My Musical Equipment Closet

An opinionated collecton of short reviews of saxophones and woodwinds and the accessories which they require.

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Location: Santa Cruz, California, United States

"Other cultures are not failed attempts at being us. They are all unique manifestations of the human imagination and the human heart." Wade Davis

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Saxgourmet: Playing Steve Goodson's Brilliant New Alto

There aren’t too many survivors of Hurricane Katrina who can say they designed three unique and innovative saxophones in the last five years. But Steve Goodson is one of those who walked away from the storms and subsequent upheaval a changed man, more resolved than ever that his ideas had more than merit. They represented nothing less than the future of saxophones.

I don't pretend that I am neutral about Steve Goodson. We worked together for a time when money was short and ALMOST allowed him to unleash his brilliance with the first generation of Steve Goodson Model Saxophones, then made by another company.

He’s got a powerful personality and a hat full of ideas about how things ought to be in the world of saxophones. It's hard to imagine coming away from meeting Steve without a strong opinion of him, pro or con. Those who doubt him are those who haven’t availed themselves of his saxophone designs.

There are a couple of distinct streams of thought going through Steve Goodson’s mind that are reflected in the hardware that arrives, semi-finished, from secret factory. (Finding out where the hardware is made is like finding out the location of Dick Cheney’s Undisclosed Location.)

One stream is the reverence of the past. Steve still has the Mark 6 tenor his father bought him when he made All State at age 14. The horn, now boasting extensive engraving and silver finish, features some of the refinements that have filtered into the current designs. But it’s still a Mark 6 all the way, and Steve wouldn’t have it otherwise. He’ll never be happy with that horn a hundred percent, but it’s his springboard into refinements of the Mark 6 concept that keep him coming back to that tenor, with its fifties technology, and coming up with the essence of what it is to be a Mark 6, and where the basic design can go in the future. These saxophones, presently available in one standard finish (more about this later) in alto and tenor, are the beginnings of the Saxgourmet line.

On the other hand, Steve’s been busy with several saxophones which seemingly have no ancestors, and sprang from his head full-blown, yesterday. They have features such as a standard high G key on alto and tenor which no other horn has, a five-point bell brace down near the bottom of the bow to allow more body vibration. This line, again for alto and tenor, are available in a variety of finishes as the new Steve Goodson Models. I’ll write about them at some other time.

Once I heard that the horns were at the warehouse, I drove without a moment's hesitation, and without regard to the maximum speed limit of the state of Texas, to San Antonio for a meeting with the great people at Orpheus Music (importer of Pearl Flutes, among other quality stuff) to check out the latest from the mind of Goodson, the Saxgourmet Model Alto.

Named after the URL of Steve's euphonyously-named and highly-trafficed website, the Saxgourmet alto and tenoer were just released in at the beginning of October, 2006. A fellow player in Austin bought one of the first Saxgourmet tenors. He was kind enough to let me play it and, in he words of Lord Buckley, I found it a worthy stud. But my Jones was for a Saxgourmet alto, my horn of the moment on the ships where I work.

It was ship work that kept me from playing the pre-production models which Steve thumped at the various trade shows this summer. Summer NAMM was held for the first time in Austin (it returns in 2 years) while I was experiencing the Baltic for the first time. The buzz was definitely on about the alto and tenor, with their distinctive high copper content alloy (think of the brilliance of a new penny and you get the idea) and the cool pearl touches made of abalone shell.

Back on land, I played the Saxgourmet Tenor before a rehearsal. It was quite an experience. I played it for a half hour and never got out of the subtone low register except for a few forays into the altissimo. The horn did not disappoint. It was such a meaty subtone, with a range of things you could do with it, that I was hooked. Lockjaw could have taken this horn on quite a ride. It felt like there was nothing standing in the way of the attack, unless you wanted it to stand in the way.

I was favorably impressed, but my bread-and-butter horn these days is alto. Could the alto be this good? I needn't have worried.

As I said, I do not know where these or any other horns are made, but wherever it is they know what they're doing. First they make a perfect horn. Then they make more of them, lots more that play just as well. They expand the line and add, say, and add a soprano. By the end of the summer, the baritone. Be still, my checkbook!

For now, there's a tenor and an alto. And that's why I whizzing south on I-35, keeping up with the trucks. I am an hour and a quarter from home, five quick minutes from Mi Tierra, one of the great Mexican restaurants on this or any planet. I have both my alto mouthpieces, a wide selection of reeds and I’m ready.

Be ready to be impressed. Nothing can prepare you for the first opening of the case, a marvel of balance and protection (velcro straps hold the horn steady in the case top and bottom--nice touch!). From within, the horn practically glows. Copper in the brass alloy that makes up the body tube and the keywork seem to give off heat in its redness. This is not the same effect of the cheap saxophone powdercoated with red pigment. The subtlety of the alloy make you wonder how Benny Carter might cradle the horn in his arms, nodding at the beauty of it all. The key touches are all blue and cream white abalone, and the contrast to the “heat” of the metal couldn’t be greater nor more attractive.

If looks alone will sell saxophones, Saxgourmet buyers won’t be disappointed. They will own one of the great designs, with more that an average dose of engraving throughout the body (including the back of the body tube) and the neck. The body and keywork have been shot with clearcoat lacquer to prevent discoloration.

I pulled out my Sapphire Blue JodyJazz classic long shank, the closest thing I own to a pure play in the lead alto department. (It’s a 7, the tip opening is .083 and yes, Sapphire Blue makes it play better, thanks for asking.) I don’t ask to rock the house or whatever the current phrase of the day to describe saxophone tone is. What interests me is the softer end of things, and how controllable it is. My gosh, what a subtone this machine has! Soft and steady, I worked my way from the VERY bottom end of he horn to the middle register, choosing not to use the octave key. Everything in tune, listening for the overtones, appreciating the hand position, which is every bit as ergonomic as the first Goodsons were.

