For those of you who haven't heard, there is a new sax competition starting this year in memory of Michael Brecker. There has been an extension on the application process, so you can enter until April 30. There is serious prize money involved ($12,500 first prize), and a chance to perform at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.
To be eligible you need to be 30 or younger as of July 1, 2019, and you cannot have had a signed record deal. See the website for more details.
In my last post I wrote about the a data-rich, super-awesome saxophone book, From the Inside Out. In that post, I explained the basic concept that adjusting your tongue and vocal cord position affects the sound and pitch of the saxophone. Many players, including my past self, have the misconception that air speed or air direction are the fundamental processes in voicing, but as the book shows, it's actually tuning the resonance of the vocal tract that is important. What everyone was right about all along is that you accomplish this through tongue and vocal cord position.
What is Voicing? Voicing consists of adjustments done inside your mouth and body that affect saxophone playing. These adjustments include tongue positions, vocal cord position, and how open or closed your vocal cords are. Voicing is necessary to get a stable and good tone across the range of the saxophone, and it's important to developing a personal sound, virtuosity, and extended techniques.
For the low notes the tongue is high in the back of the mouth, similar to saying a long e vowel, but the front and middle of the tongue are lower than the back. Obviously, the front of the tongue needs to be below the reed. As you move higher the tongue pivots towards the reed. From the fluoroscopic images (basically x-ray) in From the Inside Out, it's clear that the back of the tongue also lowers a bit in this process.
Antithetically, for low notes, the vocal cords are positioned low like singing a low note. They are also opened, like yawning. They move to relatively higher position for the middle register and are no longer so open, and the move even high for the upper register and come pretty close together for the palm keys (like whispering an "h" sound).
Octave Jumps These two basic premises allow us to begin practice voicing by changing the octave of a note without the octave key using either tongue position or vocal cord position. Try the following exercises.
Start with a low E or F, and then as you play move your vocal cords higher as if you were singing a high note. Of course, don't actually sing. and don't use the octave key The higher octave pops out relatively easily with that motion.
This one is a bit harder but still doable. Again, start with a low E or F, and then as you play move your tongue closer to the reed independent of the vocal cords. As you do this to a bit of an extreme the upper octave will sound.
There you have it, the two basic movements of voicing. Practicing these independently for just a few minutes today made me more aware of my voicing and allowed me to get up to 4th octave Bb (4 octaves above low Bb), using conventional alissimo fingerings, something I've never done comfortably before.
I've recently read From the Inside Out, a book that I feel is one of the most important contributions to saxophone playing and teaching ever. The author, Mark Watkins, has spent 23 years researching the inner workings of saxophone playing. He's taken myriads of fluoroscopy videos, essentially x-ray videos, showing what happens in your body as you play the saxophone. He also used in-mouth cameras and sensors to measure airspeed to investigate the physiology and physics of sax playing. The book was just published last year, and Watkins has also made a series of videos accompanying the book available which show the inner workings of various fundamental and extended techniques.
Myths: Airspeed and Direction In the first chapter of the book, Watkins challenges the common conceptions of speeding up the air or changing the direction of the airflow with the tongue or vocal cords. Changing airspeed with the tongue has always been my go-to explanation of voicing. Like many others, I've always thought that you raise the tongue to speed up the air, essentially shooting it at the mouthpiece. Watkins destroys this misconception and argues that tongue and vocal cord position, instead of affecting airflow speed or direction, affect the acoustics of the vocal tract with a resulting effect on your saxophone playing. It's an argument rooted in physics and his research that proves itself even more useful to saxophone playing than traditional voicing pedagogy (i.e. the traditional take on tongue and vocal cord position).
For example, the typical pedagogy is that the higher the note, the faster the air needs to be. Essentially, the tongue should be high enough to create a fast enough airstream to execute high notes. Meanwhile back in reality, sensors close to the reed show that airspeed does not increase for higher notes. In fact, for some professional saxophonists, the airspeed slightly decreases in the upper register. Using fluoroscopy imaging, Watkins also shows that the tongue isn't necessarily getting higher in the mouth for high notes. Similarly, he shows that the idea of changing the direction of the air with the tongue doesn't work physiologically, and references acousticians who demonstrate that the diffusion of air before it reaches the reed makes airflow direction negligible. However, both of these mistaken notions point to the very correct idea that moving your tongue is essential for good saxophone playing.
