iPad Apps for the Jazz Player

After saving up my shekels for several months, I recently acquired an iPad 2.

Aside from all the usual things you can use it for – the ones you see in the iPad commercials – the iPad is a great tool for the jazz musician. There are two apps in particular that I want to point out.

iReal Book (soon to be renamed iReal b)

This started out as a chord only Realbook, and came pre-loaded with about 900 different tunes normally found in the most popular fakebooks. It allows the user to edit and add new songs, either through the app or by means of a web interface. You can also easily create playlists from any of the tunes on the app. You can change the key on the fly, and you can globally transpose “the book” for Bb and Eb instruments.

The app web site also includes a forum, where users can exchange tips on how to get the most out of the app and exchange tunes and playlists that they have created.

A subsequent development added a great new feature: you can now create an instant play-along from any tune loaded into the app. The play-along controls allow you to control the style, tempo, and number of choruses. The player is based on actual sound samples, rather than midi generated sounds, and it sounds really good. It’s like having a better sounding Band-in-a-Box on a mobile device. It’s a great way to learn new tunes to call on jam sessions, and I use it to practice big band solos as well.

A couple of months ago, the developer was told by Apple that the app was being withdrawn, pending a redesign to solve perceived copyright issues. It has been generally understood among musicians at least since the Bebop era that chord changes by themselves are not copyright protected. (How many tunes do you know based on the changes to I Got Rhythm?) But Apple (perhaps encouraged by Hal Leonard?) apparently doesn’t see it that way.

So after several weeks of wrangling and legal discussions, our long-suffering developer, Massimo Biolcati, has agreed to change the name to iReal b and take off the pre-loaded tunes. All other functionality remains the same, and some new features are promised. That means that new users will have to add their own tunes, but I’m sure that forum members will take up the slack, and the app will be quickly loaded with a few key strokes. This is a minor inconvenience compared to not having the app at all!

iGigBook

iGigBook is an app that allows you to handle all the fake books that you have in pdf format. It is a pdf reader, but the real power of this app is its ability to index all the tunes and allow you to find all copies of a given tune by searching for the title or composer. You can also set up set lists from any of the books loaded onto the app, so you can plan out a whole gig and have the lead sheets appear one by one in set list order.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that setting up this app is a rather cumbersome process that is not well documented. The key to understanding how the app works is knowing that you have to go to the iGigbook web site, log into a configuration page, and select the indexes that you want to appear on your app based on the books that you own. You can also adjust the “offset”, i.e. the number of pages before song page 1. There are 90+ indexes to choose from.

The second important point to understand is that your pdf fakebooks need to be complete with all pages in the right order. There is no way to adjust the indexes, so if you have pages missing, you need to either scan those pages and insert them or insert blank pages. If you have pages out of order, you have to re-arrange them. That means that you have to have a way of manipulating pdf files. (I’ll post later on some cheap ways to do this.)

If you take the time to do this up-front work, you will have a fantastically useful tool that will greatly simplify your gig prep and set-up.

My wish list for future versions of this app would include:

  • A better slider. Right now the slider attempts to show every page that it slides by. The result is that is is very jerky and difficult to use. A slider that simply allowed you to select a page number then show the page when you let go would be much more useful.
  • Some facility to allow the user to edit existing indexes and make his/her own. This could either be a file to upload to the app or a web based tool similar to the iRealbook tool. This would allow you to tailor the index to the pages in your book, and it would take a burden off the developer, who right now has to do all the indexes by hand.

Ligature for Wanne mouthpieces

I love my Theo Wanne mouthpiece. It’s absolutely the best tenor piece I have ever played. The inside geometry of the mouthpiece with the subtle baffling and big chamber combined with a very precise and well researched facing curve make for a great playing experience. Theo’s design is based on solid science backed up by years of empirical experience.

But I just don’t buy the ligature. The Wanne ligature is a refinement of the original Link ligature (which most players don’t use). Like the Francois Louis ligature, it has a pressure plate that is supposed to hold the reed in place on the table. Both Wanne and Louis make claims that this design concept allows the reed to “vibrate more freely”. Theo goes a step further and says he has improved on the concept by attaching his ligature to the mouthpiece at only two small points. This is voodoo science in my book.

Let’s try a little thought experiment. Take a flexible ruler and hold it over the side of a table, so that about 1/3 is on the table top and 2/3 hang over the side. Now hold the 1/3 portion down firmly with your hand, and pull down the free end and let it go. You will get a nice sharp  twang. Now try the same thing, but only hold the ruler to the table with a couple of fingers. If you apply enough pressure to hold the ruler steady, you will still get a good twang. If you don’t, the sound will be muffled.

You can apply this directly to the case of the reed sitting on the table of the mouthpiece. If you screw it down tight enough, the ligature will hold the reed in place, so that the business end vibrates properly. However, if you don’t, and you get vibrations of the butt end on the reed on the table, it stands to reason that the vibrations at the other end will be muffled.

