Cline Cellars Wine & Jazz Festival 2012

July 23, 2012

There is a plethora of jazz festivals. Sacramento used to be the Holy Grail of jazz festivals – at least for traditional jazz musicians such as myself. However, that festival has changed and is no longer one of the premier traditional jazz festivals, in my humble opinion. However, Bay Area traditional jazz lovers do not have to mourn, as there is a wonderful jazz festival in the Bay Area – at the Cline Cellars Winery in Sonoma. The festival was begun almost twenty years ago by Fred Cline and Ken Keeler, who leads the Devil Mountain Jazz Band and has been going strong ever since. Unlike many festivals, it is solely a traditional jazz and ragtime festival – no zydeco, or other forms of music. Swing music is considered to be acceptable, however.

This year I had the honor of performing at the festival with the Fog City Stompers. I was substituting on tuba and it was a wonderful day. The weather was perfect and the lineup of bands was exemplary. In addition to Fog City, the festival featured Natural Gas, Devil Mountain, Golden Gate Rhythm Machine, Jambalaya Big Swing Band and the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. In addition, there were some solo performers such as Marty Eggers, Virginia Tichenor, Ray Skjelbred, Frederick Hodges, Bob Hirsch and Tom Brier.

The festival is very well laid-out, with three separate venues – the Barrel Room, the Mission and the Great Lawn. Each venue is far enough from the others that there is virtually no overlap of sound and each venue is prepared with plenty of chairs, as well as a dance floor for those attendees who wish to kick up their heels. Food is available and there is plenty of space for children to run – it is a very family-friendly festival.

Fog City began the day in the Barrel Room. This is the most dangerous room for a band as the accoustics take some getting used to. This is also where the bands are recorded, so it is incumbent on the musicians to ensure that they are in tune and well-balanced. We were the first group and so we had a little bit of trial and error to reach our preferred balance, but the set went well and the audience seemed appreciative. We then moved on to the Mission. This is the smallest venue and the furthest from the main buildings. Here we followed the Natural Gas Jazz Band. Fog City plays a lot of the original Bix Beiderbecke arrangements, and we did a Bix-only set here – every tune was an original Bix arrangement. This was probably our best set – we really were in a groove. Our final set was on the Great Lawn and we cut loose a little bit, to the audience’s pleasure.

Once our sets were done, we stayed to listen to some of the other groups, being fortunate enough to catch Ken Brock’s Jambalaya Big Band in the Barrel Room. They are a really fun group and they really had the dancers going. Wonderful music. The Fog City trombonist Jeff Walton was playing with Jambalaya and he did a wonderful job.

The sun was slipping slowly over the horizon as we finally left Cline. A wonderful day and I cannot recommend the festival highly enough. If you love traditional jazz played by fine musicians in a lovely venue, don’t miss the Cline Cellars Wine & Jazz Festival! And we’ll hope to see you in 2013.

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Heliconology, Part I

April 7, 2011

I have long been an admirer of the helicon. Oh, you may ask, but what IS a helicon? Well, as it is defined by Grove it is from the Greek ‘helikon’, which means ‘the mountains of the Muses’. It is a valved brass instrument, similar to a sousaphone, but with a fixed, upwards-facing bell. The first known example, according to Grove, was manufactured in 1845 in Vienna and the instrument is typically made in F, E-flat and BB-flat. It was made both in three- and four-valve configurations, though three is by far the most common. In the United States, the helicon has been almost entirely superseded by the sousaphone – American manufacturers ceased production by the 1940s. It is still manufactured in Europe.

I have been looking at various instruments online, as I decide I really want to purchase one of these instruments. I do play a fair number of gigs where a lighter horn than the big Miraphone 186 would be convenient. However, the Miraphone is such a beautiful instrument I have not yet made a move. However, a friend who has a small collection recently informed me that he had one for sale. After I expressed interest, he was kind enough to allow me to borrow the horn for a week to play it and see how I like it. The horn in question is an Ernst European model circa 1890-1900, with four rotary valves. It is pitched in the key of BB-flat. After playing it today, I have one or two preliminary observations, as follows.

