Farewell: Yusef Lateef

Earlier this week jazz musician Yusef Lateef passed away at age 93. Lateef was known for his adventurous woodwind doubling, playing saxophone and flute, plus the oboe and a number of woodwinds from non-Western cultures. Here he is playing some tasty flute:

I’ve seen oboists look a bit uncomfortable when the topic of Yusef Lateef comes up, no doubt because his sound on that instrument was so different from the preferred American-school classical oboe sound. If you have been too quick to dismiss Lateef’s contributions as a jazz oboist in the past, I suggest you listen again with fresh ears, bearing in mind that his music was informed by jazz as well as the music of many other cultures, and that the “classical” oboe tradition was not necessarily relevant to his goals. Here’s some bluesy oboe playing:

Check out Yusef Lateef’s official website for more information about his life and music and about his passing.

Anatomy of a bad bamboo flute

Bamboo flutes and other “world”-type woodwinds of true musician quality can be difficult to find, and if you’re not experienced with them it can be nearly impossible to tell if an online seller’s wares are genuinely playable or more like souvenir items. I’m going to share an experience of mine in which I gambled and got burned, in case it is instructive to anyone out there.

Recently I needed a bamboo flute in a specific and unusual key (high B-flat) on very short notice for a gig (a performance of the Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite). My favorite trusted flutemakers don’t currently make flutes in that key, so I placed an order with a flutemaker that I hadn’t bought from before. (I won’t identify the flutemaker here, but I will say that he and his staff were very nice to me. When there was a totally-understandable wrinkle in getting the flute shipped on time, they even overnighted it plus threw in a very nice flute bag at no extra charge.)

Ability to ship quickly was certainly a factor in my choice of vendors, but I was also reassured by the fact that the maker sells flutes in three grades: student, intermediate, and professional. I ponied up the money for a professional flute, and expressed to the flutemaker my need for excellent intonation and a strong high register.

Here is what I received:

cute, right?
cute, right?

Now, the proof of a flute is in the playing, and there’s no way to know for sure if it’s any good without giving it a try. But here are some immediate visual warning signs:

  • Uh-oh
    uh-oh

    The embouchure hole is strangely shaped. I don’t know for sure what the flutemaker intended, but round-ish is pretty standard. Since bamboo is an irregular material, a certain amount of air noise (vibrational inefficiency) is to be expected, but this flute is very airy, and I suspect the oddly-shaped and roughly-finished embouchure hole is a contributor to this.

  • This is an extremely wide-bored flute. Often for flute-like instruments we see a length-to-diameter ratio of something around 30:1, but this one is closer to 15:1. To oversimplify the ramifications of this a bit, a wider-bore flute (a smaller ratio) will generally tend to be stronger in the low register and weaker in the high register. For this gig, I needed a flute that could play just to the second octave above the fundamental note—not an unreasonable demand for any common variety of bamboo transverse flute. I couldn’t get this flute to do it. A smaller-diameter bamboo would improve this flute’s upper range.
  • The finger holes are fairly large, and about the same size. Generally, similarly-sized holes leads to more even tone across the instrument’s scale, but also means that the right hand index and middle finger holes are placed very close together for a simple-system major-scale flute, and on this one the holes are uncomfortably close for me. Larger holes decrease the likelihood of finding usable cross-fingerings; I needed one good cross-fingering for this gig, and couldn’t find one that worked—couldn’t even “lip” the chromatic note into tune. A well-designed flute strikes a balance between large and small holes, and similarly- and differently-sized holes.
  • The second octave is quite noticeably flat. This is a common problem of bamboo flutes (or any cylindrical-bore flutes), but this one is particularly difficult to wrangle into tune. Really excellent bamboo flutes are sometimes made from bamboo carefully selected to have just a bit of taper in the embouchure-hole end, like a concert flute’s headjoint, or have some bore work done to create an internal taper; this helps to bring the upper register into tune with the lower.

When I realized that the flute wasn’t going to be usable, I packed my piccolo and a B-flat pennywhistle as possible alternatives. As it turned out, we didn’t end up playing the movement in question, so I was off the hook.

