Monday, January 17, 2011

Great Vintage Saxophones Part Two

In part two, I'll discuss saxophones made by other prominent American brands, as well as Selmer, and a couple you may or may not know about.


The very first saxophone made in the United States was built by Gus Buescher (properly pronounced Bisher) in 1888 when he was a foreman for Conn.  In 1894 Gus Buescher left Conn to start his own company, The Buescher Band Instrument Company.  For many years, Buescher saxophones, as well as their other brass and wind instruments, competed well with Conn, Martin, King and Selmer.  Buescher saxophones are noted for their rich and smooth sound.  Sigurd Rascher, the well known classical saxophonist, author and teacher played a Buescher Tru-Tone throughout his playing career, and in jazz, Johnny Hodges sweet and soaring tone was played on a series of Bueschers, most notably an Aristocrat and a 400.  Sonny Rollins also played a Buescher Aristocrat tenor early on such recordings as "The Bridge".  Later on, Selmer bought the company and that ended their production of high quality professional horns. 

The style and mechanisms of the Buescher are similar to those of Conn, so I never had a problem playing them.  In fact, in terms of sound, vintage Bueschers are among the best saxophones out there as far as I'm concerned.  Here are some of my favorite models.


The Buescher Tru-Tone production run was from the mid-twenties until about 1930 or so, when they made the transition to the Aristocrat models.  Sigurd Rascher used a gold-plated model throughout his musical career, and his followers use them as well.  They have a full, rich tone that lends itself to classical and orchestral music.  However, I found that it can play a blues with just as much authority.  
Sigurd Rascher with the full line of Buescher Tru-Tones from sopranino to contrabass

Gold-plated Tru-Tone alto saxophone, favored by Sigurd Rascher


The Aristocrat followed the Tru-Tone, and it not only gained a following among legit players, but also in jazz, most notably Johnny Hodges and Sonny Rollins.  It had some similarities to the Conn M series, minus rolled tone holes, and whereas the "Naked Lady" of the Conn M series could be bawdy, the Aristocrat seemed a bit more refined.  Though the model run was from the early 30's to the late fifties, the models with the "Big B" engraving are considered to be the best of the bunch.
Big B Alto similar to what Johnny Hodges played
Big B tenor similar to the one played by Sonny Rollins

The 400

At the end of WWII Buescher commemorated it with the production of the 400 line.  Its model run continued until the 1970's, but the best and most sought-after models are the first and second series, with a Top Hat and Cane engraving.  It also featured bell keys that were positioned to the rear of the bell, rather than to the left side like other American saxophones, or to the right like Selmer.  The bell flare was also larger than any other saxophone, the prototype to many modern saxophones today.  It also sported an underslung octave key similar to the King Super 20.  Johnny Hodges had a custom-made model with more elaborate engraving on the bell and neck. 
Johnny Hodges with his Buescher 400 THC alto
Buescher 400 THC tenor

The 400 series has one of the smoothest, fullest tones of any saxophone I've played.  I'll go so far as to say it has one of the sexiest tones of any saxophone I've ever played. 


King saxophones, as well as their other brass and wind instruments were manufactured by the H.N. White Company of Cleveland, Ohio.  Later on, they moved production to Eastlake, Ohio, but it is the King Cleveland made saxophones which are considered the best.  Though they made saxophones early on, it wasn't until they made the King Zephyr in the 1930's that they made any saxophones of consequence.  The Zephyr and the Super 20 are saxophones with big, bright sounds that are considered the epitome of a modern jazz sound.  The Super 20, which followed the Zephyr and which was basically a Zephyr with an improved mechanism and ergonomics is still one of the most popular vintage saxophones, with a market value second only to the Selmer Mark VI and Balanced and Super Balanced Action saxophones.  Zephyr Specials and early Super 20's have elaborate engraving on the bell and keys, and pearls riveted to the key touches.  They also featured an underslung octave key.  Later models would use the standard top octave key.  The most popular and the most sought-after are the SilverSonic models, with sterling silver neck and bell.  The Super 20 was not only used by notable jazz players like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, James Moody and Yusef Lateef, but by many rock, blues and r&b bands of the 50's and 60's.  In the 1980's, King tried to market a Super 21 model, and several prototypes were made, but the market wasn't there so it was discontinued.
King Zephyr Special tenor saxophone
King Zephyr Special alto saxophone
Cannonball Adderley with his King Super 20 alto saxophone
King Super 20 SilverSonic tenor saxophone
King Super 21, which never took off


