(Originally titled, “The Sound, The Trane, and All The Rest”)
I’d played a Selmer Paris Mark VI tenor since 1975, when my teacher and I hand selected it from among a half-dozen other examples at the legendary Charles Ponte Music on New York City’s 48th Street. I’d performed and recorded with it on the Jersey Shore, in Manhattan, and Nashville, playing everything from Chicago Transit Authority, to funk and disco, to hard rock, to a bit of jazz. I loved my Mark VI, and despite having been manufactured during the model’s last year, it was a very good example. It had The Sound- the fuzzy lushness of Stan Getz. But, it could also produce the enormity and directness of Clarence Clemons. So, why do I speak of it in the past tense? Because I found something better, at least for me.
I’m not even sure how this process even began. A few months ago, I noticed that the horn was missing its lyre screw. Though I can assure you that I had no plans of marching with it anytime soon, I had the genuine part ordered from Selmer- I loved the instrument that much. And, like thousands of other saxophonists, I was caught up in, and proud of being part of the MK VI mystique and history.
After a decade of barely playing at all, feeling as if my soul connection to it had been broken forever, last summer I’d been deeply inspired by a local, young hard bop sax player to return to playing, and have, for the past eleven months, been fully committed to becoming the best player I can be. This personal renaissance included shopping for a terrific new mouthpiece (Eric Falcon’s MacSax FJ-IV 8*) and availing myself of the many wonderful educational resources available on today’s World Wide Web.
Along with listening, practicing, and studying, I’d occasionally lust over ads for new instruments, becoming enamored with the vintage and raw finishes available from several makers. Sadly, as a brash young rocker who rarely benefitted from quality monitor systems, I’d scratched the heck out of the Selmer’s shiny finish on many a microphone, in an effort to hear myself better. And, though it was in excellent playing condition, the years of sweat and acid had eaten away at half of its lacquer. I wondered what, if anything a new instrument might bring to my playing, and one saxophone in particular called to me- the Andreas Eastman 52nd Street tenor. I loved its unlacquered finish and the 1940s-inspired engraving, and was impressed by some great reviews and its adoption by Bob Mintzer. Thinking I’d never have the opportunity to play one and compare it with my instrument, I reread this website’s Fourteen Sax Shops You Should Visit Before You Die and was delighted to see Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center listed (www.chucklevins.com), which was only four and a half-hours’ drive from home!
I contacted Levin’s woodwind expert to arrange a meeting. Nii Akwei Adoteye (http://11thhourmusic.com) is an absolutely delightful, young alto and soprano man who was invaluable as an honest and impartial listener. Over the course of five hours, Nii Akwei lent me his expert ear and caring nature, and I had an absolutely wonderful time with him, talking about saxophones, jazz music, and life. Although I only got to glance around Levin’s other departments, it was clear that it was a proverbial candy store for players of all instruments. And, apparently, although a standalone mom and pop shop, Levin’s competes with, and often beats the pricing and service of the web-based monolithic music shops.
We began with the object of my desire- the 52nd Street tenor. I was immediately disappointed in its finish. In person, it looked very different from the way it did in photographs. Rather than the look of unlaquered brass, it appeared as if it were spray painted with semi-gloss, gold enamel. Also, the shallow, line-style engraving of the vintage coupe under the old street lamp and sign looked much less appealing to me than it did in pictures. Still, I played it. After all- that’s what matters most. I was unimpressed with the Eastman. It wasn’t a bad horn, but there was nothing special about it. It felt OK. It sounded OK. It performed OK. But for me, it was totally forgettable.
Next was the Yaginasawa T-991. Having read many great reviews of ‘Yags’ over the years, and despite its beautiful high-gloss lacquer (recall that I wanted something raw), I was eager to try it. Its fine workmanship was clearly evident, but like the Eastman, I felt that it was just there. Neither instrument had the beautiful Selmer sound or offered any advantages to my playing.
Before we continue, let me clarify a couple of things. Despite my love of the Mark VI, I’d always had two issues with it- one down low, and the other up high. I’d always found it progressively resistant, beginning with a somewhat gurgly low D. A special effort was needed to pop out low B and Bb, and even when warm and subtoning well; my results at the lowest end of the range could be inconsistent. Although I’d finally been victorious with the altissimo range beyond F#, I’d found G and G# to be resistant as well.
It’s my opinion that part of the beautiful Selmer tone is based on resistance. I’m not an expert, but I’m not sure you can achieve that wonderful fuzziness in a horn that’s very free-blowing. For forty years, I viewed this as an equitable tradeoff for the terrific tone I’ve always been complimented on. Now, as a reborn player, and one intent on improving my jazz chops, I’d hoped that there was something a bit more responsive. Thus far, that didn’t seem to be the case. I found neither the Eastman, nor the Yaginasawa any more free-blowing than my horn, neither down low or up high.
Next came an Austrian Schagerl T1-VB, a brand I was unfamiliar with until Nii Akwei suggested it. The T1-VB, as opposed to brass, is made of bronze that’s raw and unlacquered. Replete with a really nice floral engraving- I absolutely loved the look of it! If it’s still a secret, I admit that I’m certainly an artful person who values aesthetics. Nicely constructed, the Schagerl played and sounded fine, but again, had no special attributes for me, and it felt really heavy around my neck.
