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.

BUFFET SENZO
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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEXoR47t5k4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP9hOhRnzjA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNpnm9_2fwE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PLTHLdEpys

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m17jq15JLZw



SELMER REFERENCE 54
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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EjsP8yW8do

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLIj4B7qmH0

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.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoqP8TrcDJg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsYSF5vJF8M

KEILWERTH CX-90
 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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9Zgqw4LD34



YAMAHA CUSTOM 82Z
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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL_WpCQ1kFc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUJpaNePyyo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvMcI6mbm6o


YAMAHA 875-EX
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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3LjB0Eih00

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMSbtCrV4WM

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpF3jaatlxk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyInBTiGK4Y


SELMER SERIES III
 
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.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvlciVAyx9Q

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 marjeted 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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLtdNu14i64

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4WjPd6psEE

SELMER SERIES II
  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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMKHjOOxnhM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxZtirKjzcE

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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ct0w-gVTqmg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hh6sGSE1sbU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JSbZ06afkE

YAS-62III and YTS-62III

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FI88dv_CdTk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBPL84qIgcg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJumxFmHnJ8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqEoasEzyB4


BUFFET 400


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:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5poNv64cVRg



 CHATEAU

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.








CANNONBALL


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.
http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Glossary/Points.htm
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! 



















Sunday, April 5, 2015

Saxophone Lessons Online

There are many people reading my blog and other saxophone blogs and websites who are interested in playing the saxophone but don't know where to start and do not have access to a qualified teacher.  In this age of information, and with the world wide web, it is now possible to get lessons in many different formats.  You can go on YouTube and find saxophone lessons, and to make it easier for you I went to YouTube to find what I feel are the two best videos to get started in learning. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEqn3sMXke0


If these get you started and keep you interested but still feel you would progress better with personal instruction yet do not have a qualified teacher anywhere near you, you can get online lessons using Skype.  I highly recommend Skype lessons from my friend and teacher Tim Price.  He is a well-known sax instructor as well as having himself played with a number of the greatest musicians on the planet. 

http://www.timpricejazz.com/ 

Go to his website, look it over, and you can book Skype lessons there.

Watch this video of Tim talking about his Skype lessons.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5vmPYIhLzE

So now you don't have any excuses to not get started!


Monday, March 2, 2015

"We can't pay you but it will be great exposure": Never Play For Free!


One of the most annoying things that any professional musician has to deal with are club or bar owners, promoters and the like is when they want your services, but claim they cannot or don't want to pay you.  The excuses run anywhere from "you play the first gig for free and if the crowd likes you then we will hire you", or my favorite, "we can't (won't, don't want to, too cheap to, etc.) pay you, but it will be great exposure".  The problem is further exacerbated by eager amateurs who are willing to do anything to play somewhere in the hopes of getting some kind of recognition and so because of them, they will get many of the gigs, and they undercut real professionals who depend on their music to make a living. 

Now I have run bars and clubs as a manager, and I have hired bands to play, and I always pay them according to a mutual agreement that we have.  The truly professional musicians will always hold up their side of the bargain, which is to start on time, bring in and play to the crowd, which gets them to stay and buy more drinks and food, pay for their drinks at employee prices.  I have often thrown in a free dinner for each member of the band as part of the deal.  I and they agree that they have to promote their gigs on social media and their other networks, and I have to promote the gig and the gigs of other bands for the bar through advertising, social media and print.  If they cannot fulfill their side of the bargain, then they do not get rehired, but I will still pay them for the gig they did play.  However, I will never hire musicians that are not professional.  They should expect to get paid and I will pay them, but they also have to hold the crowd so that I can make money too.  It's a double-edged sword, and the professionals know it, and when they have gained a reputation for being professional, they will bring in the crowds, and they will be rehired and play again and again.

