03/17/12

Winter NAMM 2012

Great music, massive crowds and a wealth of new products

If your take on global economics is based on the musical instruments industry, then know this: Everything’s going to be all right. The 2012 edition of Winter NAMM, the annual gear-industry tradeshow that takes place each January at the convention center in Anaheim, Calif., evoked the good ol’ 1990s: rising numbers (95,709 registrants according to NAMM—a 6-percent increase from last year and a show record—plus 236 new exhibitors) and a wealth of product launches. But even if commerce is the reason NAMM exists, the nature of its wares results in lots of live music.

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Evan Haga

Larry Goldings (left) and Gregoire Maret at the Hammond Suzuki booth, Winter NAMM 2012

This year, the entertainment angle of the four-day show (Thursday, Jan. 19, through Sunday, Jan. 22) seemed especially satisfying. On the night before the event kicked off officially, Vandoren held its annual VandoJam at a nearby bar and restaurant, where Gary Smulyan and others killed for a capacity audience. Two nights later at Sabian’s event, fusion thrived: Drummer Virgil Donati, Allan Holdsworth, Jimmy Haslip and keyboardist Dennis Hamm dealt an endless barrage of legato lines, cut-up beats and metric shifts.

There was more action on the tradeshow floor: Tim Ries, Bob Mintzer, James Carter, Dr. Lonnie Smith, the list goes on. And, oh yeah, there was lots and lots of gear. Here’s what caught my eyes and ears.

HORNS
RS Berkeley expanded its Legends mouthpiece series into the brass market. Currently in the line, crafted by Greg Black, are replicas of ’pieces used by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Woody Shaw. New to the company’s sax Legends line is a Dave Liebman signature soprano model, and because Lieb is still swinging hard, his is less a replica like past Legends editions and more the result of a collaboration with craftsman Aaron Drake. Theo Wanne, who made his name with his huge-sounding True Large Chamber mouthpieces, now offers the Mantra model tenor saxophone. Also worth looking into from Theo is a forthcoming clarinet mouthpiece in the company’s Durga line.

KEYBOARDS
I spent some time gawking at the beautiful old-school Rhodes-style electric pianos at the Vintage Vibe booth. Custom built (even the parts) by the small-scale New Jersey outfit, these pianos come in 44-, 64- and 73-note versions and are available in 73 (!) different colors. The instruments are based on early Mark designs—the keyboards from your favorite electric Miles records—without the heft of a pawnshop Rhodes; Vintage Vibe’s keyboards range in weight from 35 to 60 lbs. Hammond also offers new and great-sounding solutions in portability, like the company’s Sk2, which always seemed to have one B3 killer or another behind it. The Sk2 is a 61-key dual-keyboard, double-manual Hammond with nine mechanical drawbars, and its spot-on organ sound can be accessed at the same time as the instrument’s other voices, like clavinet, acoustic and electric piano and more. In other organ news, Nord’s C2 will be replaced this spring with the drawbars-included C2D—moving the company a step closer toward the perfect, and perfectly portable, B3 simulator.

GUITARS & BASSES
A truly remarkable-sounding guitar, PRS’ P22 is the first of the Maryland company’s solidbodies to feature a piezo system—a resized version of what was used in past PRS hollowbodies. But what makes the P22 so versatile is that it also includes PRS’ new 53/10 humbuckers, making the guitar capable of stunning acoustic and electric sounds. For bop traditionalists, specifically those looking for something affordable, Eastman has the AR371CE, a laminated-maple instrument with an ES-175-style body and a single mounted humbucker. In bass guitars, fans of Cream and Tony Williams Lifetime alum Jack Bruce now have a signature Warwick ax to save up for, at two price points: a version hand-crafted in Germany and a much more affordable Korean-made bass. Both models are available fretted and fretless.

DRUMS
For jazz heads, the Gretsch Brooklyn Series should inspire a trip to the local drum shop. These kits are essentially technologically well-equipped versions of those mid-century Gretsch setups drum geeks scour eBay for. The Brooklyns feature 6-ply North American maple/poplar shells, and the toms and snares (including the svelte Brooklyn metal snares) come equipped with Gretsch’s 302 hoop, which is double-flanged and designed with Gretsch’s bop-era kits in mind. For style points, the Brooklyns feature the company’s classic Round Badge. Set the kit up with some fine cymbals—for instance, Zildjian’s 21-inch Anniversary Ride—and you’re set to swing.

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