Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review: Buffet 400 Alto Saxophone Matte Finish

Two years ago (July 10, 2010) I wrote my original review of the Buffet 400 alto saxophone.  You also know how much I really liked the horn and gave it a rave review.  At the time, I spent the better part of two weeks playing both the matte finish and the gold lacquer horns, and was quite impressed with them, though I favored the matte finish, not just for its aesthetics, but I like a darker sound to my alto that I can also push and give a little more "edge" if I wanted to, without getting a thin or shrill tone.  Of course, tone quality is subjective, and is the result of the player and their set-up, mouthpiece, reed, ligature, and a matter of individual taste, both from the point of view of the player and the listener.

You may wonder why I'm writing another review if I already wrote one and gave it a thumbs up.  Well, lately I've had the chance to spend a lot more time with a matte finish alto than I did the last time, and so it has given me a chance to really explore this horn and see what it is really capable of, and also whether after two years, I would still feel the same.  I haven't been able to play any more Buffet 400's since my last review because I moved from one store location to another, and the new location dealt more with students than professionals, and so we had mostly lower end horns.  After I became department manager, I was able to get an inventory of better quality horns.  Among them were the Buffet 400 alto and tenor matte finish saxophones.  When I took out both horns to put on display, I went through the basic testing of keys and how they sound.  They were good out of the case, and they looked great on the wall, adding a bit of class to my display.  However, I just couldn't seem to keep my hands off the alto.  Every moment I had down time, I took advantage of it to play.  So I felt that a new review based on the extended time I've had to play has been able to broaden my perspective of this horn.  

It still comes inside that excellent blue case with the Buffet-Crampon logo embroidered in gold stitching, and with extra large pockets that can easily hold books and accessories.

Once again, and I think this is particularly true of the matte finish horn, when you open the case and see it the first time, it is a striking looking saxophone.  Beautiful but understated engraving can be found all over the sax, bell, bow, key cups, body and neck, giving it a very classy appearance. The matte finish is applied evenly and beautifully all over the horn, with dark spots near key cups and touches to give it more of that vintage, worn look.  The finish itself was evenly applied, and I didn't find any uneven spots.  There is something to be said for this, especially when I saw a couple of Selmer Reference 54's that had uneven lacquer blobs near the key posts, and a Reference 54 matte finish alto fresh out of the case that looked as if there were brush scratches on the bell, and these horns go for three times what the Buffet 400 goes for.  Inspecting the keys, they are solidly soldered on, and are weighty and strong, definitely not flimsy, and I didn't find any solder blobs or see any ribs, posts or keys that weren't correctly positioned,  as I have found on a couple of P. Mauriats and Cannonballs.

One of the things that I have found with the Buffet 400, at least thus far, is that it plays well right out of the box.  Of course I always recommend a professional set-up by an experienced technician, but the fact that every Buffet 400 I have played right out of the box responded immediately is significant.  With the exception of perhaps Yamaha, every other more expensive brand needed some form of adjustment or leak sealed before it would play properly.  Again, I find this rather significant for a saxophone that goes for far less than these others. The keys just snap into place, and the bell keys have double arms for a tighter seal, which none of the big 4 have.  The key pearls are not real pearls, but so what?  They still look nice, and they are concaved differently than other keys.  Deeper but not as wide, which somehow makes my fingers feel as if they are going to stay there and not slip, which also means my fingers will move less and respond faster.  I'm not sure if the key pearls were designed with this in mind, but it works that way for me, and I'm sure others who play this horn may feel the same.  The ergonomics are what you would expect of a modern horn.  I have read a couple of reviews that stated that they thought the G#, C#, B, Bb cluster was a little further than they liked, but I had no problem.  I liked the distance between keys.  For large hands like mine, they were in a good position.  I had no problem reaching any of the keys.

The thing you'll notice when you pick up any one of these saxes is the weight.  If you're a baritone player, you better get a harness. These are heavy horns, definitely heavier than than any horn in its class, with maybe P. Mauriat coming closest in that department.  However I give the edge to the Buffet on the solid feel of its key posts over the Mauriat, which in my experience, bend easier when you squeeze them.  At its price point this is again significant.  This is a solidly built horn that feels like it will stand up to countless gigs and nights on the road, and be ready to play when you are. That's a lot more than I can say for some horns that cost more.  The body to bell brace is definitely the heaviest I've seen on any saxophone at any price.  It is not just a ring like other brands, including the big 4 saxes, but is thick and solid, with heavy posts and screws at three points to connect the brace to the body and bell, and the Buffet-Crampon logo is raised and gives it an attractive appearance.
With the weight of this sax and its overall solid feel, it can probably take a little punishment better than your average saxophone, though I don't recommend trying it to see if it's so.  However, as stated above, it feels like it will serve its owner for a long, long time.  So on build quality, finish and key work, I would rate the Buffet 400 up there with the best of them. 

Now comes the meat and potatoes of the saxophone, for me anyway, and that is the sound.  The very first time I played the Buffet 400 two years ago, the biggest surprise I had was in the sound.  I did expect a rather generic saxophone sound at best, and at worst, a sound that would be found on a student level horn, from okay to terrible.  Keep in mind that knowing these horns were made in China still colored the way I approached it.  The first hurdle in dissipating and eliminating my prejudice about a sax built in China was the build quality, key response and finish quality.  It passed the first test.  Now actually playing it.  It passed that test too, but now I would have more time with it than before and I relished it.