The Martin company was first founded in Chicago in the 1860's, but when a fire destroyed the factory, John Henry Martin moved to Elkhart, Indiana where he became a foreman for Conn.  In 1904 he once again opened his own factory in Elkhart.  Martin saxophones are sought-after collectibles, but very underrated in the vintage market, which is good for the buyer.  They are top quality vintage horns that can be had for a bargain.  Martin saxophones feature soldered tone holes, which add weight and resonance to the tone.  The tone holes on Martin saxes until the Committee II are beveled.  All Martin saxes that I've played have a rich, dark sound, great for jazz or blues.  The most popular and sought-after of the Martin saxes is the Committee III line, which simply had "The Martin" with either Alto, Tenor or Baritone engraved on the bell.  Other interesting features of the horn are improved ergonomics and an adjustable thumb-hook which moves up and down rather than side to side, which I find to be a much more practical idea than standard thumb-hooks.  They also have beautiful engraving.  In the late 50's Martin released the Magna, which was basically a standard "The Martin" with sterling silver keys, and a cross on the bell, which I guess was employed to keep vampires away when you soloed.  Art Pepper, Tex Benecke and Louis Jordan played Martin saxophones. 
"The Martin Alto"
"The Martin" Magna tenor saxophone


Selmer is simply the most popular saxophone on the planet, there is no doubt about that.  Selmer set the standard for ergonomic design when the Balanced Action was introduced in 1936.  In the 1940's the Super  Balanced Action set the bar further, and then with the Mark VI, created the most sought-after vintage saxophone on the market. 
Selmer Super Balanced Action alto saxophone

Just about every major player in the world is using or has used a Selmer Mark VI at some point.  It has been called the greatest saxophone ever made, the Rolls-Royce of saxophones.  The reason for its success is due to the balance of its ergonomics and sound.  It has a homogenous, slightly dark tone, that can however be shaped by the player, making it a very versatile horn, and balanced with its key ergonomics, made it the most popular saxophone, the most sought after ever made.  Its design is now pretty much standard for all modern horns made by manufacturers around the world.  Its homogenous but flexible tone lends itself to studio and ensemble work, and just about every jazz player seems to have one.  It was designed partly by Marcel Mule, the eminent classical saxophonist.  Yet it was never embraced by the classical players to the extant it has with jazz and rock players.  Now in my experience, I've played literally hundreds of Mark VI's, and there are large inconsistencies from one to another in terms of tone quality, as most saxophones are anyway. However, when you find one that sounds and feels right, you really can't go wrong. 
Selmer Mark VI alto saxophone
Selmer Mark VI with low A


Those of you who read my review of the Buffet 400 line already know the company's history, so I won't go into it here.   What I will go into is that of all manufacturers making saxophones today, Buffet has been at it the longest, building them since 1866, only 20 years after Adolphe Sax patented his invention.  They make what are probably the most popular clarinets in the world.  However, for some reason, their saxophones never achieved the recognition or respect of some other makers.  This is odd considering that they made and continue to make some of the best saxophones on the market.  In fact, the Dynaction, Super Dynaction and S-1 models are said to have even smoother key work than a Selmer, excellent build quality and beautiful complex tone.  Perhaps the reason they never caught on is because they have considered more of a classical instrument than a jazz sax.  The fact that they are undervalued in the marketplace means that if you want a fabulous saxophone with great ergonomics, key work and above all sound without breaking the bank as you would for a Mark VI, then you really should be on the lookout for these.  I think a little recognition and respect is due these saxophones. 
Buffet Super Dynaction tenor saxophone
Buffet S-1 alto saxophone.  The copper bell and body give it a nice warm and complex tone

