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Nammland: The National Association of Music Merchants Winter 2001 Show

This year, after three interim years at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the delirious cavalcade of sound, fury, gear lust and deal-making that is the Winter NAMM show landed back home in its long-standing site at the Anaheim Convention Center. Across the boulevard, Disneyland is expanding into its old parking lot, with its new “California Adventure” sub-theme park. Some poetic logic exists in that hunk of Anaheim real estate, where amusement, engineering and upward mobility rule.

What does this connection mean for the National Association of Music Merchants, which also celebrates its 100th anniversary this year? It means, partly, that NAMM is a brand as synonymous with its culture as Disneyland is with its. What it also means is that, while the NAMM show presents itself as a showcase circus for the latest and greatest gear and upgrades of last year’s models, it’s also part of a long, timeless continuum. The evolution of musical instruments, after all, is an extension of one of man’s oldest pastimes, and however immediate the gadgetry and new wares at NAMM, it’s important to remember that the essence of music is its tools.

It adds up to a dense thicket of all the things you expect from a major industry convention, including the occasional cheesecake gesture, with Playboy playmates Sandy and Mandy, the Bentley twins, signing photos at the Dean guitar booth. But the added attraction, and the lurking raison d’être, is the bounteous and sometimes clamorous music that buzzes along the surface of the showrooms by day and ballrooms by night.

John Scofield and John Clayton proffered some tasty playing at the Ibanez booth; Pete Fountain put on a show for Leblanc, parading his new “Big Easy” model B-flat clarinet; and the “Yamaha Groove Night” included Peter Erskine, Dave Weckl and veteran-deserving-greater-recognition Earl Palmer. Carlos Santana could be found on the floor, doing double promotion duty, for both a new Santana model guitar by PRS (Paul Reed Smith) and the elaborately adorned “Santana Supernatural” congas from LP Accents. Elvin Jones, epic smile in tow, could be found offering autographs at Zildjian, down the way from the long line at Peavey, where dinosaur rocker Ted Nugent dispensed signatures.

Meanwhile, on the fledgling front, a 13-year-old straightahead jazz guitarist named Julian Lage was making a good impression. He played alongside Larry Coryell and his son, Julian Coryell, at the all-star guitar bash on Saturday night, but was more dazzling in the cozier confines of the ersatz jazz-club of the Hofner booth. There, he peeled off tasty turns on “Have You Met Miss Jones” on his 335, one of the many classic guitars that have been imitated by multiple companies.

The signature gleam of Pete Christlieb’s playing beckoned from the Unison saxophone booth, where fine and affordable horns are dealt. It’s hard to attend NAMM, and listen to the music caught there, without an awareness of the manufacturers behind the sounds. And that, in the end, is the point here: Music is an elusive, endlessly seductive ride and if equipment is the luxury vehicle then NAMM is the grand showroom.

For jazz musicians, the arc of technological evolution tends to be a gradual one, if the frame of reference is primarily acoustic. There are mainly subtle refinements on the basic tools of the trade: horns, pianos, guitars, drums and basses. You could viably say that the impressive new Korg Karma Music Workstation, with its fluid capability as both a tool of real-time music-making and looping/sampling electronica patchworks, or the versatile synth known as the Nord Lead 3-as heard in the able hands of Scott Kinsey-could be as valid a jazz tool as L.A. Sax’s latest Joe Lovano model straight tenor and alto saxes. But that’s another story.

Yamaha introduced to the American market its coveted Xeno trumpet series, previously only available in Japan. They also debuted the Z Trumpet, designed with Bobby Shew, and the company’s first four-valve trumpet, the E-flat Custom Trumpet. UMI showed the King Legend 2B+ trombone, a tenor instrument with a .5-inch bore.

A horn company known for giving a lot for less money, Unison showed its new S400 tenor sax, which comes in gold lacquer, black nickel or silver plate finishes. They also introduced the Series 6003 tenor, a more basic instrument for students and entry-level players. Cannonball musical instruments, another company known for affordable quality, introduced its Big Bell Global series of saxes.

Antigua Winds’ A501-LQ tenor, also plays into the student sax market. Barrington’s Prism line also appeals to buyers on a budget, and with a taste for unconventional colors, à la fire red, made popular by L.A. Sax. Speaking of taste and color, this NAMM show’s eccentricity corner included Flavoreeds, for clarinet and alto sax, in 10 “fun flavors.”

Fanciful finishes of another sort were shown off at the L.A. Sax booth, with the Dave Guardala New Yorker line of saxophones. These horns, handmade in Germany, are engraved, decorated with such romantic Gotham landmarks as Central Park and the Statue of Liberty. No Village Vanguard, however.

From Selmer, new models include the Selmer (Paris) Series III saxophones and the Bach 1107M convertible tuba, with a malleable lead pipe that accommodates concert and marching purposes. They also introduced the new Vincent Bach Mega Tone mouthpieces, designed-true to the name-as a thicker, richer model mouthpiece for brass players.

Vandoren’s new M15 B-flat clarinet mouthpiece touts ease and sonorousness, and Rico’s La Voz double reeds, for oboe and bassoon, sport a newly improved design. Leblanc veers in a different direction, bringing Hahn synthetic reeds to North America for the first time. If it seems heretical to some, the benefits of synthetic include increased durability and no need for moistening.

