More Contrabass Tromboning

December 29, 2014

I was able to pull out the contrabass trombone this afternoon and spend some time working with it. This is a rare chance, and I took full advantage. The instrument needed some slide grease, but was otherwise in fine fettle from the last time I used it. I pulled it out and after the obligatory long tones to warm up, I attacked the scales, later progressing to some runs and a few impromptu tunes as well.

Feedback: I am beginning to get a handle on the horn and my tone has definitely improved. I don’t have either a true ‘trombone’ sound or a real ‘tuba’ sound yet, but it’s getting closer, though it is still somewhat ‘honky’.

I found today that I also can control my attack on the horn far better now, and my range has improved to a solid three octaves. That’s not too bad for this horn – it is unwieldy in the upper register and for me to hit the D above Middle C was an unexpected achievement. However, with that said, there are far too many notes that are not coming out clearly, and the instrument is still quite foggy in its tone. The improvements I’ve seen so far encourage me to think that this is something that time and practice will cure, but it is still a problem. The slide work can only be described as awful.

The slide itself, though heavy and sluggish, responds acceptably, so the problem is clearly on my end – the horn is not to blame. I simply have to accustom myself to the double-slide and master the differences in technique that this instrument requires. This issue too I believe I can eventually overcome, but the process will be a long one. I would definitely recommend prospective contrabass trombonists to be aware of this obstacle as it is a substantial one.

I did not do any mouthpiece switching today, but stayed on the one that Wessex provided with the horn. Overall, it did a good job, though once I have a better handle on the horn, I will begin trying different mouthpieces so as to get the sound I’m looking for. I like a dark, rich sound with plenty of bite when necessary. I can get it on the bass trombone, the helicon, and the tuba, so I know it is possible. I just have to figure out how to do it on the contrabass trombone. Right now, I am getting bite in the wrong places, which is why i describe the tone ads ‘honky’, and my control of the tone is not nearly complete.

Contrabass trombones, as I have stated before, are not easy instruments to play. They demand a very powerful airflow, and they require far more control than do tubas. It is easy to sound bad on a contra unless you know what you are doing. I expect that eventually I will achieve an acceptable sound and attack on this horn, but I do not expect it to occur in the near future. However I am enjoying the journey.


Updated Band Websites

December 29, 2014

As those of you who follow this blog know, I currently hold down the trombone chair in the Fog City Stompers, and the second cornet chair with the Mission Gold Jazz Band. These are my two regular bands, though I also play with Pat Dutrow’s Jazzmeisters and the East Bay Stompers as well as subbing with a number of other traditional and swing bands in the Bay Area. With 2015 looming, I decided to do a little publicizing.

Mission Gold’s online home has long been hosted on a site called JazzDance.org. However, JazzDance’s webmaster recently passed on, so we have decided to move. After some research, we chose Reverbnation as our new home, mainly due to the many tools it offers for bands. Mission Gold’s leader, trombonist John Soulis, and I spent some time a few weekends ago transferring data from the existing site, and I am pleased to announce that the new site is now live. It contains our upcoming schedule, member biographies, sample MP3s for downloading, and even a few YouTube videos of the band in action. The new site can be found at the following URL: http://reverbnation.com/missiongoldjazzband

. Stop by and say hello!


Thoughts on Doubling

December 28, 2014

As a musician who doubles between trombone, bass trombone, tuba, and cornet, I thought it might be useful to post some of the methods I use to aid the transition. As an autodidact, I do not mean to imply that these are methods anyone else should use, but they have worked for me, so I thought I’d put them out there.

  1. Preparation: I mainly play trombone and euphonium. When I know that I’m going to be playing a smaller size mouthpiece than my normal one for a sustained period of time, as opposed to a one-off during a gig, I tend to want to prepare for it. Cornet requires a vastly different embouchure than does trombone or euphonium, so I usually try to make sure that I have several days’ concentrated practice on the instrument before I play the job. I usually like to warm up with some long tones or scales, and then go through the repertoire for the gig, before warming down with some more long tones. When this is not possible, I’ll simply play the cornet as much as possible in the days leading up to the performance. I find that this provides my embouchure with the necessary flexibility and endurance to make it through the gig.
  2. Planning: Switching from a large mouthpiece to a smaller one and vice-versa is very demanding – especially for those of like me who are not professional musicians. You don’t want to constantly be switching back and forth unless you are an extremely experienced doubler with an iron lip. So planning is important to make sure that you will not overstress your chops. Personally, I prefer to switch from small to large as opposed to vice-versa. However, it is sometimes necessary to go from large to small, or small-large-small. Each of these requires different strategies, but essentially, they all boil down into ‘find the progression that makes it easiest on your embouchure’. Plan your performance as carefully as possible so that the stress is minimized until you have achieved the necessary strength and stamina that will enable you to perform these changes without any ensuing difficulties.
  3. Repetition: As I stated above, only practice and repetition will make you a true doubler. Work constantly on the horns that you plan to perform in public. I prefer to focus on one at a time, and then slowly begin to switch between them as I practice so that I accustom myself to the process. However, some musicians seem to prefer to go back and forth between the various instruments to build the lip’s flexibility and stamina. Whatever method you use, there is no replacement for concerted hard work on the fundamentals of each instrument. Only time and hard work will give you the necessary base to become an accomplished doubler.

Ultimately, only you can determine the best methodology for how you approach doubling, but hopefully, this will give you some ideas that you can then develop more fully.


