Monday, December 27, 2021

Tutu

RIP, Desmond Tutu.

I met him when I was 14 years old or so, doing service hours at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. My brother and I were carrying bags for all of the Anglican bishops gathered there for some global conference, a couple of years after Tutu had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

I didn't carry Bishop Tutu's bags (we weren't important enough for that honor), but I ran into him while cutting through the Refectory -- he stopped me with his characteristically huge, warm smile and said "You're running around way too fast, young man! Working too hard!" Then, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me towards the refreshments he half shouted, half sang "You must stop and have a cup of tea! STOP and have a cup of TEA, young man!"
What could I do? When Bishop Tutu orders you to have a cup of tea, you humbly do as you're told.
It's always touched me that this great man, whose spiritual approach to protest, so deeply informed by his Christian faith, and who undoubtedly saved countless lives both during and after Apartheid, cared enough to pull a young baggage carrier aside to tea.
When the history of our era is written properly, if ever it is, the name Desmond Tutu ought to be singled out for unique praise. In a century of tyrants and mass murderers, he inspired and at times even commanded peace and forgiveness. When he was brutally oppressed, he spoke the truth and preached against the temptation to hatred and violence among his brothers and sisters; when he came into power after helping to overthrow the evils of apartheid, he resisted the temptations to revenge and abuse of his own former abusers. There are few in history who can claim to be his equal on those counts.

Right about the time I met Bishop Tutu, Miles Davis recorded one of the most inspired tunes of his late period -- Marcus Miller's "Tutu", which also served as the title for the album. It's always been my favorite of that whole era of Miles's last recordings. If you haven't investigated Miles's late recordings yet, give them a shot. There are some gems. I think this one shines brightest.





Thursday, December 23, 2021

Gear Review: 1927 New Wonder II Soprano Saxophone

 

1927 Conn New Wonder II Soprano Saxophone
Eric Seddon Collection

I've played Soprano Sax for over twenty years now, and most of that time my axe was a beautiful Yamaha Soprano YSS-675 with two necks -- one straight and one curved. I've used both of those necks  over the years, for different occasions. That horn has a beautiful, round, golden tone and plays very well in tune. Then, one day, my good friend, fellow reed man and jazz historian John Richmond told me he was selling one of his vintage sopranos. At the time I thought he was interested in selling his 1927 Buescher. I said I wasn't interested. I thought the Yamaha was giving me what I wanted, so why should I switch?

Well,  John wasn't to be discouraged by me waiving him off just once. He sat in with my band one night and brought the horn, encouraging me to play it on a tune. I'm certain it was the Buescher. I played it and really liked how much lighter it was in the hand than the Yamaha, which is a very heavy instrument comparatively. I had to wear a neck strap for the Yamaha, and even then, sometimes my right hand would be in pain if I played too long. The Buescher was much more comfortable, but I still wasn't looking to spend the money. 

After that, though, the experience started working on my mind. The months went by and I'd daydream about having a vintage horn like that Buescher, with a less mainstream sound, and some more depth and color. I just couldn't get the experience out of my head, so I called John one day about ten months later and asked if the Buescher was still for sale. 

He said that he'd decided to keep it, and instead wanted to move his 1927 Conn.  Initially I was a bit disappointed, but went over to his place and tried the Conn in his kitchen. I knew immediately it was the horn for me. I took it on trial, then bought if from him after playing it on a gig at BLU Jazz + in Akron.

I'll always be grateful to John for selling it to me, because this horn is the one I've always needed. It has so many layers of depth to the sound, so many potential timbres, and such overwhelming power when needed. Before this, in retrospect, I could never get the the variety of colors and expression on soprano sax that came easily on clarinet. Once this horn came into my life, though, that all changed. I was able to play with the nuance I was accustomed to -- mostly because of that sound world a 1927 Conn yields.

John Richmond's Buescher is a beautiful horn too, and I would have purchased it if it had been for sale that day. But I got lucky he wanted to keep that one. A Buescher is very powerful, and has a very good sound, but doesn't have that Conn beautifully full round tone. In other words, I find that I can get all sorts of styles out of the Conn -- brash, strong, and attacking, or round, warm, and floating. The Buescher didn't seem to have quite have the full range for me. 

Now some caveats, for those who might be interested:

The Conn New Wonder II is not a beginner's horn, and it's not an intermediate horn. You need some real skill to control and tame it. It's a wild ride compared to models being made today and took me several months of adjusting to it before I felt confident playing an entire gig with it. I had to adjust my air and embouchure to obtain the same level of intonation I'd had on the Yamaha. 

