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An Interview with

Tom Alexander
Superial Reeds


By
Paul R. Coats


PC: Tell usabout yourself... background, playing, etc.

TA: Becausemy father, Bob Alexander, was a busy studio trombone player on the New Yorkscene in the 1950's-80's, I was around music from the crib you could say, andpicked up a lot from hearing the sounds of jazz wafting through our house on aregular basis, or later going to gigs with him, and meeting other musicians.As he played lead 'bone on the Tonight Show and some other gigs when there werea good number of TV shows being broadcast from New York, I got a chance to hearsome great big band stuff live from those studio orchestras, which were staffedwith some very strong players, I might add. And my mom, being an avid jazzlover (to this day), also always liked to have the record player or radio goingwith anything from Count Basie and Prez to Charlie Parker and other greatplayers. Let's face it, how can you go wrong when you were raised with Bird inthe air!

I kind of messed around in high school asan ear player with trombone, drums, keyboard, and bass, and then later gotinvolved with working on pipe organs (repair, tuning, installation, etc.) inNYC, Boston, and Portland, Oregon for a few years, but didn't really get into the playing end ofmusic seriously until I started on saxophone at the late age of 24 when I wasattending California State University (Sonoma). I waslucky in that I was gigging within the next couple of years and this gave me astarting point from which to work with the horn.

During this time, I was also very lucky tobe able to hook up and hang out with some excellent musicians such as Vel Selvan(aka David Luell), San Francisco legends Mel Ellison and Smith Dobson, Jim Dukey,Marvin Williams, Bennett Friedman, and with jazz greats Joe Henderson and Dave Liebman.These were just excellent learning times for me, both from the music and lifelearning points of view...Needless to say, they all taught me some veryvaluable things not only about playing, but equipment, tone, attitude, and theimportance of saying something as a musician.

I moved to Tokyo, in '82 as I had become fascinated with the culture of Japan and spent my first five years herebasically delving into that side of it, but nothing much in music until 1986when I decided to get back into the horn on a serious level by practicing longhours every day.

In the next year, I met Mike Ellis, anotherAmerican sax player (who has been on the scene on three continents) who becamea very good friend of mine. We put a sax quartet and later a quintet calledM.E.T.A. together, and this was essentially a band built around my and Mike'soriginal compositions.

So around this time I started to becomevery active on the scene over here in Tokyo with M.E.T.A., which had monthly gigs at the "Pit In",and a number of other jazz and funk groups that worked in Tokyo and some on the road. The 80's& 90's were a golden time to be playing here as there were gigs galore andpeople really liked jazz a lot....I mean you could actually hear Bird or Milesin some supermarkets! Those days were really something.

Unfortunately however, I eventually had togive up playing altogether because of chronic neck and joint problems, but atleast I was lucky enough to have been able to put in a good amount of gigtime. It became a logical choice for me to throw myself into this reed projectfull time, as it is kind of a continuation through music and as my friends willtell you, I'm still a jazz guy...

PC: Why didyou get into this?

TA: Myconcentration into the reed end of things basically evolved through having hadbad luck with the ones I was using myself at that time in the mid to late80's. I remember experiencing several problems in playing which led me tothrow away whole boxes of reeds and wondering if it was the reed, me, themouthpiece, etc.?? I tried to isolate all the factors and it occurred to methat the reeds I had played some years earlier seemed to have something specialthat the ones I was currently using lacked. So from this vantage point Idecided to delve in and really research this... try and locate the best caneand work on cut designs, so I could somehow at least find a reed that wouldwork well for me. Little did I know then, that it would grow to be what it istoday!

PC: Whatabout equipment? Did you design your own or adapt equipment actually made for another purpose?

TA: We usestate of the art, computer driven machinery for both the strength testing andcutting of the reeds, which is also used by some of the other top reedmanufacturers. One machine I did make from scratch is a reed gauge thatmeasures the grid points of the vamp with extremely fine accuracy using 3 differentdigital dial indicators...it is pretty cool.

PC: Wheredo you get your cane? Tell us particulars about how the cane is treated, aged,whatever.

TA: Ourcane comes from the Var Region of Southern France, long known in the 100+ year tradition of reed making as producingtop grade stock.

