After much skull sweat, and deliberating I would like to unveil two new articles.
The first is a list of 5 Essential Baritone Saxophone Albums. This list is intended to be a sort of primer for those looking to dip their toes into the deep pool that is the history of the baritone saxophone. I’ve done my best to distill 5 albums that are probably the most influential for the baritone saxophone in jazz. Not necessarily the absolute pinnacle of artistry, but good starting places for future fans of the big horn.
The second article is one that veterans of this website will find more interesting. Its a ‘Deeper’ Dive into the baritone saxophone. These are albums and/or players you may not have heard of but may find very exciting. The list goes from slightly past the main stream to extreme niche, so there should be something new there for just about everyone. Since this type of list in inherently far more subjective I reached out to some very prominent baritone saxophonist of today to get their input as well. So you can see what each had to add.
Whether you’ve come to this site for an initial foray into the baritone saxophone or are looking to delve quite deep, I hope there’s something here new and exciting for you.
A few weeks ago at Smalls club in the West Village of New York City, I had the extreme pleasure or watching two sets that featured some of the best baritone playing around. Gary Smulyan & Frank Basile are two incredible baritone saxophonists that are directly connected to the Pepper Adams lineage.
Everyone can now watch both evenings (4 sets total) on the online streaming archive from Smalls – called SmallLive. You’ll need to sign up for a membership, but $10 a month is a small price for the incredible amount of live jazz you’ll have access to. This concert alone had a $20 cover per set to see. Also, in these strange times Musicians and Clubs need all the support they can get – Smalls shares revenue from online streaming with the musicians.
Key Leaves is an innovative new (ish) US company that is making great accessories for saxophone and other woodwinds. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Rulon Brown, the Founder and President a few times, including when he initially released Key Leaves at the Navy Sax Symposium a couple years ago. I’ve been using, testing, and playing around with them ever since.
You may have have seen their products already, either from a friend or colleague using them or on the internet. The Key Leaves team is quite adept on social media have a strong web presence – even going so far as to have an Artist program of saxophonists that endorse their products.
They make a number of products, but here we’re going to focus on the products that are applicable to the baritone – the Key Leaves “Key Props”, and the “Spit Sponge”. If you play the other horns as well I’d really recommend checking out the other products as well.
A solution for Sticky Keys.
Both the Key Props and the Spit Sponge are intended to help alleviate the constant irritation of ‘sticky’ keys on the saxophone.
What are sticky keys and why do they occur?
The saxophone has keys that are either open or closed in their default or resting state. Most keys are always open until pressed. But some keys like the palm keys (D, Eb, E, F) and some pinky keys (Ab, Eb, Db) are closed by default until activated. The real issues come from the Ab and Db keys because unlike all of the other keys they have two springs, one that is tensioned to keep the key closed, and another spring that is used to open the key through the mechanical connection. These keys are more complicated because they can be closed by other key combinations and aren’t simple levers, but double levered. The low Eb key can sometimes stick as well because its the tone hole towards the bottom-back of the horn so when its sitting in the case, moisture can tend to collect down there. That’s a more common problem on alto and tenor since they don’t have a crook and spit valve.
So because these keys are always closed, and also because they have a spring tensioning them shut they can sometimes fail to open when pressed. We call this a ‘sticky’ key. This can be exacerbated by the two spring tensions being improperly adjusted, or more commonly dirt/oil/crud build up on the pad or on the tonehole. Below we will go over Key Leaves’ two tools for mitigating this problem. Both of these products are to some extent ‘better mousetraps’ in that there have been similar ways of treating sticky keys before, though I think these products do a better job and have some new attributes that haven’t been used before.
The Key Props basically hold a key that is closed by default open. Because the key doesn’t sit for long periods in the case with the key pressed against the tone hole it is far less likely to form sticky buildup of yeast, bacteria and fungus at the seal which can create a light bond or kind of glue the key shut. If the key stays open it is very unlikely to begin sticking when you go to play.