Early on I was told a vintage horn like this wouldn't play in tune if I didn't match it with a vintage mouthpiece. After a couple of attempts down that road, I slapped a brand new 2019 Selmer D on it and it played much better than the vintage pieces. So depending on the player, that idea that you have to have a vintage piece is pretty much a myth. I doubt I'll bother with any other mouthpiece than the Selmer D I've got on it now. 

The ergonomics of this horn are, likewise, much different than modern horns. First and foremost, the most noticeable difference: these horns have thumb rings instead of the more conventional thumb rest.     

Thumb Ring of a 1927 Conn Soprano Sax
Eric Seddon Collection

This was, for me, the biggest hurdle to even wanting to buy the horn. If the sound hadn't been so drop dead beautiful, I'd have let it go over this. At first, I thought of altering the horn and installing a modern thumb rest, but that seemed like desecration. Then I considered inserting some materials to cushion the ring. The first week I played the horn it was uncomfortable and I was really very serious about finding a solution, when suddenly it felt great. I'd adjusted somehow, and now for me it's preferable to have the ring rather than a modern thumb rest. My advice to any player switching over to a New Wonder II is to simply give it some time before deciding to do anything. It is a very lightweight horn comparatively speaking, and your hand might get used to it quickly, as mine did. 

The palm keys were another hurdle. Conn seemed to think that because it was a smaller horn, everything ought to be smaller, including the palm keys. I'm sure some players have rigged up extenders on their NWIIs, but I've opted to retrain myself on the horn and just deal with the smaller, closer, palm keys. I don't intend to play anything other soprano from here on out, so a shift to a different size is manageable. But that particular ergonomic difficulty is real. If I had bigger hands, it would be even more of a problem. 


1927 Conn New Wonder II detail: Palm Keys
Eric Seddon Collection

 If the palm keys seemed a curse, the spatula keys were a blessing for me. Like the palm keys, they were smaller, and with my background in clarinet giving me highly developed pinky coordination, it made them much easier to play. This won't be the case for every player, of course, but for me it was great. 

1927 Conn New Wonder II detail: Spatula Keys
Eric Seddon Collection



Vintage instruments aren't for everyone. If you're looking to blend with a modern section, or want something sleek and contemporary that plays in tune easily, this might not be your horn. But if you're a soloist who plays  mostly New Orleans style or small combo straight ahead jazz, and you're looking for a horn that give you all kinds of tonal options, layers, depth, and personality, and if you are lucky enough to be able to get your hands on one of these, you might have just found your Stradivarius. They simply don't make them like this anymore and when you hold one, you have in your hands a horn that Sidney Bechet also played, and that harkens back to an era when jazz reigned supreme, and the American instrument making business was second to none when it came to saxophones. To hold it is hold history, and you can feel it when you play one. 

My horn was the frosted silver model, with gold wash bell. It's got a nice patina to it now, and I don't dare polish it at this point--don't want to mess with the sound at all. But if you look, you can still see the last of that rose color in the bell.   


photo credit: Elisa Seddon


For me, this horn has opened up new vistas of expression. I recommend any serious player, if they can, try one. There aren't many left, so get these beauties while you still can. 

 

  

  

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Jazz Clarinet & Beyond: Expanded Content on this Blog

When I founded it a decade ago, this blog was originally called Marlborough Man Music, as a take-off on a nickname I'd acquired in grad school. Being originally from Marlboro-on-Hudson, NY (or greater Marlborough, as the case may be) I was dubbed the "Marlboro Man" in certain circles. Around that time, in the early days of the internet, I'd often use "MarlboroughMan" or "MarlboroMan" as a handle. 

From the outset, this blog was meant to discuss all things clarinet. Soon after my initial posts, though, I realized there was a need for more focused discussion of jazz clarinet, specifically. As expressed many times over the last ten years, I felt the great jazz clarinet tradition, especially the sound world and styles from New Orleans and through the Swing Era, had been ignored by mainstream criticism and jazz scholarship. I renamed the blog The Jazz Clarinet only a few months into this project, and aimed to rectify that critical imbalance. 