Reality: Tuning the Vocal Tract What research has shown is that the position of your tongue and vocal cords tune the vocal tract, meaning your mouth and throat back to your vocal cords. That tuning affects the sound, pitch, etc. that the saxophone produces. If the tuning is bad enough the notes won't sound (think low or high notes that don't speak nicely). To very briefly sum up the general tendencies Watkins found, for low notes the back of the tongue is high in the mouth, and as you ascend in pitch the tongue moves forwards towards the reed and lowers a little bit.The vocal cords are low and open for low notes and high and closer together for high notes. I found this very interesting because I'd arrived at fairly similar conclusions for tongue position, but I was pretty ignorant of how the vocal cords operated.
In a future post, I'll go into more specifics on the research on voicing and what I've found in practicing and teaching. For now, just obliterating the common idea about airspeed is good enough for one post!
I've been checking out a bunch of sax books recently, and I wanted to share a few.
The Saxophone: The Art and Science of Playing and Performing
This is a very interesting book. It was just published a couple of years ago, and it introduces quite a few new concepts and methods for learning and playing saxophone. Some of the concepts, new and familiar, that I've enjoyed include:
Readying abdominal support before starting to play.
Using your vocal cords to help start a note cleanly (especially helpful for the low register).
Using your vocal cords to double tongue.
Practicing with a double lip embouchure to encourage a high tongue position.
Using concepts from singing to learn voicing.
There are lots more, but those have been my favorite so far. Some of the concepts seem to overreach in terms of too much specificity. For example, Harle suggests that you need to direct your air in very specific ways for each note, but the overall concepts are beneficial. I should also say that while Harle's pedagogy is very interesting, it's not up to date with the current research on acoustic processes involved in playing saxophone. For example, there is no evidence that saxophonists can meaningfully direct their air while playing, though there is a lot of evidence that the actions players take to 'direct' their air affect the acoustics of the vocal tract and resulting sound and response. That being said, there's plenty to take away and learn here.
It's also worth mentioning that this book is written from the perspective of a classical saxophonist, Not only that, but it's written specifically with soprano and alto in mind. While the author, John Harle, does say that the book is meant for saxophonists of all styles, there are some parts that I haven't agreed with. For example, Harle suggests that a clarinet-like angled entry for the mouthpiece best supports airflow and results in your best sound (think higher neck strap position and pulling the butt of the sax towards you). However, it's difficult to get the crisp, flexible, and vibrant sound jazz players get using that angle, though Dave Sanborn would beg to differ. In short, the book has a few concepts that lend towards a classical saxophone school of thought.
The book available in a very nice 2 volume box set, and it's definitely worth checking out though.
Planet Sax: 26 Etudes for the Maturing Student
Sam Tobias sent me a copy of his new and very fun book to review. It's intended for middle school and high school saxophonists, but adult intermediate students will find that it's a good challenge and good music. The etudes explore lots of rhythmic aspects, large interval leaps, various registers of the horn, lots of key signatures, some unfamiliar modes, and each etude has its own unique style. I'll personally be using these etudes with students who are working on improving their reading skills, as it's a great fit for that. My only complaint with the book is that some of the swing etudes feel like they aren't fluent in the actual style, though I think that may be a result of the concepts the etudes are focusing on. Overall, I highly recommend this book for intermediate level saxophonists looking for a good musical challenge.
Planet Sax Etude: Indonesia - YouTube
Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound
This book is a classic that I've been revisiting. The author, Dave Liebman, intended it as a summary of his experience teaching and playing and his time with Joe Allard, an important teacher for many jazz and classical saxophonist and clarinetists. If you haven't checked out Joe Allard's teaching, you definitely should. Liebman, of course, has his own take and a very easily understood approach.
Highlights from the book include breathing exercises based in yoga, tongue position and voicing, overtone exercises, an Allard-inspired concept of embouchure, and an approach for learning jazz-centric expressive devices. While some of Liebman's explanations of how saxophonists voice notes are outdated, all of the exercises are very good. I highly recommend this book to jazz saxophonists working on developing their sound and technique.
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.
Aaron Drake Mouthpiece Comparison - YouTube
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.
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.
Reso 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.
Conclusion 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.
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
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."
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.
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!
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):
McWendel- Adam Larson Quintet - YouTube
Last and least, here is me giving a go on the etude based on "Have You Met Miss Jones?":
Retro Revival Mouthpieces Comparison and Review - YouTube
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.
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.