Friday, June 19, 2015
The Golden Age Of Saxophone Manufacturing Part 2: If I Could Only Own One Saxophone
Part 2 is about saxophones that cost 3 grand and over brand new. However, for this article, I am only discussing the latest models and versions since it is my opinion based on what I've been playing that with great improvements, from utilizing computer technology to advances in manufacturing technology, it is my feeling that we are in a golden age of saxophone manufacturing and that saxophones really are better than they ever were. Even lesser known and lesser priced saxophones are at a level of quality not possible 20 or 30 years ago, and that match or exceed the quality and sound of many professional saxophones of that time. Saxophones that are being marketed as step up or intermediate horns are more like entry level professional saxes at this point. Many are that good.
This doesn't mean that you should throw away your Mark VI if it is the horn that works for you, but in the last few years, I have seen a fairly large number of players trade their Mark VI's for a new Selmer, Keilwerth, Yamaha, Yanigasawa, and P. Mauriat. Two great players I know, Sonny Fortune and Richie Cole used to play Mark VI's, now they play References. When I was still working in music retail, I had several players trade their Mark VI's for a new top of the line horn. In many cases, a saxophone can be compared to an automobile. Automobile aficionados love the old classic cars. They may own one or more of them. Sometimes they take them out for a drive, but not often, because being old cars, they require a high degree of maintenance which is costly, not to mention the parts if you can still find them, and sometimes it requires the custom manufacturing of a part which always runs into money. The fact is, they're beautiful to look at, fun to take on that occasional drive, but are simply not practical or desirable for every day use, because they will break down more often, and the cost of repairing it and replacing parts can be prohibitive.
I mentioned this in my earlier article on the Mark VI Mystique, that more Mark VI's than any other horn came into the repair shop in the store I once worked in, as well as in the shop of my own repair tech. The key rods, posts and screws wear down in time, and there's only so much reaming of a key rod that can be done before the screw can no longer make contact with the rod and the action slips. There is only so much of the neck tenon that can be burnished to stretch it out in order to keep it tight on the body before the metal thins out too much or cracks. Once it gets to the point where you have to replace parts, the cost and practicality of doing so no longer makes sense. Yes, I understand the emotional attachment one can have for a trusted old instrument, and as long as yours is in top working condition and sounds good, there is no reason to change. On the other hand, if your horn is beginning to rattle, and it starts to spend more time in the repair shop than on the bandstand, it really is time for a new saxophone.
I really believed until not too long ago that the older saxophones were better, but playing dozens of new saxophones has convinced me otherwise, from key action and build quality to sound. Add to that the leaps in technology in the manufacture of mouthpieces, ligatures, accessories, etc., and the saxophone player has choices that were just not available years ago. Of course, I still love my old Conn 6M, just like so many players still hold on to their Mark VI's or King Super 20's, but since playing so many new saxophones, I know what the limitations of these old horns are. Of course, sometimes a limitation can be an asset if you have a particular style or sound and what and where you play and the audience you have, but the majority of working musicians these days, as well as those in school and university programs play a greater range of musical styles and have a greater range of technical requirements for the music they play, and they must have a modern instrument to keep up with that.
I chose saxophones that I have personally played and would be happy with if they were the only saxophone I could own. Of course, out of this group, I have preferences and have listed them in the order that I would choose them if my first and subsequent options were not possible. To my own playing experience, these represent the best of what is out there, but this list is hardly inclusive and again, based solely on what I've played and my opinion. I am only showing the alto versions, but the soprano, tenor and baritone versions of these models are of equal quality. Some newer saxophone models like the Selmer Seles Axos, and the Limited Edition Adolphe Sax model, Theo Wanne's Mantra, Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet, etc., I have not yet had the opportunity to try, and when and if I do, you will read about it here. Maybe later I will be able to afford some video equipment and post myself actually playing the instruments for you to hear. Keep in mind that this is like my hobby, and I am not yet making any money or receiving samples or anything from doing this. I just love playing and discussing saxophones.
Anyway, here is my short list of the best of the best and what I would own if money were no object.
SELMER REFERENCE 54
The Selmer Reference 54 came about by analyzing, with the help of advanced computer technology, the brass alloy composition and the bore size of the best Mark VI they could find which was made in 1958. Reference 54 refers to the first year of the Mark VI's production, 1954. They added modern improvements in the keywork and placement of the tone holes for better intonation. When I first tried the Reference 54's when they were first unveiled in 2001, I was not overly impressed. Yes, I liked them, but I still had reservations. 10 years later, when Selmer unveiled the Dragonbird References and Series II and III horns, as well as the latest addition References, I was very impressed. In that 10 year span, there were even more advances made in computer and manufacturing technology, and I literally played dozens of horns that day. The picture on top from that show is only a fraction of what was on display and there for everyone to try. Every horn I picked up that day played consistently well. I played sopranos, altos and tenors, and every one of them sounded and played great from the get go. The References were my favorite of them all. This time, I had no reservations, and that day I felt that I would love to own this horn. Far more consistent in sound and action than any Mark VI I ever played. When I say consistent, I don't mean they all had a cookie cutter tone. I mean that whatever your mouthpiece, reed and ligature setup and style is, you are bound to get the sound you are looking for. A modern classic as far as I'm concerned.
YANIGASAWA A-W020 and A-W037
I have always been impressed with Yanigasawa saxophones. Excellent build quality, keywork, sound and overall playability. These two are among my favorite saxophones, though I lean a little more to the W020 because of its higher copper content and what I feel is a warmer sound. However both horns have great tones and are suitable for so many musical styles. Several years ago, a friend of mine was working on cruise ships, and he generally needed both alto and tenor, but for this one cruise, he only needed the alto. He had an old Martin Handcraft alto that sounded fantastic, and his tenor was the Yanigasawa 992 bronze. Since he would be gone 3 months, he didn't want to leave it in his house just in case (this is New York after all), and he didn't want to drag it with him on the boat if he wasn't going to use it, so he left it with me. I played it for 3 months and it was the best tenor I ever played, so I could see why he chose it. You can't go wrong with a Yanigasawa.
YAMAHA CUSTOM 82Z
SELMER SERIES III
The Selmer Series III is made from a brass alloy with higher copper content, like the Reference 54's, and so it has a slightly warmer tone than the Series II. The bore size is a little smaller, and it has a venting key for C# which helps bring that note into line. Selmer quality, keywork and sound are all evident here, and this is another horn that can handle many musical styles.
The Keilwerth SX-90R is the flagship model of the Keilwerth line. First marketed under the name H. Couf, for the man that designed it, once it gained a foothold on the American market it was marketed under its own name and has taken its place amongst the Big 4 saxophone manufacturers. The SX-90R has rolled tone holes, but rather than drawn and rolled from the existing metal, they solder on tone rings. The idea is that should the tone hole become damaged, it is easier to remove the ring, fix the tone hole and then replace the ring. The drawback is that the rings can be placed unevenly and create leaks in the horn. However, regardless, it is a beautifully made and sounding saxophone. I favor the brushed nickel finish model pictured here, because I liked the warm yet clear tone that suited my playing style very nicely.
SELMER SERIES II
Since officially retiring, I will now find the time to search out as many horns as I can find and try them all. The one plus when working in music retail was that I had access to many new saxophone models. The minus was that they were limited by availability and which brands my store could carry. Some brands are not available in stores near me, so this limits what I can try. However, the quest will go on.