AFTER 20 YEARS, A NEW ALTO
I've been playing the same alto for nearly 20 years now. My Yamaha Custom 855 has seen me through undergraduate, master's, and DMA degrees, as well as countless gigs, recordings, and lessons. Although I mostly perform jazz as a tenor player, I still play a ton of classical alto, and its the main axe I use when I'm teaching. In the same amount of time, I've owned four tenors, mostly as a result of changing tastes. The Yamaha has always been there for whatever I've needed it to do. Unfortunately, the years have taken a toll. The first 10 years that I had it, I barely had it serviced. In the last 10 years, the trips to the shop have become more and more frequent. It still plays, but the keywork is getting increasingly rattly and inaccurate.
As a result, I began looking around for a new horn. I'll never get rid of the Yamaha, but the time had come to put it into semi-retirement. As I looked around, the market for new horns is vastly different than it was 20+years ago when I got the Yamaha as wide-eyed college sophomore. Back then, the choice was between Yamaha and Selmer, and Yamaha was still considered questionable in a lot of circles. Now, there are a myriad of Asian market horns, all purporting to have the secret to a great sound. Yanagisawa has become a widely respected marque, but doesn't dominate in numbers the way Yamaha has.
I've played and even liked some of the Asian horns (even been asked to endorse a few) but I still have questions about their durability. Some of my friends have various brands and really like them, but when tried their horns after a couple of years of serious use, they feel kind of like my Yamaha does after 20 years.
In the process of looking for a new horn, my first stop was Yamaha. My 855 had been such a good horn, I felt totally comfortable with the brand and its durability. I tried Custom Z’s, EXs, 62s, all in a variety of finishes. Every horn was really good, but nothing stood out to me. I liked the sound of my old horn better for jazz, and the horns that seemed good classical horns were way too stuffy for jazz. One of the great things about the 855 was that I could move it back and forth along that spectrum. If someone told me I had to play any of those horns, I would have been fine, but I wasn’t finding a sound that I was really excited about.
I had always heard great things about Yanagisawas, and owned a Yanagisawa 992 baritone sax for a number of years, which was fabulous. I tried a handful, and they were to a horn, very well made, very in tune, and incredibly easy to play. Ultimately, however, I didn’t find a horn with a sound that worked for me. I know there are a lot of different combinations available (bronze, pink gold, silver plated, solid silver, etc) but even in a major metro area, I couldn’t get a hold of any of those to try.
Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of Selmers. The SA 80 Series II horns that were available in the 90’s never felt that great to me. I always much preferred my Yamaha Custom over those. When the Series III came out, I checked it out, and it wasn’t my cup of teal I got really excited about the Reference 54 alto. I played some over the years, but I was never bowled over. From time to time, I would play a student’s or a friends Mark VI that was absolutely amazing, along with some that were total dogs. I did play enough of the great VI’s, along with my own tenor, that I decided I needed to search out one of the great Mark VI altos. With that in mind, I sold my rarely used Yani bari so that I would have enough of a budget to get what I was looking for.
I went on a search, and eventually found a mint condition late 60s Mark VI alto. It was every bit of my budget, and it had original pads. With a new baby, I was already feeling bad about spending that kind of money, and knowing that I needed to spend $1000 to make the horn ready for work was just too much. I went home that day feeling dejected.
As I tend to do, I looked up Selmer altos on Ebay. I saw a mint condition Series II in brushed finish with the make an offer option. Out of frustration, I dropped a really low offer and went to bed. I woke up the next morning to see that the owner had accepted. Turned out that someone had bought him the horn as a gift, and he had never even taken it out of the case. I got a brand new $7000 horn for $3500. I knew the even if if sucked, I’d be able to get my money back out.
A week later, I had the horn at home, and much to my surprise, it was amazing. Beautiful centered classical tone, but could open up expansively when pushed. It played very similar to that Mark VI that I had had to leave behind.