Dec 8, 2019

Review: "The Leak Light Speaks" by Tom Levitt

The Leak Light Speaks is subtitled, "Saxophone Purchase, Assessment, Set Up, Repair, Overhaul, Customization and Reflections on Jazz Education outside of Academia." Quite a list of topics! Author Tom Levitt offers us the benefit of his experience on these subjects, in a writing style that one might even call poetic at times. The book is aimed at his fellow saxophone enthusiasts, and in particular at those who might be interested in DIY (do-it-yourself) repair and customization. I've been playing for over 50 years; I learned some things, and had a fun read along the way.

For the uninitiated, I should explain that a "leak light" is a light dropped by a woodwind repairer into the body of the instrument, in a darkened room. When a pad is closed, there should be no light leakage visible around the outside rim of the pad. Thus, the leak light is a speaker of truth, so to speak.

Before I get into the content of the book, I have to say that it could have benefited from some proofreading and improved organization. But I'm willing to forgive a lot with a self-published book - I have to respect the sincerity of the project, and the effort that the author put into it.

A short anecdote: When I was in college in the 1970s, I attended a week-long summer jazz workshop put on by National Stage Band Camps (predecessor to the Aebersold summer workshops). The faculty included John LaPorta, Marian McPartland, Lou Marini Sr., and some other great teachers. I played in a big band class taught by trumpeter Wes Hensel. At the end-of-the-week final concert, he had me take a long tenor solo on a very fast "rhythm changes" tune in 5/4. I was in way over my head, but got through it somehow and survived. That did a lot for my confidence going forward. I also had an arranging class with Wes. What stuck with me from that class was something he told us on the last day: "If you remember nothing else from this class, remember that clarity is the magic word." Wes was talking about arranging, but that advice applies to all creative endeavors. I've used that line quite a lot in teaching, over the years.

In The Leak Light Speaks, Levitt's writing is great on the level of his sentences, but the book's format is short on clarity. If he ever decides to revise this book, it would help his readers if the chapter divisions and subheadings were visually clarified, the Table of Contents revised, and the spelling checked.

Here are the main sections of the book and page numbers as they should have appeared in the Table of Contents:

Introduction  7
Perspectives on the Saxophone   11
Repair, Overhaul, and Customization  89
Journey to the Centre of the Saxophone  121 [the author's personal history with the sax]
Saxophone Study and Formal Education  137
The Customized Saxophone  155  [a summing-up]

The second and third sections above are the longest, centering on practical advice.

The book's factual advice concerns how to find a decent saxophone in need of work, but with potential, and turn it into a superior instrument through DIY repair and customization. Candidates can be found on eBay, but the buyer needs to know what to look for. Levitt considers the Yamaha 23 to be the standard by which other student-level horns are measured (I agree). For sturdy build, the Bundy II can be taken as a standard (I agree). These, or quality-equivalent horns, would be the place for an aspiring DIY sax repairer to start.

Levitt discusses "stencils" - i.e., horns made by a manufacturer to sell to another company, who then in turn put their own name on the horn. One prime example is the Vito 7131, which was actually made by Yamaha, and is equivalent to the Yamaha 23. Stencils have been produced by various manufacturers since at least the 1920s. Tracing different stencil producers and labels is difficult and convoluted. Levitt lists quite a few, but a better list is here: https://bassic-sax.info/version5/vintage-saxes/stencil-saxes/stencil-saxophone-names-links/.

Regarding modern student saxophones, Levitt is disparaging of many of the current super-low-end offerings, saying that they are sometimes made of soft metal, are easily damaged, and are almost impossible to keep in good repair. I agree. Some of my students have had discouraging experiences with low-end horns that their parents bought, trusting that they would be usable. Caveat Emptor. If you are shopping for a student horn, you need to do some research, and talk to someone knowledgeable, who can make a good recommendation. IMO, the last thing you want is a brand-new $250 Amazon horn.

(On the other side of this argument, Stephen Howard, a respected sax technician, states that some of the cheap Chinese horns aren't too bad, and that he believes quality is improving. See this article. But again - if you are buying, be very, very careful.)

Personally, I am not a DIY repairer, beyond easy minor adjustments and pad replacement.

Nevertheless, it was informative to read through the advice on repair and setup. If you are interested in acquiring this skill, Levitt's book could be quite helpful. The aforementioned Stephen Howard also has a nice book out on sax repair, Haynes Saxophone Manual. Howard's book is clearly written and presented, but goes into somewhat less depth; when a particular repair seems too complicated for the average reader, Howard simply tells the reader to take it to a pro repair shop (that's what I do). Levitt's readers are encouraged to take more chances, in the pursuit of self-education.

