Busy Weekend

Friday night I got to do one of my favorite things. I played with Technicolor Motor Home at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis. It’s the second time we’ve been there and the second time we’ve sold the place out. It’s not a huge venue but it has a great vibe and thee have been some amazing acts on that stage so it just feels great to be up there. It’s always a great time when I play with these guys especially playing with my partners in horn section crime, Dave Makowiecki and Jim McFalls. It was a great night and here are some samples:

Last song of the night after over 2 hours of playing..still a lot of energy going on:


A little EWI action on this one.  The chromatic harmonica patch was a free download from EWI Reason Sounds.  It was a melodica on the original recording but this gets the job done.


Some horn section goodness and some wonderful guitar work by Ben Sherman:


I played the Cannonball Raven on this gig with my Phil Barone Super New York mouthpiece and Rigotti Gold 3 1/2 M reeds. It was a struggle because I was still having a devil of a time with the G# key sticking.  I made it through the night but it drove me crazy the whole time and I had a really hard time feeling settled.  I took the horn to L&L Music in Gaithersburg where I bought it and they are looking it over and adjusting it as a warranty repair so I’m hopeful that it will be great when I get it back. With the exception of the sticking key (which could be attributed to a bunch of things) the horn felt absolutely awesome…very tight and punchy and it just looks awesome.

This week I’m playing a LOT of bari in a big band setting. Every year a local private high school called Archbishop Curley has a night of jazz featuring their students and an alumni band along with a guest act. I didn’t go to Curley but I have a few friends there and I’ve subbed with the alumni band numerous times including every chair in the sax section at one time or another. I think this will be my third concert with them and the first for me on bari. We had a rather long rehearsal this evening and we will have two more before the concert on Saturday night. I’m playing on my Selmer bari with my Lawton 8*B mouthpiece and it’s really starting to feel a lot more comfortable…maybe I don’t need to get some mouthpieces refaced after all. Oh well, I already sent one off to Mojo (Keith Bradbury) so it’s a done deal anyway. I’m also using an inexpensive reed alternative – Woodwind brand from the Woodwind and the Brasswind. I ordered the jazz cut in a 3 and they are playing really well for me right now. I also have some La Voz MH that I have prepared in the rotation as well. We’re only doing 5 tunes for the concert but it looks like it will be a lot of fun. I think there are a few tickets available for “All That Curley Jazz” but it appears to be another sellout this week. 🙂

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.

October ’12 News and Notes

Lots of cool things going on right now.  First off, there’s a cool new behind the scenes video from the Emma White show I did a few weeks ago at Artscape in Baltimore.  It starts off with Emma doing What is Hip from Tower of Power…no small feat for only two horn players.  I can safely say I’ve never done that tune with a smaller section before…or even one as small.  There is some backstage stuff interspersed with some music clips.  The music sections include some of Emma’s original songs and some choice covers.  The audio and video quality are really good.  It was a really fun gig.

Even more exciting for me personally, the CD project I spent a lot of time working on over the summer (and going back to last winter) is now out and I’m really happy with how it turned out.  The CD is from a really good buddy of mine named Anthony Setola who is an amazing bass player, a gifted composer, and an up and coming producer.  It’s called Radiate and it’s available now on CD Baby.  If you’re on Facebook and you feel the urge feel free to “Like” this page.  I played tenor and baritone saxes with my usual horn section, The Retox Horns, and I also played a lot of EWI stuff as well. It was fun and interesting because everything was recorded in different places…some in a studio, some at Anthony’s house, some onsite backstage on the gig, and lots of EWI stuff was me recording right here at my house on my laptop and then sending the files to Anthony to incorporate into the song.  Recording at home was on one hand liberating and convenient but on the other hand somehow even more stressful as I tended to obsess over my parts more than I would in a studio environment.  Ultimately I was satisfied with what I added to the project but I was especially knocked out by the other guys and girls also contributing.  Check out these names:

  • Frank McComb- Vox
  • Sean Rickman- Drums
  • Scott Peaker- Drums
  • Dan Leonard- Guitar
  • Jonathan Rogerson- Guitar
  • Russ Pahl- Pedal Steel Guitar
  • Ned Judy- Piano and Keyboards
  • Federico Gonzalez Pe?a- Melodica
  • Benjie Porecki- Organ and Keyboards
  • Glenn Workman- Organ and Keyboards
  • Bill Plummer- Moog Synthesizer
  • Justin Lewis- Moog Synthesizer
  • Mark Merella- Wave Drum and Percussion
  • Mark St.Pierre- Wave Drum and Percussion
  • Meg Murray- Vox and Elements
  • Ross Hancock- Vox and Elements
  • Brad Kimes Cymbals, Wind Chimes, and Vox
  • Joe Amey- Elements
  • Larry Rodbell- Elements
  • Barry Caudill- EWI, Tenor Sax and Baritone Sax
  • Dave Makoweicki- Trumpet
  • Jim McFalls- Trombone

It was an honor and a privilege to work with such great musicians even though the only guys I ever saw in the studio were Anthony and the other horn players.  I’ve worked with a lot of the others in various live situations and on other recordings but this collection is a juggernaut.  Check out the CD (or Anthony’s previous CD – also on CD Baby – that I worked on as well) and pick up a copy to support a great guy and a wonderful musician.

Finally a little bit of sax geekiness.  I’ve mentioned before that I have played the same reeds on tenor for quite a few years.  I tried Van Doren Java Green reeds when they first came out and I have been using them on tenor ever since (I also use them on alto and soprano).  That’s nearly 30 years on the same reeds although I have switched back and forth at various times from 3 to 3 1/2 and back again.  Recently, I bought a box of Rigotti Gold 3 1/2 M and I finally had time to work them in and the results are very promising.  The strength matches up very well to what I was using (I was on 3 1/2 recently with the Javas) and the consistency is excellent throughout the box.  Of course, it’s only one box and it could be months before I am completely sure but they are cheaper than the Javas and I’m very happy so far.  My first gig with them is tomorrow night so we’ll see how they hold up.

ReedGeek Universal Tool

I’ve talked about my reed break-in process but I didn’t really mention this tool that really helped make everything even better.  The ReedGeek Universal Tool has been an incredibly helpful addition to my “arsenal” since I purchased it about 6 months ago.  For me, it provides the perfect blend of effectiveness with low maintenance that I desire in most parts of my life but especially in music.  I feel like the bang for my buck on it is very high but let’s talk about what it is and what it does.

The "Geek"

The “Geek”

The ReedGeek is a milled rectangular bar of steel with sharp corners for flattening the table as well as various shapes that are useful for working on more specialized parts of the reed like the rails or the vamp.  It feels very solid and heavy in my hand and that’s helpful to help make sure only small amounts of material are being removed at any given time.  It comes in a nice plastic case with a velvety drawstring bag for protection.  It came with an instructional card to help teach how to use it but I actually learned more about using it from videos on their website and from their YouTube channel.

Probably the most important thing about the Geek is that it is not a knife even though it does many things that a knife could do.  On the website they make a big deal about how you can travel and get past the TSA checks with it but for me, it’s much more important that I can feel safe using it or forgetting about it with my three-year-old around.  Any parent knows that turning your back on a child for even a second with a sharp knife around is a possible recipe for disaster.  Even though it’s not a knife it’s still sharp and accurate enough to make precision adjustments but it cant easily cut you.

I mentioned the heft of the Geek above and that’s one of the genius touches of the tool for me.  When I used to use knives and Dutch rush and all that back in my college days it wasn’t uncommon enough that I could go just a tad too far and I think that was because it’s hard to judge minute changes in pressure when scraping or cutting with knives.  With the Geek I can use its own weight as a gauge without ever having to add any pressure of my own.  I think this helps keep everything under control when I’m working on reeds.

I primarily use it to flatten the table.  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe the act of “adjusting” the vamp or the tip is a good return on investment compared to the time, effort, and frustration involved in doing it.  On the other hand, I’ve become a firm believer that swelling of the table (especially in the center) from the reed absorbing and evaporating moisture unevenly is the cause of most of my reeds not playing or ceasing to play.  Reeds always seem to swell in the center of the table and then they don’t seal on the mouthpiece correctly and then they don’t play as well.  The Geek is absolutely perfect for flattening this out.

First I lay an edge on the table near the butt and I look to see if light is coming in from the sides or whether everything looks well connected between the reed and the edge.  If there are gaps then I hold the Geek at about a 20 degree angle and – without placing any pressure/only using the weight of the tool – I start to scrape all of the parts that come in contact with the table of the mouthpiece.  I keep checking for gaps as before and I stop when it’s flat…the whole process takes maybe 2-3 minutes per reed and I can do it while talking to people, listening to music, or watching television.  I feel like I can tell when the table is flat without even looking because the Geek feels and sounds different while scraping.  Once I’m done I will sometimes scrape closer to the tip to “blend” the changes in but I’m taking off so little material that this is rarely necessary.  One of the beauties of using the Geek on the table of the reed is that it also seems to seal up the fibers…just like rubbing them on white paper.

So far I haven’t seen a reed that didn’t improve from this technique.  As I said there’s lots of other uses for the tool but it’s just not something I feel the need to do.  The Geek sells for about 40 bucks and I’ve been very happy with it since I got it.  I think they have a 14 day return policy in case you don’t like it or find it’s not better than your knife.

