Friday, September 15, 2023

Gear Session: My "New" Ligature


Rovner Eddie Daniels Model Ligatures 

After nearly a decade playing every gig and practice session on my second vintage Rovner Eddie Daniels model ligature, I've decided it's time to change equipment: to my third vintage Rovner Eddie Daniels model ligature. As you can see, I don't change ligatures that often. In fact, with the exception of one gig in 2015, and some practice sessions using German mouthpieces and string, I think I've played only two of these Rovners for the last 22 years. Making this decision today was simply a matter of wear and tear - the old lig was starting to lack the depth of sound it once yielded, so it was time to switch it out for a "new/old stock" I've kept as a backup. But doing so made me reflect on my approach towards gear. It might be a little different, and I thought it might help others to have access to my perspective. 

New gear can be exciting and fun. Trying a different clarinet, mouthpiece, ligature, reeds - at the highest level of equipment, they each offer a different set of possibilities. But there can be a dark side to this for the player too - each change can make you more obsessively self critical, more self conscious, more focused on response time, comparative intonation, or just physically adjusting to something new rather than focusing on the music. At the very least, it's a distraction from expression. At worst, the player can start to obsess over matters that actually impede the making of music.         

When I was a young symphony player, fresh out of grad school, I tried whatever gear I could get my hands on. Dissatisfied with my own playing, I searched for the solution with each new piece of equipment. Reeds, mouthpieces, instruments - I would spend maddening hours switching back and forth, recording myself - trying to find what I was after. All of this was an important stage of my development as a musician, but it wasn't enjoyable. My goal became to find something that satisfied my desire and musical needs, then stop trying equipment altogether - I needed to get off the equipment carousel and focus on artistry - on the actual making of music. 

My era of experimentation was basically relegated to about five intense years. By the end of that span, I had decided upon the Selmer Centered Tone for my clarinet. I bought three of them (two Bb models and an A) to ensure I'd always have one. My mouthpiece of choice became a vintage Brilhart Ebolin from circa 1938. I bought mine at a time when most clarinetists didn't value them - they were easy to pick up on eBay for $10-$20 apiece. I probably own about twenty or thirty of them, but have played only two over the past decade. And, as mentioned above, my ligature of choice is the Rovner Eddie Daniels model, which hasn't been produced for over a decade (they replaced it with the Versa, which is not exactly the same, and doesn't work as well for me, so, like the vintage Brillys, I've collected those too). 

Now I don't consider these to be objectively the best clarinet equipment of all time for everyone - there is no such thing. But they are the best for me - yielding the sound I always wanted when I was growing up, and striving as a young professional to attain. Beyond those concerns, I've always felt the most important things for any musician to possess are consistency as a player and the ability attend solely to the music. My philosophy, and practice, has always been to get so comfortable with my setup that the instrument itself seems to disappear when i'm playing, becoming an extension of my musical thought. That can't happen if I'm always focused on my equipment. 

I'm not sure many younger musicians are taught to find the right gear and then stop fussing with it. And I think it can drive players crazy to be focused on their horn rather than the music. I searched for decades before I stumbled upon the Selmer Centered Tone as my ideal clarinet, so I can understand the frustration and drive to try new things. But if you're like me, and it drove you nuts to be focused on your gear rather than the music, take my advice: find something that works, and don't bother with it again. Stockpile the gear you need, and get on with the business of singing through your horn. 

And as for my "new" ligature, let's just say for tonight's gig I'm bringing along the old one as backup...just in case.      

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Eric Seddon * Solo Clarinet * Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? [ trad. ]

Stumbled across this recording of me in my studio about eight years ago playing "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" I'd forgotten all about it until this evening. Figured I'd post it here for folks to hear. Blessings on you all. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

CD Box Review: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra * King of the Clarinet * Live 1938-39 * Hindsight Records (HBCD-502) 1993


Artie Shaw - clarinet

Les Robinson, Hank Freeman - alto sax

Tony Pastor, Ronnie Perry, Georgie Auld - tenor sax

Johnny Best, Bernie Previn, Chuck Peterson, Harry Geller - trumpets

George Arus, Russell Brown, Harry Rodgers, Les Jenkins - trombones

Les Burness, Bob Kitsis - piano

Al Avola, Dave Barbour - guitar

Sid Weiss - bass

Cliff Leeman, George Wettling, Buddy Rich - drums

Helen Forrest, Tony Pastor - vocals

After more than a decade of writing this blog, I'm shocked to find I haven't reviewed this CD box. Maybe I took for granted that it was inevitable, or thought it would be too difficult to find enough superlatives, or maybe I thought I'd already done it. However I've managed to maintain this level of neglect, it's mind boggling. 

