Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Vue d'en Haut - Céline Bonacina (2005 / 2009)

"Bold, direct and intensely fun", is how a twitter follower described this album to me and I have no reason not to agree. This album is one of the few that I wish I had heard about years before I bought it. There are many great baritone saxophonists out there and Céline Bonacina  is one that is not often spoken of but should be. Her playing is fiery and passionate but also metered and controlled. It is a fantastic combination for this small group.

This album surprised me in ways that I hadn't expected. The first is that throughout the entire album she can heard only on saxophones and her voice. That's it, no alto, bass clarinet, flute, bass flute, whistles, or other woodwind. Every horn she plays is an saxophone. Which may not seem like that big of a deal but in listening to dozens of baritone albums this characteristic stands out. It is very common on bari albums for the saxophone player to play other non saxophones.For example, Denis DiBlasio is a great flautist and places a tune or three on flute in every album. Brian Landrus, a fantastic player often reviewed here, places on average 2 to 3 tunes with bass or alto clarinet.The only bari players without a non-saxophone track in my collection is  Gerry Mulligan, Del Dako, Ronnie Cuber, and Gary Smulyan. Again, I don't think I have a single album in which I don't double on a clarinet or flute. I'm not complaining it's just that it is noticable when an album is all saxophone from the soloist.

Bonacina's improvised solos sometimes hint at elements of Michael Brecker and James Carter, which on baritone is quite a feat. She uses multiphonics and extended techniques to create an unique atmosphere. She does this well without resorting the musical vulgarity that Carter can command at a moments notice. Her screaming multiphonics and mouthpiece pops are inline with the expression shes trying to convey and once that moment passes they fade back out of her vocabulary.

Bonacina's is a husky but penetrating contemporary tone with a clear tonal center. It is a unique tone that she carries into all of the saxophones she plays on the album. Because she plays Alto and soprano sax on the album the listener can distill the essence of her personal tone as it is the same across the horns. In other words she sounds like herself on all of the horns. Personally I find her soprano tone a fantastic blend of the open throatedness of a great bari embouchure and the semi-relaxed embouchure of a great soprano tone. I would emulate her soprano tone if I were to begin playing one.

Another unexpected treat on this album is the vocals. They are also performed by Bonacina. She is clearly a lady of multiple talents and knows how to share them humbly. On the tracks in which she is also singing they voice is used as an instrument within the group. Her voice completes chords and liens with a smooth texture that only the voice can bring. It is a rare treat to have a baritone soloist take a vocal solo or sings background figures behind their own record solos.

TAKE AWAY: I enjoyed the variety and playing on display on this album. This album was an impulse buy that sat just waiting for me to remember it. I'm glad I did and I suggest that you get a copy for yourself.

Line-up / Musicians:
CELINE BONACINA - Baritone, Alto, Soprano, Voice -
DIDIER MAKAGA - Fender rhodes piano, Voice

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Real Life, Virtual Lesson and the rebirth of the video lesson

At some point in our musical journey most of us will seek the assistance of a more experienced musician to help us hone our skills. Traditionally this was done through a type of mentorship in which a less experienced musician might get the opportunity to learn from a pro either on a bandstand or in a practice room. Bill Evans (saxophonist) comes to mind as he says he really blossomed and learned a great deal from his early days with Miles Davis. There were many others and in some ways the tradition continues on but is much less present. For those of us without a pro mentor lessons are the next best option.

There are 4 styles of lessons in terms of interactivity: face to face, Skype (computer mediated musical lessons), video lessons, books.  Within each of these lesson styles are various levels of interaction with the instructor and with the musical community at large. For some online instructors the community is a vital part of their program.

I have to make it clear that my preferred method is Face to Face. I feel it is very important that the instructor is able to see and hear your technique clearly and from any angle necessary to help the musician be more efficient and comfortable as they play. Regardless of how long you've been playing a second set of eyes can be a great resource in helping diagnose any playing issues. For example, I had a tough time in a unison lick in the Thad Jones piece "Groove Merchant".  It took a great friend and amazing local saxophonist to see that I could tighten up the lick at speed by using side C and forked F# to be more efficient. Those small changes reduced my finger movement by 25% and evened out the phrase.  Without being able to see this another instructor may have just sent me back to the practice room  to shed the lick more.

