Thursday, September 3, 2015

Paul Desmond: An Appreciation

Lately I have been going through my digital music library and taking taking all the recordings of the saxophone players who have influenced me the most and creating separate play lists dedicated to each artist.  The idea is to have everything I have of that artist in one place so I can spend some time listening to just them.  Playing the alto sax, I started with my main influences on that horn; Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, etc., and will expand my lists to include tenor players, as well as the few baritone players, soprano players, etc.  I listen for what makes them unique, their tone, their harmonic approach, the devices each one uses that are as identifiable as one's handwriting.  Every player will have musical devices that they will use over and over again, no matter how harmonically sophisticated they are, and when you listen to anyone long enough, you begin to hear what they are.  Just like when a person talks, using phrases or expressions unique to the individual, so it is with music, another language.  In the coming weeks, I will write articles on those saxophone players I spend the most time listening to.

Although Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges are my main influences on saxophone, Paul Desmond has also been a big influence on my playing.  He came along at a time when Charlie Parker created a new jazz language, and everyone followed.  While Paul Desmond definitely admired Charlie Parker, he forged his own sound and musical identity not beholden to Parker.  His sound was light and airy, his lines melodic.  His improvisations were thematic, and as a result, he could play one chorus after another and not repeat ideas, yet he never meandered aimlessly, he just made his statement and then made room for someone else.  Many called his music cerebral, but I disagree. He did have a highly developed intellect and great sense of humor, but the lyricism of his playing showed a man with a deep sense of beauty.  His use of altissimo (notes above the normal register of the saxophone using alternate fingerings) sounded so effortless you would think that they were a normal part of the saxophone's range.

Paul Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco in 1924.  His father was Jewish and his mother Irish-Catholic. Later on, when he changed his name to Desmond, he joked he did it because "Breitenfeld sounded too Irish".  He began on the clarinet when in high school.  During WWII he was drafted into the US Army, but he joined a military band and never saw combat.  Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond first met in 1944 when Brubeck tried out for the 253rd Army Band which Desmond belonged to.  According to Desmond, he was taken aback by the chord changes Brubeck was playing at the audition.  After they were both discharged, Paul Desmond got a gig with the Jack Fina Orchestra.  After finishing with Jack Fina, Paul Desmond approached Dave Brubeck and convinced him to hire him for a group and in 1951 the Dave Brubeck Quartet was formed.  The group stayed together until 1967, but Brubeck and Desmond still played together on and off until Desmond's death in 1977.  The most famous composition in the Brubeck repertoire is "Take Five", which was composed by Desmond.  During his time with Brubeck and after the break up of the quartet, Desmond did other projects as sideman or soloist with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Jim Hall, the Modern Jazz Quartet and others. Paul Desmond played a Selmer Super Balanced Action with a M.C. Gregory 4A-18M mouthpiece and Rico 3 1/2 reeds.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet (l. to r. Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright)

Paul Desmond was not just known for his music, but also for his dry wit and sense of humor and clever use of puns.  Many of his "Desmondisms" have become famous.  For example, when seeing an old girlfriend in the company of an old but obviously rich gentleman, Desmond remarked "So that's how the world ends, not with a whim but with a banker".

Other Quotes and Desmondisms:

 I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini.
I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.

I was unfashionable before anyone knew who I was.

I’m glad [Ornette Coleman] is such an individualist. I like the firmness of thought and purpose that goes into what he’s doing, even though I don’t always like to listen to it. It’s like living in a house where everything’s painted red.

On the secret of his tone: "I honestly don't know! It has something to do with the fact that I play illegally."

Of writer Jack Kerouac he said, "I hate the way he writes. I kind of love the way he lives, though."

His response to the annoying banality of an interviewer, "You're beginning to sound like a cross between David Frost and David Susskind, and that is a cross I cannot bear."

Walking into his record label's office and seeing a large potted plant "With fronds like these who needs anemones?"

That wit and dry sense of humor could also be heard when playing his solos, in the quotes he uses. It is a popular jazz game to insert a quote from another song into a solo, and while for the most part the quote sticks out, even from the greatest players, Desmond had a way of playing it like it was actually part of the song he was playing, and it often has taken me several listenings to realize what the quote was.  For example, in "Blight Of The Fumblebee" from his recording with Gerry Mulligan "Two Of A Mind", he inserts a quote from J.S. Bach's 5th Brandenburg Concerto, which is integrated so well into his solo it sounds as if it was written in.

At Montreaux, Desmond plays a beautiful version of a song called "Emily" which was the theme for a movie called "The Americanization of Emily", and he quotes a song "Would You", which was used in the classic movie "Singing In The Rain".  He integrates the quote so subtly that the only indication of him having played it is the self-pleased smile he has after playing it.

Paul Desmond had a taste for Scotch whiskey and was a heavy smoker.  He was also known to have dabbled in LSD.  When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he quipped to the doctor that his liver was still healthy.  Paul Desmond played his last concert with Dave Brubeck in New York City in February 1977.  On May 30th 1977, Desmond passed away.  He was cremated and his ashes scattered.

Paul Desmond may not have been a musical innovator, but he was an original in every sense of the word. His tone is instantly recognizable when you hear it, his way of phrasing and use of counterpoint unlike anyone else's, and his lines are sheer beauty.  His love of melody could make you forget that his improvisations were filled with original and complex changes.  As he said:

“Complexity can be a trap. You can have a ball developing a phrase, inverting it, playing it in different keys and times and all. But it’s really more introspective than communicative. Like a crossword puzzle compared to a poem.”

Here is more of Paul Desmond


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thoroughly Modern Sax

When I began this blog 5 years ago, it started on a whim.  I never wrote much of anything in the past except for what I had to write for school, and that never turned out too well anyhow.  However, I love the saxophone and saxophone music and sax players (most anyway), and so it is a natural thing for me to just sit down and write my thoughts and to be able to play different saxophones and write about them in order for people who want to play, or even those who have played for a while, choose a saxophone that would be right for them, both musically and financially.  I am lucky that I have worked in the business and though retired now, still know lots of people in the business and so always have access to new and vintage saxophones that I can play to my heart's content and then when I come across something new or different, I can write about it here. 

For anyone who has been reading my blog from the beginning, you know that I started out still thinking that vintage saxophones were superior to their modern counterparts in build quality and tone.  At one time I believed that if it wasn't made in the USA, Europe (particularly France and Germany) or Japan, than it was simply not very good.  At one time I would have been right, but there have been developments in the industry and improvements in saxophone design and production that have made me do a complete turnaround in my thinking.  When saxophones like the Conn M series, Buescher Aristocrats and 400's, King Zephyrs and Super 20's, Martin Committees, and of course Selmer Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action and Mark VI's were made, they were the best of their time.  There are still a number of players who prefer to play vintage horns today, particularly Mark VI's and would not even consider a modern saxophone.  They still have the belief that the old horns sound and were made better back then.  The reason for this thinking stems mainly from the fact that the more a fine instrument is played and the longer it is played, the more resonant, or "broken in" it will sound.  However, if an instrument is not well made, you can play it every day for a hundred years and it will still sound and play like crap.  

