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Harry Allen and the Physics of the Tenor Saxophone

Nick Catalano By

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In Robert Altman's most underappreciated film Kansas City there is a memorable scene for music fans. In the 1930's at the Hey Hey club (one of the town's hotter venues) some of the more notable K.C. folk (politicians, society matrons, wealthy denizens) are having a good time. Everyone in town recognizes these eminent figures but ignores the black jazz musicians playing in the background. But for the film audience the musicians—Lester Young, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Jay McShann and a young Charlie Parker—are the celebrities. History has made them famous and the white notables of 1930 have long been forgotten by 1996 when the film was released.

In my years of writing about jazz the aforementioned irony has occurred numerous times. At charity benefits or celebrity functions here may be musical immortals creating great art on the stage, but most people in the room ignore them and focus on the event personalities.

Such was the case in late October during a private business dinner at Del Posto one of Gotham's poshest eateries. The identity of the businessmen at the event won't raise readers' eyebrows but most will recognize the band hired to supply a non-intrusive musical dimension to the moribund speech-loaded dinner. The players were pianist Tony Monte , guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, bassist Steve LaSpina and saxophonist Harry Allen.

Actually, I was grateful for the speeches because during their recitation the band took long breaks and I was able to chat with Harry Allen—one of the top tier tenormen in jazz. The conversation covered many topics but got quite animated when we began to swap stories involving the inexplicable variations and mysteries of different makes and models of tenor saxophones. I had assumed that Harry was playing a Selmer Mark VI—an extraordinarily popular high end horn. But Harry said that his instrument was a long ago discontinued Selmer Balanced Action model from 1938 that he had purchased on eBay. We both then shared stories about the unpredictability of various horns, mouthpieces (Harry uses a Master Link—the first model made by the famous Otto Link) and reed woods.

The stories were typical of those constantly occurring between saxophone players where much exasperation about the physics of the horn is often humorously exchanged but no solutions are arrived at. Sometimes, the experiences are embarrassing. Harry noted one time when his playing was frustratingly squeaky and no matter how many reeds he changed he could not play correctly. Then, by chance, he fumbled with an octave key and the squeaks disappeared. No explanation.

We referenced dozens of similarly incommodious incidents, each time shaking our heads in wonderment over the myriad mysteries of saxophone physics and with each exchange our bewilderment deepened.

After a while, Harry went back out on stage for another set. Monte called out a panoply of disparate tunes but no challenge was too great for the legends on the bandstand. Fresh from the saxophone physics conversation, I marveled at Harry Allen's ease and authenticity no matter what musical literature he was performing. His improvisational wizardry continues to astound but he makes it look and sound so effortless. I smiled as I sat back and listened. We had shared long-running vexations involving tenor saxophone physics, but Harry Allen has succeeded in overcoming all the obstacles and advancing the instrument beyond the wildest dreams of Adolphe Sax.

At the restaurant tables the business and networking conversations proceeded apace. The jazz history being made on the bandstand went virtually unnoticed. The aforementioned irony of Kansas City crept into my consciousness and I found myself wondering what a future Robert Altman might think of this 2013 New York scene.

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