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NAMM 2011: On the Upswing?

Record crowds, good music and sensible innovation at NAMM 2011

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Martin Taylor performs at the ArtistWorks Inc. booth, NAMM 2011
NAMM 2011 hits the Anaheim Convention Center
Fender G-DEC 3 Thirty Blues
Sabian AAX Omni cymbal

This past January in Anaheim, Calif., the annual wintertime tradeshow of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) seemed to reach a state of equilibrium after years of economic anxiety. The numbers were hopeful-NAMM reported record registration figures (90,114 attendees) and 247 new exhibitors-and conversations generally seemed less martyrly and more workaday, more healthy. In other words, it was “What are you listening to?” and not “What are we gonna do now?”

Maybe the industry is accepting its reined-in resources and has come to peace with the mantra of “more with less.” And perhaps that’s a good thing: This year’s new stuff seemed smart and practical-as in, gear you’d actually want to buy, rather than the gizmos and gadgets of pre-recession shows. (The scene, however, in all its SoCal guitar-shredder glory, remained outrageous.) Here are a few of the worthy products available now or scheduled to ship sometime in 2011.


Roland rolled out the company’s most portable B3-style keyboard ever, the ATELIER Combo AT-350C. The sleek-looking instrument offers traditional Hammond touchstones-drawbars, a double-manual keyboard, an optional pedalboard, rotary simulation-with the sort of technology Roland is known for: D Beam, audio playback, MIDI capabilities, a USB connect. Even closer to the Jimmy Smith ideal is Hammond’s Mini-B, which uses convincing digital technology to make the monster organ more compact and affordable than ever. ($13,500 will get you or your church a B3 and a Leslie.) Nord’s forthcoming Stage 2 keyboard also touts convincing organ sounds, pulled from the manufacturer’s great-sounding C2 combo organ. Finally, and perhaps most important, Rhodes now offers its high-quality components as replacement parts, or the company can re-tine and refurbish your old Mark II for you.


Woodwinds and brass are presented with less fanfare than the guitars and giant amplifiers, which can make it easy to overlook new axes. Yamaha, however, went all out for the company’s new Custom Z soprano saxes, throwing a showcase hosted by Dave Koz and featuring a rhythm section of heavyweights like bassist Nathan East and keyboardist Russell Ferrante. Despite that oh-so-smooth lineup, the two new sopranos felt solid yet wieldy-a credit to their being based on vintage Yamaha soprano designs but constructed using a brass alloy. So they should please contemporary jazzers as well as players looking to channel their inner Steve Lacy.

Yamaha also presented a 20th anniversary edition of its Xeno trumpet and a new Z series lead trombone, the YSL-897Z, which ramps up the versatility by shipping with two interchangeable leadpipes, one for each of the horn’s two designers and endorsers: L.A. go-to guy Andy Martin and Canada’s Al Kay.

In horn accessories, RS Berkeley and Drake collaborated on the Stan Getz Legend Series mouthpiece, a replica of what the man himself played. Theo Wanne figured out how to craft his precision-machined True Large Chamber tenor pieces for less and launched the more affordable Performance Line; for soprano players, the Wanne brothers now offer the Gaia soprano, a True Large Chamber piece currently backed by ECM’s Jan Garbarek. Vandoren always has something going on, and debuted several new products, including the M/O ligature line for clarinet and sax; clarinetists especially should dig these feather-light ligatures. Mouthpiece guru Jody Espina of JodyJazz didn’t have much in the way of brand-new product, but he did prove how ably he plays what he sells during a late-night gig at the Sheraton’s patio jazz venue. Other worthwhile horn performances included Tia Fuller blowing bop choruses at Conn-Selmer and Tim Ries shedding on standards at RS Berkeley.


Fans of Paul Reed Smith’s McCarty hollowbodies should be thrilled with the new JA-15, which gets closer to proper archtop design without sacrificing the comfort or buttery playability associated with Smith’s instruments. With a 15-inch lower bout and two humbuckers, the JA-15 got a deep, resonant hollowbody tone. Designed by Smith and L.A. session ace Paul Jackson Jr., the model is going for four grand online: pricey if you’re coming from the solidbody world but not so much if vintage archtops are your thing. Another jazzbox of note was Godin’s 5th Avenue Jazz, a higher-end entry in the Canadian company’s sharply designed budget archtop line.

In bass-related news, PRS released new four- and five-string Gary Grainger signature basses through its Private Stock sector. For upright players on the move, Yamaha upgraded its Silent Bass.

In amps, Fender released a truly addictive rehearsal tool in the G-DEC 3 Thirty Blues, a classic-looking edition of the innovative G-DEC practice amp. In addition to the online connectivity and other hi-tech features of the G-DEC, the Blues comes with a slew of onboard play-along loops. The grooves were easy to scroll through and stylistically wide-ranging: shuffles and slow blues, sure, but also N’Awlins funk vamps, 5/4 rhythms, swinging jazz-blues and mid-century jump blues.


A bunch of cymbals turned my head, including the Sabian AAX Omni crash-ride hybrid, designed with Jojo Mayer, which got distinct, striking timbres from both sections. In the market for a new ride? Paiste’s bronze, boutique-ish Twenty Masters Collection sounded excellent, as did the company’s new-old Formula 602 line, which, according to PR copy, was used by Art Blakey and Paul Motian. Not bad. Signature sticks are also popular among the jazz set, and Vic Firth displayed redesigned signature mallets for Stefon Harris as well as Peter Erskine’s long-taper “Big Band” sticks.

Over at LP, Stanton Moore demo’d his signature pandeiro, which has many uses but sounded best when the Galactic drummer pounded it like a floor tom. The drum industry, as usual, was responsible for the show’s edgiest jazz-oriented moments, whether it was Mark Guiliana at Sabian’s annual showcase or Danny Gottlieb swinging on his signature Basix kit. I know, I know-product demos are a long way from the Village Vanguard. But hey, in heavy metal land, every little bit helps.

Originally Published