We have a number of saxophone harnesses and stands listed on the accessories page, but a new one was just added. This is a free-standing baritone saxophone stand that is intended for use standing up! Though I think the stand could be adjusted for use sitting as well. Its based on very sturdy drum hardware and is made in Germany. I have not had a chance to see the stand in action, so if you’d like a full review, checkout SaxophoneCentral’s full review on it.
It seems pretty undisputed that Gary Smulyan and Ronnie Cuber are two of the greatest living titans of the baritone saxophone. They each have a long discography and incredible career. And we are fortunate to have a new album out this week that features both of them. This isn’t the first time they’ve played together or even recorded together. The album ‘Three Baritone Band Plays Mulligan’ is listed on my 5 essential listening albums page and feature both Gary and Ronnie – as well as Nick Brignola. Interestingly that band toured a bit and the great Howard Johnson could also sometimes be seen with that band.
‘Tough Baritones’ was released this week on the Danish SteepleChase label, on which you will also find a number of other records from both Gary and Ronnie. Though I find it incredibly difficult to find any actual information about this label, or about the albums. Almost like the label goes out of its way to make sure very little information can be found even after the albums are released for sale. But regardless, the album is available on streaming platforms, or if you’re like me and enjoy a physical copy that can be found on amazon here.
This album to me is very reminiscent of a period of jazz that had a huge influence on both of the leaders here. The whole album, but especially the first couple tracks bring back the vibe of Leo Parker recordings, and some of the great two saxophone albums with the likes of Jug (Gene Ammons) and Stitt (Sonny Stitt). This is largely reflected in the tune choice and feel of those songs. A lot of singing blueses and almost boogaloo type feels, as well as some classic Cuber favorite standards – ‘Nica’s Dream’ and ‘Lover’. No sign of a ballad in sight, but that’s just as well since we’re all here for the fire anyways.
If I am going to be incredibly objective, I’d say that Ronnie’s playing doesn’t quite have the fire that he may have had in his prime, but he is by no means at all unenjoyable here. He plays with fire and still shows why he has been one of the leading influences on the baritone for decades. Also if we are going to compare him to most 78 year old saxophonists, he is probably nearly the best in the world. Gary’s playing is top notch and while connoisseurs of the baritone will easily tell their styles apart, they both approach the music with considerable force.
Recording quality wise, having been fortunate to sit right in front of both of their bells in person, it seems to me that the recording captured Gary’s sound a bit more accurately. Ronnie’s mix on the record feels a little distantly recorded. Otherwise the sound of the album is excellent, the two baritonists are panned separately left (Cuber) and right (Smulyan) to help differentiate further. They got a great rhythm section to back the front men. Gary Versace on piano, Jay Anderson on bass, and Jason Tiemann on drums.
I think anyone with an interest in jazz or baritone saxophone, (let alone those at this site that are likely interested in both) should probably head directly to their nearest music provider and check out this album from the royalty of jazz bari sax.
We wrote earlier this year about Yamaha releasing a new intermediate level baritone. Well, it seems like this is the year for Yamaha and the baritone. They have finally released a baritone on their “Custom” line of instruments, which is their highest professional level instruments. This model will be the YBS-82. One of the most important features of the new model is a choice of hand made neck – more on that in just a bit. In addition to neck choice there are six different finishes – lacquer and plating options, and additional key options (can be ordered without high F#). The bell will be one piece construction as opposed to the YBS-62’s two piece. Key buttons will be mother of pearl, as opposed to most Yamaha’s polyester/plastic buttons.
There are some important changes and improvements from the existing horns as well. Ergonomic improvements, and a shorter bell! The shorter bell is a welcome change, both for tuning and size reasons. Not only has Yamaha released two completely new models of baritone but they have also announced the YBS-62II! This will replace the current YBS-62 with many of the same ergonomic improvements. Both the YBS-82 and YBS-62 will come with an integrated, but removable peg to make the horn easier to play while sitting down.
Custom necks are all the rage right now, players are finally discovering how much of a difference the neck of a saxophone can make. Both by changing materials, bore, plating etc. So the most exciting news here could be that Yamaha is offering a custom hand made neck with the new YBS-82. But also that they will have these necks for sale a la carte as well, and that these necks will work with any current Yamaha baritone! Pricing starting at $366 – which is actually incredibly cheap compared to current custom neck options. They will offer three different bore/taper sizes (C [small], E [medium], V [large]), and 6 finish options. This could be an amazing way to spruce up or improve your current Yamaha horn. I also wonder if… maybe these custom necks could work on Selmer baritones? I’m hoping someone can try this out sometime and let us know!
How does it play?
I was offered the chance to try a new ‘secret’ baritone from Yamaha at the Navy Sax show in January of this year. I was floored, and which I had gotten to spend more time playing it. The horn felt great under the fingers, but I was most blown away by the neck options and how different the tapers felt. I am so glad that Yamaha has finally entered the truly top end range of saxophones that they had already done with their soprano, alto, and tenor lines!
Intrepid baritonist, Andrew Gutauskas has released his second album titled, “Look Out!“. This comes after his first album “Look Up!” from 2017. Perhaps in the future we’ll see “Look Within!” to finish out the trilogy? [ Feel free to use that Andrew 😉 ]
Gutauskas is a wonderful player and composer and the music on this album is very uplifting and positive, much like the leader himself. The line-up is a baritone, bass, and drums with trombone added on some tracks. A classic no-chord sound harking back to the Gerry Mulligan / Bob Brookmeyer quartets, though the songs and playing here will sound a bit more modern.
I have often stated my admiration for Frank Basile, for his playing, as well as his knowledge of the history and tradition of Jazz. He is my first choice when I am looking for advice or information about the history of the baritone saxophone. But he is not just a trove of knowledge, his playing is fantastic and he has fully absorbed a huge trove of jazz language and tradition. One of the last concerts I saw before the current pandemic forced closings was a group he co-led with Gary Smulyan – it was great. When I found out that Frank had a recording in the works with tenor saxophonist, Sam Dillon I knew it would be excellent. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Sam play for years and even sit in some big band sections with him. In a world full of tenor saxophonists, he is a monster that stands out.
So today, August 7th, 2020 Frank and Sam have released their album “Two Part Solution” on the Cellar Live label. I just got done ordering my copy and can’t wait for it to arrive. I’ve already heard most of the album and it is indeed great. The playing, the recording (recorded at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder’s in Englewood Cliffs, NJ), the arrangements, everything is good. The songs include some original compositions by both Frank and Sam. Though Jazz fans will also enjoy their take on the classic “Two Bass Hit”
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.