For many years, there wasn't any saxophone, including any Mark VI I've played that sounded better than my old Conn 6M.  Of course, the ergonomics of the horn left much to be desired, but for the longest time I thought that had to be the trade-off for a saxophone that I considered better than any modern horn, and I thought that for a long time.  I have changed my mind considerably in the last five years.  I have also completely changed the way I look at saxophones coming out of Asia other than Japan, particularly Taiwan.  When I lived in Taiwan from 2000-2001, I had seen and played many saxophones made there, and they all looked good, but quality was still questionable.  It was mostly quality control.  The metals were traditional brass, and they built horns with copper, silver and nickel finishes, and they sounded alright if they were properly regulated.  Most of the time I found there was a little sloppy work in the soldering of the posts, regulation of the key heights and placement, and there weren't any real qualified sax techs anywhere in Taiwan that I knew of, except for maybe one or two in Taipei (I lived in a city called Tainan in the south west) that could properly set up a horn.  However, since that time, as a necessity, they have upped their game considerably and at this point there are Taiwanese companies producing world class instruments, something that was unthinkable 15 years ago.  For some time, the Taiwanese companies were and still are building student and intermediate saxophones for the more established names, but now they have established themselves in the world market, with their own brands and in my opinion, are building some truly great saxophones, and very importantly, at prices that a working professional on a budget can afford without compromising on quality, sound and playability.

The next country for ultra-cheap saxophones of dubious quality has been China.  Again however, things are improving there as well. Because of the cheap labor, many established companies have contracted Chinese manufacturers to build student and intermediate saxophones for them under their name.  The thing about Chinese and Taiwanese factories is that they are new and modern, and they use the same kind of machinery that all of the major manufacturers use.  It's really all a matter of quality control, quality of the brass and the individual parts and properly training the workers to perform the tasks required in building saxophones.  The majority of the process of building a saxophone is repetitive and done by machine, and it doesn't take any great skill, just being conscientious in doing the job well.  The rest is up to quality control.  If strict guidelines are in place, and each instrument is thoroughly checked and gone over by a qualified technician before it is packed and leaves the factory, then no matter where it's made, it should be a decent enough instrument.  This is why Yamaha for example, builds their 26 and 480 saxophones in China with no loss in quality, because of their quality control.  Indonesia and Vietnam are other Asian countries where passable instruments are being made.  There are no more saxophones being made in the US anymore because it's just too costly to do so.  The Powell Silver Eagle was a noble effort to bring a superior US made saxophone to the market, but it proved to be too costly and so the project was discontinued.  

As for the big 4 manufacturers, Selmer, Keilwerth, Yamaha and Yanigasawa, they continue to build top grade saxophones and their product is improving all the time.  They all utilize computer programs to better analyze brass composition and create a more consistent alloy, key placements and heights, acoustics, etc.  This alone has helped make modern saxophones better than ever.  It was a necessity anyway.  Music has changed quite a bit in the last 150 years or so since the saxophone was invented.  The modern saxophone player must play a greater variety of styles and an increased range from the 3 1/2 octave range of older saxophones to having to play a 4 plus octave range, and that requires extra keys, tone holes and a change in bore size, neck diameter, etc.  Intonation is also more accurate on modern saxophones because of the improvements in design.  Also, let's face it, ergonomics are better and keywork is slicker and more positive than on old saxophones, including the Mark VI.  While the Mark VI was the template for all modern saxophone design, there has been a continuous tweaking and improvement in key placement and heights, and the newest saxophones feel better in my hands than even a Mark VI, at least in my experience and opinion.  There have also been other design improvements that make having to adjust keys and key cups less often than like on many old saxophones.  Braces and posts that secure key rods so they remain more stable and do not bend or move as easily.  Stronger bell to body braces that also add to the resonance of the saxophone, improvements in the neck, a very crucial piece of the sax, as well as expanding the bell bow.  These improvements allow a freer flow of air and less turbulence in these parts of the saxophone, allowing the sound to come out cleaner and freer, and in the newest saxophones, playing down to Bb is easier than ever,  as is reaching the highest notes.  I recently played the Buffet Senzo, and if you read my review of it, you know that they redesigned the bell bow, and low Bb was the easiest and smoothest I have ever played on any saxophone thus far, and they utilized computer programming to come up with just the right dimensions for the bow.  

Before the advent of computer design, workers had to rely on their experience and lots of guesswork in building the saxophone.  As I noted in my article on the Mark VI, Jerome Selmer had told me that during the run of the Mark VI, workers did not work from a set of plans or blueprints.  They used their experience and a little imagination and initiative in building the Mark VI, and they continuously changed things without any consistency in how it was done.  Jerome Selmer even joked to me about it, and said if the worker had a good night before, like in the company of a lady, he did a good job the next day.  If he had a lousy night or was in a lousy mood for whatever reason, it was not so good.  This certainly would explain why I find each Mark VI different from one another, and it makes no difference what the year of production or serial number is, regardless of what anyone believes or has been told.

Another thing about saxophones being built today compared to vintage saxophones is that modern student and intermediate saxophones have achieved a quality at a price point that was not possible even 10 years ago.  In fact, many of the so-called intermediate saxophones that are coming out of Taiwan for example, look and play like a top grade professional saxophone without the price, which makes them an attractive and very practical alternative to the Big 4, regardless of how one might wish to own a Selmer, a Keilwerth, Yamaha or Yanigasawa.  The Yamaha 480 is marketed as an intermediate saxophone, and it's made in China, yet it's still a quality instrument, and having played it fairly extensively, I found it to be a good alternate or back-up horn for a pro player.  Excellent keywork and good tone at a good price.  The Buffet 400 line is a saxophone I have written a lot about, because it's another saxophone made in China under a company that is known for top notch instruments, and their quality control is also very much in place, and so here is another intermediate priced saxophone for the pro player that doesn't skimp on quality.  Chateau saxophones, made by Tenon Corporation of Taiwan, is making excellent saxophones at a price that seems impossible for an instrument of such high quality, playability and tone.  This is a new line that so far has impressed me the most of all the new brands that have hit the market.  P. Mauriat saxophones were one of the first new saxophone brands to have established themselves in the marketplace when it was completely dominated by the Big 4, which was not easy to do, but they were able to do so by offering a saxophone that was a little different than what the others were making, and then getting endorsements from top level pros.  

At this point in time there is a greater choice of quality saxophones for players of all levels than at any time in history, and that's a good thing. It puts instruments in the hands of more players or would-be players than ever before and at prices to match one's budget.  With improvements in design and technology, a student can now afford a saxophone that will not just be "good enough to learn on", but actually good to play and that the student doesn't have to fight so as not to get discouraged early on.  For the working pro, who may often need to double and have more than one instrument, it's possible to have a pro level horn without the cost, since the majority of pros are not famous headliners pulling in thousands or millions a year, but just getting by doing what they love.  Most of the working pros I know are playing saxophones like Cannonball, Jupiter, Yamaha 62's or 480's, and others that are not the Big 4, but certainly are performing as they need them to, and looking the part on stage.  Even my old friend Chuck, who for years would only play Conn Chu Berry altos, has gotten a greater number of gigs, as well as having to play a greater variety of music, and realized that the old Conn did not cut it for many of these gigs, and so he finally broke down and got a silver plated Jupiter, which is made in Taiwan and he found he likes it.  Even a few well-known players I know have traded their Mark VI's for Selmer References, P. Mauriats, Yamaha, Yanigasawa and Selmer Series II and III saxophones.  So there it is.

