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, which then in turn puts its 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:

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!

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