There are a few other vintage horns which I tried from smaller companies like SML, Dolnet and Cuesnon.  However, I haven't played enough of them to make a fair evaluation like I have the other horns I discussed.  However, a Cuesnon alto called the Monopole came into the shop and is being sold at a student sax price.  I've been playing it and I am surprised and delighted.  It seems to combine design elements of both Conn and Selmer.  The tone is light and airy, good for those Desmondesque type solos.  In any case, this horn plays and sounds nice, and is had for a real bargain.  
Cuesnon Monopole alto saxophone
This makes me want to look more into the less known brands and play their horns.  There are no doubt some hidden treasures buried somewhere.  For the more adventurous players who are looking for a unique sax and sound, I recommend the horns I've discussed, and be willing to look outside the box.  There are gems hidden in them thar hills.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Great Vintage Saxophones Part One

If you've been following my blog, you know how much I love vintage saxophones, especially vintage American saxophones.  However I'm not limited to just those.  As I've had the opportunity to try out hundreds of saxophones, I've also played horns from not only Conn, Buescher, King, Martin, Selmer and Buffet, but some saxes from obscure or little known factories in the US and Europe.

This post features saxophones I've had the opportunity to play at some time or other, and if money was no object, which unfortunately it is, these saxophones would make up my dream collection.  Every one of the saxophones I feature were made by superior craftsmen and has its own special quality.  Some of these saxophones are famous and are highly sought after, and others are not very well known yet represent a unique voice or an excellent value if you want a vintage horn that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.  Savor and enjoy!

                                       Adolphe Sax                                  

I guess the best place to start is at the beginning.  The Saxophone was invented around 1840 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian wind and brass maker residing in Paris.   His idea was to make an instrument that combined the warmth and voice-like qualities of a woodwind instrument with the power of a brass instrument.  He based his design on the Ophicleide, an obsolete orchestral instrument which had keys like on a saxophone but used a cup mouthpiece like a brass instrument, and looked like a large Euphonium.

The original saxophones do not have the range of modern saxophones and the keys are not easy to manipulate.  The concept of sound was also different than those of modern horns.  Early Adolphe Sax horns have a very light and airy sound, no doubt as his original intention was to play classical music.  Although composers like Ravel and Goudonov were to write pieces for the saxophone, it never received a wide range acceptance in the symphony.  The saxophone was first employed by the French military, but it wasn't until it was used in jazz that it gained a wide following.

 Adolphe Sax Alto Saxophone

20 years after its invention, Buffet would be the first company after Adolphe Sax to produce saxophones, followed by Conn, Buescher, King(H.N. White), Martin and Selmer.  Throughout the years, the range of the saxophone was extended, the key work improved.  The saxophone is perhaps the most versatile of wind instruments, being used in every style of music in the world. 

For me, the vintage saxophones from the mid-twenties through the mid-sixties represent the apex of craftsmanship and sound.  Of course, modern saxophones have much improved key work, but there is something about a vintage horn that I think many modern horns cannot match.  This is not to say that there aren't any good modern horns.  Actually, at this point in time, the quality of saxophones made by the top manufacturer's of today are top-notch and are better than older saxophones in terms of overall build quality and just as good in tone quality.  They are certainly better in terms of ergonomics, intonation and playing comfort.  Even low cost student horns built today are far better than low end horns of the past, and in many cases are capable of handling a pro gig.  Nevertheless, I think that just by virtue of having been played by the musicians of the past, a vintage horn takes on a resonance accumulated through years of playing.  Also, these horns were made at a time when we lived in a less "disposable" world.  I may be romanticizing a little bit here, but every time I pick up a classic vintage horn and play, it just sings like a diva who has experienced all that life has had to offer and wants to tell us about it. 

Sometimes I pick up an old horn and wonder what stories it would tell if it could speak on its own.  Who were the men or women behind it that lent their voices to it to tell its unique story.  The people they've known, the places they've been, the happiness and heartbreak.  When I play a great vintage horn, I can hear its history and feel that in a way I'm continuing the story.  I know that when I first played the Conn 6M that my father gave me, the voice of the instrument was already the voice of experience and that I was now lending my voice and experience to it. 