Wessex Tubas BBb Contrabass Trombone

December 20, 2014

Many low-brass musicians have a tendency to be collectors, and I am not an exception. Through the years, I’ve gathered quite a collection of instruments, and I now possess every model of trombone from soprano to bass. But I did not have a contrabass, so I set about looking for one. I’ve played both the Kanstul F and the Miraphone CC, but after my struggles with the Eb alto trombone, I preferred to stay with the BBb version, despite the many horror stories I had heard.

I spent some time looking around, and finally settled on a Chinese-built copy of the Miraphone BBb contrabone, manufactured by Jinbao for a company called Wessex Tubas. The price was reasonable and I finally broke down and ordered one in silver plate. It arrived a few months back and I have played it quite extensively. Here is my feedback.

Pros:

  • Sound: The horn has a very good sound, though it is neither quite trombone-like nor tuba-like. However, by varying the mouthpiece, it can produce a satisfactory trombone bark or a more mellow ‘tuba’ sound and it blends well with other low brass. So far, I’ve got about a two and a half octave range on the horn, which is better than I expected. A good professional would probably get more, but the working range of the horn is about three octaves, or so it seems. So I’m not too far off.
  • Quality: The build is very good – Chinese instruments have vastly improved in quality and although they are not equivalent to a professional US or European (or Japanese) instrument, they are infinitely better than what they are only a few years ago. This particular instrument is well-made and the silver plate looks to be thick and even. We’ll see how it ages, but the initial impression is good.
  • Price: Nothing else out there is anywhere near this price. These horns are going for around US $2500.00, and an instrument from Kanstul, Thein, or Miraphone is going to run you at least US $7500.00.
  • Versatility: This horn can take either a tuba or a bass trombone mouthpiece, by using an adapter that Wessex sells. My horn did not come with the adapter, but Wessex has promised to get me one. Once it arrives, I’ll try a few of my bass trombone mouthpieces and update this post. The main point of interest is how each mouthpiece affects the sound of the horn. It is very mouthpiece-dependent. Kind of like my Conn Victor 80A in that respect.

Cons:

  • Weight. This horn is very heavy and carrying it for a long period is very wearing on the arm and the hand. The balance is good, but the weight is something to take into account. If weight is a problem, then get the Kanstul F contra – it is noticeably lighter.
  • Tone: As previously noted, this horn is very mouthpiece-dependent for its sound. I have tried several different tuba mouthpieces, and the difference in sound is fascinating. I mainly use the one that came with it – a copy of the Miraphone contrabass mouthpiece. It gets a more trombone-like sound. When I want a more tuba-like sound, I put in the big Helleberg. But whichever mouthpiece you use, the horn does have a tendency to be somewhat foggy – you will need to work to produce a clear sound.
  • Slide action: This horn, like the Miraphone on which it is based, has a double slide. This means the action is Not Good. Period. Experience and practice will improve your results, but the slide is sluggish. Be prepared to anticipate and play on the leading edge of the note, so that you won’t drag.
  • Case: The horn comes with a hard case, which also is a copy of the Miraphone. While the case is acceptable, I recommend IMMEDIATELY getting a good leather gig bag – preferably the Glenn Cronkhite BBC. The hard case allows the horn to move around and mine already has two small dents – one of which was incurred in shipping. Miraphone cases have a reputation for allowing damage, and the Chinese copy is at least as prone to this as the original.

Overall Verdict:
I like this horn. Yes, it has its idiosyncrasies and yes, it is a demanding instrument – it is not an easy horn to play and you should not expect to pick it up and promptly start blowing Dorsey’s ‘Trombonology’! Contrabass trombones – especially the double-slide varieties – are somewhat unique instruments and they require a great deal of practice in order to master them.

Having said that, I’m glad I got it, and I’m enjoying getting acquainted with the instrument. And of course, my trombone collection is now essentially complete! To close, if you’re a trombonist looking to get into playing the contrabass, this is a very good place to start. The price is unbeatable and the quality is definitely good enough for a casual contrabass player. I know a few pros who play this instrument as well and who like it.

As a final note, Wessex also sells a slightly more expensive F contrabass, which is copied from the Thein ‘van Dijk’ model.


2015 Schedule

December 20, 2014

I’ve got quite a few jobs coming up in 2015, both with the Fog City Stompers and with the Mission Gold Jazz Band. For performance details and a complete list, please see my Reverbnation website, or you can check the band websites. I’ll list a few of the highlights here:

January:

  • Sunday, January 11: Performing with the Mission Gold Jazz Band at the Monterey Hot Jazz Society.
  • Sunday, January 25: Performing with Pat Dutrow’s Jazzmeisters at the South Bay Traditional Jazz Society.

February:

  • Sunday, February 1: Performing with the Fog City Stompers at the Santa Rosa TRADJASS Society.

March:

  • Sunday, March 1: Performing with the Mission Gold Jazz Band at the Santa Rosa TRADJASS Society.
  • Sunday, March 15: Performing with the Flying Eagles Jazz Band at the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California.
  • Sunday, March 22: Performing with the Mission Gold Jazz Band at the South Bay Traditional Jazz Society.

April:

  • Sunday, April 19: Performing with the Fog City Stompers at the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California.

July:

  • Saturday, July 11: Performing with the Fog City Stompers at the Cline Cellars Wine & Jazz Festival.

In addition, I perform with the East Bay Stompers every third Thursday at Bronco Billy’s Pizza Palace in Fremont from 7-9PM. Admission is free, and the pizza is good, so stop by if you’re in the area. More shows will be coming up, so watch this space!