What can I say that I haven't already said in my last review?  Actually, plenty.  I have played quite a number of Selmer, P. Mauriat, Yamaha, Yanigasawa and Keilwerth saxophones and liked them all.  In fact, when I tried the new editions of Selmer Reference 54 saxophones last November, I was really enamored with them, and loved them, thought they were the best ever.  I didn't have six grand though, so I had to forget about it anyway.  Then the Buffet 400 matte finish alto came into my shop and once again I could re-evaluate it against all the other horns I played since the last time I played one, and so the reason for this new review.  I could see if the horn still held up to the others, like I thought the last time. 

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised after my last review about the sound of this saxophone, but I still was.  I used my usual set-up of a Meyer 6M mouthpiece with a LaVoz medium reed and also used a LeGere Signature Series 2 1/2 synthetic reed as well for contrast, and the Rovner Dark ligature.  With my LaVoz reed in place first, the very first notes that came out were powerful, yet not booming loud, like some Mauriats, and gave me more control, or so I thought, of the dynamics of the horn.  Its sound is lush and full, with just enough resistance to control the tone, good for classical, yet free blowing enough to swoop and swirl the notes for jazz playing.  A very versatile saxophone from the get-go.  The matte finish horn is initially dark, which I like, but if I push it, it can play brighter, yet not have what I call that buzzy edge, or ever get thin or shrill at the top which makes my ears ring, even when playing altissimo.  Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning, tone is subjective, but to my ears and taste, this horn provided me with exactly all the qualities I look for in a saxophone. I especially love playing ballads, because besides the beautiful melodies, playing them means you have to have control of your tone and technique.  You can't make mistakes, and if the horn has bad intonation (or the player is bad), then the sour notes will stand out like a giant pimple on the tip of the nose.  The scale of the Buffet 400 is at least as good as any horn that costs more, and better than some.  The sound of the horn along with its intonation made playing ballads such an intense pleasure.  This horn has a voice and it can sing!  As good a sound as you can get from a saxophone at any price.  

I switched to the LeGere reed, and the tone was just a tad brighter, but it was still rich and full.  From the bottom of the scale to the top, it had great intonation and tone, with what are to me the usual culprits, transitioning from middle C up to middle D for example, and I found that low D, which is generally sharp  played better than any saxophone I've played, and while that's not a big deal in general, the price point of this saxophone makes it a big deal to me.  However, the overall tone and the flexibility of its tone is as good or better than most horns at a higher price.  Actually, it is at least equal to all of the most expensive horns I've played.  That's saying quite a lot for a saxophone that comes in at around $1850.00.  Its closest competitor price wise is at least $300.00 more, and then the big boys are a thousand plus bucks more, but you still won't get more horn, just the prestigious name.  Wait!  Buffet-Crampon is a prestigious name.  So what's holding you back from at least trying these horns?  You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was and continue to be.

Here is Matt Vance demonstrating the Buffet 400 alto with matte finish

Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: P. Mauriat Saxophones

I was in the hospital recently and underwent two surgical procedures.  I won't go into detail, as this really wouldn't be the place for it, but I have some time off for recovery as I mend and this now gives me a little time to get back to this blog and post this review which I began before going into the hospital.  

Over the last few years, I've had the opportunity to play and get familiar with P. Mauriat saxophones.  The first time I heard of them, I was living in Tokyo and went down to the music store district called Ochanomizu.  It is to Tokyo what W. 48th Street used to be in New York City before the Rockefellers took over the block.  Now there's only Sam Ash and a couple of smaller music stores, and from what I understand, the Rockefellers are going to raze the rest of the block and all the stores have to move. (Note: Since I wrote this, the stores are gone now).  The end of an era.  Anyway, I looked at all the stores that sold saxophones and found a small one located in a basement store that had some P. Mauriat saxophones.  They had four P. Mauriat saxophones, two altos and two tenors, all with the matte finish.  One alto and tenor were the 67R and 66R respectively, and the other two were the System 76's.  I was intrigued by the look.  Selmer already had matte finished saxophones in their Reference series, but this matte finish was darker, made to look like an old, well played horn.  Some people don't like it, but I do.  However, I didn't have my mouthpiece with me so I didn't try them.  

The thing that most interested me in the 67R and the 66R were the fact that they had rolled tone holes, rolled from the existing metal like my old Conn, and unlike the Keilwerth saxophones, where tone hole rings are soldered to the tone hole.  Keilwerth's philosophy is that should the tone hole get damaged, it's easier to remove the ring and fix and level the tone hole.  However, I have heard from some Keilwerth owners that the ring can warp and be uneven, or someone at the factory didn't place the ring perfectly flat, and then of course you will have a leak in the horn.  For those who don't know what a rolled tone hole is, it simply is that the lip of the tone hole is rolled so that the edges of the tone hole are rounded.  In my opinion, if the tone hole is properly rolled and leveled, the seal is better and the pads last longer.  I know from my old Conn that I had fewer pad jobs than friends who played saxes with flat tone holes.  I also feel, and again, it's just my opinion that the rolled tone holes of my Conn did something for its projection.  Smaller in body size and bell diameter than modern horns, the Conn still had a powerful tone.  Stephen Howard, on his sax review UK website also felt that the rolled tone holes made a difference between Conns produced up to 1947, when the rolled tone holes were discontinued, and the ones produced after that.  For his review of the Conn 6M alto and 10M tenor go to 

