Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Great American Saxophones

I admit that I am a lover of the classic American made saxophones.  In their heyday, saxophones made by Conn, Buescher, Martin and King were some of the best examples of the art and craft of saxophone building, made by some of the best craftsmen ever to hammer a bell or turn a screw.  On top of that, they had a SOUND!  It was these horns more than any others, that truly defined the sound of American music for years to come.  Until jazz and American popular music made extensive use of the saxophone, the instrument was used only by French military bands, and a few composers like Ravel, Goudonov and Prokofiev writing some pieces for it.  However it was American jazz that made the saxophone the most widely played wind instrument.  The saxophone has a very vocal quality to it.  After all, it comes in ranges from sopranino to contrabass like a human voice.  Of course, the most played are alto, tenor and to lesser degrees, soprano and baritone.

I have had the opportunity to play hundreds of saxophones over a 30 year period, from the newest models by Selmer, Yamaha, Keilwerth, Buffet and P. Mauriat, as well saxophones made by lesser known manufacturers like Holton, Kohlert, SML and Cuesnon.   Of course, all of these brands make or made quality and very interesting saxophones.  Just the same, there is something about the classic American saxophones that defined American music better than any of the other brands.  Take a look at most of the great early jazz musicians, and they are more than likely playing a saxophone made by one of the great American saxophones of the past.  Some examples:
 Charlie Parker with a Conn 6M alto.
 Johnny Hodges with a Buescher 400 Top Hat & Cane alto.
Lester "Pres" Young with the Conn "New Wonder" tenor which is more familiarly known as the "Chu Berry".
Leon "Chu" Berry, with what was to be his namesake saxophone. 
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley with a King Super 20 alto.
James Moody with a King Super 20 tenor.
Art Pepper with a "The Martin" Committee III alto.
Louis Jordan (center) with a "The Martin" Committee III tenor.
My inspiration Benny Carter with a Conn 26M "Connqueror" alto.
 Sonny Rollins with a Buescher Aristocrat tenor.
Dexter Gordon with a Conn 10M tenor.

Many of the classic recordings these greats made were made with the saxophones pictured with them.  Dexter Gordon kept playing his Conn until it was stolen in Paris.  Lester Young also continued playing his Chu Berry tenor until his death.  Johnny Hodges sweet and smooth sound was played on a Beuscher Aristocrat and later a Buescher 400.  Sonny Rollins recorded "The Bridge" with his Buescher Aristocrat tenor.  He also employed a Conn 10M from time to time.  Cannonball Adderley made his best recordings and performed extensively with his King Super 20, as did James Moody and Yusef Lateef.  Art Pepper's best recordings before he went to prison on drug charges were played on his Martin.  Benny Carter played Conn exclusively until he went to Paris and Selmer gave him a saxophone, and continued to give him one when a new model was introduced. Louis Jordan recorded many of his best known tunes and "soundies" (short musical films) playing a "The Martin" Committee III tenor and alto. Charlie Parker played lots of horns, some borrowed, some owned until he hocked them for drugs, but the two horns he managed to keep the longest were a Conn 6M and a King Super 20.  Some of the greatest players made some of the greatest music playing these great American horns.

At one time, America stood for rugged individualism, and these artists were definitely rugged individualists, playing saxophones that were full of character and rich with sound.  Sadly, there are no longer anymore saxophones being produced in the USA.  The great names that built these classic horns have either disappeared or merged with other names and corporations.  It's sad really. There are a lot of reasons for it. One was that after WW II, the designs were becoming antiquated, and with Selmer producing the Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action and Mark VI, and American manufacturers not offering up any new designs, save for the Santy Runion designed Conn 28M Constellation, which never took off with production ending only two years later.  Eventually, American saxophones were reduced to student level horns, and not very good ones at that, and producing them was getting more expensive, while imported horns, including Selmer were cheaper to buy.  Eventually production of saxophones in the US ceased altogether. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Simple Way To Determine If A Saxophone Is Right For You

This will be a short post based on my experience in dealing with students and players who are choosing a new saxophone.

Most of the time, whenever a musician asks me to try a saxophone, once he goes into the tryout room, I can predict more than 99% of the time exactly what he's going to do once he gets in there.  He/she begins playing scales at rapid speed.  Up and down, down and up, mixing them up, but always playing them fast.  Now while I know that sound and tone is subjective, so many so-called players will hand me back a perfectly good or great horn and say, "it's no good".  Frankly, they don't know most of the time what they are looking for.

However, most of the time, there is one thing they do not do in order to properly evaluate a saxophone, or any other brass and woodwind instrument for that matter.  While playing fast scales may give you a good idea how well the keys respond to your playing, that's not the whole thing.  I've said it before, I'll say it again.  It's the SOUND!  If you really want to know the core sound of your horn, which I consider the most important thing, then play a slow blues or a ballad, and really dig into it with each note.  Stretch the notes out, make them sing!

The other thing players do when playing fast scales is also to play at the same volume, usually loud.  That doesn't really tell you anything about the horn either.  Use dynamics in your playing.  Go from soft to loud, loud to soft, and so on.  Go slowly from the lowest to highest notes, then back down, and really listen to the response from your horn.  See if the horn has a balanced sound from top to bottom, or if something changes as you make the transitions.  Sometimes the problem may not be the horn, just a simple thing like a change in reed or mouthpiece, although don't go overboard with it.  Don't start going crazy endlessly trying mouthpieces and reeds or else you'll lose sight of the actual playing.

If the horns sounds good or great, it is!  The keys can be tweaked by a competent or expert technician, and a mouthpiece or reed will also help improve the sound, but the horn, and the player themselves will have this quality, or not!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I Have A Complaint About Some Saxophone Teachers

In the last few years, I've noticed that many saxophone teachers, as well as teachers of other instruments have been trying to dictate and control what their students learn, and even which brand of instruments they played.  It has reached ridiculous proportions according to my experience. 

A case in point.  A 12 year old kid comes into the shop with his teacher.  The kid has been playing maybe only about a month, yet his teacher had him trying a load of different mouthpieces.  The kid himself only having just begun learning was in no way in a position to understand the differences between one mouthpiece and another.  Of course, as a teacher, I would have suggested a different mouthpiece than the crap stock one that came with his school rental, but for God's sake, don't confuse the kid so early.  Suggest the mouthpiece that is consistently the best for students, which is usually a Meyer 5M.  Maybe the teacher has a different one in mind, but keep it simple. Why create chaos and confusion in the student when they're starting out?  For the sake of the student, keep it simple at the beginning.

Too many of today's teachers, especially younger ones seem to be on some kind of power trip.  Dump your stupid ego and just teach your student to play.  I have been fortunate enough to have had some of the best players ever as my teachers, and never have they ever tried to tell me anything that overrode my own judgment.  In fact, they guided me in becoming my own player.  Lee Konitz said to me "Kid, you've got a sound of your own, let's work on that!".   Benny Carter told me, when I first introduced myself and said that "I'm just a student", he said "so am I", which not only told me how humble he was, but that even though he was an absolute master of his craft, he was still learning.

Your teacher should be someone who understands your needs as a student.  He should never allow his ego to get in the way of your own development and judgment.  He helps to develop your individuality as a player.  If he/she tries to tell you that things are just so, or that you should only buy X brand saxophone, I suggest that you find someone else.  Unless he's buying it for you, try everything and get the best you can afford, regardless of brand. 

If your teacher tries to stifle your own innate sense of creativity, get rid of them.  They're not helping you.  Your teacher should be there not just to show you a way, but also to find YOUR way.  The best teacher is also a good student.  A good teacher knows that they don't have all the answers, but can help you discover your own.  A good teacher directs you positively.  This means that they answer your questions honestly, and try to discover what it is YOU like and want, without imposing their own tastes upon the student.  Again, they can make suggestions, but they never dictate.