Positives:

  • Weight: The horn is very light and I could easily stand to carry it for a three or four hour performance on my feet.
  • Voice: The horn is also very pleasant in tone and although it is not quite as full as my Miraphone 186 (no surprise there), it has a very capable range and can speak with some authority when necessary.
  • Negatives:

  • The horn has a shoulder brace which is somewhat bent, so I suspect that it could be made a little more fitting. That being said, the helicon has a straight bit that is very limited in adjustment and as a result, I need to hold the horn in order to bring it to my embouchure and raise my shoulder somewhat, which is not the most comfortable position.
  • The rotary keys are not in the most comfortable position, although i suspect that if the above-mentioned aspects were adjusted, this problem might well be resolved as well.
  • I shall continue playing the horn for the next week and intend to use it on the upcoming performance on Saturday. shall continue this series throughout the week and will post my final thoughts at the end of the week. As well as determining if I will or will not actually purchase the instrument I am currently playing!


    Another New Mouthpiece – Lindberg 2CL

    March 24, 2011

    Despite the pouring rain, I had to make a visit to my favorite music-repair shop last weekend. I had taken my little Reynolds baritone/tenor horn in for some regular cleaning and also asked the resident brass genius if he could do a little dent-removal. We also decided to install an extra spit valve to reduce the water buildup in one of the coils. However, when I went to pick up the horn, they had forgotten to install the spit valve so they asked me to wait for a half-hour or so. OK. I went upstairs to the music shop to browse a bit.

    As I was browsing, I spotted some interesting mouthpieces. Gold-plated, and a very distinctive shape. I had them pulled out for a closer look and discovered they were Christian Lindberg-designed mouthpieces. Now, I have long been an admirer of Mr. Lindberg’s virtuoso abilities, so I asked if i might try them. They kindly allowed me to borrow one of their bass trombones and I spent the next twenty minutes or so playing various models before settling on a 2CL. This one has a deep cup, a fairly rounded rim that is a bit on the narrow side, and an excellent all-around range, though not quite as good for the low pedal end as my Marcinkiewicz. I’ll be working on that. But it certainly does wonders for my mid and high range! I was playing a tone of high Ds and Fs above the staff on a bass trombone the other night and the sound quality was frankly amazing.

    These mouthpieces are not cheap – they list for US $120.00 per mouthpiece, but they are definitely worth the price. Definitely recommended.


    New Mouthpiece – Curry Precision 1.5M

    February 22, 2011

    I was up at my favorite little repair shop in Oakland last weekend – Best Music Repair on 14th Street just across from the Federal Building. My little Reynolds Contempora baritone/tenor horn trombonium needed some repairs and so I took it to Dick Akright for him to work his magic.

    After dropping the horn off with Dick, I went next door to A&G Music to peruse their usual stock of cool stuff. Played a real nice Bach alto trombone, but didn’t have the $1300 dollars they were asking for the horn itself. Drat – the two slide horns I’d really like to add to my collection are an alto trombone and a contra-bass trombone.

    Subsequent to that  I got into conversation with the polite and extremely knowledgeable gentlemen who work there and we discussed mouthpieces. I’ve been using a Bach 5C on my trumpet and soprano trombone, but I’ve been looking for something a little different – I’m not overly pleased with the 5C. We tried several mouthpieces and I ended up settling on a Curry Precision 1.5M. I’ve never used a Curry before so I was a little dubious, but it certainly felt the best of the mouthpieces I tried so I ended up taking it home.

    I’ve now been using the Curry for the past week on both my Bach Stradivarius 180-43G model trumpet and my Jupiter soprano trombone and I really like the mouthpiece.  I am especially enamored of the response. It seems to be easier on the embouchure than my old Bach 5C and I am getting a more consistent tone as well. Not to mention that my upper register is richer and less whiny. I actually like the new mouthpiece well enough that I am considering going back and acquiring a Curry for the tenor bone/baritone as well.

