Crack the Sky CD Release Party

Friday night we had the CD release party for the new Crack the Sky CD called Ostrich. I mentioned before that my usual horn section, The Retox Horns, is also the Crack Pack Horns when we play with Crack the Sky.  We were able to record three songs for this CD and two of them were in the set for this show along with 4 other songs from the usual rotation.  The gig was at Club 66 in Edgewood, MD and we played to a packed house of very excited people. Harford County, MD is my old stomping grounds so there were a lot of people I knew there.

Club 66 is a private BYOB club in an old VFW hall next to a working gas station. It’s not very fancy but it’s a very homey and comfortable place to play. They built a special stage just for the horn section with its own entrance from the green room. I call it a loft because it’s way up above the regular stage – even above the PA stacks. Crack the Sky always uses this room to tune up the show before going out to other venues but this weekend the other venue cancelled at the last minute.

Check out Happy, Happy, Happy from the new CD played live. The dude that’s putting his thumb up and pointing is showing you where the horns are.

Two notable things about this show. First, our usual trombone player, Jim McFalls, was unable to attend so we had one of his former students play.  Darius Jones is an excellent up and coming trombonist who is now living in NY where he is getting a graduate degree at NYU He is also an adjunct professor at NYU. He did a great job with very little prep time and this is not an easy book by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a blow especially for brass players and there are some really tricky rhythms to deal with.

Second, I used the Cannonball tenor and it felt absolutely wonderful for this gig. I used the fat neck and the horn felt really big and open which is perfect for a rather loud gig like this one.  Intonation was excellent and the horn felt very comfortable for me – like I’ve had it for years. My partner in crime, Dave Makowiecki (trumpet) said he really liked the sound of it and he’s been pretty vocal in the past if I brought something out that wasn’t cutting it.  I remember an incident years ago where I borrowed a Keilwerth from a friend out to a gig. I played one song on it and Dave just turned to me and said, “No” so I put it away. 🙂 I had no such issues this time around although he did say he missed seeing my old, road-worn Mark VI.

Merry Christmas!

Just a quick post to wish anyone who is reading this a happy and healthy holiday season. It’s always a busy time but I did a really quick and dirty version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas playing along with the Aebersold track. It’s just a one-take wonder but you get the idea. I was definitely too close to the microphone but I didn’t want to obsess over it. My buddy Roland Rizzo (an excellent sax player by the way) helped me with the mix by adding a little compression and some high-end rolloff in the EQ. He also gave the whole thing a touch of reverb and made the balance better than what I had.

I am also uploading a big band version of Yo, Tannenbaum from the Gordon Goodwin book. This was done by the Ken Ebo Jazz Orchestra I played with a couple weeks ago but the recording is probably 6 or 7 years old. I hope you find some enjoyment in them and take them in the spirit in which they are given. For the gear heads out there, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is My Phil-Tone Eclipse on a Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series with the fat neck. Yo Tannenbaum was most likely a Strathon Adjustotone on my Selmer Mark VI.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,

Book Review – A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist by Ben Britton

Ben Britton is a wonderful saxophonist who I met online a year or so ago. I listened to some of his sound samples and reached out to him because I loved what I heard. He’s a jazz musician, an educator, a blogger, and now an author. With this book, Ben is bringing many years of personal experience as well as a lifetime of lessons from such wonderful players and teachers as George Garzone, Chris Potter, Walt Weiskopf and others. If you are willing to put the work in you could end up with the sound you’ve always heard in your head (or on recordings).

When I was in college I think my sax teacher was more of a Larry Teal guy as opposed to a Joe Allard or Sigurd Rascher guy (the approach that Ben presents). So I was taught to take a lot less mouthpiece than what I do now and my embouchure shape was different although it should be noted my teacher did recognize that I didn’t fully fit into his approach. He liked my sound anyway so he let me go on many things. In the intervening years as I have played more and more in many varied situations I have learned a lot from talking to numerous people and my approach is much closer to what is in this book but there are definitely things I was unaware of and things I have lapsed on that could be better.

