Another take on an age old argument.
Is The Mark VI the greatest horn ever?
The Mark VI is probably the most famous horn because it had “it”. To really understand �it� you also have to understand what was going on with saxophones at the time the VI came out in 1954. Conn and Buescher were just starting to decline in 1954. Martin would not be far behind them. SML and Buffet and the other French makes weren’t as popular as Selmer. Selmer invested heavily in marketing in the U.S. starting in the late 1940’s and signed a number of well known players to advertise their horns. Prior to the war the Balanced Action and Super Balanced Action horns were popular with a number of name players as well as young up and coming players.
The Mark VI has some of the best key work of all time. The VI was the first model from Selmer (or anyone else) with tilting table keys. The Mark VI followed the well respected Balanced Action and Super Balanced Action horns. In addition to the tilting table keys these horns featured offset upper and lower stacks which allowed for a very comfortable feel for the right arm position. If you were buying a new horn in the early 1960’s you would be out of place if you didn’t buy a Selmer.
The Selmer’s differentiated themselves from the American horns from Buescher, Conn, King, and Martin in a number of areas that ultimately defined how a saxophone should feel in the hands and how it should sound to the audience. Selmer’s key work has become the standard that all other modern horns follow. The great American horns had key work that felt slow and clunky when compared to the snappy key work of the Selmer horns. There is also a ring to the tone of Selmer horns that is different from the American horns of the same era. Their tone tends to be much more focused than the great American horns which have a bit more of a spread tone to them. Additionally, the Selmer’s have a very characteristic resonance to them that is different than their American counterparts. The best of the Selmer horns have a lyrical quality to them whereas the best of the American horns have the ability to be raucous and bawdy. Another way to put it is that the Selmer horns handle like a great European sports care. Nimble, light, responsive, and can flat out move when the need arises. They are also sexy and fun to drive. The great American horns tend to handle like the great American muscle cars. They’re big, they roar but they’re not quite as nimble as that sexy little European sports car.
But is the VI the greatest horn every made? Probably not. It might be. It might not. It depends on what you think makes a horn great. Someone who loves the tone of a 10M or Buescher 400 TH&C tenor or Martin tenor might find the VI to be lacking in the power department. Those horns roar like a jet. They have a totally different vibe as mentioned above. There’s a number of Selmer players of tenors who prefer the tone and responsiveness of the Balanced Action horns. Some players complain that the VI has a �nasal� tone and others make note that the VI tends to have a pronounced midrange but does not have particularly powerful low end and can be thin sounding in the palm keys. The VI also tends to be a horn filled with nuances that only begin to reveal themselves after playing the horn for a long time. That may be why a number of VI players simply refuse to give up their horns.
The Mark VI altos are probably the stars of the line. Marcel Mule had a role in designing the horn so classical players from the French school swear by them. Many of the great jazz artists played them as well. They are extremely versatile, lyrical, and have good intonation. Some Selmer alto fans prefer the SBA’s over the VI because the earlier SBA’s have an even more pronounced lyrical quality. The same goes for Selmer tenor fans who prefer the slightly less focused and more robust tone of the Balanced Aciton and Super Balanced Action series. John Coltrane played a SBA on most of his most important recordings. Paul Desmond played a SBA alto for most of his professional career and played a Balanced Action during high school and his early professional (pre-Brubeck ) years.
The Mark VI bari’s don’t have quite the same following as the altos and tenors but remain impressive horns. The difference is that the all time Hall of Fame Bari is the Conn 12M. Gerry Mulligan said that he just didn’t like the tone that the VI’s produced compared to his Conn’s (Mulligan’s Conn’s were actually New Wonder models which differ slightly from the later 12M’s). He contended that the metal was different and that no one used metal like the old Conn’s anymore. The VI bari’s were available in two flavors � the standard low B flat option and an optional model that went down to low A. Most players tend to prefer the low B flat version as the low A version has a reputation of sounding stuffy. What has also detracted from the reputation of the VI bari’s is the fact that there are a number of other modern horns that are every bit the equal of the VI bari and many that are superior.
The ugly step child of the VI family is the soprano. The design of the VI soprano basically dates back to 1926 and the model 26. It wasn’t updated when the Balanced Action or Super Balanced Action horns were released and it wasn’t updated when the VI line came out in 1954. This can be attributed to the fact that the soprano had become the ugly step child of the saxophone family right around when Sidney Bechet moved to Europe. Most players have a hard time playing a soprano in tune because of the different requirements that it puts upon the player’s embouchure. Vintage Conns, Bueschers, Martin and even Kings can go toe to toe with VI sopranos and they all generally play with better intonation and tone. Coltrane and a host of other players who re-popularized the soprano in the 1960’s played VI’s mainly because they were the primary soprano still in production. The only other alternatives were to play a horn from the 1920’s. By the mid 1970’s Yanagisawa had produced a copy of the VI soprano that demonstrated better intonation and similar tone to the original. By the 1980’s most of the major makers had produced soprano’s that were more comfortable to play than the horns that came before them.
Keep this in mind. The design of the Mark VI is the most copied design in saxophone history. It had a profound impact upon all other horns that followed it. It was so popular that players want Selmer to bring it back and haven’t quite flocked to any of their subsequent offerings until the Serie III horns and Reference horns. Both of which have a more VI like feel than the horns that came in between. They’re not VI’s but they are as close as Selmer has come. In terms of alternatives, the most VI like horn on the market today is probably the 82Z from Yamaha and the Yanagisawa made horns. The Yanagisawa horns have a very similar feel to the VI with their altos, tenor, and baritone saxes. Their sopranos have a modern feel that goes beyond way the VI soprano. The Yamaha 82Z altos and the tenors feel like a VI and basically act like a VI. They have very similar tonal quirks in that they have a lot of midrange and an even bottom end. Their palm keys are slightly more full than the VI but they lack the same resonance of a good VI. Overall, they are pretty close. The Yamaha 62 also has a very VI like feel but the 82Z seems a more powerful horn.
So is the Selmer Mark VI the greatest horn ever? That’s up to the player to decide. A number of great players have decided that the VI was the horn for them and there’s a collection of players that either dismissed it out of hand or found other alternatives.
Hi there, informative article and nice comments on the uselessly-endless discussion on this matter. I am glad to see someone else out there understands the fact that it really is a matter of taste.
I personally have been mostly a VI, Balanced action, and Super (balanced) Action kind of player. I have owned a Conn 6M and considered making it my main alto, but afters years spent on Selmer horns, I found I was having to re-learn too many things to some degree.
I like the general description of the “sound” of each type of horn mentioned here and find it to be true in the general sense. The one thing I’ve always thought is that, the reason so many of those guys played these Selmers back in the day is that those models of sax were the high-end models of the era, and pushed the bar in terms of innovation in design. Suffice it to say, I have plenty of friends who haven’t been seduced by the addictive charm of the vintage horn market, and sound beyond great on Yamaha custom 82z’s (see Jeff Ellwood sometime).
All in all, I find that timbral flexibility, scale, and dynamic range seem to be the most objective things you can judge on a sax, and everything else, including how dark or how bright the horn plays is incredibly subjective.
Keep playing, and keep on learning. If you feel like it, check out my blog for some interesting tidbits on tone production and embouchure. Your thoughts are appreciated!