I had resigned myself to using my all-purpose set-ups for contemporary gigs, and was content to do so until the 2005 NAMM Show . . .
I was hanging out at the Keilwerth exhibit with saxophonists Greg Vail and Wayne Mestas. Greg is well-known in the contemporary jazz community, having played several years with the group Kilauea. Both Greg and I were trying out alto saxes, and passing them back and forth. I played on a black nickel horn, and felt I sounded good . . . that is, until I passed it to Greg and heard his sound. I realized that Greg's sound was far better suited for the contemporary arena than mine, and that I needed to find a set-up that would work for me on contemporary gigs. The great mouthpiece search was back on again.
What ended up working was a long low-to-medium baffle that didn't have the appearance of a wedge, but ran the length from the tip to the chamber. It was a Beechler bellite #7, the old fusion standby which virtually every contemporary alto player was using in the late 1980s (in fact, I purchased it in 1989). Granted, it's a very genre-specific mouthpiece, so I choose to only use it for contemporary work. However, the Meyer still serves as my all-purpose set-up, and I am able to switch between the two mouthpieces easily.
Solving the contemporary question on tenor is still an issue, however I've reached a temporary solution.
My vintage Dukoff is great if I am playing an entire night of acoustic straight ahead, and can even work in a concert band or saxophone quartet context, where a dark sound is preferred, since it has no baffle. On a casual, it's a decent all-purpose set-up, and can cut the contemporary material, provided that I have a microphone. But it just doesn't do it for an entire contemporary gig. Since I was playing the Beechler on alto, I thought, "Why not play one on tenor too?" Sounds logical, right? Unfortunately, the tenor metal Beechler cut like a laser, and even the darkest sounding reed wasn't enough to tame the beast.
I flew to St. Kitts in the Caribbean for a gig, and it was extremely humid. Knowing that the climate would be a factor, I brought a variety mouthpieces, reeds, and ligatures. I had some considerable down time prior to sound check to experiment. I ended up selecting a Guardala laser-trimmed Crescent (low baffle that looks like a skateboard ramp, round chamber) with Rico Plasticover reeds. It did the trick, but I ended up sacrificing the tonal spectrum in the process-the sound was very mid-rangey (lacking in lows and highs). Fortunately for me, this setup worked even better once I got back to Southern California. Again, this set-up has some similarities in feel to my vintage Dukoff, and I am able to switch between the two mouthpieces relatively easy. Moreover, this makes it comfortable to switch between alto and tenor on the same gig.
Improving Your Set-up: Selecting the Right Reed and Ligature
So what happens when you have a mouthpiece that you like for the most part, but doesn't feel totally dialed-in? Typically, I will go into a music store and pick up two of every reed model in stock and experiment. I will consult other musicians-not necessarily saxophone players-and collect opinions as to my sound. I may even record myself.
Once I have selected the optimal reed, then I will experiment with different ligatures. I have a number of ligatures at home, and am pretty familiar with what each does. If the mouthpiece needs taming (i.e. the harmonics are out of control), I will use a ligature that compresses the harmonic spectrum (similar to rolling off the low and high frequencies with a graphic equalizer) such as a Rovner or Olegature. I'm not particularly fond of Rovners as they tend to deaden the resonance of the mouthpiece a bit too much, but sometimes you need that to tame a particularly bright mouthpiece. In contrast, if I need my sound to have more brilliance, then I will use a more vibrant ligature such as a Brancher or Selmer. What I like best about the Brancher is that there is very little contact with the mouthpiece, thus allowing more of the mouthpiece to vibrate. There are plenty of ligatures that fall in between, and it just depends on your preference on if you desire more control or more resonance. Other ligatures that you may want to try include the Winslow (out of production, but you can still find them), the Francois Louis Ultimate Ligature, the various models of BG, and the Bonade.
Some players are fortunate to find something they like (or at least something with which they are willing to work) and use it their whole lives. For many of us however, who have to work in a multitude of capacities, the setup may be ever changing. If you can at least find a variety of equipment that is consistent and similar, you will be able to move between setups with relative ease. Best of luck to you on your journey.
Paul Navidad is active as a freelance professional musician in Southern California, but his work has taken him all over the world. He holds a Masters in Music degree with a concentration in Saxophone Performance/Jazz Studies from California State University, Long Beach. Some of his performance and recording credits include Perry Farrell, Deborah Harry, Isaac Hayes, Al Jarreau, Dave Koz, Lisa Loeb, and Lou Rawls. He has also recorded on numerous film and television soundtracks. Paul currently serves as the Director of Jazz and Commercial Music Studies at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. For more information on Paul Navidad, you can visit his website at www.PaulNavidad.com.