Big Band Work

Since just before Christmas I’ve had the opportunity to play live with four different big bands in just over three months. I know for some people that is not a lot of work but for me it’s probably more big band work than I’ve done in ten years or more. Many years ago I used to do lots of big band work but there’s just not that much call in my area anymore. I mean, I could probably play with a different rehearsal band every night but I can’t do that for many reasons and I like to have something to work towards rather than just always rehearsing towards no gigs. (First two photos in this post are courtesy of Chris Convery. Chris is a great guy, and excellent trombonist, and an awesome photographer)

Toys for Tots Christmas Concert with the Ken Ebo Big Band

I have done every one of these since the concert series started about a dozen years ago. I think we’ve had two cancelled for inclement weather over the years but all of the ones we have had have been incredibly fun and over the years we’ve helped collect a lot of toys (an unwrapped toy is the cost of entry). The band is fronted by Ken Ebo who is in the marines and teaches at the school of music. He’s an amazing trombonist, singer, and arranger. We do Christmas music from Stan Kenton (with actual French horns), Harry Connick, Gordon Goodwin, Tom Kubis, and other notable writers, arrangers, and band leaders. We have two singers (including Ken, who does an amazing job on Harry Connick tunes), a color guard, and even Santa Claus makes an appearance at the end of the show.

Ken Ebo Christmas

Ken and I after my feature - Christmas Time Is Here

Ken and I after my feature – Christmas Time Is Here

Backing Up Bobby Shew

In January, I had the honor to play in a big band backing up the amazing and timeless Bobby Shew. Bobby came to Towson University as part of the Towson University Jazz Festival and they put together a Jazz Festival Orchestra made up of local pros and former TU students and alumni. For the record, I was a student at TU for several years but ended up getting my degree elsewhere.  First and foremost, Bobby was amazing both as a player and as a person. Second, we had the additional honor of having Denis DiBlasio (baritone saxophonist, clinician, performer, and alum of the Maynard Ferguson band) join us for a couple songs. Finally, the band was absolutely smoking. This was made even more interesting/fun because we did all of it with only one rehearsal. We got the music ahead of time and were just expected to know it. We had about an hour before Bobby got there and then an hour with him. There were a couple weird issues with tempos that were incorrectly marked on the parts but overall it went very smooth. I felt crazy old because all the other saxophonists were half my age but they were very gracious and played their butts off. #whippersnappers

Bobby Shew w/the TU Jazz Festival Orchestra

Bobby Shew w/the TU Jazz Festival Orchestra

 The Hank Levy Legacy Band

Recently, a new movie was made called Whiplash about a drummer’s experience playing in a college big band with an abusive and demanding band director. I’m not going to go into too many of the specifics of the movie except to say I don’t necessarily agree with the portrayal even though I thought the acting was impeccable. That said, one of the interesting things about the movie for me is the title and the big band chart to which it refers. Whiplash was written by my college jazz band director (Towson University – see above), Hank Levy, for the Don Ellis big band and it’s a chart that I played extensively in my college career as well as post college in some incarnation of the Hank Levy Legacy Band. I could probably go on for a long time about Hank and his writing but I will save that for another post possibly and simply say that Hank loved to challenge the norms of the time (the 70’s to the 90’s) and one of the ways he challenged them was by writing “time” charts – using odd meters. For example, Whiplash is in 14/8. He also was nothing like the character portrayed by JK Simmons in the movie…quite the opposite really.

Anyway, I had the chance to sub with this band at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club a couple months ago and I’m actually playing with them again this Sunday at Towson University. Playing these tunes is like revisiting an old friend. While odd meters can be challenging at first, it becomes as second nature as more “normal” time signatures once you wrap your head around it. The problem isn’t really reading and interpreting but soloing can be a bit of a mind bender at times. Luckily, Hank was always very good at subdividing the bars into patterns of 2’s and 3’s (sometimes the 3’s are further subdivided in half but usually only on the slower stuff) and keeping those pulses in your head makes it easier to stay in time. Also, being a sub I only have to worry about soloing on a couple tunes and both of those are in 4 so I’m set. The concert is a guest artist spot and all of the proceeds benefit the Hank Levy fund at the University so come on out if you are in the area.

As I said, I generally need to stay away from long rehearsal cycles (or more than a 2-1 rehearsal to gig ratio) but there is one noticeable exception that I will talk about more in depth in my next post.

 

2014 Review Part 1 – The Gear

It’s been a long tough slog through this year following my wife’s illness and subsequent passing last year and I really haven’t kept up on things the way I was.  I’m hoping to be able to change that and I’m starting up front of the New Year so it’s not just another silly resolution. 🙂 This update will concentrate on some new gear that went into steady use this year in the form of some mini reviews. The next one will focus on some of the projects I have had going this year as well as some plans for the near future.

Phil-Tone Equinox/Eclipse Hybrid

If you spend any time reading this blog you’ll see a lot of reviews of Phil’s stuff and you would think that I’m some kind of paid spokesman but the truth of the matter is I’ve just in found Phil someone who makes the kind of mouthpieces I like as well as someone who is open to sending mouthpieces out on pass around for people to try. Phil is also an awesome guy and a great craftsman.

