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!!!

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