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.

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