    On the topic of the lower brass, I’m currently using a custom Denis Wick on the bone and a Schilke 45D1D on the baritone. For the euphonium I’m using a Schilke 51D1D and I’m using a Marcinkiewitz 3G on the bass trombone. The Marcinkiewitz suits my bass trombone’s primary purpose excellently but for the other horns, I might try a Curry. Any musicians who use Curry care to chime in?


    Microphones, Continued

    March 5, 2009

    I recently purchased a Shure SM-57 instrument microphone, with which I have been recording of late. I have found that for instrumentals, this microphone does an exceptional job. However, when I record vocals, I need to set the recording levels to a much higher sensitivity in order to capture the necessary volume. This may be an issue with  my M-Audio Ozone, which I use to connect my XLR microphones, both condenser and cardioid, not the microphone itself. As a result, I am considering upgrading to a mixer and using that as my principal device, instead of the Ozone.

    The low audio levels for my vocals are present (though to a lesser degree) when using the condenser microphones as well, leading me to suspect that it is indeed due to the Ozone, not the microphone itself. I have procured a windscreen for the microphone and this has done an excellent job in reducing the popping and breath sounds that are otherwise prevalent when recording vocals.

    To sum up, I would recommend the Shure SM-57 to anyone who needs a microphone for instrument recording that can also be used in a live venue. However, if one is doing significant vocal recording, I might suggest that a mixer or other audio center be used in conjunction, so as to better control the recording levels and balance the vocal with the instrumental backing.


    Youth Bands- The Jazzinators

    October 9, 2008

    i attended a performance by a local youth jazz group called the ‘Jazzinators’ on this past Tuesday evening. The group performs on a bi-monthly basis at a local pizza parlor, and as I am scheduled to participate in a jazz festival at this same establishment on Saturday, I thought it would be useful both to listen to the youth band and simultaneously scout the venue.

    The band had a broad representation of instrumentation. The  instrumentation included drums, bass guitar, bass guitar/banjo tuba, two clarinets, two trombones, two trumpets and two saxophones. The director occasionally helped out by playing trumpet as well. Their repertoire included tunes from a variety of genres as well, as they played tunes from the Big band era such as ‘In The Mood’ and also were able to play tunes representing the Dixieland era. They even mixed in a few more modern charts.

    I observed the band for the better part of an hour, and overall, they were quite skilled for a youth group, especially considering that the age of the members was uniformly young- according to the band director, the oldest member of the group is merely sixteen. The band leader was one of the saxophonists, and he did a creditable job of kicking tunes off, and indicating when they should end. While intonation was an issue at times, overall the band is pleasurable to listen to.

    Musically, five members of the group stood out- the two sax players, one of the trombonists, the drummer, and the youngster doubling on bass guitar and banjo. While each of these musicians is still very young, they showed that they understood the rudiments of how to play improvisational solos, and they all produced a good sound on their respective instruments. In addition, the drummer, with whom i have played before, for the most part kept a steady beat, without needless embellishing.

    The saxoophonists are both able to do a creditable job on solos, though there were the usual lapses where the soloist lost the thread of his thought, as is normal with younger players. However, they did not try to do too much and they both produced a clean sound. The banjo player frankly stood out. Despite picking up the instrument recently, he was able to produce a very creditable sound and his technique was clean. he also played a solid solo at the beginning of one of the group’s medleys. The trombonist’s skills were mostly hidden throughout the performance, but i was able to listen to him afterward and he clearly has some skills, in addition to which he has a better grasp of improvisation than most of his fellow members.

    All youth groups have some issues with tempo and volume, and this one was no exception. The group’s balance was dominated throughout by the sax and trombones- the clarinets, despite being miked, and the trumpets were extremely difficult to distinguish. In addition, the group has not quite mastered the idea that not all tunes need to be played at breakneck speed- the most outstanding example was their rendition of ‘In The Mood’, which began in an out of control freight train-like tempo and steadily increased throughout. Experience will almost certainly remedy this issue. Not to say that older and supposedly more experienced musicians do not also make this error. There are some tunes that suck musicians into tempos faster that they were ever designed to be played, and ‘In The Mood’ is certainly one of these ‘trap’ tunes.