Tell your teacher what YOU want from your studies.  If they do not comply, find someone else!  Above everything else, your teacher should make the learning process fun.  If it becomes drudgery, it loses its allure.  Have fun.  This is why it is called playing music, not working music, though it takes work to achieve a high level. However, the work is easier when you have fun with it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Saxophone Review: Buffet 400 Tenor in Matte Finish and Gold Plate

 It's been a while since I last wrote an article or review, but last week I had the opportunity to spend considerable time trying out the newest editions of the Buffet 400 tenor saxophones.  The horns I played were the new gold plated and matte finish saxes.  If you've read my previous review of the 400 alto, you already know that I'm very enthusiastic about this line, as it not only represents a great value in a musical instrument, but it's also a great saxophone, up there with the big boys.  The only reservation I had was with the tenor. The only time I played a 400 tenor previous to this was a model with the old neck, and I found it quite resistant.  I had to blow harder and the sound was a little too muffled for me.  The neck has been changed, and now the 400 tenor is a much improved horn, finally on a par with the alto and baritone.  What this means is that now you can play and own a great tenor and still have money left over to get a box of reeds and a good mouthpiece. 

Last week I had a customer come into the shop looking for a new tenor.  He wanted a good quality horn, but couldn't afford a Selmer, Yamaha, Keilwerth or Yanigasawa.  On the other hand, he didn't want a cheap student or intermediate saxophone, which really left him with few options.  He tried what we had in the store that fit his budget, including a Yamaha 475 and a Selmer LaVoix, as well as a couple of used horns.  He wasn't quite pleased with any of the horns he tried.  I didn't have any Buffets in stock, so I took him to the NYC Buffet showroom and introduced him to Laurie Orr, the showroom manager. He made an appointment to come back the next day and try the tenors they had in the showroom.  The next day, Laurie called me over, because my customer was there, and he not only wanted to try the horns, but he wanted me to play them for him so he could hear it from the other side of the horn.  The two tenors he was interested in were the matte finish 400 and the most recent addition being their gold-plated 400.  I ended up spending several hours, both playing and listening, and I came away with very favorable impressions on the latest edition of the 400 tenor.

First, my customer asked me to play both horns for him.  I'll call him Joe for easier reference. For my tenor set-up I used a Jody Jazz Red 6 with the baffle removed, and a LaVoz medium reed, which is the reed I also use for alto.  First, I played the matte finish horn.  The sax was well finished, with all the keys set tight and snapping into place.  The response was excellent, and everything fit nicely into my hands, as I would have expected from having played the alto and baritone.  The horn is heavy, and with the finish gives the horn a deeper, beefier sound.   Joe described it as being aggressive.  I played a ballad and got something of a Coleman Hawkins/Ben Webster kind of sound.  When I picked it up a notch, the horn just roared.  When I slowed down and softened it up, it sang like a blues singer after downing a shot of bourbon.  To put it mildly, this horn had balls.  I could almost see it grabbing its package and saying "take that sucker!".

Next came the gold plated model.  The plating is very well done, no pitting or uneven spots.  It, like the other 400's has engraving from the bell to the neck.  The only difference here is that on the gold plated model, they omitted the engraving on the key cups, but so what.  A very classy looking horn.  The mechanics had the same good fit and feeling as the other 400's I've played.  I put my lips to the mouthpiece and began to blow, and the tone that came out of it surprised and delighted me.  What a sound.  When the NYC Buffet showroom had their saxophone day last month, I tried the gold plated alto, and though it was a great horn, I found the sound a bit too bright for my taste, though not thin or shrill.  However, on the tenor, this slightly brighter tone gave the sax a sonorous tone, a very vocal quality.  When I played "The Nearness Of You", I held the last note for a long time.  I just loved hearing that note float through the air.  Joe commented that even when I hung on that one note, he could still hear the melody.  This horn sings.  I changed mouthpieces to a Jody Jazz DV NY 6, and then this horn became anything I wanted it to be, but with a full, clear as a bell tone that really spoke.  When playing soft and low, it sounded like a sexy woman whispering in your ear and saying things that were sure to arouse you.  When playing swing or bebop it was as if Ella or Billie were alive in the horn.  Yes, it looks and sounds like a sexy horn.  Then I played a classical piece, which originally was written for alto, which was The Old Castle from Pictures At An Exhibition.  It worked.  This horn could sound as light and ethereal as the alto is supposed to on this piece. 

Now it was Joe's turn to play.  He started with the matte finish horn, and played some Latin tunes, which is his main style.  Once again, I could hear that this was a darker, beefier horn.  This is a great horn for classic swing and bebop, as well as blues and r&b.  The sound is really full and rich and filled the room.  If you played this in a club without a mic, you'd still be able to hear this baby.  He then played the gold plated horn, and played the same licks.  His face lit up and he started to just go with it.  He chose the gold plated tenor.

Both tenors were outstanding in every way.  They both have very distinctive voices.  BTW, the gold lacquer model falls somewhere between the matte and gold plated models in terms of tone.  Not as dark as the matte and not as bright as the gold plated 400.  However, bright in the case of this tenor does not mean thin.  On both horns, the scale and tone from top to bottom was even.  Intonation excellent, response excellent, and man do they have their sounds.  They project well, and only a deaf person wouldn't be able to hear you. 

Once again, I give two thumbs up to Buffet, and to the new and improved 400 tenors.  The matte finish tenor can be had for about $2200.00, and the gold plated model, at the moment is about $2895.00, which is unheard of for a gold plated tenor saxophone that is also a killer horn in every respect.  Run, don't walk to the nearest Buffet dealer and try these out.

Update February 15, 2016

The gold-plated model was only available for a very limited time the year of this review.  They are no longer available in gold plate except for some that may be floating around that have been unsold, though I can't imagine that they wouldn't have sold out given the few that were available and their price point. I am glad to say that the current batch of tenors is better than the ones I played back then.  The issue with the original run of tenors was the neck, and they fixed that eventually.  Everything I liked about the horn back then still holds true.  However, the competition is getting stiffer.  They are now at a price point similar to the Yamaha 62III, and to Cannonball and P. Mauriat saxophones which are also great horns and worthy of your consideration when looking for a top grade saxophone on a budget.  I do feel that the Buffet has keywork as solid as the Yamaha, which is generally acknowledged as the best in the business. My issue with Mauriats is still with the keywork.  I find too many feeling spongy and rattling after only a short time.  I do wish they would also use real abalone instead of plastic for their pearls, and it's not just for cosmetic reasons, because if it was, then I wouldn't have anything to say about it. It's not about looks, it's about the fact that real pearls transmit more resonance to the fingers.  You don't have to believe me, but they do.  Other than that, it is still a saxophone worthy of your consideration.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Buffet NYC Showroom Saxophone Day

Today the Buffet NYC showroom had its saxophone day, where their full line of 400 saxophones were on display for any and all to try.  They also unveiled the new 400 gold plated tenor and alto saxes.  In attendance was Victor Goines, a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and director of jazz studies at Northwestern University.  Lauren Sevian, 2009 DownBeat critics poll nominee for Baritone Risong Star, Kenneth Radnofsky, Professor of Saxophone at New England Conservatory and Boston Conservatory, Matt Vance who oversees the 400 line when they come to the Buffet headquarters in Jacksonville, Chris Copinger, regional sales manager, and some other great players like Tim Price and Russell Kirk.  On top of that, lots of players, pro, amateur and student came in and tried the horns.

There were periods when there were so many players trying out horns at once that it sounded like a huge traffic jam.  Nevertheless, I met lots of great people and maybe some new business contacts, and had great discussions about music and saxophones with everyone.  Of course I played the 400 altos, and what I wrote in my review still stands.   They are great horns at a price point that can't be beat.    

I will try and post a few pictures of the event as I can get them.  A few are up on the Buffet Showroom's Facebook page, but I'm missing in those shots.  I know I was there.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Saxophone Review: Selmer Reference 54 Alto Saxophone

The Selmer Mark VI is probably the most popular and also most costly vintage saxophone on the market.  It was produced from 1954 through 1974, a twenty year run.  It was replaced by the Mark VII, which did not receive a warm reception from Selmer devotees and the saxophone market in general and consequently, after only a couple of years, was replaced by the Super Action 80, followed by the Series II and more recently the Series III.

Still, there were enough players and collectors bemoaning the fact that there was no longer any Selmer saxophone that could compare to their beloved Mark VI's.  Of course it was forgotten that when the Mark VI replaced the Super-Balanced Action, many players of the time were saying the same thing.  Time heals all wounds I guess. What was interesting about the Mark VI was that Marcel Mule, the eminent classical saxophonist had a hand in its design, yet classical players didn't take to it, but jazz players did in droves and soon it seemed almost no one played anything else.  With this saxophone, prominent American brands like Conn, Buescher, Martin and King would soon cease all saxophone production or be reduced to making only student level horns, or go out of business altogether.