Shop smart!

Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes

For years now I’ve told anyone who will listen how much I love my Butch Hall Native-American-style flute in F-sharp minor. I recently bought it a little friend in G minor, and realized it is high time I did a proper review of these lovely instruments.

Hello, beautiful.
Hello, beautiful.

The modern instrument commonly referred to as the “Native American Flute” is related to a certain flute tradition associated with the Lakota people; of course labeling anything as “Native American” mistakenly implies that it is common to all the groups lumped together as “Native American.” As an additional complication name-wise, there are certain legal requirements regarding who can sell products under the designation “Native American,” so some flutemakers, for example, must sell their wares as “Native-American-style.” In general, flutes of this type, regardless of seller, are a contemporary take on a traditional instrument, often made with modern tools and processes and tweaked to suit contemporary Western-world pitch standards. This suits me just fine—I’m interested in the instrument’s history, but as a working musician I like an instrument that I can buy affordably and play in a variety of situations.

If you are in the market for an instrument of this kind, be very careful about souvenir-type flutes, including some popular makes sold on the internet and in souvenir shops as “professional” instruments. If you want an instrument that plays beautifully, easily, and in tune, and is genuinely suited to professional playing situations, I strongly recommend that you send money to Butch Hall immediately. These are real-deal musician-quality flutes, and the amount of money involved is shockingly small. Continue reading “Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes”

New sound clips: Faculty woodwinds recital, Aug. 27, 2013

It’s time again for the annual post-mortem on my on-campus faculty recital. This year’s program was all Telemann, which was fun. Since some of my most formative years as a musician happened back when I was primarily a saxophonist, I still feel a little out of my depth with Baroque style, and preparations for this recital turned into a great opportunity to study, listen to recordings, and work on my ornamentation skills. (I found Victor Rangel-Ribeiro’s Baroque Music: A Practical Guide for the Performer to be invaluable, and it even has a chapter specifically on Telemann.)

I’m fairly pleased with how the A-minor oboe sonata turned out. My intonation has improved in leaps and bounds since I got some excellent reed advice at the John Mack Oboe Camp a summer ago (what a difference a change in tie length can make!). I did struggle a little bit on stage with the Mississippi Delta August humidity making its way into my octave vents, which you can hear in places in the following clip.

I have also been working on my double-tonguing on the oboe, and while it’s not perfect yet, I think it turned out quite well here. The fact that I wanted to use it on this piece probably belies some issues with my Baroque interpretation: it might have been more authentic either to slow down or to slur more, but I liked the effect and felt good about at least partially mastering the technique.

And, of course, it is great fun to play with harpsichord and cello. As we sadly do not have a full string faculty here at Delta State, I had to convince a cellist to come in from out of town. It’s scary to meet and rehearse with someone for the first time on the day of the recital, but the recommendations I had gotten for her turned out to be solid, and she played like a total pro.

I was determined to finally perform some recorder repertoire on this recital. My initial thought was to do the Telemann recorder suite, but since I already had the basso continuo lined up, I did some more research and discovered the delightful sonata in F major. The humidity had a fairly significant effect on this instrument, too, especially with me perhaps over-practicing on it in the weeks prior to the recital, so my tone and stability aren’t what I would have liked them to be. Too many cracked notes and response issues in the extreme upper and lower registers. Still, bucket list item checked off.

One definite doubling blunder: I went from oboe to recorder on stage, and wasn’t fully in recorder mode when I started the first movement. The recorder’s breath requirements are much lower than the oboe’s, and so I started off the movement with a rather ugly cracked note (not included in this clip…). But I am quite happy with how the slow movement turned out; here it is in its entirety: Continue reading “New sound clips: Faculty woodwinds recital, Aug. 27, 2013”

Faculty woodwinds recital, Aug. 27, 2013

Bret Pimentel, woodwinds
Kumiko Shimizu, piano
Nicole Davis, cello

Works by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)

Faculty Recital
Delta State University Department of Music
Recital Hall, Bologna Performing Arts Center
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
7:30 PM

Program

Sonata in A minor for oboe and basso continuo, TWV 41:a 3 (c. 1728)

