Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: Buffet Senzo Alto Saxophone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Saxophone Accessories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: Selmer AS42 Alto Saxophone And A Look At The Selmer Axos and Adolphe Sax Limited Edition Saxophones

Lately I've had more and more time to stop by the shop I used to work in and also to visit my repair tech friend and look at a lot of different horns and try them out, and I will be doing this as much as time allows me in order to develop more informed impressions of all the different new models of saxophones that seem to be coming out and post reviews of them here.  It is apparent from looking at my stats here that the majority of my readers are looking for information about saxophone brands and models in order to make a more informed decision as to what to buy, or at least try out before deciding to buy.  Some of my readers are in locations where there are no shops or where the shops sell cheap no-name saxophones, and so in order to acquire a decent instrument, they may have to order it online without the benefit of playing it first.  Some online sellers allow a trial period where you can spend some time with the horn and if it's not up to your standards, can be returned, though the buyer would then normally be responsible for the shipping costs and insurance in case it's damaged while in your possession.  This can be daunting, but with more and better information, I hope to help the student, the serious amateur and even the odd professional make a better choice.  

At this point in time, there are more brands and models available to the professional and amateur alike to make it confusing as to which saxophone to buy.  Currently, I would say that we are in a new Golden Age of saxophone manufacturing.  There are more choices and more new brands than there have been in many years, and this is where it becomes difficult to make decisions as to which is the best horn to buy, especially when you don't have access to a store that has a large inventory of different brands and models and a wide range of saxophones from student to professional.  With that in mind, I will be trying out as many of the newest saxophones as I can and will be posting reviews, and I hope this will assist all of you in making a better choice.  

Before I begin to review the Selmer AS42, just a word on how I review saxophones.  Many reviewers go into great detail about the mechanics, and how the transition from this note to that note was, etc.  For me, I keep it simple and direct, because that has always been my approach.  The fact that all modern saxophone design is based on the Selmer platform, every horn from an ergonomic standpoint feels pretty much the same as far as how they fit into my hands. There are some minor differences in key positions between various horns, but not enough to make a difference to me when I play.  What I will look for is key response, are the keys and posts firm and snap into action, or do they feel soft and spongy and so on.  I also look at quality control.  I look to see if keys are misaligned, solder blobs, uneven lacquer, loose screws and springs.  Of course, it's always a good idea to have a tech do a proper set up when you get the horn, but how it plays straight out of the box tells me a lot about how carefully it was looked over before being packed in the case.  However, the main point for me, as it's always been, is the sound! I realize that tone is subjective, but the sound is what is going to set your playing apart from someone else, not necessarily the flashiest technique or ability to reharmonize the hell out of everything.  If you develop a concept of what you want to sound like, and the horn you play gives you that sound, along with your mouthpiece and reed combination, then you know you've got something.  

The set up I always use for alto is a Meyer 6M mouthpiece, which I've had for nearly 25 years now, with a Rovner Dark ligature and LaVoz medium reed. For tenor I use a Jody Jazz Red 6 with the baffle removed and also with a Rovner Dark ligature with Rico Plasticover 21/2 reeds.  I don't play much tenor, but when I do, this set up works well for me.  For soprano sax I use a Jody Jazz HR 6 mouthpiece also with a Rovner ligature and a Rico Plasticover 21/2 reed.  I really barely touch the baritone, but when I do, I use an old Meyer 5 baritone mouthpiece with a LaVoz medium reed and Rovner LR ligature.  However, I barely touch the baritone because honestly, I don't get a sound I like out of it so I leave it alone most of the time. I like the sounds I get from the other saxophones, but since alto is my favorite, I tend to concentrate on that, but I play the tenor and soprano often enough to have a good feeling for them.  Other players have told me that I have a good sound on the tenor and soprano, but the few who have heard me on baritone have said, and I had to agree, that I sounded more like a fart in the wind.  Not a compliment for sure, but then I feel the same. So if and when I do a review of a baritone, please keep that in mind.  I will however work to improve my sound on that instrument.

