April 2009

NAMM Time 2009

Recession? What recession?

How does the musical instrument industry react when the economy goes flat? Ups the ante, apparently. NAMM 2009, which took place Jan. 15-18 at the Anaheim Convention Center in sunny Orange County, showed little physical sign of massive layoffs or busted markets. Post-show reports claimed a three percent decrease in registrants, and foot traffic at the show’s first two days appeared leaner than recent years, but several major manufacturers expanded the size and scope of their booths, and the celebrity factor was off the charts. (Billy Bob Thornton isn’t bad on the drums, by the way.)

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Roland V-Piano
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Fender Deluxe VM Amplifier
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PRS Original Sewell Amplifier and Cabinet
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PRS Angelus Cutaway Acoustic Guitar
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Yamaha Avant Grand Piano

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As usual, jazz’s presence at the show, despite a killer Vandoren VandoJam and Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Hammond demos, was minimal when compared to that of rock and pop. But there were glimmers of hope: At a Yamaha press conference with Alicia Keys, the R&B goddess claimed to love Bill Evans. Stopping by the P. Mauriat booth to check out the sax maker’s new professional trumpet, I witnessed powerhouse James Carter mop the floor with a few prominent smooth-jazzers (Najee, you should have known better). If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is. And on to the goods…

Swing Low

There was plenty happening at Fender’s area, which was enlarged at this show and featured the always-popular concert stage. On the bass front, Fender debuted the Artist Series Steve Bailey Jazz Bass VI (six-string) in fretted and un-fretted editions. (True fans of the session ace and Bass Extremes co-founder will opt for the fretless version, obviously.) Marcus Miller was on hand at the Fender booth’s SWR nook, funking out on his signature preamp, which was introduced at NAMM’s Summer 2008 show. The Marcus Miller Bass Preamp is a sleek-looking single-channel unit, meticulously designed by the musician-composer-producer, that boasts some interesting features, among them three separate inputs (two in the front, one in the back) and excellent equalization capabilities.

Key Plays

Big news in keys came from Yamaha and Roland, both of whom offered startling new pianos with innovative technologies.

Roland’s decade-in-the-making V-Piano uses the company’s acclaimed COSM technology to simulate the entire process at work inside an acoustic piano, rather than mere sampled reproductions of acoustic timbre.

A demo of the grand-piano simulation was mighty impressive (particularly in the area of decay), a credit to what Roland has dubbed the instrument’s “living piano core,” where “virtual strings”—this digital piano can be tuned—produce lifelike tone. The realism continues with the Progressive Hammer-Action keyboard itself, 88 keys with convincing weight and Ivory quality. The V-Piano, which includes electric piano sounds in addition to acoustic, is now available for pre-order online at just under $6,000.

For those wanting a concert-grand simulation that retains some of the physical elegance of the original, Yamaha’s Avant Grand is a great-sounding, great-looking, petite “hybrid” piano. The instrument combines the tonal results of a painstaking digital sampling process with a Tactile Response System that gives players the feel of a vibrating, resonating, hammer-and-strings grand. A four-channel speaker system delivers crystalline sound. The Avant Grand is scheduled to ship in July.

Over at the Motion Sound booth, the premier carrier of the organ-jazz torch, Joey DeFrancesco, grooved through his signature-model amplifier. The MS-360/5 is a 500-watt spherical-projection keyboard amp that literally rotates the signal around the room. Another Motion Sound model offering this surround sound is the MS-360/1, which is available in the usual rugged black Polymaric or the more parlor-suited red walnut.

Strings & Things

Fender launched the Road Worn series, vintage-styled editions of Strats, Teles, P-Basses and Jazz Basses made to look like the player has been on world tour for the past 30 years. While Fender has been offering this highly detailed, deceptively complex “relic” look for years through its Custom Shop, this affordable new series, with online prices under a grand for the guitars and roughly $1,200 for the basses, allows anyone to pick up an instant workhorse ax. Of added interest to the jazz set is the Road Worn ’60s Jazz Bass in three-color sunburst, which suggests Jaco Pastorius’ favorite instrument.

On the Fender amp front was a new series that should be ubiquitous on the bandstand in no time. The Fender VM line (“VM” for “Vintage Modified”) matches the organic qualities of classic Fender tube amps with great-sounding modern effects. The 40-watt, one-12 Fender Deluxe VM takes its cue from Fender’s wildly popular tube combos, and adds some welcomed features. While the Hot Rod series harbored gritty enough overdrive for hard blues and some styles of rock, players seeking a more metallic, higher-gain distortion were left out in the cold. The Deluxe VM offers extremely convincing, heavy-metal-approved gain, as well as footswitch-able, Fender-developed Digital Signal Processing effects, including reverb, chorus/vibrato and delay. While it might seem like sacrilege for the company to forgo Fender spring reverb, the digital reverb is remarkably natural sounding. These electronics are also available in a 40-watt head unit, the Band-Master VM, to be used with the Band-Master two-12 speaker enclosure.

