This month I acquired something of supreme importance in my own little world: a new (to-me) Trumpet.
It’s been amusing to share this news with my musical cohorts and hear their reactions. Several of them commented “new toy!” or “playing with new toys is always fun!” which is true… however I think that players on non-wind instruments don’t grasp what a leap this is for the core of my musicianship. Unlike pedals or other musical accouterments, to a horn player a new axe is the foundation of the sound, the origin of everything. And build quality changes a lot. Sitting in front of a new keyboard or a different drumset will certainly inspire a different result, but a better brass instrument is something even more powerful. Many instruments won’t affect the actual technical facility of the player… but this, this does.
Trumpet playing has been a constant in my life for close to three decades now. I’d say it’s maybe not the “main” quest in my life, but it’s the top side-quest. One with a sprawling cast of characters and a gigantic outlay of time invested. A lot of the time when you practice you’re working to improve some aspect of your capabilities; range, speed, clean attacks, tone, accuracy when doing lip slurs, etc. Well my level in all of those little skill-tree branches just jumped up, some of them significantly. That, and it all “feels” more natural and nimble as well. It’s super incredible!!
For twenty years I’ve been playing on a Bach Stradivarius model 37 ML bore. This is the “gold-standard” trumpet, the one that can be found in any bandroom almost without a doubt. And for good reason. Bach horns are respected for quality. Since they are hand-built in relatively large numbers, when you buy one of these you need to try several out and find the one that feels best to you. I tried probably close to a dozen before selecting mine as a teenager. I believe I chose wisely and the instrument has served me excellently for a long, long time. We went on some real odysseys together. Then two years ago a cornet showed up and changed the way I saw things.
My 1960s King Master Series Cornet built in Cleveland Ohio was bought for $120 by my mom at a farm auction. It had presumably sat in a closet for a very long time before being auctioned off. When I got it, for some reason it refused to play in tune. So it sat for a while longer before I took it to a professional for full chemical flush, and a complete servicing. After that was done, wow, it opened up my eyes to how a good horn could feel. My range instantly went up several steps, my sound seemed clearer, more focused. Everything felt just… better and easier. Suddenly the strad was second fiddle in terms of pure fun.
But a cornet is still a cornet. I’ve had a killer time playing on the King and I will still keep playing it. But the intonation on a cornet is never going to be as good as a trumpet, something which has become painfully clear to me when I tried to use it to overdub more parts on recent recordings. When I begun listening for it, I found lots of intonation problems. In the crazy melange of sounds I’m shooting for with all these electronics, the basic fundamentals of musicality still apply. The cornet, as bright as it may be, also doesn’t project and ‘zing’ the same way a trumpet can. And in the end I want to be a trumpeter, not a cornetist. It’s time to get back to home base.
Looking into an upgrade for the Strad seemed hopeless at first. One, the Strad is a venerable horn and the list of horns that would play better than a strad (on paper) is far smaller than the list that plays worse. What’s “better” is often times wholly subjective so researching this in text format is somewhat of a fools errand. Really if want to upgrade you should travel to someplace like Woodwind Brasswind in Indiana and spend a whole day (or three) trying different models and comparing them back to back. Then you’d probably spend about 2 grand at a bare minimum buying whatever you liked better. This all sounded prohibitively expensive and would involve a trip and a hotel on top of it.
So I started reading around on the web and slowly looking older horns, thinking that certainly there have to be hidden gems out there like my King cornet. You just need to know what model to look for, what serial numbers and what years. That’s somewhat guarded knowledge among those who do know, but you can find out a bit by asking around. In the end though it still does comes down to luck finding a horn that somehow miraculously plays well among lesser instruments of the same make/model. And rarely do people ever get rid of something that’s excellent.
A name that kept coming up over and over though was Zig Kanstul. I won’t rehash his impressive biography here, but suffice it to say he has been a lifelong master craftsman at building trumpets. You can trace his career path by noting the models of older horns that are still well-revered despite their age: The Olds Ambassador & the Besson 609 are two, both designed or built by Kanstul in his younger days while he worked for those companies. In the 80s he founded his own company and they’ve been steadily producing small numbers of superb instruments. If I were to buy a horn without being able to try multiple copies of the same instrument to select the best one, I’d want it to be from a manufacturer who had the highest level of consistent quality. Which sounds like Kanstul from what I know.
As far as my own personal needs, I’m a jazz player, roughly speaking. Mostly small group fusion jazz, solos and melodies within the staff, but I do tear off on some high note overdubs now and then. Listening back to my own playing I hear two main technical flaws that stand out. One, loose intonation as a whole, and two, too many chipped notes or “fracked” pitches upon the initial attack. Ideally whatever I get should help me with those shortcomings.
