Last week I received 3 wooden Shakuhachi from Colyn Petersen to test. Colyn
contacted me last year about making wooden shakuhachi. He's been making
Native American Style flutes for years and now wanted to try his hand at
shakuhachi. I made a lot of maple, rosewood and cocobolo lathe-turned
shakuhachi in the 1980's and still had my tools and reamers sitting in my
shop collecting dust.
One thing led to another and he came down to Mexico for a week and left with
my reamers and some bits of knowledge and experience I could pass on.
I knew that he was a fine craftsman already from the photos of the
Native Flutes he’s made for years, and this was verified on the first day.
I showed him how to inlay an utaguchi in the Kinko style.
I've done this hundreds of times, though not in years, still, he made a
better one on his first try. Pissed me off :>
Back to the flutes. Grenadillo, Yellowheart and Cherry Wood 1.8's. All
played easily into the 3rd octave. Interesting tone colors, good volume, well
tuned and crafted in all ways. And, very attractive. Colyn has, at least
for this model, dispensed with the quirky and unnecessary habit of turning
wood to look like bamboo.
And each flute had it's own special character or personality. I finally
decided on the Yelloheart as it's weight, and tone color appealed to me.
It wasn't an easy decision. I just as easily could have been happy with one
of the others. I want to point out that they each were distinctly different
from each other, yet equal in quality. Not clones.
These are not boring flutes. Lot's to discover.
Maybe that's why I've already performed twice on Colyn's flute this week.
Does it replace my Miura Ryuho 1.8? No. So, why am I and other professional
players performing on his flutes?
I guess we are enjoying exploring the subtleties of tone color and
resonance. Good shakuhachis are a joy to play. They surprise you. They
don't give it up all at once. You have to learn how they accept the breath.
They hold your interest. This flute sounds good and feels good to play.
It's particularly sweet and easy to play in the upper register.
I want to stress that these are not just student flutes, though they
certainly would serve that purpose well. They are versatile flutes for all
levels of ability, and styles of music.
I played Tamuke and a Minyo the other night at a theater, both on the
Yellowheart shakuhachi. Very different pieces, yet, I felt comfortable
taking the chance to perform on a new flute in public. I almost never play
Honkyoku on a 1.8. I like longer flutes for that. But, I found it very
satisfying this time.
I'm very happy Colyn took my old reamers and is working magic with them.
Maybe next year he'll start making 2.4's? No pressure, man. But, I'm
looking forward to that when you have the time.
Peter Ross 4-7-11 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Happily retired from flute making, but still blowing away.
Colyn sent me a grenadilla nobe 1.8 for review.
He knows some of my biases from discussions online so he sent me a nobe with no fake nodes and no utaguchi inlay. This would be the simplest design possible and maybe also easier to make.
As an object this shakuhachi is beautiful. I haven't taken pics of it yet, if Colyn has any maybe he will post them. If not I will take pics when I get back from this tour. The smooth lines, dark color and beautiful finish and grain of the wood make it a lovely item to behold. It is similar to some of the flutes Peter Ross made, which is not surprising because Colyn got his tools, wood and some knowledge from Peter. In terms of feel it reminds me of holding a nice pool cue. Grenadilla is a wood they use to make clarinets, so it has some history in terms of musical instruments. However I have heard they use grenadilla because it's easy to work, not because of any particular acoustic qualities. I won't get into the material debate. Well, actually I will later.
Evaluating a 1.8 is interesting because 1.8 is really supposed to be a workhorse and able to do all the things a 1.8 should do. I might evaluate other lengths differently because they may be only for honkyoku, or some other limited application. So I am comparing this flute to good bamboo 1.8's, plastic flutes, commercial Japanese wood flutes, wood flutes from other Western makers.
My initial impression of the flute was favorable. It sounded well in tune to the naked ear. Not the easiest flute to blow but I like that. Flutes that give it all away in the beginning usually are boring in the long term.
The tone is deep and rich. This flute takes a LOT of air and responds well whether blown softly or with intensity. There are a few quirks. Tsu is a bit soft. Otsu ro can be a bit unstable when blown hard, but I was able to get a handle on it with a bit of practice. Putting it on the tuner, it seems to be tuned to A=440 but as I got into it sometimes went up to around 442. Kan ro and hi go are a bit flatter than otsu, which is not ideal but also not a big deal, nor out of line with some bamboo flutes. It has re dai kan (elusive on many flutes) but you have to hit it right or it goes to a different harmonic.
I played my "1.8" stuff on it for a few days in the teahouse (Chado). The flute handles honkyoku, gaikyoku, minyo and jazz well. It's musically versatile. It also has a lot of character. Basically it's fun to play and rewards investigation. I enjoy picking it up. Also several of the customers spontaneously commented upon the beauty of construction and the rich tone.
This is the only flute of Colyn's I have played. I don't know how much difference the grenadilla makes compared to flutes he might make from cheaper or more common wood. As an example I had an ebony 1.9 that was markedly better than flutes I've seen made from other woods by the same maker. I like these hard dense woods. I rank the tone of this very high for a non-bamboo flute. It compares favorably to many bamboo 1.8's. Side by side it definitely has more mojo and sound than a plastic flute. Better than the commercial Japanese wooden flutes.
I don't know what price point Colyn intends to offer these flutes but I assume they will be very affordable. I recommend it because of the aesthetics, tone, playability. If I were starting out and looking for a relatively inexpensive flute, or if I was looking for a durable flute for travel or as a backup I would aim for this one over the other available options I am aware of. Someone who mainly plays long flutes but who "needs" a 1.8 for lessons would also find it a good option. It has a lot of integrity in its own right, not just as an imitation of bamboo flutes. I think this is a good direction for non-bamboo shakuhachi. I would not hesitate to use this for any professional purpose including recording, teaching and performing.
These wood Shin-sei shakuhachi, with fine craftsmanship and eye appealing aesthetic, are truly wonderful instruments. I play them as much as my bamboo flutesoften times even more! With a full rich sound, and a balanced feel, they’ve been easy to pick up and play for hours, week after week, where lesser flutes usually run out of their surprises and show their limits.
My Myoan Sensei Morimasa Horiuchi was also quite equally impressed, and looks forward to playing warm Myoan sounds on the eastern red cedar flute as he travels about the globe.
Sensei and I used a purpleheart and cedar for lessons when we played the 1.8 lengths; both sounded great together with remarkable consistency, and each on their own for practice or meditation, performance if you will, or recording. You hear a lot of heart in the sound within these.
With its even full sound and spot-on tuning, I only wish this had been my initial instrument, instead of the first plastic model and the several bamboo models that followed. All playing effects can be dynamically and superbly nuanced; and friends and relatives have remarked they prefer the tone of the purpleheart shakuhachi over the jinashi or jiari bamboo shakuhachi they’ve heard me play for years.
I highly recommend to any new or experienced player to audition one and prepare to be really pleasantly surprised.
Colyn, after only a few days, I played your Shin-Sei Shakuhachi in a house concert ... I must say, your wooden purpleheart 1.8 really has the "it" factor ... The sound is big and powerful, yet still warm ... I could play soft, gentle and smooth or really put the air through it, playing loud with a deep, rich intensity ... There is a great deal to explore within your shakuhachi as well ... I see myself playing your instruments alongside my antique bamboo shakuhachi, both in performance and the recording studio ... The tuning is excellent and the look of the Shin-Sei Shakuhachi is also remarkable ... Simple, yet elegant, a beautiful wood finish that just plain "feels good in the hands"...
I am happy to recommend your instruments to both new and experienced players ...