    Volume is another area that only experience will fix. Almost all young musicians tend to play louder than they really ought to- especially as the tempo increases. if they do not, then they usually play too softly. Both of these tendencies were present in this band, as save for the afore-mentioned clarinet and trumpet sections, the members tended to play at least one volume designation louder than they really needed to- especially on solos. The corollaries of balance and venue are also areas in which the group could use a little improvement. Knowing how to temper one’s output to adjust for the venue and how to best match one’s volume with one’s fellow players are skills that only experience and time will correct. I expect that as the band members gain experience, these areas will cease to be a concern.

    Overall, the group performed very creditably. While there are some weaknesses, they are an enjoyable group and have a lot of promise. Their playing was mostly enthusiastic, and they did a solid job of perfroming a number of classic charts froma  variety of genres. Well done.


    Mission Gold Review

    September 25, 2008

    I had the pleasure of hearing the Mission Gold Jazz Band last night at Swiss Park in Newark, California. The band is a traditional jazz ensemble, featuring leader John Soulis on trombone and vocals, Dick Williams on cornet, Thomas Banuelos on trumpet, John Stringer on reeds and vocals, Bob Sterling on tuba, Roz Temple on piano, Jack Wiecks on banjo and a young man named Mark on drums (didn’t catch his last name).

    The band began the night with a single cornet (Williams) but apparently usually play a trumpet/cornet lead in the Watters/Oliver tradition, as Thomas Banuelos was with the band for the final set when I returned. I enjoyed the trumpet/cornet lead, as it provides an extra dimension and allows more fully realized harmonies than a single cornet does. Several of the members are capable vocalists- I had the pleasure of hearing both John Stringer and John Soulis vocalize and I am told that the other members also can do so on occasion. Based on the tunes I was able to hear, it would appear that the band is in the Watters/Murphy tradition of San Francisco jazz. Due to the members’ extensive knowledge, they also play some tunes that I have rarely heard from other groups- ‘Beale Street Mama; for example is one that I rarely hear played for some reason.

    The hall and its surrounding park were built in 1934 by Swiss immigrants. Due to being built primarily out of wood, with a completely open design produces interesting dynamics- especially if one is sitting directly in front of the stage. In design, it is a n open hall, with a bar/restaurant off to one side. There are no obstructions for the audience, thus the sound carries well, with something of a slight echo at times. The band does not require much if any amplification at all, though they do use some on vocals.

    They began the night with one of my personal favorites- a tune entitled ‘Beale Street Mama’ which was first performed by Bessie Smith way back in 1923. This featured reedman John Stringer on vocals and he did a very creditable job. They followed this up with ‘Shine’, another old standard in the repertoire. I was unfortunately forced to leave temporarily at that point (my young son had a small diaper accident), but was able to return towards the end of the night and caught their final few tunes, which included ‘Creole Love Song’, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’ and ‘High Society’. The band was kind enough to invite me to sit in with them for the last few tunes, which was a very rewarding experience- it is always fun to play with musicians of that caliber.

    The band is entertaining to watch- the musicians have fun on stage and are clearly very comfortable with each other. In addition, the music is highly danceable and the hall is quite spacious enough to permit dancing with no fear of running afoul of tables or other obstructions. Throughout the evening, I observed a number of couples dancing. For the final tune, several of the ladies engaged in a parasol dance as the band played Lu Watters’ Arrangement of the classic ‘High Society’. This was an entertaining experience, as I had not previously played ‘High Society’, though I was of course familiar with the tune. As is usual with Watters’ arrangements, the arrangement was a little hard to read, though not nearly as bad as some of his other charts.

    All in all, I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in traditional jazz to stop by on the second and fourth Wednesdays from 7 – 9 PM. Mission Gold is an excellent representative of the traditional style that was popular in the Bay Area in the late 1940s and early 1950s.