iPad Apps for the Jazz Player – Update

It’s been over two years since I wrote my original post on iPad apps that I have found useful as a jazz player, so I thought I would update my experiences. In addition to iReal b and iGigbook, I have added another app to my collection: forScore. All three of these apps do different things, and I find all three of them useful.

iReal b

The developer of this app has continued to improve it over the past two years, and a major update called iReal Pro is in the works, which will be a free upgrade to existing iReal b users. This is my go-to app for practicing.

  • You can configure the play-along feature with the rhythm section you need, depending on the instrument you play by adjusting the volumes of the rhythm section instruments.
  • There lots of styles to choose from, some built in and some available as an in-app purchase.
  • You can loop specific sections of a song to practice on, and adjust the tempo.
  • For piano and guitar players, a lot of new functionality has been added in the way of chord charts.

I play tenor sax in a couple of different big bands, and I can key in a solo from a big band chart to practice on in five minutes or so using the built-in editor. This app also works well for memorizing new songs you want to learn for jam sessions.

iGigBook

This app has also seen continued improvements. In addition to its basic selling point – lots of fake book indexes that you can match to your PDF fake books – it now comes with chord charts for over 1000 jazz standards that are transposable on the fly. This is the app I take to jam sessions to use when I don’t know the tune that well. It’s great for finding tunes on the fly, and it sure beats hauling around a case load of fake books.

My major problem with this app has and continues to be related to page turning. While it is theoretically possible to use this on a gig using the set list function, I find it difficult to use if the lead sheet is more than one page. Depending on the resolution of your fake book scan, the page turning can be so slow that I don’t know if I have really turned the page or not. This has caused me on more than one occasion to turn the page again and then be one page farther than I wanted to be. A recent improvement has helped this situation. With the advent of IOS 7, the app now works much better with Bluetooth page turning devices like the PageFlip Cicada (more about this in a future post). You can now reliably turn pages hands free, but the lag is still annoying to me.

The developer also offers a companion app to use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a page turning device, but I don’t particularly like the idea of stepping on my iPod Touch or strapping it on my ankle to turn pages.

forScore

This is a relatively new app for me, and I am really impressed with it. Unlike iGigBook, forScore is not fake book based. It is really designed to handle individual pieces of music or lead sheets.

I play in a jazz quartet, and we have our own book of sets that come from many different sources. Some are fake book scans, but many come from lead sheets generated from programs like Finale and Band-in-a-Box. With forScore, you load individual PDF files for each song into the app. You can do this by connecting your iPad to your computer via iTunes, or you can connect within the app to Dropbox. I have found that bulk uploads are faster with iTunes, but adding a couple of tunes on the fly is a snap with Dropbox.

The interface is very intuitive, and while the app comes with excellent documentation, you hardly need it. Lead sheets can be assigned to as many set lists as you like. It’s easy to create a set list on the fly. You can assign a key to each tune as well as multiple tags.

Another great feature is the annotation tools. They are easy to use, and you can have multiple sets of annotations for different situations – rehearsals, types of performances, etc. Once annotations have been made, you can edit them at any time.

For me, one of the most important features is that page turning is lightening fast, which I find indispensable on a gig, especially when you have a multiple page lead sheet. The resolution of your scan has little effect on the speed of page turning. The app uses something called “adaptive caching” to pre-render pages before and after the one you are on. When you turn a page, it shows up instantaneously.

forScore also works very well with Bluetooth page turners, including the two leading ones, PageFlip and AirTurn. There are lots of other goodies built into this app too numerous to mention here, but these are the biggies for me. Check their website for a complete rundown.

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.