Phil came out with an Equinox mouthpiece a couple years ago and it really sounded like something I would like but I was pretty comfortable with my Eclipse (the first piece I ever got from Phil not including his cleanup and refurb of my Otto Link Florida STM). I finally decided to pull the trigger and get one and you know what? I absolutely hated it! Well, hate is a strong word but it wasn’t what I thought I was going to get at all. I talked to Phil and he said to send it back and he would fix it for me…he had made it a little brighter than usual and that’s part of what I didn’t like. In the back and forth while he was fixing it he offered to undercut the table and open out the chamber in what he called an Equinox/Eclipse Hybrid. That sounded great so I went with that.

When I got it back I was absolutely thrilled and this has become my main piece after many years on the Eclipse. It’s a 7* (105) while my old Eclipse is an 8 (110). It’s a little easier to play because of the opening but the undercut table does require a little more air. This is something that may or may not be on Phil’s website but it’s something he can easily do and something he’s happy to provide. The lesson here is that by being open and communicating with him I was able to turn something that didn’t fit me at all into something I love.

Phil Tone Rift (alto)

I was playing on another of Phil’s alto pieces called an Aurora I think and it was good but I wanted something with a little more drive. It’s funny but on tenor I’m moving a little darker but on alto and bari I’m embracing the cut and edge. Phil had a sale on Sax on the Web Forum and one of the pieces was an unbranded Rift prototype.

The Rift is something that I think is rather unique to Phil. It has an interesting double baffle that looks a little like a clamshell. He used to make the baffle completely by hand but he recently started having blanks made to this new spec. This is one of those prototypes but I think it is very similar to the branded production models if not identical. This mouthpiece is a screamer that never loses it’s core…it’s like the best of both worlds and it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had on alto. I’m using it with Van Doren Java 3 (green box) and they seem to be perfect for me. I’ll try to post an audio sample soon but it may be an edit after the first of the year.

Phil Barone customized Otto Link Tone Edge (bari)

Phil Barone is the other Phil I love to work with. He’s an amazing mouthpiece make and refacer. I started talking to him several years ago about doing the “Ronnie Cuber” treatment to a Tone Edge – apparently Phil did the work on Ronnie’s TE back early in his career…a sound I love. Now I know that a mouthpiece is not the ticket to sounding like someone but I also felt like it would at least have some of the characteristics I was looking for and I could handle the rest.

Phil did a reface with a new facing curve and he cleaned up the tip and rails extensively. The magic, though, is in the baffle work in my opinion. Phil takes out the rollover baffle and then adds a step baffle later in the chamber. The end result is a screamer that is both easy to play while allowing a ton of nuance and color. I don’t play nearly as much bari as I used to but this mouthpiece has replaced my Lawton which I’ve had for over 20 years. I think the mouthpiece I sent him was an 8 but I think the one I got back is more like a 7*.

I use Rico Select Jazz 3 Unfiled (at Phil’s suggestion) and they seem to match it really well. This is not something you’re going to be able to find easily and I doubt you will be able to get one from Phil. The baffle work is very labor-intensive and he told me he really didn’t want to mess with these any more. I’m just glad I was able to get one before he decided to stop. You can still get his regular pieces from him and he will do other refaces. He also sells amazing horns for great prices so he’s definitely someone to keep on your radar.

EWI 5000

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been an EWI guy for many years (probably more than 20). I’ve had pretty much every model since the 3020/3030 came out. My primary EWI for the last few years has been the 4000s but I didn’t ever use any of the internal sounds except maybe at rehearsal when I was being lazy. Instead I just used it as a driver for my virtual rack in my laptop. The 5000 was announced over a year ago I believe and I knew as soon as I saw the announcement I was going to have one. As it got closer to shipping I went ahead and pre-ordered one from Patchman Music.

The key selling points of the 5000 over previous versions are an enhanced synth engine with real samples (the 4000s was virtual analog), rechargeable internal batteries, and built-in wireless audio. I’ve had mine for  couple months now and I really like it a lot. It was instantly comfortable because it feels just like my 4000s. The sounds are a mixed bag. There are definitely some much better sounds but they require a lot of tweaking (especiialy the overuse of effects) and there are WAY too many saxophone patches while there are absolutely no strings either solo or ensemble…that’s strange. I haven’t had a chance to use the wireless but I’m told it works as expected.

NOTE: Many people are confused about this but it is wireless audio only…Midi is NOT wireless in the 5000 but you can order wireless midi from Patchman. I really like the rechargeable internal batteries and I love that it hooks right up to the computer with the included USB cable. It’s like the best of the 4000s and the EWI USB all in one. All in all I’m pretty happy with this but I’m waiting for the Patchman patches that will make things even better.

Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series Tenor

I really need to post an actual review of this horn. I actually bought this horn over two years ago and it has been my main horn ever since. I love how it feels and people love how it sounds. I also love the way mine looks. So nothing actually new here but I just wanted to put that out there.

Phil-Tone Theo Wanne Mosaic Review

I’ve been involved in quite a few mouthpiece pass arounds recently and most of them were from Phil-Tone (made by Phil Engleman). Previously I reviewed the hard rubber Sapphire and the metal Tribute (a collaboration with Theo Wanne). Today I want to talk about the Mosaic, another collaboration between Phil and Theo Wanne. Like the Tribute this is a metal mouthpiece based on a classic approach. It is not based on any particular mouthpiece but has been described as having a similar feel and sound to the old original Dukoff mouthpieces. The one I tried was a “factory second” although the only differences from the real production version were purely cosmetic – there was a mouthpiece patch on during plating so that area is disclorored…I thought it looked kind of cool.

Appearance

The Mosaic is on the left. Tribute on the right.

The Mosaic is on the left. Tribute on the right.

The Mosaic is a beautiful bit of work. Phil and Theo are both known for their attention to detail and their ability to deliver a precision-made, hand-finished mouthpiece. The rails and tip are thin, even, and seemingly perfect to the naked eye. The whole mouthpiece is finished in silver and bead blasted for a very interesting and pleasing look (just like the Tribute). This is a very large bore mouthpiece with a fairly minimal rollover baffle. It’s about the same profile as an Otto Link so it accepts the same size ligatures and has a comfortable mouth feel if you’re used to Links like I am.

How Does It Play?

I found this mouthpiece to be more comfortable and more versatile than the Tribute. It was more even through the registers and the upper register was more gutsy and full in general. The lower register was just as full to me It tended to be a little dark but very full and rather room-filling. I spent some time with it at a big band rehearsal, on a gig with an R&B band, and recording it in my little studio. When I first tried it on the big band rehearsal, it didn’t last long for me. The big band is for a recording session later this year and it’s predominantly a vehicle for trumpet players…translation – It’s LOUD! The mouthpiece was so new to me that I didn’t know how to get the most volume out of it and it just seemed like I would be fighting a losing battle. The tone was nice but I just didn’t want to fuss with it at that time.

The second time I used it was with one of my regular bands, Jr. Cline and the Recliners. We were playing at a local casino in a nice room with a solid PA and monitors so I just decided to commit to it since I should be able to hear myself well all night. Well it turns out I was wrong about that because you can never underestimate the ability of guitars to overwhelm any given situation. On a side note, they had a bunch of those plexiglas barriers and it should be noted they rarely if ever work as expected. If it’s not a fully-enclosed system then it can’t possibly work but people often hear with their eyes first and I digress.

On that gig the mouthpiece was comfortable and full but I felt like I had to work way too hard and blow much more air than usual to get the sound I needed to sound appropriate in that setting. I was able to get around the horn really well but the altissimo was some work. The book is actually written over the full range of the horn with more written low notes than a lot of other two-horn books and all ranges were playable but still more work than I would like except for the low notes which spoke really well.

When I played it in my studio, I really liked it a lot. I think this was in no small way because I was more comfortable than ever with the mouthpiece. It was also true because I was in a very controlled environment where I could hear myself really well without competing with other instruments. In this setting I found out why people are really flocking to this mouthpiece because it is smooth and silky with the ability to roar when pushed. I think the problem I have with playing it live is my ability to hear it from behind the horn. When it’s hard to hear it’s important to have a feel for what is coming out the end of the horn and I could not get comfortable with that especially compared to my regular mouthpiece which is really excellent for that.

In conclusion, like some of the other stuff I’ve tested recently, this is a mouthpiece I could use if I was playing a different kind of music on a regular basis or if I was prone to switching mouthpieces for changing circumstances…I’m not. Of the three recent mouthpieces I’ve tried from Phil-Tone I like this one the second best but I really think it would grow on me if it was all I played for a long period of time. This is the kind of mouthpiece that you would want to invest time and effort in rather than something that’s just going to be perfect the first time you put it on. I actually liked the Sapphire the best but I’m more comvinced than ever that my Eclipse is the perfect mouthpiece fo all of the things I do right now.

The Clip

This is a fairly long clip because I was having a lot of fun playing this piece. As with all recent recordings it was recorded directly into Reason on my MacBook Pro using a Fat Head Ribbon microphone through a Balance interface. I think you can hear how flexible and full it is but I didn’t necessarily push it as hard as I could or would in certain settings but that’s probably true of everything I do in the studio.

Phil-Tone Sapphire Review

Phil did't have pictures on his website so I grabbed these from Tenor Madness - a great sax shop and a dealer for these mouthpieces.

Phil didn’t have pictures on his website so I grabbed these from Tenor Madness – a great sax shop and a dealer for these mouthpieces.

