Contrabass Digest

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Date: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 19:43:29 EDT
Subject: Re: [Contra digest]

I once lost my reeds for my EEb contraclarinet a few days before a gig. The
music stores here in Hamburg don't even know what a contrabass clarinet is
let alone sell reeds for them. So I used Vandoren barisax reeds. To my
surprise they worked rather well, even better for high notes. In fact, with
the barisax reeds, I can hit notes well above the high C with great ease and
control. This is somewhat logical, that barisax reeds are not as wide.

However, the disadvantage is that low notes at high volume sound rather
reedy. I personally don't mind this. Another disadvantage since the bari-sax
are skinnier is that they sometimes slip when they're not bound tightly
enough. So I don't really recommend this. But for high notes, which otherwise
defeat the purpose of a contrabass instrument, bari-sax reeds makes it easy.


Date: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 20:41:42 -0700
From: "Timothy J. Tikker" <>
Subject: Re: [Contra digest]

Adam Kent-Isaac wrote:
>         Hey, I just thought of something. You know that Sidney Bechet
> recording of Mandy? I wonder, if maybe he's not playing a sarrusophone
> at all. In fact, I would assume that it is a bass saxophone or a
> contrabass clarinet. After all, Bechet played Soprano Sax, a Bb
> instrument, and the soprano clarinet, another Bb instrument. The bass
> sax and contrabass clarinet are both Bb instruments and they correspond
> to the Soprano sax and Clarinet that Bechet played.
>         Also, the instrument he's playing has a very fat, round, and blubbery
> tone, but it's very smooth and clear, unlike the Sarrusophone, bassoon
> and Contrabassoon, all of which have haunting, reedy, rattling,
> somewhat terrifying low registers. Whatever Bechet's playing is a
> comical, kindly-toned instrument somewhat reminescent of a fat yet
> jovial old man.
>         In fact, I'd have to say that of low instruments, the tuba, bass sax,
> and bass and contra clarinets would be the "Good Guys" while the
> evil-sounding bassoon, contra and sarrusophone would be the bad guys
> that always fall to their death off of some platform during a sword
> fight.
>         In other words, those low double reeds would not be ideal choices for
> the kind of solo work that Bechet is going for, and definetely not that
> song.
>         So, my basic point is, that I don't think Bechet is playing a
> sarrusophone in Mandy. You guys can draw your own conclusions. But I'm
> stickin' to my guns on this one.
> -Adam

I couldn't disagree with you more.

  1. Couldn't be a bass saxophone.  The song is in Eb major, and goes to the low C of the Eb contrabass sarrusophone (concert low Eb of the 16' octave) constantly. That is below the lowest note (concert Ab) of the bass sax.  That would leave only the contrabass sax possible in this pitch range, and it was much more rare then than the sarrusophone.  And judging from the sound on the recording compared to CB sax recordings I know (Braxton, Nuclear Whales), Bechet's instrument is leaner, not so ponderous.
  2. The sound is completely wrong for a contrabass clarinet, which is more hollow (i.e. only odd-numbered harmonics).  I also think it was much rarer then than it is today.
  3. What is your point of reference for sarrusophone tone?  Compare it with the C and Eb contras heard on Paul Winter's album, and I think you'll find Bechet's sound essentially the same.
  4. I posted a lengthy quote here some time ago from a French orchestration text comparing the (French) contrabassoon and the (C) contrabass sarrusophone.  It said the sarrus was superior in every way, particularly in terms of its agility.  That makes the sarrus the ideal instrument for Bechet's solo, quite agile for a lively bass part, and quite different from the contrabassoon.
  5. Sarrus tone is actually rather different from bassoon/contrabassoon, being something of a hybrid with saxophone tone, to my ears anyway.  And that is just what I hear on the Bechet recording:  something like a really skinny low sax tone.
  6. Don't forget that the contra sarrus was often played (esp. in the US) with a single-reed mouthpiece, about the size of a soprano sax mouthpiece.  Since Bechet also played soprano sax, this doubling would then have been a natural for him, no problem at all, especially since the fingerings are similar (actually, I don't think he was inflexible:  I recall seeing a series of photos of him in a book where he was playing a whole series of instruments, including piano & double-bass, possibly drums...).
  7. I sense that the sarrus was considered one of the instruments which worked well on old 78rpm recordings.  When I first heard Bechet's song, I was reminded of some old cartoons from the 1930s and their music tracks;  I believe they used the sarrus as a bass instrument in their orchestra.  This seems true in later tracks as well:  check out The Carl Stalling Project:  Music from the Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958 (Warner Bros. CD 9 26027-2), in which one cut has a brief solo which is obviously a contra sarrus.

- Timothy Tikker


Date: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 21:27:06 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Barcus Berry pickups

If anyone is looking for amplification, I found a place near me that bought up a pile of Barcus Berry transducers.  The store is blowing them out for $25 (Canadian!) each.

The reason I'm bothering to mention this is:  they had SEVERAL bass flute pickups, a few bassoon ones, and quite a few clarinet/sax reed pickups.

This would be a very cheap way to try amplifying your horn.

Let me know if you are interested - I'll e-mail you the store's phone number (they are in the Toronto area).

Merlin Williams
A member of the Saxring and the Duke Ellington Ring.

Date: Wed, 21 Jul 1999 02:32:53 -0400
From: "farfl's house" <>
Subject: Re: Bechet

Hi, Adam;
You can stick to your guns if you want to, but it is in fact a sarrusophone that
Bechet's playing on "Mandy".
He admitted as much in several interviews, although no interviewer could get an
answer to the question "Why". Whenever someone would ask about the circumstances
surrounding Bechet's acquisition of the instrument for the session, he would only
just smile. He took the story to his grave, and no one thought to ask Louis
Armstrong about it before he passed, either! People speculate that Bechet found the
instrument in a pawn shop or music shop, and that someone "dared" him to play it on
the session. No one will ever know for sure. But it IS a sarrusophone.

The difference in tone could well be attributed to the recording techniques of the
time, but I'd rather like to think that Bechet's ability and ear were the factors
that enabled him to give the instrument such life and character......the character
of a jovial fat man, as you say. To be able to infuse imagery into the listener's
mind is a real gift. In this way Bechet was conveying a feeling and really
communicating through the instrument!  I dare say that any instrument that has a
"reedy, rattling" type of tone is probably due to the player.

If this were pure speculation, discographers would most certainly have chosen
"baritone sax" before even a bass sax or bass clarinet, much less a sarrusophone!
There have been numerous discographies that have listed Adrian Rollini's instrument
as a baritone sax, and we all know what HE played.
Apparantly, Paul Cohen says his students know of a second tune that Bechet played
sarrusophone on, but he's not telling.

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