Selmer realized that the increased demand for Mark VI's on the vintage market represented an opportunity for them to reclaim some of their prominence.  For one thing, companies like Keilwerth,  Yamaha and Yanigasawa were building quality saxophones, giving Selmer their first real competition in years.  Selmer was no longer the dominant maker of saxophones.  What they did was to take a 1954 Mark VI alto which they found in New York which epitomized the best aspects of the model in terms of sound, study its specifications and then reproduce it exactly, with only the keywork updated.  The only nod to the original as far as the keywork goes is a pearl for high F instead of the teardrop key more in use today, and a round instead of elliptical pearl for the side F# like you would find on a Mark VI.

The first time you look at one, you really have to admire its looks.  It really is one of the most beautiful saxophones I've ever seen.  The only saxophone I've seen that rivals it in the looks department is a 1926 Conn Virtuoso Deluxe alto that was gold plated and had engraving everywhere there was metal, and pearl on every single key touch.  Selmer used a deep honey gold lacquer which really gives it a vintage look.  The engraving is deep and really stands out and looks like the old Mark VI engraving, due to the fact that it was done after the application of the lacquer.  This also means that in time moisture will get into the grooves and then get under the lacquer and that will be the first area where the lacquer will flake off.  Of course it seems that Selmer did this on purpose so that in a few years down the road, the horn will look like a vintage Mark VI. 
When you pick up the horn, you can feel a horn of substance.  Plenty of weight behind it.  It feels good in the hands, and all the keys fit right under the fingers as you would expect from a Selmer.  Everything snaps into place, except the octave key.  So far on all the References I tried, I noticed that the octave key comes down with a pronounced thump or more accurately a heavy clunk because there seems to be a split-second lag-time from when you press the key to when it closes.  This also causes a split-second lag time in the response of the note.  You can also feel it in your mouth as you play as if someone tapped the neck with a stick.  This has been true on every Reference 54 I've tried.  This means that a tech will have to make the adjustment to this key when it comes out of the box.  Of course, all horns should get a good set-up, but at the price of the Selmer, this shouldn't be an issue on every horn. The other thing was the front high F key.  It was set slightly higher than the other keys, so that when I rolled my finger to press it down, it got caught in the space between the keys, again causing a slight delay in the response of the note.  Once again I found this true on all of the References I've tried.  How many have I tried?  So far I've played a dozen of them, and found exactly the same issues with the octave and front high F key.  Again, at the Selmer's price point, this should not be an issue as far as I'm concerned.

Now for what I consider the most important thing about any saxophone, and that is the sound.  Just by its looks and feel, not to mention the price, I expected it to have a sound worthy of its name.  The first time I held it in my hands I was eager with anticipation.  As always I used my usual set-up which is a Meyer 6M mouthpiece with a Rovner ligature and a LaVoz medium reed.  I put the mouthpiece to my lips and then I blew into it.  It was here that I couldn't figure something out.  Let me clarify.

The sound is rich and deep for sure.  It has the characteristic darker mellower tone that is normally associated with Selmer.  No doubt about it, it is a fine horn indeed.  The other thing is that the tone was consistent on all of the References I've tried, much more so than on the many Mark VI's I've played.  There is a plus side and a minus side to such consistency.  This really means that you'll end up with more or less a generic horn.  That's good for ensemble playing or studio work, but not so great when developing your own individual sound.  There really wasn't a lot of spread in the tone.  I don't know, I had no trouble finding the horn's center, but had difficulty going around the periphery of it.  I don't know if this description translates well, but this is my feeling about it.

The other thing was that I wasn't "wowed" by its sound.  Before I ever played one, I read a number of reviews which called it the greatest saxophone ever made, that Selmer has finally done the Mark VI one better, or at least got back its groove.  Then of course, just looking at it caused me to expect great things from it.  It has a very good tone.  It just didn't make me go "wow!".  At over 5 grand, I wanted the horn to make me go "wow!"  My Conn 6M makes me go "wow", as it does to every player that hears it.  The Buescher 400 tenor I recently tried made me go "wow!", as did that Conn Virtuoso Deluxe that I described earlier.  The P. Mauriat 66R and 67R saxophones have made me go "wow!".  Even the Buffet 400 I reviewed made me do that because the sound and feel was far above average for a medium priced horn that was made in China.  Rather than surprise me, Selmer gave me a horn that certainly fulfilled its expectations, but didn't do more.  At a price of around $5229.00, I would really expect more, and sorry, I didn't get it.

I will say that the Reference is a solidly built horn and is no doubt a good investment that will hold its value over the years.  The one thing I think Selmer has to watch out for is that it can no longer rely on just its name to get by and survive.  The competition right now is stiffer than ever, and there are saxophones cutting into the market and being played by noted pros that 20 or 30 years ago wouldn't have posed a threat to a brand like Selmer.  Times change, and now you can get a saxophone that plays every bit as good as a Selmer and often better without having to hock the farm. Of course Selmer has mid-priced and student horns on the market, but what the players want is a Selmer Paris, and you have to pay a premium to own one.  Yes, for snob appeal, I guess owning a Selmer is a good thing.  However, if you're a practical musician, and these days you really have to be, it may make more sense to try something else out, unless money isn't an issue.  If it isn't, I really do envy you.

Update(2014) Since writing this article, I've played a couple of dozen more Reference 54 altos, and I am happy to say that I didn't have any issues with the octave key, or any of the keys for that matter, and this time, the horns definitely made me go "WOW"!  Why the change? When I last spoke with Jerome Selmer, he told me that with computer modeling, they can more accurately place the tone holes, and in fact slightly raised the level of the tone holes, position keys and key rods more accurately, as well as make the brass more consistent by accurately measuring the ratio of zinc to copper. Another thing he told me was that now there is a lot more machining than hand work, particularly in hammering the bell, since so many workers were getting serious wrist, arm and shoulder injuries over repeated striking of the bell. So maybe it's a myth that hand hammering, the long and tedious process of shaping the bell makes a saxophone better.  In any case, the more recent References I've played are fantastic looking and sounding horns. They are far more consistent in tone than Mark VI's, but that doesn't mean a cookie cutter sound.  You can shape the sound any way you like, since they are free blowing horns. I really fell in love with the ones I've played, and if I find any problem with them it's that they're going for a street price of nearly 7 grand.  The bottom line here, is that I have still played other saxophones that make me go "WOW" but are not nearly as costly.  Sure, there may be a certain "prestige" to owning a Selmer, and certainly it will have a better resale value if you find yourself in dire straits and have to sell it, but if you're a working musician, not a "star", there are now plenty of less costly options that will take you to the same place. As much as I was wowed by the current crop of Reference saxophones, I can still be wowed by other saxophones that won't cost me nearly as much.  I don't care about names, just sound and quality.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Buffet 400 Alto: Follow-Up Commentary

I've received a few emails in regards to my review of the Buffet 400 Alto Saxophone.  Most of them were good, but some of them were not, and some even hostile.  The good ones were from players that already owned one or who had given them a good tryout, and others from students and professionals looking for a horn that can play without breaking their budget and asking me questions in regards to its quality and sound.  The bad ones were mainly from people who simply could not believe that a great horn can be made in China.  The hostile emails accused me of everything from working for Buffet, or being paid by them to write the review, and all the way to I don't know what I'm talking about, I never played a Mark VI, I am not a saxophone player at all, etc.

I want to clarify a few things right here.  I do work in a pro woodwind and brass shop.  I sell many brands of instruments, and I don't sell anything I consider total crap.  If I feel it is, I let the customer know, even though that violates store policy which is that I should be impartial, just give the customer what they want and what they can afford.   All of our horns are given a going over by the repair shop before I put them on the wall or in a display case.  I test play them constantly so that I can evaluate the horns in order to make recommendations to customers, but also to make sure they stay in regulation.  If they need regulation, I send them back up to the shop so every horn I test is already set-up for optimum playability.  With the horn properly set-up, I can concentrate on its true strengths and weaknesses. 

No, I do not work for Buffet.  True, I have easy access to the Buffet NYC showroom, and I know the showroom manager, the regional sales rep, and the man who oversees the line of 400 saxes when they enter the country.  However, this gives me the opportunity to try as many of their horns as I can, and this does give me a good idea of its consistency.  Buffet does not pay me to write these reviews, nor have they given me any saxophones.  If they did, I would gladly accept it as I can use a new horn right now and my finances are not what I would like, but I would still gladly pay to own one of these saxes, because at its price point, it's simply one of the best deals out there.  Even so, if there was anything I did not like about the horn, I would say so.  For example, I still have reservations about the 400 tenor, but I also haven't played it as thoroughly yet as I have the alto. It plays well, but I haven't fully run it through its paces.  That will be at a later time, and when I do, I'll write a review and say exactly what I think, positive or negative.

