Something very different on the blog today, a step into the world of music. I have not been a professional musician for a very long time and then only as a pianist and not a saxophonist. But I had to prepare a very short musical performance to spice up a ballroom dancing number that my wife and I are going to perform at the studio’s Christmas gathering. We’re dancing to the amazing Jerry Goldsmith‘s movie soundtrack to The Russia House, specifically the first track called Katya’s Theme. Goldsmith knew he had gold despite both the movies Wall Street and Alien Nation rejecting this theme but he finally found a home for it in The Russia House – a great but forgotten 1990s movie at the height of the Cold War starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer – perhaps at their peak. The music has moments of improvisational jazz with Bradford Marsalis at the helm of his soprano saxophone also at his peak along with the great Michael Lang and John Patitucci, on piano and bass, respectively.
I rented an intermediate model Yamaha YS475II for a month hoping I could get back into playing shape and practiced the opening dozen bars I would play ad nauseum. I played the Alto saxophone through highschool and occasionally in university and fortuitously the fingering for all members of the saxophone family is the same. But playing the Soprano sax is currently way cooler than playing the Alto, something about the compact linear shape and high tone register made popular by Kenny Gee and other artists. Like a throwback to Artie Shaw and his clarinet from the 1930s Big Band era. Artie Shaw was married 8 times to some of Hollywood’s most famous starlets so there must have been something to that clarinet!
The Yamaha instrument contains about 600 parts that have to be all hand soldered and assembled. Since the demand for Sopranos is much less than Altos and Tenor models, economies of scale cannot be applied and the price of $3200 (Canadian) is really very reasonable. Yamaha has been making musical instruments for a very long time so they likely have exploited every possible cost saving measure in the process while still maintaining their legendary reputation of quality.
This is why I could not believe that it is possible to buy a brand new, made in China, Soprano instrument off eBay for about $250 Canadian (shipped). That is less than ten percent of the Yamaha cost. Surely it must be a terrible playing and sounding instrument but many professional You Tube reviews were very positive. I was paying nearly that amount just to rent my Yamaha. I had to see for myself!
The Chinese instrument came very complete and well and properly prepared for shipping with certain keys wedged shut. Except there was no cork grease. WHY????
Although I’m no instrument technician, the Chinese saxophone appeared well manufactured with no appreciable slack in the controls and linkages. I passed an LED light into the throat of the instrument in a dark room to assess how well the pads closed over the tone holes by observing light leakage. There was none. There was clearly some deficiency in the thickness and quality of the cork pads though as shown below.
I think the take away message is that the Yamaha is designed to take the punishment of real playing and also designed to last for a very long time. In fact I still have my nearly 40 year old Yamaha Alto sax, and it still plays.
The Chinese sax also has too much cork material on the neck and I had to shave off about 1 cm to allow the mouthpiece to seat deep enough in order to get it on tune. I do find it is easier to play and to play quietly than the Yamaha in terms of effort (breath and embochure control) but as far as sound goes, you will have to judge for yourself.
Which do you prefer? Which is better? I actually preferred the Chinese sax when paired with an expensive professional line Yamaha mouthpiece with a much larger internal bore. That mouthpiece was very difficult to produce a sound with the Yamaha, but much easier with the Chinese model and altered the sound enough to be significant and better.
In the end, I have to bring politics into the discussion. Ever since Premier Xi somehow convinced the Communist Party to grant him Premier for Life status, I have been quietly dismayed. More recently China has imprisoned two Canadian diplomats on spurious spying charges as leverage against the lawful Canadian detainment of a Huawei executive facing extradition to the US to face criminal charges. People of Hong Kong continue to demonstrate for democratic reforms that China agreed to during the 1999 treaty with the UK when the island was returned to its rightful place. And now China has imprisoned millions of Muslim practicing Uigyhers in north western China in so called vocational training camps with all the human rights abuses that we cannot see. Frankly this is neither the time to visit China or buy Chinese made goods (if possible). The free world has been reliant on incredibly cheap Chinese made goods that they have failed to observe how many competing manufacturers have been eliminated leaving us in the future to be solely reliant on Chinese manufacturers. That’s why its time for citizens of the free world to carefully scrutinize their purchases and eliminate buying anything made in China, where possible.
Recently, Christmas cards have been found to be made with forced prison labor in China. This has been well documented in the press primarily by the testimony of a British journalist who did not enjoy the hospitality of a Shanghai jail for 23 months. Think about that. Most prisoners in China are not criminals or felons – they tend to execute those, but political prisoners who are falsely charged and falsely sentenced because they oppose the Chinese government. So many Chinese products are actually made by slave labour. Another reason to stop buying cheap Chinese products.
The first track is the Chinese saxophone.
This is how the Chinese sax sounds with the Yamaha SS-6CM professional mouthpiece and Legere artificial reed . I was pleasantly surprised that Legere is a local Canadian company making a world class innovative product. Their manufacturing is based in Barrie, ON.
And if you’re curious how the whole performance turned out “live”.
Addendum (Dec 27/19).
I’ve only played the soprano sax for maybe a total of 2 hours over the past 3 weeks … and it has broken down. This is exactly what I feared and predicted would happen. I’ve heard many pros buy these Chinese saxes to play gigs at less than reputable locations so that if they get damaged or stolen it’s not so heartbreaking. But of course a lot of pros are experienced in fixing and adjusting their instruments too. I lost G this morning and discovered the opening below the G key was staying open when it should normally be closed. The strut designed to keep that opening closed may have lost its cork foot. Instead of replacing that, I found that tubing for refrigerator water lines was a good fit over the roller increasing its circumference to contact the strut and keep that opening closed.
Addendum: June 6, 2023.
The soprano sax has laid in its case for the past 4 years while we all worked through the covid pandemic. My wife and I are finally back at the dance studio on a regular basis and I thought we could dance a barchata to the late George Michael’s Careless Whisper – another song with a rousing saxophone intro. I tried playing the soprano sax, and it’s seriously broken. Even after close inspection I cannot find the fault. It will cost a significant portion of its value to have a shop just to diagnosis it …. and I can’t be bothered. This is the lesson of buying Chinese made products, they are designed to fail in the fashion of a raised third finger gesture. Fortunately, my Yamaha Alto sax that my parents bought me in 1980 still works perfectly and I’ve been practicing on that to get back into playing shape.
I can’t express how much I appreciate this article. I was a musician in my younger years and am trying to get back into it. Trombone, trumpet, saxophone, etc. My 11 year old daughter is starting band this coming year and landed on the soprano saxophone as her choice. Due to finances, I was considering the mendini soprano, but had the same concerns you did. As to that, I’m in complete agreement regarding buying Chinese products. Thank you for speaking the truth about both concerns. God bless
I can’t express how much I appreciate this article. I was a musician in my younger years and am trying to get back into it. Trombone, trumpet, saxophone, etc. My 11 year old daughter is starting band this coming year and landed on the soprano saxophone as her choice. Due to finances, I was considering the mendini soprano, but had the same concerns you did. As to that, I’m in complete agreement regarding buying Chinese products. Thank you for speaking the truth about both concerns. I also wanted to tell you how lovely it was seeing you and your wife dancing together. God bless