This `Sax' Sounds Like an Orchestra

Jazz man tests his `wind controller'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Eric Kloss plays his saxophone, the collage of sounds astounds the ear. Boistrous bellows, whining slides, even raw air are part of his musical canvas. But the range of tones he gets out of a ``wind controller'' - a computerized sax-like instrument - is even more startling. Mr. Kloss can produce the sound of strings, oboe, or full orchestra, for that matter.

And after 30 years of traditional sax-playing with such jazz greats as drummer Jack DeJohnette, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and keyboardist Chick Corea, Kloss is having fun experimenting with the WX11 MIDI Wind Controller.

``It isn't that much of a step,'' Kloss said backstage during a performance a few weeks ago at Boston's Berklee College of Music. The digital technology behind this new instrument takes time to learn, he says, ``but it's just like learning a new piece.''

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``A lot of acoustic musicians are making the switch'' to electronic instruments, comments vibraphonist Gary Burton, a faculty member at Berklee who heard Kloss play.

The wind controller, made by Yamaha, weighs barely a pound but has the same fingering and reed as a sax (though the reed doesn't produce the sound directly). The instrument, which retails at around $500, senses lip pressure, the flow of breath, and what keys are being pressed. Then it sends this information through a cable to a small box called a ``tone generator.'' That's where samples of all the sounds are digitally stored - everything from piccolo to harmonica to pipe organ: 96 voices in all.

Wind controllers, which have existed in various forms for several years, are riding a trend that continues to sweep the electronic music field: expandable sound palettes for the whole band - not just the keyboardist.

In a band, ``you never have to stop playing,'' says Kloss. ``You just change the control, and you can back someone up with a horn sound.''

Kloss did just that at Berklee. When one player launched into a solo on the high end of his bass guitar, Kloss accompanied him with low-end bass-guitar sound from the wind controller. Later Kloss backed up his own melody with strings, horns, and timpani.

In fact, all the members of the Yamaha-sponsored were jumping into one another's shoes with MIDI-powered instruments: The drummer was making string sounds and the guitarist trumpet sounds. The effect was an amusing free-for-all, a rocking orchestra of electric sound.

Yet Kloss's personal ``mission,'' he says, is to ``offer something that's uplifting to the audience.'' He'll never give up acoustic saxophone, he adds, a commitment he illustrated at the Berklee concert. More than any other tune that night, his composition for solo sax, ``Cosmic Blues,'' took flight.

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