to the next. Following is a classic example of a 2-5-1 in C using these rootless voicings:
What I've found helpful, is to practice arpeggiating drop 2 versions of these voicings through chord progressions. This has extended my harmonic vocabulary and brought these large interval constructions to my fingertips instead of the being left in the recesses of my mind. Here is the 2-5-1 in C arpeggiated with drop 2 voicings:
I'd like to stress that these are just tools, and just like you wouldn't spit out arpeggio after arpeggio in a solo, these are not meant for verbatim insertion! 

To sum everything up I'd like to play an example of this. Due to being on vacation I won't be able to record something today, but check back later in the week for a recording of Confirmation applying these concepts to the improvisation.

Finally, I recently did an interview with Doron Orenstein over at covering various musical topics. Check it out here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review of Children at Play by Victor Pinto

Today's post is an extended review and analysis of my newest release (published on Sax On The Web) written by peer saxophonist Victor Pinto. Victor is a very talented up-and-coming saxophonist who recently relocated to New Orleans as well as a jazz enthusiast with an inclination and gift for writing.

"Modern jazz" is a word that bears several meanings for jazz aficionados and musicians. The most conservative of them generally use it as a derogatory word to summarize an over-intellectual, dissonant style which uses technique, harmonic and melodic complexity for their own sake. For the rest of us, "modern jazz" is the continuity of a great tradition carved through a century of innovation, exploration, audaciousness and struggle, incorporating ideas from African, European and Oriental musical traditions.

Ben Britton's Unconventional Riot's 3 track EP Children At Play is the perfect example of the latter. His first effort as a leader of his own band, Children At Play features Gabe Globus-Hoenich on drums, bassist Jordan Berger and Matt Davis on guitar. Ben is also joined by his brother John on one of the tracks, "Partly", which is only fitting considering the Britton brothers co-lead the 2010 self released album Uncertain Living. The presence of a comping guitar as part of the rhythm section instead of the more traditional keyboard yields a lighter, more ambiguous and evocative sound. The same intervals resonate in very different ways on a guitar than on a keyboard, and the instrument's idiosyncrasies limit the number of sounds which can be played at the same time which, again, creates a rather refreshing sonic landscape.

The title track "Children At Play", is built around a very evocative and playful melody. Based on several transforming motives, the fast-changing feel confers a mood swinging quality to the tune. Whether you have kids of your own or reflect back on your tender years, it's easy to hear the connection between the feeling of this tune and childhood experiences of wonders, discoveries and occasional stumble.

Opening with a gradual introduction of the rhythm section, first drums then bass and finally guitar, the band kicks it in a little harder when Ben introduces the first few notes of the melody. The flawless transitions between odd and even meters throughout the piece never sound forced and Ben and his rhythm section navigate through them very naturally.

There is a very interesting contrast between Ben's solo and Matt's. Britton's powerful yet lyrical tenor saxophone concept contrasts in exuberance with Davis' more intimate intervention. The difference in intentions reveals the depth in Ben's composition. The great jazz musicians of the past have left us with many unique interpretations of now "standard" jazz tunes. The reason behind these classic tunes' popularity is this very quality that they are flexible enough to allow for radically different treatments and, even transfigured far from their original versions, retain their identity. "Children At Play", with its two contrasting improvisations, gives us a taste of the possibilities of this quality composition.

“Partly”, the second tune on the EP uses several of Ben's favorite compositional devices: evolving motives and the juxtaposition of improvised sections to written parts in the heads. Introduced by the rhythm section playing chords moving in thirds, the A section of the head is based on a motive evolving with the underlying harmony, displaced rhythmically and treated with a series of additions and substractions. Taking the form of a call and response dialogue, the B section features John improvising the responses to Ben's parts on the head in. Both calls and responses are improvised on the head out. This is somewhat of a classic compositional device in jazz that has unfortunately fallen out of favor and it feels great to hear it used so appropriately.

The tune is reminiscent  of The Britton Brothers’ Uncertain Living - an LP really worth checking out by the way; it's a great sounding album that did not generate enough buzz for its quality - obviously because of the two brothers' reunion but also in the way it is constructed and in the mood created by the combo.

John Britton's very expressive trumpet playing is remarkable in its subtlety and variations. Despite the fact he favors a softer touch, John can display great velocity on demand and he never shies away from more powerful moments. Some of lines he improvises surprise by the false impression they’re about to come to an end, only to  keep on going for a few more bars and concluding in a naturally coherent way.