As  for me, as much as I still love my old Conn, I am finding the newer saxophones just so much better in every way.  Sure, there is a special quality about the Conn because it has been played for many years and also the sentimental value it has and still holds for me.  Just the same, there are things that I cannot do on the Conn that I can with modern saxophones, especially in the range of the horn itself.  As for sound, well, they are sounding great out of the box, and can only get better with time.  I no longer hold on to the belief that vintage is better, because I have played enough of modern saxophones to convince me that they are better now than ever.  

Thursday, August 6, 2015

"I'm A Jazz Musician, Not An Entertainer" Part Deux

A short while back, I was scrolling down my Facebook homepage, seeing what my friends had posted. Most of the time it's endless political posts, always showcasing the bias and partisanship of the poster, whether they are based on facts or common sense or not, but also posts from my musician friends, whether posting a music video, or writing about their gigs, sometimes accompanied by pictures, and sometimes just opining about music in general. One of my friends, a bassist, commented on how he was having dinner in a restaurant and they were playing "fusion" style jazz, and that he was actually enjoying it.  It didn't take long for the "real" jazz musicians to make their comments.  One of them wrote "The Creed Taylor Syndrome".  For those who may not know, Creed Taylor produced recordings in the 60's and 70's featuring some leading players like Wes Montgomery and Paul Desmond, but in a more commercial setting, having them play contemporary standards of the time, with orchestral arrangements and whatever improvising the player did was done within the context of the melody, never straying far from it or the arrangement.  I commented that while I am not a big fusion fan, it's still nice to hear melody once in a while instead of the incessant assault of scales and chords and the constant reharmonization of a tune until the tune itself is buried under the weight of all that.  His response was to show a photo of Kenny G, and captioning it "Mr. Melody".  I guess he thought he was being clever and funny, and I guess he thinks that if you listen to and like Kenny G, then you are just not hip and aware, and that somehow there is actually something wrong with listening to Kenny G.  A little snobby, no?  Well, he's not my cup of tea either, and I don't buy or listen to his recordings, but that doesn't mean I think there's something wrong with those people who do.  So I asked him, "How many recordings have you sold lately?  How many people showed up at your last gig, and when exactly was your last gig?"  No response!  I thought so.

I'm not here to tell anyone what kind of music to listen to, but I find it funny and annoying that so many musicians will put down any other musicians if they decide to play more commercially accessible music, or to entertain their audience and play to that audience. Since the dawn of humanity, music was not just an expression of life, but a celebration of it. Music was and is played so that we can have fun, get away from the everyday drudgery or concerns of the day and reconnect to ourselves, and with others.  When I go to my favorite bars and clubs, where many of my friends play, and I see the crowd dancing, cheering, responding to the music, then it's easy to see why they are always getting the gig.  The crowd loves them, and it is a crowd, not an empty room they're playing to.  They get the crowd to have fun, so they stay, they buy more food and drinks, and that makes the house happy, and they book the band for more gigs.  The band is happy because they will get more gigs, which means they keep working.

To my friends who want to stay "real", by all means, stay "real", but don't behave as if somehow you are morally or spiritually superior as a musician because you choose to be a "real" jazz musician, or bitch about why you're not making as much money as someone you think is not up to your standards.  Also, don't think that those players who entertain and play more commercial styles of music didn't practice as long and hard as you, or that they didn't see their fair share of heartache and rejection at not getting a gig or a place in a band, or didn't have to work all those jobs they hated while honing their craft and trying to get work doing what they loved the most.  The difference between them and the "real" jazz musician is that they understood what it took to get those gigs and play in those bands, and went about doing it without all the bitching and moaning I hear from the "real" musicians.

As I said, I'm not here to tell you what to play or what and who to listen to, but whenever you play to an empty or near empty room, whenever you don't get called back for another gig or to be in a band, only you can know why that is, and it isn't from some kind of "injustice", it is because you are not playing what people want to hear and giving them a show they want to see.  Now, I know plenty of "real" jazz musicians who understand the game, and they will take whatever gig, and play whatever style of music is necessary to keep working.  When they can make a living playing music, they will then have the time to kick back with other like players, and play the stuff they really are into.  There are those die hards though, and they are laughable to me, because they are uncompromising about their musical "principles".  They work jobs not related to music that they hate doing, and bitch about it constantly.  They are always criticizing musicians that play more commercial styles and entertain with remarks like "nah, he's just not adventurous, not exploring, not saying anything, doesn't stretch himself", blah, blah, blah!  Okay, but he's making a living playing music, not on a loading dock.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with working on a loading dock or any other kind of honest work, but when you bitch about it because you are not making a living as a musician as you'd like, think about it.  Many of the "real" musicians, when they do get a live gig, play with an attitude of superiority and indifference to the audience.  They play and look like they're having a bad day or life.  Believe me, most people do not enjoy something like that.

It's very hard to make a living as a musician, especially these days.  The most successful musicians I know do whatever they have to in order to earn enough money to pay the bills and support a family.  They take all kinds of gigs, make themselves accessible for lessons as well as use Skype to expand their student base, take all kinds of gigs in all styles of music, dress for the gig, be reliable and on time, and are not afraid to entertain their audience.  They know that those people cheering and dancing and shouting for more are helping them to do what they love to do.  Maybe it's time for the "real" jazz musicians to get real, or please just shut up!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Sax Player Quotes About The Saxophone

As I am preparing articles and doing research for future posts, I would like to present quotes by some of the greatest saxophone players and other musicians on why they play or like the saxophone, and what the saxophone means to them.  See you soon!

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Golden Age Of Saxophone Manufacturing Part 2: If I Could Only Own One Saxophone

Part 1 dealt with saxophones that I would recommend for the student to the working pro on a budget based on what I have played and my personal preferences.  I have played many others and liked them, but the ones I chose for the article were the best in my opinion. Keep in mind that if you have the opportunity to try out saxophones for yourself, it is only you that can make the final decision based on your own personal preferences and budget.  My reviews and articles are meant as a guide, not the final say.

Part 2 is about saxophones that cost 3 grand and over brand new.  However, for this article, I am only discussing the latest models and versions since it is my opinion based on what I've been playing that with great improvements, from utilizing computer technology to advances in manufacturing technology, it is my feeling that we are in a golden age of saxophone manufacturing and that saxophones really are better than they ever were.  Even lesser known and lesser priced saxophones are at a level of quality not possible 20 or 30 years ago, and that match or exceed the quality and sound of many professional saxophones of that time.  Saxophones that are being marketed as step up or intermediate horns are more like entry level professional saxes at this point.  Many are that good.

