The Lowest Of The Low The Bass Saxophone

In 1985 the documentary The Lowest Of The Low The Bass Saxophone told the story of the bass saxophone and the pioneers of the horn. The familiar cast of merry characters are discussed or interviewed directly. This is a great view and a must for anyone who loves the bass saxophone.

The players discussed:

  • Adrian Rollini
  • Joe Garland
  • Spencer Clark
  • Joe Rushton
  • Otto Hardwick
  • Harry Gold

Roger Rosenberg of Steely Dan gives Workshop at Berklee

Roger Rosenberg Berklee Workshop

What a great pleasure it is to share with you a fun hour and a half of baritone saxophone playing. Roger Rosenberg plays standards as well as some unique pieces then leads an all baritone ensemble. If 14 baritones on one stage sound frightening then you’re in for a surprise. The arrangements are the interesting and some of the student solos are very on point.

E. Rousseau playing Sonata in F Major by Willem deFesch on Baritone

Eugene Rousseau Baritone Saxophone

My first musical experience as a musician was playing classical music. Like most young musicians, we learn the basics through classical tradition. As a sax player Siguard Rascher, Fred Hemke, and Eugene Rousseau were the models we were expected to emulate. By the time I had moved to baritone I’d left behind these masters in favor of the other masters: Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, and Paul ‘hucklebuck’ Williams. But I have never really stopped enjoying classical playing it’s just there aren’t many great examples of Classical Baritone playing back when i was a student. Thankfully there are are classic videos like this one and the music of players like Arno Bornkamp, Tod Oxford, and Professor Steven Banks to keep the classical baritone tradition alive.

Gerry Mulligan Quartet At the Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland [1990]

Gerry Mulligan Bern 1990

If you haven’t spent the time to absorb this great Mulligan performance then you are missing an opportunity to hear him as he continues to create relevant composition and arrangements. It is clear here that he is on the journey to the contemporary sound he would later tweak by the time of the 1995  Dragonfly recording with Grover Washington Jr..  This recording is chock full of Mulligan’isms and still feels exciting and new while having an ear to the past.

The song list:

  • Ring around the Bright Star
  • Lonesome Boulevard
  • A Gift For Dizzy
  • Curtains
  • Walking Shoes
  • Sun on Stairs
  • Wallflower
  • Satin Doll
  • The Flying Scotsman
  • Ring around the Bright Star

Gerry Mulligan – baritone sax
Bill Charlap – piano
Dean Johnson – bass
David Ratajczak – drums

The Kuotient by Henry Solomon

This video was shared with me on Twitter. I was surprised at how velvety Henry’s tone was compared to what I’ve been listening to recently. Henry Put together a lovely chart with a modern sounding progression and deliciously sweet tone. I hope that this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Henry Solomon.

Henry Solomon – Baritone Saxophone and Composer
Tevan Goldberg – Piano
Solomon Gottfried – Bass
Andrew Grossman – Drums
Mida Chu – Recording and Video

So you want to play bass saxophone?

I’ll admit that I had no idea what I was walking into when I decoded I’d by a bass sax and learn to be proficient. Seriously, how hard could it be? The truth is that the bass is a saxophone but it’s also some very different. It is a resistance trainer, lung expander, wallet reducer, finger stretcher, backing breaking hulk of a horn and it’s quite fun to play.

Firstly I am referring specifically to my bass a 1923 Conn stencil keyed to High Eb. The old Conn and Buescher basses are the long wrap type. This means the upper portion of the horn doesn’t curl back on itself as much as baritone does making the main body tube considerably longer than the french wrap preferred by Selmer. French wrapped basses are more compact and more baritone like in their tone and timbre. Is any one type of bass better than another? Some say the long or American wrap has a bigger more booming voice whereas the French wrap blends into sections better and is easier to transport. I can’t speak the blend as I feel any horn can be made to blend but in terms of transportation I would have to agree.

Gard baritone gig bag (left) next to bass saxophone (right) rolling case

From the start the first thing you and everyone will notice is that the horn is big. It’s not just big it’s heavy. Weight is around 20lbs without the case and nearly 40lbs with the case. My low-A Yamaha baritone clocks in at 14lbs so it’s a big leap in weight. This larger size and weight stresses everything related to the horn: cases, neck straps, thumb hooks, horn stands, and lastly your body. Let’s take a look at these elevents marked for bass destruction.

First up is the case. Considering the age of my horn [1923] it’s no wonder it is not in it’s not in it’s original case. That case likely fell apart long ago under the weight of the horn, the elements and poor maintenance. Thankfully my horn came to me nestled snugly in the wheeled case seen in this post.This is the same case that Steve Goodson used to sells on his site. It’s made by a company in China, I believe JinYin. It’s pretty expensive, $1200, for a case but it does do a great job at shrinking the bass to size to fit in my Min Cooper. Yes, I can fit a bass in my Cooper. I could easily fit the remainder of the sax family in as well as long as I stack them. With that in mind be prepared to buy a new case if you are still using the old coffin style or vintage shaped case.

