Three Things I Have Learned From Playing In R’n’B and Soul Bands 

My first experiences as a full-time baritone saxophonist were in horn sections. I was really excited to take this challenge on and I did not know that this would shape the next five years (and beyond) of my career.

For me, the concept of playing the bari part was a huge shift. It made me examine how I played rhythmically, how my sounds fit with a section, and how I articulated (and the variations). Also, it made me rethink how I wrote for horn sections and what gear I used.

Here’s a promo video from my first gig as a baritone saxophonist.

Using The Baritone To Its Fullest Potential

As someone who writes for horn sections, I learned a lot about writing for horn sections from actually sitting on the baritone saxophone book, and how myself (and many other writers) simply didn’t (or don’t) value having a baritone sax in their band. It’s not that they don’t like having a baritone sax close by, but that book may not be utilized to its fullest potential.

As a bari player, I love playing in the holes against the other horns, hooking up with the bass, and horn riffs, but too often the bari is treated like “just another horn”, where they’re playing unison horn lines instead of providing the foil to the rest of the horn section or band. Another situation that I’ve seen is that the bari part has to cover everything – against the horn section, with the bass and with the horn section with no place to breathe – it’s a big piece of plumbing.

For me, I like to know what job I’m doing – if I’m filling the holes, let me do that to the best of my ability. If I’m a supporting voice in the section, I like that too. If I’m driving a bass line with the bassist, drop me a note in my part so I can really hook up with them.

Personally, I still think that Tower Of Power has figured it best – and even then, when you listen to early recordings, there is far less bari independence than there is once they really developed their sound. When I listen to the horn section writing of T.O.P. it’s very clear what Doc’s job is every time he plays.

My Ears Changed

After figuring out where my new horn sat in the band, I noticed that the way I heard music and what I wanted to hear coming out of my saxophone change. This change in the way I heard the horn led to some physical changes on the horn as well.

I was not picky about my tuning before I played bari. Before I played baritone saxophone full time, I never focused that much on my tuning. I could play in tune, but finding where the pitch sat for every note wasn’t at the forefront of my mind – I could always adjust if needed. I knew that I could really undermine the composer or arranger’s intent by not being able to play in tune with a bass, and then with a section.

I also started to realize that I needed to articulate more forcefully, and it wouldn’t disrupt the tone as much as it would on a smaller horn. I noticed that on heavily articulated passages, the start and restart on the larger reed, mouthpiece and horn didn’t get harsh and thin, but rather barked – which was the sound that I needed in these situations.

I Wanted A Modern Horn With A Low A (Low Eh?)

The vintage horn enthusiasts might give me a hard time on this one – “There’s nothing that sounds like my Conn 12” or “go get a low Bb Mark VI – it plays like a big tenor”.

You’re right.

Nothing sounds or feels like those horns, I’ve owned three (two Conns and a low Bb Mark VI), but they aren’t always the right tool for the job.

After I bought my Yamaha YBS-62S, I felt comfortable in all situations, but particularly in the studio – playing a horn that had all of the advantages of modern technology put into its design allowed me to be more relaxed and just play the music, use the mouthpieces that I wanted, and don’t forget about dropping that low A when I needed it.

What playing situations that have influenced your concept?

Three Things I Have Learned From Playing Bari Sax In A Big Band 

While my first “permanent” baritone saxophone experiences were in R’n’B or Soul horn sections, I feel that being a baritone saxophonist in a big band. When Ed Lister formed the Prime Rib Big Band in March 2017, I was called for the bari sax (and clarinet, and eventually bass clarinet) chair.

After three years of anchoring the saxophone section, I’ve learned a few things about sitting on the lowest woodwind book. Here are three important lessons that I’ve learned about playing the bari sax in this situation.

The Bari Sax Chair Is The Best

I love variety! The bari sax chair in a big band has so much variety – sometimes you live in the sax section, other times, the trombone section. You get to hook up with the bass on great baselines, and anchoring the whole band on shout sections is an amazing feeling! Also, the number of times I get to play in the holes between the rest of the band is what I live for on big band gigs.

Typically, There Are Less Solos

I am fortunate to play in the Prime Rib Big Band, where there is lots of room for every player to play solos, but that isn’t always the case in other big bands. Growing up as a tenor player who played solos in big bands, it was an adjustment to sit at the other end of the section and wait for the blues – something I love to blow on! After a few gigs, I started to discover the beauty in and understand the role.

I Needed To Change My Gear

Playing in a big band demanded more of my sound – fitting in with saxophones, then trombones, and the bass forced me to think about the overall flexibility of my sound and mouthpiece setup. I also went through a couple of horns to figure out what I needed and liked, but that’s a different story.

I found that my setup was too resistant for what I needed. I started by playing a smaller tipped mouthpieces with a hard reed (Otto Link Super Tone Master 6 with a D’Addario Royal 5 or Select Jazz 4H), and didn’t think that I had enough cut. I tried huge mouthpieces – a Lebayle Jazz 8* which measured .138 and a Rico 2 or 2.5. Eventually, I found some mouthpieces in the middle (.115ish with a 3 or 3.5) that gave me the best of all worlds – clean articulation, solid tuning, the volume, and most importantly, the sound I wanted. Finding gear that fit me and my needs allows me to get the most out of my horn every time I sit in a big band.

Do you enjoy sitting in a big band?

If so, what are some of the things that you’ve learned through your experience in large ensembles?

Ronnie Cuber – My Gateway Into Bari Sax Listening 

“Do you know that bari song?”

Nearly every baritone saxophonist has been asked that question. The song in question is Ronnie Cuber’s intro to the Mingus Big Band’s version of “Moanin'”.