Ebay seemed impossible. Too many people watching, too hot demand. So it was Craigslist to the rescue. In Dallas Texas a band teacher had listed a used Kanstul WB for around a third of the retail price for a brand new one. Here we go!! I began researching on this particular model and instantly loved what I was hearing about it. Perhaps most exciting was the fact that this model is a custom “artist” horn. That is to say Kanstul designed it for trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and when it was complete they decided it was appealing enough that it should be a production model, not just a one-off. Below are a few snippets from reviews and comments from players who talked about using it which I’m compiling here for my own easy future reference:
“I have played for 35 years including Bach, Benge, Holton and Schilke (4 of them) … this is the absolute best horn I have ever played. The tone and intonation are superior as is the slotting (particularly in the upper register). The valves are fantastic. The slotting is phenomenal. The horn has a heavier feel to it (than the Schilkes & Yamahas); however, has a laser beam tone in the high end along with a rich beautiful tone in the low end. This horn has a very unique brushed lacquer finish with some nickel as well. I traded a custom gold plated Schilke in for mine and am very very happy with the Bergeron Kanstul”
“Picked up this horn about 2 weeks ago and I couldn’t be happier. The slotting is amazing, a joy to play. I can play anything I want on it, jazz, lead, classical you name it. EXTREMELY versatile horn. Sounds very mellow playing a 3c and can light the room on fire with my Monette b5L.”
“I drove up to WWBW not intending to buy a new horn and absolutely fell in love with this trumpet. It is absolutely beautiful; the craftsmanship is superior and the sound is fantastic. It plays very open and the slotting is magnificent in the high register. The appearance (finish) is very unique. I’ve played Bach, Holton, Benge and Schilkes, and this is the best all around horn I have ever played.”
“It’s great to hear all you trumpet players have discovered this great horn. I have sold more 1600WB trumpets to more elated great trumpet players than any other. It is truly multidimensional in the hands of an experienced player. It’s the trumpet to audition if you are looking for one that has the potential to do everything including lead work above high C.”
“slotting is very good for me. not to tight/not too loose. More core to my sound than on my 75 LA Benge and slots much better for me above high G.”
“One of the things I like about it is that it sounds nice and fat in the staff but when you go up above the staff it brightens up nicely (not too edgy though). What’s really cool about is if you give it some push you can actually feel this baby reverberate in your hands.”
“Oh yeh, don’t push your blow too much through either. Lay back and let the horn do the work. You follow that advice and you’ll catch on real fast on how to control this axe. One last thing, you’ll love take’n it above the staff and listening to the after burner kick in! I always wondered how Kanstul could put an after burner in one of those 1600 “WB” and keep it so light????”
“If you are looking for the best projecting horn out there… Call it Superchops. Great lead horn!”
“Kanstul just makes an overall higher quality product than most other brands I’ve played, including Yamaha. I’ve auditioned the 1600 and love it. I can play literally any style of music I want to on it. The versatility is unmatched by any other horn I’ve played (including Bach, but they’re always in the game)… absolutely incredible horn.”
“I was flippin’ Amazed how much improved Larry’s live sound was! Lots of color, and nuance, and a much improved presence all over the horn. I heard Larry a few days after he got it- he’s always been a masterful jazz player to be sure, but on the 1600 it was as if somebody from above had said “Hey, this guy’s playing some serious stuff here, let’s give him The Sound to go with it”.”
“But without a doubt the Kanstul WB was one of the finest trumpets that I ever played. In my opinion for Big Band, and especially jazz combo, it’s awesome. One way I would describe what I thought was that it had a very “CLEAN” sound… And this is coming from a guy that normally doesn’t play or like any horns made past 1964. The Kanstul was an exception. A great made trumpet.”
Wayne Bergeron is perhaps best known for being the lead trumpet player in Maynard Ferguson’s band, although his full biography is far more wide in scope than just that. This horn was designed to his needs as a lead player and soloist. It has a reverse lead pipe and a lightweight bell which is supposedly modeled after that of a Bach model 72, a very bright trumpet. As some trumpet-savvy readers may know, Wayne Bergeron switched endorsement to Yamaha a while back, although some say it was purely because they’re a huge company with deep pockets that can give free promotion to their artists. For that reason, the WB is currently sold as the “model 1600.” However TrumpetHerald users also dropped this information:
“I was with Wayne yesterday and got to play his Yamaha with his new GR mouthpiece. I like the mouthpiece but I prefer his/my 1600. I got Charles to make me a rounded tuning slide for mine, it made a big difference with the resistance for me. I love it! The best horn I’ve ever played for every style in every situation.”