Hot on the heels of getting the chance to review Phil Engleman’s collaboration with Theo Wanne, the Tribute, I recently received the Sapphire to try out. Well, to be fair it’s been a month and a half and not “hot on the heels” but it’s been harder to get back rolling on this blog than I thought it would be. Being a single dad really puts a crimp in your available time. For instance, I was interrupted 4 times before I got this far in my writing today. 🙂

Introduction

Anyway, back to business. The Sapphire is a replacement for something Phil has been doing for years and I believe the thing he started with before making his own mouthpieces. Phil has always had a knack for taking stock, off-the-shelf Otto Link Tone Edge mouthpieces (known for being wildly inconsistent at best) and turning them into powerhouse, monster players. The process involved lots of steps to fix the tip and rails, adjust the “floor”, open the chamber, and possibly the most important, adjusting the baffle. The intent was to take these modern, inconsistent, and possibly flawed pieces and turn them into something that felt and sounded more like the old “slant signature” Tone Edge mouthpieces. The slant signature being the most well known and sought after Tone Edge of all time. He has done this for many years but recently decided to work directly with J.J. Babbitt company (makers of the current Otto Link and Meyer lines of mouthpiece) to have a blank made just for him that would allow him to produce consistent and superior results without as much busy work just to get to square one. Based on what I was able to play I think he’s on to something special.

This is the only identifying marking on the mouthpiece

This is the only identifying marking on the mouthpiece

 Appearance

A couple years ago when I bought my first mouthpiece from Phil I posted a review on Sax on the Web Forum (long before I started this blog) I expressed a thought about the appearances of mouthpieces that feels appropriate here. Based on the effect people ascribe to mouthpiece construction, materials, etc. it’s odd that good ones don’t look all that different from the “bad” ones. I mean it seems like the ones that really play should glow or have a pearlescent sparkle like the tears of a unicorn but the reality is that the naked eye can’t necessarily see a whole lot of difference from one mouthpiece to another. You can definitely spot a particularly bad example but the differences between good and great mouthpieces are very hard to discern sometimes. The Sapphire looks different from all of Phil’s other custom pieces. It is a little shorter from end to end with a shorter shank that has two cuts. As with all of Phil’s work, the tip and rails are absolutely immaculate. Also there isn’t a ton of baffle in the rather spacious chamber. The beak seems like it might be a little higher and of a sharper angle than his other pieces as well and that’s actually good for me because I have become more comfortable with a higher profile mouthpiece over the years. The one I have may be more on the prototype side as well because there are very few markings on it at all. The mouthpiece I tried is a 7* – right in my comfort zone. I used a Rigotti Gold 3 Strong reed and a Francois Louis Pure Brass ligature.

How Does It Play?

If you read my review of the Tribute you might remember that I intended to use it on a gig but bailed at the last minute because it didn’t seem like it was going to fit the gig both from a sound profile as well as from my ability to discern and hear myself in a rough monitoring situation. With the Sapphire it was a very different situation. I found myself playing the exact same gig with mostly the exact same band. I hadn’t had a chance to play the mouthpiece prior to the gig but I was game to try it so I slapped one of my reeds on and got to work. This mouthpiece was instantly comfortable to me. Not only that but it was close enough to how I usually sound that I was easily able to pick myself out of the monitor mix even though it was a bit of a messier mix than the last time we played there. The overall feel was a little darker than I am used to these days so I had to work a little harder than I would normally want to but the evenness of tone and intonation was exactly what I would hope for.

When I was able to try it in my studio I was still very happy with the sound and happily played the mouthpiece for quite a while as I put it through its paces. I’m pretty sure this could easily be my every day mouthpiece except for a couple of things none of which are knocks on the mouthpiece: First, I already have a Phil-Tone Eclipse that has been my main piece for several years and it is easier to play a bit brighter the way I like to sound in most of the musical situations I find myself in. Second, when I am looking for something on the darker, smokier, Blue Note side of things (a sound the Sapphire excels at) I already have an Equinox D mouthpiece from Phil that I have reviewed previously – The Equinox D is now called the Aurora I believe. If I didn’t already have the comfort of Phil’s other pieces and the sonic spectrum so well covered already I never would have let this mouthpiece go on to the next person in the pass around.

Not a ton of baffle in there and no "unicorn tears"

Not a ton of baffle in there and no “unicorn tears” 🙂

The Clip

I just finished editing the clip – snipping out unwanted sections and converting to MP3. There were no changes other than that…It was recorded direct to Reason on my Mac using a Cascade Fat Head ribbon microphone through a Propellerheads Balance audio interface. I simply normalized everything and then did the snipping. It’s pretty obvious I have a lot of comfort with this mouthpiece and, listening back, I really love the sound of it. As I said, if I didn’t feel like I already had the sonic territory and comfort of this mouthpiece well covered it would not have left my grubby little hands. The clip is a little long but I was having a great time so bonus points if you listen to the whole expanse of mindless noodling. 🙂

