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

Thursday, May 10, 2007

2nd Opinion on the new Vespros

As if the belabor a point, Mike Spurlock was on his way into Orpheus as I was leaving. He was the SECOND person to give them a honk, and he came away as impressed as I was. Here's a posting Mike wrote in the Nations of Music message board:

George Bernard Shaw once said, "The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them."

I think that just about sums it up, don't you? The same can be said of the state of introductory level saxophones being marketed today. Well, at least up until the latest line of Vespro horns was introduced.

I was fortunate enough to spend an hour with the new line of Vespro horns yesterday when I visited Orpheus Music.

Compared to most who frequent this corner of the web, I'm a young pup, but I learned to play the saxophone over 20 years ago.

I remember the day very well. We left Music Mart with my brand spankin' new "Rent To Own" Selmer Bundy II alto sax. I grew up very poor and it was all a single mother could do to get me started on what I would argue is one of the greatest journey's I've ever been on. I didn't know a damn thing about saxophones other than I knew that two of my favorite songs had great sax solos in them. I loved Phil Woods' solo in "Just The Way You Are", and on a much simpler note, the sax solo in "Baker's Street". The player skips my memory at this point. What 6th grade kid didn't try to learn that when they first picked up the horn? Anyway...I digress. My point here was that we were at the mercy of whatever that shop told my mom I needed to have. It was then up to her to decide whether or not it was possible with our limited funds.

That saxophone could have been a Mark VI and I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference because I didn't even know how to hold the thing, much less make a sound come out of the other end. I was a fast learner and can recall having intonation problems that were so bad, I had to sit out of some measures that had certain notes with a duration of 2 beats or more. I was first chair too. That sucked. I wasn't fortunate enough to show up to 6th grade beginning band with a Mark VI like the kid next to me was (this really happened).

Time passed and I took to my horn like a duck to water. I never knew the difference between this horn or that horn or what was good and what wasn't. I just knew I had to make a go with the horn that I got. I played that Bundy II all the way up until high school. I remember my band director asking me if I had the opportunity to get another saxophone. I didn't understand then why he asked me that. I do now. In fact, my private instructor, after my first lesson with him, was so determined to try to help me get a better horn because he felt like the Bundy II was holding me back from moving on to the next skill level.

My private instructor found an elderly lady who was getting rid of "an old horn" that her husband used to play before he passed on. She wasn't out to make money or anything, so he bought it from her for $500. He then turned around and gave me that horn and told me to pay him as I could. By the way.....that alto was a Selmer Super Balanced Action in MINT condition. All of a sudden, the notes on the etudes that I was struggling with came out from under my fingers and took flight. The action on this thing was a far reach from my old rattle trap. I often ask myself how a company that made my new "old" horn could make my old "new" horn. Surely there was a problem here. But that was then, this is now.

Students shouldn't have to work as hard as I did to learn the elementary aspects of playing the saxophone. One of the hardest things to do as a musician is lower your expectation once you have passed a certain milestone in your skill level. Stay with me here, as I'll get to my point and it will be crystal clear. When someone says "student horn" to me I automatically liken it to my dear old rattle trap that sits in my garage. With these Vespro horns, that's a grave mistake because they have features and ergonomics that are only found on pro line saxophones.

Here's a brief run down of what my impressions were of the horns:

As stated, I lowered my expectation because I had the words "student horn" in my head. I opened the alto first. I reached for my sunglasses as that bright silver plate blinded me. Man what a finish? This? For a beginner? As I always do, I lifted the horn sans neck and positioned my hands and just moved the keys and got a feel for her. This horn felt significantly better than my Bundy II did when it was new. And believe it or not, it felt better than my SBA. I always thought the SBA's action was a bit too light. I remember all of my old horns sort of like one remembers past girlfriends. Both the good and the bad. Anyway....I put the neck on the horn and greased the cork. I shoved my Saxgourmet mouthpiece on it and started to blow softly through the middle range of the horn. The middle C wasn't airish like my Bundy. I could easily go back and forth quickly from F to F# (using index and middle finger alternating on the lower stack) without the G sounding in between (My first horn couldn't do that). One of the things I also try to do when testing a new horn is jump from C#3 to F#3. That F# jumped out as if to say, "Are we stopping here?" Neither my Bundy or my SBA had a high F# key. I just went up to D4 without a problem.

The articulations on the pinky table will surely make a world of difference for a young lad trying to play chromatically at the bottom of the horn.

The intonation was dead on. Again, better than my SBA, if you can believe that. The only horn that I would even say is close to this in terms of intonation is the Yamaha YAS-23. Close but no cigar. As for action, feel, and design, the Vespro is way out in front. Problem is, that Yamaha is so outdated in terms of mechanics and design, and it's priced a mint. But it's the horn that most music shops pimp on the beginners. It's also the #1 selling student alto at WWBW. We have a lot of uninformed people in this world and this statistic clearly illustrates this. So I played this Vespro alto for a good 20 minutes and took it through the licks. Ran some scales, played a couple things that I always do when testing a horn and she was right there with me. Because of the set up I was using, she sounded like a pro horn. I can say I would not have any problem getting on the band stand with this horn. I would feel comfortable in a section and equally as comfortable as a soloist. Why would anyone want to spend an exponential amount of money on a horn when you can have what to my mind is twice the horn for a fraction of the cost. Where was this horn when a single mother needed to scrape so that her son could join the band and learn to play?

Folks, this simply is not a "beginner" horn. I will from here on out refer to this horn as one with advanced features without the advanced price tag. I told one of the guys in the shop that one of two things has happened: If this is a beginner horn, then either beginner horns are better than they used to be or I've reached a point that I can make anything play well. I doubt VERY seriously that the latter is the case. Remember my comment about lowering expectation? Boy was that ever a mistake. All that accomplished was a heightened sense of awareness that this alto was better than any horn I have ever played at this level, not to mention a helluva lot better than some that cost much more.

Moving on to the Tenor. The horn I played was black nickel plated with silver keywork. To save time and space, you can pretty much apply everything I stated above to this horn as well. It looked to be well built and felt solid in all aspects. Intonation was good too. It seemed to have a very broad voice. This is sure to help the young'uns get heard. By the way, I play tested this one with a silver plated Guardala Crescent mouthpiece.

The horn I am most impressed with is the soprano. It's hard to get a good pro level soprano, much less try to introduce a quality horn at the beginning level. I played the Gold lacquered one. That horn plays effortlessly. For a student model, this is sure to turn some heads. I think the High G key is better than the one on my LA 650. I didn't have to force anything to get it to speak. From Brahms Lullaby (personal thing) to a half finished Jay Beckenstein transcription, it was all there and spoke very clearly. I ran through scales and arpeggios and a few cool licks I know. The keys are positioned comfortably and the action is tight. I used an Otto Link STM to play this one. I can tell you that this soprano had a better scale and evenness in tone (from the top of the horn to bottom) than the old Mark VI that I played for so many years. That particular horn was notoriously out of tune with itself. Anyway.....from Low Bb to High G, this baby was there for me. It has a nice degree of brightness to the tone as well.

All in all, these horns are sure to turn some heads once they make their splash in the market. Why should kids today be forced to keep playing old antiquated designs that are over-priced tremendously? Mr. Shaw, I think there's a new tailor in town and these horns are designed and built with modern keywork and ergonomics that are staples in the pro line saxes out there today. If you know someone that is looking to start playing, or if you want a good horn that you can have for a rainy day when your gem takes a dump at the least favorable moment, please consider these as a viable option. It's an option I wish my mom had over 20 years ago.

Have a great day, gang.



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