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.

Phil-Tone Equinox D Review

This is probably the first of several reviews of mouthpieces from Phil Engelmann who makes and refaces mouthpieces under the name of Phil-Tone.  Over the last few years I have bought several of his mouthpieces, had him work on one of mine, and bought one of his refaced mouthpieces as well.  Today I’m going to be talking about one of his custom pieces called the Equinox D (for dark) but first some explanation about why I wanted to get this mouthpiece.

I had previously talked about the reunion concert I did.  Well that was concert band music and I didn’t feel like I had a mouthpiece that would do that kind of music justice so I started to hunt around.  When I was in college I used to have an H. Couf 5* Artist Regular that I used for “legit” playing and I really liked it a lot.  James Houlik had come to my school for a clinic and he was talking them up a lot so I ordered one and it was one of the best moves I ever made.  Unfortunately I must have lent it to someone and never gotten it back because it’s nowhere to be found…a story I seem to repeat a lot.

Fast forward a few years.  I was getting ready to go on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and I bought an Otto Link Tone Edge 6* that I also ended up loving dearly.  It felt perfect for what I was doing at the time.  Unfortunately, I think that one suffered the same fate as the Couf.  The guys I knew back in the day were pretty fast and loose about lending mouthpieces around and I guess I wasn’t real good on follow up myself.

Anyway, the Couf would have been absolutely perfect but I couldn’t see my way clear to invest money in a mouthpiece that was strictly for concert band play because I so rarely do it.  I started thinking about just getting a Tone Edge in a 6* because I figured it could work for the concert band but it might have other applications as well.  I contacted to Phil to ask about one of his reface jobs on a TE (since he does great things with them) and while we were talking I I decided to take the plunge on the Equinox D as it sounded like a better choice for me.  It was and here’s why:

Phil makes a regular Equinox that is very focused and I thought the extra focus would be better than the Link which I would normally describe as more spread even when they’ve been worked on.  But I also wanted to blend, hence the “D” model.  I can say for sure that this mouthpiece has a great mix of focus and “darkness” although darkness is a rather subjective term…one person’s dark is another’s tubby.  Maybe the best description would be “smoky”.  It’s equally subjective but possibly more descriptive.

The first time I used it other than trying it in my practice room was on the first rehearsal for the concert band.  I was very happy with it right from the start.  I was able to play very evenly across the whole range of the horn (especially well in the lower register when playing quietly) and it blended well in all of the situations that came up.  In concert band music it seems like the tenor can be part of the sax section,  the trombone section, or the French horn section depending on the intention of the composer or arranger and I had no problem blending with any of the groups.

The next time I tried it was for a jazz sextet gig I played.  Nothing crazy, just a summer bandshell concert with alto, trumpet, and me on tenor and three rhythm playing standards.  This was a lot different, though because I was playing with more edge and presence than in the concert band (obviously) and with the addition of some altissimo.  Once again, I was very happy with the blend but I was also very happy with the freedom I felt to play whatever I needed to.  We did a mix of standards including funkier stuff, swing, and ballads and I always felt like my tone fit and I could play with the whole arsenal so to speak.

Always two there are

Always two there are

I also use the Equinox D when I teach.  I don’t teach much anymore because I’m generally too busy but I do have one lone student right now (like a Sith Lord).  It’s great for lessons because I can easily go from playing etudes and classical duets to playing standards in the second part of the lesson and it all sounds idiomatic.

The mouthpiece is very clean and refined looking and the finishing work appears to be immaculate.  It is very reed friendly – in fact it easily uses the same reeds that I have broken in for my usual gig mouthpiece even though that one is a 7*.  Phil himself is an absolute joy to work with.  We generally handle our business via email and he’s always very helpful and supportive.  I was under a bit of a time constraint from when I decided to order the mouthpiece until my first rehearsal and he got it to me just in time even though we are on opposite coasts.

I’ve tried the mouthpiece on my more commercial gigs like with my usual wedding band but I haven’t pulled the trigger on making it my only mouthpiece.  It’s not a problem with the tone, volume, or response – in fact, it plays very well…it’s just easier to execute my concept for that style of music with my other setup.  I keep pulling it out so it’s possible I could get there with this piece or possibly either a 7 or 7* in the D or maybe switching to the regular Equinox…but I’m saving for a new backup horn right now so that will have to wait.  That said, I would not hesitate to recommend this mouthpiece, the regular Equinox, or anything Phil touches to students or other pros because the workmanship is great, the price, which is amazing for the level of quality, and Phil’s personality and work ethic.   Check them out and you won’t be sorry.

Here’s a little mindless noodling:

http://barrycaudill.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Equinox-D-Test.mp3

While writing this I was listening to If Dreams Come True by Carolyn Leonhart and Wayne Escoffery.  Great album!