Review: D’Addario Reserve alto saxophone mouthpieces

If you have read my reviews of the D’Addario clarinet and jazz alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of their new classical alto saxophone mouthpiece, too. (As with the last several reviews, D’Addario sent me some mouthpieces at no cost, with the possibility but not the promise of a review.)

I’ve been hammering on one point with all the D’Addario mouthpieces, but it’s worth bringing up again because it’s an important innovation in how mouthpieces are made and bought. D’Addario’s manufacturing process (precisely milling mouthpieces from solid rod rubber) produces mouthpieces that are extremely consistent, much more so than other mass-produced professional mouthpieces, which are generally finished a little by hand. The old system is that you try out a bunch of mouthpieces that are the same make and model (by going into a store or putting a big deposit on your credit card), and pick out the one that plays best. The new system is that you order a D’Addario mouthpiece from your favorite retailer, and know that it plays just like all the others. This is a game-changing development in the sub-$200 mouthpiece market.

And, of course, like the other mouthpieces in D’Addario’s lineup, the new Reserve alto mouthpiece plays great.

I’ve been playing on a Vandoren Optimum AL3 for the last 8 or 9 years (and used an AL4 for a few years before that). What I like about the Optimum is that it’s very easy to play, with good response in all registers, good dynamic range, a lot of stability (so pitch and tone are very consistent, without much effort from the player), and tone that tends toward a warm, almost muted quality (in a good way). It’s a mouthpiece for a 21st-century classical saxophone player.

The D’Addario mouthpiece has these same qualities, with some subtle but important improvements. When I started playing on the AL4 I liked its richness of tone, but ultimately decided I needed to sacrifice that a little to embrace the AL3’s superior high register. The D’Addario Reserve does an impressive job of blending those qualities, and even improving upon both.

In particular, I have been impressed with scalar movement in the altissimo register, which on my Vandoren mouthpieces could be just a little lumpy as I crossed from one partial to another. The D’Addario mouthpieces make this feel really smooth, effortless, and secure.

I have been using mostly D’Addario Reserve reeds for classical saxophone playing, and with my Vandoren mouthpieces I sometimes wished I could get a reed strength between 2.5 and 3.0. I did hope that switching to the D’Addario mouthpiece would eliminate that need, but after trying them I still feel like a 2.5+ would be a useful option. (D’Addario does make some “plus” reeds, such as the Reserve alto saxophone 3.0+.) If I have one complaint about the Reserve mouthpiece, it’s that I don’t get quite the ease of low-register response I would like with the 3.0 reed. A 2.5 helps that but plays a little brighter than I want.

The Reserve mouthpiece comes in three flavors at the moment: D145 (1.45mm tip/medium facing), D150 (1.50mm tip/medium-long facing), and D155 (1.50mm tip/medium facing—yes, it is the same tip opening as the D150). The mouthpiece has what D’Addario touts as a “unique oval inner chamber.”

I’m really quite impressed with all three of the Reserve options, and not 100% settled yet on which will be my go-to. But I recently used the D150 (with a Reserve 3.0 reed) for a concerto performance with band that involved some double tonguing and plenty of altissimo. The D150/3.0 setup worked well for that situation—just the right amount of resistance to make the double-tonguing comfortable and easy, good security in the altissimo, and enough guts to be heard over the band without getting spread or edgy.

Here’s a quick comparison between the D’Addario Reserve D150 and the Vandoren Optimum AL3. I’m using the same ligature and reed in both clips.

D’Addario Reserve D150:

Vandoren Optimum AL3:

To my ear, the D’Addario has a richer, fuller, and more even sound, and also responds better to dynamic changes.

So far D’Addario is scoring 100% with me on their mouthpieces: each new mouthpiece they have released has replaced my former setups (clarinet, jazz alto, jazz tenor, and now classical alto). I look forward to whatever is next.

