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Super sax is being brought back to sound condition -- a big sound

Chances are you've never seen or heard a contrabass saxophone, the Shaquille O'Neal of musical instruments.

Like the basketball giant, it is humongous, standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall with an 18-inch-diameter bell and weighing 45 pounds. The sound, a low rumble that can shake the floor, might intimidate even O'Neal.

"Your head rattles when you play it," said Steve Wingrove. "It's pretty intense."

The owner of Alder Creek Music in Wheatfield heard the mighty contrabass just once, in 1972, when world-famous classical saxophonist Sigurd Rascher gave a demonstration at North Tonawanda High School.

Rascher, who taught at Fredonia State College before he died in 2001, used to carry the instrument around in a coffinlike wooden case tied to the roof of a Volkswagen, Wingrove recalled.

All these years later, Wingrove is restoring what he thinks must be the same contrabass he heard Rascher play as a teenager.

"It's definitely the only one I've touched," he said.

He was given the task by Wildy Zumwalt, a Rascher disciple and associate music professor at Fredonia State College, which houses the Rascher archive.

Problem is, contrabasses are rare, and parts are hard to find. The design was patented by Adolphe Sax, father of the saxophone, in 1846, and though the super-size version was popular during the jazz era, it later fell into disfavor. Rascher advocated a larger role for the instrument in classical music, but orchestras seldom used it.

Rascher, a virtuoso who was considered the equal of classical cellist Pablo Casals and guitarist Andres Segovia, "was proud of playing dance music" on the contrabass, his New York Times obituary noted, "but he feared his instrument's potential to add rich tones to more serious musical fare was too often unachieved.

"For that failure, he blamed both mechanical modifications in the original design of Adolphe Sax's instrument and bad musicianship."

The upshot: Barely two dozen vintage contrabasses remain worldwide, including the brass, nickel-plated survivor in the Wheatfield shop. It was made by Evette-Schaeffer in Paris in the early 1900s.

So Wingrove, who has been repairing instruments since age 13, starting in his father's Payne Avenue music store, has improvised. The huge keypads were fashioned by hand -- cut, folded and glued into place. He found contrabass clarinet reeds "just wide enough to fit the mouthpiece," which is, of course, huge.

Zumwalt wants the contrabass to be in fine tune for a future saxophone recital honoring Carina Rascher, the master's daughter. She is a member of the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, an internationally acclaimed ensemble that last played at Fredonia State months after her father died.

"I think they want people to feel the music" the instrument makes, Wingrove said. For some, seeing may be enough, he added. "Students just want to touch it. It's the holy grail of saxophones."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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