Let’s Talk About Reeds

Over the years I’ve tried a lot of things to deal with the reed situation.  I’ve done everything from the “slap it on and play” method to synthetics and plasticovers to the whole reed rush and glass method and I’ve developed some pretty particular opinions about what I want to do and what I expect to get out of my efforts.  I’m going to try to explain what works for me and what hasn’t worked for me and give some insight into how I got to where I am.  It’s important to note that this is what I think and what I do.  It’s in no way an indictment of other methods or products nor is it a “this is what’s best for everyone” treatise.  As always, your results may vary and I just want to express an opinion that may help you out or at least make you think.

For me, there has been no bigger disappointment than synthetic reeds.  The promise of them is off the charts.  If I could buy one reed and leave it on the mouthpiece and know that every time I pick up the horn it’s there ready to play like an old friend it would make life so simple.  It should be the absolute perfect solution except for one thing…I would have to commit to playing on what feels like a mediocre reed for the rest of my life.  Something I would always be thinking I want to change rather than something that just lets me play.  Now many other players have way better luck with them than I do and I envy them terribly but for me it’s just a big flop.  I’ve tried tons of different synthetics in many different strengths and have always ben disappointed.  The only benefit I’ve ever gotten from them is that I have an old Fibracell reed that stays in my case because I know I could get through a gig on it if every other reed I owned was somehow broken or exposed to kryptonite or something.  For reference, I’ve never had to use it.

I did go through a phase where I used Plasticover reeds for a few years because I thought they lasted longer but I ended up realizing that really wasn’t true.  The plastic would peel off the bottom where the reed vibrated against the mouthpiece and I think they ended up breaking down just as fast if not faster than regular reeds once that happened.  This system did last for several years however.

Two other failed experiments were at either end of the “break them in” spectrum.  I went through a phase when I was in college where I was constantly trying to adjust reeds and I went through a “slap it on and play” phase.  I abandoned the former because it was terribly time consuming and I really ended up not getting the kind of results that would warrant that level of commitment and energy.  I abandoned the latter because I ran into some situations where I was on a gig and was struggling to find a reed that was comfortable for me and I realized that I had higher standards for my performance and the ability to be comfortable and repeatable.  Ultimately these two methods allowed me to finally hone in on what I do currently which for me is the best combination of repeatability, playability, and time management.

I now use this method for all of my reeds on any horn and it means I’m ready for any gig even if I haven’t touched that particular horn in a while.  I like to start with ten reeds so that might mean two boxes of Van Doren’s for tenor but all of the other reeds I use come in boxes of ten.  One quick note: Van Doren has these humidity seals for each reed and they don’t fit into my system at all so I like to start by opening up those packs the day before I need to work on reeds when possible.  On the first day I get a cup of water and my ten reeds and sit down for a bit…this process takes about 50 minutes an evening.  I soak the first reed in the cup while I put the horn together and then I put it on the mouthpiece while I put the next reed in the cup.  The first day I play pretty lightly on the reed and only for a little less than 5 minutes…no altissimo and nothing really loud. When I take the reed off I place it on a flat surface and rub down the vamp towards the tip to seal up the fibers a little.  NOTE: I find that rubbing reeds in this fashion seems to help a lot of problems like tubbiness on the gig and it especially helps when reeds feel a little hard (in case you’re doing the “slap it on and play” method…it seems to always help if I just rub in the same fashion with my thumb while it’s still on the mouthpiece).  I then wipe it off, flip it over and put it on a flat surface to dry for the next day and repeat this with each of the reeds in turn.  I don’t do any selection or grading at this time because they adjust and change over the next couple of days.  I repeat this process over the next couple of days.  Three days is the minimum effective time but I find that up to five days seems to work a little better but more days doesn’t gain you anything beyond that.  On the last day I’m planning to work on them I also run the table of the reed on some plain white paper until it feels glassy to seal up those fibers as well.  When I’m done I grab the four best to put in my reed guard and I then mark the rest as either reeds for the next round, reeds for practice or whatever (harder reeds might be better for small group playing for instance) and then I take any “rejects” and just put them in a big box for later.  The reeds I take out in the case will get exchanged in rotation by sets.  In a three set wedding gig I will switch out on every break.  In longer concert situations I try to change at a mid point.  When I trade them out like this they can last for 6 to 8 weeks easily depending on how much I play and this is true for all of my horns.

This may sound like a lot of work or wasted effort but the beauty of it is that I have stuff that I play and work on while I’m working on reeds and I’m guaranteed to play/practice from 3 to 5 days in a given week in preparation…it’s a great excuse to get some face time with my horns even when other parts of my life are trying to keep me from playing so I think it’s a great tool for improvement or at least maintenance since I no longer play full time.  Also, I mentioned the big box of reject reeds above.  The cool thing about this method is that “bad” reeds aren’t always lifelong rejects…some will age and get better, others might be better suited to a change of setup although I tend to stay on the same setup for quite a while.  I think every reed has potential and I recently got a Reed Geek that I like very much for helping with that…but that’s a topic for another day.