I have played every brand and model of saxophone out there from vintage to modern including literally hundreds of Mark VI's.  I do have my own preferences for what a horn should sound and feel like, but then we all do.  I often disagree with the mass consensus that says that a particular famous model horn is the best ever made.  Often these comments are from those who never actually played one, or someone who knows a good player that does have one, and feels the saxophone equivalent of penis envy, or from one who does own one and probably shelled out so much money for it that they have to convince themselves that it's as good as all that.  Then of course some of them are as good as all that.  However, so are many other brands and models.  Where I beg to differ with people is that this famous horn does not stand alone anymore.  It's a new world, a different time, and things change.

There are probably more people playing music now than ever.  Not everyone is trying to be a professional.  Many people are taking up music because quite simply it makes one feel good, makes you smarter and healthier by putting your brain to work and giving you measurable goals and results, and because it's fun.  Most will never be professional players.  Does this mean then that they should be playing on an inferior piece of junk?   Does this mean they need to put up the house as collateral in order to play on a good instrument?  The answer to both questions is NO!

Instrument manufacturers have had to address this problem and create instruments that are well made, sound good and yet provide the kind of value that the average working person can afford.  Even professional players, especially studio players and session players that need to have more than one horn in order to get the gigs which are getting harder to come by, and to spend a premium on every one of those instruments would break them.  In order to provide such an instrument, they have to be made where the labor is cheaper, otherwise how can the average person afford it?

China has a bad reputation due mainly to the fact that most horns produced there are massed produced and thrown into the market, sold through dealers not so reputable, or on EBay where many people who know nothing about instruments, including the average cost of a good horn, look to find that special bargain.  In most cases, regardless of how cheap the horn was, it was no bargain.  You paid for its inferior craftsmanship with keys that bend easily, screws and pearls falling off, lousy shrill tone and bad intonation, etc.  More of an expensive toy than a real instrument, something that is more suitable for hanging on your wall than playing.   You paid for buying an instrument that dashed your dreams because you thought you were the one that couldn't play it, even though the horn was complete junk, but you didn't know that.  After all, when you bought that "Selmen"  you had heard that "Selmer" was the best horn made, and that's what you thought you were buying. However, while these factories still turn out crap, things are changing.

Taking advantage of the cheap labor and low cost of production that China offers, many major manufacturers have decided to take advantage of that, as well as the modern new factories that produce them.  They send their technicians and reps there to train the workers in the way to craft their particular instruments.  They keep a close watch on quality control.  Rather than a company that is randomly dumping its product on the market where it offers no warranty or guarantee of any kind, they are now backed by reputable companies that put their name and reputation on it.  They have to be better or risk losing business and their reputation.  They can also be aware of customer complaints or criticisms that help them improve their product.

For example, Buffet had a lot of criticisms about the 400 tenor.  The issue it seems was with the design of the neck, so they listened and made improvements on it.  Some players may still have criticisms, but at least what they have to say does not fall on deaf ears.  I know that the Yamaha 23 and 475 models are now produced in China with no loss of quality because Yamaha keeps strict tabs on it.  Matt Vance is product manager for the Buffet-Crampon USA headquarters and oversees the 400 line when it enters the US.  I know that he cares about his product, And he puts his money where his mouthpiece is by playing it on his own professional gigs.  I also know that Buffet wants to make bigger inroads into the saxophone market.  After all, they were making saxophones long before every other manufacturer did.  Only Adolphe Sax himself preceded  Buffet in making saxophones.      

One of the biggest things hurled at me about my review was to say that the Buffet 400 alto was as good as anything out there.  That couldn't be, it's made in China, I tried it and didn't think it was that good, it was only okay, it sucked, you're not a player, you don't know what you're talking about, they're paying you, they're giving you free saxophones, you're full of shit, etc.

I've been playing the saxophone for nearly 30 years.  I've studied with some good teachers, including a couple of very well-known players whose names you would instantly recognize if I were to post them.  However, I don't have permission to throw out their names randomly, and I don't want to act as if I'm a hot shot because I did study with them.  Living in NYC has given me the access to the music, the stores, the musicians and the teachers, so I am very lucky in this respect.  My father was also a musician, and I grew up with lots of music in the house, so in that way I feel I know what I'm talking about, and when I play an instrument, I'll judge it on its own merits and not by brand or reputation.  Mostly, I judge it by its sound.  

Well, I've had the opportunity to spend lots of time playing the 400 alto.  As I've mentioned, I haven't fully played the tenor, so I will not write a review until I've completely evaluated the horn.  As for the alto, I played it every day and spent as much time as one could with it without actually owning it.  I played it against other horns.  You have to keep in mind that I also judge a horn on many factors, price being one of them.  I will compare a horn like this to a Yamaha, Keilwerth, Yanigasawa or Selmer, and the newer brands like P. Mauriat to have an overview and see how sound and feel measure up. 

Keep in mind that regardless of brand or cost, every horn has its own qualities and will be different.  In some cases it is no longer a matter of something being better but more about what the individual player likes best about the horn they have chosen.  So in comparing the 400 to the other major brands, while I could nit-pick some things that were not as good as a horn that cost two to three times as much, I decided to judge it by its overall sound and quality, and in this respect, the 400 held up very well to the more expensive brands.  If I wanted to, I could nit-pick and tell you what is not perfect about the other brands too, but that would be missing the point. They are all fine instruments, and ultimately you'll choose an instrument that fits your criteria for sound and quality, fits your needs and your budget. 

So once again, the Buffet 400 is an excellent choice.  It is a horn that can do the job.  That's all.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Music Review: Further Definitions by Benny Carter and his Orchestra

Personnel Tracks 1-8:
Benny Carter, Phil Woods-Alto Saxophones
Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Rouse-Tenor Saxophones
Dick Katz-Piano
John Collins-Guitar
Jimmy Garrison-Bass
Jo Jones-Drums

Personnel Tracks 9-16:
Benny Carter, Bud Shank-Alto Saxophones
Teddy Edwards, Bill Perkins, Buddy Collette-Tenor Saxophones
Bill Hood-Baritone Saxophone
Don Abney-Piano
Barney Kessel, Mundell Lowe-Guitars
Ray Brown-Bass
Alvin Stoller-Drums

1. Honeysuckle Rose
2. The Midnight Sun Will Never Set
3. Crazy Rhythm
4. Blue Star
5. Cottontail
6. Body and Soul
7. Cherry
9. Fantastic, That's You
10. Come On Back
11. We Were In Love
12. If Dreams Come True
13. Prohibido
14. Doozy
15. Rock Bottom
16. Titmouse

In 1961, Benny Carter went into a recording studio in New York, along with some of the best musicians ever to play jazz.  Like always, he had a mix of old veterans and new players.  The old veterans were Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, a veteran of Count Basie's orchestra and John Collins who had worked previously with Benny and Nat King Cole, and of course Benny himself.  The new guys were Phil Woods, who at the time was with Quincy Jones' Big Band, Jimmy Garrison who was playing with John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse who was with Thelonious Monk, and Dick Katz who played with Lee Konitz, among others. As usual, Benny wrote all of the arrangements.  Benny Carter defined big band reed sections.  He was the first to arrange charts using two alto saxes, two tenor saxes and a baritone sax.  Since he could also play brass instruments, he arranged beautifully for them too.  He would write arrangements for Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, among others, and he wrote for film and television as well.  This is all covered in my tribute to Benny Carter.  This was the recording that inspired me to pick up a saxophone and want to play.

Five years later, he assembled a group of musicians on the west coast, including many of the best session men that also played on the movies and TV shows that Benny wrote scores for.  Among them was bassist Ray Brown, who had moved to the west coast from New York, guitarist Barney Kessel and Alto sax player Bud Shank.  He was to call that recording "Additions To Further Definitions".  In 1997, Impulse released both recordings on one disc as Further Definitions, including the liner notes from both albums. 