The process of cultivating, aging, storing,selecting and cutting the cane tubes is basically the same as it was yearsago...no treating, just pure, naturally grown "Arundo Donax" cane.After the cane is harvested, it is sun dried and aged in the time proventradition of French reed making. But the advantage now is that our cutting andother machinery is far more advanced from earlier types and some aspects of itcomputerized, so that we can get much more accurate gauging and cutting thanwas available before. However some operations, such as the splitting of thecane tubes into 4 pieces of pre-milled blank stock, are still done by hand.

PC: Wouldyou describe the differences in your three cuts of reeds?

TA: I'vewritten a good deal about this on the specific pages on each individual modelwhich you can see here:

Superial: http://www.superial.com/superiale.html

"DC": http://www.superial.com/dce.html

Classique: http://www.superial.com/classiquee.html

and some more info on the FAQ page to complementthis:

http://www.superial.com/FAQ.html

PC: Somereeds work better on some mouthpieces than others, and I know artists who willuse a jazz cut reed for classical, or vice versa... any particulars in thisarea?

TA: This iskind of a tough one to answer simply as there are several factors involved.First I'd say that we tried to design reeds which bring out the most efficiencyfrom the mouthpiece. In other words, I feel a good reed should allow amouthpiece to reach its maximum potential in terms of tonal color, response,attack, dynamics, and freedom of blowing. We did a lot of testing to try tocover this ground, so that players would have the ease of response, balancedout with an even scale throughout the registers, and a solid tonal platform thatwould provide flexibility, power, subtlety, and yes, beauty, in the resultantsound. And with the reed being able to vibrate efficiently along the courseof the mouthpiece side and tip rails in a manner which makes the entire pieceresonate freely, we believe our designs perform very well. We have also hadthis point verified by several recognized master mouthpiece artisans, amongthem Ralph Morgan, Dr. Paul Tenney, Theo Wanne, and the late Jon Van Wie, whofelt our reeds brought out the best in their work, so I believe we must havebeen on the right track here. And this is a key point because lack of vibrationalefficiency can lead to a feeling of stuffiness or sluggish response, onenemesis woodwind players have often come up against.

And in trying to achieve the positivecharacteristics of free resonance, I realized early on that just one cut wouldnot suffice to cover everybody's playing needs. There many styles of music andvarious musical situations where a reed player might want to explore differenttonal possibilities and we worked on distinctly separate cut profiles I feltwould cover them over a broad area. I had very specific ideas in mind aboutwhat tonal and playing situations should be addressed and the result was the 3separate models we came up with... Superial, with it's buzzy, warm, andbrighter response, "DC" with a somewhat darker and more solid, yetwith a powerful tonal core, and "Classique" with it's thicker profilefor an even dark, but "alive" timbre. It's been fortunate that manyof the jazz, classical, concert, rock, and funk players we have heard from orabout seem to feel our reeds fit the bill for the type of playing they areinvolved with.

Another factor is of course, a player'staste... There is just no one reed model that will make everyone happy, and soour 3 types cover a wide performance ground. At least in part, I think this canbe attributed to the vibrational characteristics of this wonderful cane we useand in my opinion, the cane definitely does make a difference. So whether itbe saxophonists like Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Dave Liebman, the late great BobBerg, Ravi Coltrane, Seamus Blake, Tim Price and our most recent endorsersBranford Marsalis, Vincent Herring, and Jaleel Shaw playing intense andpowerful jazz music, or ones such as James Houlik, Paul Brodie, or Ken Radnofskyin a classical setting, scores of other pros, teachers and students, I thinkthere is a common thread that binds these players, despite the wide diversityof styles. Though the cut profile some classical players prefer as opposed tothose of jazz players may be quite different, we feel that the same canedelivers truly excellent performance, as it has for more than 100 years.

And you know Paul, it has been just amazingto see how many players of all types, from beginners to these top artists, haveswitched over to our reeds and feel so strongly about them. Frankly speaking,it wasn't easy entering a market where there were so many brands establishedyears ahead of ours or trying to compete with two large companies whichpractically dominated the field before we came in. However by now, we havedefinitely become "a player" in our own right. We've heard fromwoodwind player after woodwind player who seem to be convinced that our reedsdo indeed deliver something special and I don't feel it's just a fluke thatthis has occurred. We have got a huge file of letters from people all over theworld who were kind enough to take the time to write and express their feelingsthat our reeds gave them a marked improvement in tone and response, with somegoing so far to say that ours were the best reeds they have ever played intheir lives. Receiving these kind of comments and knowing that we are nowmaking a definite impact and difference in the saxophone and clarinet communityis one of the greatest things about this job. I remember years ago how happyI was once I started using these reeds myself and to think that they have alsogiven satisfaction to so many other players is a truly gratifying experienceand a dream come true.

