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2007 COOPERSTOWN ROAD TRIP Day 14: Paul’s 36th Birthday, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs. New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium

7 Jul

After a night of very little sleep, Blake and I awoke on the morning of my 36th birthday and caught a JetBlue flight to New York.  I was hoping to at least get a little shut-eye on the plane, but alas, there were two Angels fans in the seats directly across the aisle, and Blake and I needed as many allies as possible when heading into hostile territory.

I had been to Yankee Stadium twice before, the first time with an ex-girlfriend in 1997 where I was subjected to taunts in the right field bleachers for wearing Angels gear in a game the Angels narrowly lost on a walk-off in the bottom of the 9th.  The second time was a game against the White Sox in 1999.

It was a day game at Yankee Stadium, and apparently it was Oldtimers’ Day, but Blake and I missed the Oldtimers’ Game and arrived in time for first pitch of John Lackey vs. Roger Clemens.  Our seats were in the upper deck, down the 3rd base line, about halfway between 3rd and the left field foul pole.

As we got into our row, the Yankee fan on the aisle opened with, “Angels suck!” to which I replied, “Who has the losing record going into the All-Star Break and who is the only team that has OWNED you since Joe Torre took over?”  That shut him up.

Blake and I ended up seated next to two Yankee fans—a father and son—who initially weren’t all too thrilled to be seated next to a couple of Angels fans.  We were treated to a pitchers’ duel between Lackey and Clemens, and as the game progressed, they warmed up to us do to our entertaining call-outs for the Angels players as well as Blake’s charm.  They were impressed that I remembered all the starting position players from the 1986 Yankees squad, and enjoyed me regaling them with the story of a Yankee fan throwing a knife at Wally Joyner in August of 1986 which led to an Angels fan holding up a sign at a home game against the Bronx Bombers that read:  “If you can’t beat ’em, knife ’em.”  Blake was even able to get them to yell, “G.A. in da house!” each time Garret Anderson came to bat.

Both Lackey and Clemens went deep into the game, each only surrendering a single run.  But the outcome of the game was in the hands of the bullpens who continued the duel admirably.  In the end, the game was decided by a couple of costly errors by the Yankees’ Miguel Cairo, and after 13 innings, the Angels stood victorious 2-1.

Concession-wise, Yankee Stadium was sub-par, by our standards.  Like Shea, Yankee Stadium offered Nathan’s Hot Dogs, however, the Nathan’s dogs at Shea tasted much better than those at Yankee Stadium.  The one saving grace for Yankee Stadium concessions was that we were treated to an attractive beer girl in the stands who served none other than Pilsner Urquell.

Since we got little sleep the night before, we decided to make it an early night, but not before grabbing dinner and beer at Heartland Brewery in midtown.  We figured we could do more celebrating the next night.  All said, it was one very enjoyable 36th birthday.

Playing through Adversity

23 Aug

“Can you do it amidst distraction?  Can you make the shot when you must?”  Words spoken by Kevin Costner in the film Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves to a young aspiring archer, yet extremely poignant words when applied to the aspiring working musician.

I recall my days in graduate school, being around all sorts of musicians who were persnickety in regards to “ideal” practice and playing conditions, reeds, etc.  I would hear the constant whining when someone couldn’t concentrate with someone practicing in the next room, and the complaints from those trying to find the perfect reed.  I must admit that I did my share of groaning when it came to the amount of lumber I would discard from each box of reeds.

I, being the atypical musician that I am, used to practice fundamentals (i.e. long tones, harmonics, isolated finger moves, etc.) in front of the TV or listening to talk radio, simply because I needed the distraction (I used to do the same if I was writing a paper for a class, and in fact, am doing such even as I write this article).  I even remember visiting a friend of mine, another reed player who-prior to the days of stock trading online-would track commodities on his Quotron and make trades in the mornings while he was practicing.