Once out of the case and together you will need a method of holding the horn to you. I initially tried using the Neotech harnesses I use on baritone. those didn’t work as they didn’t have enough height adjustment to bring the mouthpiece to my mouth. On my bass the mouthpiece location ends up being about 6 inches lower than the baritone. The playing position places the mouthpiece at about half way down the horn verses at the top of the horn for baritone. This means any sax harness would need to have a great deal of vertical adjustment. Most harness don’t have this. have to return to using the tried and true neck strap. Neck straps have issues all their own separate to the pains in the neck they cause. A cheaper strap will usually have a nylon hook instead of a plastic coated metal hook. While this is great for protecting the finish it just isn’t strong enough to hold the bass. There is nothing worse than to have a horn go crashing to the ground because of a bad or broken nylon clasp.

In examining my horn I saw that sometime in the past 93 years the thumb hook had been repaired, perhaps more than once based on slightly different solder colors. I suspect that it took a hit to the thumb rest perhaps during a fall. The weight of this horn amplifies small hits. It’s the classic equation of force = mass * acceleration. A heavy sax dropping, sliding, or falling onto a surface is going to cause damage to something. That something is going to be the sax or the surface it hit.

As you might expect once you find a way to hang the horn from your person you will find that your body will develop some ache and pains. Good core support if vital if you want to play it suspended from your body. If you don’t then a good stand becomes the second most important purchase after your case. There are playing stands with wheels that allow you to position the horn for tooting while mounter firmly in the stand. There are also stands  which are similar to baritone stands but have a much larger bell “U” to accommodate the larger bell of the bass. Saxrax has become the de facto bass stand for many players on the internet.

Lastly, being a bass sax player requires a change in mindset. Depending on the type of music you play you may not have the lead line. If you are the bass of the group then you have to play like the bass of the group. Low notes alone are only part of the bass equation. You have to become a rhythm instrument as well as a wind one. This requires rhythmic playing  and where a drummer is involved a connection to them. The bass and drums feed and compliment each other.  The bass provides the foundation of the chords while also complimenting the drum rhythms. This takes time and practice. There are several great bass sax players on Youtube who exemplify this rhythmic and chordal duality. Bert Brandsma of the Dixieland Crackerjacks is the first that comes to mind. The second is Joe Rushton who played with Red Nichols and the Five pennies.

Sigurd Rascher | Father of a School of saxophone tone and fundamentals

When I first started playing saxophone I had no idea what a classical saxophone should sound like. My saxophone tone exposure was limited to George Coleman, Branford Marsalis, Kenny G, and the various Reggae and Ska saxophone players. I hadn’t really heard the clear, crisp, and distinctly sax tone that classical players were using. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I would first hear a truly classical saxophone tone. This was in the time when the internet was just starting and there wasn’t a YouTube. My private lesson teacher played for our entire saxophone section a recording of Fredrick Hemke or was it Marcel Mule playing the Concertina de Camera? I remember distinctly that my tone was nothing like theirs and I wanted to learn more.

Throughout high school I would spend 2 to 3 hours a day practicing my tone. Seriously, I would practice during my lunch break and then after school before marching band and concert band. at the time I played 80% alto and I loved it. I was very proud of my tone by the time I was a senior. I landed an alto position in the county band and was happy to perform with my peer’s across the county. The one thing that stuck out was the player in the 1st chair. I heard his tone as being sweet and rather dark. I remember asking him about his tone and he said his lesson teacher preferred the Rascher type alto tone. That conversation set me on a course to learn more about Rascher and his remarkable tone.

Now that reference material is so easily located I am excited to share the kind of material I wish was available at the time I was learning tone, overtones, and articulation. Rascher and his daughter deliver these lesson in a clear and easily demonstrated manor.  This is a good time to mention Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Four-Octave Range by Sigurd Rasher. This book changed my playing immensely.

Saxophone Basics by Sigurd Rasher (Covers tone, breathing, embouchure, articulation, overtones, posture, vibrato) :

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Carlama Orkestar – Balkan saxophone band from the Netherlands w/ Bass Saxophone

I understand if you may have never seen or heard of this saxophone group if you live in the United States but that has to change at some time and that time is now. This dynamic group has at it’s core a driving rhythm section composed of Henk Spies on bass saxophone and Sebastian Demydczuk on drums. The music comes from the Serbian/Baltic tradition and is a lively and energetic exposition on life and living. You can’t help but want to move when you listen to it.