  1. Siciliana
  2. Spirituoso
  3. Andante amabile
  4. Vivace

Sonata in F major for recorder and basso continuo, TWV 41:F 2 (1728)

  1. Vivace
  2. Largo
  3. Allegro

Sonata in F minor for bassoon and basso continuo, TWV 41:f 1 (1728)

  1. Triste
  2. Allegro
  3. Andante
  4. Vivace

Fantasie no. 8 in E minor, TWV 40:9 (1732)

  1. Largo
  2. Spirituoso
  3. Allegro

Concerto in A major TWV, 51:A2 (c. 1728)

  1. Largo
  2. Spirituoso
  3. Allegro

Sonata I from VI Sonates en duo, TWV 40:118 (1738)

  1. Vivace
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro

Notes

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) was a leading composer of his time, celebrated both critically and popularly. He is reputed as one of the most prolific composers of all time, with over 3,000 known works (count among his honors an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records). His output is not only staggeringly large, but also very diverse, sometimes to the chagrin of the churches that employed him; his operas and other secular projects were sometimes regarded as unseemly. Still, composers of the stature of Handel and J. S. Bach were students of his works. Continue reading “Faculty woodwinds recital, Aug. 27, 2013”

Reader email: Chinese woodwinds

Some dizi and xiao from my collection

I recently got email from a reader about the use of Chinese woodwinds in theater and film music. I did my best to answer his questions, and I’m posting them here in case they are of use to anyone else. Both questions and answers are edited here for length and awesomeness.

My question for you is about bamboo flutes. I see the term bamboo flute thrown around (such as in the reed 1 book for Aida) and I wonder what exactly that means. Do those musicians own 12 bamboo sticks with holes drilled in them, or do they use a specific style of bamboo flute from a particular part of the world?

If the part calls for “bamboo flute” with no other clarification, I think that leaves it pretty well open to interpretation by the flutist and musical director. Aida is set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, where, according to my Wikipedia research, bamboo per se did not grow. Probably the best-known bamboo-ish Egyptian flutes are neys, made from bamboo-like reeds.

My guess is that most woodwind players would substitute some variety of bamboo transverse flute, such as an Indian bansuri, a Chinese dizi (perhaps with the buzzing membrane replaced by a piece of tape), or a non-culture-specific bamboo flute like those sold by Erik the FlutemakerDoug Tipple’s PVC flutes make an excellent and economical substitute for bamboo, with nice tone (I dare you to hear the difference) and consistent intonation and response. You might be able to contact musicians who have worked on specific shows, and find out what solutions they came up with; the Internet Broadway Database is a good starting point.

Your listing for The Lion King is much more specific, which brings me to my next question: dizi keys. I happen to be in China right now. Tunable dizi flutes are cheap, and one-piece dizi are cheaper. Do I need 12 tunable dizi? What keys are actually played in theater and film in the US? Continue reading “Reader email: Chinese woodwinds”

Recorder notation vs. band/orchestral woodwind notation

At the request of a reader, I’m going to try to clarify some things about notation for recorders. (I touched on it previously in an article about woodwind key nomenclature systems.)

Those of us who play modern band/orchestral woodwinds are familiar with a system in which, within a family of instruments, a notated pitch always corresponds to a certain fingering. No matter how large or small the instrument, the same fingering always corresponds to that same written pitch, even though the smaller instruments produce higher sounding pitches and the larger instruments produce lower sounding pitches. For example:

E-flat clarinet B-flat clarinet A clarinet Bass clarinet
Notated pitch
Fingering
Sounding pitch

This is convenient for clarinetists because, essentially, they only need to learn one set of fingerings to be (in that respect) prepared to play any instrument in the clarinet family. Note also that even the bass clarinet is notated in treble clef, as are its even lower cousins. All the major modern woodwind families (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones) use this approach: consistent clefs, and consistent correspondence of notated pitch to fingering. The transposition is a function of the instrument’s size.

Because of the prevalence of this system in the Western woodwind tradition, it’s an understandable error to assume that the recorder family is notated in the same way. But recorders typically use a different system, in which each instrument is notated in concert pitch, and the fingerings change depending upon the instrument. Or, to be more precise, each instrument is notated in a sort of “concert pitch class,” since some of the recorders are notated as transposing by one or more octaves, but a notated C always produces a sounding C. Bass recorder and lower are notated in bass clef. Here are the most common ones:

Descant (“soprano”) recorder Treble (“alto”) recorder Tenor recorder Bass recorder
Notated pitch
Fingering
Sounding pitch

Recorder players must learn two sets of fingerings, one with the instrument’s lowest note being C (for descant and tenor recorders), and one with the instrument’s lowest note being F (for treble and bass recorders), and must be prepared to read in two clefs. Continue reading “Recorder notation vs. band/orchestral woodwind notation”

Understanding woodwind key nomenclature systems

bamboo flutes
Photo, Allan Reyes

Most woodwind instruments come in several sizes, and a naming system is required for describing the size and pitch of each. The most familiar for players of modern Western woodwinds is that used for (for example) the clarinet and saxophone families, with most of those instruments being described as “in B-flat” or “in E-flat.” However, there are several other systems in use in the larger woodwind family tree. This can be confounding for newcomers to folk, ethnic, and period woodwinds, but I’ll attempt to shed some light on things.

Here are the four primary systems. The names are my own:

  • Modern. This system is used for modern Western orchestral/band woodwinds and brasses. In this system, each member of the instrument family (such as all of the clarinets) match a written pitch to a fingering, so that, for example, a written C can be fingered the same way on any of the clarinets, and the actual pitch produced depends on the instrument’s size. (Playing written C, incidentally, produces the sounding pitch for which an instrument is named: Playing “C” on a B-flat clarinet produces a sounding B-flat, “C” on an A clarinet produces a sounding A, and so forth.) This is convenient to the clarinetist, but awkward for composers, copyists, conductors, and others dealing with multiple transpositions. It also leads to oddities such as the lowest contrabass clarinets, like all their clarinet siblings, being notated in treble clef. Continue reading “Understanding woodwind key nomenclature systems”

Report: National Flute Association Convention 2011

This year was my first time attending the National Flute Association‘s annual convention, held this year in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I’ve been to conferences of all the other major woodwind organizations in the US (IDRS, ICA, NASA), and here are some things that I think the NFA did exceptionally well:

  • Organization and planning. From what I could tell, nearly everything ran smoothly and according to plan.
  • Engaging younger players. There were a number of competitions and masterclasses for high school and college students, and a Saturday “Youth Day” for flutists aged 8-13.
  • Engaging non-professional flutists. My sense is that the NFA has a stronger amateur contingent than the other organizations, and that they are working to ensure its future.
  • Appealing to broad musical interests. In my opinion, the NFA is doing a better job than anyone, including NASA, of integrating jazz into their convention in a serious way, and is integrating historical instruments at least as well as the IDRS. Ethnic flutes also got some good representation. Thursday night’s big feature concert was Baroque flute, and Friday’s was world music. Saturday’s concert was more standard concerto fare, but with a strong jazz representation. Kudos to the NFA for acknowledging that there is life beyond conservatory repertoire lists, and to its members for seeming to genuinely embrace and enjoy the varied offerings.

Like the other major woodwind conferences, the NFA’s is packed with so many events that it’s impossible to get to everything you want to attend. Here are a few personal favorites among the things I saw and heard (in no particular order): Continue reading “Report: National Flute Association Convention 2011”

Fingering diagram builder, version 0.2

Two months ago I introduced the Fingering diagram builder, something that I hoped people would find useful for quickly and easily creating fingering diagrams for woodwind instruments. Since then, something over 1,000 fingering diagrams have been downloaded, which I think is a nice start.

Many of those have been saxophone fingerings, and I attribute this to some kind mentions among the saxophone-blogger community (thanks Doron, Eric, David, Neal, Alistair, and Anton!).

Now I’m pleased to announce the new-and-of-course-improved version 0.2. Go take it for a spin, or read on about the new goodies:

Continue reading “Fingering diagram builder, version 0.2”