It’s an iconic statement in the baritone saxophone solo catalogue.

I’ve even used it to test my kids’ taste in music. Here’s my daughter checking it out.

Ronnie Cuber was the baritone saxophonist who made me listen deeper and explore different ways to play the bari sax.

I remember digging into his solos on the Mingus Big Band ’93 – Nostalgia In Times Square, and just falling in love with how the solos spoke to me – a great mix of blues and bop. It satisfied the frustrated tenor player in me.

I started listening deeper into Ronnie’s discography, and I came across two of his recordings he had done as a leader – Cubism and Ronnie. These reaffirmed my admiration for him as a soloist, but more than that, I loved his playing in a straight-ahead setting, and a Latin jazz setting. He seemed to change gears for each musical situation that he was in, and his playing was really appropriate for the circumstance.

Exploring his credits has been even more interesting, because I have been able to check him out in different situations – horn sections, featured soloist, big bands, quartets, and more. Every time I listened, it drove home the point of being authentic to the style you are working in – a lesson that I have carried forward in my career.

As my gateway into baritone saxophone listening, Ronnie Cuber has led me to listen to Gary Smulyan, Nick Brignola, more Gerry Mulligan, which then steered me towards Lars Gullin, Serge Chaloff. As my baritone listening has become deeper, I have found my tastes drifting towards John Surman and modern-day players.

Also, for the first time in my life, I was listening backwards. My listening experience as a young player was always rooted in Lester Young, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Ben Webster, and while it gave me an amazing foundation on which to build my concept, I was always playing catch up to my peers in their listening. Listening to Ronnie Cuber first, and then working my back towards iconic players from the 1930’s-50’s changed the way I felt time, and my sound concept in a positive way which has allowed me to keep my playing relevant to the work I’m hired for now.

So I Made The Switch…What Next? 

I had many moments of doubt in my first year of being a baritone saxophonist. I was really concerned with keeping work, booking new gigs, what people thought of my switch, and most importantly, how I sounded.

It took me about a year to get comfortable on jazz gigs (which were the majority of my gigs at the time). I was worried about having tunes called that were in my normal repertoire and not knowing them. Every tune felt different than it had before, and some nights that was great, but I wasn’t confident in my approach. I would even bring my tenor to gigs, set it up and not play it all night as a safety blanket.

It finally got to the point where I felt like I had to do something drastic.

I sold all of my other saxophones. I was committed to the big horn.

This move kept me from being distracted in my practicing, and it forced me to think about the baritone saxophone sound that I wanted.

As I had spent my professional life as a tenor saxophonist, I was primarily influenced by tenor players. I don’t believe that this is a bad thing, but my baritone listening wasn’t that deep. I had scratched the surface of Gerry Mulligan’s playing, but that sound wasn’t always appropriate for the settings that I had started to play in.

Then I found Ronnie…

ERU-ERA – Fury. The bari solo starts at 5:16

This is a video with ERU-ERA from 2016. I had recently dug into Ronnie Cuber’s playing and his influence is starting to show.

I’ll explain why and how Ronnie Cuber’s playing has been so important to my development in the near future!

How I Became A Baritone Saxophonist 

I remember my first really great experience playing the baritone saxophone. It was in Elora, Ontario on a New Years gig with a jazz trio. I remember saying to the band, “I think that I could play this horn full time.” I had borrowed Mohawk College’s horn over the winter break (I’m not sure why) and just happened to take it to this gig (once again, I’m not sure why I did this).

I had always owned a bari mouthpiece and subbed in bands whenever a baritone player was needed, but I was a tenor player. I was going to follow in the footsteps of the great players – Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Ben Webster and all of the other possible influences that I would encounter over the years. This would become a theme in my professional life for years – I would get called to play all of the other saxophones, clarinets, flutes regularly and my tenor would only come out on the gigs that I booked for myself, yet I was stuck on the fact that I was a tenor player.

In 2015, after years of struggling as a tenor player, not booking enough gigs and generally being frustrated in music, I got a call to play in the London Gentleman Record Band’s Tribute to Chaka Khan, which was run by one of my greatest friends and musical conspirators, Ed Lister. I ended up on the baritone saxophone book (with my 1969 Conn low Bb bari sax, Otto Link Tone Edge 5* and a Légère Signature #2.75) and it felt great! The show was a success and although I felt (and sounded) pretty green on bari, I felt like I once again had found a soft spot for this beast of a horn.

I started bringing both the tenor and baritone to my gigs, but I noticed a trend in my bookings – I was getting booked more frequently, but I was only getting booked on baritone sax. I was starting to fall in love with the big horn – the sound, the way it moved, it felt right.

At that time, in 2016, I was taking lessons with Petr Cancura and I approached him about my situation (while showing him my “new” Conn Transitional with a Hawaiian Lady engraved on the bell).

The exchange went something like this –

Richard – “I’m stuck. I bring my tenor to our lessons, but I’m really only getting hired to play bari and when I’m at home I just practice the bari.”

Petr – “So be a bari player.”

Richard – “I never thought of that…Okay.”

It was that simple.

This isn’t verbatim, but it’s pretty close to what happened that day. Petr also explained to me how great it would be for my playing to have the focus of the bari for a while and how it would improve my tenor playing if I ever chose to come back to it.

A few weeks later, I sold all of my other saxophones (which I would later replace with others – I’ll get into that later) and became a full time baritone saxophonist.

As I get deeper into this blog, I’ll recount experiences, stories, gear choices and how making the switch to the big horn has become my professional identity.