The first week after returning to New York City from Japan, I stopped into a local music store where I would end up eventually working, and tried the 67R alto with the matte finish.  This time I had my mouthpiece with me.  I took it into the tryout room and commenced.  The first tune I decided to play was "I Should Care", then "The Nearness Of You", and some random blues.  Unlike a lot of players when they try out saxophones, I prefer to start with ballads and slow blues, where the sound, the tone is very important.  The meat of the horn so to speak.  I will know more about the horn from digging into its tonal capabilities than by ripping out fast scales, which just about every player who tries out saxes in my store seems to do. Playing fast certainly gives you an idea how well balanced and solid the keys are or not, but not about the sound.  To me, sound is always the first consideration.

Like all modern saxophones these days, the P. Mauriat is patterned on the Selmer platform.  However, that's where any similarity ends. More on that later.  My initial impression was good, but I felt I needed more time with it to get used to the keys and the feel and sound.  I would have to return and try it some more.  However, as things turned out, I got a job with the music store and would have lots of time and opportunity to try out several models in the P. Mauriat line.  By having access to the other major brands like Selmer, Keilwerth, Yanigasawa and Yamaha, I could make side by side comparisons.  I also was able to make side by side comparisons to vintage horns that we had in stock, like the Selmer Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action and Mark VI, Conn New Wonder a.k.a. Chu Berry, 6M and 10M, Martin Handcraft and Committee models, Buescher TruTone, Aristocrat and 400 and King Zephyr and Super 20. This was going to be fun.

The bell says P. Mauriat, named after the French orchestra leader Paul Mauriat who never actually played the saxophone and had a hit in the sixties with his version of "Love Is Blue".  Under the name, it says Paris, and some models add New York, London and Tokyo.  This is misleading because the saxophones are actually produced in Taiwan.  However, I feel this was a smart move on the part of Alex Hsieh, the founder and president of the company.  Until P. Mauriat saxophones entered the market, saxophones made in Taiwan were considered at best only fair, and at worst as bad as instruments made in China.  However, having lived in Taiwan at the beginning of the new millenium, I saw that at some point, the quality and the perception of saxophones and other instruments made in Taiwan would eventually change.  After all, at one time anything made in Japan was considered junk, but now Yamaha and Yanigasawa make some of the best saxophones in the world.  Taiwan has modern factories, and I know from having lived there that the people are very hard working and conscientious.  Anyway, having Paris, New York, London and Tokyo on the bell initially gave players the perception that it was an international company, and the quality would be better.

The concept for P. Mauriat started when Alex Hsieh came to the US to study saxophone with Roger Greenberg,  a member of the Harvey Pittel Saxophone Quartet and professor of saxophone at the University of Colorado.  Alex loves the saxophone, and was already building them in Taiwan before coming to study with Roger.  At one point, and I got this from Roger Greenberg himself, he mentioned to Alex that he wished someone would produce a saxophone with modern ergonomics, but with metals and a sound that harkened back to not just a Selmer Mark VI or Balanced Action, but also with attributes of the classic old American horns like Conn, Buescher, King and Martin.  This would result in the P. Mauriat brand.  Unlike many factories in Taiwan and China that build saxophones for anyone and then stamp them with whatever company or brand name that will distribute them, Alex's company, Albest Musical Instruments would now dedicate themselves to making a single brand.  Doing so would give the horn an identity, which is necessary if you're going to break into the marketplace.  Roger Greenberg set up Monteverde Music to distribute the brand in the US.  Roger eventually retired a few years ago, and now the brand is distributed in the US by St. Louis Music.  The Big 4, Selmer, Keilwerth, Yamaha and Yanigasawa up to this point had a corner on the professional and intermediate market.  Keilwerth almost went bankrupt until bought by The Buffet Group, which has breathed some new life into the brand.

P. Mauriat has managed, in the relatively very short time they have been on the market, to become a serious player, no pun intended, in the saxophone world.  They did this by first making a quality horn with a great sound.  Sure, the early models had some kinks, like uneven keywork, but the saxes have gone through consistent improvement over the years, and now P. Mauriat has taken its place as one of the best saxophones in the world.  Some of the best players in the world today are playing these fine horns.  My friends Keyan Williams and James Carter, and also Greg Osby and Hamiett Bluiett among others, and the list keeps growing.  Alex Hsieh also carefully listens to feedback from the pros, and makes improvements or introduces new models based on these suggestions.
My friend Keyan Williams with his P. Mauriat 60NS Tenor Saxophone

One time I mentioned to Alex that I wished that they made a sax like my old Conn with a brushed silver bell and body and a gold bell.  He responded that he could build a sax with any finish.  Not even a year later he came out with the PM87.  I don't think it had anything to do with my suggestion as I'm not a player of note, at least not yet, but it's nice to know that he's willing to be different than the other manufacturers.
PM87 Alto

Since returning from Japan five years ago and working in the music store, I've had ample opportunity to play several models in the P. Mauriat line.  My reviews here will concern only the models I've played extensively.  Some models I tried on a limited basis and will include them here with my impressions. I wish I could try them all, and will whenever I return to Taiwan and visit the P. Mauriat factory and showroom in Taipei.  These will do for now, but it should give you a good idea into the brand and why you should consider it seriously whether you are a working musician or a college student in school band or orchestra.  

