Lars Mullen for Gear News, talks to Marca CEO Nicolas Righi, about how this French company still follow time-honoured traditions to produce highly quality, brass and woodwind cane reeds. 

With its glamorous resort towns such as Saint-Tropez and Cannes lining the coast and the hustle and bustle of Mediterranean life, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of south eastern France, has been a health retreat in the 18th century, the ‘in-place’ for the jet set in the swinging 60’s and today, holiday makers aside, is where novelists, playwrights and musicians disconnect from the world and head for the hills for inspiration.

It’s also here in the Var area, nestled between the sea and the mountains, where Arundo Donax quietly thrives in its natural habitat and, where for well over 60 years, French company Marca, have been harvesting and cutting said plant to produce the finest, high quality cane reeds for brass and woodwind instruments, regarded by musicians as amongst the finest on the planet. 

Musicians the world over, from every level, enjoy the benefits of Marca reeds for their consistency, resonance and brightness. With strengths between 1.5-5, Marca have reeds for all musical styles, from classical, jazz and pop, blues to rock, all available for alto, bass, contrabass, Bb and Eb clarinets, alto, soprano, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones.

Nicolas Righi with Marca artist Jimmy Sax

Presented in packs of 5 or 10, the Marca Series include the Premium, Excel, PriMo, Jazz, Paolo De Gaspari and the popular American Vintage Series which, like all Marca reeds is renowned for its body, depth, clarity and all around versatility throughout the range, with superb overtones and exceptional altissimo performance, and of course the much loved darker tones of the Superieure Series, also for saxophone and clarinet.  

Painstakingly selected and cut by hand for optimum quality, Marca’s manufacturing process has resulted in reeds of the highest quality and consistency within playability and tone.  

Marca CEO, Nicolas Righi explains, “We have had the same cutting and drying process for many decades, following a tradition that hasn’t changed for well over a 100 years. We are between the sea and the mountains here in the Var region, where the land is humid and sunny, it’s nature’s way of finding the perfect climate and conditions for cane growth.

NO GAIN, NO CANE.

The cane is cut in the winter months between November and March, when it’s approximately 2 years old. At this age, the elasticity is perfect and ensures the crop remains young, replenishing growth for the next harvest.

It’s a difficult, tiring task and adverse weather is often a problem. This is a skill in itself, using shears specially designed to avoid bursting the fibre of the cane, even at this stage, precision is required to ensure the maximum quality for the finished product. Then of course we enter the essential drying out period, this is often a 2 year process, where the cane is left to naturally dry during the hot summer months, this ensures the stabilisation of the wood.”

The process from growing the cane to packaging finished reeds is still very much hands-on, relying on generations of knowledge and skills of the Marca workforce. 

“We have machines to aid the production of the reeds, but cutting the cane, storing and drying is still done by hand,” says Nicolas. “We also have strict quality control that ensures each and every reed sold in the box, is equally perfect, within playability and tone.”

Marca’s impressive list of high profile endorsees includes Simon Bates, one of the UK’s busiest and most popular leading session players. Performing and recording a variety of musical genres from jazz, blues to hard rock are often all in a day’s sitting. 

“I love Marca for their consistency”, explains Simon, “Once you have found your voice on the reed, you don’t have to worry if the next one out of the box is going to sound the same. I know the first one will perform as good as the last one, and the ‘blow-in time’ is almost immediate.” 

Simon has appeared live on countless TV shows, recorded with a wide variety of bands and played the role and musical director for the likes of Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue, Dizzee Rascal, Elvis Costello, Sister Sledge, Lulu, Rick Wakeman and Billy Ocean. Simon also regularly performs in some of the world’s prestige venues, including London’s Ronnie Scott’s Club, The 100 club and the Royal Albert Hall, where versatility within a high quality, professional saxophone reed is paramount.

MULTIPLE SESSIONS – ONE REED.

“As a session player I have to fit into all sorts of different moulds”, he says, “From jazz to country, R&B to blues and rock, so I need a versatile reed that will deliver every time. My first choice for the saxophone is the Marca Unfiled Jazz Series strength 3, which I’ve chosen specifically for its versatility, performance and sound.

Whilst I’m primarily a sax player, I’m often called in as a session clarinettist. The ‘Rags To Riches’ album which we recorded at Abbey Road, is a fine example, where the Marca Reeds Excel Series proved invaluable.”

Hear Simon Bates play alto saxophone with Rick Astley.

Xtatic ~ 'The Hustler' recorded live featuring Simon Bates.

