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.  


  1. Hi there! Thank´s for this review. One thing worth mentioning. Buffet did make S3 prestige models as tenors too!

  2. Yes, I know they did. The Senzo is only an alto, but I would like to see it as a tenor too,