The very first P. Mauriat saxophone I played was the PM67R alto with the vintage matte lacquer and rolled tone holes.  It is still the one that I play as often as possible.
PM67R Alto Vintage Matte Lacquer
PM66R Tenor Vintage Matte Lacquer

I like the sound of my alto to be initially a little dark, but that I could also push to a brighter tone without getting shrill or edgy, and this horn can do it.  This can be used for classical playing and jazz in equal measure.  This saxophone also has a wide tonal palette.  It is a beefy horn when you want it to be, can harumph and growl, but then sings sweetly when you want to.  I find this horn especially good for ballads and blues, because of its vocal quality and because of the balanced scale.  It plays as well in tune as any horn could.  Altissimo is easy on this horn and all the P. Mauriats I've tried.  This, along with the 66R tenor are the best selling models in the P. Mauriat line, and with good reason.  Whatever you can do with a saxophone, you can do with this one.  This horn has great tone shaping capabilities, much like the Conn 6M or Selmer Mark VI.  Maybe it was the rolled tone holes, or maybe it was just in my head, but I felt I was playing a well-seasoned old Conn as far as the sound went.  The PM66R Tenor is really one of the best tenor saxophones out there in my mind.  This tenor has a really beefy tone, but without getting tubby, but like the alto version, you can really push this baby and create a wide tonal palette.  Altissimo is easy, the scale is well-balanced.  If it's a vintage sound you're looking for, this horn has it.  You can invoke any number of the great tenors of the past like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon. 

One thing you'll notice when you pick up one of these horns is the weight.  These are heavy, solid instruments.  Nothing shoddy here.  If you play the tenor or baritone, I strongly suggest you employ a harness over a regular neck strap to avoid neck strain from the weight of these horns.  I did have a few complaints about some of the earlier models as far as keywork was concerned.  Some of the keys were uneven, and I would see an occasional tiny solder blob where the post was attached to the body.  Even with newer horns, I sometimes find the keywork a little spongy, the rods a little easy to bend.  That's my main complaint about the horn. Of course, I always recommend that you get the horn properly set up and tweaked before taking it to a gig. The ergonomics are what you expect to find on a modern horn.  Keys fit under the fingers, though with the G# to Bb cluster I felt I had to stretch my pinky a little more to get to Bb, and I do not have small hands.  However, after working with it for a time I got used to it and it was no longer an issue.

A couple of anecdotes about these horns before I move on.  In one instance, this family came in from Israel to buy their son a professional saxophone as he had gotten quite good, and the cost of the same saxophone in Israel is more than double what it costs in the US.  He had his eyes on either a Selmer or Yamaha, including a Mark VI if we had one, and we had a couple.  The cost was no longer an issue because whatever it was, it would be far less than they could get it there, if they could even find it.  He tried every Selmer alto we had, Series II and III, a Reference 54 and the two Mark VI's we had, as well as every Yamaha except the YAS23 and YAS475, and a Yanigasawa 992.  He wasn't so happy with any of them.  Up to now he never heard of P. Mauriat, so I suggested he try the 67R matte finish horn.  He was intrigued by the finish, and thought why not?  I gave him the horn, and as soon as he blew the first notes into it, a smile broke out on his face and his eyes widened, and even his family reacted with an "aah".  He was surprised, as is just about any player unfamiliar with the brand was when they tried it for the first time.  It was selling for $600 less than the closest competitor, and over a thousand less than a comparable Selmer.  Sold!

Next was a player who came into the store one day carrying his Mark VI tenor.  He had the horn recently overhauled, and in his mind up to this point, there was nothing better than his old Mark VI.  However, he worked in a big band, and the second tenor was playing a P. Mauriat 66R matte finish tenor, and had told this player that he loved the horn and he should just try it.  So, this player told me all he wanted to do was try the horn, not in the market to buy, just to see what his bandmate was talking about.  I gave him the horn, and he disappeared into the tryout room.  He was gone a good 90 minutes.  He comes out with an almost sheepish look to his face, and asked me if I would be willing to make a trade on a Mark VI so he could have this tenor.  He told me he was shocked at how powerful and clean the tone was, how the notes just popped out of the horn effortlessly, how he could get a "range" that he said he couldn't get on his Mark VI, which was what really shocked him.  He was taking so long because he kept playing each horn side by side, until he was firmly convinced that this saxophone was better than his beloved old Mark VI.  He couldn't believe it but accepted the fact, and we made an even trade.  He has since reported that he has been extremely happy with the horn over the long haul, playing at all the gigs he plays.  He was a convert.