Regarded as one of the finest female players in the world of jazz, award winning Scottish jazz saxophonist Laura Macdonald, performs exclusively with Marca reeds for live work and studio recording. It’s from the vast Marca range, that Laura has chosen the popular Jazz Series for all her sax duties, including live shows, studio recording and for her roles as a composer and teacher.   

“I love Marca reeds”, says Laura, “My choice is the Jazz Series strength 2.5, which I find incredibly responsive with my P. Mauriat lacquered 67R alto saxophone. As a jazz musician I’m looking for a warm, dark tone, the combination of the sax, the mouthpiece and the reeds themselves is really important, the Marca Jazz for alto saxophone, gives me exactly what I’m looking for, throughout the full range, from sub tones to rich harmonics.”  

Whilst a very popular musician regularly performing at events that include, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe, Laura has been twice nominated for the Paul Hamlyn Composition Award and has been commissioned by Creative Scotland Commonwealth Games, SNJO, London Jazz Festival, PRS, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Jazz Scotland, The European Jazz Network and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Laura’s albums have all received critical acclaim, including the self-titled Laura in 2001, Awakenings in 2003. Open Book in 2008, and Duets with New York based pianist David Berkman in 2014.

COOL COOKING.

“I’m also working on a new album called ‘Together’ set for release this autumn, a remote project with 5 performers and composers from around the world that came together during Covid. I’ve also been living in the twilight world recently, having been a finalist in the TV show Master Chef, I’m cooking at food festivals all over the country... and playing sax, how cool is that?”

British jazz saxophonist Tony Kofi, also performs exclusively with Marca reeds for live work and studio recordings. Recognised as one of the world’s finest jazz saxophonists, Tony’s impressive list of awards include, the BBC Jazz Awards Album of the Year 2005, BBC Jazz Awards Best Instrumentalist 2008, Best Ensemble Winner in Parliamentary Jazz Awards 2005, winner of the Jack Petchey Award in 2015 and, in 2020, his album ‘Another Kind Of Soul, won the Presto Music award for Recording Of The Year.

The emotive sound of Tony Kofi’s alto saxophone fitted with his favourite Marca Jazz Series #2reeds, chosen for its notably warm low-end response, exceptionally clear highs and superior articulation, can be heard on ‘Another Kind Of Soul, where Tony, performing in his own unique style, often leans on his primary influence, the late, great USA saxophonist from the 50’s and 60’s Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley.

Tony comments: “Every saxophone player needs consistency and trust in the reeds they play, with Marca Jazz reeds, it allows me that freedom to take the music where I want to take it, without compromise”. 

Having played the saxophone since she was 12, Lottie B played an influential role within the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, now, with international reputation in the R&B/ Jazz scene as a freelance session player, London’s Ronnie Scots Jazz Club main stage, The Royal Albert hall and The 100 Club, are among an endless list of top class venues.  

She has a reputation as the UK’s most popular female baritone saxophonist, Lottie B has performed and recorded with a host of artists and bands playing a variety of energetic styles. These include jazz/funk in The Staks band, and big band ‘swing’ in the very popular 1950’s themed The Jive Aces, which highlights her engaging stage presence, passionate performance and a perfect showcase for her exceptional talents on the baritone sax.

See and hear Lottie B performing 'Ain't Gonna Hush' with Sarah Mai at Sugar Rays Studio.

BARI-LOW.
For that large, lower pitch, baritone response, Lottie B is comfortably at home performing with the Marca American Vintage Series, specifically chosen for its notably warm low-end response, exceptionally clear highs and superior articulation.  
“The Marca American Vintage Series reeds are extremely flexible”, says Lottie B. “The response to the low range of the baritone saxophone is quite exceptional, delivering a noticeable warm, solid punch and edge to the front of the notes throughout the frequency range. It’s the perfect choice for my playing style.”

Clarinettist, saxophonists, oboists and bassoonists, are aware of the difficulties involved within the manufacture of high quality reeds and, whilst research shows that the world market sales for reeds hovers around 60% clarinets and 40% saxophones, Marca’s production is approximately 50-50, producing around 15,000 reeds per day and the only manufacture of reeds, to use wild cane from the Var region, cutting at least 200,000 canes annually.  

“Marca reeds have been 100% designed, developed and manufactured in France since 1957”, says Nicolas. “Our achievements over the years have been recognised by the French Government who, in 2006 gave us the  ‘Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant’ label, this is a mark of recognition from the French State, rewarding French firms for the excellence of their traditional and industrial skills, of which we are extremely proud of.”