Review: “Double Troubles” by Paul Saunders

A few months ago I wrote a review of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a book of woodwind doubling etudes by Paul Saunders. Recently Paul sent me Double Troublesa new collection of etudes. Like So You Want, the new volume includes a piano part plus access to downloadable backing tracks. As I said in the previous review:

This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? … Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room.

Like in the previous book, these etudes are musically interesting and in styles typical of contemporary musical theater. Double Troubles is overall somewhat more challenging, including some saxophone altissimo and flute third octave up to C (though most of the extreme high register playing on both instruments is marked as optional—Paul clarified to me that the upper register is preferable, and the optional 8vbs are to make the etudes more approachable if needed). The book also incorporates soprano and tenor saxophones on some etudes, in addition to the flute/clarinet/alto used in the first book.

Two of the etudes are by guest composers, Darren Lord and Jennifer Whyte. Here’s a quick-and-dirty demo of the tune “Disco Nap,” which is Darren Lord’s contribution:

I had fun playing through these, and recommend Paul’s doubling etude books as one of the best sources of practice material for the flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler.

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz tenor saxophone mouthpieces

I’ve already done thorough reviews of the D’Addario clarinet mouthpieces (twice) and alto saxophone jazz mouthpieces, both of which immediately replaced the competing Vandoren products I was previously using. So, naturally I’ve been very anxious for the release of the hard rubber tenor saxophone jazz mouthpiece, and I got my hands on some samples earlier this week. (Full disclosure: D’Addario sent me the mouthpieces for free, but with no strings attached. This is my best attempt to give an unbiased review.)

I’m pleased to report that everything I like about the clarinet and alto mouthpieces is true of the tenor mouthpieces as well: these are well-made, utterly consistent, easy-to-play, affordable, versatile mouthpieces. Like the clarinet and alto pieces, the Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is going to be my new mouthpiece for the foreseeable future.

I like to be as low-fuss as possible about my gear. This is a sub-$200 mouthpiece, fully machine-made to fine tolerances, by a major woodwind accessory company. That means if I break or lose mine, I can quickly and easily get another that plays virtually identically from just about any online or brick-and-mortar music store. (Soon; the tenor mouthpieces don’t seem to be in many stores yet.) Check out my previous reviews for more in-depth discussion about that—in short, the days of having to order a half-dozen and pick the best one are gone.

The Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is currently available in a medium chamber and medium facing, with tip openings from 6 (2.54mm/.100”) to 9 (2.92mm/.115”). I’ve been wanting to move to a little smaller tip opening, and the 6 is just what I was looking for.

The tip openings differ in the ways you would expect. The 6 likes a medium- or medium-soft strength reed, and the 9 needs a medium-soft or soft. The smaller openings are very slightly mellower in tone, softer in volume, and oriented toward stability rather than flexibility, while the larger ones are brighter, louder, and more flexible/less stable, but the differences really are pretty minor. The 6 is my favorite, but I could use the 9 on a gig in a pinch. Choosing your tip opening will probably be more a matter of comfort zone than a question of differences in sound or application.

My previous mouthpiece was a slightly older model Vandoren V16 metal mouthpiece, the T75 (2.67mm/.105″, I think). It served me well for quite a few years, but recently I’ve been less satisfied with its difficult low notes and overall edginess. (After having it for a few years the gold plating started to get some discolored spots, and ultimately got some pitting on the table, so it may not be playing as well as it once did.) Playing hard rubber for jazz on tenor is actually new for me—I’ve played a string of metal mouthpieces since high school—but the transition to the Select Jazz has been seamless. Eyes closed, I don’t think I could tell the difference material-wise.

For tenor in particular I want a mouthpiece that can do lots of things—a sweeter, mellower sound for small-group cocktail gigs, a punchier, gutsier sound for amplified rock and blues, precise articulation and rock-steady intonation for studio playing. The Select Jazz has a nice middle-of-the-road quality that moves easily between straight-ahead jazz and funkier sounds. I find that at a scream I don’t get quite as much bite in the tone as I do with the V16, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of bottom end in the sound at maximum volume. In other words, the V16 gets bright and aggressive when I push it, but the Select Jazz just gets big and powerful. I’m liking the tradeoff.

