This year I played all jazz at my Delta State University faculty recital. Program and some selected videos are below.
I’m very much a part-time jazz player, so it was fun to spend the summer trying to get my chops in shape to play tunes in a variety of styles on a variety of instruments. This was my new record for number of instruments on a recital: flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon (electric bassoon), soprano/alto/tenor saxophones, and EWI, 9 in all. I’ve written previously about the challenges of improvising on multiple instruments, which I suspect might be surprising to non-doublers or non-improvisers.
An additional challenge is that I live in a small town in an isolated area, so I had to bring in some rhythm section players from out of town and rehearsal time was extremely limited. Enjoy the videos warts and all.
I have previously done some things with bassoon and electronics, but I took that to a new level this time around with a Little Jake pickup and a few new effects pedals. This was lots of fun and I’m already brainstorming how I can use the Little Jake with some other instruments.
Every so often I hear from people about what I call the E-flat contrabass clarinet (or “contrabass clarinet in E-flat), such as in my woodwind doubling in musicals list or in my woodwind methods book. Some prefer the term “contra-alto” or even “contralto,” but I find “contrabass” to be the most accurate and useful description of the instrument.
(One disadvantage of this terminology is always having to specify the key to differentiate it from the larger contrabass in B-flat.)
First, let’s dispense with “contralto,” which describes a low female voice, typically in an opera setting. That misses the mark by a wide margin for an instrument whose range dips considerably lower than the lowest male voices.
The use of “contra-alto” (with or without hyphen) seems to be based on the questionable idea that the prefix “contra-” means “an octave below.” My best guess is that this is a back-formation from the names of some other instruments, such as the contrabassoon (which happens to be pitched an octave lower than the bassoon). In any case, following this logic leads to the term “contra-alto” clarinet because it is pitched an octave below the alto clarinet (an instrument whose waning popularity makes it a questionable choice for a frame of reference). This logic then produces “contrabass” for the B-flat instrument, as it is pitched an octave below the bass clarinet.
Various music dictionaries that I have at hand agree that the prefix “contra-” means “lower than,” but do not specify an octave lower, and most use contralto voice as an example. (If you have a counterexample from a published, music-oriented reference, I am interested to hear about it.) Based on this, “contra-alto” seems inapt—a contra-alto/contralto instrument should be just lower than the alto, and higher than tenor or bass.
Problematically, of the three major current manufacturers, Buffet-Crampon and Leblanc list “contra alto” clarinets on their websites, and Selmer uses “contralto.”
Here are some published usages of various names, listed from oldest to newest. Send me others if you know of any. It does seem to me that “contra-alto” becomes more common in the last quarter of the twentieth century, a trend that I consider undesirable (cf. “flautist”).
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.
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.
Saxophone maker Steve Goodson discusses some of the developments related to his saxophones over two decades. Whether or not you have interest in Goodson’s instruments particularly, it’s an interesting look at saxophone manufacture and innovation. Long read.
I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.
The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.
I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.
I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.
I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.
I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.