Random Thoughts

October 4, 2016

I recently realized that I’ve been silent as I’ve been absorbed by real work for the past year. However, fear not, I have not been abducted by aliens or otherwise disembodied.

I had promised a fuller assessment of the 1919 Conn cornet purchased a year or two back, and so here it is.

Tone: The tone is frankly lovely. This horn has a classic, early 20th century sound with a mellow, full resonance. Depending on he mouthpiece, it can easily take on other characteristics, but it’s natural state – especially when used with a period mouthpiece – is one of beauty.

Valve Action: In any instrument this old, the valve action is a major concern. I do not recommend purchasing any instrument sight unseen unless you know the seller well, either personally or by reputation. However, there are exceptions to this rule, and this instrument is one of them. It would appear that the valves are near-original in their wear, and they move effortlessly. Standard maintenance only has thus far been required to keep them in excellent condition.

Slides: The slides have been well-maintained and all of them work easily, including the screw that adjusts the fine-tuner.

Key-change Mechanism: The mechanism that automatically moves the slides and adjusts the key from Bb to A is mostly in good condition, but one screw has rotted out. I will of course have that replaced shortly, but otherwise the mechanism works perfectly. It is in amazingly good shape, considering.

Case/Accessories: The case is not original – it is a 1960s-era case. However, it is in acceptable condition, though I have purchased a soft case for daily use. However, the original mute did come with the horn and still works well.

Overall, I’m very pleased. It is a more difficult horn to play than the 1926, but it produces a far superior tone, making the additional effort well worth it. In short, if you encounter one of these instruments in corresponding condition, I highly recommend purchasing it.


New Toy – 1919 Conn Victor 80A

February 5, 2015

I’ve been raving about the characteristics of the early-20th century Conn cornets ever since I got my 1917 New Wonder ‘Vocal’, and I’ve especially been impressed by the big-bore 80A Victors since I purchased my 1926 a few months ago. However, my 1926 did not have the accessories that originally came with these instruments – specifically it is missing the extra tuning slides that change the horn from the modern frequency of A=440 to the older ‘high-pitch’ frequency of A=452. If you are interested in learning more about ‘high-pitch’ versus ‘low-pitch’, you can see the relevant Wikipedia article on concert pitch or consult a reference such as the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

I have been looking for a horn that does have all the original accessories and I recently ran across a near-pristine 1919 example in the very rare burnished gold plate finish with everything – the extra high-pitch tuning slides, the quick-change Bb-A mechanism, the original mute and the original Conn mouthpiece. The horn was being sold on Ebay by Wichita Band Instruments and while it was not cheap, I jumped at the chance to get one of these wonderful horns in such excellent condition (and with all the original accessories as well!) and the horn is now on the way. When I receive it, I will post a full review, but I’m really looking forward to playing this new horn. The 80As are wonderful instruments, but mine does have some wear on the first valve – it is making a clicking sound, which is somewhat worrying, though so far it does not affect the playability of the horn at all. Regardless, I am very pleased to have an opportunity to get one of these horns that is in near-mint condition. If this horn plays up to my expectations, I intend that it will quickly supplant the 1926 as my main instrument for those occasions when I play cornet.

Below are two pictures of the new horn in its case – note the elaborate engraving on the bell.
1919 Conn 80A Victor cornet in burnished gold plate
1919 Conn 80A Victor cornet in burnished gold plate


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.


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.


More Cornetting…

July 12, 2014

I may have mentioned on this blog that I have a 1917 Conn Wonder ‘Vocal’ cornet that I got from my late friend Max Spikes. However, I have long heard that the most sought-after model was the Conn ‘Victor’ – particularly the 80A variant. Many of the greatest cornetists – including Bix Beiderbecke – played this model. It is this model cornet that Bix is holding on his knee in the most famous picture of him shown below.
Bix Beiderbecke with Conn Victor 80A

In fact, Bix thought so highly of the 80A that he reportedly bought one for Jimmy McPartland, who replaced him in the Wolverines in 1924 when he left to join Jean Goldkette. Jimmy played the 80A that he received from Bix for the rest of his professional career.

I had been casually looking for an 80A, as these horns have such a great reputation, and recently I found one on eBay. The horn looked to be in pretty good shape and I corresponded with the owner, learning that the horn did not have the original case or accessories, but that it played well. Turns out the previous owner is a trumpeter, and he took good care of the horn. After the bidding subsided, I managed to get it fairly inexpensively and it arrived a week later.