Of all the great jazz clarinetists, Artie Shaw resonates more personally with me than any other. We share a geographical connection with roots in New York, Connecticut, and Cleveland; an intellectual similarity that makes the world of literature and writing as enticing as music; a fundamental need to wrestle with the meaning of existence; and a musical preference, above all, for what might be termed lyric melody of meaning. That this box might contain what I consider his most important and beautiful recordings may have been why I've neglected to review it. The fact is, despite what one might think, I've tried to stay away from drawing too much attention to his music - not out of some Bloomian "Anxiety of Influence", but simply because I'm never sure I can do it justice. 

You see, I've given historical "lecture concerts" in nightclubs and libraries highlighting the accomplishments of many of the great clarinetists of jazz history. Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Noone, Benny Goodman, Pete Fountain, Hubert Rostaing, George Lewis, and Acker Bilk all come to mind - I've prepared lectures on their life's work and performed tunes in context for them. But never for Artie. It's probably because he's just too close to me - I almost don't know where to start. It's too personal. I can honestly say I've been influenced by just about everyone I've listened to by this point, but Artie is really the bedrock of my style. Here are a couple of quick stories demonstrating how this influence reveals itself: 

Once, while playing at a jam session at a local tavern, I remember an older gentlemen coming up to me between sets, with a puzzled look on his face. 

"It's been bothering me all evening...who you remind me of..." he said, with that odd familiarity with which perfect strangers approach jazz musicians after a set. "Then it came to me! Your playing reminds me of Gustav Mahler!" And he pointed at me knowingly, shaking his finger with a sly smile, as though he'd caught me throwing Mahler excerpts into my solos.  

Another time, while recording my live album at the Bop Stop in Cleveland, also between sets, a very astute trumpet player in the audience commented that he felt my performance of "Go Down, Moses" was a seamless fusion of klezmer and blues. The truth is that neither the similarity to Mahler, nor the fusion was conscious - but the both spoke of the foundational influence of Artie Shaw on my playing. His musical thoughts have worked their way into my language, because they've always been the basis for my musical speech, as it were. 

So maybe this explains why I've taken so long to review these recordings. I think this box might represent the finest documents of Artie Shaw's playing and musical mind. And because of that, for me at least, they might be the greatest performances of what is known as the Swing Era, by any band. They document an important period for Shaw - from just before "Begin the Beguine" catapulted him to nationally recognized fame (and fortune), to his second (but thankfully not final) retirement. These recordings follow him from what he described as the "rat trap" that was the Blue Room at New York City's Lincoln Hotel in the Fall of 1938, through his stay at the Summer Terrace of Ritz Carlton in Boston during the Summer of 1939, to the glamour of the Cafe Rouge at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, where Shaw snapped at last and, in an effort to preserve his sanity and health, abruptly walked off the stage in the middle of a performance, never to return with this group again. It seemed a career ending move at the time. Fortunately for the rest of us, it wasn't, but even if it had been we'd have no cause to complain, as Shaw and this band left us some of the finest music of jazz history. This box is even more important than the great studio recordings made by the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the time, because it's live.     

With very rare exception, I always prefer live recordings, even with all their flaws. Whether we're talking about Benny Goodman's Madhattan Room Broadcasts, Duke Ellington's All Star Road Band, or classical recordings like Gennady Rozhdestvensky's live cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, there is an immediacy and an interactive excitement that cannot be replicated without an audience. As a performer, both in the classical and jazz realms, I can attest to being more creative and alive on stage than in any rehearsal or studio session. Audiences draw things out of performers that can't be imitated. These recordings are no exception - they are almost all more interesting and exciting than their studio counterparts. Shaw himself was interviewed and served as a consultant for this set, and the booklet provides almost track by track observations from the great clarinetist. 

Unlike Benny Goodman's Madhattan Room Broadcasts, which were re-released in a six CD box in the 1990s, the tracks from these three discs are not released in strict chronological order, but chosen from the three broadcast locations in New York and Boston, to create three re-imagined "sets." Pete Kline seems to have made the choices for these sets (he's credited as the Box Set producer and compiler). He did an excellent job - the listener might be forgiven for thinking these were three complete performances from three evenings. It also speaks the amazing consistency of Shaw's band over the course of more than a year. The performances from Boston aren't notably different from the ones in New York, either before or after the groups Cinderella success. If you'd told me they were all from the same location, from the same weekend, I'd believe you. 

