Woodwind musicians Ben Webster, Paul Desmond & Loose Embouchures

The subject heading above makes this question sound more esoteric that it is, but give it a chance.

Plainly stated, I’ve been listening to Paul Desmond (of Dave Brubeck fame) lately and am wonder if Desmond’s loose embouchure and airy sound were deliberate. Stan Getz also had a somewhat airy sound at times, and Ben Webster was a airy as the bed of a truck racing down a highway. When asked about his trademark sound, in fact, Desmond responded, “I think I have an illegal embouchure.”

I always thought a loose embouchure was the sign of a rookie–of poor mouth control–but these musicians were at the top of their games. Truth be told, the leaky air sound sometimes drives me nuts.

Desmond’s lip clamp seems rather proficient to me. The guy could take a simple two octave (plus) saxomaphone and make it sound like the better half of a grand piano’s keyboard. Not seeing him perform live is one of my great regrets.

Desmond’s fluid manipuilation of the instrument’s scales brings to mind Dick Heckstall-Smith (which represents one of the longest Google searches I’ve ever seen in my entire life, as in all of 0.17 second’s time) of Alexis Korner (Blues Incorporated) fame.

If I could perform with the mastery of either performer, I’d easily die a happy man.

I’ve been told I play like this too, and I’ve been favorably compared to Stan Getz and Paul Desmond (as well as Lester Young). In high school jazz band, I used to get yelled at for sounding “airy,” and because I couldn’t play loud. I just CAN’T. I’m not a honker or a squawker, even though most of the other adept players were. But there’s a time and a place for all styles, and I found a good niche with mine.

And when I joined a ska-punk band in college, I just made sure to always use a mic. Problem solved!

Although I think that Desmond was the better artist all-round, I think that Getz better utilized the airy sound. Sometimes it was almost what he didn’t play that was the kicker. It was especially effective in the Jobim recordings.

Not really certain, but I’ll chime in. I was always taught that a tight embouchure = good sound. Having said that, I’ve found that there are exceptions to every rule (obvious example: Dizzy Gillespe and those big puffy cheeks). I believe that Jazz fosters a more personal sound than Classical or “serious” music. Just like there are different styles of singing, perhaps there is an “unplanned” stylistic difference in playing.

In short: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ben Webster is my wife’s all-time favorite sax player precisely because of the “airy” sound. For her it seems to translate into emotion. I like his music, but at times there are not even notes coming from the instrument, just the sound of air passing through, which is a little bizarre.

A related question…

Band teachers in school sometimes make a big deal about “reed stiffness,” and the implication is that the better woodwind musicians use stiffer reeds.

Why? It seems a stiffer reed requires an extremely tight embouchure.

Anyway, I’ll add that I like Getz, Desmond, and Webster, though Getz’s airiness was sometimes a bit disconcerting to my uninfomred tastes that were shaped by high school band directors telling us to “tighten up that embouchure!”

Somehow, I’ve got to believe the old masters wanted this airiness, for good effect. Certainly this must be the case of Webster.

Originally posted by Carnac the Magnificent!
the implication is that the better woodwind musicians use stiffer reeds…Why? It seems a stiffer reed requires an extremely tight embouchure.

Charlie Parker played a number five Rico. And if you look at most of his performance photos, he’s got his jaws clamped over that mouthpiece like a crocodile on a sunbather’s leg.

I like an airier sound, myself, although I most often play a number two or two-and-a-half, which tends to give me a big wobbly Coleman Hawkins/King Curtis vibrato. Going as hard as a number three gives me a mouthache.

Paul Desmond said that he wanted his sax to sound like a dry martini. The airy etherealness of his sound is quite deliberate.

I just bought The Paul Desmond Quartet Live and it kicks major ass. Guitar instead of piano, like some of the work he did with Jim Hall, Not Jim Hall on this one, unfortunately, but quite nice nonetheless.

Getz played on a hard reed. He’s been quoted as saying that he worked very hard to get the sound he got, trying to get all the “reed” sound out of his playing.

I’ve heard stories that Ben Webster played on a rather open mouthpiece with a hard reed. Don’t have any sort of cite for this… maybe someone else can confirm or deny.

That’s fascinating, but I am now more confused. I don’t recall Bird having a particularly airy sound. Considering many jazzists consider him the greatest saxman ever, he obviously was using a #5 reed for a reason–and not to deliberately induce jaw fatigue. My question: what did a #5 do that a #2 wouldn’t?

Maybe I need to revisit my Parker CDs…

I’m listening to Bird at St. Nick’s at the moment…1950 nightclub session with Red Rodney, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, and Roy Haynes.

Parker didn’t have an airy sound, it was a notably hard-edged sound which lent itself very well to his inventive flights of improvisation. And he’s revered for many many things, but not necessarily for the beauty of his tone.

“…a number five is the stiffest reed made. It is the reed giving the biggest and most impressive sound on the saxophone. It is also the reed that requires the most sheer blowing power, and the reed that lends itself least to flexibility and speed of execution. A number five Rico reed is ordinarily used for brass band work where single, contrapuntal notes are wanted to fill in behind the heavier instruments. It is seldom if ever used by dance band or jazz musicians. It is a stiff, unyielding, unforgiving reed. It is very hard to control…”
– Ross Russell; Bird Lives!, Charterhouse, 1973.

A bit off-topic, but I have a question about reeds.

Are a number two reed from, say, Reeds-R-Us and a number two reed from ReedCo the same exact size, weight, etc. (unlike, say, drumsticks, which have “standardized” sizes that vary from manufacturer to manufacturer)?

No, reeds from different brands, and even different model reeds from within the same brand, differ greatly. Here is a sheet comparing the strengths of different brands. Not even all brands use a numbering system. La Voz uses designations of S - H. According to the chart I gave, quote from Bird Lives! provided by Ukulele Ike isn’t entirely accurate. Notice that the Rico 5 is about 2.5 sizes smaller than the Vandoren 5. This puts it as only slightly harder than a Vandoren 3.5, which is considered to be the standard reed for classical saxophone playing. There are many high school and college level ensambles that require saxophone players to use this strength of reed.

As a caveat to that, I have no idea how the sizing of reeds has changed in the years since Bird’s death. It is entirely possible that none of the information above is accurate in the slightest.

It’s also important to consider the size of the tip opening on a saxophone mouthpiece. The bigger the opening at the tip is, the more air the mouthpiece can take at any one time, but the mouthpiece also requires more air to produce sound. So, larger tip openings have an effect similiar to that of harder reeds.

do you suppose desmond rolled his top lip under his top teeth too? or was he just “loose” as you say?

I have nothing to add since I don’t play reed instruments, I just love the tone of both players - because both start their notes with less sharpness in their attack, I feel like they have more control over their sound - they can get more lightness into their tone, so when they push it a bit, you hear the contrast more. Kinda the opposite of, say, Clarence Clemmons, who can only bray.