Further Definitions has been on several lists of the top 100 jazz recordings of all time, and is considered Benny Carter's greatest recording. for reasons that become obvious when you listen to it. If you're a saxophone player, and even if you're not, this would have to be in your collection of definitive jazz recordings, as well as a lesson in jazz arranging.  To say that this recording swings like mad would be an understatement.  Benny Carter was one of the chief architects  of big band swing writing, arranging and playing, and these recordings show you a master at the peak of his craft.

The original idea was to recreate the famous sides Benny Carter recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt in Paris in 1937.  Honeysuckle Rose and Crazy Rhythm are the two tunes from that session recreated for this one.  However, these are not exact recreations, as Benny updated the arrangements.  Benny Carter never looked back, but always moved forward.  Though Benny would work many times with Coleman Hawkins after this, he never worked with Woods, Rouse, Katz, Garrison and Jo Jones before.  When Benny arrived in New York, he didn't bring his own horn with him so he had to borrow one.  I do not know whose horn it was that he borrowed.

This album is not only a primer for how to arrange for saxophones, but is also a lesson for any musician regardless of instrument on how to play a solo in a concise fashion.  All of the section parts are tightly arranged, and when each player solos, he has only one chorus in which to make his statement and then move over for the next soloist.  The only extended solos on this recording are by Benny on Blue Star, the second version of Doozy and Titmouse and Coleman Hawkins on Body and Soul.  However, even here these two masters teach what it is to make your point  and then go on.  No meandering solos that go on and on, no wasted notes, no wasted time.  All of the players play perfect solos as if they were written out, but then when masters improvise it always contains the elements of composition.  Free jazz exponents might call this too tight, too constricted, but I'm usually inclined to disagree with them anyway.  This kind of tightness forces the player to really think on his feet because there's simply no time to take your time. 

Unlike most reviews of recordings, I'm not going to go into each of the songs and break them down and analyze them.  The best thing anyone can do is to listen for themselves.  If you haven't heard this recording before, I think you're in for one of the biggest surprises in your life.  You're going to wonder why you haven't heard of it before, especially if you've been listening to jazz for years.  However, I will give a brief description of the tunes.

The opening track is Honeysuckle Rose, and it sends this recording bursting out of the gate.   Swings hard, and all the soloists introduce themselves boldly.  They're playing like they know they're a part of something special.  Next up is Quincy Jones' The Midnight Sun Will Never Set.  The only sax solos are by Carter and Hawkins.  Next is Crazy Rhythm, the second song from the Paris session.  It swings like crazy.  On Blue Star, one of Benny's own compositions, Hawkins makes the opening statement, and then after the bridge, Carter plays one of the most gorgeous and lush alto solos you will ever hear.  He swoops and cascades all over the horn, yet never loses sight of the melody.  Here he shows that he can play as many notes on a horn as anyone, not to show off but to enhance the song.

On Cottontail, Benny's the first soloist, and once again he rips out of the gate and then shows how to play a solo with total command of tone and technique.  Next comes Body and Soul, the tune that Coleman Hawkins made famous, and is one of the seminal recordings in all of jazz.  On this version, Benny wrote new changes, and Coleman Hawkins eats up those changes and makes another classic version of that tune.  The last two are Cherry and Doozy, another Carter original, both tunes played with a moderate swing.  In all cases, all the soloists shine on every number.

Tracks 9-16 are from the Additions To Further Definitions sessions recorded in LA in 1966.  While not reaching the same heights as the first, there are some great moments here.   Carter wrote a few more originals here, as well as a different arrangement of his tune Doozy which was on the original session.  This version is played at a faster tempo, and Carter concludes with a fine solo that once again defines what swing is. Other Carter originals are Come On Back, We Were In Love, Prohibido which is played in a Bossa Nova style, Rock Bottom a slow blues and Titmouse, a nice swinger to close the recording.

If you're a saxophone player, this is a must for your collection.  If you're a jazz lover, this a must for your collection.  If you're a music lover, this is a must for your collection. Get the point?

Friday, July 16, 2010


A disease that strikes many saxophone players these days.  It is the endless search for the perfect saxophone mouthpiece which doesn't exist.  It leads to spending countless hours in woodwind shops trying every single mouthpiece they carry and still deciding that none of them are as good as the one you have already or even that none of them are any good period!  It is thinking that like a certain saxophone, having that magic mouthpiece will turn you into a different player, maybe the famous one who used the same mouthpiece .

It is important to have the right mouthpiece, that's for sure, and with all the choices out there it may seem like a daunting task to find the right one for you.  It seems that every few months another mouthpiece enters the arena which is supposed to be the next greatest thing and will transform your playing and your sound.  To be sure, there are mouthpieces that are better than others, but sometimes "better" is a relative term.  A $500 mouthpiece will not necessarily play better than an $80 one, especially if your sound and technique are not fully developed yet.

However, let's assume for the moment that you've been playing for years and you have never been happy with the mouthpiece you've been using.  Okay, you go to your local music store and see what they have and want to try them out.  Now, assuming that they have a wide and varied selection of mouthpieces, you try out every mouthpiece that fits your physical and financial criteria.  You even try different tip openings, both hard rubber and metal or even the odd wooden one, and after all that, you still are not satisfied with any of them.

At this point I am going to say that it's most likely you still do not have a clear idea of what you want your sound to be.  It may also be that you simply don't spend enough time practicing and spend way more time trying out horns and accessories.  However let's now assume that you spend plenty of time practicing, and still no matter how many mouthpieces you try, nothing is good.  You may be over-analyzing the whole situation.  I know so many players who do that.  Rather than just playing, they get bogged down worrying or thinking too much about their equipment, their sound, what other people think, etc.  The other day, a customer came into my shop and said to me "I've yet to find a mouthpiece that plays".  I really had to be honest with him and tell him that the problem isn't with the mouthpieces.  Seriously, if he can say that after going through at least a couple of hundred mouthpieces, he really has no idea what his sound is, and spends way too much time analyzing his equipment as opposed to actually playing music. 

So my advice in selecting a mouthpiece and preventing the onset of mouthpiece-itis is to keep it simple.  First and foremost, decide what you want your sound to be like.  A good idea is to model your sound based on your favorite player.  Find out what their set-up is or was and try it.  While that alone will not give you the sound you want, it's a reference point.  In the end, you will still develop your own sound no matter who your influences are and no matter what mouthpiece, ligature or reed you use.  Then decide what you can afford.  No matter what your budget, you're still bound to find a great mouthpiece if you just listen to yourself honestly.

Once you find the mouthpiece that suits you, get down to just playing.  Don't think that another mouthpiece will be better and continue the endless quest.  If you happen upon a better mouthpiece that is more suitable to you, by all means get it, but don't keep looking for it if you already are playing the way you like. Playing music itself is an endless quest, so why throw unnecessary roadblocks in your way?  That would be like the person who runs quickly from one place to another, and completely misses all the beautiful scenery and attractions that are along the way.

I've been playing a Meyer 6M with LaVoz medium reeds and a Rovner ligature for years.  Yeah, I tried a few mouthpieces and some really excellent ones at that.  However, I kept my set-up constant all these years because I know my sound, know what I like, and I know that what I have does what I want it to and there's no need to go on the endless search for the perfect piece of equipment.  I'm too busy trying to play better, and that's enough for me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Saxophone Review: Buffet 400 Alto Sax

Lots and lots of saxophones come into my shop, from the cheapest no name student brands to the most expensive and prestigious name brands and everything in between.  I play them all so that I can evaluate their condition and also whether or not they are a viable deal to the potential buyer.  The first time I sat down and played  a Buffet 400 alto sax was one of the biggest and best surprises I ever had.

Buffet is one of the most famous name brands in the music industry.  They make what are probably the most widely played clarinets in the world.  The company begins its history with Denis Buffet-Auger who set up a small workshop in Paris in 1825 and quickly gained a reputation for making excellent 13 key clarinets.  In those days, clarinets were made entirely by hand requiring slow and meticulous work.  In 1830, Denis' son Jean-Louis Buffet took over the workshop, and when he married Zoe Crampon, they established the brand Buffet-Crampon.  In 1844, the logo for Buffet-Crampon was designed and is the one stamped on all of their instruments to this day.

Louis Auguste Buffet, Jean-Louis' uncle, was friends with clarinetist Hyacinthe Klose who was also the author of the famed clarinet method used by many clarinet students today.  Together they took the idea of movable rings which the German Theobald Bohm had developed for the flute and adapted it to the clarinet.  First exhibited in 1839, the new system was so successful that the Buffet-Crampon factory was built in 1850 in Mantes-la-Ville in order to meet demand for the new clarinets.