Well! These horns deserve every bit of their lofty reputations. At .484, they are definitely large-bore, and for a guy who primarily plays trombone like me, they are much easier to play than the smaller bore models like my Vocal. I have been astonished by how free-blowing the Victor is compared to my Vocal. My particular model is from 1927, meaning that it has the quick-change mechanism to convert from Bb to A intact – Conn removed it from this model in 1939 or so, though they continued making the horn on into the 1950s. Very cool to be able to do that on the fly. The micro-tuner also is in very good shape, so I can tune the horn precisely as I desire.

I have also found that the descriptions of them as being very dependent on mouthpiece for their sound are accurate. These horns really do deserve their reputation as chameleons. When I used the 1917 Conn Wonder mouthpiece or the similar-vintage H.L. Clarke mouthpiece, the sound is the dark, mellow, ‘Conn’ sound of the early 20th century. However, when I put in one of my modern mouthpieces, such as my Bach 7c, I obtain a sound much more similar to what I can get from my 1994 Bach Stradivarius 180-43G trumpet.

As far the as my horn’s physical condition, it is not bad. The silver plate is deeply pitted and no longer shines well in several places, though the gold-wash bell interior is in very good shape. But the valves, the slides, and the compression are stellar. The horn plays quite well, and I am very pleased with it.

The bottom line is that if you play cornet and you have the chance to get one of these horns in good condition, do not hesitate. There are a lot of them out there in various conditions, and the prices are not exorbitant since there are so many. They are highly-esteemed for a reason and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how well they play.


New Mouthpiece – Conn ‘H.L Clarke’

July 12, 2014

I have been experimenting with my early-20th century Conn cornets ( I own a 1917 Conn Vocal and a 1927 Conn Victor 80A), and I found an original ‘H.L. Clarke’ model Conn cornet mouthpiece on eBay. In near-perfect condition! These mouthpieces were designed for Conn by the world-famous cornetist Herbert L. Clarke. Clarke was probably the pre-emininet cornetist of his day. He was the long-time cornet soloist with John Philip Sousa’s band, as well as being a famous teacher, composer, and author of a set of standard cornet/trumpet exercises and lesson books that are still widely used today. In addition, he worked with C.G.Conn, Ltd., one of the oldest and most famous musical instrument manufacturers in the United States, to do instrument design beginning in 1905 and so this mouthpiece is probably right around one hundred years old. I managed to negotiate a fair price with the seller and am now using it as my primary cornet mouthpiece.

I have a few comments on this mouthpiece. First, it has a contoured rim, so that it molds itself to the player’s embouchure. This means that it is not a perfect circle – it is more oval shaped – and the contour means that it is important that the player turns it so that he or she can achieve the correct fit. If the mouthpiece is incorrectly aligned, it will be highly uncomfortable. However, if the player correctly orients it, it is extremely comfortable.

The second aspect that has really emerged is that the mouthpiece is able to generate the classic ‘Conn’ cornet sound, but also improves the instrument’s range for less-than-expert cornetists like myself. I’ve used the mouthpiece on both the Vocal and the Victor, and both instruments have responded well. The Clarke does not seem to have quite the mellow nature of the similar-vintage Conn ‘Wonder’ cornet mouthpiece, but the is probably a result of my lack of familiarity with it. The more I play it, the closer I can get to that ‘Conn’ sound.

In conclusion, let me say that these mouthpieces – especially in the near-mint condition that this one was – are very difficult to find. However, I think that they are definitely worth the price, so my recommendation is that if you can find one in decent condition, buy it!


Cornetting – Updates

October 2, 2013

Back in 2012, I posted about my struggles preparing for a weekend leading a jam set at a local jazz society while playing mainly cornet. Since that time, I have continued to practice – albeit somewhat infrequently – and in December of 2012 I was invited to join the Mission Gold Jazz band as the second cornet. This came as a rather large shock, since I am not what anyone would call a good cornetist. However, I tentatively said yes and commenced to work on my cornet chops.

Ten months later, I am still not sure I will ever be able to build the stamina necessary to play a three-hour gig on cornet. But my tone, my range, and my stamina have all definitely improved, and I am no longer afraid of embarrassing myself on the instrument. I am finding the band a challenge due to the instrument, but it is a challenge I am enjoying, and it seems I have been doing acceptably, so I will probably try to continue with the band if at all possible.