As a bar manager, I get so many promotional CD's from a lot of "players", and most of them are truly awful.  Some of them are good, but still need some polishing.  Many bar and club owners take advantage of these players, by offering them a gig if they do it as a promotion for themselves only, not get paid, but may be allowed to "pass the hat" or sell their own CD's, etc.  The band would be solely responsible for promoting themselves and bringing in the crowd.  I know of one such club in NYC that has a clause that if the band cannot bring in at least 50 people (even if it's 49), at $10 a head admission, the band will not be paid, which is no great sum anyway when they do get paid.  On an average night, 4 to 5 different bands play, all agreeing to the same clause.  The house makes their money both at the door and at the bar regardless. The fact that so many bands agree to terms like this is what has undercut not only paying gigs for real professionals, but has led to diminishing quality of music in clubs and bars.  The only place to see and hear the best musicians are in the most expensive clubs or venues, where you usually drop at least $100 in cover charges and food and drink minimums before the music even starts.

A lot of people seem to think that open jam sessions are a great idea because it gives the chance for developing players and even a few pros to come out and hone their chops and get exposure.  The house will charge a small cover charge, hopes that enough people will come in and buy drinks at the bar so they can make money.  However, I stopped doing open jams when I could see that they were actually counterproductive to both the house and to professional musicians.  Lots of bars adopted the open jam as a way to make money without having to pay musicians, under the guise of "exposure" and if you have ever been to these jam sessions, the great majority of people who show up for them are generally awful, some of them with giant egos, and too many who come there behaving as if it's some audition for them and try to direct everyone else on stage.  The only people who end up showing up are the players and their friends, most of whom don't have money for even one drink, or who like to use the lie "I'm on the list" (there is no "list" at an open jam), most other patrons walking out when they hear how awful most of the players are, or when some players big ego is displayed on the stage.  This doesn't help my business in the least, and it certainly doesn't really help players who are sincere in developing and displaying their skills, so I stopped open jams.

Unfortunately, many unscrupulous owners will continue taking advantage of eager young (sometimes older) amateurs who will do anything to be seen and heard.  If you are at a professional level of musicianship, then you are not only undercutting yourself, but every truly professional musician whose music is his/her livelihood.  Why should a bar or club owner pay anyone if they can get them for nothing?  If you are a serious amateur, I have news for you!  There is no exposure!  The only thing you will be exposed as is a fool, because promoters and and other club owners are not usually in attendance at these open jams or promotions, and if they are, it's usually to take advantage of you in the same way that the owner of the place you're playing in is.  In this way you also undercut and hurt those whose music is their whole livelihood.

Imagine that you are a professional in some other field and you were asked to work for nothing, because it will be great exposure.  Can you imagine a doctor, a dentist, plumber, lawyer, contractor, etc., being asked to perform their services for free because it will be great exposure?  It doesn't happen, so why should it be different in music and the other arts?  The truly professional musician and artist has spent years of sweat, trial and error, heartache, failure and success in order to achieve their level of skill, as much and more than many other professions, and so they deserve as much compensation for their work as anyone.  If you are the musician or artist that agrees to work for free (the exception perhaps being a worthy cause you believe in), then you are hurting every other musician and artist that has given themselves to their art and deserves to make a living from it.

Don't work for free!  Maybe you will sometimes agree to work for less, but NEVER work for free.  Don't hurt yourselves and others, and don't allow those who certainly don't work or do anything for free take advantage of you or anyone else.  This is good for everyone and eventually raises the bar for the quality of the music and art itself. 






Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: Buffet Senzo Alto Saxophone


I have a good friend who is a retired saxophone repair technician who now only does work out of his house for just a select few players, thankfully myself included, but his main thing since he closed his shop 14 years ago, is to buy, sell and trade saxophones.  He did that when he had his shop too, but back then the bulk of his time was spent repairing and tuning up saxophones, as well as flutes and clarinets, and oddly enough, an occasional guitar, which was his second instrument, for some of the best players in New York City and the world.  A visit to his home in New York City is like visiting a saxophone and flute museum.  He has 4 original Adolphe Sax altos, one of them from 1846, the year the saxophone was patented.  He has one of only two slide saxophones ever made, rare flutes and clarinets from various small shops in America and Europe that ceased production after the shop owner's death,  and a huge collection of vintage American saxophones from the 20's through the 50's.  He has several Mark VI's, and he has a small collection of Taiwanese saxophones from a company called LC (Lien Chang) that makes some very beautiful and nice playing and sounding saxophones, which I will review later.  He also travels a lot, mostly to Europe, Taiwan and Japan. 

