Right before we went on to play.
I wanted to write this while it was still fresh in my mind but it’s likely it won’t be posted for a couple weeks depending on how well I get things set up (UPDATE: The concert was actually back on June 24th). I just came home from a wonderful event playing a reunion with old and new friends from my old high school as part of a tribute to our old band director, Raymond J. Dombrowski. Mr “D” was the band director at Bel Air High School in MD from 1956 until 1985 and he touched a lot of lives (including mine) with his knowledge, attention to detail, musicality and calm demeanor. He worked tirelessly for all of those years conducting the school concert and stage bands, and orchestra. He also taught music theory and jazz improvisation classes, wrote music (including the Bel Air Bobcat fight song) and acted as a role model to all of us. Whatever I have achieved as a musician was molded by his instruction and inspiration.
We have done four of these reunions over the last 12 years and it’s likely that this was the last one at least in its current form. The idea that there won’t be any more of them is very sad for me but I will cherish the ones we have played and this one most of all even though the first two were actually conducted by Mr. D himself. He passed away a few months after the second one.
The weekend is always hectic with lots of rehearsal and a ton of catching up. Usually we rehearse on Friday evening for 2 hours, on Saturday for four (with a two-hour lunch break in the middle), and then a one-hour dress rehearsal on Sunday before the concert…usually outside at the Bel Air Bandshell. In addition to the fun of hanging out and catching up I find the reunions interesting and somewhat challenging because it’s very different from the type of playing I do these days. It is concert band music so it’s much more classically oriented and it’s a much larger group to blend and interact with than anything else I do. It’s the usual concert you would see from any number of community bands throughout the country…marches, original concert band music, pop medleys, and some nostalgic stuff like our high school fight song. It’s not the most challenging music because many of the people don’t play that much anymore so we have to be kind and gentle with their chops but this one was more challenging and interesting than the others had been. Even though the music was not super technically challenging I appreciated the challenge of listening and blending and really working on the pieces to make music with them even with so little time together.
Notably, we played two original pieces that had been commissioned either by Mr. D or in his memory. The first was “Bel Air Blue and White” (our school colors) by James William “Buzz” Jones from Gettysburg. This piece was commissioned by Mr. D and dedicated to his wife Esther who was the librarian at the school and the leader of the marching band’s color guard. It is an interesting take on a march that alternates between being in 2/4 and 6/8. The second piece was commissioned by the Bel Air Community Band in honor of Mr. D. It’s called Anthem and was written by Patrick Burns. It’s a beautiful theme and variation on the Polish national anthem (in case you couldn’t tell by his name, Mr. Dombrowski was Polish).
For some of these people, the reunion is the only chance I get to see them so it’s highly likely I may never see them again and that’s very sad. What’s amazing, though, is how easily we become comfortable and friendly with each other even though most of us did not attend high school together. We are simply united by our affection for Mr. and Mrs. D (who is still alive and kicking as I write this and was in attendance at the concert) and a love for each other and music. We never really get enough time to spend together but it seems we cherish every moment – I know I do. As Mr. D used to say at the end of every concert, football game, or parade…”Good Job, Bel Air!”
One thing that’s pretty constant among sax players whether it’s meeting face to face or connecting with each other online is that we like to talk about our setups. For any beginners reading this, a setup is usually the collective term for what you are playing (i.e. mouthpiece, reed, horn, possibly the ligature, or maybe even extra “tone enhancers” although that’s a subject for another day). There are tons of variables among the items in a setup and there are ardent supporters and detractors for almost every one of the possible variants…whether it’s vintage vs. modern, Western-made vs. Eastern-made, low baffle vs. high baffle, Van Doren vs. Rico or what have you. In this post I want to talk out what I think is the most important part of your setup and why I think that. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and it is good to be able to write about it, organize my thoughts, and get it off my mind.