PM67RUL Alto Unlacquered
PM66Rul Tenor Unlacquered

The 67RUL Alto and 66RUL Tenor saxophones are the same as the 67R and 66R, but with no lacquer at all, just bare brass.  This means that over time, the brass will oxidize and turn yellow, brown and green.  This is not rust, as brass doesn't rust, and in no way affects the sound quality.  The role of lacquer is to keep the brass looking shiny and from oxidizing.  However, as you can see on many old lacquered saxophones, once you get a chip in the lacquer, or on saxophones where the engraving is done after the lacquer is applied, moisture gets into the open spaces and eventually more and more of the lacquer flakes off.  This doesn't make the horn look good, but it in no way effects the sound, so many players opt not to relacquer the horn, which I also recommend not to do.  Relacquering will reduce the value of your instrument if you put it on the market as well.  So one of the newer trends in modern saxophone production along with matte lacquer to give the horn an old look, is to have no lacquer at all, just bare brass.  Many players swear that this opens up the sound, whatever that's supposed to mean, because there is no lacquer to hinder the resonance of the horn.  Actually, the lacquer is really too thin to actually "hinder" the resonance", but then who am I to argue? 

At any rate, I do find the 67RUL and the 66RUL to be free blowing horns with a slightly brighter tone than the matte lacquer finish, but it's basically the same.  You still have a wide tonal palette, good scale and ergonomics and almost effortless altissimo.  Characteristics any good horn should have, and this horn has them.  Another anecdote similar to the ones above was the time a gentleman residing in Arlington VA, near DC came into the shop.  He was a director for the Marine Band for over 30 years and was now retired.  He now led a small jazz combo doing weekend gigs in a local venue, and was looking for a new Selmer tenor.  He already had a Mark VI (doesn't everyone?) but was now interested in a Series II or III, and the Reference 54 and 36 tenors.  We had at the time a Series II and III in gold lacquer, a Series II with black lacquer and a series III with silver plate, and one Reference 36 in gold lacquer.  He spent quite a bit of time trying these horns, because he was determined to go home with a new tenor.  He handed back the last Selmer he tried, but wasn't convinced.  He next tried the Keilwerth SX90R with black lacquer that we had.  Still not convinced.  Next came the Yamaha Custom Z in gold lacquer, and the Yamaha 875EX with black lacquer.  Still not convinced.  Of course, not wanting to see a sale go out the door, I pointed to the PM66RUL and suggested he try it.  Like many before him, he was unfamiliar with P.Mauriat, and when he saw that the price was below the other brands, he was skeptical but would give it a try anyway.  He disappeared for close to an hour.  When he returned, he had a big smile on his face, as well as expressing complete surprise.  He said he couldn't believe it, but this sax had everything he was looking for in feel and sound, and he liked the look of bare brass.  Sold!  He has also called me back on several occasions to tell me how happy he is with the horn. 

PMSystem76 Soprano Matte Finish

I have always liked the soprano sax, and my store always had an ample supply of them for me to try.  The thing about a soprano is that intonation is always a little tricky, the mouthpiece smaller than a clarinet making the emboucher tighter, and is just the nature of the beast, and though tone is always a matter of personal taste, too many players have a shrill or otherwise thin tone to my ears.  Even a couple of the greats of this instrument like Sidney Bechet or John Coltrane never sounded all that pleasant to my ears on the soprano.  Never mind the guy that is popular on the soprano today.  The soprano players that I enjoy listening to are all classical players in saxophone quartets.  When I play the soprano, I usually employ a more classical tone when playing blues or jazz.  It does work.  I tried Selmer Series II sopranos, Yamaha, and Yanigasawa curved and straight sopranos.  I really don't like curved sopranos because my fingers are just a little to fat for the tight action, so I prefer straight sopranos because the keys are more open for my hands.  Up to this point, I thought that Yanigasawa made the best sopranos.  I never liked Selmer sopranos the same as I liked the tenors and altos, Yamaha was good except for one Custom Z which I couldn't get to play in tune no matter what I did.  I had a couple of Cannonball curved sopranos, but they did nothing for me.  Enter the PMSystem76 Soprano with matte finish.  This was easily the best soprano I had yet played.  Full, rich tone, balanced scale, good feel under the fingers.  Another horn that can cross many boundaries, whether jazz, classical, pop, whatever.  I eventually sold it to a classical player who again, never heard of the brand, was looking for a new soprano to play with her sax quartet, and found it in this horn.  A common thread here is that many players never heard of the brand before trying it, and most walked away with one.  That alone can build the reputation of an instrument.
PM86RUL Soprano

I thought the PMSystem76 soprano was the best I tried until I came across the PM86RUL.  I was impressed by its striking looks.  It is unlacquered and has a beautiful brownish gold color.  However, like any sax, the proof is in the playing, not in the looks.  I've seen many a beautiful looking sax that didn't sound as good as it looked.  This is the soprano I would want to take home and to take to a gig.  The sound is rich and full, and another horn that can cross many genres of music.  It has great stage presence because of its looks and sound, but above all its sound.  I want this baby.
PM60NS Alto
PM60NS Tenor

The PM60NS alto and tenor have a brushed nickel silver finish with gold lacquer keys, making them striking looking saxes.  My friend Keyan Williams favors this model on tenor, as you can see in the photo above.  Being a mostly alto player, I tried that version of the horn.  One thing I will say about P. Mauriat that may be a negative but really isn't is that they have given me too many choices and so many great saxophones that it's often difficult to decide which one would I settle down with, or do I just take them all because they all have something special?  This horn has a brighter sound than the 67R but that's not to say that it is thin toned.  One thing I have found on all P. Mauriat horns is that no matter how bright the horn, it never gets shrill or edgy, always maintains a certain warmth and fullness of tone, and this horn is no exception.  However, this sax would definitely be more well-suited to jazz, blues, r&b. rock and pop.  Just the same, I found I could play some very lyrical tunes with this sax, as well as get a little funky if I wanted. 
PMLaBrava Alto
PMLaBrava Tenor