Now, it seems like you should be able to use just about anything to wedge a key open. And in fact when I showed my veteran repair man Key Leaves a couple years ago, his first comment was that players used to just wedge the keys open with a match book. And, yes, that will work. But Key Leaves is a much more elegant solution. Also, I like to think saxophonists aren’t all smoking these days.
The Key Leaves are made out of silicon, which is great for a few reasons. They are soft, and won’t scratch a horn. They are also pliable and flexible which again won’t damage a horn but is excellent for wedging a key open gently. And lastly, silicon is a great material because it is inert. In other words it won’t cause tarnish, lacquer removal, or discoloration of any sort even over the long term. I think bright green was also a good choice, as they are easy to spot and a nice visual reminder to remove them before playing.
Check out the instruction images below on the proper way to use them. Key Leaves warns against contacting directly with the pad leather. I assume this is because should the key prop sit in the case pushing on the leather for extended periods it could deform the felt within the pad and cause leaks.
My Ab key being propped open.
I personally use the double up method a lot as this makes an easy grab tab to remove the key leaves before playing. Each package of Key Leaves comes with two “Leaves” and a strap, also made of silicon. I also use Key Props for horns that are likely to sit in the case for a long time. If they sit in the case with keys pressed against a tone hole (especially a non-rolled tone hole) the pads can dry out and split or rip. So I’ve found Key Leaves Key Props great for daily use as well as long term storage.
The Spit Sponge, and the other tricks used for cleaning sticky keys.
The spit sponge is a newer product from Key Leaves. And this is definitely a form of an existing tool. Most saxophonists have a sticky key remedy they swear by. A lot of people use dollar bills to clean the pad and tone hole – close the key semi-firmly on the bill and slide the bill out, thereby wiping both sides clean. Some people even soak the dollar bill in lighter fluid – this seems to do a good job of cleaning the pad, though exposing your saxophone to flammable liquids is not ideal. Some people swear by cigarette paper instead of a dollar bill, some people just use regular paper. Another old trick is to apply talcum or baby powder to the paper before running it through the pad. Yamaha has a product called powder paper which is basically east to rip out sheets of cigarette paper impregnated with talcum powder for easy use. This stuff works wonders, but it also gets which powder all over your pad and tone hole. BG has a tool which is a rounded piece of microfiber that can be used instead of paper to clean the pad. The Spit Sponge is probably closest to BGs but with a few noticeable and important differences.
You can see both sides of the Spit Sponge, including the laser etched bottom.
The Spit Sponge unlike most of the other tools here has two unique sides. One is a plain soft microfiber while the other side is a laser engraved to form a very subtly abrasive texture. This is even better for removing stubborn dirt. The shape of the Spit Sponge is also unique, it has a large circular area great for larger pads and a smaller protrusion that is great for smaller pads and harder to reach areas. Also, because the Spit Sponge is laser cut it should be resistant to fraying. It is microfiber, so once it gets dirty you can simply wash it with water and soap to renew.
Unorthodox / Unapproved / Unsanctioned usages
Using Key Leaves to keep the low C key securely, but gently closed for transportation.
Key Leaves is very specific about the method and use of their product. So take this next bit with a grain of salt and lets agree not to hold them responsible for any problems arising from using their products in alternate ways. That being said, I’ve been using them quite successful in other ways. I mention in my cases article that if you are going to wheel your baritone around I’d highly recommend gently ‘corking’ or ‘clamping’ your keys shut so that the keys don’t flap or bounce constantly. In the past I’ve used cut wine corks to cork the keys shut, but turns out Key Leaves are perfect for this. Gentle enough not to damage the key, soft enough to wedge between the key and the key guard, and the right size so the pads aren’t smushed or crushed.
Using it to prop open the spit valve to encourage a dry crook.
Lately I’ve also taken to using Key Leaves to prop open the spit valve, hopefully giving the crook a chance to dry out quicker? This may have little effect, but I’m going to try it out for a while.