The Select Jazz also wins hands down for ease of playing (against the V16, which I originally selected for its ease of playing). I could just about play a classical recital on the #6 if I had to—the articulation and response are easy from low B-flat up into the altissimo. Like the V16, it strikes a nice balance between stability and flexibility. It’s easy to play in tune, but there’s also plenty of room to bend the pitch around when I want to.

I’m not going to do a thorough play-test comparison this time, because I don’t think it’s really necessary. My V16 is an old model, in poor shape, and metal, so the comparison isn’t really fair and they are perhaps somewhat different animals anyway. But here’s a quick demo of the 6, moving through a few different styles. (It was supposed to be one uninterrupted take, but I ended up having to re-record the last segment standing a little farther from the mic.) First a snippet of Body and Soul, then a few bars of a Brecker tune that I can never remember the name of, then Night Train, then the horn break from Sir Duke.

I don’t see myself as a guy who gets snobby about brands, but D’Addario’s pro-line mouthpieces have hit the mark for me 100% so far. Looking forward to what’s next.

Review: “So You Want to Play in Shows…?” by Paul Saunders

I got a review copy of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a new woodwind doubling etude book. The author, Paul Saunders, is a woodwind player in London’s West End.

The book includes seven studies for doubler playing flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone. It also includes a piano accompaniment book, with piano part recordings available for free on the publisher’s website. This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? Chris Vadala’s book provides rests and trusts you to observe them. Gene Kaplan’s duo book pairs you with another woodwind doubler. Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room. (For a real-world challenge, cue up the recordings in a playlist, and sight-read the book beginning to end with no breaks between etudes.)

Saunders’s tunes are fun and musically satisfying—to my tastes, the best among the doubling etude books so far. Styles are what you might find in contemporary rock/pop-based musical theater. Here is a quick-and-dirty demo of etude #3, “How Cool Can You Be:”

Mr. Saunders emphasized to me that the etudes are intended for aspiring woodwind doublers, and therefore are of moderate difficulty. I would say So You Want to Play is not as challenging as the Vadala book, comparable overall to the Kaplan book. The most technically-demanding material nearly always falls to the clarinet. The flute parts tend to stay in a comfortable register, rarely breaking into the third octave, and maxing out at a high G. There is a note or two of saxophone altissimo. There are frequent instrument switches, a few of them very quick.

Mr. Saunders was also kind enough to send me early drafts of some a couple of etudes that will appear in a forthcoming second volume. They appear to be more difficult, with some swing feel and doubles on soprano and tenor saxophone.

As I’ve mentioned in reviews of previous materials, I wish there were more resources available for doublers that included the double reed instruments and/or auxiliary instruments. But, as you may know, double-reed doubling is less common in the West End than it is on Broadway, so this book is probably a good fit for most British woodwind players (like Mr. Saunders), and quite a few American ones. So You Want to Play is a solid addition to the flute/clarinet/alto materials available, challenging but fun for an up-and-coming doubler.

Low reed stand showdown: K&M vs. Hercules

I’ve had a König & Meyer bassoon/bass clarinet stand for years now, and recently picked up the Hercules version and tried it out on some gigs. I was hoping to form a strong opinion and make a nice clear recommendation here between the two. But the bottom line is that both are really quite usable.

left: Hercules; right: K&M

The exact model of K&M stand that I have doesn’t seem to be in production anymore. There is a newer one with a black finish (nice for onstage use) and slightly different hardware. I would be interested to hear if anyone is aware of any significant difference between the older and newer models.

The big question of course is stability. I spent some time knocking both of these around to see what it would take to tip them over, and based on that non-scientific approach they seemed about equal. (No instruments were harmed.)