He was in Tokyo recently and stopped by theYamaha store in Ginza, where I also spent a lot of time when I lived in Japan.  The third floor was where all the saxophones and other woodwinds were, and not just Yamaha.  They had Selmer, Yanigasawa, Keilwerth and Buffet.  At the time I was living in Japan, Buffet had the Prestige model, and it was only available in Europe and Asia, not in the US.  Apparently there was no market in America for it, so you couldn't find a shop that had one unless it was used.  Eventually, production of the Prestige ceased, and for several years, Buffet was not making saxophones.  In 2008, they introduced the 400 line of saxophones which are made in China, and thus far it has had great success.  So it was with anticipation when I heard that Buffet was getting back in the game with a new top grade professional model made in Europe called the Senzo.  Working close by the Buffet New York showroom, I went over to see Laurie Orr, showroom manager to find out if they had one so I could give it a try.  She told me that they weren't available in the US, for the same reason that the Prestige wasn't.  Since then, I have learned that Saxquest, a saxophone shop in St. Louis, Missouri, has been given exclusive dealer rights to the model, and they have one in stock.  Well, I can't make it to St. Louis, so I guess I wouldn't get to try it unless I went there.   My friend played the Senzo and decided to purchase it and then have it shipped by air freight to his house in New York City, since he had enough baggage to take on the plane as it was.  He told me he usually doesn't do something like that, but when he tried it at the Yamaha store, he said, "hands down, this is the most in tune, smoothest sounding and best playing alto I have ever played".  Wow, I thought, I would have to try it, and of course, that is why he called me to visit him.  Any time he gets an interesting horn, he likes to call me and have me try them.  For my friend to say this was high praise indeed, because he is very critical about saxophones in general.  Until this time, the only other saxophones I heard him praise to this extant were a 1967 Mark VI in mint condition he acquired, which I played and had to agree with him, and my own Conn 6M, once remarking "now this is what an alto is supposed to sound like".  Needless to say, I was ready to get my hands on this saxophone and play some tunes.
Senzo is Japanese for ancestor, and I guess the name is apt since it is the descendant of the S3 Prestige model that preceded it.  Buffet always made top grade professional saxophones with excellent and smooth keywork, but they never achieved the success of their clarinets, or the success of Selmer for saxophones.  What is ironic about that is that Buffet was the first company after Adolphe Sax himself to manufacture saxophones, their first saxophone made only 20 years after Sax patented the instrument in 1846, Buffet having built their first horn in 1866.  Buffet was also in the forefront of improving the keywork and extending the range of the saxophone.  Selmer didn't produce their first saxophone until 1922.  The Senzo, while keeping some of the elements of the Prestige, like the solid copper bell, body and neck with gold keys, went through a complete redesign.  Using modern computer technology they changed the dimensions of the bow, enlarging it, lengthened the bell and slightly downsized the neck.  They were able to work out a more accurate placement of the tone holes and their heights as well as placement and design of the keys.  Buffet had also acquired Keilwerth, and so they were able to merge the capabilities and work force of both companies to produce the Senzo.  The design of the saxophone, as well as the construction of the bell, body and neck tubes were done at the headquarters in France.  The keys were made by Keilwerth in their factory in Germany and the Senzo bodies would be sent there to have the posts, rods and keys soldered and assembled on the horn.  After assembly, the saxophones were sent back to France where they underwent extensive play testing.  They are play tested by Fabrice Moretti, once a student of the classical saxophonist Daniel Deffayet and instructor at the School of Traditional Music in Paris.  He is known to be quite strict and critical of his evaluation and has sent back or completely rejected horns he felt weren't up to snuff. I do know that the ones that do make it to the US at Buffet's US headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida , still have to go through another round of play testing by my friend Matt Vance.  I know he doesn't let anything slide either. By the time they get to the shop, you are looking at an instrument that is ready to go. The Senzo came in a contoured black case with the Buffet Crampon logo on a metal badge. It already looked quite beat up after having passed through customs, with scratches all over it.  