To my way of thinking, the ideal situation is one where the reed and mouthpiece are a unified piece. Since that is not practical (because the reed’s vibrating characteristics deterioriate over time), the next best thing is a simple device to hold the reed firmly in place on the table, and nothing does that better that a traditional two-screw metal ligature.

In practice, my own experience bears this theory out. I had a lot of trouble with the Wanne mouthpiece in the beginning. Part of that was due to the fact that the mouthpiece’s thin rails make it very sensitive to uneven moisture in the reed. A Rico moisture control reed case solved that problem. However, beyond that I had a lot of problems with squeaking reeds  and with reeds wearing out very fast. Just to see if it made a difference, I tried a Selmer 404 ligature – a simple silver two-screw ligature and the one preferred by many Link players. This was an immediate improvement. The mouthpiece somehow feels more secure, when I am playing it. I don’t worry about some reeds squeaking anymore, and reeds seem to last longer.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who plays a Wanne Kali in rock bands. His experience has been similar. It would be nice if Theo at least acknowledged that his “enlightened” ligature isn’t for everyone and offered a traditional alternative.

Reeds

I don’t think woodwind players ever get tired of discussing this subject, because the search for the perfect reed is so elusive. I don’t like synthetic reeds. I just don’t think you can get the same sound from a synthetic. They seem too artificial and buzzy to me–no warmth. There is something in the organic quality of a cane reed that is at the heart of a good saxophone sound, but that same organic quality is what makes finding and maintaining reeds so frustrating. Two of the best articles I have read on reeds are from Tom Alexander and Tim Price. Check out the respective links. Also, The Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal has an excellent chapter on caring for and balancing reeds. Every serious saxophone player should have this book.

The best reed for me can vary from year to year and seems to have more to do with who has the best batch of cane this season rather than a specific brand. At the moment, reeds from Rigotti are working very well for me. These include Regal Queen, Francois Louis and Roberto’s Woodwind private label reeds, which are also by Rigotti. You can’t get them at your local music store, but they are readily available on line, and Roberto’s Woodwind in New York City sells them.  Of the “name brands”, I have had the best luck with Vandoren, particularly the relatively new ZZ cut. I use mainly number 3’s on both alto and tenor.

Mouthpieces

When it comes to mouthpieces, my favorite at the moment is a Theo Wanne Amma. It’s like the best Link you ever played with just a little more brightness. I love the sound and volume control I can get with this piece. It took some getting used to. All of Theo’s pieces have relatively thin rails, and that makes them a little less tolerant of uneven reed moisture. I first got my Amma in the middle of winter when humidity was very low, and I had my share of squeaks and hard blowing after some minutes of playing. A Rico Reed Case w/Reed Vitalizer that Tim Price gave me solved all my problems.

I am also a big fan of Fred Lamberson. Fred is a true artist and makes every piece totally by hand using high quality hard rubber blanks, wood and a white material like Delrin. Unfortunately, Fred has stopped making mouthpieces, so if you have one, hang on to it. I have several different Lamberson tenor pieces, but my favorite is my newest piece, a white 7DD. This has a fairly long baffle that opens up into a big chamber. It gives you  the ability to really cut through when you need it, but it is still very controllable at lower volumes. It’s fairly bright, but not thin. You can get a nice, fat subtone with it as well.

For alto I play a Lamberson FMaj7 that I bought from Tim Price. It was actually a prototype that Fred sent to Tim to try. I love this piece. It just matches the Mark VI perfectly. It has no baffle and gives me a nice dark sound when I lay back, but it still has plenty of oomph when I push it. I can cut through a big band on lead alto with no problem. One of the things that make all of Fred’s mouthpieces stand out is the precision of his facings.

My Horns

Saxophone players never get tired of talking about their horns. I have two tenors: a Mark VI and a Borgani Jubilee model.

My main tenor is a Mark VI. The serial number puts the year of manufacture at 1974, very near the changeover to the Mark VII. This horn is in great shape with 99% original laquer. I had it overhauled, and it feels like a new horn. It has a sound that is more centered than the Borgani, as one would expect from a Mark VI. Don’t believe the myth that the only good Mark VI is one with a five-digit serial number. There are some great horns among the later VI’s.

The Borgani is a great sounding horn. My friend and teacher Tim Price turned me on to this horn. Borganis are not well known in the US. They are hand made in Italy, where the Borgani workshop turns out only about 300 per year. It has a spread American sound reminiscent of a Conn 10M, but with very comfortable contemporary keywork. If you are looking for an alternative to the Selmer sound (and its many clones), you should check the Borgani out. My only complaint about this horn is that it was pretty maintenance intensive for the first 5 years or so. I had it in the shop on the average of twice a year. It now seems fairly well debugged, and maintenance seems normal now.

My alto is a Mark VI. This horn came to me almost by accident. It belonged to a work colleague of mine who had played it as a student in Sweden then put it in the closet for 30 years. It needed some work and smelled kind of funky, but after a complete rebuild by Steve Malarsky, it plays great–good intonation and solid from top to bottom.