The Leak Light Speaks covers some subjects that might raise some eyebrows - e.g., DIY lacquering, making DYI plasticover reeds, and "rigidifying" soft-metal horns, all using polyurethane (Varathane). Also, if I read it right, refinishing/rigidifying horns with white glue...I have to assume that Levitt has tried all of these techniques.

In the section titled “Journey to the Centre of the Saxophone,” the author relates some autobiographical stories about how he developed his interest in saxophone playing and repair, and about some of the characters he met along the way. Levitt ends the section with philosophical comments on jazz saxophone playing and the artistic life.

In “Saxophone Study and Formal Education,” Levitt discusses the way jazz musicians were educated in the early history of jazz, contrasting it with the “artificial jazz milieu” that he sees in university jazz education programs. He is not keen on the value of “formal” education, as it applies to playing jazz. He prefers the DIY approach. Many musicians would take exception to this. It is true that the only way to acquire the tools of jazz improvisation, really, is through self-education. But it is also true that “formal” education can open a lot of intellectual doors. Levitt considers this question from the viewpoint of the artist/philosopher. This section includes some practical suggestions for practice routines, all perfectly reasonable.

The last section, “The Customized Saxophone,” is a summation of the main points of the book, with some final words of encouragement for the DIY repairer/customizer.

Considering the practical information in this book, the entertainment value of a good read, and the inspirational words of artistic encouragement, this book is well worth the $10.00 that it costs on Amazon. Thanks to Tom Levitt for writing it!



Nov 19, 2019

A Tufts University Study of Cryogenic Treatment of Brass Instruments

Last week I ordered a copy of The Leak Light Speaks, by Tom Levitt, just because it looked like an interesting book. The subtitle reads, “Saxophone Purchase, Assessment, Set up, Repair, Overhaul, Customisation, Playing and Reflections on Jazz Education outside of Academia.” It’s a fun read for saxophonists; I’ll post a review sometime soon.

For now, though, I just want to put up a quick post about a study mentioned in the book's bibliography. It's a Tufts University project that attempted to determine whether or not cryogenically treating (i.e., supercooling) brass instruments has any effect on tone. The study used trumpets, but the results would apply to saxophones as well.

The study was done in 2003, but I hadn't seen it until now. Here's your executive summary:

Supercooling brass has no significant effect on tone. The researchers were careful to allow that there might be a subtle effect difficult to measure, but the approach and preparedness of the individual player are factors that far overshadow any effect that there might be from cryogenic treatment.

Click here for a link to the study itself.

Click here for a New York Times article on the study.

Here’s a previous post from this blog, with an informed opinion on this topic from a metals expert friend who is also a saxophonist.

It's a controversial subject. Many people apparently are convinced that cryogenic treatment somehow has a beneficial effect on tone. Antigua Winds and Forestone both offer models of saxophones with the selling pitch that the horns have been cryogenically treated. The 300 Below company not only will superfreeze musical instruments, but also offers cryogenically treated firearms. For details on all these products, just google "saxophones + cryogenic." This search will also take you to a long, snarky discussion on saxontheweb.com.

Oct 9, 2019

"Blues Walk," "Loose Walk," and "Somebody Done Stole My Blues"

Recently I learned that the Bb blues that I knew as Clifford Brown's "The Blues Walk" is also called "Loose Walk," credited to Sonny Stitt. A little internet research turned up the fact that it is also known as "Somebody Done Stole My Blues," written by alto saxophonist Chris Woods.

Chris Woods seems to have been the actual composer; he recorded "Somebody Done Stole My Blues" on February 24, 1953 (Delmark DL-434 - for documentation, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page). If I understand correctly, this session was not released until 1976. Sonny Stitt recorded the same tune as "Loose Walk" on November 16, 1953 (Opus 202, Vogue VJD 555). Clifford Brown recorded "The Blues Walk" on February 24-25, 1955 (EmArcy 26043).

A 1962 Tubby Hayes recording, featuring Sonny Stitt, calls it "Stitt's Tune."

Although somebody apparently did indeed steal Chris Woods' blues, his title, though ironic, was not in response to that, as his recording seems to have been titled that way from the beginning.

I could imagine that the title "Blues Walk" for Clifford Brown's tune might have resulted from a misunderstanding. Perhaps the recording engineer asked Clifford for the title, Clifford called it "Loose Walk," and the engineer heard it as "Blues Walk." That's just a wild guess. The attribution to Clifford could have been a mistaken assumption. A more cynical person might speculate that royalties were involved in some way.