Dad serenading unidentified woman circa 1949 Germany with the Conn 6M he later gave me. Actually, my mother identified her as that "whore".

The first saxophones I'll discuss were made by C.G. Conn, I guess because a Conn was also the first saxophone I ever played and owned.  I favor the models produced from the mid-twenties until the late forties, when I feel that Conn made simply the best sounding horns in the world.  I'm not being too objective here I guess.  They featured rolled tone holes, which means the lip of the tone hole is rounded and therefore gives a better seal and doesn't cut into the pad thereby extending its life.  Of course, tone and taste are subjective, but there is just something about the sound of these horns that makes me want to play them every time I see them.    

The New Wonder a.k.a. Chu Berry
The Conn New Wonder saxophones were made from around the mid-twenties until around 1929 to 30 when the transition to what would become the M series began.  They were unofficially dubbed the Chu Berry, after the tenor saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry who played with Benny Carter, among others of the time.  Actually, Chu Berry played the "Transitional" tenor, which was when Conn began slowly moving from the New Wonder to the M series.  It had some of the newer features of the M series, but still some of the keywork of the New Wonder.  He was known for a big sound, and the New Wonder definitely had that, but it could also play smooth and mellow, as Lester Young demonstrated.  Pres continued playing his New Wonder Transitional model until his death in 1959.  Personally, I think the New Wonder is one of the best sounding horns in the world.  Like the M series that would follow, it has an incredible spread of tone.  It can be played in any setting, whether it be old jazz or modern rock.  There are those that will dispute this, but I know a few players who use it for playing rock and electric blues and love it.  My friend Chuck Hancock, who plays lots of these types of gigs plays a New Wonder alto exclusively.    

My friend Chuck Hancock with his New Wonder
 Conn New Wonder Tenor with Gold Plate

Transitional Models
Starting around 1929 and continuing until around 1932 or 33, Conn was slowly evolving its saxophone line from the New Wonder to what would become the M series.  The was no clear demarcation line from the New Wonder to the M series because Conn was constantly reconfiguring its design until the M series was finalized.  Early Transitional models looked like the New Wonder, with split bell keys and the famous nail file G# key.  Gradually the bell keys were shifted to one side, the left, while retaining some of the same design characteristics of the old horn.   
Conn Transitional Tenor Saxophone with some design characteristics of a New Wonder
Conn Transitional Alto with the new design characteristics of the M but with the G# to Bb cluster of the New Wonder.  Note the underslung octave key which was a feature of the M series.

The M Series

The Conn M series was at the time a leap forward in saxophone design.  The key work was fast and slick for its day, and as far as I'm concerned it still is, though it would be harder for a player used to modern saxes to become adjusted to. Then of course there is that big Conn sound.  As far as my experience goes, it is the most versatile horn.  It sings like a woman begging for your love and then can scream like a banshee when you put the whip to its backside, and do everything else in-between.  The 6M alto, 10M tenor and 12M baritone saxes are among the best vintage horns in the world.  They are famously known as "The Naked Lady" horns because of the engraving of a semi-nude woman on the bell. 
Conn 6M Alto
 Conn 10M Tenor with silver plate and gold bell
Conn 12M Baritone
 Me playing the Conn 6M at the Blue Note circa 1990

These would be followed by the 26M alto and 30M tenor saxophones, which featured more elaborate engraving, improved ergonomics by shifting the G# to Bb cluster to the right front for a more natural hand position and the Permajust system, which allowed keeping the saxophone keys regulated without the use of felt or cork which would compact or wear out with use and throw the keys out of regulation.  This was the most ergonomic sax available until Selmer released the Balanced Action a year later. 
Conn 26M Alto Saxophone with New York neck
Conn 30M Tenor Saxophone
 The famous Conn Naked Lady

In part two, I'll discuss saxophones made by Buescher, King, Martin and of course Selmer.  Stay tuned!


Monday, January 3, 2011

What Ever Happened To Melody?