I don’t have any concerns about either stand scratching my instruments. The K&M has a rubbery cup for the bottom of the instrument to sit in, and a felt-covered brace at the top. The Hercules has a harder (but not hard) plastic cup and a foam-covered brace.

The K&M’s large, soft, and somewhat grippy cup is a nice feature for quick instrument switches. The Hercules’s I wouldn’t trust quite as much—I would need an extra moment to be sure the instrument is secure. The Hercules has room to add a couple of additional instrument pegs, which is a nice feature for doublers.

Note also that the Hercules’s cup can be rotated 180° from the way I have it oriented, if desired. It is mounted on a leg that is adjustable, which I suppose you could use to change the angle of the instrument on the stand. I like it at full extension for maximum stability at the base.

For quick switches, I like to be able to play bass clarinet with its peg still in the stand if needed. Both stands accommodate this without any trouble.

Upper braces on both stands are height-adjustable to about the same height. At around full extension the braces are out of the way of keys on the bassoon’s long joint (the bell key is on the side where the braces don’t touch it). Neither quite adjusts as high as I would like for a low C bass clarinet (with the peg extended a little), so unfortunately for me the left index A and A-flat keys rest against the brace.

Both stands fold up, but neither is tiny. The Hercules is more portable if you remove the cup, but that means fussing with a wing nut and then having one extra piece to carry around (or lose).

The Hercules does win on price, at about 60% of what the K&M costs.

Overall, I guess I lean toward the Hercules a little for bass clarinet, mostly because I could add, say, pegs for B-flat and E-flat clarinets and be ready for a utility clarinet gig. And I like the K&M slightly better for bassoon because its larger, softer cup makes a better target during a quick instrument switch. If you’re still torn, the Hercules’s lower price point may be a good tiebreaker.

A few thoughts on the new Roland Aerophone AE-10

To be fair, I haven’t tried out the new electronic wind instrument from Roland, and probably won’t bother. (Unless you’re out there, Roland, and want to send me a review unit to change my mind?)

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to see another company get into this space, and I hope they will seek to innovate further in wind controllers and push other companies (Akai, Yamaha) to do the same. But Roland’s new Aerophone AE-10 seems like a misstep.

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Much of the promotional material gushes about how “innovative” the instrument is, but there doesn’t seem to be much to support this claim—it is essentially a very similar instrument to the Akai EWI series or Yamaha WX series, both of which have been around for decades. In implementation and marketing, it really reminds me more of the Casio DH—a novelty for casual playing, not a serious instrument in its own right.

Roland brags about the familiarity of the AE-10’s fingering system: “most digital horns make you master a new fingering system, which can be a major setback…” This positions the instrument as a toy: something saxophonists can pick up and play immediately without having to pay any additional dues. This unfortunately seems to be embedded in the philosophy of the AE-10’s fingering system: fully embracing the limitations of a real saxophone, while missing an opportunity to solidify wind controllers as viable instruments in their own right.

The AE-10’s faithfulness to “real” saxophone fingerings extends to, for example, palm keys. Why do saxophones have palm keys? Certainly not for agility or comfort—palm keys are a significant technical issue for saxophonists. They are Sax’s 1840s solution to the problem of needing to locate tone holes at certain places on the instrument’s body. An electronic instrument has no such constraints: the keys can be literally anywhere on the instrument. (The Akai EWI series does a better job of balancing familiarity with innovation.)

Additionally, the keys appear to move, and to do so in a rather noisy, clicky way. I don’t expect the noise is enough to really be a problem in an amplified situation, but it seems cheap and sloppy—not up to the standards a professional woodwind player demands. (And it strikes me as a very fixable problem on Roland’s end.) Beyond that, I’m not sure that moving keys really make much sense on this kind of instrument. I find the Akai EWI’s motionless keys to be very comfortable and intuitive, similar in touch to playing a recorder or simple-system flute. It’s a very free, agile feeling compared to the relatively clunky mechanisms of a keyed instrument. Why unnecessarily introduce moving parts?

