by Maura Mazurowski
Baritone saxophone: cumbersome but captivating, it’s mostly pushed out of the spotlight in favor of its alto and tenor little brothers. But Tommy Daughtrey of The Rhythmasters and Chris Sclafani of the Afro-Zen Allstars make sure it’s seen and heard in Richmond.
“There’s no other thrill like playing your lowest note and just blurting it out,” Sclafani says.
The bell on a baritone sax is about 7 inches across. It’s nearly a tuba with a reed at the head end. How do you summon the lung capacity to push air through that big instrument for hours at a time? “Any wind or brass player will tell you playing is a very physical thing to do, and you have to be somewhat in shape because you’ll get tired too easily,” Daughtrey says.
Sclafani said practice builds lung strength, but saxophonists use a few techniques such as raising your chest while playing to allow the lungs to open up even more. The baritone “is actually physically easier for me to play,” Daughtrey told me. “Alto is a stuffy instrument and the mouthpiece is smaller, so it’s more resistant.”
Bearing the 14 pounds of this instrument through a couple of sets is is a different battle — Sclafani calls it the biggest challenge. (The alto and tenor weigh four and six pounds, respectively.) A strong back and supportive neck strap are essential. To balance out the weight of the baritone, Daughtrey and Sclafani will both switch up between the tenor and alto saxes during performances. “If need be, I could do a whole show on the baritone sax… But the next day I would be sore,” Sciafani said.
Bari logistics can be a bit of a hassle, too. Stuck in an airport during a snowstorm, Daughtrey once hauled his tenor, alto, bari saxophone and clarinet around as he passed the ticket agents, boarding gates, magazine shops and mediocre food outlets between jazz shows. “I was basically having to camp out… so if I wanted to go to the restroom, I had to carry it all with me,” Daughtrey laughs. “That’s the struggle of brass instruments.”
Sciafani has mused about the chance to play a bass saxophone, an even bigger beast. “I keep telling myself the second I go platinum, I’m buying one,” Sclafani said. They retail for around $35,000 at the moment.
Then there’s the contrabass! Pitched a full octave below the baritone, tubing twice as long, 6’4″ tall, 45 pounds. Shorter players sometimes mount a stepstool to get to the mouthpiece, and it’s played, at times, from its own floorstand. Here’s Anthony Braxton modeling the size of the thing. Maybe next year…
And help me 0ut here: a subcontrabass saxophone?