Developing the skill of tuning certain distractions out can be helpful at many levels in this business we call music.  There’s something to be said about the old adage “The show must go on.”  Here’s a commonplace example:  say you’re playing in a club-for grins, let’s say you’re soloing on a tender ballad-and a waitress drops a tray of drinks.  Amidst your pensive solo protrudes the sound of several glasses breaking.  Can you make the shot when you must?

In graduate school, when I gave my Masters recital, we joked about posting “Two drink minimum” signs.  Interestingly, I actually had somewhat of an out-of-body experience during the classical portion of my recital-I felt as if I was an observer the whole time and thought I was emotionally uninvolved, in a matter of speaking, just going through the motions.  I remember thinking about this in the middle of the Glazounov Concerto, and being rather distracted by it, yet I knew I had to persevere and see it to completion.  At the time, I thought I played a rather uninspired first half of my recital, until my teacher said I did a great job.  He mentioned to me that there would be times that this might happen-I just didn’t expect it to happen for the first time during my recital!

Two years prior, I had done another recital where my opening piece was Paule Maurice’s Tableaux de Provence.  In the fifth movement, there is a nasty page turn coming out of the cadenza in a particularly hairy sixteenth note passage, with no breaks to the end of the piece.  Stupid me thought I could do it without making a copy of the last page.  In the heat of battle, as I made the last page turn, the music repositioned up at a 45 degree angle, and I had to finish the piece leaning to my left to read the music.  I did a brilliant job, and the members of my panel laughed their collective asses off in amazement as I contorted my body to get the job done.  The point is that I didn’t shut down.  I immediately adjusted to the situation as if it were purely natural.

One of the advantages of learning to play with distractions is the fact that any bouts with nervousness will be fewer (eventually next to none), as well as workable.  My whole life, I’ve never gotten star-struck . . . I’ve met ballplayers I idolized as a kid, musicians who were heroes to me growing up, politicians for whom I have had the utmost respect, actors and actresses of whose work I have been a fan . . . NEVER, EVER have been star-struck.  Sunday night was a first.  I’m doing my solo piano gig and the manager says to me, “Can you play the theme from Star Trek?”  I said, “Sure.  Why?”  She says, “William Shatner is having dinner on the patio.”  Because I learned to not be nervous on the gig, to be able to play in very adverse conditions and with lots of distractions, I can play in front of large crowds or in noisy clubs with no problem.  I was a nervous wreck knowing that Captain Kirk was listening to me play.  Still, I buckled down and did my job.  Even got a smile from Mr. Shatner when I played the theme to T.J. Hooker . . .

For years I worked in one of the most adverse of musical situations:  in a horn section with a trumpet player who played GROSSLY out of tune, typically sharp, and sometimes over fifty cents sharp.  The louder the band got, the sharper he got-I think that he did it so that he could hear himself (of course, in school I was taught that if you can’t hear yourself in a section, chances are you are playing in tune).  What was even worse was that he had an infallibility complex, and an unprofessional attitude when it came to intonation-if you told him that his intonation was off, he would argue with you vehemently.  “Why did I continue to work in this situation?” you might ask.  Simply put, I was young; I needed the money.  To keep my sanity, I began to play mind games on the gig like pulling out his tuning slide on the breaks, only to have him push it back in when he realized it was out of place.  When he would adjust his tuning slide in the middle of a song, I would immediately play disgustingly flat, just so that he would pull out more.  I finally got to the point where I resigned myself to the fact that it was never going to get better.  It was then that I made the decision to tune up to 440 at the beginning of the gig, keep my tuner attached to my horn (via transducer), and stay there all night-typically focusing in on where the bass player was.  This taught me to play off of vibrations through my bone structure rather than direct sonic information.  It was rather difficult, as my chops would get tired very quickly, since my natural tendency is to adjust to the lead instrument in a section.  Moreover, it caused me to question my skills whenever I would get into a good playing situation.  When I was finally able to cut that gig loose, I realized that this had actually finely tuned my intonation sensors, so that when I played with musicians who had good intonation, it was an absolute joy.