Buffet-Crampon began making saxophones in 1866, only 20 years after its invention by Adolphe Sax.  The first American made saxophone was built by Conn in 1888, and Selmer didn't begin making saxophones until the early 1920's, so Buffet was ahead of the pack.  The first saxophones made by Buffet were fairly faithful to Adolphe Sax' original design, as he was licensing them.
   However, by the latter part of the century, Buffet-Crampon began to change the keywork of the saxophone as it was known, and the company was a leader in the modernization of saxophone design.  They continued to make improvements in the mechanism throughout the ensuing years.

In 1950, Buffet introduced their Dynaction line of saxophones.  Many players and collectors will attest that this line of saxophones had slicker keywork and better action than the Selmer Balanced and Super Balanced Action saxes of the time.  In 1957, they introduced an improved version called the Super Dynaction which was the only saxophone of the time that posed a serious challenge to the vaunted Selmer Mark VI.  I know a couple of players who own them, and they swear it's the best horn they ever played.  I had a chance to play one 20 years ago and I was very impressed.  The action was super slick, the sound had the kind of darkness I like, but with lots of spread for either playing jazz or classical, or anything in-between.  On top of that, it looked like a work of art.

Unfortunately, Buffet-Crampon never gained the respect and popularity of their saxophone line as they had with their clarinets.  Selmer had cornered the saxophone market, and one thing I learned about sax players is that it's very hard to change their beliefs about something once they fix their minds.  They want to try everything out there, but they do so with a fixed attitude, and very few will admit that something is better than the instrument they swear is the best ever made because everyone says so or because they paid so much for it, how can a medium priced horn made in China even compare?  Fortunately, there are a few players left out there who have open minds and will judge something by its own merit, and not by its so-called reputation.

This brings me finally to the Buffet 400 alto, which is really what this article is about.  They also make a tenor and baritone, and I will review these later.  For now, I'm concentrating on the alto because that is my primary sax.  Let's get one thing out of the way here.  Yes, these saxes are manufactured in China and Buffet does not conceal this fact.  The baritone is manufactured in Taiwan.  What Buffet-Crampon has is over a hundred years of sax manufacturing experience behind them, and they know how to impart this on whoever is building their saxes. It is important to put away any prejudices about this and consider the company behind its production.  Besides, manufacturing technology has improved immensely over the years and the factories they are made in are new and modern.  One thing was obvious to me when I first tried one and that was that Buffet had a vision about what they wanted to achieve with this line.  Personally, I think they have achieved it beyond what could be expected.  I do know that Mike Smith, artist/production manager for The Music Group/Keilwerth saxophones was responsible for the technical design, especially the alto.  When the saxophones arrive at the Buffet USA headquarters in Jacksonville FL, they are inspected by product manager Matt Vance who also oversees the whole 400 line.
I had the opportunity to play both the lacquer and the matte finish horns.  In both cases I was surprised in a way I would not expect.   Before I even saw the horns I was impressed.  The 400 series saxophones come in a beautiful ProTech like rectangular case which is solid and well made.  It is blue and has handles on the top and side as well as built-in backpack straps with a webbed and cushioned back for extra comfort when you're carrying it.. There is a large pocket with a zipper that can hold books and accessories.  The Buffet-Crampon logo is embroidered on the pocket in gold thread.  There are two clips that close over the top and bottom part of the case for extra security. The case lets everyone know you're carrying a classy instrument.

When I opened the cases of the lacquer and the matte finished saxophones, I was greeted with the sight of a beautiful instrument.  Both instruments were beautifully engraved from bell to neck and on the keys and on the inner rim of the bell.  The Buffet-Crampon logo is clearly stamped on the bell, and the bell brace is solid and also has the Buffet logo on it. The gold lacquer had a deep honey color to it.  The matte finish was very well done. On both horns I could not detect any flaws on the finishes, even minor ones.  When I picked up the horns, I felt like I was holding a quality instrument.  They felt solid and had weight behind them, nothing shoddy here.  The keywork was solid and the keys just snapped into place, feeling as good as any Selmer, Yamaha or Yanigasawa that I've played.   The keys were cupped so the fingers would fit neatly into them.  If I have a complaint, it's that they're not using real pearls, but simulated pearl made of plastic.  I would recommend they change that since other saxophones being made at the Buffet's price point are using real abalone on their keys.  The bell keys had double braces for extra snap and better seal.  On both horns, everything was fit nice and tight.  No loose keys, nothing out of place.  These horns were inviting me to play them.

The first one I played was the matte finish sax.  A quick side note here.  Both horns were set up properly by the shop technician, so they were in the best playing condition.  My advice to any player is that any horn, regardless of make or price point should be set up first in order to truly evaluate its mechanical and tonal qualities.  I test play every saxophone with my usual set-up, which is a Meyer 6M mouthpiece, Rovner 1RL Dark ligature with LaVoz medium reeds.  I've tried lots of different set-ups over the years, but this is the one that works for me.  I can accurately judge a horn's qualities with this set-up.  What happened when I blew the first notes on the horn completely took me by surprise.  At the Buffet 400's price point, I would expect a fairly decent generic saxophone sound.  At its worst I would expect it to sound like a top grade student horn.  Instead, what I got was a full, strong and lush tone that just jumped out of the horn.  If you've read my article on the Conn 6M, you know that I favor that sax over anything else.  Putting all prejudices aside, I had to admit that I was playing what is a serious challenge to my beloved old horn.  The tone was strong and very well centered.  Intonation was spot-on.  The action smooth and solid.  Whew!  I just didn't expect this from a horn whose price is just around $1650.00. I played jazz, classical and even Beatle tunes, and it just made the transitions of musical styles with ease.  With some horns, they either play jazz well, or are made for classical, etc., but very few saxophones at this price point can make the stylistic transitions that the Buffet 400 could.  I also had an easy time playing the lower notes with less resistance, due to the wider bell bow. 
I was playing a saxophone that is as good as anything out there.  Just to be sure I wasn't fooling myself, when  a friend of mine who is also a sax player came into the shop, I asked him to try the horn and see what his opinion was.  He blew into it and after he ripped out a scale, he stopped and said, "Damn, this m%@##&*%er plays".  There was a lot of power in this horn.  The sound is initially dark, but you can push it and brighten it, but without the harsh and fuzzy edges that some modern horns can have.  The gold lacquered model was only slightly brighter but had the same versatility of the matte finished model.  This saxophone is able to cover a wide range of musical styles and tonal qualities.  Whatever you want to play, this horn can handle it.  I continued to play on it over the next two weeks and nothing could shake my opinion about it.  This horn was as good as anything out there at any price.  As good as my beloved Conn, as good or better than any Selmer, Yamaha or Yanigasawa.  You may not want to believe this, but that's just the way I found it to be.  Sure enough, someone purchased the same horn I was playing for those two weeks after spending several hours trying out several other name brand saxes.  He was in a university big band and needed a pro horn.  He had tried all the Selmers, Yamahas, Keilwerths, Yanigasawa's, Mauriats, etc., that we had in the shop, and wasn't sure.  For the hell of it, I gave him the Buffet.  He really didn't expect much out of it because of the price compared to the others.  When he came out of the practice room, he couldn't believe it.  He had the same reaction as I did when I first tried it, and now he could own a top quality horn and still have money left over to buy a mouthpiece, books, and a bunch of accessories.

Buffet-Crampon has re-entered  the saxophone market with a strong product.  This is a saxophone that I could easily make my primary horn, a sax I would be proud to take to any gig.  It looks good, it plays good, it sounds great.  Then there's the price point.  At around $1650.00, depending on the dealer, you are paying an intermediate price for what is essentially a pro horn.  I personally think that it's the best saxophone deal out there.  At the inflated prices of the top name brands, you could buy two or three of these horns.  It is time to put aside any pre-conceived notions and give these horns a try.  I know that it's sometimes difficult to get rid of old prejudices, but I think you'll be as surprised as I was.