For readers of this blog who will no doubt ask why I do not present photos directly, I have to respond that my friend absolutely does not want anything from him posted on Facebook, whether it's something he owns or an image from his home.  He has security concerns, maybe a little paranoid, but I will respect it, so you will have to take my word on anything I review or talk about from his home.  I cannot post any photos taken from his home, period!  That is his requirement for me to be able to try out saxophones and post any reviews at all.  So I have to use stock photos for my reviews, sorry!

Anyway, I opened the case and looked at the saxophone, and it was truly gorgeous! The solid copper finish was really beautiful and the engraving elegant and not overly ornate.  I pulled it out of the case and it felt light in weight, yet at the same time it did not feel flimsy.  There was a solid feel about it, the keys, rods and posts did not feel flimsy or squishy. Right away I could see some elements of Keilwerth's designs in the keys.  The G#-Bb left pinky cluster has the same shape as any Keilwerth, but there is a difference.
On the left is a typical Keilwerth pinky cluster, which looks more or less like what you would find on any modern saxophone.  On the right is the spatula for the Senzo.  Notice something different?  The Bb key is in two sections.  Like the Keilwerth saxophones, the upper palm keys are adjustable.  You rotate the key in or out until you find a comfortable position.  No need to get those palm key risers or have your technician slap some gooey resin on it that looks ugly and actually decreases the resale value of your horn.  However, I really thought, like the Keilwerth, the palm keys were a little too thin or flat for my large hands, so had the horn been mine, I would have put the Runyon rubber key risers on them just to fill them out, because they are easily removable.
The bell to body brace is the typical 3 point type used on modern saxophones but not a ring, rather a solid piece with the Buffet logo on it, and it does give the horn a more elegant appearance, like a piece of jewelry rather then a saxophone, but still feeling solid.
The neck has what is called a resonance cavity on the back of it, which is supposed to open up the sound, and I would soon find out whether or not it does.

I brought my usual set up with me, which is a Meyer 6M mouthpiece with a Rovner Dark ligature and LaVoz Medium reed.  To warm up I was just going to play scales slowly up and down before getting into some tunes.  The ergonomics of the horn are very comfortable, and my hands sat naturally on the keys, and they felt solid and had a very smooth and quiet action.  The first notes I blew into it made me stop for a second and go "WOW!"  I've talked about the WOW factor before.  For me, if I was going to pay top dollar for an instrument, it had better make me go "WOW" and this one did immediately.  My friend laughed because he saw my expression when I played those first notes, saying how my eyes just opened so wide as if they were going to pop out of my head.  After recovering from the initial shock of amazement, I continued chromatic scales.  As I said, the action is very tight but smooth, so it just felt so easy to play.  The other thing about it is that while blowing into it, it had a kind of focused resistance that you would usually find in saxophones better suited for classical music, and Buffet saxophones have always been thought of more as classical horns than jazz horns.  However, it also had the ability to open up and give a lot of spread as well. Perhaps the resonance cavity in the neck had something to do with that?  I don't know, but I was going to find out what this saxophone could do.

I decided that for the first tune I was going to play, I'll go with a classical piece, so I chose "The Old Castle" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition", a popular piece for the saxophone.  It's a pretty simple tune, but a haunting one, and that is why I like it.  Playing it on the Senzo gave me the feeling of having played this tune a million times, the ease I had with the response of the keys, the ease of controlling the tone and dynamics.  This horn could really sing.  Another thing I found that I have never played the low notes from C to Bb with such ease, and that I could play the Bb at a quieter volume without having to push too hard.  The evenness of the scale, and the ease with which I was able to produce the tone, the smooth movement of the keys was like nothing I have played before.  Okay, I figured it would sound nice playing classical as Buffets do, but let's see if it could play some blues or jazz, even though this saxophone looked and sounded so elegant.  I started off with "Parker's Mood", and again it was "WOW".  It went from being a focused horn when playing classical to a more flexible open horn when I played Charlie Parker. It could sound smooth and elegant, but then you could shift gears and suddenly it had some punch to it, yet never losing its core, which is a lush, dark but not muddy sound.  In fact, I have to go on record here as saying it was the clearest sounding saxophone I have ever played.  I tried my hand at an old Jimmy Dorsey piece called "Oodles Of Noodles", a tune that is played at breakneck speed.  While it's a tune I still have yet to really get right, the smoothness of the key action would be a great help in allowing me to get there if I was able to play it on this horn regularly.  