I couldn't find the Chris Woods 1953 recording on Youtube, but here is a 1978 live version with Clark Terry, Horace Parlan, Victor Sproles, and Bobby Durham. Clark Terry is burning. Chris Woods may not have been well known, but he could really play:






Here's Sonny Stitt's 1953 recording:






And of course, the classic Clifford Brown track:






All of the above versions are in Bb concert. Dexter Gordon liked it in F, and called it "Loose Walk":


Sep 22, 2019

Review: Charlie Parker Omnibook, Volume 2

Jazz education has come a long way in the last 50 years. With so many theory methods, patterns books, playalongs, fakebooks, and solo transcriptions now available, it may be hard to imagine that there was a time when we had very few of these. The recently-published Charlie Parker Omnibook Volume 2, with 60 solo transcriptions, is a valuable addition to our educational resources. Big thanks are due to the transcriber, Chris Stewart.

Some personal history: When I was in 7th grade in the 1960s, playing tenor in the school jazz band and just beginning to listen to recordings by the great players, I discovered that my local public library had a record listening station, and a number of Charlie Parker's Savoy and Verve recordings. I used to do my homework with the headphones on, and have been a fan ever since.

In college in Portland, Oregon, when I was finally getting serious about music, one of the few sources for transcriptions was old Downbeat magazines. There was an archive of back issues at the public library. I was thrilled to find transcriptions of Parker's "Now's the Time" solo and Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul." I learned a lot from those two solos alone.

A digression: When I was in the library digging through old issues of Downbeat, I got into a conversation with another student who I met there. He told me a story about his dad, who had been a trombone player in New York in the 1940s. One day his dad decided to go sit in at an open jam session. When he got there, Charlie Parker was on stage, with some other heavy players. Dad was understandably intimidated. He took his trombone out into the hallway, and started playing along softly, facing the wall. As he was playing, someone grabbed him by the collar and marched him onstage. The guy who grabbed him was Parker.

Anyway, when the first ("Volume 1") Charlie Parker Omnibook came out in 1978, it was a great gift to jazz education. I used the transcriptions for sightreading and for analysis, and have used the book in teaching ever since, with any jazz-oriented student who is ready for it.

With most students whose reading and theory skills are sufficient, the first solos we study are 5 blues tunes, all in concert F - Now's the Time (two takes), Au Privave (two takes), and Billie's Bounce. First we play the transcription together, and practice the rough spots (listening to the original recording helps a lot). Then I go through the solo measure by measure, noting the devices that Parker uses in playing a blues. As we go through these 5 solos, many of the same devices occur repeatedly. As I see it, here are some of the benefits of this approach:

1) Blues is at the heart of jazz. Students need to understand blues instinctively, intellectually, and emotionally. Parker was a brilliant blues player. Just being exposed to his music is important.
2) The student will hopefully pick up something of his thought process, consciously or unconsciously (that's a good reason to study Bach and Mozart, too).
3) The solos are pretty technical in spots, and are great reading practice.
4) Analysis will help students' understanding of music theory in general.
5) They will hopefully pick up on some of the devices that make a blues solo work.

(This post has an analysis of Billie's Bounce, as I might approach it at a lesson.)

As fond as I am of the old Volume 1 Omnibook, it has some imperfections. The notation is sometimes not exactly "proper" (e.g., use of accidentals). The chord symbols sometimes seem to be intended to reflect Parker's apparent thought process (e.g., chord substitutions), but at other times seem to be intended to reflect either what the band is playing, or what the changes are "supposed" to be. In other words, the reasoning for the chord symbols seems to be inconsistent. The transcriptions, by Ken Slone and Jamey Aebersold, are very good, but there are a few wrong notes and rhythms here and there, if you are picky.

Bb, C, and bass clef versions of the original Omnibook are available, but the fingerings and pitches of Parker's solo lines are native to the alto sax. When transposed for Bb instruments, the licks do not sit as well on the horn. Also, range can be a problem; some notes or phrases need to be moved up or down by an octave in order to fit in the normal range of the sax. This can interfere with the original flow of the phrases. The Bb book works better for clarinet than for tenor, as the clarinet has a wider range. Sometimes I think tenor players would be better off using the Eb book, though of course that puts the songs in a different key than the one in the original recording. This issue applies to volume 2 as well.

As Chris Stewart notes in his preface to Volume 2, the original Omnibook does not show articulations; also, the choices of tunes are heavy on blues and "rhythm changes" tunes. The lack of articulations doesn't really bother me, and the tune choice is not really a flaw; it's just the nature of the book.

When the publication of Volume 2 was announced a few months ago, I ordered a copy right away. I've played through all the tunes in the book (but of course not at the original tempos).

