June 2001

Chris Potter: Shop Talk

Chris Potter is primarily known as a tenor saxophonist, but as he demonstrates on his new CD, Gratitude (Verve), he’s just as comfortable playing alto, soprano, bass clarinet and Chinese wood flute. Here’s his arsenal:

Tenor sax/mouthpiece: Selmer Balanced Action, silver; it’s a pretty old one. I bought it about two years ago. Serial number 34128. The mouthpiece is a really old Otto Link metal that was opened up to like an eighth star. I found it in a mouthpiece shop and I had it worked on there. I actually just recently began using a different old Otto Link; old metal Link.

Bass clarinet: That’s a really, really old Selmer bass clarinet. I understand it’s from the 1920s.

Soprano sax/mouthpiece: The soprano is really new. It’s a Yamaha Custom with black lacquer. The way that they’re making soprano saxophones now—they didn’t have things as together then as they do now. It is hard to make a soprano that you can play anywhere near in tune, but they’re a little close now than they used to be. The mouthpiece is a Selmer Soloist E.

Alto sax/mouthpiece: Mark VI, maybe from the late ’60s or early ’70s. The mouthpiece is a Selmer Soloist.

Reeds: Rico Jazz Select #3 medium file.

JazzTimes: Do you find that older instruments have better tone than newer ones?

There is something great about those old horns, those old mouthpieces. I don’t know what it is; maybe it’s just the metal they were using; maybe it’s the fact that the metal has had a chance to settle over the years. I really haven’t come across new instruments that play like these old instruments.

JazzTimes: When you listen to players you’ve honored on Gratitude, like John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and others, do wonder what kind of horn setup they have or is it just about the music?

It’s always the Holy Grail: How exactly was he getting that sound? There are all these combinations of reeds and mouthpieces and horns you can use. I know someone like Joe Henderson is an extreme example. He uses a very soft setup. If you’ve ever heard him live, he’s very quiet. And you don’t really hear that on record; it’s this great, big beautiful sound on record.

JazzTimes: Do you experiment with your setups?

You sort of have to, I think. I try not to get too hung up on it because 99% of the sound is how you play it. It has to do with your articulation, and just the way you hear [the music] in your head. It has been helpful over the years to try different [setups] and realize what variables do what: If you have a really open mouthpiece with a soft reed; if you have a really closed mouthpiece with a hard reed. Metal mouthpieces; rubber mouthpieces. Just gaining an understanding of how it all works, you can make an informed choice.

Yanagisawa B992 Baritone Saxophone

Yanagisawa’s most recent additions to its diverse line of professional saxophones are the model 992 soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, the last of which I tested over a two-week period.

The most striking feature of the Yanagisawa’s model B992 baritone (list price $9975) is its appearance. The body, bell and neck of the instrument are made of bronze, which contains a higher percentage of copper alloys than brass, giving the horn a beautiful dark color. The keys are made of regular brass, however, giving the horn a subtle two-tone look.

According to Yanagisawa there is a precedent for making bronze horns. A number of older horns, including some pre-Balanced Action Selmers, were made with a higher percentage of copper, giving them a darker, richer sound not found in common brass. The unique sound of the B992 possesses a great blend of resonance, warmth and just enough edge to make the horn exceptionally comfortable to play. The instrument is also versatile, which is great for musicians who perform in a variety of settings. The B992’s naturally dusky and easily controlled tone is suitable for classical playing, though it is by no means a strictly classical horn. It can definitely shout when it needs to.

One interesting feature of the new horn is a redesigned gold-plated thumb rest. Instead of being welded directly onto the instrument, the thumb rest sits on a platform that allows it to touch the body of the saxophone at only four points. This supposedly lets the horn vibrate more freely around the notes on the right hand.

Yanagisawa has also made some slight changes in the taper of the bore and positioning of tone holes to improve intonation. I found pitch to be generally very consistent throughout the range of the instrument even in the horn’s effortless altissimo register. Major adjustments were required on only a few notes.

Lastly, the ergonomic design of the keys is exceptional, making the new horn both a superior feeling and sounding instrument. A bronze instrument is a great option for saxophonists wanting to add a slightly different color to their pallet.

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