I spent the next 3 hours playing, barely giving myself a break, except whenever I stopped and just felt amazed at how everything on this horn seemed to respond to whatever I put into it.  It seemed as if all I had to do was think of what I wanted to sound like or how my fingers would move and the Senzo would respond.  I played a Bach fugue here, a blues there, swing, bop, even some rock tunes, and this saxophone just went with it.  Altissimo was almost effortless, the most intuitive saxophone I have ever played.  I just knew that this is my dream horn.  I reluctantly gave the Senzo back to my friend and thought to myself that I must have one of these.  It is going for over 6 grand, and that puts it out of my range financially, but I am going to make the effort to save and get it, because for me, this definitely possessed the WOW factor.  

The Senzo also comes with an antique copper finish, gold lacquer and silver plate over the copper.  I do not know if they have a tenor version or will have one in the future.  I know the S3 only came as an alto, so it is likely that the Senzo will only be offered that way.  However, I still have many more saxophones to play as the years go on, but so far the Senzo has impressed me as the saxophone I would want if I could only have one saxophone.  It was that good.  

I have provided links to give you more infomation and also so you could see and hear for yourself what the Senzo is like.  If you ever find yourself in a shop where they have one, don't hesitate to try it.  I think you will be as amazed as I was.  









Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Saxophone Accessories



There are numerous accessories for your saxophone on the market these days and it can be confusing, especially to the beginner, as to which kind and what brands to get.  Different accessories can help you play better, such as the right mouthpiece, ligature and reed, which really become very personal choices arrived at after some trial and error and sometimes a few good recommendations from other players. Other accessories are for maintaining your horn in good playing condition, so it is important to have them and keep your horn in top shape along with regular maintenance from a reliable technician.  Those who read my blog regularly already know that for my mouthpiece, ligature and reed combination, I use a Meyer 6M with Rovner DL ligature and LaVoz Medium reeds, also sometimes using a Legere Signature 2 1/2 or Plasticover 2 1/2 reeds.  For Tenor I have  Jody Jazz Red 6, for Soprano a Jody Jazz HR6 with Plasticover 2 1/2 reeds, and for Baritone an old Meyer 5 with LaVoz Medium reeds.  However, I won't get into mouthpiece, ligature and reeds, because not only are they more personal choices, but I've already written articles on the subject of "Mouthpiece-itis", the affliction that many horn players have, looking for the Holy Grail of mouthpieces, as well as ligatures and reeds.  If you already have developed a conception of your sound in your head, or based on your favorite player as well as how you feel when you blow into the horn, you will know when you have the right mouthpiece, ligature and reed.  Of course, it's always good to listen to seasoned players and their advice, scour the internet and learn what is available out there, all which you should do when you are a beginner, but it's also important that you develop your own sense of sound, playing comfort and so on, to develop your own unique approach to the saxophone.  

I will focus on other accessories that I personally use and highly recommend as well as those that also may be of interest to you.  It's important to keep your saxophone in good playing condition, keeping it clean, free of dust and other debris.  Other accessories can help you play better, and others are more or less a luxury or perhaps a necessity depending on what your playing level is, or whether you are performing, etc.  

When you buy a new saxophone, it generally comes with basic accessories like a mouthpiece and ligature, strap, cork grease, polishing cloth and swab.  When you buy a used instrument, it will either come without any accessories or if things like the swab are left inside, it probably is already a little too funky to use and you have to throw it out and get a new one.  Let me start with a basic maintenance kit.  Even if your new saxophone has some of these items, I still suggest you get a complete maintenance kit so you have all the things needed to keep your saxophone clean and in good playing condition.  There are a number of different maintenance kits, and the one I use is the store brand from my local Sam Ash store.
Like this kit, your kit should contain a swab, a polishing cloth, cork grease, mouthpiece brush, neck swab or neck brush, small brush to clean dust out between the key rods, pad paper and key oil.  The neck is an especially neglected part when it comes to cleaning, but since it is also the most important to the overall sound of the sax, it is important to be able to clean the moisture and gunk out of it.  Some kits may also come with a small screwdriver in order to tighten the post screws.  Pad paper helps unstick any sticky pads, by covering the tone hole with it, closing the key cup, then pulling out the paper. You always need cork grease to make sure you can easily place and remove the mouthpiece so as not to tear the neck cork.  The mouthpiece brush helps clean the gunk from inside the chamber, the swab of course should be used to wipe out the body and the bell before putting the horn down for the night.  Key oil used sparingly every 6 months or so to keep the movement of the keys smooth and to keep from wearing.  You can also create your own maintenance kit by buying all the components separately, but you'll save yourself some money by buying the complete kit.

