Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shut Up and Go Practice...

That's an all purpose insult often hurled at gear-heads. You know, folks who seem to have an endless fascination with musical gear, often to the exclusion of music. And often to the detriment of practicing. Personally I've stayed almost deliberately ignorant of much of what goes into making a saxophone work. But as I mentioned in my opening post I've had my ears opened to a few things with the switch to a vintage saxophone. In addition to edifying awareness in my occupation it's gotten me very curious about a horn that's been sitting in my closet. It was my first saxophone, rented in Baltimore in 1969 from the music store where my grandfather taught guitar. It was the only tenor they had (and I insisted on a tenor) but it looked as if it had been buried in the ground for quite a long time. And it kinda had a musty odor. All the other kids in the school band had shiny horns. I couldn't wait for the day when I could "graduate" up to a Selmer. That day came a few years later and that was pretty much the last I thought about my first horn.

I had retrieved it from my mother's house (where it had been sitting for the last thirty-five years or so) more out of a sense of sentimentality than anything else. I never thought it was a great horn but I was twelve so what did I know? The finish was so corroded that it was difficult to even make out the engraving. I showed it to Bill Singer (my repair-man here in NYC) who informed me that it would take some doing to get it playing again and that the cost would likely exceed the value. So it sat in my closet for some more years.

That is, until I started researching the saxophone in earnest, reading up on the history of the instrument and the technical advances (or I should say technical changes) that brought us to where we are now, in 2010. In short, seems a lot has been lost over the decades. Granted, modern saxophones are easier to play and have more consistent intonation than older horns, in general. But I'm finding that older horns often have a certain character that seems to have gotten lost with the continual refinements that today's players have come to expect from an instrument.

I decided to pull that old horn out of the closet and see what I could find out about it. I knew it was a Buescher. I assumed it was a "True Tone" model since that's what the emblem on the case said. (The case, by the way, stunk so bad I had to discard it). It was hard to read but the saxophone itself had the word "Aristocrat" engraved on the bell. That was a surprise, as I came to find out that this was a "pro" model and considered one of their best (if not the best). I still couldn't read the serial number so I had to scratch away a bit of the crud in order to find out that this was a 1941 "Big B" model (so named because of the large letter B on the bell). Along with a few other technical clues I came to find out that this horn was actually a contender back in the day. Apparently Sonny Rollins used this model on a number of his early recordings.

Seems that sometime around the 1950's the French Selmer company became ascendent and eclipsed the prevailing American made horns of the day (such as Conn and Buescher). To be sure, the Selmer was and is a fantastic instrument. With their innovations the saxophone became easier to play (key placement) and the prevailing sound changed from a more bottom heavy to a somewhat lighter sound with more complex overtones. This is a generalization, but from my perspective those are the major differences. In the 1970's the overall sound of the saxophone changed even more dramatically due largely to mouthpiece design. In order to accommodate playing in heavily amplified electric bands the horn had to become louder and the sound had to cut through the increased volume on stage. This meant that the older horns and mouthpieces were often abandoned and along with them a certain way of making sound on the instrument, that fuller, rounder, darker sound that one hears in players from the 30's and 40's.

To my surprise I have come to find out that this was not the first time this happened in the history of the instrument. Seems the ascendancy of the saxophone in popular music and especially it's role in the rise of big bands provoked Sigurd Rascher (one of the first classical saxophonists) to express his concerns that recent changes in the instrument (the bore taper) and the "newer" mouthpieces being used (designed to make the horn louder) meant that the saxophone was no longer the same instrument that Adolph Sax invented in 1841. These observations by Rascher came in the 1930's.

It might be easy to write that off as being reactionary in the face of progress. But I've gone back and listened to recordings made by Rascher (and the saxophone quartet that bears his name, who endeavor to play the instrument the way it was designed) and in their hands the saxophone really does sound like another instrument. It's a hybrid sound, sometimes stringlike other times a bit more like low brass. While I'm totally into the idea of taking the horn into whatever sonic realms possible (a process which has historically been more or less fully exploited by now) I'm uncomfortable with the idea that I may have unknowingly been missing out on a very large part of what the horn is capable of.

None of this is news. It's just that making a "discovery" like this for oneself at such a late date can throw one's mental state into disarray. In a good way. Wouldn't want things to get too pat.

So back to this Buescher Aristocrat that got me started. Apparently the taper of the bore design is supposed to be closer to the original design of the saxophone by it's inventor. So that's got me curious. And given how much I love playing my vintage Conn I really have to find out what the Buescher is all about. It seems to represent another branch of the history of the horn. So I took it over to Bill Singer a couple of weeks ago for restoration and it's due back any day now. Don't know whether I'll even like it or not but I'm sure I'll find out something more about saxophones in the process.

More on this soon...

(photo is the "before" version)


  1. So Ellery what happened to this does it sound?
    Are you playing it in any context?

  2. Hi V,
    See the post above called "Bill Singer". There is video that demonstrates how the horn sounds after it's been overhauled. I will use it on an upcoming festival concert in France. When I was a kid I couldn't wait to get off the Buescher and onto a Selmer. Now after all of these years I will use it instead of the Selmer!