The book starts off simply enough with a discussion of air support and embouchure and their importance as a foundation for everything else that you will be adding as you go through the book. There are two chapters dedicated to these important concepts and the stage is set for future chapters as the exercises go from easy to challenging. You can do as much as you are comfortable with and then add more advanced exercises as you feel your progression warrants it. There’s some really interesting stuff in these chapters that I think I’ve always done but no one ever explained to me what was going on or why it was important. The exercises start with mouthpiece only and progress through the expected long tones but then they get pretty advanced with the introduction of bends and sub-tones. I was really excited by the description of how the vocal chords can restrict volume without losing support…I use my vocal chords a lot but I was never sure if it was right.  Now I know that I wasn’t far off and I know how to make sure I am using them correctly in the future.

The book really starts to take off (at least for me) in chapters 3 and 4 where you learn much more about embouchure and air support. One of the key things for me was his discussion of rolling the lip out for more flexibility and a full tone. It’s something I used to do all the time but I discovered that I had lapsed into a more tucked lip especially as my chops started to get tired on a gig. It’s going to be a process to change back but the included exercises once again will help build muscle memory and endurance. Another area I’ve always struggled with is tongue position. I have a tendency to have a lazy (usually positioned too low) tongue but truthfully I never knew exactly where it should be either (or had forgotten). The tongue bend exercises in chapter 4 actually do a great job of showing me where it should be by having me take it where it isn’t supposed to be in the bend.

Chapter 4 is also notable for the grueling overtone exercises Ben includes at the end of the chapter. This is a section you will want to ease into because it’s easy to get tired out very quickly and Ben points out that you should concentrate on tone quality above all else so you should stop when tone is being sacrificed. Don’t worry, playing these exercises as part of a daily regimen will build endurance and facility so there will always be new territory to chart. The exercises are divided into two parts with the second part much more challenging than the first.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to articulation and includes many exercises to make you pick apart what you are doing and get a feel for the correct way to do it. Chapter 6 is a very helpful discussion on incorporating all of the concepts into a daily warm up and practice regimen. Finally, there is a glossary for any terms you may not be familiar with.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Ben also has numerous audio clips on his website demonstrating many of he key concepts from the book. You can download the whole package as a zip file. It’s very helpful to hear a great player demonstrate the difference between rolling your lip in or out or what the overtone exercises are supposed to sound like. I think having these examples really sets this book apart from other similar offerings on the market.

I think this is a book that anyone could benefit from whether you are just getting started or you’re a seasoned pro. For beginners it provides a great start and an excellent progression and it’s the kind of thing you can take to a lesson to discuss. For advanced players it’s a chance to look critically at your fundamentals and make sure you’re where you want to be. The book is not expensive but the information is incredibly valuable so do yourself a favor and buy it. I’m hoping to see more books from Ben in the future.

Ben has some sample exercises, the zip file of audio examples, and a pdf of the table of contents here. You can buy it at Amazon (best price), CreateSpace, or a less expensive digital version at Payhip.  It’s the Christmas season so put it on your list or treat yourself to something nice. I think you will be happy you did.

Pete Thomas PPT Metal Tenor Mouthpiece Review



I recently had the chance to try one of these mouthpieces thanks to a pass-around that Pete put together through Sax on the Web Forum. I had practically forgotten that I was supposed to be in it until I started seeing posts from Pete on the forum and I thought I was going to see it almost 2 months ago but the trail went cold. I finally got to see it about two weeks ago but unfortunately I only really had one night with it because I was traveling for a family function and I didn’t want to hold up the pass around. I think I would have obviously been somewhat more comfortable with it given more time but I think my impressions of it as a viable mouthpiece are still valid.

Look at those rails!

Look at those rails!

The first two things I noticed about the mouthpiece when I pulled it out of the box were how  precise it looked and how hefty it was. Everything about this mouthpiece just says precise when you look at it.  The rails and tip are sharp, defined, and even. It’s obvious that a lot of care went into fashioning this mouthpiece. I was also stuck by just how solid it was in my hand. This is one precision hunk of solid metal.  It’s also beautiful with a brushed bronze finish and a pleasing shape.

