Are vintage Slant Signature Otto Links TOXIC!?!?!

Regular blog reader Sammy Epstein emailed me a very interesting question
 "Hey David,
You wrote about meeting with the Babbitt guy at NAMM, and that the old Slant Sigs were made with a substance that is toxic...do you know what that substance is?....and...Do you know whether it is toxic to the worker making the mpc (because of toxic dust)?....or....Whether the substance is toxic to mouthpiece users, by leaching toxic substances from the mouthpiece to the player through saliva? It would be nice to know that players aren't being poisoned by playing Slant Sig mpcs! Thanks in advance. Your blog is great...I'm continually finding the really good stuff on it that you are so generous in providing. Hope all is well...Best, Sammy"
When I first heard that the reason mouthpiece makers couldn't make the great vintage style hard rubber anymore was because some of the compounds were toxic I really didn't even consider the rather obvious question.....is my Slant Link poisoning me?!?! 

Tapping a rubber tree
I called Jim Greene, head of manufacturing at jj Babbitt, for some answers. Jim told me that mouthpiece rubber dust has a lot of different fillers added to it in order to get it to break down and some of these fillers are not available anymore. He wasn't specific about what exactly these fillers were and why they're not made anymore, but he did say that it was because the EPA passed laws that made it impossible to manufacture the stuff in this country anymore. He thought that it might still be possible to make the fillers in a country with less restrictive environmental laws, like Mexico or China, but that it would be too expensive because there was so little demand for hard rubber these days. Green said that Germany doesn't have the restrictive laws that we do and could make better rubber, but they use a totally different mouthpiece manufacturing method known as extruding, whereas we use molding.

 Back in the golden years of mouthpieces when the Slant Links and NY Meyers were being made there was a still a huge demand for rubber. Rubber was used in printing press rollers, bowling balls, and a thousand other products. Today most rubber is used to make tires, rubber bands and little else. Tire rubber does not require the same fillers to manufacture as good mouthpiece rubber. So there is no big demand for good hard rubber anymore.

 It would still be cost prohibitive for a Babbitt to set up shop in Malaysia, even if they hired a bunch of 10 year old kids and make the Slant Sigs. Jim told me that he has looked into buying the hammer mill that would be needed to grind the rubber dust needed to make their own hard rubber in order to have more control over the materials, but hammer mills are insanely expensive and then you also need to buy air scrubbing machines as well. 

Back to Sammy's question about getting slowly poisoned by playing a Slant Link.....

Jim claims that the finished vintage rubber pieces do not leach out toxins (of course he would have to say that). Once they are molded the compound changes and sets. Any discoloration is simply aging, not leaching. If you want your piece to stay new looking then you can try rubbing it with oil once in a while.


Kelly Bucheger's new 'Harder Bop' Jazz blog

Buffalo based Kelly Bucheger, an accomplished saxophonist and longtime loyal Casa Valdez Studios reader, recently launched a new Jazz blog called Harder Bop. The blog is off to a great start with some very nice transcriptions (Oatts, John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, Kenny Garrett, Dexter, Rollins) and some insightful commentary on the solos. Be sure to bookmark Kelly's blog and send him harassing emails if he doesn't update it regularly. :-)

Harder Bop Jazz Blog
Kelly Bucheger's personal website


Rigotti's secret code for reed strengths

Have you ever gotten a bunch of different strengths of Rigotti reeds mixed up. Maybe you had some 3 lights, 3 mediums and 3 strongs mixed together and no longer had any way to tell them apart since they all looked the same? There is a secret code to tell them apart!! Ok, maybe it's not so secret, but no one has ever written about it before.

Here it is:
  •  Strong reeds have the D  filled in with ink.
  •  Light reeds have the O in the word Gold filled in with ink
  •  Medium reeds have none of the letters shaded in


NAMM 2011- part II (Aaron Drake)

Aaron Drake of Drake mouthpieces was the person who got me into NAMM as a demonstrator this year. He brought quite a few of his mouthpieces to the show with him. It was the first chance I've had to get a good look at all of the different models he makes. I'd never seen his ceramic pieces before and I'd always been curious about them. Aaron had been making his ceramic pieces for a while and just recently started making pieces using more traditional materials in order to reach a wider market. The idea with the ceramic pieces is that they have much less surface friction as rubber and metal and they have a sound somewhere between hard rubber and metal. Eric says that they take forever to finish compared to resin/rubber.

