Beginning in 1998, after attending a couple of saxophone masterclasses, I became convinced-or rather, obsessed-with finding one mouthpiece for each horn, to play every style I needed (with the exception of classical, of course). Sounds like your every day, garden-variety saxophone player, right?!
Well, at the time, I was a year out of graduate school, and quite the gigging fool (or as my friend Scott Strecker termed it, "musical whore"), playing any and every style that was thrown at me. I was playing in a band at a major theme park during the day, and doing all sorts of casual, corporate, club, and recording dates at night, many times never knowing what style I would be playing next, until the "leader du jour" started the next tune on the bandstand. I had no time to think about what mouthpiece would work for each style; I just needed something that was flexible enough to cover the gamut.
In one masterclass, Brandon Fields gave a presentation that left a lasting impression on me. One of the main things I left with was a new philosophy about mouthpieces-a purist one at that. Simply put: round chamber, little to no baffle. Translation: hard rubber Meyer for alto, metal Otto Link for tenor.
The Mouthpiece Chamber
Someone once told me a story about mouthpiece maker Ralph Morgan, who was working for Selmer when the C* 80 came out. For those of you who don't know, the C* 80 has a square chamber. Apparently, he caused quite a stir when he asked, "When are you going to make the saxophone square?" In his own sarcastic way, Morgan makes an important point, after all, can you really put a square peg in a round hole? Think about how the airstream is physically affected by moving from a non-round chamber into a conical pipe. I'm not going to get into details the physics of the situation, because I'm sure most of you can see the logic involved.
For years in school, I played primarily horseshoe-shaped chambers (Rousseau 4R, Rousseau NC-4), and used square chambers for commercial work (Yanigasawa silver-plated). I was never satisfied, because there was always some kind of inconsistency in tone, pitch, or some other parameter. There was a slight adjustment period when I made the decision to go to round chambers for everything, but once I made the change, I was much happier. I was able to blow effortlessly, without having to manipulate to get things to work. I was able to play with "one airstream," as my mentor, Leo Potts had tried to instill in me years before. The fundamentals of my playing became very pure.
One thing that I've noticed about mouthpieces with a round chamber and little to no baffle is the only way they will work properly is if you are playing the saxophone correctly. So many new mouthpieces today are so "hot-rodded" for certain tonal qualities, ease of altissimo, etc., that they actually hide a lot of the faults in our playing. But put an Otto Link on your tenor, and there's nowhere to hide. If you aren't playing the horn correctly, everyone will know. Interestingly, I found out after a year of playing my Link, when I popped my Yanigasawa (square chamber) back on just for grins, I was finally able to play it properly.
Compare chambers for yourself. There are lots of interesting ones out there in addition to the conventional designs (for a time, I played the Rousseau Metal Jazz mouthpiece which has an inverse trapezoidal chamber). Go into your local music store or saxophone pro shop and spend a few hours blowing through a variety of mouthpieces. If you can, bring a friend to be your sound consultant. If you are unable to find someone to go with you, solicit opinions from others in the shop, or bring some kind of recording device. Take notes on the differences in feel and sound between chambers. You will notice differences in back pressure up and down the horn, pitch variances, control issues, etc.
The Mouthpiece Baffle
As I began venturing back into the world of contemporary jazz, I began to realize that my all-purpose set-ups would not be ideal for use in an entire evening of fusion, funk, or other styles that put a high demand on the altissimo register. Almost everyone I consulted recommended that I switch to a mouthpiece with some kind of medium to high baffle. While I was determined to make my all-purpose set-ups work, I realized I was fighting a losing battle and began both trying out mouthpieces with all sorts of baffles.
Some of you may be wondering what a baffle does. Quite simply what happens is the higher the baffle, the smaller the space just inside the tip opening. The result is an increased speed in the air entering the chamber. Typically this results in a brighter sound, and it can ease the production of altissimo pitches. On the down side, it can affect intonation for the worse, and thin out the tone.
I started with short baffles that had a sharp drop off. A friend of mine even constructed a few for one of my tenor Links. While this type of baffle moved my sound in the direction I was looking at going-brighter with more edge-I didn't like the fact that my sound was markedly thinner, pitch-specifically in the upper and altissimo registers-was squirrelly, and altissimo control was inconsistent.
I moved on to roll-over baffles next, and for a while I thought that they were a panacea for me. This didn't last long, as I noticed that pitch in the upper and altissimo registers was still a little squirrelly.
I tried the Jody Jazz DV mouthpiece on tenor, a relatively high baffle with a straight drop off in a "V" shape into a large chamber. I was intrigued by it because it didn't necessarily feel as if there was a baffle in the mouthpiece, however, I wasn't able to get the altissimo control I sought.
At this point, I gave up on baffled mouthpieces, and instead thought I could solve my problem by putting a Rico Plasticover on my alto Meyer. It didn't have the feel and control I was looking for, but I decided to deal with it. This set-up had a good sound and decent control. On tenor, I switched from my Link to a vintage pre-Hollywood Dukoff which had a big, ballsy sound, and had acceptable altissimo control. The occasional use of a Plasticover worked on this piece as well.
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.