This doesn't mean that you should throw away your Mark VI if it is the horn that works for you, but in the last few years, I have seen a fairly large number of players trade their Mark VI's for a new Selmer, Keilwerth, Yamaha, Yanigasawa, and P. Mauriat.  Two great players I know, Sonny Fortune and Richie Cole used to play Mark VI's, now they play References.  When I was still working in music retail, I had several players trade their Mark VI's for a new top of the line horn.  In many cases, a saxophone can be compared to an automobile.  Automobile aficionados love the old classic cars.  They may own one or more of them. Sometimes they take them out for a drive, but not often, because being old cars, they require a high degree of maintenance which is costly, not to mention the parts if you can still find them, and sometimes it requires the custom manufacturing of a part which always runs into money.  The fact is, they're beautiful to look at, fun to take on that occasional drive, but are simply not practical or desirable for every day use, because they will break down more often, and the cost of repairing it and replacing parts can be prohibitive.

I mentioned this in my earlier article on the Mark VI Mystique, that more Mark VI's than any other horn came into the repair shop in the store I once worked in, as well as in the shop of my own repair tech.  The key rods, posts and screws wear down in time, and there's only so much reaming of a key rod that can be done before the screw can no longer make contact with the rod and the action slips.  There is only so much of the neck tenon that can be burnished to stretch it out in order to keep it tight on the body before the metal thins out too much or cracks.  Once it gets to the point where you have to replace parts, the cost and practicality of doing so no longer makes sense.  Yes, I understand the emotional attachment one can have for a trusted old instrument, and as long as yours is in top working condition and sounds good, there is no reason to change.  On the other hand, if your horn is beginning to rattle, and it starts to spend more time in the repair shop than on the bandstand, it really is time for a new saxophone.

I really believed until not too long ago that the older saxophones were better, but playing dozens of new saxophones has convinced me otherwise, from key action and build quality to sound.  Add to that the leaps in technology in the manufacture of mouthpieces, ligatures, accessories, etc., and the saxophone player has choices that were just not available years ago.  Of course, I still love my old Conn 6M, just like so many players still hold on to their Mark VI's or King Super 20's, but since playing so many new saxophones, I know what the limitations of these old horns are.  Of course, sometimes a limitation can be an asset if you have a particular style or sound and what and where you play and the audience you have, but the majority of working musicians these days, as well as those in school and university programs play a greater range of musical styles and have a greater range of technical requirements for the music they play, and they must have a modern instrument to keep up with that.

I chose saxophones that I have personally played and would be happy with if they were the only saxophone I could own.  Of course, out of this group, I have preferences and have listed them in the order that I would choose them if my first and subsequent options were not possible.  To my own playing experience, these represent the best of what is out there, but this list is hardly inclusive and again, based solely on what I've played and my opinion.  I am only showing the alto versions, but the soprano, tenor and baritone versions of these models are of equal quality.  Some newer saxophone models like the Selmer Seles Axos, and the Limited Edition Adolphe Sax model, Theo Wanne's Mantra, Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet, etc., I have not yet had the opportunity to try, and when and if I do, you will read about it here.  Maybe later I will be able to afford some video equipment and post myself actually playing the instruments for you to hear.  Keep in mind that this is like my hobby, and I am not yet making any money or receiving samples or anything from doing this. I just love playing and discussing saxophones.

Anyway, here is my short list of the best of the best and what I would own if money were no object.

My first choice is the Buffet Senzo, because of all the new as well as old saxophones I've played, I was the most impressed with the richness of its tone, the superb keywork and construction, intonation, etc.  Playing the lowest notes was the easiest of any sax I've played.  It was also one of the most versatile horns I've played.  It handled the full spectrum of musical styles from classical to jazz to rock and funk, with no compromises.  The solid copper bell, body and neck give it a warm, complex tone and is beautiful to look at as well.  So far, my favorite all-around saxophone.

The Selmer Reference 54 came about by analyzing, with the help of advanced computer technology, the brass alloy composition and the bore size of the best Mark VI they could find which was made in 1958.  Reference 54 refers to the first year of  the Mark VI's production, 1954.  They added modern improvements in the keywork and placement of the tone holes for better intonation.  When I first tried the Reference 54's when they were first unveiled in 2001, I was not overly impressed.  Yes, I liked them, but I still had reservations.  10 years later, when Selmer unveiled the Dragonbird References and Series II and III horns, as well as the latest addition References, I was very impressed.  In that 10 year span, there were even more advances made in computer and manufacturing technology, and I literally played dozens of horns that day.  The picture on top from that show is only a fraction of what was on display and there for everyone to try.  Every horn I picked up that day played consistently well.  I played sopranos, altos and tenors, and every one of them sounded and played great from the get go.  The References were my favorite of them all.  This time, I had no reservations, and that day I felt that I would love to own this horn.  Far more consistent in sound and action than any Mark VI I ever played.  When I say consistent, I don't mean they all had a cookie cutter tone.  I mean that whatever your mouthpiece, reed and ligature setup and style  is, you are bound to get the sound you are looking for.  A modern classic as far as I'm concerned.

YANIGASAWA A-W020 and A-W037
I have always been impressed with Yanigasawa saxophones.  Excellent build quality, keywork, sound and overall playability.   These two are among my favorite saxophones, though I lean a little more to the W020 because of its higher copper content and what I feel is a warmer sound.  However both horns have great tones and are suitable for so many musical styles.  Several years ago, a friend of mine was working on cruise ships, and he generally needed both alto and tenor, but for this one cruise, he only needed the alto.  He had an old Martin Handcraft alto that sounded fantastic, and his tenor was the Yanigasawa 992 bronze.  Since he would be gone 3 months, he didn't want to leave it in his house just in case (this is New York after all), and he didn't want to drag it with him on the boat if he wasn't going to use it, so he left it with me.  I played it for 3 months and it was the best tenor I ever played, so I could see why he chose it.  You can't go wrong with a Yanigasawa.

 The Buffet Group purchased Keilwerth several years ago and it seems to be a good marriage.  By acquiring Keilwerth, Buffet has been able to take advantage of the already in place skilled workers at the Keilwerth factory when Buffet designed the Senzo.  While the design was conceived and executed at the Buffet factory in Paris, and bell, body tube and neck were all made there, they were able to utilize the Keilwerth factory for the assembly of the keys and posts, as well as the engraving.  In turn, Keilwerth was able to incorporate some of Buffet's qualities into their own saxophones.  The CX-90 is reminiscent of the Buffet Prestige S3, which was the predecessor to the Senzo, in its solid copper body and rich warm sound.  However, it is a completely Keilwerth saxophone in its design and keywork.  Beautiful to look at and beautiful to hear.

I tried the Custom Z in all the finishes that are available, and they all pretty much sounded similar with my mouthpiece, reed and ligature setup, so I chose the black lacquer finish because it is just gorgeous to look at and definitely has a stage presence.  The sound is rich and flexible, so it works for a great variety of styles.  Yamaha's build quality and keywork are legendary, so you really can't go wrong here.

The 875-EX has heavier key rods and they are arranged differently on the body than the Custom Z or other models.  The tone is a bit darker than the other Yamaha's and is used by many classical players, though I still find that it can handle a wide variety of modern styles.  The tone is rich and centered.  It is beautifully engraved and is another great all-around horn.

The Selmer Series III is made from a brass alloy with higher copper content, like the Reference 54's, and so it has a slightly warmer tone than the Series II.  The bore size is a little smaller, and it has a venting key for C# which helps bring that note into line.  Selmer quality, keywork and sound are all evident here, and this is another horn that can handle many musical styles.

