Written By Frederick Stearns
When you have a legacy like the Henri Selmer Company of Paris has, you're always living up to big expectations. It has to be challenging. The company has introduced many innovations that have contributed enormously to the saxophone in its modern state, and nearly any player will tell you that Selmer-Paris makes the finest saxophones in the world. Among the company's past creations are several of the biggest legends of saxophonia . . . the instruments considered by most to be the best ever made.
One such legendary instrument is the Balanced Action tenor of 1936. It was a breakthrough instrument in its day, and won Selmer-Paris the attention and admiration of all the top musicians of the '30s and '40s, reigning supreme into the '50s.
Even more widely recognized as the ultimate sax is the Mark VI, which took over the throne from the Balanced Action in 1954. It was, and still is, a coveted saxophone, played by many of the greats. It became so sought after by both professional players and collectors that its price has escalated (it was once featured in the Wall Street Journal as a highly collectible and very smart investment). The Mark VI went out of production in 1970. Though many are still in use, the fleet is aging and pressure on price has put them beyond the reach of most players.
Clearly the time was ripe for Selmer-Paris to come up with a new legend—a horn that would serve the future Parkers, Coltranes, and symphony superstars. So Selmer-Paris set about creating an heir to the Mark VI throne. It's popular these days to create reissues of classic instruments, and Selmer would have been applauded for replicating the Mark VI. But they had loftier plans.
Instead of just a replica, the company wanted to create a more advanced modern instrument. They wanted a new saxophone that would capture the virtues of the historical instruments while improving upon them in significant ways. In short, they wanted to beat their best. The Reference saxophones of 2004 and 2005 are the result of this effort.
The Reference models are not so much a series as a group of individual models, each based on a different historical instrument, but sharing a variety of improvements that have been applied to all. I asked to try a Reference 54 tenor first. Since I play a mid-'60s Mark VI, I thought it would give me a good benchmark for comparing the Reference 54, which is based on the Mark VI.
Playing the 54
Playing the Reference 54 tenor was an illuminating experience. I knew at once I had an extraordinary instrument in my hands. It had the richness of tone, the warmth, and the punch and projection I loved in my Mark VI, but was a little brighter.
It also played with a freer feel and smoother, more precise action. Partially this was because the Reference was new and my Mark VI is well broken in, but there was more. On the Reference 54, both the right and left stacks have been adjusted, as have the palm, side, and plate keys. The keys are positioned closer to the body resulting in greater comfort for the hands, making the action seem faster. The thumb rest can also be adjusted for optimum fit. I think most players will find that the Reference 54 fits their hands better than any tenor they've played.
It seemed slightly lighter than my Mark VI. I asked about this and was told that there has been a reduction in the size and weight of the ribs (the body plates supporting the posts) by 30%. This reduced weight frees up the instrument. I asked about other differences and was told that the Reference neck has been designed to improve airflow, and that the body-to-bell connection now features a redesigned toric joint that keeps the inner surface as flat as possible.
The wonderfully free and fast response and warm, flexible tone result from traditional Selmer dimensions and the use of traditional brass alloy with a higher copper content. The Reference adds to these with exceptional tuning balance, precise key work, and comfortable handling. It's an instrument that even the most demanding virtuoso will find little fault with. One such virtuoso, Miles Osland, Director of Jazz Studies and Professor of Saxophone at the University of Kentucky and a long-time Selmer player, made the following comment in a recent review of the Reference instruments in Downbeat: "With my jazz setup, it's got the punch and projection of the old Mark VI, especially at the louder levels (thus becoming a bit brighter), but it still always has an underlying layer of 'cushy-warmth.' With my classical setup, I still have a great dynamic range without compromising the tone—overall, the tone is like butter."
I finally put down the Reference 54 and picked up the Reference 36. It had the same ergonomic key feel as the 54 but its own tonal coloring. It is based on the Balanced Action model Selmer introduced in 1936 and has that instrument's rich open sound. Like the 54, it is an extraordinary instrument. If I had to choose between the two, I'd have a hard time making up my mind.
A third Reference model is the alto, which is also based on the Mark VI. It is a beauty with a dark lacquer finish and extensive engraving. Like the Reference tenors, its keys are precise, fast, and comfortable. It has a rich, round tone color, very centered intonation, and exceptional tuning balance.
Selmer-Paris isn't given to hype. They let their saxophones do the talking and the Reference models speak with authority. These are top-level, world-class instruments with all the stuff to be the next saxophone legends. The best thing is that you can play a Selmer-Paris Reference today.