After many years of dominating the saxophone market, Selmer faced its first real competition since the 1950's when Yamaha introduced the YAS52.  Soon, Yamaha developed a full line of saxophones, and introduced the YAS23, which became the standard for student saxophones.  Selmer had the Bundy and Bundy II, but they were made in their USA facility in Elkhart, Indiana at the old Buescher factory.  The quality of their student horns paled in comparison to the Yamaha.  Then Yamaha introduced their Custom series, again offering serious competition to their SA80 Series.  Soon, other companies like Yanigasawa, Keilwerth, and then the upstart P. Mauriat made its way into the saxophone market, offering new and innovative models that rivaled Selmer.  Professional models like the YAS62 and P.Mauriat 67R and 66R saxophones were also coming in at prices below what the cheapest Selmer Paris was going for. Selmer tried to market entry level pro and also intermediate horns from their USA facility like the Omega, but they didn't sell very well so didn't last long in the marketplace.  Soon other companies, taking advantage of the cheaper labor costs and modern factories in Asia, most notably Taiwan, followed by China, Indonesia and Vietnam, began developing intermediate and pro level horns that were far improved from earlier saxophones made in that part of the world, and at this point, can now be considered as high quality instruments.  Selmer eventually developed their line of LaVoix and LaVie saxophones made in Taiwan, and while being good saxophones, brands like Yamaha, Buffet, Cannonball, Antigua and P. Mauriat were still producing pro level saxophones that still came under the Selmer in price.  Also lately, some brands like Trevor James and Eastman, which were considered student level at best have also introduced pro level models that have gotten good reviews and have bolstered their place in the already crowded saxophone market.

Faced with all this competition, Selmer seems to now really be answering the competition.  The one thing that they have always had going for them, aside from their legacy of classic saxophones, particularly the Mark VI, is the fact that no matter which brand of saxophone is being made and no matter how good they are, they all copy their basic design and keywork from Selmer, notably the Mark VI, which really is the standard by which all other saxophones try to measure up to or surpass.  To remain competitive in a bigger market, they had to develop an entry level pro saxophone that had the same or better quality as the Yamaha 62, the P. Mauriat, the Buffet 400, the Cannonball Big Bell and Stone series, The Antigua ProOne, and more recently the Eastman 52nd Street model and the Trevor James RAW.  To make a pro level horn completely in their Paris facility would have still kept the cost above the competition, so what they did is collaborate with their USA facility, with the bell, body and keys of the AS42 manufactured in Elkhart, while Selmer Paris provided the neck, which in fact is the most important part of the saxophone.  This has resulted in the AS42.

The AS42 looks like any other modern saxophone in its price class.  There is hand engraving on the bell, and everything else is what you would expect from a modern horn in terms of keywork and design.  All the horns I test have always been set up by a tech, so they are always in prime playing condition when I try them out.  Ergonomically, everything is where it should be, like all Selmer saxophones, and the action is solid and every key snaps into place as they should, so I really don't need to go into that.  As I always say, the first consideration for me is the sound.  I always start out with a slow blues, and then a ballad like "The Nearness Of You" or "Stardust", then move into more uptempo stuff.  I found the tone to be a tad on the bright side, but without the fuzziness or thin edge.  While easy to blow, I found the horn was more focused, and altissimo was effortless.  I don't use altissimo more than I have to, because it causes my ears to ring when so many players keep going up there so often.  I use it sparingly, like my favorite players have done.  It had a good balance in the scale and the tone was easy to control.  The slightly bright tone gave me the feeling that it would be more suitable for jazz, blues, pop and rock.  This is not a classical horn in my opinion, but then I suppose with the right mouthpiece it could be, but I don't think Selmer made it or is marketing as such.  All in all, it is a very good saxophone, and while they are hyping it as the most talked about Selmer saxophone in years, it really is not any better than its competition, so whether or not you buy this might be decided on what price you can get it for.

The 2 Selmer models that I will discuss are their newest entries into the field, and while I haven't had the opportunity to try them yet, they still are deserving of interest and mention. However, as soon as I can try either or both of them, I will post a review.

The Selmer Seles Axos is Selmer Paris' first attempt at an intermediate level and priced saxophone.  The saxophone is made entirely in their facility in France, so it is truly a Selmer Paris, yet is priced competitively with the Yamaha478, The Buffet 400, Cannonball Sceptyr, and their own LaVoix line, which is made in Taiwan.  How do they keep the cost down when the entire saxophone is made in Paris, and uses the same brass, pads and resonators as their top of the line horns?  They use a different manufacturing process than their other saxophones.  Rather than cut, shape and hammer the brass like their pro saxophones, they stamp, or mold the brass sheets to form the bell, bow and neck, then cut the brass around the shape and solder them together.  There is more machining involved than with their other saxophones, and this results in part of the lower cost.  They apply a clear lacquer over the polished brass rather than use gold lacquer.  However they use computer modeling to insure proper placement for the tone holes and keys, as well as bore dimension for optimum sound.  It remains to be seen how this saxophone will fare in the marketplace, but from what I learned of it, it is an interesting horn, and when the chance comes to try one, I will jump at it.