Skype lessons have been popular for quite a while now. In fact several of my favorite players currently offer Skype lessons on limited basis. Monsters like Tim Price, Ronnie Cuber and Gary Smulyan take the time to teach via this medium. Next to face to face this may be the only option to study with high caliber musicians that are otherwise unavailable due to geographic limitations. There are some serious limitations though and for the most part they are technical. First, if you've ever used Skype then you know that the audio can be quite tinny due to compression and is limited by the students equipment and or the instructors listening equipment. Secondly, the video is at a fixed position, so other than the instructor asking the student to turn or step closer to the video camera it is difficult  to observe the nuances of a students performance. Thirdly, and most importantly in my book, is the lack of direct human interaction at close proximity. Virtual lessons can serve to add a distance between student and teacher even greater than the physical distance.

Video lessons can range from the classic VHS tape to the more modern streaming sites. Sites like Bob Reynolds lesson site and  Jazz Everyone offer expert tutelage but very little instructor student time. By their very nature it would be nearly impossible for sites with hundreds or thousands of members to get a traditional 30 minutes to 1 hour lesson with the instructor. I mean the poor lesson teacher has to eat, sleep and write new material. The best of these sites really focus on bringing people together to answer questions and the instructor acts as a moderator to the discussion. This kind of group learning can be useful and provide a wonderful sense of community to those subscribed to the site. On the other hand to the paid subscriber it can feel as though they are not receiving the kind of attention they might want from the instructor. And there is little to no feedback on tone or technique from the instructor.

Books are the 4th type of musical learning device. Books include instructional manuals like Top Tones by Sigurd Raschèr or  Three-Note Voicings and Beyond by Randy Vincent. These tomes require the student to have a significant amount of self discipline. The student must learn to take the musical leap off of the page and into understanding of the concepts and techniques on display. To gain the most from learning books requires commitment to the material and the ability to see the big picture and the small details without someone interpreting the results. The student must be their own worst critic and greatest cheerleader. I think books should be the tool of last resort for learning to improvise or general musicality. Book have a place but i don't think they can take the place of any of the other options.

TAKE AWAY: For the record I am currently a subscriber to online learning resources, own several dozen books, have taken lessons via Skype, Google hangouts, and had face to face lessons. Each learning method offers advantages and disadvantages. It is up to the student to discover what method works best for them. Though it has been my experience that as a player matures musically they tend to work down the list from being taught to teaching the self. So if you are looking to  improve your skills find a teacher and get to work.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Leo Parker and the quest for his original manuscripts

In recent months I've become a huge Leo Parker fan. He was composing and arranging at the birth of Bop and his music reflects the growing movement towards this new style. Leo played Alto first but later made the switch to Baritone when he joined  Billy Eckstine's Bebop band. During the 40's he played innovative musicians such as: Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, and J.J. Johnson. Ultimately, his musical legacy was cut short when he died of a heart-attack at the age of 36. No doubt his history of drug use aggravated the condition which killed him.

My quest to listen to and understand the motivation and styling of Leo has lead me to purchase and consume as many albums as I can and to learn more about who he was as a person. Sadly there isn't a true biography of him. There are only fragments of factual information scattered across books and the internet. The true scope of who he was as a person is somewhat lost to history. This quest for more lead me to search for lead sheets and transcriptions of his original compositions. I believe that you can learn a great deal about a composers mind set when you study their work and fit it into the context of the era in which they lived.

Unfortunately there are but a few transcriptions of Leo's solo's and almost no lead sheets for his original compositions. I felt this is a tragedy of history that one of the great-grandfathers of bari saxophone playing and a pioneer of bebop should be so underrepresented. In some ways I understand why he might not be as popular today as his characteristic dark and punchy tone is completely antithetical to current bari tone trends and his improvisational style is not very modern sounding. But what it lacks in modern modal styling it makes up for it in pure style and concise  phrasing. There is very little gratuitous embellishments in his solos. His solos feel strongly rooted to the melody and compliment the music masterfully. I think this makes him a prime subject for introducing lay listeners, students, and anyone interested to jazz.

