Recently I have been exploring a synthetic reed made by a Canadian Company called Legere. The science behind this reed is amazing and in the last few years I've hardly ever gone back to cane. Yesterday I was asked to endorse their reeds which I can with absolute conviction. I played their product on Hellbent and Ben Allison's recent album and pretty much every gig I've done since 2007.
How is it possible to convey to the average joe how frustrating, time consuming, financially crushing but ultimately rewarding the search for a good reed is. Fortunately my days of freaking out over lost income being spent on pieces of wood, no larger than a stick of gum but worth anywhere between 50cents and $5 each, is over. Before I rave and rant about the challenges involved, let's give you a little history about the reed.
The Brown Box
Rico has got to be the most common reed in most of our lives. Those of us who grew up playing a sax or clarinet in band will remember this brand. And many jazz greats played (and still play) this reed. The way it was packaged in the old days (and i believe it was like this for decades) was a simple brown box w 25 reeds that were separated by paper dividers. It was easy to open and sift through. The thing I liked the most was the artificial woodgrain graphic on the box. The strengths were inconsistent but at such a cheap price it didn't matter. Most of them played and the ones that didn't made for excellent tongue depressors. But for those who required a higher end product there's the Rico 'Royal'. Made for the fancy pants who can't hang with the rough cut. Here's what we sound like while we wet our reed and talk about the musical selection at hand, "Yu shoun gud buh ma nintonation isha liddle hoff."
Too Much Packaging
But seriously, after rico switched packaging their original product took a nose dive and it was never the same. And like the dreaded CD wrapping, the packaging made it harder to access the product. Eventually almost everyone started making individually packaged reeds. The damn reeds were entombed and segregated from each other. How is it that a beautiful, organic product made from giant cane plants that grow in tepid climates, ends up in a non recyclable, plastic case which is then wrapped in a plastic wrapper before being shrink wrapped in a box? So we have to get through 4 layers of shit to get the freaking reed out!
Survival of the Fittest
When you finally do find a great reed it's a challenge to keep it 'alive'. The tip needs to stay wet and the body of the reed can't warp or it's game over. So you learn tricks. Some guys soak them in water for a while before they play them. Some leave them in water when they aren't playing them. I know a guy who spent hours cutting his own reeds. My father once told me that oboe players were all a little crazy because of the back pressure from their reeds. Now all of us clarinet and saxophone players know we have it easy next to those double reed players. In most cases they have to make their own reeds. For any of you who don't know what a double reed is, you're reading way to much of this blog. Just kidding, it's when you take a reed and tie it to another reed so instead of the reed vibrating against a mouthpiece, the cane vibrates against each other. It's for instruments like the oboe, bassoon, english horn, shenai, etc...Some people collect their unused reeds and build a sculpture which is then put to much better use as a magazine stand or some such thing. I've left some reeds in a dark cool place for years and like a good bottle of wine, as they age, they improve.
Origins of a Reedman
I started on clarinet when I was about 14. I got completely hooked on playing the clarinet as often as i could. Despite private lessons and school band classes, i was learning more about music by playing along to records than I was from books. I had taken piano lessons but I sucked and never practiced. Why were there so many keys and clefs and rhythms? When i heard music it didn't sound as complicated as it looked...and I was just trying to play me some Billy Joel! Well, Don't Go Changing is in Bmajor which, when you're 11yrs old, is not a great key to learn pop harmony in. But once I got that clarinet in my face (oral fixation in affect) I didn't want to put it down. The only problem was, when the reed chipped and got too soft, I had to dig into my pocket and buy more reeds. Then, as I struggled to find one that played, I would go through a personality change somewhat similar to Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. Imagine my Mum getting home from work: A single mother, paying for clarinet lessons to keep her son happy (and off the pipe - another oral fixation) but instead she hears another sound coming from his bedroom. It's not Mozart or Brahms. No, it's not even Benny Goodman. It's more like toot, toot, tweet, SQUEEK!...and again and again. Until....from the dark recesses of her pubescent son's room, she would hear,
"F*!K THESE CRAPPY REEDS, I'M GOING TO LOOSE MY MIND!!!"
So, Legere, thank you for making my life and so many other woodwind players, a little easier. No longer will I be heard cursing out my reeds on stage. No longer will I be flinging them on the floor in disgust at rehearsal. And no longer will I be the butt of another 'How many saxophonists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" joke.
Answer: just one but he has to go through 10 boxes to find one that works.