Most of the arrangements for these charts were done by Artie Shaw, Jerry Gray, and the guitarist for the band Al Avola. They represent the epitome of Shaw's style - lyrical melody, clear dialogue and counterpoint between the sections - nothing pedantic muddying up matters; they're a study of beauty without sentimentality. And slotted throughout the arrangements, some of the finest jazz soloing ever captured. 

Leading off with "Rose Room" from the Ritz-Carlton on August 19, 1939, we hear Artie's lyrical virtuosity at work. I don't know if anyone possessed a melodic gift to the degree he did at this point in his career. In many ways he reminds me of a jazz version of Tchaikovsky. His rhythmic variety alone during his solos, combined with an ability to craft the most intricate melodic ideas all within the space of a chorus (or at times half a chorus) remains, for me, unmatched. When jazz embraced bebop language, it lost some of this lyricism, in my opinion. I've always felt it would be worthwhile to use Artie's lyricism as a starting point, and develop jazz in a different direction - less modernist, more romantic. It's actually what I try to do myself as a player. Anyhow, we hear Artie at zenith here. his solos on "Rose Room", "Carioca", "Yesterdays", "Sweet Adeline", "One Foot in the Groove", "Man from Mars", "Stardust", "Out of Nowhere", "St Louis Blues", "It Had to be You", "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", "I Cover the Waterfront"  and more are classics.  For any musician they are a clinic of creativity, beauty, and invention. I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that he wasn't just soloing here, but leading the band as well - and the band is in incredible form - relaxed, warm, swinging - a type of perfection rarely accomplished by any ensemble of any musical genre.

(For those wanting a sample, the recording of "The Carioca" here cannot be surpassed. From a teenage Buddy Rich chirping in the background, to Artie's endless variations - including his stellar choruses over the band at the end, it's a must for any jazz collection).

There is plenty of great soloing by other members of the band in this set, but the star is Shaw. Helen Forrest, my favorite of the girl singers back then, is in top form on these recordings too. Her intelligent, heart rending versions of "Comes Love", "Don't Worry 'Bout Me", and "Two Sleepy People" in particular remain my favorite versions of these tunes by a singer. Tony Pastor, though he was admittedly a bit of a novelty singer in addition to being a solid tenor sax, is in good form here too - adding humor, and even a little pathos to the fine arrangements he sang over. 

When Artie left the bandstand in November of 1939, leaving this band and seemingly his career as a musician behind, it was widely believed that he did it out disgust for the music business and its hassles, along with the wildness of the teenage fans who annoyed him with their antics. But listening to these recordings, once again, this morning, I can't help but wonder if he psychologically needed a break from the intense creating he was doing on a nightly basis. I'm not sure many musicians have sustained such lyrical invention and technical brilliance over the course of a twelve month span as we have documented here. And to do it while leading one of the finest ensembles in the world - it's beyond what I can fathom.

As I wrote above, if he had never returned to music, we would have no reason to be anything but grateful. Fortunately for us, he added more brilliant chapters to his career and to jazz history. As great as those were, however, none surpassed the perfection he achieved in the year spanning from November 1938 to November 1939.               


Epilogue: I bought this box, of all places, at Tower Records in New Orleans in 1999. I wasn't aware of its existence until seeing it there, and immediately appreciated the irony of going all the way to New Orleans just to end up buying Artie Shaw discs. It was on the return to Indiana (where I lived as a grad student) that the importance of the purchase became apparent. Driving all through the night from New Orleans to Bloomington, through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, my wife and I played these discs over and over. They were a match for the heartland landscape at night, perfectly engaging, managing  to keep me awake and in a type of elated awe for hundreds of miles. I'll never forget the experience. My admiration for these recordings hasn't flagged in the twenty four years since. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

More of My Writing at the Seddon Done blog!

For those interested, I've published another blog for years entitled Seddon Done. Much of that time, it's been basically dormant; serving as a place for me to collectively present academic articles I'd published in various journals. 

Over the last week or so, though, I've decided to revitalize Seddon Done and focus for the foreseeable future on CD reviews and other work in the realm of classical and jazz music. 

If any of you readers of The Jazz Clarinet have an interest in more of my musical and artistic thought, Seddon Done is the blog for you. Hope to see some of you over there! 

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. 




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!