Rafael Navarro Interview

DCV: Tell about where you went to school, who you studied with and which players were major influences for you? This is always something that I'm interested in finding out from MP makers because I like to know what their ideal saxophone sound is.

RN: I went through the school of hard knocks. I never studied music formally. I have a BA in Sociology and moved onto Engineering and have worked as a sales engineer for 14 years. Music started earlier for me. I started singing at 11 and by 15 was already singing with local groups and so on. I picked the horn very late and worked the best I could on my own by listening to records and just being ballsy enough to go to jam sessions. I developed rather quickly, but stopped playing for a living at 33. Sound however; was very easy for me to produce, perhaps due to my singing background. Nonetheless, I’ve listened and still listen to Lester, Getz, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Hank Mobley, Sonny Stitt & Rollins, Phil Woods, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Bob Mintzer, Brecker, Malach, Oliver Nelson, Dexter, Stanley Turrentine, Trane & Cannonball and goes on.
To me, the perfect saxophone sound has to have core and great balance of mids, high and lows. Hank Mobley had a great sound in that respect. Joe Henderson also had some of that too. So perhaps, Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Henderson, Trane and Dexter are from where my concepts come from tenor and Stitt and Phil Woods and Cannonball on alto. Mintzer has a lot of that package with a modern vibe, but still he does like the old school and is in his playing.

DCV: I read the story on your site about how you first started working on pieces when tried to save a mouthpiece that you dropped, then later you trained under Pedro then eventually under Ralph Morgan. Can you tell me a bit about how those two masters worked?

RN: Both Pedro and Ralph were pretty knowledgeable craftsmen. Pedro is quite an exceptional minded human being. He can do Jewelry, re-wire an alternator, make his on gold and silver bath’s, make a mouthpiece, fix a horn, restore a horn, rebuild an engine, build houses, you name it. I think Pedro was very influential on the way I approach things. He is very methodical but also practical. He can see point from A to point B before you even knew it. That of course comes with experience but I also think is part of his factory package. Thinking ahead and learn how to use my hands and brains together is what I really learned from him.

DCV: I had a long talk with Ralph and he was a real character. He seemed to have very particular ideas about what a saxophone setup should be. What was it like to work with him and how did his ideas affect your own pieces?

Ralph Morgan
RN: I really had a great time with Ralph. I really never debated his thoughts but just watched him work and asked lots of questions. We spent our time talking about saxophone and mouthpiece making history.  He let me opened a file cabinet he had and I started reading and getting to see drawings and all kinds of stuff you can rarely see around. I was like a kid in a candy store. On Sunday, I remembered he picked me up and took me to Church. That was quite an interesting moment for me, because the man took his bible really serious and he did operate on Christian values. It was very interesting for me to see him as a whole package and not just as a mouthpiece maker. I do remember him giving me the Joe Allard SBA prototype to play. Man, it was a great horn. Right then, he saw me putting the neck towards my left side. He basically said, well; I think I should just teach how this thing works. Put the neck towards the lyre …I did so and noticed the sound did changed somewhat, or perhaps was my imagination… As I remember, he thought it was the way the neck was intended to be placed.

DCV: What inspired you to begin making your own pieces, and what type of piece did you first start with?

RN: I think I had it in me for 22 years. I really liked to manufacture things with my own hands and furthermore make it available to people. It is not an easy task but I am trying and will keep on doing it. Pricing on vintage pieces has gotten out of hand. I think we all should try alternatives, and there are so many good ones out there.

DCV: What were some vintage pieces that inspired your own pieces?

RN: On the vintage side, for the metal Maestra the Zimberoff was very big influences, although my pieces do not play like them, the chamber size is really close. I am of course influenced by those great Dukoff Stubbies, FL links and Double Rings. My next two metal Maestras are going to be influenced by those nice short roll baffle Florida Links and the Double Ring. This will happen towards the summer. The prototype is done on and now I am slowly preparing to produce them.

As far as rubber tenor pieces, The Maestra was greatly influenced by the Reso Chamber. The body length of my piece is longer, but the chamber is perhaps a hair bigger than a Reso. This is also the case with the original Maestra I. The series has been revised to produce three types of pieces. The first one is already done and it takes after a later clam shell slant sig Link. The other two Maestra rubbers are influenced by a Reso chamber and an early Babbitt with a short step baffle for those who want that type of zing .

The Rubber and Metal Bahia's came from a modification I did on a Reso-Chamber by adding a slope baffle. They are more centered and could be bright for some and focussed for others.