Phil-Tone Theo Wanne Tribute Review

The Tribute

The Tribute

Introduction

I’ve talked before about mouthpieces from Phil Engleman. I wrote a review about one of his Equinox Dark mouthpieces and one of his original Custom mouthpieces has been my main piece for several years with the exception of a brief foray with a Phil Barone Super New York. Earlier this year, I saw Phil was talking on Sax on the Web Forum about an exciting new project he wanted to work on. I emailed him and found out he was working with Theo Wanne to make an exact copy of the old Florida metal Otto Link mouthpieces. These have long been regarded as some of the most versatile and best-playing mouthpieces out there but you can’t get them any more unless you want to spend a lot of money to get a used vintage one. Phil and Theo wanted to find an excellent example and use modern technology like laser mapping, 3D printing, and CNC milling to make something that was not only great playing and affordable but also consistent – something that even Florida era Otto Links were not.

pt-1-logoThis idea was exciting to me because I had an excellent Florida Link that was my main mouthpiece for many years to the point that I had to stop playing it because I had used up the bite plate and it had taken a fall and the tip had some issues. Several years ago I started my association with Phil by having him restore this mouthpiece for me. Fast forward to this year and there was actually a good chance that my mouthpiece might be used as the “blank” to get them a starting point. Unfortunately my piece is an 8* and Phil and Theo were looking for a 7* as that was what they wanted to base the line on (it’s one of the most commonly used tip openings especially in Links). Still I was very excited to get my hands on the mouthpiece but several uncontrollable factors like summer vacations and my wife’s illness kept it out of my hands until this holiday season.

Appearance

The first thing you will notice about the Tribute is just how precise and lovingly crafted it is. The tip and rails are absolutely pristine – a hallmark of Phil’s work and the overall look of the mouthpiece is very attractive with a bead-blasted finish and excellent logo work. I’ve never played a Theo Wanne mouthpiece but I believe this level of build quality is something he is known for as well. There is a gentle rollover baffle, the sidewalls are scooped out and the chamber is large. It ships with a Theo Wanne Enlightened ligature with two pressure plates but the version I tried had no ligature. I ended up using a Francois Louis Ultimate although a Rico H fit just fine also.

Another view

Another view

How Does it Play?

Playing the Tribute was easy and fun. As I said, I’m very comfortable with a Florida Link after years of playing one and this was as comfortable as an old friend pretty much from the start. I used Rigotti Gold 3 Strong reeds and they seemed like a pretty good fit. It’s possible I would eventually go with a 3 Medium but I probably wouldn’t go stronger for fear of the mouthpiece sounding too tubby. The best words to describe the sound I got would be full, round, and velvety. It makes you want to play ballads especially ones that feature the low end of the horn because the low notes are absolutely stellar. It subtones like a dream and the sound just filled up my little practice room/studio. You can easily transition from soft to loud and, like other Links, it picks up some pleasing brightness when pushed. Pitch was generally very good and the tone remained centered and even throughout the range of the horn. The only problem for me was that the upper register seemed like it didn’t want to brighten up enough for the kind of music I usually get called to play. Sometimes I could blow harder and it would open and brighten up enough and other times it sounded a little pinched to my ears. This could be the result of the fact that I am used to playing a hard rubber mouthpiece with a much bigger beak as I am much more comfortable with that these days. One thing to keep in mind is that Florida Links don’t all play the same as I mentioned above. Some are darker and some are brighter. My Link is a little brighter than this but it’s also a bigger tip opening. I think this piece tends to be darker than some other Florida Links.

My original intention was to take it out on a gig I had with a soul, R&B band I play with out of DC and Northern VA but I ended up not using it on that gig for several reasons. First off, I could tell that there would be issues with the monitoring situation on stage and I didn’t want to get lost in the mix. If I’m on my usual setup I can find myself sonically even in bad situations but I didn’t have confidence I could do that with the Tribute in this situation. Also, there was another tenor player on the gig and he wan’t just any tenor player. He’s a legend in the area named Al Williams and he’s a flat out player who’s been around with the likes of Stanley Clarke and Mongo Santamaria. I didn’t want to do anything that would potentially keep me from being my absolute best that night. Because of that I couldn’t take the mouthpiece on the gig

Conclusion

I really loved this mouthpiece and under certain circumstances I think I could easily make this my main piece except for two things. First, I don’t really get to play in those types of situations as much anymore. If I was playing more straight ahead jazz in smaller rooms then yes but I tend to play funk, soul, and R&B in loud bars and theaters. Second, I have come to the conclusion over the years that I am just more comfortable on mouthpieces with bigger beaks so that my jaw is naturally opened wider. Metal mouthpieces just don’t have those kinds of beaks and I tend to get fatigued much quicker on them these days as a result. I’m told Phil might be working on a more in-your-face version of this mouthpiece called the Mosaic and that might make me think hard about going back to a metal mouthpiece again but we’ll see.

