Live in the Clubs: Rich Lamanna gets jazz from synthetic sax

Rich Lamanna can no longer play the saxophone, but he hasn’t let that stop him from playing jazz.

Rich Lamanna can no longer play the saxophone, but he hasn’t let that stop him from playing jazz.

About 10 years ago, Lamanna started experiencing tremors in his mouth while playing saxophone, affecting his embouchure — the way the mouth fits over the mouthpiece of a wind instrument. After seeing a neurologist, he was diagnosed with embouchure dystonia, which affects all of the muscles of the mouth and jaw with spasms and tremors during focal tasks — in this case, playing saxophone.

For a while, he underwent physical therapy for the condition, without much luck. Then about seven or eight years ago, he discovered the synthophone, an electronically modified saxophone that is essentially a MIDI controller, producing pre-recorded synthesized sounds when blown into. Because of this, the instrument works even with his dystonia.

Seeking solution

“[When I was diagnosed] I thought, what am I going to do now?” he said from his home in Schenectady. “I was doing Web searches on MIDI saxophones, because I knew there was one around; I had heard of it. I found a website, a synthophone site — Softwind was the name of the company — and I talked to Martin [Hurni, synthophone inventor] and decided to purchase one.”

Lamanna has been using the synthophone ever since, continuing to perform regularly in the Capital Region — his next appearance is at The Stockade Inn on Friday night, with longtime collaborators Dan Dobek on keyboards and Otto Gardner on bass. The show will primarily feature standards, with much of the repertoire coming from Latin and Brazilian jazz traditions.

Rich Lamanna Trio

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: The Stockade Inn, 1 N. Church St., Schenectady

How Much: Free

More Info: 346-3400,

Although the material, including standards by such artists as Miles Davis, is familiar, the sound is different thanks to the synthophone. Lamanna has found audiences to be mostly curious about the unusual instrument, a modified Selmer that looks like a regular saxophone, but can produce sounds ranging from flute to harmonica to violin to vocal sounds.

“As far as the public goes, they’re just curious — they seem to really appreciate it,” Lamanna said. “People are always asking questions about it — ‘What is that?’ They see it’s a horn, and it looks like a real sax, but they’ll say — in particular, this one guy said, ‘The sounds coming out of there aren’t sax sounds; how are you doing that?’ I think they’re confused, probably more than anything else.”

He has experimented with many different sounds on the synthophone, but prefers to stick with organic instrument sounds such as brass or woodwind. The one MIDI sound he will not use with the synthophone is the saxophone sound.

“It just sounds so corny,” he said. “No one’s ever developed a good synthesized sax sound. It’s just such an emotive instrument; you can’t sample it and do it any justice. Everyone has a different sound.”

In addition to the synthophone, Lamanna has also been playing steel drums for the past four years. He performs using a four-mallet technique, which allows him to produce chords and compose on the instrument. Although he enjoys playing synthophone, he wanted to play an instrument that wasn’t so reliant on technology.

“I wanted to play a real organic instrument, and I really loved steel drums,” he said. “It has a beautiful, almost ethereal sound to it. If there’s any instrument being played in heaven, it’s got to be the steel drum.”

He is classically trained — he attended Berklee School of Music in Boston for two years — so the jump from a wind instrument to percussion wasn’t too much of a stretch.

“Now I’m playing it as a chordal instrument, so I was going from a monotone to a multitone instrument, chordally,” Lamanna said. “So that was a little bit of a hurdle I suppose.”

Today, he divides his time between being a dentist and a musician. Before he developed dystonia, he played professionally for a number of years, releasing his first album, and the only one to feature him on saxophone, “Introspective,” in 2000. The cast of supporting musicians included drummer Kenwood Dennard and steel drummer Othello Molineaux, both formerly of Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth group, along with Otmaro Ruiz, piano, guitarist Chuck D’Aloia-guitar, bassist Jack Kulp, pianist Pat Georger, drummer Reggie Evans, pianist Dan Dobek, bassist Paul Othon and percussionist Chris Garabedian.

Live album

In 2004, Lamanna released his first album featuring synthophone, “Dystonified,” a live album recorded at the Van Dyck with Dennard, D’Aloia and Gardner. The standards featured on the album showcase Lamanna’s changing style with the synthophone — at this point, he was using only one sound.

“I’m still trying to figure it out, but it has changed my ears and my chops in some ways,” he said of the instrument. “The sounds allow you to do things that you wouldn’t hear with a saxophone.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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