Friday, September 12, 2014

Sigurd Rascher | Father of a School of saxophone tone and fundamentals

When I first started playing saxophone I had no idea what a classical saxophone should sound like. My saxophone tone exposure was limited to George Coleman, Branford Marsalis, Kenny G, and the various Reggae and Ska saxophone players. I hadn't really heard the clear, crisp, and distinctly sax tone that classical players were using. It wasn't until I got to high school that I would first hear a truly classical saxophone tone. This was in the time when the internet was just starting and there wasn't a YouTube. My private lesson teacher played for our entire saxophone section a recording of Fredrick Hemke or was it Marcel Mule playing the Concertina de Camera? I remember distinctly that my tone was nothing like theirs and I wanted to learn more.

Throughout high school I would spend 2 to 3 hours a day practicing my tone. Seriously, I would practice during my lunch break and then after school before marching band and concert band. at the time I played 80% alto and I loved it. I was very proud of my tone by the time I was a senior. I landed an alto position in the county band and was happy to perform with my peer's across the county. The one thing that stuck out was the player in the 1st chair. I heard his tone as being sweet and rather dark. I remember asking him about his tone and he said his lesson teacher preferred the Rascher type alto tone. That conversation set me on a course to learn more about Rascher and his remarkable tone.

Now that reference material is so easily located I am excited to share the kind of material I wish was available at the time I was learning tone, overtones, and articulation. Rascher and his daughter deliver these lesson in a clear and easily demonstrated manor.  This is a good time to mention Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Four-Octave Range  by Sigurd Rasher. This book changed my playing immensely.

Saxophone Basics by Sigurd Rasher (Covers tone, breathing, embouchure, articulation, overtones, posture, vibrato) :

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Carlama Orkestar - Balkan saxophone band from the Netherlands w/ Bass Saxophone

I understand if you may have never seen or heard of this saxophone group if you live in the United States but that has to change at some time and that time is now. This dynamic group has at it's core a driving rhythm section composed of Henk Spies on bass saxophone and Sebastian Demydczuk on drums. The music comes from the Serbian/Baltic tradition and is a lively and energetic exposition on life and living. You can't help but want to move when you listen to it.

As a undeniably Eastern European musician I was less than familiar with this genre of music. It reminds me of Klezmer or festival music. Regardless of your experience or understanding of the music the raw emotion and playfulness of it comes through clearly. The characteristic ornamental style of playing is in full display with trills, appoggiatura, mordents, and glissandos littering the phrases. Just listening reminds the musician that clean and clear articulation, both finger and tongue,  is a fundamental to the delivery of this style of music.

My initial attraction was without a doubt the bass saxophone holding down the rhythm section. Henk's vintage Conn looking bass really burps out those bass tones. His tone ranges from tuba like to raunchy sax. More important to his execution of the bass line than his tone is his time. He is rhythmically tied to the percussion and together they form a solid percussive base for the others to play against. The more one listens the more the relationship between bass and drums becomes clear. They feed each other and play off of each other. I am loosely remininded of 1920's style ragtime bass saxophone.

TAKE AWAY: This group is fun, different, and worth the price of admission or a CD.

The Band:
Akos Laki - Tenor saxophone
“Soso” Sandor Lakatos -  Alto saxophone
Stanislav Mitrovic - Alto saxophone, vocals
Henk Spies -  bass saxophone
Sebastian Demydczuk - drums

The Carlama Orkestar Website


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bari Star Synthetic Reeds

 Bari Star Baritone ReedFirm, punchy, and has edge; Bari woodwinds has created their best reed to date in the Bari Star line. If your musical situation requires volume, edge, and longevity then this reed should be on your short list.

I've been a huge proponent to synthetic reeds since I first played one back in 2001. It was a bright and punchy but a bit unrefined. Eventually I returned to the time honored cane reed for my playing. At this time I was in a Ska band that enjoyed very minor success and toured a little around the region. Like many other wind players touring from dive bar to the next you learn that beer and booze can have a disastrous effect natural cane reeds.  It can shorten their lives and if you have enough booze you can chip or break them on accident. This can lead to the problem of trying to find more reeds on the way to the next venue, on a Sunday when the music stores are closed. Sometimes you ask the sax player in the opening band if he has a spare reed you can swap him for a cold brew, this hardly worked as baritones were few and far between in Ska bands at the time. Though now they've made a bit of comeback thanks to groups like Streetlight Manifesto and Ska Cubano.

Enough history now on to the goods:

Tone: This reed is much warmer than the original Bari Synthetic reed. It is closer in tone to a Brancher Jazz cane reed than to other synthetics. It is not as classicaly smooth as a Forestone or as natural cane sounding as a Legere.

Strength Grade Scale: S [soft] - H [hard]

Relative vs Stated Hardness:  I find this reed to be about a 1/2 step softer than the hardness scale suggests the soft - medium should be and I find Hard to be a little 1/4 step harder than they suggested.

Finish: The surface which touches the lips has slight machine marks which are smooth but noticeable. The left and right sides of the reed can be a touch sharp as the angle is only slightly rounded off. I suspect that a few passes with 1000 grit sand paper to round the rails of the reed will fix that with minimal change to performance.

Shape: This reed fits my RPC .110 High Baffle mouthpiece well and with very slight overhang on each side.

Tonal Edge: This mouthpiece has about half of the edge from the standard Bari woodwinds reed.

Performance change while playing: I find that the Medium and Medium Hard did soften after about 1.5 hours of steady playing.  Not enough to want to change out reeds but there was a slight performance difference. I suspect it is due to warmth and the reed returned to normal after it cooled a bit.

Price: $ - Cheap as domestics brews on ladies night. So cheap you can buy 4 or more for the price of 1 box of Vandoren bari reeds.

