SAX TO THE MAX – The four dimensions of saxophone

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Perhaps the kind of dream-come-true band for Lisa Simpson, Saxomania is, in fact, a saxophone quartet with a difference, actually a uniformity: all instruments are saxophones, in their four dimensions of baritone, tenor, alto and soprano.

They formed just over a year ago, when four musicians from the Royal Gibraltar Regiment band realised that a small ensemble with a large repertoire may be needed for smaller venues and intimate events, like investitures, official dinners and weddings, and because the four ‘gel so well together’ and are versatile players, they went for the novel idea of a group that could exploit and maximise the potential of the many nuances of one instrument.

It was instant success because, besides being flexible in their arrangements and repertoire, they are also fully ‘portable’ and unplugged, which means they don’t need electricity at their venues (unless they are large locations where microphones are added merely to carry the sound), and so they can play virtually anywhere, free of cable entanglements, from the beach to the park bandstand and church ceremonies for a ‘mellow sound’. In fact, the only power they need is the wind in their lungs and the response from the audience to their varied arrangements of instantly recognisable songs in styles that range from folk and classic to pop and rock.

Amanda Peach plays baritone sax, the largest of the family and the one that usually provides the tempo with its bass feel, making the addition of backing drums unnecessary most of the times, although the quartet doesn’t shy away from electronic help when a more complex orchestration is at stake. “The technique is alike for all saxophones, but the ‘bari’ is the biggest, hence the heaviest around your neck, and fingers are stretched further apart to reach the keys. The musician also needs to blow more air through to produce a sound,” Amanda explains.

The quartet prides themselves to be able to read music and get the feel of a piece virtually immediately. They often write down notes by ear and re-arrange tracks that caught their fancy: “Most of our music is written and we can all read music well, so most of the time we are ready to perform it after a few quick rehearsals, but some pieces we play do allow room for improvisation, like for standard jazz bands.”

Each member’s part meshes with the others, when the melody is carried mostly by ‘sop’ and ‘alto’ while the others harmonise and give the beat, but individual voices are given their chance to steal the limelight with solo stunts to show off their prowess, right because they all bounce off one another so well. It pretty much works as a choir, they say, but there are no lyrics, unless the audience wants to sing along, which happens regularly for their ‘poppy’ toe-tapping numbers.

Saxomania promises their music to be the ideal backdrop for formal engagements, where they offer soft accompaniment to your conversation with their classic pieces, but they can also step up to dance-floor fillers with up-tempo pop and rock items like, ‘Happy’, ‘Viva La Vida’ and ‘Living on a Prayer’ just to name a few.

Hair metal is piece of cake for them – not just because they’ve got good hair and shiny brass – as they cheekily proved at a formal dinner when they blasted Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ in honour of Chief Minister Fabian Picardo who is a great fan. “Detected in a few bars, it earned us a round of applause from the dignitaries gathered,” they say. But there’s plenty of jazz on the menu, since soprano sax player Raphael Gonzalez is a staunch fan, and the golden oldies from the fifties and sixties, a soft spot of Amanda’s next to hard rock.

“It’s funny how we’re three girls and one bloke in this band, and he gets to play the smallest instrument with the acutest voice,’ says tenor sax player Becky Moritz, who moved to Gibraltar from Shetland Isles where she had played the flute in Lerwick Orchestra for twelve years. Her on-again-off-again love affair with music stopped after her school years and restarted in Germany, intensified in Gibraltar, where she learnt how it is never too late to take up a new instrument: “I started playing sax at the age of 46: when someone claims they’re too old to learn an instrument, I reveal how old I was when I picked up the sax for the first time and prove that it’s never too late for a new skill.” Nowadays, she is an accomplished flute and ukulele teacher at the Gibraltar Academy of Music and Performing Arts, where the alto sax of the quartet, Ruth Fortuna, coaches buddying pianists and clarinettists. Her instrument, the alto sax, sounds quite similar to French horn and often plays its lines.

Clarinet is the instrument that introduced Raphael, Amanda and Ruth to the wonders of music from a tender age, the first two in Gibraltar and Ruth in the UK, from where she moved to the Rock on a temporary transfer to the Royal Regiment Band from the Honourable Artillery Company Band.

Raphael attended the Music Centre, at the time under Hector Cortes’s direction at Wellington Front and then furthered his musical education with Charlie Chappie in comprehensive school to join the junior and later the senior symphony orchestra, where he was classically trained. At 17, he joined the Rooke Band where he says he developed his music skills even further and had the honour of playing with his band mates in countless St. Michael’s Cave concerts, at the Guildhall for the Gibraltar Day in London and at the British Embassy in Rabat.

“We listen to each other and learn what the others must feel, in order to keep the dynamic of the piece balanced, without one sax’s sound ‘drowning’ the next,” Raphael says, and Becky adds that their chemistry and intuition are bordering telepathy. There’s a downside to being so ‘well gelled’, Becky admits, and that is the virtual impossibility of finding a substitute for anyone of them unable to participate in a gig and thus having to make it work nevertheless, without one ‘limb’.

Although they met and practised together for years in the ‘ranks’ of the Gibraltar Regiment, their Saxomania venture is independent from military band commitments, to which they contribute their talents in playing their first-choice instruments, Raphael, Ruth and Amanda on clarinet, Becky on flute. Thy also teach their respective instruments at the Gibraltar Academy of Music and Performing Arts.

Visit http://saxomaniagib.com for information on their repertoire and private bookings.