The P. Mauriat LaBrava is their intermediate horn but will still work well for many professionals.  The finish on the body is brushed gold lacquer, with gold lacquer keys and a nickel silver neck.  It's a no-frills horn, with no engraving, but still an attractive horn.  The tone is brighter, but again, like all P. Mauriat horns, never shrill, thin or edgy.  In case anyone needs to know what I mean by these adjectives, its a sound that doesn't make my ears ring in pain.  This horn is perfect for a student in school band looking for a step up instrument, or a pro on a budget, and really, what musician isn't really on a budget these days?  Like the PM60NS, I feel this is better suited to jazz, r&b, blues, rock and pop playing.  At its price point, you couldn't go wrong. 

I saved my favorite for last.  This is another 67R but with cognac lacquer, or a deep gold lacquer that is just a beauty to the eyes, but in terms of sound, reminds of the best Conn or Selmer I've played, and allows me to get those Benny Carter/Paul Desmond like tones I love so much.  This would be the horn of my choice.  Rich, lush tone, a wide pallette, great ergonomics and is gorgeous to look at.  It's got all the qualities that I want in a saxophone.  At first glance it looks like a Selmer Reference 54, until you see the beautiful blue/green abalone key pearls.  Like the Reference 54, it has the style and sound, but unlike the Reference 54, it doesn't have the price. 
PM67R Alto Cognac Lacquer

I love these saxophones, I make no bones about it.  I think these are among the best saxophones being made today, and many top professionals have attested to that.  I hope they can keep it up and keep producing more great horns.  Time will tell. 

Here are other models in the P. Mauriat line worthy of consideration.  Though I haven't played any of these models as extensively as the ones above, I still had a favorable first impression of them.
P. Mauriat Swing55 Alto.  Also available in a tenor version.  Copper body and neck, brass bell and keys with matte lacquer.  This is a horn that you're either going to like the looks of or not.  In terms of sound, it is reminiscent to me, of an old Buescher Aristocrat or Martin Committee II.  
PMSS601DK Soprano with matte lacquer, tipped bell, meaning that the bell is curved slightly outwards rather than being straight, and interchangeable necks, one straight, one curved.  While I personally prefer one piece straight sopranos, I liked the way this horn sounded and felt, especially with the curved neck, like playing a curved soprano that was more open in the keys for my hands.  Then of course, there is that full tone.
P. Mauriat Black Pearl Tenor, also available in an alto version.  Black nickel body with gold lacquered keys.  It is truly a beautiful looking instrument with a tone that is somewhere between a dark and bright tone.  Very centered and powerful, another great horn for jazz, blues, r&b, rock and pop. 

For more information on these excellent instruments you can visit their official website:

Here is a short video on how P. Mauriat saxophones are made:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vintage American Saxophones: Conn New Wonder, Transitional and M Series "Naked Lady"Saxophones

As those who follow my blog know, I really love vintage American saxophones, particularly those manufactured from the mid-twenties until the late 50's.  They were built by skilled craftsmen and women who plied their trade with pride.  Although the saxophone was invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian living and working in  Paris, in its infancy it was sparsely used by symphony orchestras if at all.  Composers like, Ravel, Goudonov, Bizet and Prokofiev wrote saxophone parts into some of their compositions.  Early New Orleans jazz also did not include the saxophone, the clarinet being the most commonly used wind instrument.  Much of this was probably due to the fact that as a newly invented instrument, there still weren't many musicians playing it, and that teachers were few and far between.

Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans player, was probably the first jazz saxophonist, having switched from the clarinet, the wind instrument that was common to New Orleans players of the time, to soprano sax, which he became famous for.  As the New Orleans players started moving north and spreading the music, most notably Louis Armstrong, the saxophone began appearing in jazz ensembles to the point of being an indispensable part of any modern orchestra.  When Sidney Bechet went north and was in Boston, he had a young student by the name of Johnny Hodges.  From the 1920's on, every jazz ensemble had a saxophone section, and the saxophone reigns supreme as the dominant wind instrument in jazz and popular music, and is now used more extensively in classical ensembles, particularly saxophone quartets and choirs.  The very vocal quality of the sax, and its tonal flexibility lends itself to so many genres of music. 

The first saxophone built in the US was built by Gus Buescher in 1888 when he was foreman at the Conn factory in Elkhart, Indiana.  He would later leave Conn and start the Buescher Musical Instrument Company.  The best place to start discussing American saxophones would be with Conn.  Here is the history of the Conn company, courtesy of the Conn-Selmer website.