Also from Roland’s website: “There’s nothing worse than a studio session grinding to a halt because you need an instrument that you haven’t brought along. That won’t happen with the Roland Aerophone AE-10, which gives you a variety of additional acoustic instrument sounds like clarinet, flute, oboe, trumpet, violin, and more…” I suppose the AE-10 is being marketed here toward unprofessional studio musicians, who happen to be working on low-quality projects that will tolerate substitution of a synthesized sound when the musician fails to bring the needed instruments?

Speaking of which, most of Roland’s promotional materials surrounding the AE-10 seem to focus on its sounds that imitate “real” instruments (“Choose from alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone sax types that all respond just like their acoustic counterparts…”). But the videos are unconvincing. The saxophone sounds, as usual for an electronic instrument, seem especially unsatisfying—a poor choice for a product that seems to be aimed at the saxophonist market. (My preference is to use wind controllers for “synthy” sounds rather than imitative ones, and the AE-10 does seem to include some.)

The AE-10 does boast some nice but ultimately minor features that I wouldn’t mind having on my Akai:

  • Fingerings are, to some extent, user-programmable (though still not as flexible as the Akai’s EWI fingering mode).
  • An onboard speaker, which seems convenient for practicing. (Roland doesn’t pretend it is usable in a performance situation.)
  • A line-in jack, again probably useful mostly for practicing.
  • A number of handy user-customization settings.
  • It comes with a case.
  • The “Brass section” setting makes it easy to layer sounds.
  • The “Full range” setting automatically switches to different saxophone sounds depending on tessitura. I was unable to determine whether this setting is specific to the saxophone sounds, or whether it is programmable. Could be handy to have several sounds on tap depending on the octave.

The AE-10 seems to be priced in roughly the same ballpark as the Akai 4000S/5000 and Yamaha WX5. (Bear in mind that the Yamaha requires an external sound module at extra cost, while the Akai and Roland have some sounds on board.) My take: spend your money elsewhere.

Review: Duos for Doublers by Gene Kaplan

I was pleased to hear from woodwind player and composer Gene Kaplan, who sent me a copy of his new duets books, Duos for Doublers. These, as far as I know, are a one-of-a-kind set of duets for two woodwind doublers, with the first part including flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone, and the second part including flute, clarinet, and tenor saxophone. The instruments are used in various combinations, with each player playing at least two instruments on each duet (with one exception, where the second part is tenor-only on one of the duets).

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The style and the difficulty level of the duets varies. They are probably not suitable for those just starting out on their doubles (yet), as they do not shy away from bugaboos like the flute’s third octave, the clarinet break, and the saxophone’s below-the-staff notes.

I think a real benefit of these is that they do require quick instrument switches in real time and without losing your place (something that’s much easier to “fudge” with, say, solo etudes), in the company of someone who presumably will be understanding if you need to back up and try again. These duets would be great for getting together with another woodwind doubler for a little friendly challenge.

I’m on record as saying that saxophone-flute-clarinet-“only” doubling is a somewhat dated approach, and that modern doublers need to take the double reeds seriously, as well as auxiliary instruments in each woodwind family, plus probably some “world” woodwinds. These duets are still useful for working one commonly-used subset of those skills. (Gene is a double reed player himself, and acknowledges that he didn’t include them here in order to make these duets playable for more woodwind doublers.)

The set costs $30 at the time of this review (shipped free in the continental US). They are self-published, with paper covers and a clear plastic sheet over the front. The plastic comb binding is exactly what is needed for a book of sheet music to lay flat and stay open (something that some large sheet music publishers get wrong).

There are a couple of issues with layout that make these a little bit of a hassle to play, but which also probably provide just the kind of training that aspiring woodwind doublers need for real-life gig situations. The first is (some) impractical page turns, sometimes in places where the only option is to photocopy a page or to drop out for a couple of bars. Some happen during short rests, and some of those also coincide with an instrument change. The second issue is that each of the books includes only one part. My preference for duet playing is one book with both parts on the page, score-style. (This can also potentially mitigate the page turn problem, if you have four hands available instead of two.)