Update February 15, 2016

Since first writing this review, the price of the Buffet 400 alto has gone up to around $2500-$2800, and the tenor$3000-$3300 retail.  It puts it just slightly below a Yamaha 62, and around the same price as the P. Mauriat 67R and 66R, and more than their LaBrava saxophones.  The baritones are between $4500-$4900 and are still below comparable baritones.  As far as baritones go, these are great horns and great buys regardless of brand or price point.  At the price point of the alto and tenor, I would also recommend looking into the Yamaha 62III, the P. Mauriat 67R and 66R, Cannonball saxophones, particularly their Vintage Reborn line, and a newer brand,Chateau, particularly their 900 series saxophones, which are at the price point and quality level of the Buffet.  If you are concerned with resale value, the Yamaha will always come out on top.  I will say that as far as the feel of the keywork goes, I found the Buffet to be just as solid as the Yamaha, and better than the Mauriat.  I have had issues with the keywork of the Mauriats in the past, because it often felt a little spongy and after only a short time would start to rattle.  However, the horns are solid otherwise and have a great tone. I still think that the Buffet 400 is a great saxophone, and the more recent ones I tried seem even better than the original batch.  However, at the current price point, I really wish they would put real abalone pearls in their keys.  This is not just a cosmetic thing, but real pearl, and metal too for that matter actually transmits more resonance to the fingers than plastic.  That said, the key pearls are molded in a way that allows the fingers to sit solidly and comfortably on the keys so that they don't easily slide around and there is minimum finger movement necessary to playing every note with more precision. They were shaped exactly the same as the Buffet Senzo, except that the Senzo used real abalone. 

Time hasn't altered how I feel about the Buffet 400 line.  However, the competition is getting stiffer, but that is a good thing for saxophone players.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Selecting A Saxophone And A Teacher

So you've decided to start learning the saxophone.  Congratulations!  Whether you are young or old, starting a musical instrument can only enrich your life.  One of the great pleasures of my job is getting students of all age groups started on the saxophone.  They ask me many questions, such as "how long will it take me to learn?" and so many others.  I will try to answer these questions as well as help you make decisions about selecting an instrument and finding a teacher.

Okay, so you've made the decision to play, but where to begin?  Do you buy a new or used saxophone?  Do you find the teacher first or find an instrument first?  You can't afford a teacher but you have the ability and self-discipline to teach yourself but still need help choosing a saxophone.  You really want to play but aren't sure whether or not you have the talent to play.  What do you need to practice?  Are you an absolute beginner, or have you played before but stopped because of family, work, life etc.?  The list of questions and concerns is long, so I will address these one at a time.

Finding A Teacher

You've decided that despite the possible cost, you would do better to find a qualified teacher that can help you and guide you through the process of learning.  A teacher who can show you what to do and what to play, explain and demonstrate points you don't understand.  Will your teacher inspire you to play better or will your teacher be critical and discourage you?  Whatever your level, from raw beginner to experienced player, it is important that your teacher understand your needs and concerns and that they help you get to where you want to go.  Above all the lessons should be fun.  They call it "playing" music not "sweating" music.  Of course it takes work and practice to achieve any level of proficiency on an instrument, but approached from the spirit of play and openness makes the whole learning process much easier.  Your teacher should be able to clarify any questions you have and keep your interest piqued.  Eventually, your teacher should be your friend.

 Your teacher can also help you select a saxophone, but it's important that they are impartial about the selection process.  This means that while they can make suggestions about brands and the quality of the instrument, they must also understand what your budget is and what you can afford, helping you find the best horn for the money you can spend.  I know too many teachers who insist that the student buys X brand saxophone, even though it's pricier than what the student can afford.  Unless the teacher is spending the money, they should not insist on any particular brand or model.  Also, if you are already in the possession of a saxophone, your teacher can evaluate its condition and whether or not you should get a qualified repair tech to get it in playing order, or whether or not it's even worth fixing.  However beware of the teacher that may tell you that the perfectly good vintage horn you have is "old and no good".  I met a young girl who came to my shop carrying a beautiful 1936 Buescher Aristocrat with silver plate and gold bell which was in immaculate condition.  It had belonged to her brother who took excellent care of it and passed it on to her.  However her teacher said that the horn was old and no good and that she should buy a Selmer.  I played the horn and found it in perfect working order, with a gorgeous lush tone and told her to find another teacher.  Since this was the first and only sax this girl had played, she was quite well adjusted to the old mechanism, and told me she had no problem with it, and it also seemed that whoever did the adjustments on the horn had a good understanding of old mechanisms and adjusted it accordingly so that it was as smooth as can be for a horn of that vintage.  Her dad and brother agreed with me.

Selecting A Saxophone

I've already touched on a few points of saxophone selection above, but let me elaborate here.   First, you have to decide what you can afford to pay for a saxophone.  You also have to decide whether you are going to buy new or used.  Today there are many excellent new student saxophones at affordable prices.  However be forewarned.  If you go too cheap then the chances are great that you are getting what you pay for.  A good student alto sax goes anywhere from $400 to $1000,  with Yamaha YA23 saxophones going for $1300.  A good student tenor will go anywhere from $600 to $1600.  This may seem like a lot of money, and it is, but it is important that you have as good a horn as you can afford.  There is nothing more discouraging than playing on a total piece of crap and thinking it's you so that you end up quitting because you think you haven't got it.  I've seen this too many times.  It is also important you buy your saxophone from a reputable music store with a liberal return policy, good service, and with an in store repair shop that can tweak your sax and put it in its best playing condition. Personally, I'm against renting an instrument, because most rentals are crap horns, and many young students don't do a very good job of taking care of them.  When a student owns his own instrument, there is a pride of ownership so they will usually take better care of the horn.  Besides, at the cost of a new student model that plays well, renting no longer makes sense.  Buy it new, and if you don't like it or get bored, sell it.

If you decide to get a used saxophone because you feel you'll save money or get a great deal, make sure you buy it from a reliable source.  This is where it's also important to have either your teacher or another musician help you.  They can look it over and tell you whether or not your money will be well spent or if you're buying total garbage.  They can play it for you and determine whether it sounds good or not, and if the key action is light and supple as opposed to stiff and hard.  There are lots of good deals out there on eBay and Craigslist, but there are also even more sellers pushing junk on unsuspecting and uneducated buyers.  They may even sell a well known vintage horn like a Mark VI or Conn 6M at an amazing price that you just can't pass up, only to find that it is a terrible re-lacquer, parts and screws missing, severe dents, no neck or not the original neck, etc.  The seller may try to tell you you can buy the parts but there are NO spare parts for vintage horns.  If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.  Buyer beware when you buy used.  If you do go the used route then once again go to a reputable dealer who will back up what they sell.

Teaching Yourself?

Perhaps you have enough experience or self-discipline to teach yourself, or you have to because you can't afford the lessons.  That's understandable.  However it's important that you get off on the right foot.  You have to get the right book, and perhaps a DVD which shows you the basics of putting together your sax, placing the reed properly on the mouthpiece and forming your emboucher.  It's also important that the book has a fingering chart or you can buy a fingering chart at your local music store or from an internet dealer.   There are a number of good books to get started with, the best being The Universal Saxophone Method by Paul DeVille, and the Rubank Methods.  Both are oldies but goodies.  The exercises in these books are arranged in a manner that promises progress and a proper understanding of music when practiced in sequence, not skipping any lessons.  After you gain confidence and make audible progress, you can supplement your practice with play-a-long books.  One of the most popular series for jazz play-a-longs are the Jamey Aeborsold series, and the Hal Leonard Play-A-Long series.  The CD's that accompany the books have rhythm sections that you can play along with so it's like playing with a band without the pressure so you can woodshed and gain confidence and hone your chops.

How Long Will It Take?

This question gets asked by me a lot and the only answer is that it will take forever.  Wait a minute, what?  Forever, but I want to make music now!!!!  What I mean here is that your progress will depend on how much time you put into it.  This doesn't mean you need to practice hours and hours.  1 hour a day is sufficient, and I'll go as far as to say that 15 minutes of concentrated practice is better than hours of doodling and messing around without purpose.  Also it's important that you make practice fun.  If you feel tired then it's okay to put the horn down and take a break.  Don't push it.  Play as long as you enjoy it.  How fast it will take you to reach a level of musical proficiency and dexterity will depend only a little on talent and mostly on desire.  I am of the belief that it's desire that fuels talent.  While there are those out there that seem like they can pick up any instrument and just play it, the majority of musicians simply work hard at it and achieve spectacular results.  If you really want to play, you'll play regardless of whether or not you feel you have natural talent.  However, what I mean about taking forever is that if you love playing, you will always be learning, and that's a good thing.