Clips and a Different Kind of Tribute

If you’ve been reading my blog at all then you know that I haven’t been posting much lately. In my last post I explained that my wife, Sue, was having some rather serious health issues. I won’t go into all of the details here but she finally succumbed to a terrible illness called Fatal Familial Insomnia on December 18th so I now find myself a single dad to my two boys. I miss her very much and that’s reflected in these clips. Both are single-take “moments in time” that I recorded on the evening my wife’s funeral and the following evening. I thought about going back and re-recording or “fixing” some things or even adding some reverb or EQ but ultimately decided that they should stay as raw and original as possible to remain as a record of what I was feeling those nights and many nights since her diagnosis in July. The first is some noodling and then When I Fall in Love and the second one is My One and Only Love – a song I’ve dedicated to her many times over the years. You get to hear them warts and all:

I love you Sue and I miss you more than you can know.

Quick update

I’m trying really hard to get back into the swing of posting here.  I really miss it but we received some rather catastrophic health news about my wife and I’ve been dealing with that since back in July (and dealing with the symptoms since possibly as far back as February). I’ll post more about the situation as I feel more comfortable about talking about it.

Music has been one of the things that has kept me sane and engaged during this ordeal and I’m blessed that my family and friends recognized early on how therpeutic it is for me. They’ve been dedicated to making sure I can get out to play gigs along with all of the other help they’ve been giving with helping care for my wife and our two boys. Having a wonderful, amazing group of family and friends has been a huge difference maker for me. Music has been helpful as I mentioned and exercise (especially yoga) has also been very important to help me cope with a terrible situation.

I’ve been playing with Technicolor Motor Home and Jr. Cline and the Recliners (where I am now the tenor player instead of alto/bari) and I’ve also been subbing with other bands like Rollex and Bobby and the Believers.

Here’s an audio clip of the last gig I did with TMH a couple weeks ago. It’s a version of Aja we did live without ever rehearsing it together. Everyone learned their parts (from a live version we found on You Tube) and we just threw it together on the spot. It’s not perfect but I’m really happy with the way it turned out under the circumstances. Hope you like it:

That’s a Lot of Gear to Haul Around

Crystal Visions Makes the Best Posters

Crystal Visions Makes the Best Posters

Yesterday was a crazy day not just because I had two gigs. Also not just because the time in between then was supposed to be one hour and they were an hour apart not counting tear down and set up time. In addition to these things I also had to take a ton of gear as it was two different bands. The first gig required tenor and EWI along with my rack that has my hardware synth rig, a mixer, and my in-ears as well as stands, and my iPad for reading music. The second gig was alto and bari along with stands, a change of clothes, and again my trusty iPad. In between, I also brought a cooler with some food since I wasn’t going to have time to eat dinner except in the car. It was a lot to deal with in one day and I’m lucky I remembered to pack everything and didn’t lose anything in the process. I actually used an app called Wunderlist (task tracking software) to make lists so that I grabbed everything I needed.

The Cat Stayed Home

The Cat Stayed Home

The first gig was with Technicolor Motor Home at the Dundalk Heritage Fair opening up for Three Dog Night. This was a great show for us because we played for a very large and appreciative crowd. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. We also played the gig with 4 subs (out of ten pieces) but you would have never known it because everyone was so well prepared. The sound company did a great job and the logistics of everything were like butter. I even got a special parking space since the crew knew that two of us had to leave early to get to our next gig.  All in all it was pretty much the epitome of the perfect gig.

View From the Stage at the Dundalk Heritage Fair

View From the Stage at the Dundalk Heritage Fair

The next gig was all the way down in Bethesda, MD playing with another ten-piece band in Jr’ Cline and the Recliners. As I mentioned above there was only an hour for turnaround as the first gig ended at 7 and the second gig started at 8. Of course that’s not possible unless I were to really take my life (as well as those around me) in my own hands and I am not willing to drive that crazy. Luckily, the band was able to move the start time back until 8:15 and they played the first two songs without the two of us who were “coming in hot”. The first gig I thought went really well for me personally, the second gig wasn’t as great for me. I played the section stuff well but I just couldn’t get on track from a solo perspective. Part of it is playing Eb instruments with a rock and blues band so I end up playing in C# a lot (that’s like kryptonite for me) but I also just never felt settled in the second gig and that’s a shame because the band was roaring. I mentioned before about the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club being a great venue and it was just as amazing this time. They treated us like gold and we had a really nice crowd there. I’m going to have to really shed C# blues before the next gig to get it under my fingers so I fell better about myself when it’s all over. It’s funny because I’m so used to playing in F# because I usually play tenor on these jobs. You would think it wouldn’t be that hard a transition but it seems like nothing IO play sounds the way I want it to. Oh well, I’ll make it work.

Jr. Cline and the Recliners (taken after the show)

Jr. Cline and the Recliners (taken after the show)

Review: Jazzlab Sax Harness

Pretty Girl Not Included

Pretty Girl Not Included

One of the big problems I’ve had the last few years when playing bari is ending up with a very sore back. It had gotten to the point where I would take the bari off the strap anytime I had any decent amount of rest and then re-hang it before the next entrance. I’m talking about as little as six bars rest. That technique got me through the gig and kept me from being in terrible pain the next day.