I have reached out to Rulon Brown and Key Leaves in the hopes that in the future there may be a baritone specific product. Hopefully their ingenuity and desire to address saxophone specific problems could help baritone players everywhere with one of the challenges of playing baritone.
Summing it up.
Key Leaves makes some great products to address common problems on the saxophone. They are well made, well designed, affordable and made in the USA by a small company. I’ve been using them for a couple years and have been pleased to see their popularity take off. You can find them at your local music store, on Amazon, or directly through their website. I have no problem at all encouraging everyone to give them a try.
Yamaha has released their new YBS-480. This will eventually replace the already popular YBS-52 intermediate baritone saxophone. The neck and bore have been altered, supposedly to closer match the professional model YBS-62 and there is a socket for a removable peg on the bottom.
Since this model will most likely be used by students and often younger students the option to rest the horn on a peg will be a welcome addition.
I had a chance to try this new horn in New Orleans in January at the Jazz Education Network conference, and I thought it was excellent. While I personally play a vintage horn I have no problem recommending a Yamaha especially to schools and students. They are tanks and can take a lot of abuse and still function very well. They are priced appropriately and are very consistent from horn to horn.
The YBS-52 is a big staple across the world in classrooms and hands of students so the improvements this horn will bring are going to make a big difference to baritone players all over. Kudos to Yamaha! Any attention to the big horn is much appreciated.
I have been meaning to put together an article on cases specifically for baritone saxophones for some time. It might be the most common thing I get asked about in regards to the big horn.
In the new article released today I’ve collated my advice, experience and hopefully a fairly complete and accurate comparison of many of the options out there today. I’d like to thank Jason Marshall, Lauren Sevian, and Jeff Suzda for their input on the article as well.
I have covered Larry Dickson’s first, second, and third, installments in his 4 album project that mirrors the seasons. Today I am happy to say I’ve had a chance to enjoy the latest one from his quartet titled, “Winter Horizons”.
Similar to all of the other albums this album is very well done. The playing on the album is great, but what always stands out to me is Larry’s choice of songs and arrangements. There is an especially nice arrangement on Well, You Needn’t. On this disc there is a balanced and enjoyable mix of originals, standards, Thelonious Monk songs, and even a less-known but very enjoyable Billy Taylor original.
The format is again a chordless quartet. Being familiar with the baritone saxophone one might immediately think of the Mulligan/Chet Baker quartet. But this album uses alto saxophone instead of trumpet. This instrumentation might lead you to remember the “Two of a Mind” album that Mulligan did with Paul Desmond, but that’s not really the feeling here either. Rick Van Matre has a more modern slightly edged alto sax sound that contrasts nicely with Larry’s more mellow rich sound.
Eden has a very interesting approach to the baritone, and often shares the unusual methods for practicing. He is especially adept at using the upper altissimo range of the baritone, often playing alto or trumpet parts at pitch.
The new album is a very playful group of original songs. He has a robust sound, but a fairly gentle approach to playing. There’s no lack of variety on the album despite not including a chordal instrument. This time around Eden used some non-standard saxophone sounds (key clicks, overtone rolls) to create new sounds in a very listenable way.
While Adam Larson is not a baritone saxophonist, he is a great saxophonist and a very busy clinician and teacher. He has a written a new etude book titled “Leaps and Sounds”. Its not a baritone saxophone specific book, but I think its very relevant for any modern saxophonist. He has written 12 etudes over the chord changes to common jazz standards and incorporated large intervals and lines that move in and out of the altissimo register. I recommend these for advanced high school or college students, they are not easy!
I firmly believe that altissimo is especially important to the baritone saxophone. Not just as a way to remain in-step with the trends of saxophone in general, but also because I think its easier and more practical on the baritone. I hope to have a full article about altissimo on the baritone up soon, but in a nut-shell, because the first altissimo octave on the baritone is merely the standard upper octave of an alto saxophone I think those pitches are all usable and within comfortable listening range. The voicing, fingerings, and intonation can be tricky but worth the effort to have access to another octave of range for improvisation.