Though I said I won't discuss mouthpieces and reeds, there are still a couple of accessories for them that are useful for them, and one that is absolutely necessary as far as I'm concerned.  The mouthpiece usually comes with a cap to protect it, and some ligatures come with a special cap that can only fit that ligature.  However, even with the cap on, you can drop it or it can accidentally fall out of the case and when it hits the floor, the mouthpiece can have the tip or base cracked or chipped, so I also use a mouthpiece pouch for extra protection.  A good mouthpiece isn't cheap, so it helps to protect it as much as you would the horn itself.  I use the ProTec mouthpiece pouch, but any brand will do if it can be zipperd closed and is thickly padded.

Many players complain that it's hard to find a good playing reed, that they go through boxes and boxes just to find that one good reed, so when you finally do find it, you want to keep it for as long as you can, and for that you need a good reed case.  The first reed case I ever used was one my father gave me.  It was a beautiful old reed case.  It was a glass plate with 4 metal clips.  You inserted the heel of the reed under the clips, and the heart and tip would lay flat against the glass.  It came with a beautiful old leather case.  Today I use a Selmer reed case which also uses a glass plate.  I prefer the glass, because it is easier to clean and will last forever if you don't drop it.  Also, by just laying flat on the glass, you are less likely to chip or break the tip of the reed.  The plastic reed cases are cheaper and will do the job too, but won't last as long. 

You may find that the neck strap that comes with your saxophone is suitable for you, but you may also find that it puts a strain on your neck muscles, forcing you to bend your head in an unnatural position, making it uncomfortable to play.  I was developing a stiff neck from playing, and the muscle strain would go down my shoulder, so I decided to buy a saxophone harness.  The harness takes all the weight from my neck and puts it on my shoulders, freeing up the movement in my neck and making it much easier and far more comfortable to play.  If you play a baritone, I believe this is a must-have, or even if you're a tenor player.  If you decide on the standard type of neck strap, I still recommend something with a very heavy foam padding where it goes around the neck. I use the neck strap for the soprano so I don't accidentally drop it while playing.  Neotech are my preferred straps, but any other with this kind of padding is also suitable.

An electronic metronome is also a must as far as I'm concerned.  Especially as a beginner, you need to learn to keep proper time, and the metronome is the tool to help you do that.  The standard mechanical metronome can also be used, but the smaller ones will barely be audible when you play, and the larger ones are too bulky to fit in your case.  The electronic metronome will not only fit in your case easily, it will actually be more accurate in its tempo settings.  The other thing is that many electronic metronomes also come with a tuner, and also have other beats or time signatures to help you negotiate them which a mechanical one cannot do.  I use the Korg metronome/tuner combo.  When I used to work in music retail, I actually spent more time selling and explaining metronome/tuners than the instruments themselves.  Don't go overboard, just get one that fits your budget and has features useful to you.  They can range fro $15US to over $200US, so just get what you can afford and think is best for you, and that can easily fit in your case.

I have used various saxophone stands over the years, mostly to be able to place the sax on the bandstand, as I prefer to always keep it in the case at home so as not to allow dust to get all over it.  I used to use Hercules stands, and they are very good solid stands which open up and fold up easily and generally fit in most cases with a large side pocket.  They also make a portable lightweight stand for alto and tenor that fits into the bell of the saxophones, but I do not recommend them at all.  They do not hold the saxophone well and it is prone to falling off without even touching the horn, thus damaging the instrument.  The other stands are better, but the saxophones are still prone to fall off and get damaged if accidentally bumped into, which happens on the bandstand a lot, or when the occasional idiot from the audience decides to just walk up and touch your horn when you're not there.  I now use the SaxRax stand.  Even if someone accidentally bumps into your sax or someone grabs it the wrong way or otherwise mishandles it, the sax will not fall off the stand.  It may move, but it won't fall off.  Although it is more expensive than other stands, it is cheaper than a trip to the repair shop when your horn gets damaged, making it very much worth the extra money paid, especially if you're a working musician. 
Many stands also come equipped to hold both alto and tenor, with extra pegs for soprano sax and clarinet or flute, which is quite useful for those players who have to double.