Here’s a quick video demo of “Acapulco Nights” by me and my less-handsome twin brother.

I’ve added these to my list of compositions for multiple-woodwind instrumentalists. Let me know if there’s anything else on your radar that should be included.

Get Duos for Doublers from Gene Kaplan’s website.

 

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz alto saxophone mouthpieces

I like mouthpieces that are easy to play, especially in terms of response and tuning. But I also really like something easy to replace; I don’t like the idea of a mouthpiece that is so expensive, variable, or rare that if I drop it I can’t just order a new one, have it in a few days, and expect it to play like the old one.

A few years back I did a fairly detailed review of the Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces (in two parts), and have been happily using the Reserves as my main clarinet mouthpieces ever since. The Reserves are, in particular, astonishingly consistent from specimen to specimen, presumably due to the very precise tooling that obviates the need for hand-finishing (which sounds cool but ultimately means a relatively high degree of variability).

The pro-line products formerly released under the Rico name are now D’Addario Woodwinds products, and they now include some alto saxophone mouthpieces, the Select Jazz series. I was pleased to hear from a contact at D’Addario Woodwinds who sent me some samples to try out.

My point of reference is the various Meyer-ish alto mouthpieces I have played for about the last 20 years, most recently the V16 series from Vandoren. I used the A6/medium chamber for a number of years, but more recently switched to the A6/small chamber, which gave me a little more bite in my sound that works well for me in louder situations (like big band lead playing, or blues gigs here in the Mississippi Delta) without having to strain as much.

The new D’Addario Select Jazz alto mouthpieces are currently available in three flavors, the D5M, the D6M, and the D7M. Larger numbers in the middle correspond to larger tip openings (details at D’Addario’s website). I got a couple of each to try. Each one says “medium chamber” on the box, so maybe D’Addario is considering other chamber sizes. At the moment street price seems to be a little higher than the V16s, but still basically in the same class.

If you read the second part of my Reserve mouthpiece review, then you won’t be surprised to see that the Select Jazz mouthpieces are extremely consistent. Check out the very even and symmetrical rails and tips.

L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.
L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.

As mentioned in a couple of other reviews, the Select Jazz mouthpieces have an unusually tight fit on the neck cork, and they chewed up my aging cork a bit. Cork grease!

The mouthpieces have individual serial numbers, like the Reserve clarinet mouthpieces. When I asked about this during my clarinet mouthpiece review, the Rico/D’Addario rep told me there might in the future be some way of registering your mouthpiece online, maybe to access some kind of members-only content. I haven’t seen anything happen along these lines, so maybe there’s a more logical explanation, like that the numbers are just for quality control.

Here is a sound clip of each of the six mouthpieces I received, plus my two V16 mouthpieces for comparison. For all the sound clips I used the same inexpensive fake-leather-type ligature, but different reeds, a D’Addario Select Jazz filed 3S and a filed 3M, depending on which worked best with each individual mouthpiece. The V16s and the Jazz Select D5Ms worked better with the 3M reed, and the Jazz Select D6Ms and D7Ms seemed to prefer the 3S reed.

D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #2

D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #2

D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #2

My old Vandoren V16 A6M

My old Vandoren V16 A6S

 

The differences are minor at best, and really in a pinch I could make any of these eight mouthpieces work, but here are a few observations:

  • The Select Jazz mouthpieces have noticeably more stable intonation than the V16s, especially the D5M. This is a bigger deal than tone, which is more malleable and more subjective.
  • The Select Jazz mouthpieces are, again, very consistent. This is the killer feature of D’Addario’s mouthpieces. I found the two D5Ms to be virtually interchangeable in terms of tone, response, and tuning, and the two D7Ms too. One of the D6Ms (#2) has, to my ear, just a tiny bit of an edge that I find unpleasant. I suspect that this one is slightly “off,” but the difference between the two is still quite minor compared to the differential in hand-finished production mouthpieces.
  • I do still want something with some edge to it, and the V16 small chamber still feels like is has more of that than any of the seven others, but not by much. The Select Jazz mouthpieces seem to have a bigger core and body to the sound, plus a bit higher volume, so I’m thinking it may be an acceptable tradeoff as far as making my presence known among the electric guitars.
  • Overall, I find the Select Jazz to respond better both down low in the staff and up above it than the V16s do. I didn’t play any altissimo in the sound clips, but I find the Select Jazz to have a slight advantage in that register as well.
  • The D5M and, to a lesser extent, the D6M, seem to be the best fit for my style and needs. The D7M doesn’t work as well for me—it has the louder but more spread tone and less-stable intonation you might expect from a larger tip opening—but it’s still one of the best mouthpieces I’ve played in that category, and it’s really only slightly large, not nearly as extreme as the tip openings offered by some other makers.

I think the Select Jazz D5M is going to be my new mouthpiece. (I’m keeping a D6M in my case for now too until I can try them both on a loud blues gig, but so far the D5M has worked well for small-group jazz.) The combination of solid intonation, pretty-but-gutsy tone, budget-friendly price, and amazing consistency make this a solid, versatile, and practical option for a working saxophonist. They are great for educators, too—they are easy to recommend to students because they are so easy to play and because they are so reliable in quality (much less need to order a half-dozen on approval and hope there’s a “good” one in the bunch). A great all-around, no-nonsense alto jazz mouthpiece.

I look forward to more offerings from D’Addario Woodwinds, perhaps alto mouthpieces in other chamber sizes, or mouthpieces for other saxophones.

Review: ReedGeek “Universal” reed tool

reedgeek-1_mini

I’m a little late to the party on this, as the ReedGeek has been around for a number of years now and has been widely reviewed, but I finally picked one up (at ClarinetFest) after a long conversation/demonstration with inventor Mauro Di Gioia.  I have been using mine for a few months now and wanted to add a few points to the conversation. Here is my take.

The ReedGeek isn’t completely replacing my traditional reed tools, but, I am using it for some of the tasks that I used to do with those tools:

  • Flattening the backs of single reeds. This seems to be what the ReedGeek does best, and it is now my go-to tool for this procedure (by far the most frequent adjustment I make to my clarinet and saxophone reeds). I used to do this with wet-dry sandpaper on a piece of glass, and with flat files prior to that. Using the ReedGeek is faster and neater, doesn’t remove as much cane unnecessarily, and leaves a nice smooth non-shredded finish even on wet cane. I had also experimented in previous years with using knives for flattening, which is fast and leaves a nice finish but is risky because it’s so easy to gouge out chunks of cane by accident. The ReedGeek is much safer.reedgeek-2_mini
  • Smoothing out oboe reed windows. I still like my double-hollow-ground knives for carving out oboe reed windows, but I do have a tendency to leave the windows a bit rough and craggy (like from knife chatter). That’s fussy and time-consuming to fix with a knife, and if not handled delicately a knife can actually exacerbate the problem. But the ReedGeek cleans up my windows pretty quickly and easily, with much less risk of making the gouges worse. I mostly use the squared-off end for this.reedgeek-5_mini
  • Scraping bassoon reed channels. The concave parts of a bassoon reed blade are all but impossible to get at with a straight knife, and I find round files or sandpaper to be only a little less clumsy. The ReedGeek’s slightly curved tip works very well for this. Mr. Di Gioia describes this as being similar to using a pencil eraser—you just “erase” the cane you don’t want.reedgeek-4_mini

I’m not currently using the ReedGeek for:

  • Balancing the corners of the tips of single reeds, though it certainly can be used for this. I’m still used to sandpaper and glass, which at this point feels more controlled to me. If I have both tools available I still grab the sandpaper but if I’m away from my reed desk and traveling light, the ReedGeek will do the job. The ReedGeek can, I think, be used effectively to target specific spots on a reed’s profile (using either the square or the curved end), but I personally do very little of that.
  • Double reed making. (It’s fair to point out that the ReedGeek isn’t exactly being marketed as a tool for this anyway, though the company does publish a document on its website that provides some instruction for double reed players.) For one thing, the ReedGeek is quite small, and for reedmaking I like big, chunky, comfortable knife handles. A handle would also get my hand out of the way, which was a problem for me when I tried to use the ReedGeek for some fine tip work on oboe reeds—it was hard to get everything angled so I had control and could see what I was doing. I spoke to Mr. Di Gioia on the phone while preparing this review, and he hinted at a soon-to-be-revealed, more double-reed-oriented version of the ReedGeek, with some kind of extension for increased leverage (though he shied away from calling it a “handle”), and with scraping surfaces tailored more for double-reed applications. Because of the ReedGeek’s extremely hard alloy, it may be tougher on reed plaques than a traditional knife, but if you’re planning to use the ReedGeek in that way, the price difference between the ReedGeek and a good knife will buy you dozens of plaques.

The ReedGeek is very portable, won’t be confiscated at an airport security checkpoint, and doesn’t need sharpening like a knife or replacing like sandpaper. (When I spoke with Mr. Di Gioia he joked that he has to hope that people lose them so they will have to buy more.)

The ReedGeek has a hole drilled though one end (visible in the oboe reed picture), which I thought might be a way to attach some kind of handle, or perhaps to put it on a lanyard or keyring. In my follow-up call with Mr. Di Gioia, he explained that the hole has to do with the ReedGeek manufacturing process, and that keeping the ReedGeek on your keyring would likely damage your keys as it is much harder than the metals keys are made from. Also, the ReedGeek’s edges feel sharp to me, but not really in such a way that I would cut myself on them; Mr. Di Gioia recommends handling it with care but isn’t aware of people injuring themselves with it. He has an idea for a sleeve or sheath that may become available at some future date, and that could make carrying the ReedGeek in your pocket more feasible.

The verdict: for me, it’s useful and I will easily get my money’s worth out of it as long as I don’t lose it. For a single-reed player, I think it can realistically replace most or all of your tools. For a double-reed player, it’s currently a supplementary tool at best, but stay tuned for a possible new product.

At the time of this writing the ReedGeek goes for right about $50 from the ReedGeek store; some retailers also carry it.

Review: Ben Britton’s A Complete Approach to Overtones

About a year and a half ago I reviewed Ben Britton’s book A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist, which is full of excellent information and exercises for development of fundamental tone production technique. Ben has just released a new book, and I was pleased to get a sneak preview.

A Complete Approach to Overtones: Vivid Tone and Extended Range builds on A Complete Approach to Sound’s foundation with 50-some pages of overtone exercises and explanatory text. Overtone exercises are often associated with development of the altissimo register (Eugene Rousseau, for example, uses overtones extensively in his altissimo book), but this book is not specifically altissimo-oriented; it is a more broad-based approach to improving every aspect of tone production (particularly tone, intonation, and response).

Ben Britton: A Complete Approach to Overtones

The exercises are very thorough and systematic. A number of the exercises are similar to the simple ones I use with my own students, but Ben’s are better thought-out and cover the technique in a much more complete way. Between the book’s thoughtful organization and incisive text, it covers all of the usual frustrations that overtone beginners deal with; any saxophonist with a general command of the instrument’s basics should be able to jump right in and start hearing results. At the same time, the material is enough to keep an advanced saxophonist challenged for quite a while. This is a book that could very well be studied as a high school student, reviewed again at the college level, and re-reviewed throughout a professional playing career.

Grab your copy (paper or digital) now and thank me later. While you’re at it, pick up A Complete Approach to Sound and Ben’s album Children at Play.

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