I just want to let everyone know about my trip to the Sax Pro Shop in Wilmington, NC. I was there for a few days last week, and if you don’t know about these guys, you really should!

The Sax Pro Shop is a division of MusicMedic.com, which is owned and run by Curt Altarac.  MusicMedic.com makes and sells a large line of instrument repair gear – pads, tools, etc. – and then the Sax Pro Shop is where the magic happens.  Curt has assembled a team of himself plus five to work exclusively on saxophones, and these guys are absolutely amazing at what they do.  They’re all great woodwind players in their own right, so they aren’t “just” technicians – everything they do to your horn is extremely well thought out from a player’s perspective.

Each tech has a specialty area of work, so when your sax arrives for an “Uberhaul” (their word for their special brand of overhaul), it goes to each person in order, and then the saxophone ultimately ends up with Curt for the final touches, or any specialty work. It sounds like an assembly-line process (and they even use that term on their web site) but it’s really not that simple. In my case, my late 20’s Conn alto had been at their shop about a month for modifications and a one-year check up. (Before you let that worry you, about half of that time was Christmas vacation, when they were out of the office.)

So when I arrived, we went to work immediately on checking out the mods and making sure they suited my hands and playing style. What I witnessed was anything but assembly line work. At most every step of the way, it was very collaborative. Other than some specialty equipment, the entire Sax Pro Shop is in one big room, so everyone is in ear shot of what’s going on, and everyone discusses problems together when they have something to contribute to the process. (Click the picture for a full-size image.) Everyone was very aware of what the others had previously done to my horn, so when questions came up that dealt with someone else’s work, you could just walk over to that tech’s bench with the horn in hand and go over the issues. I was really impressed with this process. Not only does it lead to great work on my horn, but I can see how these techs are in a full-time learning lab with each other day in and day out. With this environment of continuous collaboration, the quality of the work, as great as it is, can only get better over time.

So after we got the keywork customizations finished, I began to work with Curt on what he calls “tuning and toning.” This is a process where we work to make the sax as in tune as we can, while also making sure that the tuning mods we make don’t adversely affect the tone of the sax. I would have done this a year ago, immediately after the “Uberhaul,” but I couldn’t make it to North Carolina at the time. In retrospect, I’m glad I had a year with the horn before undertaking this endeavor, because that year with the alto helped me to understand what areas were most out of tune, and also what areas had different blowing resistance.

Curt’s philosophy about this can be summed up as follows (and Curt, if you’re reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong):

  1. Make as few mods as possible to solve these issues.
  2. Make these mods as small and unobtrusive as possible.
  3. Whenever possible, leave the fundamental structure of the sax intact.
  4. Understand that every mod that fixes one thing has other affects which may or may not be acceptable to the player.

So with these principles in mind, we began to work on my main area of complaint, the D/D#/E. We first worked with key heights to try to solve this, and got some improvement, but we also noticed some tradeoff in tone. So we backed off a bit, and he tried some crescents, which had a negligible effect. So the next option was to explore putting a liner in the bore. This was an interative process where we tried various non-permanent solutions, which were helping Curt gauge exactly how much liner to put in, and exactly where it should go. Ultimately the solution was to put a liner in the neck. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a kind of cork/rubber compound.) Curt was very conscious to minimize the amount of material inside the bore so as not to affect tone or resistance.

Note that Curt told me before we undertook this process, that if we fixed this area of the horn, this was going to make the existing sharpness in the 2nd octave A-through-C area more noticeable. He was exactly right. When D/D#/E was fixed, I noticed immediately how this other area was hard to control. So we went to work on that. I will spare you the gory details, but after most of a day of back and forth, trying different solutions (always starting with the least invasive) Curt had a menu of different things to do to it during the night and following morning.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention – we also did work on the low B bubble. For the life of me I simply could not get rid of the bubble on low B for the last year, and had resorted to dropping my car keys in the bell every time I played (yes every time, even during my recital). Curt tracked this down and fixed this during the course of the day also.

So I came back the shop the next morning around 10 to find my alto playing like no other I’ve ever played. It is now the most even tuning, even blowing, tonally consistent alto I’ve ever played. When I went into the testing room and put my mouthpiece on, I set my embouchure and played from bottom to top, making a conscious effort to leave the embouchure and voicing as static as I possibly could, and the horn just played a sweet, in-tune scale that blew my socks off. The horn was great a year ago after the “Uberhaul”, but I never would have dreamed a 20’s alto sax could play with such an even scale and such even tone. This horn has truly become a one-of-a-kind, custom, lifetime horn for me.

This is all not to mention the great (and unique) choices these guys have made for all the different materials during the “Uberhaul,” and I’m leaving out how easy it was to work with these guys, both over the phone and in person, on a bunch of other custom keywork things that are now precisely to my liking.

If it sounds like I’m using a lot of superlatives, well I am. I’ve never encountered the level of expertise that I found at the Sax Pro Shop, and if I could afford it, I’d send ’em the rest of my saxophones right now. You owe it to yourself to see these guys in person. They go to quite a few conventions and conferences, so if you can’t get out to North Carolina, try to catch them at another event. Sometimes they even bring their repair equipment and do work on site. Their travel info is posted on their web site so you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping track of them.

If you have any questions for me about my experience, or what they’ve done to my horn, let me know and I’d be happy to take close-up pictures, as time allows. I left out a lot of details to keep this post from getting even longer. Thanks for reading!

