Trying Horns

Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series "The Raven"

Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series “The Raven”

I mentioned before that I was ready to try out some new horns in order to choose a new backup horn and also to fill the need for something shiny for certain types of gigs.  I have done a lot of research and one of the brands I really wanted to try was the Cannonball horns and this weekend I got the chance to do just that.

After talking to a buddy of mine, I decided to drive down to Gaithersburg, MD and visit a store called L&L Music.  There is actually a store much closer to me but L&L had the horns right there in the store and the other store required me to request horns to be delivered from their warehouse before I could try them.  I figured I would go with the path of least resistance and if I didn’t find anything I liked at L&L then I could still try the closer store.  Plus my buddy lives near L&L so he could go along to be my extra set of ears.  They had 6 horns in stock at the store…two Vintage Pro Series and 4 Big Bell Stone Series and I dove right in.

The first one I tried was a Vintage Pro (both VP horns had the Dark Amber lacquer and looked very nice).  It was a really, really nice horn.  I brought my Mark VI as a comparison and this horn felt very similar to it.  It had great ergonomics and the resistance felt really close.  The only difference was it was way smoother than my horn….like butter.  My VI almost sounded blatty by comparison.  I set that one aside.  The other VP also felt very similar to my VI and it even sounded like my VI coming out of the horn so I left the first one in the “like” pile and put this one back on the wall.

Next I moved on to the Big Bell Stone Series tenors.  Once again, the first horn I tried was awesome and the rest didn’t feel as perfect even though all of the horns were very playable and any one of them could be a fine gig horn.  These horns come with two necks: one is standard style with the octave mechanism on top and a finish that matches the horn exactly.  The other neck is called the “Fat Neck” and it’s always in silver with an underslung octave key mechanism.  With the exception of one horn I preferred the fat neck as the horns seemed less resistant and more round especially in the upper register.   I put the first one into the like pile and put the rest back.

I had a tough decision on my hands at that point because both horns were great and the store was going to give me the sale price for the Christmas sale that hadn’t even started yet.  Several of the store employees stopped in to chat at various times as well…it’s a very friendly store to shop at and there are lots of knowledgeable people there.  Ultimately I decided to get the Big Bell Stone Series (Raven finish) over the Vintage Pro Series mostly because I already have a Mark VI so I didn’t need to have something that played so similar to it no matter how silky smooth.  Maybe if all I ever did was play jazz but I have to be kind of a chameleon and I play more rock and funk than anything these days so the Big Bell seemed like the best choice for me.  It has a great full robust sound that I can push for days and it looks totally awesome.

I’ll try to get to a full review after I’ve been able to really spend some time with the horn and play some gigs with it.  In the meantime, if you are in the Washington DC metro area and you’re looking for a great place to shop for horns give L&L Music a try. They also carry Mauriat saxes, they have used vintage horns, and they even had a Theo Wanne Mantra in stock…I didn’t play it even though it looked very interesting.

The Crack the Sky CD Is Out!

EDIT: the YouTube videos got pulled so I will upload some audio snippets soon.

It actually came out a couple of weeks ago but with all my recent travel I just wasn’t able to post about it.  The new CD is called Ostrich.  My regular horn section, the Retox Horns, recorded three songs for the album although when we are with Crack the Sky we are called the Crack Pack Horns.  In some ways it’s kind of like “FINALLY” for me because many years ago I had joined the original Crack Pack Horns when I took Ellery Eskelin’s place on the bari chair.  We were in the studio for Crack’s World in Motion album and we got all the way to showing up for the record release party before finding out that the song we did was completely re-recorded with a different feel and we were no longer even on it.  I think that was over 20 years ago so it’s nice to finally be on this CD and I’m especially happy with the way it came out.

The first song we did was one we had already played live with the band: Your House is On Fire.  I played tenor and bari on it and of course my usual partners in crime are Dave Makowiecki and Jim McFalls.

The next song is Happy, Happy, Happy.  The horns don’t come in until about the 2 minute mark but then we’re in until the end.  This is a funky little groover with some fun guitar work.

Finally, we played on an interesting little story piece called Pole Dancing at the Hollywood. This one is also pretty funky and I like the way the horns are laying back against the driving beat.

You can find all the songs on You Tube (like I did) but support music and buy a copy either from the website or at a show.  You can buy the CD for less than a couple trips to Starbucks and you’ll get more long-lasting enjoyment from it.

In Pursuit of a Shiny Horn

I love my Mark VI…I mean I really love it. I’ve been through more than 32 years with the same main horn and I pretty much know it like the back of my hand. There are only two things that could be better. For one thing, this horn (like it’s owner) has seen a lot of wear and tear over the years so it seems to be ever so slightly more susceptible to having things go wrong than it used to be. Recently I’ve had several things go wrong like screws coming loose or falling out – I even had one fall out on a gig and I couldn’t find it to put it back in…had to try to transpose all of my tenor parts to alto for the rest of the night…not fun but definitely interesting. This is not a huge deal but I feel like I need to get it to my repairman more often these days. Of course, the other issue with all that wear and tear is the horn just isn’t as shiny as it used to be. There is a lot of lacquer missing and there are places that like to turn green if I don’t stay up on them. This is sometimes a cool thing as players know that this is a player’s horn and it’s been played hard but non-players look at it and they don’t understand that the lack of lacquer and the green spots are a badge of honor and not a sign of a bad horn. 🙂

None of that is the real issue here though. The real issue is that since my VI is probably going to the shop more I need to potentially be using my backup horn more. I really don’t like my current backup horn that much. As I mentioned in my gear post, it’s a 10M but it’s not one of the sought after ones. In addition, the horn is so different from my VI in sound, intonation, and especially ergonomics that I just don’t have that much fun playing it. People tell me they like the sound just fine when I’m on it but the adjustment factor is very high on this one. It’s also shinier than my VI but not by much and this particular 10M is not that pretty a horn in my opinion. It’s also good to have a possibly less valuable horn than my VI to take out to outdoor gigs or to places where a horn might be open to mishaps. So because of all this, I’ve been saving money from each gig I play in order to get myself a nice shiny new backup horn.

I’m not looking at anything vintage even though I know there are good values to be had out there. I want something that is ergonomically similar or even superior to my VI and I know I probably won’t find that in many of the vintage horns out there. Also, vintage horns that have all of their lacquer and look nice are very pricey for what they are. I’ve been doing a lot of research, talking to techs, reading reviews and articles, and talking to some reps from various companies and I think I’m at least going to start by looking for a Taiwanese horn. I already have a Taiwanese-made soprano (Barone) and a Chinese-made alto (Buffet) so I think I know what I am getting myself into. Both horns feel great, have great intonation, and seem to be very well made. The price also falls comfortably into the range I am willing to spend for a backup horn…somewhere between 1500 and 3000 dollars. Oh, and many of these horns have some rather adventurous, unique, and pleasing finish options as well.

Some of the brands are off the table because I feel their price is much too high for what they really are. P. Mauriat and Theo Wanne horns fall into this category. Some are too risky to the point where I don’t know what kind of support I would get if something went wrong and others are just too hard to get real information about. Because of all this I am currently looking at several brands that look promising: Viking/TK Melody, Cannonball, and Barone. I’m hoping to get a chance to try these horns and others in the next couple months and I will post my findings and other updates as I go through the process.

Wish me luck. I know I’ll have fun trying some horns out but it’s always tough to pull the trigger on spending that kind of money and I’ll also likely have to travel a bit to really get to see as many horns and finishes as possible.