There have probably been few professional saxophonists on the planet who have not had a mouthpiece obsession at some point. I’ll certainly claim my part in what seems to be an inevitable ritual of obsession. I remember moments while still a young tenor player in my mid- to late-twenties, changing mouthpieces during the same tune. And what made it even more insane, is that these were mouthpieces that had very little aesthetical overlap. Had I been switching back and forth between two Otto Link 7s, or even an Otto Link 7 and 7*, I’m sure one could see the justification. These two pieces won’t yield two sonically disparate results. I could conceivably discover that one is easier to play than the other, or than one gets better projection, or that one is easier to play in tune. But what I did was hardly the case. There were times that I was going back and forth between a metal Berg Larsen and hard rubber Selmer. Or a metal Dave Guardala and a hard rubber Vandoren. Of course the resulting affect was something to be desired.
So my point in airing all of my dirty mouthpiece laundry is to simply say that I understand the obsession.
What I have discovered during these moments of sound seeking neurosis is that no matter how strong the love affair at the beginning of your mouthpiece courtship, eventually you wind up with the same sound that you were frustrated with when playing you old mouthpiece.
For this simple reason, I'm left to conclude: Your sound in between your ears, not inside your mouthpiece.
And let me not downplay the importance of having a good mouthpiece. If your set-up is faulty, then it could be like trying to pedal your bike up hill with one flat tire. But often times, that’s not the case. The mouthpiece obsession we sometimes have comes from our quest for sonic perfection It comes from our desire to find Mr. Right.
This type of sonic utopia we aim for can be achieved. But not by finding the perfect mouthpiece, reed, and horn combination--the sound trifecta--but by listening. Yes, I know. It sounds too easy and too simple to be true. But it does work.
Here’s an interesting story: Once again, we’re going back to when I was budding young tenor man, looking to spread his sonic seed across the world. When I played tenor, I had absolutely no altissimo—a high G, at best. In fact, while I was playing in Terence Blanchard’s band, we used to play one of his tunes called “Azania.” Not a particularly difficult piece, but the melody went up to a high Ab in the last four bars. And needless to say, I missed it every time. Terence eventually realized after hearing me choke on this note, night after night, that playing it correctly was beyond the scope of what I was able to do at the time. If someone heard me today, if would be difficult to imagine I grappled with a problem so basic.
Now there we many reasons for me not being able to play in the altissimo during those days—improper embouchure, lack of breath support, lack of oral cavity awareness, or maybe just plain lameness—I’ll go there, too. But in hindsight, I realize that the real culprit was NOT having a sonic reference. I only played the tenor. I didn’t listen to any high-pitched instruments at the time. There were few tenor players that I listened to that ever played in that register. And I didn’t play the flute, clarinet, or soprano—at least not of any consequence. So there was nothing between my ears that I could use as a sonic reference—Charlie Rouse, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter (on tenor) were useless with regards to this.
In fact, it wasn’t until I started playing the soprano regularly that I began being able to hear in the fourth octave. In some ways a little too well. I remember one particular instance, a few years after I had only been playing the soprano saxophone exclusively, I picked up the tenor sax for a few days. I can’t really remember why, I imagine that my soprano had some kind type of malfunction, which happened a lot back then, and I was probably just playing the tenor while it was being repaired. Thank god for Roberto Romeo! In any case, what I remember most vividly was that when I finally did pick up the tenor again after so many years, was how high I was able to play. As a tenor player, the high Ab was a challenge. But now I was playing high Fs and Gs, with no problem. I attribute some of it to the development of my embouchure and most of it to my hearing. As I mentioned before, one of the problems I had with playing in the altissimo as a tenor player, is that I had no sonic reference. Now, I had only a high register reference. It felt like the sky was the limit—which was a totally different ballgame. Now, what was strange is that I had no lower register reference. I guess it’s always something.
My point in telling this story is to highlight the importance role listening habits have on your sound. To me, listening is where you put all of your ducks in a row, while playing is the process by which you march them in either direction. More simply put: Listening is the gathering of information (the conceptual), while playing is the process by which you direct that information (the execution).
One of Charlie Parker’s most famous quotes was that, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Well, I look at it this way: If it doesn’t go into your ears, it won’t come out of your horn.”
People often wonder how I’m able to play in the altissimo. And there are two main reasons: One, my emphasis on the development of my oral cavity control; and two, the things that I listen to. Sidney Bechet will take you but so far. Sidney will teach you how to swing and how to play the blues. But he won’t teach you how to play Cs above high F. For that I listen to bansuri flute players, shakuhachi flute players, North African double reed instruments, you name it—anything or anyone thing that will give me a sonic reference, and consequently, the desired outcome. As I said, “If it doesn’t go into your ears, it won’t come out of your horn.”
So the next time, you are unhappy with your sound, and you’re thinking of changing your set-up, you might want to first change what’s inside of your iTunes playlist.