An Open Letter to Saxophonists, Aspiring Saxophonists and all Musicians from Phil Barone
This text is not meant to be controversial nor condescending in any way nor was it written to denigrate, or discourage anyone or disregard their personal experiences but rather to help enlighten players, especially younger players to myths, false beliefs, and cognitive distortions* that are prevalent in the world of musicians based on my experience having worked for many saxophone players. I have nothing to gain by writing it and in fact it will probably do more harm to me than good but it may help chip away at what I believe to be an illusion perpetrated by many of the younger generation of saxophone players and musicians and the music accessory industry. It may not apply to you.
After thirty-seven years customizing and making mouthpieces and selling saxophones for great and not so great musicians and playing the sax for longer, I have decided to speak out against the folklore that’s prevalent these days since I’ve come to believe these myths are destructive to artists creativity and aspiring musicians which are frequently spurred on by a very few great players and novices on the internet. As a result, I’ve seen many saxophonists pursue and obsess with a vengeance what is actually a minuscule difference in sound between two pieces of gear that’s cancelled out, eclipsed or transcended by a different reed, a different room or mic that they miss the significance of the music itself.
My experience playing the sax and making mouthpieces for almost forty years has led me to come to the conclusion that switching and searching for your sound is largely not a function of the mouthpiece or gear and that it’s been blown out of proportion by young and inexperienced players touting their “great” new mouthpiece on forums and businesses that just want to promote sales and stories of a very few great artists obsessing on their equipment. I’ve come to believe that pursuing equipment beyond a certain point is largely counter-productive to one’s creativity and is fueled by an obsession for a perfect tone or ideology that doesn’t exist and is fruitless. John Coltrane who is known to have aggressively pursued the holy grail of mouthpieces had already arrived and attained a very high level of artistry so the vast majority of players should not let his pursuit of the ultimate mouthpiece influence them and Trane didn’t do this until he reached a very high level. That is what I believe artists should be striving for, not reaching outside of themselves for instant gratification.
I feel that in recent years with the advent and proliferation of so many brands of mouthpieces and equipment in general, the obsession with them and equipment in general has grown out of proportion to the number of great music happening and musicians, not just saxophone players.
I’ve worked for many great and not so great players. For instance, Sonny Rollins, Jackie Mclean, Steve Grossman, Bob Sheppard, Ernie Watts, Stanley Turrentine, Mike Brecker, “Blue” Lou Marini, Eric Alexander, Dave Tofani, Lawrence Feldman, Ronnie Cuber, Nick Brignola, Roger Rosenberg, Ravi Coltrane, Lee Konitz and Frank Vicari to mention just a few and have noticed that the essential artists don’t switch gear often but was rather an afterthought to practicing, studying and studying. Sonny Rollins only had seven mouthpieces his whole career and has been playing the same mouthpiece and sax since the 60’s. Jackie Mclean only had about five or six, Steve Grossman only had several, Ernie Watts only had a few but has played the same one for many years. Stanley Turrentine only had several mouthpieces his whole career and when his vintage Link gave out, he bought a new Otto Link considered inferior by many players and he sounded fantastic on it. Joe Henderson played a Selmer D, considered by many to be a poor choice for a jazz mouthpiece but he was one of the greatest players that ever lived and to the best of my knowledge never switched in many years. Wayne Shorter played one mouthpiece for decades. Dexter Gordon was known to have only two mouthpieces during his entire professional career. In photos of Bird he is only seen with a three, maybe four mouthpieces, Cannonball was only known to play one mouthpiece his whole career and his sound became the standard by which to emulate on the alto sax. Ronnie Cuber, probably the greatest bari player that’s ever lived has only owned a few mouthpieces his whole professional career, two Bergs, two Links and a Francois Louie. Pepper Adams is known to have only two and he didn’t switch until his Berg Larson became unplayable. But these facts are overshadowed by the industry and propaganda spread by businesses and the ignorant.
There are exceptions such as John Coltrane but when you reach that level then maybe you can explore other options but until you reach that level it’s best, in my opinion to stick to one and develop a sound on it and learn to play it and learn to be happy with what you have. But for many, the mindset has changed and the emphasis on equipment and the need for instant gratification has grown out of proportion to the dedication it takes to be a truly great artist.