Nii Akwei then brought out two new Selmer Reference 54s, the modern-day version of the Mark VI. They were good looking, and in a shape that I wish I’d had the maturity at 20 years of age to have worked to maintain in my own Selmer. I also own an absolutely brilliant Selmer Paris 10B Bb clarinet. In fact, my former teacher- the late, great Kenny Davern (who’d been on the board of Buffet Crampon) felt that mine equaled the best Buffets. So, it and the Mark VI, along with my predisposition to Francophilia, had rendered me somewhat of a Selmer Sycophant. I found both 54s to possess the magical Selmer sound, though neither matched the beauty of my ’74. And, while mine has the typical, less-than-perfect Selmer intonation over the full range, the intonation of both the new ones was significantly poorer. I also found both to be equally as resistant as my horn. At nearly $8,500, the Reference 54 was roughly double the price of the other tenors, and I did not feel called to spend that amount of money- relieved that the Selmers didn’t outperform my horn in any way.
Feeling disheartened, we moved on to Yamaha. I’d began on a Yamaha student tenor, alto, and flute at 15 years of age, so I was hesitant to ‘go backwards.’ Nii Akwei took a Yamaha YTS-82ZII (Custom Z) that had just arrived that morning out of the case for me. It had a beautiful, lacquered finish (again, not what I’d had in mind) and a particularly lovely, floral engraving. It was noticeably lighter than any of the other tenors I’d tried, including mine, and it felt great around my neck, as well as under my fingers.
If the Mark VI is Getz, the Custom Z is Trane. While it doesn’t have the inherent smoky warmth of the Selmer Paris, the Z has a no-nonsense, Coltrane-esque beauty. Not cold, but very direct, and warm enough to be appealing. And it has a fairly big sound- nearly as big as you want it to be, or just as mellow too. I was blown away by the 2016 Yamaha Custom Z. Using a tuner to corroborate my impression, the intonation is good. It is without equal, the most free-blowing tenor I’ve ever played. The low end is effortless. I could subtone down to Bb at pianissimo, even with my open 8* metal mouthpiece. The altissimo G and G# also spoke very cleanly, with no effort at all.
Nii Akwei and I thought we’d try an experiment and switch necks between my Selmer and the Z. While neither of us heard any appreciable affect on the sound of either horn, it did demonstrate something impressive. Turns out, that the Z’s octave key couldn’t open the vent of the Selmer neck- I didn’t need it. We were both amazed as I went from low Bb to altissimo G without opening the octave vent. I don’t think I was even aware of having to change my throat voicing.
While I’ll work to get a bit more ‘Selmer’ into my sound going forward, I had to have this instrument. The Custom Z is the most responsive and even-tempered saxophone that I’ve ever played. I put it on lay-away, and was fortunate enough to sell my beloved Mark VI two days later. While I had a few bouts with sentimentality as I prepared to pass it on to its grateful new owner, there were few regrets. I knew that I’d made the right decision. If I possessed the ‘collector’s gene’ and wasn’t a rabid minimalist, I would have kept the Mark VI. But I’m a different player, and a different person now, and I’m excited to be starting over with a clean slate.
I also tried the Yamaha YTS-875EX (Custom EX) but much preferred the Z. Granted, it was late in the day and I’d already made my decision, but for some odd reason, I was making a lot of split tones on the EX. While you may find conflicting comparisons between the two Yamaha pro horns, the Custom EX is physically heavier and therefore darker-toned than the Z, and both get excellent reviews.
I had forty good years with The Sound. I couldn’t wait to get down to serious sheddin’ with The Trane. And as for The Rest, well, there are obviously many playable and affordable saxes out there today. I would like to have tried a P. Mauriat, a Viking, a Trevor James, and perhaps one or two others, But, for those that I did play, there was only one for me, and I strongly suspect that this would have remained the case, even if I’d played everything else available today. While it’s highly unlikely that I have another forty years of playing ahead of me, I can’t wait to make all of the music I can with the Yamaha YTS-82ZII Custom Z.
Postscript: I currently have about two months in with the Z. While upon first play after its arrival, I experienced some seller’s remorse, my ears are making peace with the different sound of the horn, and I’ve found that using a reed of sufficient resistance will indeed produce a lovely Getz sound. While not at all resistant, I find the upper stack a bit repressed, as compared with the big MK VI sound, and the upper palm key notes (D-E-F) tend to be sharp (perhaps a trip to Curt Altarac’s MusicMedic in the future). But overall, the Z has a fabulous tone, is eminently playable and even, with a wonderful low-end and easy altissimo.
The Yamaha ‘V1’ neck takes a decidedly upward curve at the mouthpiece end which took me a bit of time to get used to, as it renders a noticeably different playing angle and feel than the Mark VI. Whether or not this was changed in the future, I think any horn, this one included, would benefit from a (Wanne-style) multiple strap hook to give the player a variety of angles.
Lastly, and this is significant- this Yamaha’s pads are sticky. Searching the web, it appears that the culprit may be a protective pad sealant. Soliciting input from Tim Glesmann of Sax Alley, while I continued to swab at the end of each session, I stopped leaving the HW Pad-Saver in as the horn sits on its stand overnight. While the Pad-Saver can serve well as a secondary swab, it may retain more moisture than it removes when left inside the body. Despite Levin’s backing-off some of the pivot screws, the low C#, and especially, the G# keys continued to be a problem. When the horn was warm and moist, the G# would stick to the tone hole in real-time! Neither powder paper, cigarette paper, sandpaper, or naptha helped. Only a bit of valve oil on the pad finally provided relief. Tim Glesmann, a major Yamaha dealer himself, told me that they chemically strip Yamaha pads in an aggressive two-step process when they set-up a new horn. I can only speak for one horn, but this issue has been very significant.
As to finally answer the question posed by the title of this article and not to end on a sour note (like a G when you finger a G#!), The Custom Z is an overall huge winner, which gets the top vote of several Yamaha dealers who carry it along with the horns of several other fine makers. I love it more each day.