And I must add that I have learned a gooddeal in the process of working with some of the top reed players in the field.It's interesting to see how their needs vary. The challenge for me is like oneof trying to recommend the best and most expressive paints for a master artistabout to fill up a blank canvass. Since I too played for years professionallyand have been involved on the mouthpiece and horn side of it as well in thattime, I know where they are coming from and this helps me get to what they needfaster and with more accuracy. It has been really cool getting to know andwork with these happening players and it's also a singular honor for us thatthey decided to select these "tools" of ours to contribute to their personalsound and musical concepts. Most of them stay in regular touch with me and weare on the same wavelength, so that makes working with them just great.

Here is a little anecdote about how I metone of them, Dave Liebman...He was playing at a club in California in the later 70's and I went tocheck him out. This was the first time I ever saw him and I was just blownaway with his playing...seeing and hearing things I never imagined evenpossible on the saxophone! At one of his breaks, I showed him a Super ToneMaster Otto Link Tenor I had customized and he just grabbed it out of my hands,stuck it on his horn and started playing some incredible stuff... From thatpoint on, I started working on his mouthpieces (until he moved back to New York) and we began our long andfriendly association, which has lasted around 25 years. In a way, that was aturning point for me...he really believed in me and my ideas very early on andhelped me along the way, in same the way he has done for others he's met andhad faith in and they too will testify to his generosity and greatness as aplayer.

Incidentally, I should also mention that itis wonderful to have an extremely talented young player like Mingus Big Bandmember Jaleel Shaw with us now. Music of depth and intelligence is justpouring out of this gifted Alto player and it is quite something to witnesssuch a bright light burning at such an early age. You owe it to yourself tocheck out this important up and coming saxophonist, who we will all undoubtedlybe hearing more of in the future.

PC: How doyou go about testing your reeds, developing the actual cuts?

TA: To putthe horse before the cart, the first thing on my mind, design wise was whattype of tone and music should we address our efforts to? I thought a veryfree blowing, warm and vibrant tone was a good place to start, which would besuitable for jazz, fusion, brass band, etc. and Superial followed theseguidelines. So by studying earlier designs and then making modifications Ibelieved to be improvements, and then doing a good amount of blow-testingmyself and with the feedback of some other players, we arrived at a cut we feltwould cover these requirements.

Next was "DC", where I was aftera slightly darker and more solid tone core associated with some leadingsaxophonists active in the music of the 50's-90's Blue Note era who inspiredme, and one which would also have immediate response and presence, which thesereeds certainly do. I spent even more time with "DC" trying cutdesign after cut design, where the differences were at times so subtle andminute, that it took immense concentration and hours of work to get to that"Eureka!" moment, which finally and luckily occurred after allthis...it was really apparent that we had come upon something special here whenwe hit on it.

The natural succession to the first modelswas "Classique", a reed specifically designed for classical saxophoneplayers. This reed has a darker tone (favoring the fundamental tones morethan let's say Superial in which the higher harmonics in the series are moreprominent), but which also even some jazz players favor for it's darker, butlively power.

PC: What isimportant for a beginner to look for in reeds? As a kid I thought pretty,clear bark might be better than spotty... then I thought the opposite. Andlooking for splits, evenness of cut, etc. And that reed with the thick densefiber running up the left side just MAY work well... what I found was, I didnot know what made a good reed or bad reed by only looking.

TA: This isan interesting question and if you get 10 saxophone players together in a roomand start in on this subject (like many others regarding the saxophone), youmay very well get 10 separate and completely different opinions! So I guesswhat that says is that there really is no one answer. Of course basicallyspeaking, you should try to select reeds that aren't flawed in any obvious wayslike you mentioned such as splits, etc. However, you also will find reeds thatstill can play well, even if they don't look perfect in the vamp cut. When youthink of how the vamp of a reed tapers down to around the thickness of a pieceof paper, it's pretty hard to expect that out of the tens of thousandsproduced, they will all be perfect. However, we put our reeds through twolevels of quality control to root out any of these and actually do some handwork on some after they are milled and finished. We have instituted a checksystem on every single reed we pack in Japan, and I don't know of any other company that goes to this extent inquality control.