The Maryland-based Paul Reed Smith company isn’t just a manufacturer of high-quality electric guitars anymore; it now offers high-quality amps and acoustic guitars. The three amp models, which JazzTimes first reported on after checking them out at the Maryland factory this past September, are simple, boutique-quality, hand-wired, single-channel amps, all available as 50- and 100-watt heads or in various combo versions. At a demonstration with a full-band, the upholstery-covered Dallas, Blue Sierra and Original Sewell models evoked all sorts of vintage gems: Was that an old blackface Fender? A Vox? An early Marshall? Little wonder jazz-savvy slide-wonder Derek Trucks is into them.

They’re not bebop archtops, but they sure sounded pretty: PRS’ new acoustic models, the Angelus and Tonare Grand, are two much-rumored-about instruments that live up to the hype. While the guitars themselves offer genuine PRS craftsmanship and stunning looks, what most impressed was the optional PRS Pickup system. At what was one of the show’s most ingenious demonstrations, master fingerstylist Tony McManus was recorded via the pickup system and then acoustically through microphones, and the resulting sound was eerily similar. For those who thought every acoustic-electric pickup configuration made steel strings sound like rubber bands, the instruments are a must-hear.

There was often a healthy crowd hovered around the Ribbecke Guitar Corp. booth, and for good reason. Ribbecke’s designs take archtop guitar building, a field obsessed with recreation and tradition, back to the future. Eye-catching design concepts, like an asymmetrical body and a soundhole next to the neck, gave models like the Halfling Jazz Guitar, Thinline Halfling Guitar, and Bobby Vega Halfling Bass deep, lovely tones.

For those seeking solid, classic electric-archtop tone for cheap, Canadian manufacturer Godin debuted a “Kingpin” edition of its 5th Avenue guitar that adds a P-90 pickup.

Drums

Centennials are all the rage with drum companies: Last year it was Gretsch who launched a slew of new kits in honor of the company’s 100th anniversary; this year, Ludwig celebrated the big 1-0-0 with sets and snares. Among the noteworthy gear at the company’s you-can’t-miss-it-sized display was a new kit for Max Roach disciples, the Epic X-Over Striped Jazzette series, seen at the show in a beautiful banded natural finish. In cymbals, Sabian launched its AAX Series Memphis Ride as well as new crashes and hi-hats in the hand-hammered, boutique-ish Vault Artisan series.

Zildjian showcased noteworthy pieces including those in the Vinnie Colaiuta-designed A Custom ReZo series, a collection of, according to PR lit, “high pitched and musical” crashes, hi-hats, rides, splashes and pangs. Also new from Zildjian is the 21-inch K Custom Hybrid ride, a medium-heavy cymbal that combines an unlathed inner section with a lathed outer portion.

Pearl made waves with its aggressively named Eliminator Demon Drive single- and double-bass pedals. Utilizing ball bearings originally designed for skateboard wheels, this NAMM Best in Show award-winner claims to be the “fastest, smoothest, most versatile pedal in the world,” an attempt to give the drummer immediate response and absolute control.

Horns ’n’ Things

Vandoren’s VandoJam is one of the few annual shindigs NAMM-bound jazz fans can look forward to. The 2009 installment was no different, offering a hearty blowing session before the shred-metal onslaught expected in the days to come. Ralph Bowen consistently proved himself a consummate modern-mainstream tenorman—at the Jam, at the Vando booth, and elsewhere throughout the weekend.

Vandoren introduced its Java RED alto and tenor reeds, the Chicago-based company’s first file-cut jazz reed. Also new from Vando is an alto sax reed for the previously clarinet-only V-12 line, as well as some new packaging options in the “flow pack singles.”

In mouthpieces, Theo Wanne, who will celebrate the second anniversary of his custom tenor mouthpiece line this summer, launched the Durga, a bright, bold tenor ’piece that features Wanne’s True Large Chamber design and is geared toward dynamic, powerful playing, from bop to bar-walking R&B.

In brass, the P. Mauriat brand surprised devotees of its saxophone line by manufacturing a professional B-flat model trumpet. Designed for use in classical and jazz idioms, the horn is available in gold brass (the PMT-600G) and yellow brass (PMT-600Y).

Yamaha displayed a stunning triptych of horns called the Limited Edition Black Phoenix series. These instruments—an alto sax, trombone and trumpet—are based on the Custom Z line, but finished in beautiful black lacquer and engraved with a new take on Yamaha’s classic phoenix logo. This is a pricey (alto MSRP: $5,099), limited-run series for the well-heeled player or collector—only 50 pieces each were manufactured for the trumpet and trombone models, and only 150 of hand-engraved alto saxes were made. (Click here for Chris Kelsey’s full-length YAS-82ZBP alto review.)

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