While this horn is based on the Mark 6 body tube, Steve has made lots of adjustments to the tube. Steve’s been doing extensive acoustical research to determine the placement and size of the Saxgourmet’s tone holes. The horn is accordingly in tune with itself, which is a real accomplishment. The bell is deliberately large, the flare being determined by the same acoustical research that determined where and how large the tone holes are. Covering those tone holes are Saxgourmet kangaroo leather pads designed by Steve for Curt at MusicMedic. As if this weren’t enough, a triple strap ring allows for small changes in the position of the neckstrap hook in relation to the body, a feature I find indispensable now that I am extensively doubling for a living.

Working my way though my long tone exercise, I take a few tentative blues choruses and discover the horn’s lightning-fast keywork takes me effortlessly into bebop while the vibrating tube pushes me up to mezzo-forte. This is the center for me. I play sometimes three dance sets on a ship in a week, and the key to doing that well is to have a firm grasp of the mezzo-forte so the blend sounds like a band and not a Waring blender, and where you can work up a solo that uses just a couple diminished licks without getting excessive about it, so the customers don’t think you’re playing anything but straight dance music.

By now, I’m very satisfied that this horn can meet and exceed my expectations, and that, once we get better acquainted, we can both explore some new territory. That’s really exciting for me, because the incentives for practicing on a ship are less than you’d think, and the evil forces of the Crew Bar beckon for all but the most intrepid. That’s a trap I’ve seen a lot of guys fall into.

I’m back on the freeway, leaving after a couple hours so I can beat the traffic into Austin on a Friday afternoon, under the influence of UT Football.

Next day I work at my desk until I head down to New Braunfels, an outpost of German migration to Texas about 50 miles south of Austin. I am taking my wife to see one of the finest musicians and friends I’ve ever had the privilege to play with, Mac Frampton. A solid classical pianist, Mac worked all summer in the Baltic on our ship. He writes devilishly hard parts, and he’s one of the most popular acts on the fleet among the customers. (His website is, and if he’s in your area, go see him!) At the last minute I decide to load the Saxgourmet alto into the trunk, just to, well, (as I explain to Jan), to give him a look at this wonderful instrument.

So we do the drive and find the theatre, once a worn-out single screen movie house, resurrected into a new life as a performing arts center. And perform the arts Mac does, very well. Cecil Welch, the intrepid trumpeter who used to play lead with Henry Mancini, was in a stirring support role to Mac, playing a varied and excellent program for the locals.

At the intermission I go to the car and take the horn to the green room for a round of oohs and aahs from the musicians, whereupon Mac suggests that I put it together and see if we might recapture one of those unforgettable moments from the summer, when we used to accompany the cruise director, a superb singer and a real gentleman, on Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” Only this time, no singer. I will play the melody on the Saxgourmet alto. When the moment arrives, I bound up to the stage and make ready, but still arrive at the microphone with a dry reed, but plenty of conviction that this horn was made to play this tune, at this tempo, in this key.

After a quick intro, we head into the tune. I start simply, mirroring my introduction to the Saxgourmet alto the day before down in San Antonio. This will basically be an exercise in restraint, something I learned from all those years of digging Benny Carter, Marshal Royal, and Johnny Hodges. “You’ve got all the time in the world,” they seemed to say when they were playing ballads. “Now get out there and say something.”

I must say, and Jan’s recollections from the audience confirm this, that the horn made quite a stir visually. But then I started playing. Dark, play darker, I remember telling myself, as I realized that I was only pushing around 40% of my breath into the horn. Hold back. “When you’re in my arms . . . ” Mac takes the bridge. I come back on the last A section of the form and burn a little bebop lick for good measure. But this is not why I’m here, and I know it. They’re here for a reason, the audience, and I’ll give it to them: The melody of a tune they’ve heard all their lives. It’s in the cracks of the melody that I work in just enough inflections of the melody to make the Saxgourmet shine. Mac takes the bridge again, and we cut it off after the last A and a little Hodges-quoting cadenza.

Damn, this horn is great. I feel like I just drove a Ferrari around in second gear, never going faster than 30 miles an hour, but with the absolute conviction that there was plenty of potential left behind. I mean, what would have happened if I had just stomped it? There’s something to ponder on our way home.

Mac was fantastic, as always, and it was such a thrill to play with him again!

Since that night, I’ve played the Saxgourmet alto at the regular Monday night jam session at the local jazz dive, I did a casual with the Temptations Review, and filled in for a friend at a dance at the Senior Center, where restraint was again called for. At no point did the Saxgourmet disappoint. Everywhere I went to play this week the alto was the topic of conversation, from my fellow musicians and civilians alike.

So, who should consider this instrument? I’m tempted to say anybody who plays the saxophone, and there’s a certain truth to that. For someone like me, who strides between genres as a matter of course, this alto’s flexible nature and easygoing, fatigue fighting ergonomics add up to a real advantage in this game of inches.

You better believe, if you’re not looking at the Saxgourmet series, someone you play with is. Or somebody who wants YOUR gig is!

Most of all, this instrument is going to be welcomed by the Mark 6 owners’ community. There’s never been a horn that was the real successor to the Six. With its mechanical ancestry, finessed improvements, and the fact that Steve revers his Six, I’d say this just might be that successor, at last.


Thanks to Jim and Jerry from Orpheus (, to Curt at, Mac at, Jody at, and a host of others including Jan especially.

The Saxgourmet altos and tenors are available through dealers (contact Orpheus) or through


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