But I have to agree with what you said;"that reed with the thick dense fiber running up the left side just MAYwork well". Once again, in my experience the way a reed looks does notnecessarily correlate to how it will play. I've used both mouthpieces andreeds that didn't look perfect at all, but played GREAT, and some perfectlooking ones that were just awful. Naturally we try to cut them as perfectlyas we can given the limitations of the most advanced reed milling technology(which is not perfect itself), but the proof is in the actual playing.

I believe you should look at a reed as a"platform". If the cane quality is high, even if the cut is a littleoff center, or either a bit too hard or soft, it should not be thrown away, butworked on! This is the way I learned at least, and I think spending a littletime on your reeds can be a good idea if you are not happy with the way itplays straight out of the box. In essence, this means a little customizing andit is no big deal, really.

Generally speaking, we want to aim for aneven cut where the right and left sides are correctly proportioned andbalanced. Unfortunately, we don't know of any improvements over the state ofthe art cutting machines yet which will turn out reed blanks and finished reedsexactly the same. First and foremost, it's a good idea that you actually playthe reed before deciding what, if anything, it may need in the way ofcustomizing. You know the old saying..."if it isn't broken, don't fixit". To tell you the truth, at least with these reeds, I rarely had to domuch of anything with the majority of them other than softening a few(especially if my chops had been down to a week or so when I wasn't playing),because they usually work really well for me right from the box.

And remember that every player may feelstrength differently due to the different brand, model and tip opening ofmouthpiece they use, how well developed their chops are, the way they blow, etc.For example, 10 different players from beginner to pro could feel the strengthand response of a Superial No. 3 as being completely different depending ontheir set-ups, whether they were blowing correctly via a well developedembouchure and diaphragm and open throat, whether they had been playing andpracticing regularly or had laid off for awhile (in which case reeds could feelharder) etc. I have come across case after case of a player blamingresistance, stuffiness, or squeaking on a reed when it was later discoveredthat their set-up had some problems, such as a pad leak, loose neck, worn outneck cork that weren't sealing 100% inside the bore of the mouthpiece, using amouthpiece too open or closed, or one in which the table or rails are out of balance,a mouthpiece with a too high baffle or convex shape to the baffle right pastthe tip rail, mouthpiece tip rails too thick or too thin, a worn out or looseligature, playing a dry reed, etc. When you think that just a single one ofthese points might contribute to problems with response, just imagine what acombination of them can do!

And another common occurrence a reed mightget blamed for (especially with less experienced instrumentalists) is when aplayer subconsciously uses their jaw muscles or "biting" and a closedthroat to give the airspeed enough momentum to set the reed in motion or bringit up to pitch, and a bright nasally type of tone (usually sharp), squeaks, afeeling of stuffiness, a choked sound, or no sound at all can be the result.

Similar difficulties can arise if players,thinking they want to get a huge loud tone, buy a mouthpiece that is really wayover their heads in the sense that it is too open in the tip, or one with aradically high baffle. It can be an extremely challenging proposition to haveany control over the intonation, dynamics, or general playability in thiscase. Or likewise, they may think they will get more power with a reed thatis really too hard for their set-up, or use one too soft, and problems will bethe end result. In these cases, the reed is not at fault and it is importantthat the right reed be matched with the right set-up and players level ofphysical development. We tried as best we could to come up with a reedcomparison chart (http://www.superial.com/reed%20comparison.html),given the limitations created by the fact that every reed maker has differentcup profiles, may use different types of cane and manufacture, etc. We try togive people a general idea of where our models stand relative to those of othermakers. This is to help, let's say, a first time player of our reeds make themost appropriate choice they can...if they are presently using regular Rico,for example, they probably should not be trying our Classique, but Superialmodel...Anyhow, this is not a perfect science and a little experimentation mayneed to be done.