I've been listening to a lot of music lately, old and new.  I listen to all kinds of music, and I have a very eclectic collection of musical styles and genres in my music library.  However, the majority of music in that library is jazz, which I guess is understandable considering that I play saxophone, and the majority of music for the saxophone is in jazz.  However, what makes any music great, at least in my opinion is the presence of a very beautiful and recognizable melody, or at least a melody in general.

In the last 20 years at least, the music I've been hearing, whether jazz or pop seems to lack a melody that is recognizable.  In jazz, many players just play chords and scales in rapid succession, and pop music has so many songs with a very bland "melody", a song that has a generic quality to it, but no real original melody that would stick with you subconsciously.  It's just a song played over a typical major chord without much deviance.  Pop ballads all seem to sound the same, and the rest of popular music just repeats the same tired old formula that has been overused. 

In jazz, there are so many players these days who have developed amazing chops.  They can play every variation of every scale and chord that exists.  They can fire off at rapid speed those scales and chords at a pace that players didn't do years ago.  They know every Dizzy, Bird or Coltrane solo backwards and forwards.  So what's the problem?

The problem is that they forgot how to play a simple tune.  Actually, a simple tune in reality is not so simple to play.  I have not heard too many modern players who can take a melody, a song, and play it with soul and feeling.  The focus seems to be on harmonizing and re-harmonizing, but the song gets lost, or else the focus of the player seems to be on how good his/her chops are, but not really about the tune.  My opinion is this, if you're playing a tune then the way you play should be about the tune.  Any embellishments are about enhancing the tune, not about showing the world what amazing chops you have.

My favorite players have always played the tunes with soul and feeling.  They could also demonstrate amazing chops when they played those tunes or improvised on an extended jam.  However they all chose to play in a way that demonstrated beauty and artistry.  Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, James Moody, Charlie Parker and the list goes on.  These were players who were masters of their craft.  They could do anything, but they chose to play melodically, because it's always about the song.  Even when they embellished the tune with new and interesting harmonies, they did it with the song in mind. 

When I first began learning the saxophone, my first teacher was my father.  He laid the basis for everything I was to learn later.  His first lesson to me was in developing a tone, a sound.  He told me that my sound was the most important aspect to develop.  Next was learning the tunes.  I must know the tunes.  Later on, when I studied with Lee Konitz, he reiterated that point.  Know the tunes.  If you don't really know the song, then any re-harmonizing of that song that you do will have no real meaning.  It just becomes a mathematical exercise. In math, numbers always add up the same way, no matter how many ways you divide or multiply it.  In music, nothing is different as far as rhythm goes.  All rhythms are mathematical equations.  They all obey the same laws.  If you stick to the laws of math, you'll get math.  That is fine, but in music, there is one more equation which changes music from mere mathematics to the expression of human emotions.  That equation is melody.

A melody is an expression of our emotions.  A melody is words, sung or unsung, and words convey meaning and expression.  One of the reasons we admire so many singers is because they express with their voices the range of human emotions in song.  The best instrumentalist do the same on their instruments.  Music is a language, but a language that is understood by people that cross cultures and nationalities.  Music comes from within, or it least it's supposed to, as all art should. 

In jazz, I've been hearing too many players who have complete technical mastery of their instruments.  They know every chord and scale and their variations, and when they play they throw it all out there, yet they still cannot simply play the song.  It really isn't easy playing a simple melody with feeling and fullness of tone.  In fact, in my opinion, it's the hardest thing to do, because you can't hide behind the technical flash. Every note has to count, and that doesn't necessarily mean a million notes played in rapid succession.   

The best example I can give to what I'm talking about is to listen to Johnny Hodges play "Prelude To A Kiss" from the Ellington Indigos album.  In this recording, Johnny Hodges plays, IMHO, one of the lushest, most beautiful melodies ever played on a saxophone.  He explores every nuance of the tune, plays with amazing technical facility, yet never ever loses sight of the song.  He displays total command of his instrument.  Everything he does just adds beauty to the tune.
So many modern players should learn from this.  I have, and one day I hope to be able to do something with this much beauty and ability.I'm working on it.  I hope you will too!