TAKE AWAY: I recommend that all bari players take a spin on an appropriate Bari Star reed. These are a favorite for times when I need a good tone with more volume. When I need more control and more depth, like in a Big Band, I still prefer the Légère. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Thoughts on Chinese Bass Saxophones

When I say bass saxophone and jazz what comes to mind? I wouldn't be surprised if "Tiger Rag" and Adrian Rollini came to mind or if your a hair younger then perhaps Colin Stetson. The fact that this much neglected member of the saxophone family is making a comeback in its own way is something to be excited about. While bass saxes didn't go extinct between the 20's and today they did become more scarce and more expensive. The recent proliferation of Chinese made bass saxes has brought them in to price range where the pro-amature/amature+ can afford.

In talking with a couple of Chinese baritone and bass sax owners about the horns quality it would seem that the larger the horn the greater the tolerances can be. Which for bigger saxes means that it is possible to get a well playing horn that is worth the investment. A chinese made bass can be had under 5k if you shop well, this is less than 1/3rd of what a new Selmer or Keilwerth bass will set you back. Let's also consider that bass sax gigs are likely to be few and far between.

Here are a couple songs,  the first is played by Uwe Ladwig on a vintage American made bass sax. The 2nd video is a modern Chinese made horn. The 3rd is a classical use of a Selmer Series II bass and it's spectacularly rich classical tone.

Monday, June 16, 2014

RPC High Baffle Baritone Mouthpiece - 110B

Img prop. of RPC Mouthpices
Like most saxophone players I've tried dozens of mouthpieces over the years. I've played most brands out there and many vintage ones. These include: Beechler, Otto Link, Jody Jazz, Runyon, Lebayle, Francois Louis, Meyer, Vandoren, Hite, Selmer, Guy Hawkins, Dukoff, Woodwind Company, Refault, Brilhart, and Berg Larsen just to name a few. In this time a few piece have stuck with me over the years but have never quite performed the way I wanted them to. After the honeymoon period ended there was always a reason why a mouthpiece would fall out of favor; mouth-feel, tone too bright, tone too dark, reed unfriendly, too much pressure, too free blowing, rapid heat loss, too much condensation settled between songs, or mouthpiece has to use a special ligature.

This changed when I started playing the Vandoren V16 - B9, it is such a great piece that I feel every baritone player should spend time with it. But it too had issues in not being bright enough for my changing sound concept. That's when I began the search for a high baffled mouthpiece with cut and punch while also having depth and effortless control at all volume levels. I tried a few different piece at a local music store but didn't quite hit the nail on the head.  But that's a topic for a different day. I then decided that I wanted a brand new, hand crafted, boutique mouthpiece made for me with the qualities that I was seeking. That lead me to Ron at

DISCLAIMER/REMINDER: As a general rule, the sound you get from any mouthpiece is dependent on a number of factors. These include the players physiology, the horn, the reed chosen, the mouthpiece and most importantly the players sound concept. The sound concept is the internal tone each player hears in their head. If you prefer a darker tone then no matter what your body will find a way to darken the tone. Consider how Don Menza can sound like Webster, Coltrane, and Hawkins just by hearing the sound in his head. His well practiced body then makes changes to give him the desired tone.

Construction: The material is a traditional hard rubber with his initials carved into the side along with the tip opening information. The finish is satin and very smooth both inside and outside. The rails were even in width and the tip opening was even across its width. The high and long shelf baffle terminated in a steep though not sharp slope into the chamber of the mouthpiece.

Mouth feel: The piece has a slim mouth feel and is suited to most any size mouth. I prefer a bit larger a mouth feel as I feel like it opens my airways a bit more. By adding 1 - 1mm thick rubber mouthpiece pad to the beak it was near perfect. This also has the benefit of protecting the piece from tooth scratching.

Reed friendliness: I think this is one of the places where this mouthpiece is really interesting. The type, cut, and strength of the has an immediate and strong change in the timbre of the tune. A bright reed seems to reinforce the higher harmonics the mouthpiece favors. If you place a darker reed you can achieve a more modest and full tone. The reed strength was also a welcome change. Ron's pieces are made to be played on a harder reed than many people use for such open pieces. The recommended strength is in the Rico Jazz Select 3S to  Rico 3.5 range. I was able to play the piece comfortable on reeds up to a Jazz Select 4H with only a little extra effort.

Sound: This piece has a high baffle. There is no hiding it but to my surprise the baffle did not immediately result in an ultra bright tone. Instead the high baffle reinforced some basic elements of the tone but allowed the tone to be molded by the musician. In general I enjoy playing on Legere reeds as they tend to give a darker tone than the other synthetic reeds on the market. When they are applied to this piece they pull the tone a bit darker and sub-tones feel like a warm woolen blanket but when pushed the tone goes bright and aggressive. Even at higher volumes the tone is full and doesn't break.

Ligature:  Ron ships all mouthpiece with ligatures and caps. Vandoren are you listening? The included is a brass 2 screw traditional ligature. It fits perfectly and does it's job very well. I prefer Rovner type ligatures so I added a spare tenor ligature and it fits well. The piece is close to the size of a hard rubber tenor mouthpiece so some more expensive ligatures may fit. . 

TAKE AWAY:  In the end this is one of the most versitile mouthpieces I've even owned. It serves me in my big band and jazz combo. I can blend with the section or fire off a auditorium filling Cuber style tone with the same piece. If you are sitting on the fence waiting for one of these to hit Ebay I'd suggest you just go to Ron's site and order it. There's a good reason his pieces don't go to the auction block as often as Wanne's, Jody's, Meyer's and Link's. When I can afford it I'll be getting his .105B or .110B Tenor piece as well it's a monster of a player from what I've heard.

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