While playing bari always seemed to affect my lower back the most, playing tenor with a normal neck strap always made my neck sore although not nearly as much as bari affected my back. I never liked harness style straps because I didn’t like the way the horn hung – it seemed to be too close to my body with that style of strap. Because of the way it hung, it always felt like the angle of the horn was wrong for me. I think it would be fine for sitting down but I spend most of my gigs standing up and I like the horn to be more out front than angled to my side. I started hearing a lot of great things about the Jazzlab Sax Holder and I finally took the plunge to try it out. My experience with it so far is over three gigs and several practice sessions but I believe I have a good feel for what it does and how that affects me.

How Did It Do?

There’s no doubt the weight is much better distributed with the Sax Holder. The weight of the horn was moved from my neck (with a pull on my lower back) to my shoulders. The strap adjusts fairly easily to the contours of my shoulders and the weight is further distributed to a brace that rests on the body. This brace is adjustable both for height as well as thickness and I think this is the part that saves my back while the shoulder straps save my neck. The strap works like a marching tether for drummers in many ways.

The first time I used it I had a gig on bari and alto and the strap arrived during the day of the gig while I was at work. So like any rational person I decided to try it on the gig without any test. To make matters worse, traffic going to the gig was terrible so I didn’t even make sound check so I was only able to try the strap for a few minutes before I went on. I did have a regular strap on stage just in case…I’m not totally nuts…but I didn’t need it because the Sax Holder worked like a champ. It was effortless to hold the bari while playing and I didn’t take it off at all while playing the bari songs. I also felt very comfortable playing alto. The angle of both horns was right where I wanted them to be. The Sax Holder has a longer strap portion that acts more like a traditional strap and that makes it much better than a harness for me.

The second gig I used it on was just tenor and I once again didn’t have much time to adjust it (it was an outdoor wedding and you probably know how those go). Again, I appreciated how well the pressure on my neck and back was alleviated but this time I felt like maybe having more time to tweak the adjustable shoulder braces would have helped me a lot. The seemed to dig in a little bit more than they should the whole night. On the other hand, the strap works really well with a tux or a suit as it hides well under the jacket, doesn’t mess up your bow tie, and actually keeps a traditional tie in place without a tie clip.

The third time I used it, was a outdoor concert and I was dressed MUCH more casually than the other two gigs. In this case, it actually interfered with my open collar shirt more than I wanted it to. Plus, the guys in the section were giving me grief about it a little it (“Oh I thought you were wearing a brace because you broke your sternum”). Ultimately, I decided not to finish out the gig with it that night even though it was still very comfortable for me. I think I can better plan my clothing in the future when I want to use it.

Pros

Really does protect both my neck and my lower back

Works well under a suit jacket and with ties

Horns hang at a good angle for me

Easily adjustable when switching horns

Lightweight

Comes with a soft bag and stores comfortably in the bell when in the case

Cons

Sometimes it’s awkward to have on when you aren’t playing. Walking up and down steps feels weird if you try to look down

Doesn’t work well over an open collar shirt

Can look a little strange when you aren’t hanging a horn on it

Verdict

For bari this is a no-brainer. It makes playing one pain free for the first time since I was much younger. I was able to feel comfortable without removing the horn and I was even able to move freely and do dance moves with the section. For the tenor, where I don’t have as much lower back trouble but I do have neck strain, it’s something that I can and will use under the right circumstance. Even if the guys give me grief, it’s well worth being pain free after the gig. For alto it’s really not necessary but I am often playing alto in conjunction with either the tenor or bari so it will get used especially since it is so adjustable. Overall, I think this strap is a winner and money well spent. I actually ordered mine through a store connected to Amazon but I don’t think they have them all the time. I’ve also heard that there is a model 2 coming out but I will probably wait on that until I hear more as this one works fine.

Updates – End of May 2013

Well it’s been a weird couple of weeks for me. May was not a very busy month at least for playing gigs. I only had the one gig and that was a pick-up last minute wedding gig. I was supposed to have another one but the club (who shall remain nameless – although they may well be out of business before you get to see this) seems to be falling on hard times and the gig was cancelled at the last minute. I just have a couple of things to post about and an update or two.

Feast or Famine

Why is it that gigs always pile up when you have to choose only one rather than spreading out so you can take them all? This is a phenomenon I have noticed for years and it’s maddening at times. For instance, I thought I had a gig on the 18th but one of the bands I used to play with years ago called me up to sub on the same night. I had to turn them down but then the gig got cancelled so I got right back in touch to see if I could still take it…only to find out the regular guy had gotten his conflict worked out after not being able to find a sub. If I had known that the one gig was going to be cancelled I would have been working that night. Instead I found myself sitting at home with nothing to do. The same is true for this weekend. I’m playing the Crack the Sky show on Saturday night but the leader of one of my absolute favorite bands to sub with, The Junkyard Saints, called me for the same night. Again, if they were spread out instead of all falling on the same night I would be a happier camper…and have more money in my pocket to boot. I’m sure it’s all just a cognitive bias on my part but sometimes it just doesn’t feel fair. 🙂

Coming Reviews

I have more reviews I want to post in the coming weeks and months but I’m just not quite ready to do it yet. I really like to have time to put a thing through its paces before committing a review to the web. I still need to post a full review of my new Cannonball tenor as well as my take on the Jazzlab Sax Holder. I may be ready on both after this weekend so look for some updates soon. I also want to dig into a couple of reviews on two instructional DVD’s I’ve been checking out. Both are by George Garzone but one is more straight ahead and is very advanced and the other is about playing funky and feels approachable by almost anyone who has a basic knowledge of theory. Finally, I want to post more horn, mouthpiece, and EWI patch reviews and commentary as well.