Keilwerth SX-90R
The Keilwerth SX-90R is the flagship model of the Keilwerth line.  First marketed under the name H. Couf, for the man that designed it, once it gained a foothold on the American market it was marketed under its own name and has taken its place amongst the Big 4 saxophone manufacturers.  The SX-90R has rolled tone holes, but rather than drawn and rolled from the existing metal, they solder on tone rings.  The idea is that should the tone hole become damaged, it is easier to remove the ring, fix the tone hole and then replace the ring.  The drawback is that the rings can be placed unevenly and create leaks in the horn.  However, regardless, it is a beautifully made and sounding saxophone.  I favor the brushed nickel finish model pictured here, because I liked the warm yet clear tone that suited my playing style very nicely.

  The Selmer Series II has been the best selling saxophone in the Selmer line for years now.  It's one of the most versatile saxophones on the market that can cover a very wide variety of musical styles.  I preferred the black lacquer finish for its aesthetics.

Since officially retiring, I will now find the time to search out as many horns as I can find and try them all.  The one plus when working in music retail was that I had access to many new saxophone models. The minus was that they were limited by availability and which brands my store could carry.  Some brands are not available in stores near me, so this limits what I can try.  However, the quest will go on.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The New Golden Age Of Saxophone Manufacturing Part 1: My Personal Favorite Student and Intermediate/Entry-Level Pro Saxophones

Having retired recently, I have had more time to visit my friend who buys and sells saxophones, shooting the breeze, trading old man stories (you know, how we hurt more than we used to, hospital visits, what if any medications are you taking, etc.), but most of all, trying out lots of new and vintage horns. As a repair tech, my friend has been fixing horns for over 40 years, and he can take the mechanisms of the most clunky, unergonomic saxophones and make them feel almost brand new.  For a long time he, just like I, preferred vintage horns to modern ones. Give us a Mark VI or a Conn 6M, 10M or 12M, King Super 20, Martin Committee III, Buescher Aristocrat or TH&C 400, and forget the rest.  The rationale was that the old horns sounded better.  That's only true to a certain extant. Any fine instrument, whether made of metal or wood and properly maintained and that has been played frequently by its owner will achieve a certain resonance over time.  However, if the instrument uses inferior materials and is cheaply or badly constructed, it doesn't matter how many years you play it, it will still not sound good.

Many players still hold the image of the dedicated craftsman sitting at his bench, hammering away at the bell, meticulously hand fitting every part and fitting it all together, and the delicate and steady hand of the engraver putting an artistic touch on the final product.  There is still some handwork being done, mostly in the soldering of the posts and rods, and in placing and adjusting the set screws and key heights and in the engraving, and some manufacturers still have their workers hand hammer the bell hundreds of times while heating, cooling, reheating in a process called annealing which is supposed to make the bell more resonant.  I know that Selmer has stopped having their workers do that because of severe wrist injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome.  The majority of the work is done by machine, from stamping out the bell, bow and body shapes, forming the neck, drawing the tone holes, etc.  Computer technology has allowed manufacturers to better analyze and determine more accurate ratios of zinc to copper for the brass as well as other metal compositions for more consistent tonal qualities, the best and most accurate placement of the tone holes and their heights for better intonation and also how the bow size helps the air flow better so that it's easier to play the low notes down to Bb and A(for baritones) and be able to apply a wider range of dynamics to them.  Because of the big improvement in manufacturing techniques, I really feel that we are in a new golden age of saxophone building.  The Big 4 are still building top of the line instruments, but with new improvements, and many of the lesser known companies from Taiwan as well as some proprietary brands like Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet, Phil Barone and Tenor Madness, to cite just a few examples, are taking advantage of the modern manufacturing techniques and marketing high quality saxophones for the professional as well as the serious student at prices that won't break the bank.  This is a great thing, because now more quality instruments can be put into the hands of serious players, whether student, amateur or pro.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the best saxophones that I have personally played extensively and found to be my favorites that would be suitable for the student and the working professional on a budget.  My criteria was also that soprano saxophones be under $2500, alto saxophones under $3000, tenors under $3500, and baritones under $4500.  The prices represent the upper limit but it would be possible to find these horns for much less depending on the dealer.  However, always remember to never go too cheap.  If the price is too good to be believed, then it isn't too good and you can believe that.  This list is not extensive, and there may be other great saxophones that fit this criteria and can be had for even less, but I am only discussing saxes I have personally tried and can recommend with no qualms.  This also represents saxophones when purchased brand new.  The price of used saxophones is arbitrary anyway.  However, if you can find these models used in good to excellent playing and cosmetic condition, then by all means go for it. Still, I prefer purchasing a new saxophone because even over just the last few years, there have been big improvements to saxophone manufacturing and the newest versions of even the time tested models will have these improvements. Keep in mind that some of the models I highlight here started out as being anywhere from so-so to okay, but became much better as they were tweaked and improved.  So here are my personal recommendations. Of course, if you still have the chance to try them out personally, that is much better, but if you don't have access to a music store and buy online, just make sure that it's from a reputable dealer with a liberal return or exchange policy.  In any case, these saxophones represent in my opinion a good value in both money and sound.

YAMAHA YAS-26 and YTS-26

 The Yamaha YAS-26 alto sax and the YTS-26 tenor are the only student saxophones that make it on my personal favorite list.   The 26 is the successor to the very popular 23 line, probably the best selling student saxophones ever.  They are the best built student saxophones on the market.  The keywork, the durability, the consistent tone and the resale value are simply the best of any student saxophone out there.  There are other good student models, and some even have one thing the Yamaha 26 lacks, which is a high F# key, but none of them are built to the high standard of the Yamaha.  I have tried out many student horns but none come close to the Yamaha for quality. The student simply cannot go wrong with this saxophone.

YAS-480 and YTS-480

The YAS-480 alto and the YTS-480 tenor is upgraded and improved from the previous version, the 475.  It is marketed and priced as an intermediate saxophone, but I found that it can work every bit as good as any pro horn. It has a little more engraving added to it than from its previous incarnation, and has a high F# key.  I found the tone to be in the middle, not dark or not bright and very consistent from the top down.  Overall, a very good tone, and as I said it can be used as a pro horn or as a lesser priced backup for a pro player when their main horn is in the shop.   I wouldn't have any problems taking these horns onstage with me.


The YAS-62III and YTS-62III are the latest incarnation of Yamaha's entry-level pro saxophone, and until the introduction of the Custom Z and EX line, the only one.  Since its introduction as the 52 and on to the 62, 62II and now 62III, it has been one of the most popular and best selling professional saxophones on the market, and for good reason.  Excellent build quality and reliability along with a good solid tonal core makes this saxophone a great choice for any player either looking to step up from their student horn or any working pro that needs a workhorse for all the studio gigs, wedding gigs, club and bar shows, etc.  Slightly darker in tone than the 480, this saxophone can handle a variety of styles from classical to jazz to rock. A versatile, no-nonsense, no frills saxophone easy on the budget as good pro saxes go.