I was less than familiar with this genre of music as I studied western European and American music. It reminds me of Klezmer or festival music. Regardless of your experience or understanding of the music the raw emotion and playfulness of it comes through clearly. The characteristic ornamental style of playing is in full display with trills, appoggiatura, mordents, and glissandos littering the phrases. Just listening reminds the musician that clean and clear articulation, both finger and tongue,  is a fundamental to the delivery of this style of music.

My initial attraction was without a doubt the bass saxophone holding down the rhythm section. Henk’s vintage Conn looking bass really burps out those bass tones. His tone ranges from tuba like to raunchy sax. More important to his execution of the bass line than his tone is his time. He is rhythmically tied to the percussion and together they form a solid percussive base for the others to play against. The more one listens the more the relationship between bass and drums becomes clear. They feed each other and play off of each other. I am loosely remininded of 1920’s style ragtime bass saxophone.

TAKE AWAY: This group is fun, different, and worth the price of admission or a CD.

The Band:
Akos Laki – Tenor saxophone
“Soso” Sandor Lakatos –  Alto saxophone
Stanislav Mitrovic – Alto saxophone, vocals
Henk Spies –  bass saxophone
Sebastian Demydczuk – drums

The Carlama Orkestar Website


Thoughts on Chinese Bass Saxophones

When I say bass saxophone and jazz what comes to mind? I wouldn’t be surprised if “Tiger Rag” and Adrian Rollini came to mind or if your a hair younger then perhaps Colin Stetson. The fact that this much neglected member of the saxophone family is making a comeback in its own way is something to be excited about. While bass saxes didn’t go extinct between the 20’s and today they did become more scarce and more expensive. The recent proliferation of Chinese made bass saxes has brought them in to price range where the pro-amature/amature+ can afford.

In talking with a couple of Chinese baritone and bass sax owners about the horns quality it would seem that the larger the horn the greater the tolerances can be. Which for bigger saxes means that it is possible to get a well playing horn that is worth the investment. A chinese made bass can be had under 5k if you shop well, this is less than 1/3rd of what a new Selmer or Keilwerth bass will set you back. Let’s also consider that bass sax gigs are likely to be few and far between.

Here are a couple songs,  the first is played by Uwe Ladwig on a vintage American made bass sax. The 2nd video is a modern Chinese made horn. The 3rd is a classical use of a Selmer Series II bass and it’s spectacularly rich classical tone.

Mi-Bemol Saxophone Ensemble – Mi-Bemol Saxophone Ensemble (2009)

What do you get when you combine 4 sopranos, 8 altos, 4 tenors, 4 baritones , and 1 bass saxophone in a concert hall with some of the best classical arrangements to come along for the saxophone? You get the Mi-Bemol saxophone ensemble of course. 

On display on this disk is the kind of group technical mastery that every musical organization should listen to. The intonation, articulation and phrasing here are fine examples of what dedication to your instrument can become in a group setting. Every horn is dynamically perfect and every phrase flows the next. If you didn’t know any better you would swear you were listening to a traditional chamber ensemble.

As is customary in my reviews I have to address, what is in my opinion the best part of this ensemble, the low saxes. The bottom end is built on the bass saxophone and baritones. The bass player must have lungs the size of a whale to be able to support the long flowing lines “Dreams of Love NO.3″. His string bass like tone anchors the low end like no other can. The bass is supported by the powerful baritone section. Their 4 cello like tones fill in the mid and upper regions of the low end and offer the perfect bridge between the Tenor section and bass. The best example of the low saxophone section can be heard in “Serenade op.48” by Tchaikovsky.

Seeing as this is not a band composed of low saxophones I am compelled to offer praise to the remainder of the band. The altos filling the role of the violin is fantastically well arranged. Their combined power and tone ads a string like quality that no other woodwind ensemble can replicate. The real surprise is that the the entire alto section is amazingly in tune at all times. It is proof that more than 1 alto player can indeed play in tune, at the same time no less.

Now if you’ve never played tenor saxophone in classical music then you know that feeling of being the odd person out. While you are the darling of the jazz scene when you get to classical music you are the red-headed stepchild of the saxophone family. You always have supporting lines and every so often are given a moving line with, wait for it, several 8th notes in a row that you share with the 5th clarinet. bass clarinet, bassoon, 3rd trombone, and 4th trumpet. Yeah it’s about a boring a role in music as there can be. You pray for a soli passage in which you can make you line shine only to be waved quite by a conductor who favors the alto portion of that line. As you can imagine I’ve done my time on a tenor in a classical ensemble.

You might expect that the tenors would get similar treatment in this group but I am happy to say that it is not the case. The tenor role in the group is that of the viola. They support the altos from below and add tremendous depth to the mid-tones. I can say with confidence that this group would sound only half as good as it does.  Yes, I am attributing a great value to classical tenor at this moment but it is very well deserved here.