The new Drake prototype resin compound w/ added brass
 I have been moving all of my alto students to Aaron's New York Jazz 'rubber' pieces with great results. These are the best modern alto pieces that I've ever seen and my students love them. I believe that Aaron's pieces would be even better than my vintage Slant if they were made from the same old hard rubber compound. One thing that Aaron has done to improve the compound he makes his pieces with is to add some ceramic powder to it in order to increase it's density. He brought a few new experimental pieces with him to NAMM that had some added brass dust added to the resin compound. The added brass makes the compound 11% denser, which changes the response and tone of the pieces. Beside, this stuff just looks COOL. It looks like the rubber piece has gold dust sparkles in it.

Aaron also brought some of his brand new metal mouthpieces with him. I would have tried them, but I didn't have a horn with me. I ended up bringing a couple of rubber Drake Son of Slant tenor pieces and a NY Jazz alto piece back home with me. They all play great and my students have been snatching them up as soon as they try them.

Look for my extended interview with Aaron soon.

Drake Mouthpieces


NAMM show 2011- part 1

 Last week I made a trip down to Los Angeles to play a few gigs and go to the NAMM convention. The night before I left we were having ice storms and freezing rain here in Oregon, but when I got off the plane it was a perfect 70 degrees without a cloud in the sky. Say what you will about LA, but winters there are about perfect. When I realized how good the weather was going to be I immediately tried to upgrade my rental car to a convertible Mustang, unfortunately there were none left and I settled for a big white Chevy Impala. With the help of my handy GPS navigator I set off for my rehearsal in Burbank, a trip that the GPS told me should only take 20 minutes. In fact, it took an hour and a half to actually get there.

Vibrato (Bel Air, CA)
 The rehearsal was to prepare for a quintet gig at a club called the Blue Whale, which is located in Little Tokyo. A few months ago I met a young guitarist through my blog named Tim Fischer. Tim was a regular reader of this blog a contributor to it as well. Last year he brought a trio called 3tet up for a Northwest tour and I helped him set up a quartet gig for us in Bend, OR. We ended up having a great time, so we decided to set up a few gigs in LA for us with my saxophonist buddy Matt Otto, who Tim had studied with while in school at Cal Arts. Tina Raymond, the trio's drummer, was able to get a quintet gig at the Blue Whale as well as a quartet gig at a swanky club in Bel Air called Vibrato owned by Herb Alpert and by swanky I mean a plain hamburger will set you back 20 bucks.

Blue Whale (Los Angeles)

 Before the Blue Whale gig my wife and I had the best bowl of ramen we had ever tasted at a place next to the club called Orchon Ramen. I once saw a Man vs. Food episode that featured the host eating a bowl of the very hottest ramen on the menu and practically expiring in the process. We opted for the milder ramen option, and without our pictures on the Orchon wall of bravery.

Matt Otto
Below are links to some MP3s from the Blue Whale gig, which featured Matt Otto on tenor, Tim Fischer on guitar, Emilio Terranova on bass, Tina Raymond on drums and myself on alto.

Brush Creek
Windows (in 5)
No Moon at All
Helping Others

 On Friday morning I drove down to Anaheim to check out the NAMM show. As I was driving up to the convention center parking lot I notice that there were more rockers with big hair and black leather than I'd seen since I left Berklee. In the convention center there was a huge Latin band playing just inside the main entrance, loud and mediocre, BUT EXCITING. I'm sure that I had the exact same feeling in the pit of my stomach as the 8 year old kids had as they entered the main gates of Disneyland few blocks away. I was entering the Magic Kingdom of gear!

Shawn 'Thunder' Wallace
 Try to imagine five thousand rockers and horn players screeching out their highest and fastest licks all at once and you'll have a pretty good idea what it sounded like in the convention center. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that in order to have a real conversation with someone you need to position your ear about 8 inches away from the mouth of the person you're trying to talk to. There were something like five HUGE halls filled with rows of booths, everything from reeds and horns to strings and software. I tried to stay as far away from the percussion booths as I could, mostly because I didn't want my ears to bleed any more than they were going to already.