After a long and exhausting search I came across a Library of Congress listing for 31 original unpublished manuscripts written by Leo Parker. This was the mother-lode I was hoping for considering I could only find a few transcriptions of his solos and nothing else. It seemed to me that he had been almost completely forgotten by the jazz world and his music relegated to a few recordings and that was about it. Almost as if it weren't good enough to be published. A quick email to a librarian at the Library of Congress gave me both hope and despair.

The librarian informed me that yes he can copy the manuscripts and deliver them to me in either digital or physical paper form but would not. He said he couldn't because the documents are unpublished and would require the executor of his estate to grant me permission to have a copy of Leo's manuscripts. Which raises the current hurdle, being that he died in 1962 and very little is written about his personal life how could I find his executor and discuss the manuscripts.

Well the search goes on and I will update the blog as I progress towards viewing, learning, and hopefully sharing the talent of Leo Parker.

If anyone knows his  family and can connect me with them or just has a clue please let me know.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Baritone Saxophone Facing Lengths

Since I have my Theo Wanne Glass mouthpiece gauge in millimeter x 2 I figured I could measure a few facing lengths  using a 0.04 (0.0015") feeler gauge. I will measure mouthpieces as they come in and update this post along the way. I have noted with two measurements where each rail is different.

Baritone Mouthpiece:

Mouthpiece Facing length in mm
Vintage Imperial L[32.0mm] R[30.0mm]
Rico Graftonite B5 L&R [25.0mm]
Yamaha 5C L[25mm] R[24.5mm]
Vandoren V16 B9 L&R[33.0mm]
Jody Jazz DV 8 L&R [27.0mm]
Fred Lebayle AT 7 L[26.0mm] R[22.5mm]

I had a total brain fart and mislabeled my Lebayle as a Francois Louis.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Jody Jazz DV Baritone Mouthpiece

Jody Jazz DV 8 - left profile
Recently I got my hand s on a fantastic beast of a mouthpiece. The Jody Jazz DV 8. This piece is one of of the few mouthpieces that I had on my bucket list. Why? Because pro players like Jason Marshall (DV 10) and Claire Daly (DV 6) play these pieces with amazing tones and the marketing hype from Jody Jazz just gave me an itch I couldn't help but want to scratch.

I purchased this piece 2nd hand and it wasn't perfect, has a missing bite plate and handling wear, but played perfectly. It has a gutsy soloist tone that carries well in larger groups. Intonation wise it wasn't the best for a vintage horn like my 12M but matched very well to my more modern YBS-61. Let's look at some details.

Construction: This piece is made from heavy gold plated brass. It feels solid in the hand but on my 12M it posed a problem. I have to pull the mouthpiece out pretty far and there is not enough cork for comfortably secure positioning. This isn't unique to this mouthpiece but is symptomatic of most modern mouthpiece on vintage bari's.

The mouth feel: This piece feels great in the mouth though a little small for my personal taste. The size feels a little smaller that a Otto Link STM.  I have been playing it with a few rubber bit pads stacked on each other to open the mouth a bit more and to replace the missing bite plate but it is still a small mouth feel.

Ligature: I found that  a "dark" Rovner fabric ligature to be a great match for this mouthpiece. It won't mar the beautiful exterior plating, secures the reed well, and if you believe the hype can help tame the pesky high harmonics. The ligature and cap I bought it with fit perfectly and offers better positioning options that the tapered collar ligature that is an option for this piece.

 Reed friendliness: Just as Jody suggested on the website I had to move to a 1/4 to 1/2 harder reed. Once I did this there wasn't a reed in this range that it wouldn't accommodate. I feel that this piece's facing is near perfect for the baffle/tip/reed combo. Pick a reed and play should be the motto of this mouthpiece.

 Sound:  This is a bold and bright mouthpiece. I played this in my jazz combo and big band and it was perfect for the combo but a bit too bright for the traditional sounding big band. That is not to say that it can't do double duty but it will require some restraint and proper reed selection to blend into a traditional sounding group.

Other: Here's a surprise for me and maybe you as well. Beneath the bite plate is the latin like Omicron-Tau type symbol. The same symbol on the body of the mouthpiece. I suspect it is to identify forgeries as there are many Asian copies of the over all design of the DV. In my research I'd never seen this feature mentioned in respect to a JJ mouthpiece.