C.G. Conn History

Young C.G. ConnC.G. Conn, the oldest continuous manufacturer of band instruments in America, literally gave birth to the U.S. band instrument manufacturing industry. Today, C.G. Conn encompasses some of the greatest names in musical instruments - C.G. Conn, King and Benge brass instruments, Artley and Armstrong woodwinds and Scherl & Roth strings. Always committed to serving the needs of students, music educators, amateurs, and professionals, C.G. Conn's storied history reflects a dedication for innovation and quest for the ultimate in design and craftsmanship - an industry leader in musical performance.
One Saturday night in 1873, Civil War veteran Charles Gerard Conn got involved in a brawl that resulted in a split lip. Not good news for a man who played cornet with the Elkhart, Indiana "Brick Brown Band." In order to get around this problem, Colonel Conn set out to perfect a special rubber-cushioned mouthpiece so he could continue playing. The new mouthpiece, which he later patented, caught the eye of other musicians. He made a few for his friends, but soon there was such a demand for his mouthpieces that he rigged up a lathe from an old sewing machine and began turning them out as fast as possible.
C.G. Conn, Middle AgedIn 1875, a French musical instrument maker named Dupont stopped by the shop and asked if he might use Conn's bench to repair some horns. After watching him work for several days, Conn decided that he, too, could make a horn. In that same year, in a closet-size shop only 20 feet square, Col. Conn produced the first American-built cornet.
By 1879 the shop moved into larger quarters, and Conn began adding instruments to his line. In 1888, Colonel Conn brought 15 European instrument craftsmen to the United States and gave them the space, the tools and the incentive to make the finest instruments their skills would allow. Their expertise, teamed with the Colonel's ingenuity and ambition, soon produced instruments so exceptional that they were accorded highest honors in the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago.
Twice the Conn plant burned to the ground. Twice it was rebuilt, bigger and better than before. Famous bandmasters and musicians visited the plant and personally endorsed "Conn Wonder Instruments." John Phillip Sousa, Patrick Gilmore, Herbert Clarke, Arthur Pryor, A. Liberati and others were frequent visitors.
The Conn Wonder CornetVaudeville was at its peak, and the theaters and music halls of Elkhart saw a steady procession of the finest bands and musicians of the day. All played the Colonel's instruments. Conn instruments - ornate and often jeweled - became world famous as Sousa and others toured Europe playing before kings, queens and czars.
The Colonel also loved strange and bizarre instruments. In 1907 he built an Immensaphone, the largest horn in the world. It measured 12 feet in diameter and 35 feet long. The Conn factory also built the world's largest drum, a slide tuba to make noises like a ship's warning whistle, tenor tubas for the jackass role in Strauss' Don Juan, and a saxophone for one-armed musician Al Miller.
Conn Factory in 1875Since the first American cornet in 1875, C.G. Conn continued producing "firsts" throughout its distinguished history: the first American saxophone, first double-bell euphonium, first sousaphone (built to the great Sousa's specifications), and a long list of many others.
In 1915, Colonel Conn sold the C.G. Conn Company to C.D. Greenleaf. Greenleaf, almost clairvoyantly, realized a need for the advancement of instrumental music in the schools. His foresight and energy continued to add to Conn's innovations. He was responsible for founding the first national school for band directors, first and only center for the study of musical acoustics, first successful short action valves, first all-electronic organ and first fiberglass sousaphones, among other legendary advancements.
Conn Factory in 1950During World War II the Conn factory was completely converted to manufacture precision instruments for defense. Conn received four Army-Navy "E" Awards - the first given in the band instrument industry. During the Korean War part of the facilities was converted to defense production, and Conn achieved another record in precision manufacturing.
Many of today's most preferred instruments owe their original success to Conn's innovation. C.G. Conn French horns, for example, have been the horn of choice for the Hollywood film industry for most of the 20th Century. C.G. Conn Symphony Series trombones have a legendary place in the classical trombone world. Today's best trumpet players are discovering the break-through performance with Vintage One trumpets. These innovative designs, enhanced by superior craftsmanship and technological breakthroughs, have provided today's musicians with the superior instrument performance.
Building on the proven designs of the past, C.G. Conn continues to meet the demands of today's best musicians. As well, amateur and student musicians can enjoy the very best in instrument technology and performance with brass instruments and saxophones from C.G. Conn.

Conn Saxophones

Although the first saxophone built by Conn was in 1888, I feel the best of them were built from the 1920's until the 1950's.  This is just my opinion, but it is shared by a few other musicians who love Conn saxophones, and are the ones most collected and played by vintage sax enthusiasts today.

The New Wonder Series II a.k.a. Chu Berry

Starting around 1923 or so, these models were an improvement over the previous New Wonder Series I and Worcester models, and came to define the jazz and big band saxophone sound of the time.  The Chu Berry designation was never an official one, and in fact, Chu Berry actually played a later transitional model.  Features included rolled tone holes, which Conn began using on their saxophones starting around 1915 or so, the "nail file" G# key, split bell keys, meaning that the B and Bb keys are on opposite sides of one another on the bell rather than on the same side as later models and on modern saxophones today.  Many of the saxes were elaborately engraved and had luxurious finishes, silver plate with gold washed bells being the most common, as well as gold plating, and sometimes a combination of the two.  Another variation of the New Wonder was the Virtuoso Deluxe, which had elaborate engraving all over the horn, and every key touch was inlaid with pearl.  They came only in gold and silver plate. 

These horns have a big and rich sound, but some modern players complain that the intonation is sketchy.  However, keep in mind that if you use the larger chambered mouthpieces used at the time or its modern counterpart, rather than a modern mouthpiece used on modern saxophones, intonation should not be a problem.  Vintage Conn saxophones are a bit temperamental when it comes to mouthpieces.  My friends Chuck Hancock and Elery Eskelin both play Conn New Wonder saxophones, alto and tenor respectively, and just love them.  Chuck won't play anything else.  Elery has several vintage horns, and aside form the New Wonder, also has a Buescher Aristocrat and a Conn 10M, all of which he plays at his gigs.  They both agree that you can't beat the sound of these old horns.