Here are some features that I noted in the Volume 2 Omnibook:

1) As mentioned, the song choices are not so heavy on blues and rhythm changes, but include more standards. That's a welcome addition.
2) Volume 2 includes articulations (Volume 1 does not) - in fact, Stewart has included pretty much every articulation that he could. I've only "proofed" a couple of the volume 2 tunes for articulations. As nearly as I can tell, Stewart is mostly right, though in a few places the indicated articulations may be arguable. In fairness, he probably has better sound equipment than I do, and obviously has a great ear. I do find that the articulations tend to clutter the visual aspect of the transcription. The inclusion of articulations is OK with me; it's just a choice he made in an effort to be more accurate. As the saying goes, it's a feature, not a bug.
3) Rules of "proper" notation are followed more consistently than was the case in Volume 1.
4) Growls are shown!
5) Stewart has indicated wherever he thinks Parker is using a side D fingering for 4th line D. If he's right, Parker uses it quite a bit. I think some of these indications may be arguable. Also, unless I overlooked it, I don't see any indications that he used side C for 3rd space C or for C above the staff (I know Volume 1 pretty well, and have noticed some spots where Parker probably used side C, though it's not indicated in that book).
6) Chord changes seem to be chosen much as they were in Volume 1. That is, it is not always clear whether they are intended to reflect what Parker was playing, or what the pianist is playing.
7) One factual goof: The tune listed as "They Didn't Believe Me" (Jerome Kern) is not that song, but rather "Irresistible You" (Gene DePaul), as per Lawrence Koch's Parker biography, Yardbird Suite (pp. 262-3).

Steve Neff has posted an excellent review of Volume 2, worth checking out. He also has posted youtube links to all the songs in the new Omnibook.

I'm truly grateful to Chris Stewart for putting together this great product! If you enjoyed the old Omnibook as I have, you'll find many more years of enjoyment in the new Omnibook Volume 2.

If you would like to order either the original Omnibook or the new Volume 2, links are below for the Eb editions. If you order through these links, this website will receive a small cut (thanks!).

Charlie Parker Omnibook Volume 2:



Charlie Parker Omnibook Volume 1:

Jul 21, 2019

"There Will Never Be Another You" - Why does F7 resolve to Eb major?

In older lead sheets for some jazz standards, you will sometimes see II dominant chords (that is, V of V) progressing directly to the tonic. In the key of C, that would be D7 moving to C major. This sequence is found in "There Will Never Be Another You," "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Memories of You," and "Time After Time," among others.

In newer charts for these songs, this progression is often replaced with some sort of reharmonization "workaround" that better fits current preconceptions of how harmony should function.

D7 resolving to C might seem to somehow transgress the rules of harmony, but if a composer wrote this chord change, there was probably a good reason. In the original sheet music for these songs, the piano arrangements will usually show the II dominant going to a tonic chord that has its fifth in the bass. In the key of C, that would be D7 going to C/G (C major with G in the bass) 

This is a classical device, the "cadential six-four chord." In classical terminology, a triad with its fifth in the bass (2nd inversion) is called a "six-four" chord. Although C/G might appear to be a tonic chord, it is actually functioning as a V with two suspended notes. In jazz terms, C/G could be regarded as a sort of Gsus4 chord. Generally, it will then go on to a typical V  I final cadence. If you look at it that way, the D7 to C/G progression is not so odd after all.

In the original sheet music for songs using this harmonic device, the piano arrangement may include a fifth in the bass of the tonic chord, while the chord symbols may fail to mention it. If a lead sheet is created from these chord symbols, players will just see D7 going to C, and may feel that it is flawed writing, that should be fixed - hence the reharmonizations in many modern lead sheets.

Of course, a reharmonization may have been made because it just sounds better to the arranger, or because it offers better opportunities for improvisation. The composer's original harmony may not be what is best for you. Still, it's interesting to see why these songs differ in various printed sources, and what replacements musicians have come up in an effort to avoid the V of V to tonic six-four device.

There Will Never Be Another You


Harry Warren's "There Will Never Be Another You" provides a great illustration of how this device has been avoided and rewritten in contemporary fakebooks. Here's the last page of the original sheet music. Click to enlarge.




"There Will Never Be Another You" is in Eb. The V of V to tonic six-four (F7 to Eb/Bb) occurs in the first two measures of the last line (mm 28-29 of the song, not counting the introductory "verse"). 

Although the chord symbols show Ebdim over the word "If" on beat 4, IMO this chord (it's actually a 4-note Ebdim7, as there's a C in the melody) is functionally insignificant. The Ebdim chord symbol is only shown to make a guitarist's comping fit with the F# note in the piano part; that F# is just there to provide a passing harmony with the C melody note on beat 4. 