Bite Plate: I contacted JJ reps about the missing bite plate. They informed me that the repair would entail inspection, cleaning, bite place replacement if possible,and re-plating. Though, the re-plating was somewhat optional but highly recommended. It would look like new for a very tidy sum and a month in their care. I decided to hold off and perhaps seek Keith Bradbury MojoBari's service to fashion a new bite plate. But in clear so that I can see that great engraving.

TAKE AWAY:  This piece meets the marketing description on Jody's page to a tee. It's easy to play, bright, and beautifully well made. It's value per dollar new is an individual choice because there are a great many options that cost less and play just as well but this still something different and lovely to play. That being said, it is not for the faint of heart or for people who are new to bright high-baffle pieces. This takes time to learn to control and find your sound on this piece.

Jody Jazz DV 8 - Without Biteplate

Jody Jazz DV 8 - Showing Table cutout

Jody Jazz DV 8 - right profile

Jody Jazz DV 8 - Engraving under bite plate

Jody Jazz DV 8 - Tip opening stamp

Jody Jazz DV 8 - Close up of baffle throat termination

Jody Jazz DV 8 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lebayle AT Chamber Mouthpiece Review

ModernBariSax Lebayle Baritone Saxophone Mouthpiece EngravingThis mouthpiece was first brought to my attention by one of my favorite baritone saxophonists, Brian Landrus on the Sax on the Web forum. From that point on I had to try one. Even though I run a moderately somewhat successful baritone saxophone blog I still have to purchase everything I demo. So with that in mind I camped on eBay and Sax-on-the-web (SOTW) and waited for one to become available. When this piece appeared I immediately jumped on it. It was in mint condition and looked perfect in just about every way.  I did have reservations in bidding as I knew the 7 tip opening (.103) is quite a bit smaller than the Vandoren B9 (.120).

Construction: This mouthpiece really is pretty to look at even though it is just a hunk or hard rubber. The large deeply engraved Lebayle logo and tip opening really compliment the swooping design of this piece. The interior of the baffle chamber were as smooth as expected though the interior of the throat was machined ever so slightly rough. To be clear it looks purposefully not completely smooth. I surmise its to help the piece grip the cork though I am not sure. 

The mouth feel: This piece feels fantastic in the mouth. the feel is very much like the duckbill Brilhart's but much more comfortable to blow than those. I find that compared to my Vandoren V16 and Otto Link Tone Edge that this piece has a smaller mouth feel. This should be good news for those who have smaller mouths and generally don't find rubber mouthpieces comfortable to play.

Ligature: Because this was purchased used it didn't come with a ligature but finding to fit was not difficult. I had several Rovner dark ligatures for alto clarinet through baritone and found one that fit perfectly though I couldn't tell what instrument it was for. i also expirmented with a string ligature, a vintage Selmer expanding ligature, and a two screw brass ligature and all performed well. The rovner provided the best grip on the smooth rubber surface without risk of marring the finish.

Reed friendliness: As of late I've replaced nearly every wood reed on reed instruments that I play. From clarinets and saxophones to my bagpipe chanter, synthetics have become my reed of choice. This presented a problem as i didn't have hard enough reeds to accomodate my embouchure and the closer tip opening. I did try this piece with Vandoren ZZ's 2.5, 3's, as well as Rico v3 3's, Rico Royal 2.5's and every Legere reed I had and none of them gave me the tone that I wanted. They were just too soft for my embouchure to keep in tune on either end of the spectrum. The palm notes were flat and the low Bb and A notes were sharp. I get the same effect when I use a reed too soft on my Yamaha 5c and a 3 reed. 

Sound: The tone is bright and punchy. It has a real baritone sound and at least 3 shades brighter than my V16 but it's not as bright as the Dukoff that I had tried a few months back. So I feel confident in saying this piece will give a great contemporary tone while still maintaining the ability to provide lush subtones.

TAKE AWAY:  This is a great mouthpiece for those who need power and precision.  Would I recommend someone try one? Yes, but get one that is close in tip to the mouthpiece that you use now.

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