If you live in a big city, in an apartment complex, or a room in a house you share with many other people, it may be difficult and sometimes impossible to practice where you won't disturb someone.  The saxophone is loud, and anyone near you will hear you no matter how softly you try to play, and trying to play too softly all the time will inhibit your tone production.  Many times I have had to go to the park and practice.  Sure, I could always find a remote spot where I wouldn't disturb anyone, but you could only go on a nice day, when it wasn't raining or too cold outside.  I will say however that on those nice days when I practiced in the park, many attractive women out running would stop and listen and it was a great way to meet them.  Just saying.  Most of the time I just said the hell with it and practiced in my room, always during the day, and since this was New York City, I figured people were used to the noise.  However, when I got to Tokyo, although it is a big noisy metropolis, the Japanese are always careful not to disturb their neighbors, even in the day time, so many musicians would be practicing in Yoyogi Park.  People have tried various saxophone mutes, but they do not make the instrument quieter, just change the tone.  For brass instruments like trumpet and trombone, a practice mute can significantly reduce volume, but it is a single tube where the only opening is the bell.  It is different with the saxophone.  because of the tone holes, it will be loud no matter what you insert into the bell.  The Japanese came up with an effective but unusual solution.  The EWhisper case is a contoured saxophone case, looking almost like any other case except for a few things.  You place the fully assembled saxophone inside the case then close it with the neck and mouthpiece protruding from the top.  There are two sleeves, one and each side, positioned so that you can insert your hands inside and place them properly on the keys.  You hook the strap on the case the way you would on the sax.  It has earphones so you can hear yourself play, while your neighbors won't hear anything.  It is a bit bulky and unwieldy at first, but once you get used to it, you can practice any time you want and not disturb anyone.  They are made only for the alto and tenor.  They go for around $500-600US. 

All saxophones come with a case, and most of them are quality cases that are just fine.  However, very often a player prefers a different case for various reasons, and the choices are numerous.  The most important consideration is always how well will it protect your instrument.  Will it safely hold the instrument and keep it from being damaged as it gets dropped or thrown around when traveling?  Does it have enough space to hold your accessories and your books?  Are the zippers, straps or clips sturdy enough so they won't easily pop open?  If it is for a baritone or larger sax, does it have sturdy wheels so you can easily move it and tow it behind you?  Does it have straps so you can hang it over one or both shoulders to keep your hands free and so it won't weigh you down?  I use the ProTec XL case for myself, and since it is the alto, I always take it with me and place it on the overhead compartment when I travel by plane.  However, while musicians have won the right to carry most of their instruments on the plane with them, some instruments are too big unless you can afford to buy an extra seat for it, like some bass players do.  Most large or bulky items must go into baggage, and we all know that even if the airline doesn't lose or misplace your baggage, it is always being mishandled and tossed about by the baggage handlers.  For that you need a very strong case that can handle the abuse while keeping the sax safe inside.  The best case in my opinion for the traveling player who cannot carry their instrument on board the plane are the Calzone cases.  They would have to be dropped from 33,000 feet to break open, but under normal abuse, if abuse can be called normal, they will withstand all that will be handed out by the clumsiest baggage handlers or roadies.  Calzone makes cases to fit multiple instrument combinations, which for the doubler is very important.

There are other different accessories you may decide to use, like rubber key risers or thumb rest cushions, mouthpiece cushions, reed clippers and so on, and it seems that someone is always trying to come up with another item to add to your growing collection of sax accessories.  With all the choices out there, you may decide on what you feel you need or just want.  Either way, keep your sax in playing condition, and above all, keep playing your sax.