What to practice?  Start the first five to ten minutes practicing long tones in order to strengthen your emboucher and your tone.  Then practice scales for at least another fifteen minutes or so.   Related to scale practice is practicing chord patterns.  Then to finish, play a few tunes.  Start with easy songs until you can play them through smoothly and then progress to more difficult ones.  Eventually you can add improvisation practice to your routine when you have enough of a command of the basics.  Once you gain some proficiencey, get out there and look for some jam sessions.  They don't have to be jazz.  They can be blues, rock, etc., anything to hone your chops on stage with other musicians.  Above all have fun.

Congratulations on your decision to play the saxophone.  I hope you have fun with it and eventually accomplish your musical goals.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Saxophone Review: Conn 6M Alto Saxophone

The very first saxophone I ever played on was the Conn 6M that my father handed down to me, just like the one pictured here.  It was the saxophone I learned on, and is the saxophone I continue making music with.  I know I'm biased and sentimental about it, but I think it's one of the greatest saxes on the planet.  However the reasons for that go beyond sentimentality.  It was and is one of the greatest saxophones ever made, along with its big brothers the 10M tenor and 12M baritone. Among the greats that used these instruments were Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Harry Carney and Gerry Mulligan.  The photo of Benny Carter on my tribute blog shows him with a Conn 26M.  When I first met Benny, I showed him my Conn, and he said, "oh yeah, that is a great horn".  When I studied with Lee Konitz, though his primary horn was a Selmer Balanced Action, he also had a 6M which he used on a couple of his recordings. 

C.G. Conn was once one of the largest and most respected manufacturers of brass and woodwind instruments in the world, with its headquarters and factory in Elkhart Indiana.  Their vintage brass and wind instruments are still valued among players and collectors today.  The first saxophone ever built in America was built by Gus Buescher in 1888, when he was a foreman for Conn.  He would later leave Conn and start the Buescher instrument company also headquartered in Elkhart, and  build a line of great saxophones of his own.  Johnny Hodges played Bueschers, most notably the Aristocrat and later the 400, as did Sonny Rollins early on.  The Conn company also at one time employed Henry Martin who later started the Martin Instrument company, builder of many fine saxophones and trumpets.  Miles Davis played Martin trumpets, and Art Pepper played a Martin alto sax.  The companies these men started made Elkhart the brass and woodwind capital of the US.

Conn introduced many innovations in manufacturing brass and woodwind instruments, and until the second world war changed the scope of American musical instrument manufacture, and everything else, Conn was always at the leading edge of its development.  As the first manufacturer of quality brass and woodwinds in America, they would also be its first casualty when manufacturing quality instruments in the US changed from domestic to foreign.  Today, Conn is under the corporate umbrella of Conn-Selmer, which is under the corporate umbrella of Steinway & Sons, the makers of the most famous pianos in the world.  Today however, and since the 1960's, Conn saxophones have been relegated to a second class position as a maker of student saxophones.  I can't help thinking that Selmer had so much to do with this.  After all, for many years, Conn was the thorn in its side for supremacy in the saxophone world.

In the 1920's, Conn issued a series of saxophones called the New Wonder, which featured finishes in gold, silver and also featured elaborate and beautiful engravings.  Their Virtuoso Deluxe series was engraved on every inch of the horn and had genuine pearl on every single key touch.   On top of the physical beauty of these horns, they also had the most gorgeous tone of almost any saxophone I've ever heard.  The New Wonder was soon unofficially labeled the "Chu Berry", after Leon "Chu" Berry, a tenor saxophonist who played with Fletcher Henderson and later with Benny Carter and used this model. He was known for a big sound, and the Chu Berry models are famous for having an immense sound.  Chu Berry was never an official designation, but it has stuck to this day, referring to the Conn New Wonder models produced between 1925 to 1930, though he eventually played the Transitional model up until his death.  The horn also introduced a unique feature that was not found on any other horn, though for what would turn out to be a good reason.  It featured a microtuner on the neck, a mechanism that in theory allowed the player to adjust the mouthpiece to the correct pitch without having to adjust the mouthpiece itself. It worked to a degree, but after some use would loosen up and become rather useless.  The microtuner was eventually discontinued around 1953.

After 1930, Conn began a transition from the Chu Berry to the M series.  Conn saxophones also featured rolled tone holes, which meant that the lip of the tone hole was rolled into a rounded edge, which in my experience meant a tighter seal and less wear on the pads than conventional flat tone holes.  This also meant more time between pad replacement, which is expensive. 

What made the M series different from the New Wonder models was first, the bell keys (low B to Bb) were both on one side of the bell, where previously they were split, meaning B was on one side and Bb was on the other.  As the horn made its transformation formally to the M series, the left pinky spatula was enlarged and the octave key was changed to an underslung key rather than on top.  This meant that one could remove the neck without damaging the key, but it also made the mechanism simpler and less prone to wear.  Finally, the engraving showed a woman nude from the breasts up.  On some custom models, it was a full nude.  These became known as the "Naked Lady" models, and are the most sought after of all Conn saxophones, along with the Chu Berry models.  Conn also made the 26M alto and 30M tenors, which were 6M and 10M saxophones with refined mechanisms and more elaborate engravings, which featured the innovative permajust system, which helped keep the saxophone keys in better adjustment.  In fact, it can be safely said that it was these innovations that eventually pushed Selmer into redesigning their saxophones and then defining the design of saxophones forever.

At the time the M series was finalized, it featured innovative keywork for its time.  Many players today would find the ergonomics of the horn uncomfortable, but most of these players have only played on Selmers or other modern horns, all built on the Selmer platform.  As for me, I find the ergonomics of the horn very comfortable.  To be sure, the simpler keywork means sometimes pressing harder on some keys because rather than a pivoting motion, it squeezes down directly using a heavy spring, most notably on the spatula keys.  Also, the spatula keys on an M series horn are positioned far left, whereas a Selmer, or even a Conn 26M or 30M have these keys postioned further right for a more natural hand position.  However to me, the configuration of the spatula keys of a Conn make it much easier to play chromatics.  The Bb wraps around the C# and low B keys, so I can make a straight line across the keys when playing chromatics.  On a Selmer or other modern horns, I always have to move down for the low Bb.  Not really a big deal, but I'm only showing that even Selmer made compromises in its design.  It is not perfect.  What is?

However, I want to get to the meat of the subject of any horn, and that is the SOUND!!!  To me, I personally do not care about whether or not the ergonomics of a saxophone is better than another, or its value as a collector's item is more than another, I care about the SOUND!!  I am a player, not a collector.  I don't give a damn about ergonomics, serial numbers, mouthpieces, or other bullshit that so many people get caught up in.  In the end, it's all about the SOUND!!!  If you have chosen your horn for any other reason than this, then maybe you should reevaluate why you are playing.  The lessons I learned from my father and my teachers was that it's always about the SOUND!!!  I can't emphasize this enough.

The sound is where the Conn  really stands above all the rest.  The sound is big.  This despite the fact that the circumference of the bell is smaller than the bells of modern horns. The sound is rich and deep.  The sound is soulful.  Furthermore, the sound has breadth and depth that few horns I've played can equal.  In fact, until recently, I haven't played any sax that even comes close.  Not even the vaunted Mark VI.  However, lately, there are a couple of new sax manufacturers that have taken a hint from these great old horns and constructed some new horns based on these.  I will write reviews of these later.  However, the Conn 6M, and its big brothers will always hold their own against any of the horns that have come along since.  The Conn has the kind of tone that can span many styles and generations.  It is a horn that can play whatever I want, from swing to bebop, to funk to soul, and so much more.  If I was given the choice of only owning one saxophone, this would be it.

So there it is.  If I was asked what the best saxophone ever made was, my answer would be the Conn M series.  For all those who would say the Mark VI, you're entitled to your opinion, and you wouldn't be wrong, it is certainly the sax that set the standard for saxophones since.  For me, the Conn is still worth looking into when you are checking out vintage horns.   I know a few players who will play nothing else. In fact, I have a friend who swore by his Yanigasawa until he managed to get hold of a 6M.  He told me that while it took him a little while to get used to the mechanism, his sound became stronger yet smoother and "sexier".  He said that a woman he had been interested in for some time finally came up to him and commented that his sound was different and she liked it.  Looks like the "lady" brought him some luck,

In the end, it's still all about the SOUND!!!