Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Talking Shop with Soprano Saxophone Specialist Heath Watts

Have you ever wondered about the set-ups other saxophonists are playing on soprano? 

TALKING SHOP is the most recent feature on Soprano Sax Talk where I provide answers to one of the most frequently asked questions amongst sax players: "Hey, what kind of set-up does___________ play on the soprano?"

During this interview, we will be talking shop with soprano saxophonist Heath Watts. Heath hails from Butte, Montana, but currently resides in Philadelphia. In addition to being a soprano saxophone specialist, Heath has been solely committed to a path of free and improvised music since releasing Breathe If You Can, his adventurous 2008 outing with drummer Dan Pell on Leo Records. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk shop with us.

Sam Newsome: So Heath, we'll just dive right in. What are some of the qualities that you like about your current set-up? First your soprano.

Heath Watts: My Borgani Jubilee is an excellent horn with key work that fits my hands well. The feel, vibration, and the sound that I perceive in the horn make it my favorite among my three saxophones. I also have a black gold Keilwerth SX90 and a silver Rampone and Cazzani soprano saxophone; they are both very nice and have great qualities, but I prefer the feel of the Borgani.

Heath’s soprano: late 2000/early 2001 Borgani Jubilee Pearl Silver

SN:  I've always been curious about the Rampone & Cazzani. Does the shape and position of the bell change the sound, and how you hear the sound?

HW: The Rampone & Cazzani sounds that same on recordings to me, but I think that I can hear undertones when I play the lowest notes. That is, I can hear a B-flat that is one octave lower than B-flat while playing. I haven't caught it on a recording yet, because either I'm imagining it, or the sound of the undertone is too subdued and is masked by the sound of the fundamental. I don't like the Rampone & Cazzani because it bothers my right thumb, unless I play with a neck strap, but then I lose a the freedom to move the sax subtly in order to play some multiphonics and other tones.

                                                     Heath's Silver Rampone and Cazzani (left)  
                                                         Borgani Jubilee Pearl Silver (center) 
                                                           Black Gold Keilwerth SX90 (right)

SN: And what about your mouthpiece?

HW: I play on a Gaia 1 mouthpiece. It opened up an additional octave of altissimo range for me. Generally, I can play two octaves above high F# (sometimes higher) and I can bend down to F below low B-flat, which gives me a usable 5-octave range. The Gaia 1 allows me to play multiphonics easily and responds very well. I like that it allows me to play with a number of tonal colors and from pp to ff with little difficulty. It plays in tune quite well throughout my range, so I don’t need to make too many adjustments to my embouchure to play in tune. I am always looking for a mouthpiece that allows more color, loudness, quietness, range, and playability. I’ve been playing the Gaia 1 exclusively since 2014, but I’m always looking for another mouthpiece that might provide me with additional ways to express myself.

Heath's mouthpiece: Theo Wanne Gaia 1 11 (0.085” tip opening)

SN: So tell me about the types of reeds you play.

HW: Reeds are quirky. Sometimes several boxes of one brand will play well, but then I have to switch to another to find reeds that play consistently well. I use a Bhosys reed knife, a Reed Geek, Reed Wizard, and reed rushes to adjust my reeds. The Reed Geek allows me to easily flatten the table of my reeds, which are usually not flat. A reed with a flat table makes better contact with the table of my mouthpiece and improves the playability of both. I have several Reedjuvinate tubes that I started using a couple years ago and they allow me to prepare, store, and evaluate a number of reeds simultaneously. The Reedjuvinate tubes keep the reeds moist, clean, and prolong their lives. Sometimes I can get 3-4 months of playing from a good reed by storing it in a Reedjuvinate tube. When a reed stops resonating intensely, or if it loses its ability to play very high altissimo notes, I will discard it.

Heath's reeds: Reed: Hemke 2, Marca 2, or La Voz Medium soft (Shown)

SN: I've never used the Reedjuvinate tubes. But I did meet Bob Covello at the Downtown Music Gallery, a while back, and he was mentioning it. So have you noticed a significant difference in the life of the reed after using it?

HW: Yes, my reeds last longer and are ready to play immediately and consistently. The Reedjuvinate is an ingenious accessory.

SN:  You play the Bambú ligature, which is some beautiful craftsmanship. Tell us a little bit about this interesting apparatus.

HW: My Bambú ligature is similar to the Vandoren Klassik ligature, which I also own. The Bambú seems to let my reeds vibrate more intensely than other ligatures in my (large!) ligature collection allow. It is important to keep my neck cork well greased, because the Bambú does not hold the reed tightly enough to turn the mouthpiece without disrupting reed placement, unless the cork is greased well. For cork grease, I use Alisyn cork and slide grease; it is synthetic grease that works well and does not contain animal byproducts, which is important to me, because I’m a vegan. The Bambú ligature is the perfect ligature for me.

Heath's ligature: Bambú braided, sapphire blue color

SN: Do you have any additional thoughts to offer regarding setup, sound, and things of that nature?

HW: I think that one’s choice of setup is very subjective. What feels good for me might not feel good for someone else. I do not think that my setup affects my recorded sound or the sound that my audience hears. However, my setup does affect how I perceive my sound while I’m playing and affects how well I am able to play and feel the vibration of my saxophone. Therefore, I suggest that you develop your sound on one setup and know that you will likely sound the same on another setup. I only change my setup when my current setup limits what I can do with my technique. Changing mouthpieces, or any other part of your setup regularly will not affect what your audience hears. I suggest that you play long tones and overtone exercises every day for the rest of your playing life to keep yourself in shape and to expand and improve your tonal palette. I suggest that you focus on your breathing, embouchure, intonation, and sound. After you have developed your sound with 3-4 years (2,500 or more hours) of consistent and productive practice, you can experiment with changes to your setup. Please note that I’m not suggesting that one can play successfully on a broken instrument, a poorly made mouthpiece, a cracked reed, or a ligature that does not hold the reed in place, but I am suggesting that sometimes saxophonists change their equipment when they should be improving their fundamental playing abilities.

SN: I appreciate your candid and insightful answers. And yes, I do agree that the changes we often make to our set-ups are only noticeable to us. Which is OK, too.  No one ever died because of too much placebo. It's only an issue when we become so fanatical about these sometimes un-noticeable changes, that we fail to address the real problem: our ability to properly regulate the air through the instrument. 

Before we conclude, tell about what you’ve been up to lately.

HW: In February 2018, I released my third album on Leo Records, Sensoria, with trombonist M.J. Williams, violinist Nancy Owens, and bassist Blue Armstrong. Sensoria was the follow up to my critically acclaimed album, Bright Yellow With Bass, on Leo Records with bassist Blue Armstrong. This fall, I will be releasing a duet album with the extraordinary pianist Robert W. Getz on Leo Records called Helicopter Seeds. Also, you and I will be recording an album this summer, which will be released on Leo Records.

SN: Thanks, Heath. It's been a pleasure. And your new CD sounds fabulous!

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