I've never hidden my opinions, though many have them have been revised over the years. My preference for large bore, vintage sounds over current polycylindrical clarinets, and even (for the most part) my preference for New Orleans style over bebop when it comes to the clarinet in jazz, have been obvious. I sought to elevate the general estimation of players like Sidney Bechet, Edmond Hall, Pete Fountain, and Bill Smith, among others, and give more depth to our appreciation of already acknowledged masters like Artie Shaw. With the exception of Sidney Bechet, I have basically eschewed discussion of any saxophone doublers, preferring to highlight only those who have considered the clarinet their musical voice. This has been a highly partisan blog, aimed at strengthening the argument for a fuller appreciation of the unbroken clarinet tradition in jazz. 

Over the course of the past decade, readership has grown and remained steady, rain or shine, new posts or not. Many kind folks have reached out to thank me for the work I've shared. I've kept it add free and never asked a cent for any of the writing I've done, and in that time it has been given two awards for being among the top clarinet blogs and top jazz blogs on the web. The Jazz Clarinet has even been featured and reviewed in the journal of the International Clarinet Association, The Clarinet, which for me was kind of like being legitimized! Not forgetting my original nickname, during this time I've started a music publishing company called Marlboro Man Music as well.  

Regular readers, however, will note that there has been less content recently than in years past. My posting has slowed down a bit. The reasons have been many, but the main ones are that 

a) Many of the goals of this blog have been achieved. I've heard my thoughts concerning the foundational aspects of players like Bechet, or the cultural meaning of ensembles and performances by players like Benny Goodman, echoed now for years by other players, critics, and even at major venues.  

b) Though my opinions about the clarinet in jazz might be highly focused, my tastes for other styles and branches of jazz are quite broad. I pretty much love them all -- and on top of it, I enjoy playing the saxophone, especially the soprano. 

c) With my delving deeper into the soprano sax world, it dawned on me that the first great clarinet soloist and the first great saxophone soloist were the same man: Sidney Bechet. Jazz saxophone and jazz clarinet are therefore related at the very root. Increasingly, the saxophone became a more essential part of my own playing, and I wanted to investigate it more.  

With that in mind, I'd like to expand this blog to include reviews of saxophones, and to talk about jazz in more general terms. I'd like to share my thoughts on recordings that have nothing to do with the clarinet, but have influenced and benefitted me for decades. 

I thought long and hard about how to rename the blog. Should I revert to something like Marlboro Man Music? There is so much specific content regarding jazz clarinet, I felt it would be too abrupt at this point. The Jazz Clarinet & Soprano Sax? That wouldn't cover the other things I really want to discuss. 

So borrow a page out of DownBeat's playbook, I've decided, for the moment, to rename the blog The Jazz Clarinet & Beyond: the official blog of Marlboro Man Music. This will give me a chance to share a much wider scope of content, while acknowledging the last ten years as a clarinet focused blog. 

I hope readers enjoy the expanded field of coverage, and will return for discussion of wider history and issues in jazz. Until then (which I hope will be soon), enjoy this pic of me crossing over to the dark side...with the soprano saxophone!


Eric Seddon / 1927 Conn Soprano Sax
photo credit: Elisa Seddon


  

Friday, October 22, 2021

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 'Golden Era' 1966 Buffet R13 (possibly owned by Bud Shank)

It's not often that a newly refurbished, high quality mid century instrument falls into your lap for a test-drive, but that's precisely what happened to me this week. Local Clevelander Patrick Price, who purchased this vintage 1966 Buffet R13 for his daughter, wanted to know what he had, and what I felt of it's value as clarinet. After talking with Patrick for just a few minutes, it was clear that he had done his research and knew the market value of the horn -- what he wanted to know was more of how good an instrument it was, and what this clarinet could accomplish in terms of expressive range. 

Anyone who knows me as a clarinetist knows that I'm a bit of a partisan -- I am devoted to the old Selmer large bore sound and concept, and lament this era of clarinet manufacturing, considering it a kind of Babylonian captivity for those of us who resist the polycylindrical bores that took over the Parisian scene in the 1950s and '60s. If you know me a little better than that, you also know I played R13s for about a decade, and was frustrated by them

With all of that squarely in mind, I can tell you unreservedly that this instrument is an absolute gem. It has everything you'd want from the Buffet concept: a big, rich tone from the chalumeau and clarion. The altissimo isn't as strong as you'll get on a Selmer or Boosey & Hawkes, but the Buffet concept is different: it tends to become finer and less broad as it reaches the pinnacle of the natural range. This one's sound had a fairly perfect, Buffet-style taper as it got to double C. Most importantly, the timbre didn't drastically change between registers - it held very nicely. 