The F7 (V of V) provides a strong push towards a V (Bb7), but instead of a V, the next measure has a cadential six-four (Eb/Bb, though the chord symbol shows only Eb). This is a textbook usage of the cadential tonic six-four. It makes me think that perhaps Harry Warren (Salvatore Antonio Guaragna) had some classical training.

Although the chord symbols show F7 for beat 3 of bar 28, there is no F note in the piano part. Nevertheless, I agree that the functional chord is actually F7; the bass line moving from Bb to A is typical of a II V (Cm7 to F7). 

Apparently many jazz players have found the indicated F7 to Eb sequence to be unsatisfactory, as it has been reharmonized in a number of different ways. 

Here are the last 8 bars of the tune as shown in various fake books:

Old ("Classic") Real Book:



Although this is the first version I learned, the Gm7  C7 never sounded right to me.

Hal Leonard "6th Edition Real Book":


The Am7 D7 here sounds better than the Gm7 C7 in the old RB version. Comparing this version to the original piano part, you might convince yourself that the D7 corresponds to the original F7 Ebdim7, in the sense that D7b9 is kind of equivalent to Ebdim7, and Ebdim7 is kind of equivalent to F7b9. However, IMO, this has nothing to do with Warren's original intended progression.

"New Real Book" (Sher Music): 



This is the same as the "6th Edition" version above, but with b5 added to the Am7. To their credit, the editors showed F13 as an alternate chord change, though without showing the following Eb/Bb.

Hal Leonard Real Jazz Standards Fake Book: (This useful book shows slightly edited sheet music chord symbols above, with a more modern reharmonization below):



In the "revised" changes, F#dim7 occurs on beat 3 rather than on the original sheet music's beat 4 (except for the root, F#dim7 and Ebdim7 are the same set of notes). I see the function of the F#dim7 here as being different from the Ebdim7 in the original sheet - in this chart, it's there not so much to accompany a piano arrangement that has an F# note below the melody note C, but rather is there to put passing tones between the F7 and the Ebmaj7 so that the change does not seem so abrupt. 

"Colorado Cookbook":



Here we see the same Am7 D7 as in the "6th Edition Real Book," but resolving to Gm7 rather than Eb. Perhaps this seemed like a good solution because D7 is V of Gm7, and Gm7 is a reasonable substitute for Eb major.

"The Book":



Here we see Cm7  Ebdim7 going to Eb. It's like the chord symbols in the original sheet music, but leaving out the F7 that should be the main functional element here. This doesn't make much sense. It misses the original intent, and results in a weak bass line.

Hal Leonard "Ultimate Jazz Fake Book":




(Click to enlarge.) This version fills bar 28 entirely with an F#dim7 chord. This chord does not follow logically from the Cm7 that precedes it, and does not make for a good bass line. The only logic here is that (1.) diminished chords can pretty much pivot from anywhere to anywhere, and (2.) F#dim7 is sort of like the F7 in the original sheet music, though of course the original V of V to six-four intent is lost.

All in all, it seems that jazz musicians have gone to considerable effort to avoid and rewrite the V of V to cadential six-four device in Warren's tune. 

Below is a list of some more tunes that use the V of V to cadential six-four, with some sources where you can see the progression (thanks to Tom Simpson for this list). I only had the original sheet music for a few of these. 

Embraceable You (mm 12-13, 28-29) (see Sher "Standards Real Book") 
I Remember You (mm 28-29) ("Real Jazz Standards Fake Book")
I've Got A Crush On You (mm 14-15) (Old "Classic Real Book vol. 3")
It Might As Well Be Spring (mm 36-37, not counting intro "verse") ("Real Jazz Standards Fake Book")
Lover Come Back To Me (mm 4-5) ("Real Jazz Standards Fake Book")
Memories Of You (mm 28-29) (Old "Classic Real Book vol. 2")
Nice Work If You Can Get It (mm 4-5, 28-29) (Sher "Standards Real Book")
I Surrender Dear (mm 4-5) (Django Fake Book)
Time After Time (mm 28-29) (Sher "Standards Real Book")
My Romance (mm 28-29) ("Real Jazz Standards Fake Book")

It's interesting to note how many of these instances occur in measures 28-29, as part of the final cadence.

If you can think of any more tunes that use this device, please leave a comment!

Jul 9, 2019

João Gilberto article from NPR

João Gilberto passed away last Saturday at the age of 88. He was one of the most influential musicians of our time. No one could deliver a melody with more depth and subtlety.

Here is an article from NPR's Tom Moon that does a great job in describing his legacy.