It’s an 8* but it has a rather pronounced baffle so that helps offset the tip opening. Still, 8* is bigger than I like to play these days. I tried it with one of my Rigotti Gold 3 1/2 M reeds that’s already broken in and I really liked the control I had but I think the sound was a little stuffier than I would want. I also tried it with an old Java (green) 3 I had in a box and it was much brighter and probably more commercial sounding but it was VERY hard to control. I think I could get used to either approach given more time but for this night I felt more comfortable with the harder reed. I used the included Rovner ligature although it also came with a Marc Jean ligature but I didn’t want to scratch it up since it wasn’t mine.

I absolutely loved this mouthpiece in the lower register and up into the about C3 but I felt it was a little more resistant than I wanted to be in the upper register and it seemed to have a tendency to thin out. This is pretty obvious in the recordings but it was certainly less resistant up there with the softer reed. The registers I liked were thick with lots of pleasing lower overtones but the mouthpiece also has a crispness that made it feel very accurate. It’s definitely a mouthpiece that can get loud when you put air into it – in fact it can take a lot of air without balking. On the other hand it also does a nice job with sub tones. On Pete’s website he talks about trying to create a mouthpiece that could work in many varied musical situations and I think he succeeded in that regard. I can definitely appreciate having one go-to mouthpiece that can be smoky or raucous depending on the needs of a situation. If I was going to hazard a guess I would say that this mouthpiece has a shorter facing length than I am used to but I didn’t measure it or anything – it’s just a thought because it felt like some Beechler’s I’ve tried and they have a shorter facing as well.

One minor complaint I had was the bore of the shank. I played it on my new Cannonball tenor since my Mark VI is in dire need of repair right now. I went to put it on and I could tell instantly that it was much narrower than my other pieces. I tried greasing up the cork really well (I use Doctor’s Products cork grease – something I should probably write about in the future I guess) but it really didn’t help. To make matters worse I really had to crank this puppy on there to get it in tune. I don’t think I got it all the way in to be completely in tune but it was actually shredding the cork in places and I just had to stop. You can probably hear some of the resulting intonation issues in the recording. Part of the problem is the narrowness of the bore but I think the sharp edge was also a problem. Maybe if it had some taper at the end and the edges were more rounded it wouldn’t be so problematic.

In the recording I am playing on the Rigotti Gold 3 1/2 M but I also play a little at the end with the Green Box Java 3. You can hear how it brightens up but what I left on the cutting room floor was how wild and woolly it was with that configuration. It was really very hard to control.  I would have loved to have had at least one more night to play on it and I could see myself being happy with this mouthpiece if I wasn’t already pretty well set in that regard. One thing to take into consideration is that all of Pete’s profits on the things he sells on his website go to charity and I think that’s a wonderful thing. If you’re looking for a mouthpiece that will get you through many styles and handle them all well then this might be the one you’re looking for.

Saxophonist Jimmy Greene

In the tragic shooting in CT yesterday, one of the victims was the young daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene, Ana Grace.  I have seen it suggested that it would be a great sign of support for him if musicians (or anyone really) would download the song he wrote for her on his album Mission Statement.  I think that’s a great idea although my heart definitely goes out to the families of all of the victims of this senseless act.  I went to iTunes and loved what I heard so I actually downloaded the whole album.  Please take the time to show some support for a fellow musician and join me in finding other ways to support the families of all of the victims as they become available.



Always Leaves Me With a Huge Smile

Poster For This Year's Concert

Poster For This Year’s Concert

Every year for the last ten years I have been lucky enough to be a part of a big band Christmas concert to benefit Toys for Tots.  The band is called the Ken Ebo Big Bop Band and is lead by an incredible musician who both plays trombone and sings.  It features some of the best musicians in the Baltimore area – some of which I only get to see for this event.

I first started paying with the band over ten years ago when Ken was briefly out of the Marines and was teaching school in the Baltimore area.  He started having a rehearsal band on Monday nights and his book was outstanding.  That year he hosted the first one of these concerts at his school, Gilman.  As a former Marine (at the time – he has since rejoined, served a term in Iraq, and currently teaches at the school of music) he was well connected with Toys for Tots and it was a perfect fit to have a big band concert featuring all Christmas music with the admission price being simply an unwrapped toy.  The first year we mostly did stuff from the Kenton Christmas album and the big band was augmented with a French horn section as is appropriate for that music – a feature that has continued.  Of course, the first concert was hampered by no one really knowing much about it and it was further hampered by the fact that it snowed…I think there were more people on stage than there were in the audience.  As the years have passed we have gained a following and have increased the size of the venue not once but twice (first at Loch Raven High School and currently at Towson University in the Fine Arts Concert Hall).  I’m one of only a handful of people who have done every single one of these and I’m honored for the opportunity.

