Phil Woods was known for telling a story about the first time he met Charlie Parker. It seems Woods had found himself in a period of stagnation. He was stuck playing a dead-end gig (at a strip club if memory serves correct) and wasn’t happy with the quality of his playing, his saxophone, his reeds; even his mouthpiece was not serving its purpose. He learned his idol, Charlie Parker, was playing at a club across the street. On break, the young Woods ran to the club, unaware that he was still holding his saxophone. Once there, he noticed that Parker wasn’t playing alto, but a baritone that was held together with wire and tape. Seeing this, Woods offered Parker his instrument to play. As Woods recalled, “Man, Bird played that first note and it was clear that there was nothing wrong with my horn, the reed, or the mouthpiece. It was ALL me.” After getting his alto back, Woods returned to his gig and vowed to never again blame his equipment for his issues.
This story strikes an ironic tone as I sit to write to a review about the Phil Wood Signature Alto Saxophone Mouthpiece from Aaron Drake. Thanks to Drake, us mortals have a better idea of what Phil Woods’s mouthpiece might have played like. Actually, we now know exactly what it played like. Aaron worked with the Phil Woods estate to replicate the original mouthpiece and now offers it as part of his Master’s Series.
Part of the reason there is such a mystique surrounding the classic Meyer mouthpieces is largely in part to its association with Phil Woods. Growing up there was but one mouthpiece set up to use if you were a serious alto player, and that was a Meyer 5 with a LaVoz medium reed.
I had the honor of playing with Phil Woods in 2006 and even at my level development and experience I couldn’t help but wonder what his mouthpiece played like. I felt like a school boy with a crush. I guess it’s our nature, to wonder if there is something mythical about the equipment used by our idols.
Too often one gets their hopes up with such products only to find them less than ideal. I am so happy to say that this mouthpiece has far surpassed my expectations. Frankly, it is one of the best jazz alto saxophone pieces that I have ever played. Unfortunately, the methods Drake used to copy the Woods mouthpiece are proprietary, so we don’t really know how it was achieved. To be honest I frankly wouldn’t understand the technical side of things and being a “don’t tell me about the birth, show me the baby” kind of person, I don’t really care.
However, I can tell there is a great deal of detail in the reproduction of this mouthpiece as I can still see remnants of the old “USA” and “5*” markings from the original, as well as some slight ridges on the bite plate from Phil’s teeth. Drake did mention that he had to do some correction to remove the severity of the ridges, as the original had been played for over 40 years. Other than cosmetic changes and the addition of Phil’s signature, the internal geometry is identical to the original mouthpiece. Each piece is hand-finished, duplicating the original facing curve and is offered in sizes 5 (.075), 6 (.080) and 7 (.085). Normally I play a 6 or 6* but opted to try the 5 tip opening; the same size Phil Woods made famous.
Everything about this mouthpiece is what one imagines when they hear Phil Woods play. But let’s be perfectly clear, you will not sound like Phil Woods if you buy this mouthpiece. However, you will be afforded effortless response, tremendous flexibility, and wonderfully complex tone color. I found the size 5 to have an ample amount of projection and resonance with a pitch that was even throughout the range of the saxophone. Movement into the altissimo was a dream and articulation was quick and punchy. One can really accentuate the musical line on this mouthpiece.
I took it with me on a two-week tour of China and everywhere I went, players commented on how well it sounded. As the original piece carved out bebop, the replica is flexible enough to be used in just about any genre of music. I was able to use it in both big band and small group settings as well as in a variety of styles from ballads to funk.
To be honest, this alto mouthpiece has all the qualities I imagined Phil Woods’s mouthpiece would have and it further solidifies the work of Aaron Drake to be at the highest level of craftsmanship. At $325 it is expensive but well within reason when it comes to a custom mouthpiece and certainly cheaper than trying to buy a vintage Meyer from the 50’s or 60’s. Alto-saxophonist Loren Stillman once observed, “The alto saxophone is a difficult instrument to make sound beautiful.” I have certainly found this to be true. I can’t say this mouthpiece will fix all of your issues, but it makes the pursuit a whole lot more fun.