Since its introduction in 2008, the Buffet 400 line has become quite popular, and for good reason.  Priced at an intermediate level, these are really professional horns and represent in my opinion one of the best saxophone values out there.  Many players have already written me to tell me how pleased they are with their 400's.  Many others are surprised that a saxophone in its price point can look and sound so good.  The only complaint I have about it is rather minor, in that the key pearls are not real pearls but plastic.  That was one area where I was disappointed because many saxophones at that price point have real pearl or abalone key touches.  On the plus side, the keys are concaved in a way that really keep the fingers fitting nicely and comfortably into them.  Other than that, no other complaints.  The 400 comes in two finishes, a honey gold lacquer and a matte or vintage lacquer.  The alto and tenor have double arms on the low C B and Bb keys, which keeps those keys in better adjustment.  I also find the key action sure and solid, like the Yamaha.  The 400 is available as an alto, tenor and baritone.  If you've read my earlier reviews of this horn you already know I like it.  A great horn for the pro player as well as a the advanced student.

For my readers in Brazil:


Chateau is fairly new to the market, though their parent company Tenon in Taiwan has been making saxophones since 1979 for other names before marketing their own line.  I have only played the altos shown, not the tenors, but I was incredibly impressed with the build quality, appearance, keywork, and above all the sound.  These are in my mind another one of the best buys out there. The ones you see here have double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys and real rolled tone-holes, not soldered on tone rings.  The first two horns from the left are made from 93% copper, which gives them a warm and complex tone.  The next one is solid brushed nickel with beautiful abalone pearl key touches.  It has a slightly brighter tone than the copper models, but still full and rich.  The last one is a beautifully finished cognac lacquer and the brass is made with 85% copper content, which gives this horn a warm tone that is well suited to classical as well as jazz.  They are all beautifully hand engraved on the bell bell rim, bow and neck.  At this time, these horns can all be had for under $2500, and I saw the Cognac Lacquer model going under 2 grand, so if you have the chance to try these horns, I highly recommend them.  For the working pro, these saxophones are not only a good value dollar-wise, but have a great sound and appearance and will help you look and sound every bit the pro you are.

P. Mauriat

P. Mauriat has always been among my favorite new saxophone brands because they not only make top grade saxophones which have been adopted by some of the best players in the business like James Carter, Greg Osby and my friend Keyan Williams, but they have constantly worked on improving their saxophones.  I know Alex Hsieh, the president of Albest, the parent company of P. Mauriat, and he cares about his product and travels out of Taiwan extensively not just to attend the trade shows, but as a good-will ambassador for the saxophone.  He always listens to suggestions on how to improve the saxophone from other players and often incorporates those suggestions into his horns, quite often introducing a new model to accommodate those suggestions.  He even liked one of my suggestions on how to improve the low G# to Bb pinky cluster, and when I have the chance to visit him in Taiwan, he will sit down with me and actually have me draw it out and explain it.  It doesn't matter whether he ends up using it or not, it's still nice to know he's willing to listen.  Since the beginning of P. Mauriat's introduction to the marketplace, the 67R and 66R have been their flagship saxophones.  It achieved almost instant popularity with pros because not only the price point, but because of its big, full sound.  It was one of the first modern brands to employ real rolled tone-holes, which are drawn and rolled from the existing metal on the body rather than being soldered on.  The dark lacquer, gold lacquer, and unlacquered models can still be had at a great price.  The tenor is literally a beast, and the first time I played it, it reminded a lot of the old Conn Chu Berry, which is a good thing. The 66R and 67R are available in a variety of finishes.  The tipped bell soprano is one of my favorite sopranos.  The curved neck with the bell turned slightly outward allows you to actually hold the saxophone more comfortably while it projects a little more to the audience.  I have had issues with the keywork in the past.  Often, the keys felt spongy and soft, and some keys would even rattle, so the tech would have to spend some time tightening them up.  I'm glad to say that the latest horns don't seem to have that issue, and I hope they keep it up.  Overall, one of the brands you have to try.


Tevis and Cheryl Lauket began their enterprise by playing with a not so good sax in their kitchen, and by changing some things about it, like the neck, they found that they could improve the sound and intonation of the sax by tweaking various things.  They eventually raised some money and got a dedicated manufacturer in Taiwan to build the saxes for them.  They set up a second facility near Salt Lake City Utah where technicians would then do all the final adjustments and engraving before they went out to the shops.  Contrary to what many people think, these were not named after Cannonball Adderley.  I have to admit that I was not a big fan of the earlier incarnations of the Cannonball line, but over the years I've noticed many improvements and at this point, I consider them among some of the best saxophones you can buy if you're a serious student or working pro.  In the earlier models I found the keywork to be a little mushy, but now I find it solid and sure.  They are also one of the few manufacturers that are still using traditional point screws for their keywork, whereas many manufacturers today use what's called a pseudo-point screw.  I'll perhaps write an article about that later, but won't go into the differences now, and in fact refer to this article by Stephen Howard who could explain it better, being a repair tech.
The two saxes pictured here are my favorites of the Cannonball line.  On the left is the Brute, part of their Vintage Reborn series.  It features a dark vintage lacquer which looks like raw aged brass and beautiful hand engraving.  Most of the other Cannonball's use laser engraving. This and the tenor version have a great big sound and I really like the stone key touches. They look cool and felt great under my fingers.  The tenor on the right is the Peter Christlieb signature model.  This tenor has a cognac lacquer finish and a rich warm sound.  Of course these are my favorites, but many of the Cannonball saxophones come in at excellent price points and come in a wide variety of finishes.  I suggest giving them all a try. 

In my next article I will discuss the top of the line saxophones which I would own if money were no object.  No, I will not be discussing the Mark VI, just the new saxophones.  Stay tuned.


Monday, May 25, 2015

The Mark VI Mystique: Myths and Facts

The Selmer Mark VI is probably the most played, revered, sought after, collectable and collected saxophone in history.  Go to any vintage saxophone site, or shop where vintage saxophones are sold, and you will see more Mark VI's than any other vintage horn.  Roberto's Woodwinds in New York City even has a room dedicated to just Mark VI's.  Almost every top level player has played one at some point, and many still do.  For many saxophone players, the Mark VI is considered the greatest saxophone ever made. What is it about the Mark VI that has given this saxophone such legendary status and God-like qualities?  I have played literally hundreds of Mark VI's over the last 30 plus years, all having been properly set up, overhauled or otherwise repaired by my own tech, as well as the techs in the various shops I've worked in, and so they were all in the best shape when I played them. I have also tried out the many VI's that many of my friends play. I have formed my own very definite opinions and I have a little insight into them that was provided not just by research, but by Jerome Selmer when I had the opportunity to speak with him. He told me a few facts which will contradict what many Mark VI devotees believe and still believe even when presented with the facts.