This year we did some of the Kenton Christmas stuff but not as much as years past.  We also did a lot of music from Tom Kubis, Gordon Goodwin, Harry Connick, and even some arrangements from Ken himself.  Ken is an excellent singer and we’ve had the same female vocalist for the entire run, Tammy Temple Testerman.  As a special treat this year we also had Ken’s wife Mary Jo join him for a Steve Lawrence/Edie Gourmet number and Ken’s two young children sang Away in a Manger with the band.  We usually only have two rehearsals to get ready for a rather challenging book and this year I had to miss the dress rehearsal for a memorial service so it was a pretty challenging night for me.  I played the lead tenor chair with some flute and clarinet doubles…I always have to dig out the clarinet and remem,ber how to play it because it seems like this is the only time I ever need it any more.

One cool thing for me was this was the first gig I’ve ever played with my new Cannonball tenor.  It played like a dream.  I used the fat neck because that’s the one that feels the most comfortable to me.  The horn played very evenly throughout the range, the altissimo was practically effortless, and the intonation was spot on once I stopped making my usual unconscious adjustments from my other horn.  I’m really happy with this horn and I’m loving being back on my Phil-Tone Eclipse.  I still need to play out a little more with this setup but I will do full reviews of everything before the end of the year.

We had a nearly packed house and we collected a lot of toys.  We even had a Marine color guard march in the colors and a representative from Toys for Tots spoke and helped give out awards.  I was very excited that I was given a certificate commemorating my ten years of service (signed by a three-star general) as well as a cool personalized Christmas tree ornament.  We always hold the event on the second Sunday of December so save December 8th, 2013 if you want to see a big band Christmas concert and help out children in need at the same time.

News and Reviews in Progress

A couple of things to catch up on:

I’m not quite ready to do a full review on my new Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series tenor but early reports are really good.  I would never want to do a full review without first playing it on the gig since for me nothing I do in the practice room is quite like the way I play live.  I do have a big band gig this weekend and I have a couple of louder concerts later in the month so I will definitely have some opportunities to put it through it’s paces.  I played it in a rehearsal for the big band this past weekend and I tried both necks – fat neck for the first have and the regular neck in the second half.  I tend to like the fat neck better but my wife came to my room to listen and she instantly said she liked the regular neck better…we’ll see how this plays out.

I’ve also been playing on Rigotti Gold reeds for a couple months now and I really like them so far.  The problem is I’ve only tried one box because of the way I break them in and my rotation system.  I would definitely want to check a couple more boxes before being sure about a full review.  I was playing Van Doren Java 3 1/2 and I switched to RG 3 1/2 M…so far I think that was the best choice…I got the comparison from a RG reed chart I think.  One interesting effect of switching reeds is I’m now firmly back on my Phil-Tone Eclipse HR mouthpiece rather than the Phil Barone Super New York I had been playing for the last year or so.

On the EWI front, I just bought a new Refill from Chris Vollstadt at EWI Reason Sounds called Analog Dreams.  I’ve been playing them for a few hours and I’m pretty happy with them so far.  The entire Refill (for Propellerhead’s Reason) is comprised of some emulations of vintage synths and they’re all very tweakable.  This Refill is also a new approach for Chris containing less sounds at a very reasonable price.

Finally, I just took delivery of a mouthpiece to try from Pete Thomas of “Taming the Saxophone”.  It’s a new metal mouthpiece called the PPT he’s been working on and I received it as part of a passaround through Sax on the Web Forum.  I’ve signed up for several passarounds in the past and this is the first time I actually got to play the mouthpiece in question…usually the passaround seems to fall apart I guess because someone buys the mouthpiece and that shuts everything down.  Since this is a first I’m kind of excited to actually get to try something new and comment on it.

Look for these and other reviews along with some audio recordings in the near future.