 There were many different live performances happening at different booths, like solo Heavy Metal rockers dudes wailing Ronnie Deo lines, small acoustic Jazz ensembles, and sax nerds playing unnaturally loud Smooth-Jazz licks. At the Gemeinhardt/Stephanhöuser booth Shawn "Thunder" Wallace, who teaches at Ohio State University, was performing with a quintet. I'd never heard of Stephanhöuser saxophones before. I've posted links to Shawn's outstanding YouTube sax lessons here before and even joked about his nickname, but I'd never really heard him play. Shawn sounded great. We talked and exchanged CDs after his set. I'm going to have to keep closer tabs on Shawn in the future.

One of the first booths I stopped at was jj Babbitt, makers of Otto Link, Meyer, Guy Hawkins, Wolfe Tayne, and Hite mouthpieces. I had a long conversation with Jim Green, who is head of production, about the history of Otto Links and about the new vintage Links that recently came out. I had heard rumors that these 'new vintage' Links were made from the old Slant molds, not true apparently. Babbitt collected a bunch of Early Babbitts and Slant Links, took measurements from them and then averaged all the numbers out to create an entirely new mouthpiece. I asked him why the tip rail on these 'new vintage' pieces is so much more curved than the modern Links. He told me that he asks his factory workers to give the tip rail a little more curve, but "sometimes they go a bit overboard". You can say that again. I like some of these new pieces, but they are highly inconsistent and you need to try a bunch of them out in order to find a really good one. Not bad for a $130 mouthpiece. I still think there's no substitute for having your piece finished by an actual saxophonist who play tests as he goes, but of course that will cost you more. 
New Vintage Otto Link

 I also learned that Babbitt didn't actually start to manufacture their own pieces until the company moved to Indiana. Before the factory moved they bought all of their blanks from a few different French manufacturers and only did the finish work. This means that Slants and EB Links were all made in France. I asked Jim why the rubber had changed so much and he confirmed the reason I had been told, a major ingredient in the rubber powder that is used to make the compound is no longer available, it's become illegal to manufacture because it is toxic. 

 I asked Jim if they were planning on making an alto vintage piece and he said that they were in the planning stages of making a 'new vintage' Meyer copy. Like the Link vintage model the alto piece will be designed by taking the average specs from several different classic Meyer pieces, probably both NY Meyers and Meyer Brothers pieces. You can expect this 'new vintage' Meyer alto piece to be released late in 2011 or early 2012. I'll be looking forward to checking this piece out. You can still get factory refacing done for about $65 if you send your pieces to Babbitt, but it can take up to six weeks to finish.

 Jim also told me that the Millenium Links are exactly the same as regular modern STM Links, except they have different plating. Who knew?

The next booth I stopped by was Rigotti, which was manned by Daniel Rigotti himself. I had a lot of questions for Daniel and was hoping to get some answers. One of the first things I asked him was about his American distributors. The only places you can buy Rigotti reeds from in the States are from Woodwind and Brasswind, Roberto's, Muncy Winds (but they haven't restocked in a long time) and another small music store in Los Angeles (which he didn't remember the name of). There are several different reeds that use Rigotti cane, which is absolutely best cane in the world as far as I'm concerned. The only major reed manufactures still exclusively use Var region cane are Vandoren and Rigotti.