However, if you do notice a reed may besofter or harder than you prefer, it's a useful thing to keep some essentialtools life a good reed knife, clipper, sandpaper, and reed rush handy at alltimes. These tools have been used for years and you should learn somethingabout them, as a good teacher will tell you. Personally, I got to the pointwhere I could do a lot in making harder reeds a bit softer with just my handsfrom a trick Joe Henderson showed me years ago which he used quite a lothimself (http://www.superial.com/notes.html).For reeds which are initially too soft, it is a more difficult propositionbecause you can't really put much hardness back into the cane or cut...clippingor burning the tips is a second best way to achieve this. Clipping matches aspot behind the tip which was not intended to be the tip, though it can beuseful in emergency situations. If the reeds you select basically feel toosoft, you either should move up a half a number or try a model with a bit moreresistance. Or you might also want to consider a slightly more openmouthpiece. Also, if you righteously do the break-in and prep I suggest, ourreeds should harden up a bit after the first couple of days.

Either way, the whole question of gettingthe perfect balance between reed and mouthpiece is an age old one for reedplayers and in my experience, "The Middle Path" for the majority ofplayers works best...a medium chamber/tip opening mouthpiece for a medium reedworks very dependably and without the player killing himself trying to playwell and in tune.

PC: Whatbreak-in procedure do you recommend, what brings out the best in your reeds.How should a reed be treated, handled, stored, as it ages? Should reeds besoaked or not? What should be done from one playing session to the next?

TA: Well,here's another issue that has a myriad of possible answers. As far as ourreeds specifically, I feel from experience that preparation and break in canhave a good amount to do with bringing out the best in what they offer. Thesteps I recommend are not new...they were garnered from what I learned fromseveral books and teachers, plus my own trial and error experiences, but theydefinitely can make a difference in the areas of reed stability, longevity, andpeak performance.

For example, asopposed to just putting a reed in your mouth for a few seconds, slapping it onyour mouthpiece and then blasting away full bore for the next hour, itcertainly is better to follow the routine we suggest. So yes, we definitelyrecommend that you soak our reeds in water as you can see from the instructionsheets we put in the boxes for the U.S., or in the Notes on Superial (http://www.superial.com/notes.html)page of our website. The reeds should always be wet before any playing sessionas dry reeds can cause squeaking or stuffiness, so the reed or reeds you wantto immediately play should be soaked in water a couple of minutes or more, notjust a quick few seconds in the mouth. Reed tips will last longer if they arebroken in as they are very thin and it's just common sense that they will wearout faster if it is pushed all out in a prolonged amount of time from the firsttone.

After the initial break-in & prep ofthe first couple of days, we recommend a light soaking a minute or so, or moreif desired, (though too much soaking of well broken and in and played reeds maytend to waterlog them), and once again, this will vary between players. Someplayers like myself also seem to prefer to keep the reed with always someamount of moisture in it to prevent it from drying out and warping, which willhappen to any cane reed. You can see more on this on our FAQ page: http://www.superial.com/FAQ.htm

For storage, there is no single way to doit, as players have different preferences, but you can see some of them in ourNotes on Superial (http://www.superial.com/notes.html)and FAQ (http://www.superial.com/FAQ.html)website pages.

PC: Are youmaking reeds for bass saxophone? There are maybe 75 guys in the country *****ally need a source of good bass sax reeds! Hah!

TA: YesPaul, as a matter of fact we do make both Bass Sax and Bass Clarinet reeds. TheBass Saxes are big beauties, by the way!

PC:Anything new coming up from Alexander?

TA: In thecoming years, I plan to add other high level accessories to complement our reedline. Actually, there are two major projects in the research & developmentstages now, but I don't want to say much about them until they reach the levelof refinement, quality and performance that convinces me they are ready to bedebuted. In fact, I've had several opportunities in the past to add certainitems, and I suppose we could have made money from taking them on, but I wasn'tsatisfied that they were the best. I'm not interested in short cuts, but justmaking the top level products we are capable of...after all, I got into this asa player, not a businessman, just trying to come up with a better reed and thatsame philosophy continues to guide me today.

PC: Tom,I’d like to thank you for this very educational interview. You not onlygave us insights into making your very popular reeds, but you also gave us areed selection lesson, a reed break-in lesson, a reed care lesson, and otherinformation that will benefit all reed players, from beginners to pros. Thankyou!

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