Mike Brecker sounded fantastic and modern and dynamic on a closed tip-opening mouthpiece, an old four star model Link. He sounded fantastic on any mouthpiece because he transcended his gear. That’s what great players do and certainly nobody is going to know which neck you’re using one night on the gig but people will take notice if you play original and dynamic lines. I know a player from NYC now residing in CA who doesn’t have a pleasing tone to my personal ear but his ideas are so exciting I don’t want to stop listening to him! His playing is dynamic and his ideas are always fresh. I’ve heard players of debatable quality complain about Jackie Mclean’s intonation but few players ever reach the soulfulness, originality and excitement as he did not to mention his humanistic qualities.
However, a contributing factor to this equipment frenzy may be due to the fact that there is so much sub-standard gear on the market causing players to be missing something in their sound which perpetuates a craving causing a player to be in a constant search and it could also be that the internet has popularized players who are quick to delve out advice who lack a discerning ear and taste which has eroded the quality of music. As with most people, many musicians lack taste and finesse. Furthermore, the newer brands of musical equipment, while may be more in tune, louder and responsive has been manufactured to be easier to play therefore causing an instantaneous attraction to it which doesn’t enable the player to phrase like something that requires more effort and requires less use of one’s body causing a lack of individual tone among many musicians. Our individuality is being lost due to laziness and a lust for volume and quick response.
Tone, while important, is not as important as playing creative and exciting ideas but it’s a lot more work to do that than to switch gear. For most it requires introspection and nurturing one’s talent away from their instrument.
There are other things you can do such as psychoanalysis, meditation, chanting, yoga, reading inspiring things, pray, FOCUS. I know a group of pianists that do Qi-Gong and Tai Chi. Learn to get in the zone and not reach outside of yourself. Herbie Hancock chants, Sonny Rollins has meditated since the sixties. I studied for many years with jazz piano great Sal Mosca, a Lennie Tristano student, and he recommended to his students that they all pursue psychoanalysis. My advice after seeing so many saxophone players search for that “special” mouthpiece is to find one good mouthpiece then stick to it. It takes a long time to learn how to play a mouthpiece since every time you switch reeds it’s like switching mouthpieces. A piece of equipment should be a vehicle to the sound you hear in your head, it’s not there to alter your personal sound per se and volume should be a secondary consideration but I’ve seen thousands of saxophone players get so hung up on very small differences between two or more mouthpieces, differences that are eclipsed by different reeds that they miss the point of the music itself. Musicians frequently get so obsessed on miniscule difference between two pieces of gear they miss the point of creating beautiful music. Piano players rarely switch pianos and know that playing an instrument like a Steinway as opposed to a Yamaha takes time to cultivate the tone, to draw the sound out of the instrument thereby creating a unique and beautiful sound.
While I believe that there’s a lot of sub-par mouthpieces available, that special mouthpiece is a myth and while you may experience a dramatic result in two mouthpieces of very different designs, nobody will know if you’re playing gear of similar design and nobody is going to know it if you’re playing your 82XXX Mark VI or your 125XXX VI, nobody. Sonny has been playing his re-lacquered 132XXX VI for fifty years and equipment doesn’t interest him because he’s dedicated to the music in a profound way. Vladimir Horowitz played the same piano from the early 40’s up until his death in 89. Mike Brecker, played his 86XXX VI for decades and when that got out everyone searched and paid a premium for them but when Mike flew out to Tenor Madness to find a second horn since his was failing from the beating he gave it, he found that Randy Jones had covered the serial numbers with black tape. After several days of trying horns Mike settled on one and when he pulled the tape off found that it was a 125XXX. Myths such as certain serial number horns being superior permeate musician’s worlds and distracts them from their primary purpose and to give you an idea of the dedication it takes to be great, Mike told me that he listened to Coltrane records so much that they turned red. Sonny practiced endlessly on a bridge and went to India to find himself. I could go on.
*A cognitive distortion is a term used in psychology for a belief that one has that isn’t true. Hope all are well. Phil