Reeds are another issue where adversity can rear its ugly head.  I remember the days of complaining about the high reject rate per box.  I remember my clarinet and oboe friends tirelessly working on reeds.  I remember that I had finally found the “perfect” clarinet reed my first year of graduate school, played on it for a month, only to be disappointed when my hand accidentally came down on the mouthpiece while sitting in an orchestra pit, thus breaking the “perfect” reed.

In the world of the working musician, if you work as frequently as I do, and have as many outside interests as I do, there really is no time to spend working on reeds.  Years ago, when I realized this, I made the decision to give up the oboe.  Nowadays, I have a “slap-n-go” philosophy when it comes to reeds:  I pull a new reed out of the box, if it works well enough, I stick with it until it wears out, and if it doesn’t work well enough, I toss it.  It’s practical AND cost-effective.

I recently had a conversation about reeds with an old friend who is a respected professional oboist based on the east coast.  Here’s what he told me:  “Reeds can totally take over an oboists life.  Most oboists are crazy when it comes to reeds.  Me, I’m too damned lazy to be crazy.  When I was a student, one of my mentors told me that he actually enjoyed my playing a little less when I started getting my reeds in shape-that I was content to have a nice sound, and not trying as hard to make something wonderful.  I’d like to think that I can do both now.  My old teacher told me once that he played an entire summer season on the same reed.  Me, I make reeds only on an absolutely-need-to basis, which is decidedly not every day.”

I remember working at a theme park back in 1999 with a battle-wearied veteran of the music world who also happened to be a sax player.  One day he happened to show me the reed he had played on for a month-it was worn out and broken in multiple places, yet you wouldn’t have known it by the way he was playing.  I asked him why he didn’t just throw it out and put on a new one.  He told me that it was just out of sheer laziness.  I learned from that experience that no matter how bad the reed is you should be able to play on it.

This past year, I did a couple of gigs in Beaver Creek, Colorado, a town with a base elevation of 7400 feet-more than a mile high.  All of my #3 reeds felt more like #4s, but I still had to buckle down and play two shows with the equipment I had.  As my friend Greg Vail says in a article:  “Just shut up and blow!”

I know it sounds cliché, but I learned early on from my days of scouting to “Be prepared.”

If you’ll indulge me a moment to play on the words of the late, great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley . . . “You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity.  When it happens, sometimes we’re caught short.  We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up.  Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over.  And I have advice for all us.”  I got it from President Calvin Coolidge who wrote this passage “and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem:”

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Mouthpieces and the Working Saxophonist

22 Aug

Beginning in 1998, after attending a couple of saxophone masterclasses, I became convinced-or rather, obsessed-with finding one mouthpiece for each horn, to play every style I needed (with the exception of classical, of course).  Sounds like your every day, garden-variety saxophone player, right?!  Well, at the time, I was a year out of graduate school, and quite the gigging fool (or as my friend Scott Strecker termed it, “musical whore”), playing any and every style that was thrown at me.  I was playing in a band at a major theme park during the day, and doing all sorts of casual, corporate, club, and recording dates at night, many times never knowing what style I would be playing next, until the “leader du jour” started the next tune on the bandstand.  I had no time to think about what mouthpiece would work for each style; I just needed something that was flexible enough to cover the gamut.

In one masterclass, Brandon Fields gave a presentation that left a lasting impression on me.  One of the main things I left with was a new philosophy about mouthpieces-a purist one at that.  Simply put:  round chamber, little to no baffle.  Translation:  hard rubber Meyer for alto, metal Otto Link for tenor.

The Chamber

Someone once told me a story about mouthpiece maker Ralph Morgan, who was working for Selmer when the C* 80 came out.  For those of you who don’t know, the C* 80 has a square chamber.  Apparently, he caused quite a stir when he asked, “When are you going to make the saxophone square?”  In his own sarcastic way, Morgan makes an important point, after all, can you really put a square peg in a round hole?  Think about how the airstream is physically affected by moving from a non-round chamber into a conical pipe.  I’m not going to get into details the physics of the situation, because I’m sure most of you can see the logic involved.

