Antonio Hart: The Saxophone Set-Up Trifecta

Date Posted: May 03, 2016

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My name is Antonio Hart, an alto saxophonist, and I’ve been playing professionally in the jazz idiom for about twenty years now.  Along with recording and touring around the world I’m also a professor here in New York at Queens College – we have a master’s program in jazz that was started by my mentor, Jimmy Heath.

I’ve been playing Vandoren products for more than twenty years, and it was probably one of the first products I had before I really knew what I was doing and just knew the name ‘Vandoren’.  Through the years of gradually growing as an artist and as a musician I started to understand the differences between mouthpieces and reeds and ligatures and why they’re important.  The reason why I play this product in particular is because I allows me to have the sound that I’m looking for and it allows me to have the flexibility because I don’t just play straight ahead jazz, I play a lot of different styles of music.  So I’ve found that the mouthpiece that I chose - this is the V16 S8 - allows me a lot of flexibility to play very traditionally or even in a more contemporary style of playing without having to switch mouthpieces – which people do.


This is the brand new M|O ligaturethat came out a couple of months ago and before this I was playing the optimum ligature, which is a little more metal and has three movable plates which was very good  but I felt like it was giving me a little more resistance that I wanted – but it was still better than anything I had ever played.  So when David Gould presented this ligature to me (the M|O) as soon as I put it on the mouthpiece the horn just opened up and spread and I fell in love with it and I’ve been playing it ever since.


The thing I like about this mouthpiece is that it’s very very flexible.  If I were playing more traditional situation, like a very early on traditional situation, for example…  As you can hear it’s a darker sound, not a lot of edge on the sound, it’s full and round, and it almost makes the alto feel like a tenor in terms of the bottom register and that what I like when I play.  I think of my alto – in my approach because I’m a frustrated tenor player – as a tenor and then as I get into the middle and higher range of the horn then I’m playing alto, and then if I go into the altissimo range then it gets into a soprano sound which I don’t play so much. That’s the beauty of this mouthpiece too: it allows me to play up in that altissimo range without a lot of effort. I’m not really doing anything I’m just letting the air work and I don’t have to bite down.  I don’t want to talk about other mouthpieces and name them, but there are other mouthpieces that when you start to get into the higher register they start to choke up, intonation changes, and you have to work really hard to make those mouthpieces speak.  I’ve found consistently with the Vandoren V16 S8 (I like the small chamber, the medium chamber is a little too much for me) is that it allows me to stand comfortably and blow and it allows me to do the things I want to do.


"So I hope you enjoy the reeds, and the mouthpieces, and the ligatures and continue to support the Vandoren products because in my humble opinion, they’re some of the best products on the market."

Like I said it’s very flexible, so if I wanted to get an older sound it allows me to do that, or if I wanted to get more contemporary… No matter what setting I’m playing in I love the Vandoren products and they’re constantly trying to get better and constantly asking the artist ‘what can we do to tweak the product to make it better for your situation?’ It’s very rare that you’ll find a product that’s stock that you can pick up and play without having someone do some work to. I grew up kind of poor and I didn’t have that luxury of having a plethora of reeds –  I had to take what I had. And if you are spending thirty or forty dollars on a box of reeds and you only get one or two, that’s a drag. 90% or the reeds I pull out of a Vandoren box work for me right away without doing any sort of work to it.  I just put it on the mouthpiece and make sure it’s set correctly and the ligature’s set correctly, and I’m ready to play.

I play Java reeds - the green box. A lot of people, especially alto players when they study Charlie Parker, they know Charlie Parker played on a number 4 reed and so they want to play on a really stiff reed. I find that I’ve gone backwards  from that school of hard-to- soft, I would like to play on something that allows me to be relaxed but gives me a certain level of resistance at the same time because I don’t want it to be too free blowing. But I want it to give me just the right amount of resistance.  I find the strength that works for me is the 2 ½, I don’t play too hard so they last a lot longer.

A lot of people don’t want to play softer reeds because they don’t last but that’s because they’re not playing the horn the way it’s supposed to be played,  so what people are doing is they’re biting so hard on their mouthpieces that their reed isn’t vibrating so they’re fighting against themselves. You already have resistance because the air is stopping here (the neck) and you have to push it down but if this thing (the reed) isn’t allowed to vibrate, you’re not doing it so that’s what's happening.  People figure if you get a harder reed you can bite down and the air will still go but the vibration is still not as fast so it makes it harder to play.  I tell all my students who play harder reeds- I make them go back and play a softer reed and then we start talking about breathing and how to breathe correctly from the diaphragm. Once you breathe correctly from the diaphragm the rest is just air, it’s just like doing yoga or martial arts – learning how to breathe correctly makes the instrument easier to play.

The reason I chose the Java – like I said I’m looking for flexibility – but I also want something with a buzz in it as well.  I’m looking for an in-between – I’m looking for a dark sound but I want the treble in the sound too.  After trying the Traditionals, the new Java Red box, and the ZZ box, this (Java) was the one that worked for me, but I have friends who like different reeds from Vandoren. It’s a personal thing and you have to do the research, you have to try the different reeds and try the different strengths.  If you can afford to do so I would start at a 2 and work your way up, instead of starting at a 4 or 3 ½ and moving back.  As long as you’re like a scientist in trying to figure out what works for you and trying to have a clear idea of what you want your instrument to sound like.   When you’re trying these different mouthpieces and different sizes you need to have a clear idea what the instrument’s supposed to feel like –it’s not just hearing it.  When I blow into this horn my whole body resonates with the horn, so I need something that gives that to me, so if I can’t get that I can’t get into this (brain) or this (heart) and it won’t allow me to play.  So this is the reed that I love and a few of my friends play on the same thing – almost the same exact set-up. Funny a lot of my students end up getting the same set-up that I have, so I guess they like my sound a little bit.

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