When it comes to saxophones, no other horn has been surrounded by adoration and myth more than the Mark VI.  The purpose of this article is to give this legendary saxophone a full evaluation based on the literally hundreds of Mark VI's I've played, as well as the information I researched and what Jerome Selmer himself told me.  Keep in mind that some of what I write is opinion as well, but opinion based on experience, which means I've had hundreds of these in my hands and I've played them.  For example, tone is always subjective to the player and listener.  I prefer a well-rounded tone, a little on the dark side, but also with enough brightness to give it that vocal quality. I don't like a horn that is too bright because it makes my ears ring.  That is the other reason I never venture into altissimo unless necessary because going up there is unpleasant to my ears.  That's just me.  Conversely, I don't like a horn that's too dark because then it sounds muddy and too thick, not clear.  That's just me, and different players have different tonal preferences and usually choose their horns based on them, which is as it should be.  Many players tell me that the Mark VI is the best sounding horn ever.  That's where I disagree.  It is not better or worse than any great saxophone.  I know, I've played many others too!  Jerome Selmer also provided me with facts and insights and I am grateful to him for that.  Jerome Selmer is the president of Selmer, and he is one of the nicest and classiest people I've ever met in the music business.  He is devoted to his company and product,  so I have no reason to believe that anything he told me wasn't true.
Jerome Selmer and I at the unveiling of the DragonBird References and Series II saxophones, as well as the Jubilee Series II and III, at Steinway Hall in New York City, March, 2011

The Selmer Mark VI had a 20 year run, from 1954 to 1974, replacing the popular Super Balanced Action and succeeded by the not very popular and unjustly vilified Mark VII.  The serial number chart can give you a basic idea of how many total VI's were built in that 20 year period, as I don't have an exact figure otherwise.

Years of production by serial number

  • 1954- 55201-59000
  • 1955- 59001-63400
  • 1956- 63401-68900
  • 1957- 68901-74500
  • 1958- 74501-80400
  • 1959- 80401-85200
  • 1960- 85201-91300
  • 1961- 91301-97300
  • 1962- 97301-104500
  • 1963- 104501-112500
  • 1964- 112501-121600
  • 1965- 121601-131800
  • 1966- 131801-141500
  • 1967- 141501-152400
  • 1968- 152401-162500
  • 1969- 162501-173800
  • 1970- 173801-184900
  • 1971- 184901-196000
  • 1972- 196001-208700
  • 1973- 208701-220800
  • 1974- (After 231,000/Mark VII) 220801-233900
The "Official" Serial number guide issued by Selmer was not exact and Selmer never meant for it to be so. There can be as much as an 18 month (+/-) variation in actual production dates. This has been verified by original owners with receipts of their instruments showing purchase dates earlier than they would have been produced according to this chart. An example exists of an 89,000 series instrument sold in 1959. There is also a Mark VI tenor with a 236,000 serial number which would challenge the 231,000 Mark VII change-over. This gives rise to speculation that Selmer produced both the Mark VI design and early Mark VII horns concurrently, or possibly until the existing parts for the Mark VI were used up.
The Mark VI Soprano, Baritone, and Bass models were produced from 1954-1981. It is possible to find confirmed examples of these instruments in the serial range of # 55201-365000. The Mark VI Sopranino model was produced from 1954-1985 and can be found within the serial number range of # 55201-378000. The Mark VI was succeeded by the Mark VII, which was produced as alto and tenor saxophones only.

Many of the players who own a Mark VI call it the most revolutionary sax ever made.  This isn't true actually, as it evolved from the earlier Balanced Action and Super Balanced Action saxophones.  In fact, it was the original Balanced Action of 1936 that can be called revolutionary because it was literally a quantum leap from all sax designs that were current at the time.  Its closest rival as far as design and ergonomics was the Conn Connquerer, which was basically a 6M with improved keywork and more elaborate engraving.  The Balanced Action on the other hand was a completely new design which would set the stage for what is now the modern saxophone.  From the original Balanced Action, the design slowly evolved, with changes in bore size, the rotation of the bell, body and keys, the introduction of the removable bell, the sturdier ring shaped bell to body brace which was offset and was less prone to more sever damage than the old design which was just a straight wire soldered at both ends which would cause greater damage if hit or dropped.  You could remove the brace with the bell which made it easier to repair any damage to it and remove dents and dings.  The Mark VI evolved from this. The Mark VI introduced the tilted left pinky spatula which was more in line with the natural tilt of the pinky when playing, and the enlarged octave key which was also shifted to the right for a more natural and easy movement of the thumb when pressing the key.  
 The bore size was larger, but in the next 20 years, there would be constant changes to the saxophone, as well as the addition of the high F# key around 1968.  Jerome Selmer told me that the craftsmen did not work from a set of plans or blueprints.  They continuously tweaked the horns as they made them, changing bore, bell and neck dimensions, and this wasn't done in any consistent manner.  Another myth that has gotten a lot of circulation and is believed by many is that the earlier ones are better, and one of the reasons is because they used brass shell casings from heavy artillery ammunition left over from WWII for the brass of the Mark VI.  He laughed at that one because he said if they were going to use left over WWII artillery casings they would have used them on the Super Balanced Action which was still around in 1945 when the war ended.  Remember, the Mark VI premiered in 1954.  At any rate, Jerome Selmer said this wasn't true.

The next myth is about serial numbers, and that the Mark VI's of a certain serial number range, especially the earlier ones, are better than the horns with higher serial numbers, or that a horn of a certain year was better, etc.  I have had players swear and argue that this was true, and I asked them if they played every Mark VI from the whole 20 year span and could say it with absolute certainty. Of course not, just another belief that has no basis in truth.  Jerome Selmer said so himself.  The fact is, being hand made and constantly tweaked, each and every sax, regardless of serial number or year would play and sound differently, especially when you factor in reed and mouthpiece preferences.  That's true of any well made saxophone.  Like I said, I have played literally hundreds of Mark VI's, and I have played some great ones from varying years and serial numbers, and some pretty awful ones from what are supposed to be, if I listened to some musicians, as the prime serial numbers or years of the Mark VI.  "What?  Awful ones?  There are no awful Mark VI's!"  Sorry, but as with any hand made instrument, they're not all going to be perfect or even good.  There are always lemons, and given the number of Mark VI's that were made, they would have more than their fair share of those.  It's just the law of averages.  Today, with computer design, and more accurate placement of tone holes, improvements in keywork and placement and a more consistent ratio of zinc to copper in making the brass, modern saxophones are definitely more consistent in tone and quality than their older counterparts.  That doesn't mean that they're always better either, and once again, each horn will feel, play and sound differently to each player, and that's how it should be.

To give the Mark VI its due, it's keywork and ergonomics have become the standard by which every modern saxophone is made to this day. Even after 60 years, there has been no change in the ergonomic layout of the saxophone, and every modern saxophone has copied the Selmer standard, as it has been proven to be the most comfortable and the most efficient layout.  Sure, some manufacturers may make minor changes in the ergonomics, but none noticeable, and they still all basically look like the Selmer.  No one yet has been able to come up with a better design and I guess there's a good reason why.  It's because the basic design and layout work very well and always has.  It also says something when every saxophone made not just by Selmer but by other manufacturers are always trying to market their instruments to be as good as a Mark VI.  Of course, there are many who continuously say that nothing is or will be as good as a Mark VI.  Well, nothing else is will ever be as good as the saxophone you have played and conditioned for years and has become an extension of your musical personality.