One thing to keep in mind, up until the 1940, Conn saxophones were manufactured in both high and low pitch.  You can tell by looking where the serial and model number is, and seeing either the H or L underneath.  Low pitch is the standard in the orchestra, being A=440hz., while high pitch is around 442hz.  Choose the horns with the L underneath the serial number. 

New Wonder Series II Saxophones

Conn New Wonder Tenor Gold Plate

New Wonder Nail File G# Key and Pinky Cluster

New Wonder Virtuoso Deluxe Tenor Gold Plated

Virtuoso Deluxe Pearl Inlaid Keys

 My father with a New Wonder alto

New Wonder Engravings 

There was a standard engraving on most models, but many models featured different engraving designs unique to the individual saxophone. 

Transitional Models

Starting in 1930, Conn began slowly redesigning the mechanism and other aspects of their saxophones culminating with the M series saxophones in 1935, arguably one of the greatest saxophone lines ever produced, though I wouldn't argue that.  To me, the M series saxophones are among the best saxophones I've ever played, a combination of pure craftsmanship, sound and ease of facility.  They are legendary saxophones, right up there with the Selmer Mark VI as far as I'm concerned.  The early transitional models, while keeping some of the older designs of the New Wonder series like rolled tone-holes, nail file G# key cluster and the micro-tuner and split bell-keys, added improvements in the mechanism like the underslung octave key to prevent it from being damaged whenever the neck was put on or removed, the low C#, B and Bb keys could now open the G# pad, the high E key gained a curve to make it easier to manipulate, the neck tenon gained an extra skirt in order to eliminate the buzzy A and to create a better seal, and a swivel thumbrest, and most keys repositioned for greater playing comfort.  As the saxes continued to evolve, the bell-keys were moved to one side of the horn, the G# to Bb cluster was completely redesigned, until it became the famous "Naked Lady" saxophone that many vintage sax lovers covet.  
Transitional tenor with art deco engraving with split bell-keys and nail file G# key cluster

Close-up of art deco engraving

Transitional alto 1932.  It now has the characteristics of the M series, same side bell-keys and underslung octave key, but still retaining the nail file G# pinky key cluster

Transitional alto 1933 with all of the characteristics of the M series

The M Series a.k.a. "Naked Lady" 
The famous "Naked Lady" engraving

By 1935 the transition from New Wonder to the M series was complete.  The M series featured a much improved keywork which was lightning fast.  While some who play Mark VI's and more modern horns may not think much of the ergonomics, I personally feel that the layout is very conducive to rapid execution of musical phrases, and in fact, though the position of the G# key cluster is different than on modern horns, I feel it is far more efficient than modern pinky keys based on the Selmer design especially when playing chromatic scales.  On a modern horn you always have to shift your pinky down in order to execute a low Bb, but on the M series, you can simply slide your pinky straight across to reach it, as the Bb wraps around the B key.
The G# to Bb pinky keys are a wide table so the pinky really has room to move around, and with Bb extending around to the side of B, makes playing chromatics much easier.

The M series maintained the rolled tone-holes until 1947, after which the M series had flat tone-holes.  The microtuner was also discontinued some time in the early 1950's.
Charlie Parker with a Conn 6M alto
Conn 6M Alto silver plate
10M tenor lacquer
12M Baritone favored by Gerry Mulligan and Harry Carney

Also in 1935, the 26M alto and the 30M tenor were also introduced, which was basically a 6M and 10M with more elaborate engraving and featured a more ergonomically positioned G# to Bb pinky cluster, and the "Permajust" system, which allowed regulation of the keys without using felt or cork which could pack down or fall off and would need periodic replacement and instead used an adjusting screw that would keep it in regulation for far longer.  On the alto, you could opt either for a model with the underslung octave key, or the New York neck, with an overslung octave key.  The 30M tenor came with the New York neck only.  Both saxophones came with two finishes.  The lacquer finish also featured sterling silver key touches, and it came in silver plate with gold washed bell.
26M alto with silver plate and gold bell
30M tenor with gold lacquer and sterling silver key touch pieces

Generally, only the alto had the microtuner, but my father had a rare tenor with a microtuner, which he owned in the late 1940's. 
My father with a 10M tenor with microtuner.  My father exclusively played Conn saxophones when he was a professional musician.
 My father's band late 40's, with him on the right with a Conn 10M tenor
Dad serenading unidentified woman with his 6M alto late 1940's.  Actually, my mother identified her as that "whore".

Conn would eventually lose its preeminence as a builder of some of the world's best saxophones, but still has left behind a legacy of having built instruments that defined the sound of American jazz.  To conclude, here are some of the great players, aside from Charlie Parker pictured above, who played Conn saxophones in their heyday.

Benny Carter with a 26M alto with New York neck
Dexter Gordon with a 10M tenor
 Gerry Mulligan with his 12M Baritone
 Lester "Pres" Young with a New Wonder tenor
Johnny Hodges with a 6M alto
Leon "Chu" Berry with a New Wonder Transitional tenor