Here is some more info on reed cane from John Robert Brown:
"The plant from which we make clarinet and saxophone reeds is gramineous, meaning that it is of the grass family, as are wheat and sugar cane. Thus, a hollow reed-cane stalk is not wood but a sort of large straw. It differs from wood in that wood grows from the centre outwards. Grass (reed-cane) grows rapidly inwards from the hard exterior. Reed-cane has a Latin name, Arundo Donax. Common names are Giant Reed, Spanish Reed and Canne-de-Provence. It is tall, tallest of the European Gramineae, and reaches a height of six metres in one year. During the second year it thickens towards the centre, and hardens. Reed makers cut the cane after two years. In Britain you can see Arundo Donax growing at Kew Gardens in London. Reed cane grows all over the world. The best known area for reed cane is the Var region of Southern France. Most grows in the alluvial planes to the east and west of the Mediterranean port of Toulon. The Var soil has a high silica content. The Adelaide area of South Australia has ideal soil conditions for the cultivation of Arundo Donax. Reeds have been grown there successfully during the last twenty years. An Australian reed-making industry began in 1991. Variations in the cane arise from the time of year when growth takes place and from the prevailing microclimate. After cutting, the cane is sun-dried. Then the harvesters cut it from knot to knot and season it for eighteen months."
 There are several brands of reeds that use Rigotti cane. Queen reeds are Rigotti cane and the have Rigotti cut, they are exactly the same Rigotti reeds. I think the sizing may be less specific. Queen reeds are often less expensive than Rigottis. Ishimori reeds are also EXACTLY the same as Rigotti reeds, no difference in cut or cane. The only thing is that they are much less accurately sized. An Ishimori 3 is going to contain Rigotti 2.5 strongs, 3 lights, and 3 mediums. Oh, and you will pay DOUBLE for Ishimoris once you figure shipping into the cost. How do you like them Ishimoris now?! The last two brands of reeds that use Rigotti cane are Roberto's and François Louis reeds. These two brands have slightly different cuts than Rigotti reeds. The angle of the cut from the top of the vamp to the tip of the reed is different. François reeds have a steeper angle, giving more material in the heart. Roberto's are somewhere in between François and Rigotti. Rigotti reeds are the flattest with the least material in the heart of the reed.

 I also posted this information on Sax On the Web, but the hard headed saxophonists there did not want to believe me. They somehow thought that Ishimori reeds were longer lasting, more consistent and generally better. One even said:
"Both my sax instructor and I are still playing the same two Ishimori's we started playing over a year and a half ago....can you say that about ANY Rigotti reeds? P.S. What do you think Daniel Rigotti is going to say.....he MIGHT be just a little bit biased towards his own reeds? Just sayin'!!!!!!!!!!!! "
  I replied to that post with:
"Rigotti harvests the 'Woodstone' cane, CUTS the 'Woodstone' cane, packages the 'Woodstone' reeds into 'Woodstone' boxes, shrink wraps the 'Woodstone' boxes of reeds AND THEN SENDS THEM TO ISHIMORI IN JAPAN SO THEY CAN SELL THEM UNDER THEIR OWN NAME. Woodstone doesn't do jack shit at any stage of the process except to put them in their catalog and on their shelves and sell them. They do not hand select them, they do not add their Woodstone magic.....THEY OPEN THE BOX THEY GET IN THE MAIL FROM RIGOTII AND THEY SELL THEM. "
Of course Daniel Rigotti doesn't care if you buy his reeds under the Queen, Brancher, Roberto's, Louis, or Ishimori labels. He still gets paid whatever they are called. Saxophonists can be such stubborn and superstitious knuckle heads when it comes to gear. They just get attached to ideas based on subjective perceptions and then they do not let any rational facts change their minds.

 I was curious about the problems that WWBW and Muncy seemed to also have with keeping Rigottis in stock. I thought that maybe the demand was increasing so fast that Rigotti couldn't produce enough new product to keep up. Turns out the retailers just have poor planning, no lack of supply. One last piece of info is that Rigotti tenor reeds are the same as Rigotti bass clarinet reeds. I was hesitant to write about this and I promised my buddy Nat (who discovered this fact) that I'd keep it secret. For a while there the bass clarinet reeds were several dollars cheaper than the tenor reeds, but I think WWBW and Roberto have gotten wise and raised the bass clarinet reed prices to match tenor prices. So you can always order bass clarinet reeds if your tenor reed strength is out of stock.

More later.....


I'll Take Romance transcription

Bay Area saxophonist Charles McNeal has a one of the most useful site on the net with tons of free saxophone transcriptions available for download. He's been threatening to transcribe one of my solos and he came through today with a solo of mine on I'll Take Romance. He pretty much nailed every note as far as I can tell. Charles has also included an MP3 of the entire original track, which is from my unreleased CD Desert Flower.

It's feels like a milestone to be honored in this way. Thank you Charles and great job!

Transcription of David Valdez's solo on I'll Take Romance (scroll down the page)


Question from a student about learning licks

This question was from a Canadian student of mine named Bryan who I've been teaching via the internet. 