“The old “WB” horn had a heavy bottom cap on 3rd valve. “1600” has all normal caps. Wayne used heavy caps on 1st and 3rd valve when I met him(few years ago). He said 1st valve heavy cap has a better slot for D.”
So far I’ve had two sessions with the horn and I’d say I agree with the majority of what the reviewers had to say. My immediate reaction was one of joy, freedom. This Kanstul just feels so easy and fun. I think of a phrase and I play it with no fighting, and it sings out however intensely I choose. If I want smokey and dark, I can get airy and contemplative. If I want bold and melodic, this horn can be positively searing when you push it. The versatility is real. The horn is exciting, the same way it is to drive a car with a ton of horsepower. You just push it and it goes. It’s very cool the way you can feel the sound vibrate the instrument, more than any other brass instrument I’ve played. This is probably due to the fact that the WB is designed with an unusually thin bell which keeps it light in terms of weight and allows the bright, brassy sound the WB can have. This has the awesome effect of making it feel alive in your hands when you ‘push the accelerator’ and make the horn light up… Man. Super fun to play.
This Kanstul really is a phenomenal axe. I can’t get over it. Maybe my Strad is in need of a valve alignment or something? When I went to try it out (a five hour drive each way) I was hoping it would be a clear, obvious difference over the Strad and indeed; the jump to this instrument is quite significant. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I do all my practicing on a mega open-blowing Holton Cornet from 1911 with a large 1X mouthpiece, but I don’t feel like the WB is a dauntingly open horn the way some people have characterized it. Stacked up against my Holton, the WB does offer some resistance. Perhaps the best feeling about this horn, to me, is that I feel like I’ve truly “leveled up” to it. I put in the years, I invested the time to where I knew the difference right away and had built up enough skill that this upgrade felt earned not just bought.
On all sessions from 7/11/14 until 3/13/16 I played almost entirely cornet, and it’s been a year and a half of great sessions for sure. That first session on 7/11/14 yielded some glorious cornet “moments” that I still look back upon fondly. Similarly, the session on 4/10/16 was one for the books. That excitement and “freshness” is back, even more with the Kanstul. The King added range and zip, but the Kanstul, properly piloted, adds accuracy and speed, which is even more electrifying. That, and the vibration of the horn itself is a real treat. My 1960s King Master cornet is a surprisingly responsive instrument and a pleasure to play. It’s easy to jump between dynamics/timbres/ranges on the King but I always felt dissatisfied with the intonation and the overall tone. Over the past year and a half on cornet I have been struggling with the acoustic sound, not liking what I’m getting (and for that reason favoring the wet signal more). However this Kanstul is giving me a beautiful brassy tone straight out of the gate, and sounds full even when I lean heavy on the stand-mounted Sennheiser e609 which always felt thin and abrasive with the King. In terms of the “dry” trumpet mics I am feeling positively thrilled with what the Kanstul has given me, which is why in this latest session from 4/10 I leaned heavier than I think I ever have on the acoustic signal. I see that trend continuing.
Below is a video of a brand new tune, first time I’ve ever played “Red Baron” by Billy Cobham, and my first new posting with this magnificent instrument:
So one, the tone, and two the speed of the Kanstul is really popping out to me on the recordings. The King is not that far off from the Kanstul in terms of ease and upper range openness, but where the Kanstul pulls away from it is in the dexterity. Sure the valves are very quick but when you combine that fact with how strongly it slots, even within the staff, the Kanstul is really lightning fast. The real limiting factor on speed is mental clarity. You can hear what I’m talking about in the phrases at 5:33-5:42 in the video. I knew what I wanted to play right there and it comes off clean and crisp. Shortly after that I biff a few notes and that’s because I wasn’t mentally committed to the phrase as it was happening. So if I can keep up, mentally, in the moment as the improv is happening, I see a lot of really ambitious and intricate phrases being within my reach which is very exciting for me.
All this isn’t to say that the Kanstul won’t be limited by the shortcomings of the performer. It can still frack and play out of tune if I drive it poorly, a fact I’ve already proven to myself. I still need improve my skills in all 12 keys and always focus on the fundamentals of intonation, attack, phrasing, mental clarity, and timbre. All the rules still apply. But. The ceiling of what’s possible just jumped up and I can feel that. If I can play up to the ability of the instrument, there are a series of new magical things awaiting me that weren’t unlocked until just now.