I've often been critical of polycylindrical bores for clumsiness over the "break" of the clarinet -- pointing out that often the player's voicing has to change to maintain pitch and timbre, making technical passages more difficult to phrase musically. This clarinet presented no such problem. 

   

1966 Buffet R13 

I played quite a bit of jazz on this instrument today, and then some orchestral excerpts. It can certainly be used as a jazz horn, if that's what the player wants. It has good volume, power, and flexibility. It's growling potential isn't as pronounced as one can get on a Selmer, and it doesn't have as wide a timbral range as my 1955 Selmer Centered Tone, but then again, not much does. I can imagine a player being very successful using it for modern jazz, which tends to have a more classical approach and more restrained sound palette.   


1966 Buffet R13

Where this horn excelled, though, was in the orchestral repertoire. The Buffet R13 was, after all, the instrument of choice for classical masters such as Franklin Cohen, Robert Marcellus, Harold Wright, Stanley Drucker, and so many others. I couldn't help playing some Brahms and Beethoven on it, and when I did this horn really showed it's strengths. The sound had a halo of warmth; a buoyancy and hovering ability that (much as I love them) my Selmers just don't have.  

This clarinet was newly refurbished and therefore needs to be played for a few weeks before the sound will truly blossom--the pads need to set properly and wear in a bit. When it does, it will be even more gorgeous than it is now.  

What are we to make of the story that Bud Shank owned this at one time? From what Patrick Price told me about it, I believe it was. It's impossible to prove without actual papers, etc., to that effect, but the story seems credible to me. Regardless, his daughter has at her disposal a mid-century beauty, the likes of which they just don't make anymore, in my opinion. May it take her to the heights of musical expression. 


1966 Buffet R13


  

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

My Interview for The Clarinet

I'm honored to have been interviewed by Eva Wasserman-Margolis for The Clarinet (the journal of the International Clarinet Association). 

In the interview, Eva and I discuss jazz, faith, and family. Enjoy!



Sunday, August 8, 2021

Vintage Y2K Don Byron Interview

 For some reason, I've just finally stumbled across a short but fascinating interview with Don Byron dating January 1, 2000: the very day we were all sitting around wondering if all the computers in the world were going to fritz out. 

In it he speaks of the importance of Benny Goodman, but then reflects upon the influence (on him personally) of Tony Scott, Jimmy Hamilton, and Buster Bailey. This interview gives a better musical context to Byron's thoughts than I've run across before--I think it helps explain Byron's musical perspective very well. The last paragraph is brilliant. 




Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Ken Peplowski on Benny Goodman (for the LAST TIME!)

In the wake of the ICCC Jazz Competition, I've made it my business to pay more attention to my fellow judges' websites--to check out what they're up to, the projects they've been involved with, and dig into their thoughts. 

Ken Peplowski's website is a treasure trove of interesting content--well worth investigating. For the historically minded there is a very insightful interview on Ken's blog, conducted by Jesse Cloninger, entitled "My ABSOLUTELY Last Words on Benny Goodman!

I clicked on it, expecting to find a short statement or two about how annoying it is to always have to answer questions or be compared to Goodman as a jazz clarinetist. Instead I found one of the most cogent appreciations and summaries of Goodman's actual importance to the world of band leading, arranging, style, and culture. 

As one who has played in many symphony orchestras, I've always felt there was a double standard regarding Benny Goodman and music historians. Dictatorial conductors such a George Szell (horror stories of whom still abound in Cleveland) are venerated; their means of attaining their artistic ends generally considered justified by the results. They are praised for their unyielding commitment to their artistic goals and vision. But no such recognition is accorded Goodman by most historical accounts. Yet the recordings speak for themselves: his band swung like no other; they were tighter and the clarity of musical thought largely unmatched in any era. Isn't that worthy of note? And if the "Goodman Ray" played a part in attaining those ends, is that a reason to condemn Benny or praise him? 

These thoughts have rattled around my mind for decades. Ken Peplowski tackles these issues and more in this brief interview. As a player who worked with Goodman, he is able to remark upon Benny's unique abilities as a leader like no other. 

I encourage readers to check out the interview (linked above). Not only does it frame Goodman in a more reasonable and appropriate light, it gives insight into the priorities of a master musician--even suggesting ways we might maintain this art of jazz.