For years in school, I played primarily horseshoe-shaped chambers (Rousseau 4R, Rousseau NC-4), and used square chambers for commercial work (Yanigasawa silver-plated).  I was never satisfied, because there was always some kind of inconsistency in tone, pitch, or some other parameter.  There was a slight adjustment period when I made the decision to go to round chambers for everything, but once I made the change, I was much happier.  I was able to blow effortlessly, without having to manipulate to get things to work.  I was able to play with “one airstream,” as my mentor, Leo Potts had tried to instill in me years before.  The fundamentals of my playing became very pure.

One thing that I’ve noticed about mouthpieces with a round chamber and little to no baffle is the only way they will work properly is if you are playing the saxophone correctly.  So many new mouthpieces today are so “hot-rodded” for certain tonal qualities, ease of altissimo, etc., that they actually hide a lot of the faults in our playing.  But put an Otto Link on your tenor, and there’s nowhere to hide.  If you aren’t playing the horn correctly, everyone will know.  Interestingly, I found out after a year of playing my Link, when I popped my Yanigasawa (square chamber) back on just for grins, I was finally able to play it properly.

Compare chambers for yourself.  There are lots of interesting ones out there in addition to the conventional designs (for a time, I played the Rousseau Metal Jazz mouthpiece which has an inverse trapezoidal chamber).  Go into your local music store or saxophone pro shop and spend a few hours blowing through a variety of mouthpieces.  If you can, bring a friend to be your sound consultant.  If you are unable to find someone to go with you, solicit opinions from others in the shop, or bring some kind of recording device.  Take notes on the differences in feel and sound between chambers.  You will notice differences in back pressure up and down the horn, pitch variances, control issues, etc. 

The Baffle

As I began venturing back into the world of contemporary jazz, I began to realize that my all-purpose set-ups would not be ideal for use in an entire evening of fusion, funk, or other styles that put a high demand on the altissimo register.  Almost everyone I consulted recommended that I switch to a mouthpiece with some kind of medium to high baffle.  While I was determined to make my all-purpose set-ups work, I realized I was fighting a losing battle and began both trying out mouthpieces with all sorts of baffles.

Some of you may be wondering what a baffle does.  Quite simply what happens is the higher the baffle, the smaller the space just inside the tip opening.  The result is an increased speed in the air entering the chamber.  Typically this results in a brighter sound, and it can ease the production of altissimo pitches.  On the down side, it can affect intonation for the worse, and thin out the tone.

I started with short baffles that had a sharp drop off.  A friend of mine even constructed a few for one of my tenor Links.  While this type of baffle moved my sound in the direction I was looking at going-brighter with more edge-I didn’t like the fact that my sound was markedly thinner, pitch-specifically in the upper and altissimo registers-was squirrelly, and altissimo control was inconsistent.

I moved on to roll-over baffles next, and for a while I thought that they were a panacea for me.  This didn’t last long, as I noticed that pitch in the upper and altissimo registers was still a little squirrelly.

I tried the Jody Jazz DV mouthpiece on tenor, a relatively high baffle with a straight drop off in a “V” shape into a large chamber.  I was intrigued by it because it didn’t necessarily feel as if there was a baffle in the mouthpiece, however, I wasn’t able to get the altissimo control I sought.

At this point, I gave up on baffled mouthpieces, and instead thought I could solve my problem by putting a Rico Plasticover on my alto Meyer.  It didn’t have the feel and control I was looking for, but I decided to deal with it.  This set-up had a good sound and decent control.  On tenor, I switched from my Link to a vintage pre-Hollywood Dukoff which had a big, ballsy sound, and had acceptable altissimo control.  The occasional use of a Plasticover worked on this piece as well.

Mouthpieces for Specific Situations / Consistency in Your Set-ups

I had resigned myself to using my all-purpose set-ups for contemporary gigs, and was content to do so until the 2005 NAMM Show . . .

I was hanging out at the Keilwerth exhibit with saxophonists Greg Vail and Wayne Mestas.  Greg is well-known in the contemporary jazz community, having played several years with the group Kilauea.  Both Greg and I were trying out alto saxes, and passing them back and forth.  I played on a black nickel horn, and felt I sounded good . . . that is, until I passed it to Greg and heard his sound.  I realized that Greg’s sound was far better suited for the contemporary arena than mine, and that I needed to find a set-up that would work for me on contemporary gigs.  The great mouthpiece search was back on again.

What ended up working was a long low-to-medium baffle that didn’t have the appearance of a wedge, but ran the length from the tip to the chamber.  It was a Beechler bellite #7, the old fusion standby which virtually every contemporary alto player was using in the late 1980s (in fact, I purchased it in 1989).  Granted, it’s a very genre-specific mouthpiece, so I choose to only use it for contemporary work.  However, the Meyer still serves as my all-purpose set-up, and I am able to switch between the two mouthpieces easily.

Solving the contemporary question on tenor is still an issue, however I’ve reached a temporary solution.

My vintage Dukoff is great if I am playing an entire night of acoustic straight ahead, and can even work in a concert band or saxophone quartet context, where a dark sound is preferred, since it has no baffle.  On a casual, it’s a decent all-purpose set-up, and can cut the contemporary material, provided that I have a microphone.  But it just doesn’t do it for an entire contemporary gig.  Since I was playing the Beechler on alto, I thought, “Why not play one on tenor too?”  Sounds logical, right?  Unfortunately, the tenor metal Beechler cut like a laser, and even the darkest sounding reed wasn’t enough to tame the beast.

I flew to St. Kitts in the Caribbean for a gig, and it was extremely humid.  Knowing that the climate would be a factor, I brought a variety mouthpieces, reeds, and ligatures.  I had some considerable down time prior to sound check to experiment.  I ended up selecting a Guardala laser-trimmed Crescent (low baffle that looks like a skateboard ramp, round chamber) with Rico Plasticover reeds.  It did the trick, but I ended up sacrificing the tonal spectrum in the process-the sound was very mid-rangey (lacking in lows and highs).  Fortunately for me, this setup worked even better once I got back to Southern California.  Again, this set-up has some similarities in feel to my vintage Dukoff, and I am able to switch between the two mouthpieces relatively easy.  Moreover, this makes it comfortable to switch between alto and tenor on the same gig.

Improving Your Set-up:  Selecting the Right Reed and Ligature

So what happens when you have a mouthpiece that you like for the most part, but doesn’t feel totally dialed-in?  Typically, I will go into a music store and pick up two of every reed model in stock and experiment.  I will consult other musicians-not necessarily saxophone players-and collect opinions as to my sound.  I may even record myself.

Once I have selected the optimal reed, then I will experiment with different ligatures.  I have a number of ligatures at home, and am pretty familiar with what each does.  If the mouthpiece needs taming (i.e. the harmonics are out of control), I will use a ligature that compresses the harmonic spectrum (similar to rolling off the low and high frequencies with a graphic equalizer) such as a Rovner or Olegature.  I’m not particularly fond of Rovners as they tend to deaden the resonance of the mouthpiece a bit too much, but sometimes you need that to tame a particularly bright mouthpiece.  In contrast, if I need my sound to have more brilliance, then I will use a more vibrant ligature such as a Brancher or Selmer.  What I like best about the Brancher is that there is very little contact with the mouthpiece, thus allowing more of the mouthpiece to vibrate.  There are plenty of ligatures that fall in between, and it just depends on your preference on if you desire more control or more resonance.  Other ligatures that you may want to try include the Winslow (out of production, but you can still find them), the Francois Louis Ultimate Ligature, the various models of BG, and the Bonade.

Some players are fortunate to find something they like (or at least something with which they are willing to work) and use it their whole lives.  For many of us however, who have to work in a multitude of capacities, the setup may be ever changing.  If you can at least find a variety of equipment that is consistent and similar, you will be able to move between setups with relative ease.  Best of luck to you on your journey.