For many people the single most important part of any setup is your choice of mouthpiece. I used to be in this camp as well until I realized that I basically end up sounding the same (like me) on whatever mouthpiece I spend any amount of time on. Oh for sure there’s an initial period with a new mouthpiece where I can convince myself that there is more complexity or darkness or brightness or whatever but the more time I play with any mouthpiece the more I basically just sound like me. This was really brought home recently when I saw a YouTube video of myself from MANY years ago with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. At the time I was playing an Otto Link Tone Edge 6* (don’t remember what reed I used back then) I had picked up specifically for that tour and I it occurred to me that I sounded just like me (that’s good I think). If you compare this recording with recordings of me playing a Guardala Brecker Model (original handmade one) or an Otto Link STM 8* or a Strathon 8* with the baffle jammed all the way up (among several other long term setups over the years) or even my current setup, a Phil Barone Super New York 7* I think it’s always obvious that it’s just me for better or worse. Because of this I just look for mouthpieces that make it easiest to sound the way I want. In fact, I think the mouthpiece might be the third most important part but you’ll have to guess at what is second. 🙂
So what’s the point? What really is the most important part of your setup? It’s the part that’s between your ears…what we often refer to as your “concept”. Before any sound comes out of your horn, your brain has made tons of decisions regarding everything from embouchure shape, to breath support, to air stream, to tonguing, to note choice and to me that’s what makes me sound like me or you sound like you. That’s why it’s never as simple as what mouthpiece or horn you choose if you want to sound like someone famous. What’s important is how much you’ve wrapped your brain around what they do and how well you’ve been able to internalize their concept and incorporate it into your own. In many ways, you are probably better served sticking with what you have and listening and playing along with people you want to emulate rather than constantly searching for mouthpieces. Once you have your concept then it’s fine and even fun and invigorating to go on a search for the mouthpiece, reeds, etc. that makes it the easiest to get the sound you already have fully ingrained in your head. Of course don’t forget to work on that second most important thing…
My Mark VI – ready to go
I played a very fun gig today at something called Artscape in Baltimore, MD. I was part of a band backing up a young, talented singer named Emma White. We didn’t have a lot of time to get the songs togethe?ß?r and there were only a handful of horn tunes but the overall vibe of the whole experience was really great. It was a great combination of Emma’s original tunes and some select covers both old and new…everything from Aretha to Rihanna. Emma’s truly a pleasure to work with and she sings beautifully. It was also special because I got to play with a lot of my favorite guys in town as well as a new guy I hadn’t worked with before named Fred Moss.
Here’s the lineup:
- Emma White – Vocals, Guitar, Keys
- Glenn Workman – Keys, Vocals
- Fred Moss – Guitar, Vocals
- Mark St. Pierre – Drums, Vocals
- Jimmy Charlesen, Bass
- Dave Makowiecki – Trumpet
- Yours Truly – Tenor
I first met Emma a few years ago when she was working on her demo reel for getting into Berklee. She wanted to record a version of What is Hip by Tower of Power and the band I was in at the time happened to do a great version of that song. We went into the studio and recorded it, she ended up going to Berklee and now that she’s back she’s starting up a music career. I play with some of the other guys in a Steely Dan tribute band called Technicolor Motor Home. Actually the same guys were together in that previous band as well…we like playing together. Glenn, Dave and Mark are great musicians and great friends and I will take any gig they are on no matter what the price or where it is. I’ve known Jimmy Charlesen for many years but we’ve only really played together a few times in all those years. He’s a consumate professional, and excellent musician and a great guy so I was happy to have another chance to work with him. Fred and I feel like we have met somewhere before but we don’t know where or when so for now I’m pretty sure it’s the first time we’ve worked together. Fred is a great guitarist and singer and also a really nice guy (I think there’s a pattern here). It is my hope that we can all get together and do this again real soon.
Not a huge crowd – we were the first act of the day. The weather held up but it remained cloudy and cool the whole time.
Artscape is something that I started playing way back when I was in college I think. It’s entirely possible that I played one of the very first ones if not the first one but then I didn’t play at it for many years in between. I was shocked at how big it’s gotten. It used to just stretch along just one street but now it covers several blocks and has branched out to include new additions like Gamescape (a computer and video game art exhibition). They’ve always had top talent…years ago I saw Gato Barbieri there and he wasn’t even on the main stage. This year the main stage featured the likes of Brian McKnight, The Rebirth Brass Band, and of course, Emma White.
Here’s my first post of hopefully many. I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for a while now and I really hope it’s something people find interesting or fun but if nothing else it’s a way to spend some time analyzing and organizing things I do as a player and getting them out of my head and into a useful format. I’m hoping you can find some of it useful or interesting or thought-provoking. It’s probably going to take a little time to get some things worked out like how often I post or even what my site is going to look like but I think it’s more important than ever for musicians to have an online presence and this is my first volley. Thanks for visiting and I hope you feel like you want to come back.