The next new Selmer is the most interesting one to me.  It is the Adolphe Sax Limited Edition Alto Saxophone.  This saxophone was made to commemorate the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, as well as pay homage to Selmer's very first saxophone, the Modele 22.  Its body and neck along with the octave key resemble the original Selmer saxophones made back then, but with modern keywork.  The key guards are wire rather than sheets like modern horns, but are mounted on the horn like modern saxophones.  There is a single bell to body brace like old horns, but rather than wire soldered to the body and bell like old horns, it is an s-shaped rod, thicker than wire,  and using screws to keep it in place and to make it easy to remove for repair.  The octave key is the same type that was used on the original Modele 22 as well as on older American saxophones like the Buescher Trutone and Aristocrat and Conn New Wonder saxophones.  Even the octave thumb key and rest resembles the older types of that period.  The pads have rivets rather than resonators, so there is less projection, keeping in mind that saxophones of that period didn't have to compete with electronic instruments.  At the same time, it gives the saxophone a mellower, lighter and more sonorous sound than a modern horn, which is the intention.  There have only been a few hundred made so far, and I don't know which number will be the cut-off point, but I am really anxious to try one of these, being a fan as I am of vintage saxophones, and this is truly the first modern vintage saxophone on the market. 
Jerome Selmer (left) and two other gentlemen with the bust of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone

Update:  I incorrectly wrote that the Seles Axos was priced to compete with intermediate and entry level pro saxophones.  I wrote this before it was on the market, and I made an incorret assumption.  The sax is going for street price of around $4200 or so.  Being a Selmer I'm sure the build quality will be good, but will it be worth the price? Comparable saxophones by Yamaha, P. Mauriat, for example are price much lower and play and sound very well.  Even Selmer's Series II and III saxophones can be found at a lesser price.  I am eager now to try one out and see if the price is justified.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A New Standard: Amanda Cohen

When I was a young man, which seems like ages ago, I was a student at the High School of Art & Design in New York City.  It was one of those special schools made up of students from every part of the city.  We had to take a test to gain entry, and only about 1/3 of the students who took the test would be accepted.  I was one of the lucky ones.  I say lucky because if I had to go to the high school in my home district, I would have gone with the same kids who were in my junior high school,  and that wasn't appealing to me and I would not have had the good fortune to have met some of the best people I have ever known and am still friends with after 45 years.  What I was really glad about was that I would be in a school where the kids, most of them anyway, were more bohemian and had interest in art and music, unlike the school I came from, which was just a bunch of kids who didn't seem interested in much of anything except hanging out on the street, looking, talking and acting stupid.

Amanda was in my very first homeroom class at Art & Design and sat in the third row third seat and I was in the fourth row 4th seat.  We never really spoke to each other much but she always had a nice disposition.  She always had a smile on her face and I never saw here behave in a way that was off-putting or snotty like some of the girls could be.  After graduation, I didn't see or hear from her until years later when we had one of several high school reunions.  What I would have never guessed is that she had been involved in music, performing on stage and singing in with a group called the Earth Angels, doing songs from the 50's and early 60's.  Now she has released a recording on her own of some of the best known American standards.  

It has been common that many rock and pop vocalists have tackled the Great American songbook, usually in an effort to revive their careers or maybe they really liked the songs and wanted to try their hand at it.  The great standards provide so much material for the instrumentalist and vocalist to showcase how they can take a familiar song and shape and interpret it in a unique way, because these songs never get old.  They have melodies and lyrics that have withstood the test of time, and frankly, if you want to be a great player or singer, you have to know your standards.  

This brings me to Amanda's new recording, A New Standard.  This won't be a typical review, with an analysis of each song and commentary about how she sings it, the arrangements, etc.  All the songs have stood the test of time, so whether or not any of the songs are a particular favorite of yours is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that are they sung like so many other singers have done before? I have to say no, because Amanda has her own voice to sing these songs, and honestly upon listening to this recording, there is no one else I could compare her to, which is really a good thing.  I mean, there are several vocalists I've heard recently that are Billie Holiday clones, and while I do like what they do, it still reminds me of Billie Holiday.  Not a bad one to emulate, but when I hear them sing, I think of Billie Holiday, not the singer doing the song.  When I hear Amanda, I hear Amanda, and that's what I want to hear from any vocalist, themselves.  

Okay you might say, she is a friend of yours and all that, but what has this got to do with a saxophone blog?  Well, the horn arranger for the big band on this recording is Jim Hoke, a veteran sax and harmonica player from Nashville, where Amanda recorded this.  If you don't know who Jim Hoke is, here is a link to his web page:  

His list of accomplishments and who he has played with and for is a mile long. That by itself gives Amanda's recording a lot of credibility. 

As I said, I will not review this recording song by song.  I happen to like it a lot, plain and simple, and so the best thing to do is to is to provide the links where you can hear samples for yourself and then do yourself, me and especially Amanda a favor and download the recording here:  

 Check out these links while you're at it: