Sonny Stitt: Varitone Redux - JazzWax

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December 20, 2011


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Improbable as it may sound, Lee Konitz also recorded a few tracks with the Varitone using the octave divider function; and Phil Woods went so far as to attach a ring modulator.

Joel lewis

There is also a photo of John Coltrane playing a varitone at home that I've seen in one of the bios on him.

The echoplex is another gizmo that had a minute of traction in the 60-70s. John Klemmer had commercial success with it -- & there are a few impulse albums (like Intensity) which are a bit more exploratory & put the device to good use. he also made a solo sax album for Nexus that made extensive use of the echoplex. What happened to him? We should send out a serach party to discover the whereabouts of him & Eric Kloss.

Doug Zielke

In my collection I only have "What's New". Now I'll have to dust it off (there will be a lot of dust!) and give it a spin. As I recall I didn't like it much. I was digging Eddie Harris at the time.

Rab Hines

Well, I didn't expect much from Eddie Harris (although his "In The UK" shines because of Jeff Beck and Albert Lee), but I think one of the problems is the choice of material on a lot of those albums, in addition to the Varitone. They don't add up to some of his best work.

True, guys like Stitt and Sonny Criss were trying to make a living with "relevant" Pop tunes (eg Criss' "Up, Up, and Away"), but seen in the entire scope of their careers it isn't a shining moment for either of them.

I still listen to the Criss album, though.

Thanks for another out of the ordinary jazz column.

Jaime Clay

About time this little device got back into the light. Thanks for posting. In the early '70's I was so smitten with its sound, I went out and bought what I could find locally: a version made by King instruments. I loved the sound, but hated the way it attached to the sax: sticky gum. And the transducer (pick-up)was big and clunky.

The alternative was to drill a hole in my sax, and I wasn't going to go there!

The Ammons/Stitt lp shown here was the clincher for me. Really, a dichotomy if ever there was one: one tenor player who blew so loud and hard he never needed amplification, and a sweet sounding Stitt who was amplified, but was running through the charts like a bumblebee. I saw Phil Woods perform with his and Gato Barbieri with his version (Meazzi). Now the electronics are way more sophisticated, but alas, there no longer is a Stitt or Harris to exploit them.

One last mentioned, the trumpet seemed better suited for this type of processed amplification ala Don Ellis. Seemed to be more 'electric'. Cheers!

Red Sullivan

Delighted by your tip of the hat to the track "Sleepy Time Down South" on the "Night Letter" album: one of the high points in all of Stitt's discography. A major ballad masterpiece.
PS: Clark Terry also recorded a varitone album, for Impulse, and it's a good one, quartet with Don Friedman, the immortal George Duvivier and, I think, Osie Johnson. In fact, it's wonderful.

Michael Jenner

Erik Kloss is in Pittsburgh, although not very active these days.

Bill Kirchner

Eric Kloss is indeed in Pittsburgh, his hometown. Reportedly because of physical problems, he can now only play flute.

John Klemmer has an elaborate website, but he's only been sporadically active in recent years. His best jazz records using electric attachments on tenor were done for Cadet and especially Impulse in the early '70s.

Chris Darkheart

There's actually a contemporary Swedish group, Kullrusk, dedicated to exploring the electric saxophone(s), however their music is more aptly described as instrumental funk / blues-rock than jazz. Might appeal to some of you though:

Bruno Spoerri

Thanks for the interesting listing of Stitt recordings with the Varitone. But: can you check on the last recordings, if they are really played on the Varitone? I think, Stitt (as most other electrified sax players) switched to newer (and better) devices by Conn, Maestro and Hammond Innovex. I tried the Varitone in 1967, but did not have the money to buy a complete Selmer saxophone with the attachment and so used the Conn device and later the Hammond - you had to drill a hole into the mouthpiece for the mic, but it worked very well.

T.K. Tortch

I had no idea the Varitone and such devices ever got enough traction with players or in the marketplace to merit that many albums featuring the device, by Stitt or anybody. Huh. Well, I wasn't around then, so I wouldn't know!!

When Selmer introduced the gizmo their top horn model was the Mark VI, which is a sort of Holy Grail horn for many sax players. For a while the only Mark VI horns you could get a decent price for were the Varitone horns. Players had such a jaundiced view of the Varitone it really dinged the asking price. And a lot of the horns were modified to remove the Varitone feature altogether.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of 55 More Songs," "Anatomy of a Song," "Rock Concert: An Oral History" and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax has won three Jazz Journalists Association awards.
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