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FIXATIONS

Not That Old Saw! Bowman Makes Tools Sing New Tune

March 17, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — "Don't hold it that way; you'll saw the hairs right off!" Jim Leonard said with a mixture of bemusement and alarm.

Perhaps I could be forgiven, inasmuch as most of us can count on one hand the number of times when we're simultaneously holding a saw and a violin bow. Leonard was trying to show me how to get a musical tone out of the saw. I was trying, evidently, to cut his bow in two.

With the blade turned in the right direction, I was finally able to coax a few pained screeches out of the thing. In Leonard's hands, though, the hack instrument becomes a true music maker.

"This is a beautiful piece for saw," he announced, putting on a cassette of Richard Clayderman's "Wonderland by Night." He then sat with the bow handle between his knees, bent the blade into an S shape and began running the horsehair bow over its non-serrated edge.

Shaking one leg to get a vibrato--"You need a nervous leg"--and subtly altering the bend in the blade to determine the pitch, Leonard got results as note-perfect as they were eerie, sounding like a cross between a theremin (that quavering thing heard on science-fiction soundtracks and "Good Vibrations") and '50s singing sensation Yma Sumak's Andean warble.

Leonard is a 60-year-old self-employed gas appliance repairman, conducting his business out of the Santa Ana trailer where he lives. The trailer is distinguished from others in the park by a mailbox with a carved wood saw atop it reading "Supersaw."

He may be weird, but he's not alone. Leonard was given his Supersaw nickname in 1979 at the first Festival of the Saws in Santa Cruz, where his deft hacking through songs previously deemed too fast for the tool won him a standing ovation--indicating that there was an audience. He also was the first player to be awarded Master Sawyer status by the musical saw manufacturer Mussehl and Westphal, commemorated by a gold-plated saw.

He and co-author Janet Graebner penned the definitive, and certainly only , book on the musical saw, "Scratch My Back." He has released three albums of his saw music and has helped organize biannual saw-offs at Disneyland that can attract 50 participants and even several fans.

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Once there was a time when Leonard couldn't cut it on the instrument.

He first heard it being played on Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour when he was a boy growing up in Nebraska. That sound stuck with him, and when he saw an ad for musical saws in Popular Mechanics in 1970, he sent for it.

Initially, "I sounded like everyone else starting off. You squeak and squawk and drive all the cats and dogs out of the neighborhood. You can end up in divorce court with this thing," he said. He, indeed, was married when he got the saw, and isn't now.

A certain amount of squawking has generally been expected of the instrument, much as a carpenter might expect certain flaws in his work if he tried using a clarinet to drive nails. The head of Mussehl and Westphal (an airline pilot named Dan Wallace, who died in a small plane crash in 1982) was prompted to come up with the Master Sawyer title for Leonard because he had developed a fast and squeak-free technique.

Leonard had heard an album of gospel saw music by an East Coast player named Moses Josiah and decided to make a record of his own.

"I'd never done any recording, but I bought a full multitrack recording studio and moved it into my bedroom, and for about a year nobody in the house could flush the toilet, close a door, turn the television on or have anybody in the house to play with. If an airplane went over, I'd have to do the track over again."

More time-consuming than working around the extraneous noises was Leonard's dissatisfaction with his own sound.

"Listening back to the tracks I'd recorded, I realized there were all these horrible sounds in the instrument, and I went to work on cleaning that up. That album wound up taking me 900 hours to get right, and I was the pioneer of that clean sound."

Most modern players use saws made specifically to be played, generally costing around $45. (One is dubbed the Swedish Stradivarius.) They are made of a thinner English steel, and the teeth wouldn't make it far through a plank. Leonard says standard saws can work fine, noting that Los Angeles sawyer David Weiss, who also is principal oboist with the L.A. Philharmonic, uses a Stanley Handyman. For beginners, he says, you can't beat K mart's $1.47 model.

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Not discounting some of the things he's seen under people's ovens, his hobby has opened new worlds to him. He has been on several TV shows, including three forays onto "The Gong Show," and was featured in a video by the rock group Kansas. He's done stints playing at Disneyland and, on the other end of the spectrum, played the ill-fated alternative music clubs Safari Sam's and Spanglers.

Joining a young band at the former locale, he recalls playing Sex Pistols tunes on his saw.

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