Inspired by his brother's handling of the framework laid out by the tune's chords, Ben makes a smooth entrance with a very lyrical, soft restraint. Listening to the rhythm section's controlled reactions to Ben's lines is a delight. Matt Davis’ guitar work, first laying down sound textures with the use of sustained chords, volume crescendos, and later switching to a more rhythmic comping is perfectly complimentary to Globus-Hoenich’s subtle drumming, gradually transforming scarce punctuations into a full drumming eruption. The melodic and rhythmic backbone is exemplary held by Jordan Berger.

Worth noticing is Jordan's bass solo. Far from the recent trend towards a focus on the possibilities for extreme speed and intricacy of the instrument, Mr. Berger demonstrates his ability for creating lines that are both inventive and naturally melodic. His use of double stops, motives, hard plucking of lower notes, inventive rhythmic figures and (dis)placements throughout his solo makes a really coherent statement.  The natural tone of Berger's bass takes the center of the stage in this softer passage centered on his instrument. Although more frequent nowadays, the departure from the common recording techniques of the 80's and early 90's, which prominently used a bass pickup captured straight to the console, resulting in a dreadfully unnatural and unpleasant tone, is a very appreciated treat.

"Good Times" is probably the least architectural tune on the EP but also the most to the point, the most primal. It is in sharp contrast with Ben's other compositions which are much more intricate and thought out. Musicianship is best revealed in its simplest form; a sustained note, a simple melody, space and silence. The center point of the piece is definitely the opening line. It is used again for the second section of the head, quickly followed by a series of distinct fragmented melodies and improvised sections, marked by breaks.

The deep pulse of the groove is punctuated by Jordan Berger's throaty bass tone and repeated patterns accenting the offbeats. The rather simple nature of the bass lines contributes to the compulsive and hypnotic aura of the tune. Accompanied with a fierce delivery of cymbal magma and powerful kick and snare pounding, both improvised excursions by Matt Davis and Ben Britton are pushed to new heights. The dissonant nature of the harmony and the rhythm section trance-inducing drive especially propels Ben's improvisation, turning his tenor saxophone’s sound into an intense cry through which it sounds like he is inspired to take more chances.

The tune ends with a skillfully crafted drums solo before Jordan Berger lays down is initial bass line and reintroduces another statement of the melody minus the first section of the opening head.

Ben Britton's saxophone sound is definitely worth writing about: it is indeed the epitome of the jazz tenor saxophone tradition. You can hear the influences of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and more modern players like George Garzone, Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin. However, Ben sets himself apart with a very unique tone and phrasing he uses to make a very intense statement. Powerful and raw at times but lyrical and organic when the music asks for it. Ben's masterful display of instrumental technique always serves a musical purpose and allows him to take a lot of chances, melodically and rhythmically, with great success making his improvised excursions always unpredictable and exciting.

Putting a musician's tone into words is not an easy task not only because the way we hear sound vary widely among individuals but also because an accomplished artist will put meaning in the way he/she shapes his/her tone. Some sounds also just don't have words to describe them. One thing for sure though, the most emotional players, but this is especially true for wind instruments, sing to us. Ben definitely displays this vocal quality through his horn, especially in his unique way of voicing the higher register of the horn and his approach to vibrato.

Overall, the audio engineering work on the album is of very high quality but leaves a few things to desire. For one, the rhythm section could sit more forward in the mix, especially bass and drums. Jazz, or any style of music heavily focused on rhythm, requires a solid rhythmic backbone that stands out. The groove-based feel of the tunes would have also benefited from a fatter, more impactful tone coming from the rhythm section side. There are also a few discrepancies when it comes to acoustic spaces. For instance, some elements of Gabe Globus-Hoenich's drum kit sound strangely distant while others stand out.

The amount of reverb on modern jazz guitar is best limited to just the right amount so it adds presence, enhances the size of the natural tone of the instrument rather than drench it an unnatural halo of church-like echo. Matt Davis' personal preferences are just that, personal, but a little less reverb would have generated a tighter rhythm section sound and a clearer voice coming from his instrument.
Children At Play is a great debut album for 27 years old Ben Britton. Although inspired by his peers, Ben's compositions and the sound of his band clearly deliver something different which can only get more mature as time goes by. It is no little feat to get a band to sound as tight and instinctive as those great bands which now serve as models upon which a standard of quality is based: Miles classic quartets and quintets, John Coltrane's and Wayne Shorter's quartets, Chris Potter's "Underground" band, etc. Unconventional Riot is clearly heading in the right direction and we hope for a lot of gigging and touring for this Pennsylvania based band so they can keep treating our ears with such exciting releases and mature as their musical experiences as a band deepens the deep rooted seeds of interplay planted in this album.