Monday 17 February 2020

Mellophonium mania

The Mellophonium was once a pretty well-known instrument (1950s and 60s) - but I had never heard of it until today - after tracking-down a strange looking instrument I saw playing with the great cornet player (from Newbiggin by the Sea) James Shepherd (starts from 3:40):

This strange creature turned out to be a Mellophonium - which is a kind-of adaptation of a French Horn, but with three valves - it was bigly featured by the famous Stan Kenton band (one version of which was actually named the Stan Kenton Mellophonium Orchestra) - BTW this is some really superb jazz soloing:

And another mellophonium player recorded in a band with the famous alto sax player (of Take Five/ Brubeck quartet fame) Paul Desmond:

Anyway, it was clearly a remarkable instrument (despite being out of tune with itself). It had a niche filling the gap between trumpets and trombones, could play very rapidly across a large range, and with a wide range of tonal expression from smoothly-mellow to brazen-brassy.

But it never really settled down in terms of shape and construction, it was difficult to master - and for whatever reason it became all-but forgotten; and passed me by until just now. 


dearieme said...

Does it have any advantage over the valve trombone? Or the combined valve/slide trombone?

Another rather inbetweener instrument is the C-melody sax. Its great exponent was Frankie Trumbauer back in the age of Bix. Subsequent alto and tenor men claimed to have learnt a lot from him - Tram, I mean, not Bix.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

What do you mean by saying it was "out of tune with itself"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - From listening to those last two exponents, it seems to me that the mellophonium does have several 'advantages' over the trombone in terms of range extended upwards, and speed of execution.

The C-melody sax is generally regarded as having a slightly inferior tone, with less 'character' than the Bflat tenor, which is the nearest-pitched standard sax. I would agree, a don't think Tram's tone quality is esepcially appealing to my ear; but perhaps that only applies at a high level of musicianship.

For instance, Raphael Ravenscroft's soloing in Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty, 1978) set off a craze for the sax in the late 70s/ early 80s - I don't think you could get such a great, thick, 'bursting' sound from a C-melody Sax.

For amateur musicians (such as my brother, who has an alto and a C sax) who want to play with assorted other instruments in an ad hoc way; it is a great advanatge to have a non-transposing instrument based in a key that has easier fingering for the more usual keys in which most amateur (and folk) music is written.

So, I would say the C-melody sax is probably the best for most ordinary people and situations - and a bit easier to learn and play than the alto (which I used to play in a soul-R&B band, for a couple of years, more than 30 years ago).

But not at the highest level.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - That the notes as spontaneously sounded by the instrument are not evenly spaced - are not the correct pitch relative to each other (as distinguished from an instrument being in tune with itself - but either too flat or too sharp compared with other instruments). Let's say for instance, the gap between C and D is not exactly two semitones - but somewhat more or less.

This is usually more noticeable in certain keys - the tuning may be fine in the natural key - but modern instruments are expected to play in all keys. It is a property of certain instruments, due to shape and length, and cannot be fixed simply by changing where the holes or keys are positioned.

The most famous such instrument is the soprano saxaphone in Bflat - which is the same length and similar shape to a clarinet - but with a conical bore (instead of cylinderical) so it overblows to the octave instead of the clarinet overblowing to and octave and a half (giving it a bigger range) The sporano sax has a lovely plangent tone, somewhat like an oboe, but is not in tune with itself, so it cannot help sounding bluesy.

(I had a go on one for a week once, and it was fascinating - on the flip side, one had to adjust most of the notes with the mouth and it's hard to do this exactly, especially playing fast; on the plus it seemed very easy to bend/ slide the notes in the way that jazzers like.)

The player needs to compensate for this out of tuneness by adjustments with his lips and mouth - broadly, a note can be sharpened by tightening the mouth, and flattened by loosening.

dearieme said...

The master of the soprano was Sid Bechet - a nasty piece of work, apparently, but a fine jazzman. The story goes - but beware, this is a showbiz fact - that he had never played the instrument until he was strolling in London one day and spotted one in a shop window. Three lovely tracks:

drizzz said...

I'm late to this discussion but here is an interesting link on the mellophone as used in the 1920's.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Mellophone and Mellophonium are different instruments - it seems to me that the first is a big member of the cornet family, and the second a weird french horn/ cornet hybrid:

drizzz said...

Thank you for setting me straight! The amazing thing is that someone has made a video of about it, and that indeed is the miracle of the internet in a nutshell.