FINALLY, Some Gigs!

After being idle for the last couple weeks, it looks like June is starting to pick up and that’s a good thing. As I mentioned above I have the Crack the Sky show on Saturday at a place called Blob’s Park in Jessup, MD. This is an all-day festival connected to Dick Gelfman’s Ride Across Maryland which is a charity fundraiser for breast cancer awareness. Crack the Sky is one of the headliners along with Baltimore hard rock mainstay, Kix. On Sunday Technicolor Motor Home will take the stage at the Charles Village Festival near the Baltimore Museum of Art at Wyman Dells. We’ve been playing this festival for several years and before that we used to play it with many of the same people in a band called Expensive Hobby. It’s a great event that is very family friendly. The only issue is whether mother nature will cooperate because they are expecting thunder storms on Sunday in our area.

Writing Music is Hard Work

I’ve been trying to get back into writing again because I wanted to start a recording project with some good friends of mine who also happen to be wonderful musicians. I haven’t really written on my own in quite a few years and I’m finding it to be a challenge to get really rolling but it’s also a lot of fun…when things go well. I thought it might be worthwhile to provide a few tips that have proven useful to help me be productive and to stave off the biggest enemy of songwriting…procrastination.

Sometimes the best writing comes from just playing

Rather than trying to write a particular thing I’ll often just start playing things either on one of my saxes or my EWI. I’ll just pick a key and start noodling around and see if anything strikes me. Once I get a fragment of a line I like I start to play permutations until I have something that really flows. That’s when I hit record (if I haven’t been recording the whole time which I often do – I mean digital recording is practically free) and start trying to fill it out, playing around with it in different tonal areas, figuring out where it might go for a bridge, etc. Later, I can cut and paste parts together to spell out whatever melody I have in mind. At this stage I don’t worry about chords or bass lines or drums because all that stuff can come later…I just want the melody to be something I can believe in and I don’t want to step on parts that other people will most likely play. That brings me to my second point.

Leave the parts to the guys who know them best

There are several reasons I think this is important. First, I can play some keys but I don’t play bass or drums or guitar. Things I come up with for those parts might make no sense to people who actually play them and I also don’t want to adversely affect how they feel about playing their own stuff. Second, anything I come up with would probably pale in comparison to something a real player could come develop. Third, I’ve seen it a lot where someone spends a lot of time working up a part for some instrument they don’t play but when the time comes to bring the actual player in it becomes apparent that they are now so “in love” with the part they wrote they just can’t hear anything else played except what they’ve been listening to and obsessing over for so long…this seriously hamstrings the player and is a disservice to their talent and creativity. Finally, it wastes a lot of time that could be spent more productively and often gives you reasons to procrastinate…which brings me to my next point:

Don’t waste time

Writing music is fun, fascinating, and fulfilling but it can also be darn hard and as such is a ripe environment for procrastination. It comes in a lot of forms whether it’s getting lost in the minutiae of recording techniques or spending hours making the “just perfect” drum part or losing focus to mess with your reeds or mouthpiece or whatever. Finding ways to combat these all too easy to fall into traps will be the ticket to making sure you make the best use of your available time. Here are a couple of hints:

Make sure you are ready to go as quickly as possible – Nothing wastes time like trying to get yourself ready to do what you’re supposed to be doing whether it is writing, or practicing, or whatever. Try to get yourself set up so there is very little barrier to entry. I use my laptop for recording so it’s just a matter of opening up a blank song in Reason and either pulling out a sax or plugging in my EWI. I have a microphone ready to go on a stand and I only have to make two connections to be ready to record live.

Don’t waste time on arranging save it for actual writing – I mentioned this above when I talked about leaving the parts for the experts but there’s another reason. It’s incredibly easy to waste time messing with drum parts and bass parts and whatever else. I’ve gleefully spent several hours messing with trying to find the exact right patch for a keyboard part before realizing it was past time for bed and I hadn’t really done anything. Go with your gut, take a sound that’s close, and stick with the stuff that’s really important. If you really do want to take time to work on parts then just make that the point of your session rather than trying to accomplish both things.

Sometimes the magic happens and sometimes it doesn’t – When things click it’s a great feeling but even the greatest writers have bad days. Don’t beat yourself up. Be thankful you took the time and made the effort and try to learn from what you did. Also save everything because you never know when the kernel of an idea from a non-productive day wil turn into magic on a day when you are firing on all cylinders.