On the accessory tip, one simple and useful new tool for horn players is the Sound Back acoustic monitor. The target consumer: horn players frustrated by inadequate monitoring situations they often encounter. Just as singers hold up a hand to their ear to better hear themselves, the Sound Back deflects the horn sound. A small round, adjustable piece of clear plastic is attached to the mike stand, just behind the shank of the microphone.

Jazz-specific products make their way into the NAMM mix in subtle ways. The noted custom pickup makers at Seymour Duncan just announced that they’ll start manufacturing the famed Benedetto pickups, favored by jazzers. Four models will be available-the S-Series humbuckers, the P.A.F. series, the A-series and the B-series full humbuckers.

Vic Firth released its American Jazz series of drumsticks, made of hickory and with a long taper geared especially for quick rebound on a ride cymbal. Zildjian’s new additions–a new 21″ ride cymbal, and three new additions to its Swing Set, an 18″ Vintage Crash, a 20″ Vintage Ride and a 14″ Vintage hi-hat. They also introduced their first drumset-integrated cowbell, the Zil-Bel. They also showed the new Dennis Chambers drumstick, a mutant half stick-half mallet effect.

Roland’s electronic instrument showcase this year also included the new electronic V-Cymbals. For the apparent oddity of the notion, it’s a fairly practical answer to issues of control and sonic variety. Virtually silent to the touch, or crash or ride, the cymbals trigger a bevy of sounds while maintaining a natural feel to the player. For the adventurous, different cymbals can be programmed to behave in unseemly manners: a ride becomes a crash, et al.

The ongoing search for alternative bass models continued this year with the showing of Meisel’s new E-Fusion bass. A smaller-scale electro-acoustic instrument, shaped like a double bass, it is aimed at students and younger players who have trouble contending with a standard-size bass. Also, it’s geared toward players looking for portability, and comes equipped with Fishman or Realist transducer pickup for plug-in flexibility.

Musicians are the beneficiaries of the democratization of recording technology. Digital home studios are cheaper and better than ever, and recording, with surprisingly good results, on your PC or other cheap media, is an approachable reality. Even Pro Tools, Digidesign’s industry-standard digital recording system, has come down in price, from a daunting five figures for its full version to under a thousand for its leaner, but still robust, versions.

Alesis’ introduction of ADATs several years ago virtually signaled a paradigm shift in how musicians of limited budget view recording, but in recent years the company has struggled to deal with the emergence and fast development of hard-disk platforms. This year, they bowed to the hard-drive recording movement, including such inviting products as Mackie’s standalone HDR24/96 recorder, with their own ADAT HD24, a self-contained hard-disk recorder, a 24-track, 24-bit/96khz machine running around $2,000 retail. Alesis’ model is designed to integrate smoothly with the ADAT environment, still a potent force in the studio scene, whatever the threat of hard-drive takeover.

One of the coolest, quirkiest recording tools introduced at NAMM was the pint-size Zoom PS-02 Palmtop Studio, which literally packs a multitrack recorder, an effects processor, a drum and bass machine and more into a package roughly the dimensions of a squat, fat palm-sized computer. (A comic-magician-pitchman, in true carny/conventioneer tradition, demonstrated the tiny scale by slipping it into his suit pocket, winking and saying, “No, I am not just happy to see you. I have a studio in my pocket.” Insert laughter.) It may have limited functionality and miniature controls, but the Palmtop Studio, which stores data on Smart Media cards, is ideal for capturing live gigs, with options for later overdubs and postprocessing.

The V-Studio, Roland’s own all-in-one-package “virtual studio,” has been a popular item in the humble, home-studio realm for the last few years. Newer, better models have been shown almost annually at NAMM. Needless to say, this year’s model, the VS-2480, is the best yet, a 24-track/24-bit machine with capability of 384 virtual tracks, motorized faders, drag-and-drop functions and an easy-to-use interface. And it all fits in a package that’s reasonably portable, small enough to be set up on the kitchen table or in a corner in a rehearsal space.

Modeling amps have been making the rounds of late, offering guitar players-always searching for tonal variations-sonic options through digital savvy. Line 6 has had a solid corner on the market, both with modeling amps and their Pods, and Roland’s new V-Guitar Amplifier is a solid new entry in the field. The VGA-5 offers 11 different amp models, on-board EFX and acoustic guitar simulator and foot controller options including tap tempo. In short, it offers a good range of tonal identities available to the gigging or studio-bound musician.

The folks at Fender, however, are up to something different with their new Cyber-Twin, unveiled with some fanfare at NAMM. This is not, they insist with some practiced indignation, another modeling amp. Instead, the amp creates a plethora of different sounds by actually rerouting the built-in circuitry. According to the sounds you dial up, an internal computer controller pushes the signal on different trajectories from the input jack to the speaker, with rich results for anyone who has wanted their guitar amp to have multiple personalities, without that digital cheese.

Polytone, that mainstay of the mainstream jazz guitar amp scene, boasted new sonic circuitry for their family of amps. The company that accordion wizard Tommy Gumina founded 33-years ago also introduced a second channel on its Sonic Bass model.

On the ground where venerable piano craftsmanship and digital technology meet, Yamaha continues to develop its Disklavier system, and Kurzweil announced its new model, the V Series of Digital Grand Pianos. Kurzweil, early leaders in the digital and emulating realms, has retreated into the piano segment of the NAMM show in recent years. But the new V110 and V150 digital pianos bring MIDI and digital functionality into play.

Originally Published