Acknowledging that the design and the ergonomics were a step ahead of anything else at the time the Mark VI came on the scene, and that the keywork made playing easier and faster, it still has its drawbacks.  For all that speed and efficiency, there is a trade off.  With any old saxophone, and especially an old saxophone that has been frequently played and well-traveled, it is a fair bet that it has taken its share of abuse.  There will be dings and dents, and parts start to wear down, very similar to an automobile that has accumulated lots of road mileage.  The keys in time will simply wear down, and quite often a key post needs to be re-soldered onto the body.  Keys begin to rattle and get loose, causing leaks, and in time, there is only so much drilling that can be done before the set screws can no longer make proper contact with the rod and slip.   Even with constant adjustments and regular oiling, the keys and posts start to rattle very loudly and the action begins to loosen up.  This will be true of any old saxophone that has been played frequently.  Like your old car, at which point do you stop pouring money into constantly adjusting and repairing it, and buy the new car that will serve you for years before needing to be replaced?  Besides, the keywork on modern saxophones is better and more solid than it ever was.  Technology has really advanced in the manufacturing of saxophones, and I think players need to get over the idea that they just don't make them like they used to.  They don't for sure, but that is not always a bad thing.

Another common problem I have seen with Mark VI's as well as other old saxophones is the wearing down of the neck tenon from constantly putting the neck on and taking it off.  At some point in time, the neck gets so loose that no matter how tightly you screw it on, the neck freely moves and slips, which is another source of air leaking and bad tone and intonation.  To tighten a neck tenon, the repair tech has to ream and burnish it in order to stretch it so that it fits tightly on the body again.  That can only be done so many times until the metal wears and thins out.  David Sanborn once came into the shop to inquire whether we had any Mark VI's.  He told me that the neck tenon had been reamed so many times that it eventually cracked, rendering it useless.  I knew he was a Selmer man, and yes we did have some Mark VI's, but I showed him the Reference 54's we had and why I thought it was a better idea to get them rather than another old saxophone.  He tried out the Mark VI's we had, but didn't bother to try the References.  I like David Sanborn personally, a very nice guy and a great player.  However, he just couldn't move with the idea that anything was better than a Mark VI, and he ended up getting another one from a vintage dealer in New Jersey.  I'm sure that horn will also need frequent adjustments and repairs.

Another point of contention I have with Mark VI players is the idea that the Mark VI is the best sounding horn ever made.  Yes and no!  I said earlier that tone is a subjective thing.  However, whenever I play any saxophone, vintage or modern, what always sells me on the horn or not is how the tone is to my ears.  I have a certain sound that I prefer and that any horn must have if I want to play it on a regular basis.  I also measure it against the sound of my Conn 6M, which I still consider among the best sounding horns ever. Taking that into consideration, I have played many saxophones old and new whose tone I liked better than most Mark VI's I've heard.  At the same time, I have played many Mark VI's that sounded better than many other horns that I've liked, old and new.  I have only played one Mark VI which had the power and clarity of my Conn, but I didn't feel it was better.  Again, just personal tastes.  If that Mark VI had even a little bit something extra over my Conn, I would be playing a Mark VI today, but I'm not.  The reason isn't because I have a dislike for the horn.  It's a great saxophone, and there are reasons why it has earned its place in saxophone history. It's just that I don't consider it the be all and end all of saxophones.  I have played Mark VI's that sounded full and clear, with a voice that sang, and others that sounded shrill or dull.  That's the nature of a handmade instrument.  Now, my Conn has that sound because it too has been played frequently.  First by the musician who sold it to my father, then my father when he had his own band, then by me.  I love that old horn, but I have to admit that now even though I still think it's a great sounding horn, I have played many new saxophones that sound every bit as good but in terms of ergonomics and keywork, are far better, so now I am going with new saxophones. 

Another argument I get from players if I say that while I consider the Mark VI definitely one of the great saxophones, it's not necessarily the greatest.  "Oh yeah?" they would say, "if it wasn't the greatest, why did so many great musicians play it and aren't playing Conns or Kings or Martins or Bueschers anymore?"  There are many reasons for that, but the main reason was that after WWII, the output and quality of American saxophones was beginning to go down.  When the Mark VI showed up, it certainly was light years ahead ergonomically of any American saxophone, but the main thing was at the time, the Mark VI was actually cheaper than the equivalent American horns.  I won't go into the reason for that because it may sound too political.  However, coupled with the prices as well as the fact that American saxophones were no longer of the high quality that they were prior to WWII, American saxophone brands became relegated to making only student quality horns, and now there are no saxophones being made in America today.  For the longest time, the Mark VI was the only game in town for a professional musician looking for a new and high quality saxophone until Yamaha hit the scene, followed by Yanigasawa, Keilwerth, and lately P. Mauriat.  Buffet's Dynaction and Super Dynaction had keywork that was considered by many, including me, as slicker and better than a Mark VI, as well as having a great sound, but Buffet has never been able to achieve the success with their saxophones as they have with their clarinets.

My favorite thing regarding the Mark VI mystique are the people, players and non-players alike who behave as if owning and playing a Mark VI makes them the shit, if you'll pardon my language.  Many times, whenever a sax player would come into the shop, I would ask them which horn they played.  So many of them would literally puff up their chest, point their chin up as if to look down on me and say "I (heavy emphasis on the I) play a Mark VI!"  One woman even said to me, "I'll have you know (heavy emphasis on I'll and you) that I have a Mark VI!"  Another time the shop I worked in got in a few Mark VI's that were overhauled and then put into glass cases in the front of the store for sale.  During Thanksgiving weekend, many marching bands come into New York City to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.  Well, we were always prepared for the invasion of the band kids, because most of them were coming into the store to get books and accessories not available in the small towns they came from.  A bunch of kids, boys and girls ran up to the showcases, and literally drooling and with eyes popping out of their sockets were oohing and aahing and saying "it'a Mark VI, it's a Mark VI!!!"  I though they were going to have orgasms.

I spoke with Jerome Selmer about the whole Mark VI mystique and what he thought about it.  I also asked him the question that so many Mark VI players ask.  Why did Selmer stop making the Mark VI?  About the Mark VI mystique, he laughed about it, saying he was appreciative that the Mark VI has such a reputation, but he also felt that the newest models and editions of Selmer saxophones were better than ever due to huge improvements in computer technology and manufacturing technology.  He dismissed the idea that the Mark VI was better and nothing was ever as good.  "What do they think?" he said. "Do they think that we killed off all the people that made the Mark VI? Many of the same workers, and apprentices of the older workers who have retired or passed on are still making saxophones today."  As for why they stopped making the Mark VI, he said it was time to move on, just as they had moved on from previous models. He said that a company should never stop looking for ways to improve their instrument and also make it more relevant to the modern world, at the same time making instruments that follow a tradition.  This is why now, Selmer has more models available at one time than at any time in their history.  It gives the player a real choice depending on their musical style and tonal preferences. That's as it should be.

So, am I here to tell you to give up your Mark VI's and play something else?  No, not at all.  My view is and always will be that if your instrument plays, feels and sounds the way you want it to, then that is the only important consideration.  However, as for me, I am excited about many of the new saxophones made by Selmer and all of the other major brands, and quite a few lesser known brands from Taiwan that have really impressed me.  I simply love the saxophone and always will, Mark VI or no!