The sopranos are the sizzle and likely to be the players working the hardest in this group. To keep 4 soprano saxophones anywhere near in tune for greater than 20% of the time is a feat deserving of a Nobel prize. It’s almost impossible to consider how hard these 4 musicians must have worked to lock in the intonation and keep it there through the fast moving lines. The sopranos are playing the role of flute, clarinet, oboe, and piccolo. This is no small endeavor for any group of musicians but they pull this off so brilliantly that you have to acknowledge the greatness of the feat.

TAKE AWAY: This group is what Adolph Sax envisioned in his head as he slaved away in his workshop. He had to know at the time that what he made was to be the most flexible, beautiful, adaptive, and responsive of the woodwind family and in turn the most amazing. This album would please Adolph as much as it pleased me and I’m sure it will please you as well. Although I do recommend 1 more bass saxophone, might I suggest a certain writer for MBS?

Jan van Dijk bass saxophone concerto – Andreas van Zoelen

In 1841 Adolphe Sax had a dream of an instrument whose voice could command the heavens or make the angels weep with delight. He in visioned a horn whose basso-profondo voice would bridge the gap between the wind and stringed instruments. The lyrically exquisite instrument he created first was the bass saxophone. Though keyed in the key of “C” for orchestral use, it’s depth of character was everything Adolphe could have hoped for.

Now more than 150 years later the composer Jan van Dijk created a haunting showpiece for the saxophonist Andreas van Zoelen. This piece was written for the bass saxophone in its original intended home, the chamber orchestra. Van Zoelen gives life to the lines and weaves them into and out of the ensemble. While  this piece is quite short it still displays Van Zoelen’s command of his instrument and his musicality. The bass sax tone is near to that of a bassoon at times yet still unmistakably sax’ish. It’s controlled and absolutely in tune with the rest of the ensemble.

TAKE AWAY: I hear hints of Gustav Mahler in the scoring but that’s a great thing. If ever there was a bass saxophone tone I would want to emulate it is this one. Turn up your speakers and enjoy. Actually, there is one other bass tone i’d emulate and that is of Bert Brandsma of the Dixieland Crackerjacks.

ONE MORE  THING:   Please, someone send this video to the folks at J’Elle Stainer and let them know that this is what a silky bass could sound like and to emulate it all the way down their line.

Be sure to visit Andreas Van Zoelen’s website.

ATANGA BOOM! – New Artists

It should be clear that I am a sucker for low wind instruments. The lower the frequency and higher my enthusiasm. Imagine my surprise when “The Pepper Adams Jazz” channel on YouTube posted a video of an group playing funky grooves with a baritone sax soloist and a tuba on the bass line. This didn’t just peak my interest it fueled my lust for more of this fun sounding musical experience. What’s the name of this unique group? Atanga Boom!.

The group formed in 2012 and has Atanga Boom! is self described as “a 6 piece band from The Netherlands interested in afrogrooves, funk and spacejazz.” They claim musical influences from all over the globe and many different musical heritages. These include: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, Antibalas, Ebo Taylor, Fela Kuti, Youssou N’Dour, Radiohead, Mulatu Astatke, Prince, Doudou N’Daye Rose.

Take Away:
Spending time with their YouTube and SoundCloud has been an enjoyable experience and I hope to be able to buy a complete album in the very near future. At that point I can discuss the finer points a Coen Kaldeway’s excellent playing on this album.

Keyboard – Maarten Meddens 
Guitar – Mark Tuinstra
Percussion – Helene Jank
Baritone Sax – Coen Kaldeway
Tuba – Axel Schappert
Drums – Greg Smith

Listen to their sound cloud recordings here – or visit their YouTube Channel for more.

Master Class – Phil Woods

I had the absolute pleasure of hearing Phil Woods when he came through my town and played with the local Jazz band. His tone and technique was phenomenal to hear live. For a rather large man his playing was light and airy. At the time I was playing alto full time and this man was who I wanted to emulate. One of his comments that always stuck with me was his comment on Charlie Parker. While I don’t remember it exactly as he told it, I do remember the gist of of it. Essentially he said that he does in fewer notes what took Park a sheets worth of notes to accomplish.

This master class is heavy on performance but is worth the 38 minutes spent to enjoy and learn by example.

Please follow the LINK to to purchase this content on DVD.

Master Class – Ernie Watts

Long before I found the love of the low note I was enamored by the technical and stylistic abilities of Ernie Watts. Growing up he was right along side Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Gerry Mulligan in my jazz listening. So when I stumbled on his master class I thought it important to share his knowledge and performance.

Here at MBS we feel that passing on musical knowledge is one of the most important things we can do for our readers. Masterclasses will be a regular section of the site.