"David, just a quick question. Is it normal to spend an hour or more trying to learn a lick? I was learning the last four bars of Chris Potter's RC solo but it felt like it took forever just to get the fingers to work through the notes in every key. I realized that I wasn't putting enough time on learning licks to the point of being effortless, so spending so much time just getting one 'thing' down is a pretty new concept."
My answer:
I must say that I feel that learning licks in every key is a total waste of time. First of all, licks work better in certain keys and do not lay well on the horn in others. Second, if learn a pattern in 12 keys then you're much, much more likely to repeat yourself. Even if you play the same lick in a different key it's still going to sound like you're repeating yourself. Wouldn't it be more productive to learn 12 different licks in 12 different keys than to learn one lick in 12 keys? It really wouldn't take much more time and you'd end up with 1200% more usable material at the end of the day.

Don't get me wrong, learning to play in every key is critical, but learning licks in every key isn't the best use of practice time even though it's generally accepted as the way to learn jazz. Instead, practice moving small cells around to different keys, not entire phrases. This way you'll still learn to play ideas in different keys without becoming a lick machine.

A good example of what I'm talking about is Mr.X's (well known teacher at a major Jazz school) teaching method, which is the common way of going about learning to play. He gives all his students pages of Bebop licks and makes them learn them all in every key. What's the result? They end up all sounding as stale and contrived as he does. Mr.X has this certain 9 note chromatic approach that he likes (C.B.Bb.D.F.A.Ab.F#.G) and he likes to play things in every key. Once I counted how many times he played this one very recognizable pattern in one solo and I think it was something like 13 times, in different keys mind you, but it still sounded redundant.

The saxophone is set up a certain way ergonomically and some phrases just don't work well, or even sound good, in certain keys. A good illustration of this is to try to play through the Charlie Parker Omnibook in concert or Bb. The lines do not sound smooth and so they do not make as much musical sense. You would never want to play most of Birds phrases in keys other than the key he played them in. That was part of what made him sound so great, his lines were so effortless. They wouldn't have been effortless if he had been playing those lines up a minor sixth or up a fifth. Even Bird would've sounded clunky.
I realize that many teachers would strongly disagree with me about this, but it seems pretty clear to me. The main thing to watch out for when you learn licks is not to sound like you're playing licks, so learning everything in all keys is obviously not the best solution.


Weber Iago's Chamber Quartet- live @ the Crow Bar

Recorded live at the Crow Bar on 1/2/11

Weber Iago- keyboard/composer
David Valdez-saxophone
Eddie Parente- violin
Joe Janiga- percussion

Shades of Happiness
Merci, Mon Frere
The More I See You

Complete Sonny Stitt solos- by Keith Oxman

I just discovered that Charles MacNeal has a treasure trove of Stitt transcriptions on his site. His friend Keith Oxman transcribed the solos and Charles put them in Finale form and posted them. We're talking 157 pages of Stitt. You know what they say,"Stitt is the $hit."

Sonny Stitt Solos


Randy Hunter's sax lessons

 There are a lot of people doing online sax lessons these days, guys like Tim Price, Steve Neff, Ryan Fraser, and Randy Hunter. Tim Price uses Skype, and Randy sells individual lessons in Quicktime format with an accompanying PDF.  Neff sells his lesson videos individually or in monthly increments.

 Randy Hunter's lessons are just $6.99 each and a nice affordable way to begin to explore the vast world of online lessons. A while back Randy was nice enough to send me several of his etude books (with CDs). There have been a lot of these types of book/CDs coming out and many are very good. These are a good way for students to learn Jazz phrasing and to practice sight-reading. Play-along etudes are an entertaining way to practice as well.

Randy's Jazz etude & duet books are available for tenor sax, alto sax, trumpet, trombone, flute. He also has Jazz combo books for wind & rhythm section instruments. I used his etude books with my students and they seemed to really enjoy them, especially the beginners.


John Scofield Clinic

This John Scofield clinic was recorded in the mid-90's at Cabrillo College by my buddy David McGillicuddy. David has been kind enough to transpose the exercise on Stella to Bb and Eb for us. You'll even hear venerable professor Ray Brown, one of my first Jazz teachers, ask Sco a question.

Thanks David!

John Scofield clinic- part 1 
John Scofield clinic- part 2

Sco's Stella exercise (C, Bb, Eb)