Well I just attended the latest JEN (Jazz Education Network) convention in Atlanta, and thought I’d write up a short report on the experience.  For those that don’t know, a similar organization, the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) went bankrupt recently, and JEN was started to replace that organization.  I haven’t attended one of these gatherings since 1997 or so (if memory serves) when the IAJE convention was in Atlanta.  This was my first time at a JEN convention, so I can’t compare it to previous JEN events, but it was certainly quite a bit smaller than the old IAJE events, which were always huge, with significantly more performances and clinics to attend.  

If there was one disappointment for me, it was the lack of exhibitors.  At the IAJE I remember, the exhibit hall was massive, and virtually every vendor of every possible jazz product was there with products to try/buy.  I hope that, as the attendance for the conference continues to grow, the number of vendors in attendance will increase.

That said, this year’s JEN convention was great, and I can highly recommend it to those who are interested in bettering any aspect of their jazz game.  Performers, teachers, and even just enthusiastic jazz listeners all had plenty of great events to learn from and enjoy this year.  There were several times where I had to make tough choices, because multiple interesting clinics or performances were scheduled in the same time slot.

So let me just run down a few of my favorite events and clinics:

My absolute favorite clinic was put on by Dave Stamps, a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  His basic premise was that (a) today’s jazz students listen to jazz differently than older generations, and (b) that this relatively ineffective (maybe “shallow” is a better word) way of listening is causing them to fail to bring what they hear into their own playing.  Now for the record, Dave is a pretty young guy – maybe late 20’s – so this is not just sour grapes or a generation gap thing.  He currently teaches and runs a student big band, so he is seeing (and remedying) this problem with his own students.  For me, this presentation was a real revelation, and also a confirmation of something that I saw during my year conducting Jazz Lab 2 last year.  I was thrilled to find that I was (a) not alone in the problems I was seeing last year, and (b) that there is a way to address this problem that’s not particularly difficult, and that will foster other good practicing and listening habits in students.

I also attended an excellent clinic by Russell Miller about how to reduce a full big band chart down for fewer players. In the examples, Russell used a single Bob Mintzer arrangement for the reduction.  It was reduced from full big band down to a three-piece rhythm section plus three saxes, one trumpet and one trombone. Lots of sound samples were used and the process was fully laid out in a step-by-step method. This was such a great clinic that I feel like I could start doing these effectively right away.

Another excellent, fact-filled clinic focussed on how to set up a blog, maintain it, publicize it, and generally make it useful as a teaching tool as well.  It was a really down-to-earth, practical clinic, very logically organized and packed with great details.  This clinic was where I got inspired to get this new blog started.

On the down side, there were a few clinics where I felt the clinician was not well prepared, and where the clinician just kind of rambled on.  Some of these didn’t have a good handout or visual aid for the audience.  At one clinic, the contents of the program simply did not match up well with the description provided in the program.  Overall I would like to see JEN do a better job of vetting the clinicians to ensure they are prepared with the necessary materials, and do something to ensure the clinicians stay on topic.

I attended several performances, and I mostly avoided the big names, but the Army Blues – the Army’s top jazz band – played a fabulous set with Wycliffe Gordon joining in for roughly the last half.  I especially enjoyed the first tenor player’s original composition – really a great chart, with beautiful soloing from the guitar and first tenor.  Wycliffe Gordon amazed when he came out with a trumpet, later switching to a slide trumpet, and then playing slide trombone a little later.  He’s not a bad singer either!

My favorite show was put on by The Doublers Collective, a group of five woodwind players with piano/bass/drums rhythm section.  They’re based out of Phoenix, but used the Army Blues’ excellent rhythm section for this convention.  For the five woodwind players on the front line, there were over twenty five woodwinds lined up!  I could not have had more fun listening to all the different tone colors that came from the many different combinations of woodwinds.  How often do you get to listen to two bass clarinets, clarinet and alto flute playing chords together?  Or a bebop sax soli played by a full sax section of sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, bari?  In lesser hands, this is a recipe for disaster, but it was all played wonderfully.  Not only that, but this show was a blast to watch because of the constant horn changes going on.  Bass sax was also used on one chart, and bass flute also made several appearances, as a “thickening agent”  alongside tenor sax and clarinets.  Most of this gorgeousness (is that a word?) was due to the writing and arranging of Mike Crotty.  Mike was the staff arranger for the Airmen of Note for twenty five years, and he has not lost his touch.  But this group is also commissioning new works specifically for this instrumentation, and one of those pieces was performed on the show.  If you’re a woodwind doubler, this is a group to keep up with.  

Well let me wrap up this report now.  Again, these are just the highlights.  There were many more excellent clinics, and excellent performances.  I hope you’ll consider going to future conventions.  2014 is in Dallas, and then Louisville (2015) and New Orleans (2016).  If you’re there, look me up and say Hi.  Hope to see you there!

I’ve just spent several days at the JEN (Jazz Education Network) convention, and a clinic there inspired me to get this blog going.  While I hope to focus this blog on woodwind related topics, there is likely to be a wide range of topics here, both musical and non-musical in nature.  Look for categories in the future, so you can tune-out the stuff you don’t want to read!  

I’m just learning how to use it, publicize it, organize it, and dress it up to look nice, so please leave comments about what you like/dislike here, and give me your thoughts on what would make this blog useful, interesting, and fun for you. Thanks!

— Steve