The Mintzer is a hybrid of everything I've seen. I of course have played Freddie Gregory's pieces, so in many ways his work influenced the way I finish my pieces, however our work and pieces sound and feel different. Freddie's work is so impeccable and all his pieces reflect the highest quality in work and sound.

DCV:  You said that you are getting your rubber from Germany, the same stuff that Zinner blanks are made from. Did you consider resin compounds or other sources of rubber?

RN: Yes, my rubber comes from the same factory Zinner gets his blanks from. It is the oldest and actually the inventor of rubber in collaboration with Goodyear.

DCV: I've talked to different mouthpiece makers about the difference between the old rubber and the stuff that they are making today and have never really gotten a clear answer. Can you tell me more about the manufacturing process?

RN: I spent a great deal of time understanding the process of making rubber. To do that I went to Germany and served as an apprentice at the factory that I get my rubber from. I worked in the factory for 15 days and rotated on every station in order to understand how the rubber is manufactured. Needless to say, it was a great experience, but also let me now how expensive it is to produce rubber. In fact, it cost me more to make a rubber piece than metal (raw materials only.)

I started by getting rubber from NYH in Germany and later found another company nearby who is making the same product only better in the sense that the marble tint is 100% FDA approved and the rubber seems to be as friendly to work as the rubber used on those early pieces. One of the guys that leads the production in NYH, went to this company, so the process was transferred and the quality control improved. I also tried other rubbers from Italy, France, US, China and Japan. None of them, with the exception of the Japanese rubber, were good. The Japanese rubber is good but does not machine, grind and buff the same way the German rubber does.
The rubber I get from Germany is produced the same way they have been doing it for a 100 years. Companies like Vandoren, Bari woodwinds, Selmer, Yanagisawa and Zinner are or had used this rubber for many years. Others like Morgan, use the same rubber dust as the one mentioned above, however the compounding is done here in the US. One of the most important things is to know how to cure the rubber. That is where the German Rubber is different from everyone else.
Morgan factory
Only Morgan cures the rubber in a similar way. You can use the same dust, but if you use other accelerators to cure it, the compound will definitely be different. German rubber is cured with Sulfur while others don't use that... BIG difference in outcome. Sulfur curing takes more hours than other accelerators.

In my case, I machine from rubber bars and I don't compress mold my parts. A rubber bar is simply denser in qualities. But lets keep in mind, that given the chance to mold with the right rubber, I would also do it as it will be a lot more cost effective. It is also equally important to have the right design otherwise, it doesn't matter which material you use, the end result is greatly influenced by the design.

DCV: What are the different pieces that you are making at the moment and how do they play differently?

RN: I am glad you said “at the moment” because there is more to come. I started making traditional sounding pieces, darker than most, yet they still have some of the traditional sounds. The Bahia is brighter but not overly bright to a great extent is like a link with more power and color.

DCV: You recently started working with Bob Mintzer on a Mintzer signature piece, can you tell me how that came about, also how is the Mintzer piece different from your other tenor pieces?

A: The Bebop Special has a unique palette of colors. It is not a bright piece, but rather more lush and velvety sound. It has a lot of buzz to the sound but you can also push it and get some edge from it. It has a great core and centered. It is more centered than all of my other models and I still think is darker to a great extent.
DCV: What are your plans for new mouthpieces?

RN:  An alto, bari and soprano will be launched soon. But there are other new models coming towards the fall, hopefully.

Navarro Saxophone Mouthpieces


UncleZo said...

I am currently playing one of Rafael's pieces on tenor and it is amazing. I can't wait to replace my current alto and soprano pieces with one of his. And he is also a nice on top of it.

Peace, Alonzo

Les Wise said...

I loved the article even though I am a jazz guitarist. I play with many sax players. I will turn them on to this blog. Thanks a lot. Best in jazz.

Jack-Li Zheng said...

Hey Dave,
I'm just wondering have you had the pleasure of trying out Rafael's alto mouthpieces yet? If you have how do they compare to your Brian Powell Slant Sig.

David Carlos Valdez said...

I play a Slant Sig 6. The Brian Powell 'Valdez Slant Sigs' that are floating around out there are actually just V16 blanks that Brian bored out the chambers on and put the facing of my Slant on. So I play an untouched Slant. Rafy's alto pieces have a big core and put out a lot of sound. they were a bit brighter than my Slant. But definitely one of the best modern hand made pieces I have ever played.