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Frankfurt Musik Messe show report -2008

Another year, another trade show.
Trade shows are strange things - a bit like childbirth (I'd imagine)...something happens after the event that makes you forget just how uncomfortable and painful an experience it can be.
The Frankfurt Music Messe is the centrepiece of Europe's assorted music fairs, which makes it THE place to be if you're a buyer or a seller. It's a positively huge affair, so there's substantial amount of foot-slogging to be done if you want to see everything.
Attendance appeared to be down a little on last year, both in terms of visitors and exhibitors - perhaps because last year's show was very well-attended and most buyers managed to sort out deals that were good for at least a couple of years.
My aim this year was to see whether the Chinese had made any progress with regard to consistency, and to check out the new range of 'super saxes' out of well as products from the smaller manufacturers.

Mauriat Vintage tenorI was particularly keen to check out the range of Mauriat saxes. I get a lot of emails asking me about these, but don't get many in for repair - probably because they're still quite new and not yet in need of servicing...or perhaps because they're shaping up to be quite reliable horns - so I thought I'd refresh the promising opinion I formed of them at last year's show.
Like most manufacturers, Mauriat supply horns on three basic levels...entry, intermediate and professional. I'd hesitate to call the entry level horns beginners horns, they're a bit too good and too expensive.
Esoteric finishes abound in the Mauriat range - not all of which work (for me), but if you're after something that looks distinctive then you're going to be spoilt for choice.
Build quality appears to be good across the range.

I especially liked the Custom Vintage tenor. This model comes with proper rolled toneholes which, in spite of the increased technical difficulties associated with the manufacture of this feature, were all level - which is quite something when you consider the problems found on some of Keilwerth's SX90R horns, with their soldered-on tone hole rings.
Of course, if you label a horn 'Vintage' then you might as well make it look the part, and Mauriat have treated the body to 'age' the brass and left it unlacquered.
It's a nice blow - combining a modern action with contemporary tuning and a well-balanced tone. I suspect this might be one of this year's most popular horns.

Cannonball had an impressive stand again this year, but it takes more than a bit of glitz to impress me.
It also doesn't help if there's a faint whiff of 'bull' in the air.
Now, I can understand the various manufacturers wanting to make their products distinctive - but I draw the line at mumbo-jumbo being passed off as solid acoustic science...specifically the addition of a gemstone, fitted to the crook of each sax.
Pete Thomas asked the sales rep point blank if the stone made any difference to the tone, the reply was an emphatic 'yes'.
If that was the case then Mr.Thomas Esq. promptly ruined one of their baritones when he accidentally knocked its gemstone out. I think we missed a chance there - it would have been worth comparing the difference in tone.
No harm done though, I checked back later and noted that the stone had been refitted...and I can only assume that they use some kind of highly developed acoustic glue...
It's a shame, I feel, because the Cannonball range is an otherwise decent product which is good enough to stand on its own merits.

Eppelsheim TubaxTime for a bit of the sublime then, with Benedikt Eppelsheim and his range of bass horns, specifically the Tubax.
This was easily one of the busiest stands at the show - every time I strolled by there was a small crowd of punters queuing up to try the horns out, waving a selection of mobile phones and cameras while they waited. If there was an award for the most photographed horns at the show, these babies would win it hands down.
These instruments are a modern marvel, a real throwback to the glorious insanity and craftsmanship of the Victorian instrument makers. Insanity? Perhaps not the term that springs to mind when you meet Benedikt himself...but you only have to look at his instruments to know that this is man who has sailed close to the edge.
They are, quite simply, mind-boggling.
Never mind the fact that they're extraordinarily complex, or that they're positively huge - the real stunner is that they have an amazingly tight and swift action...and an incredibly precise tonal response.
Benedikt's use of small brass tubes as keywork interconnects is inspired, as is the use of flexible shafts (a bit like bicycle brake cables).
These, coupled with the rubber-sealed flanges at the body joints, seem to me to make these instruments very slightly reminiscent of a submarine (so perhaps I'm the one that's insane).
Pete Thomas, seen here playing the Eb contrabass Tubax, asked Benedikt if it was possible to have customisations done to these horns...and when informed it was he promptly asked for a low A...and a stone on the crook.

Don't be fooled by the fact that these are extreme bass instruments...they have incredible grace and poise - and I think Adolphe Sax himself would have been both amazed and delighted to see how Benedikt's skill and passion have come together to create what surely must be a set of 21st century masterpieces.

Mind you, he has something of a competitor in this Brazilian contrabass - the J’Elle Stainer Compact Contrabass Saxophone.
Whereas Benedikt has resolved to go up, this maker has chosen to go out. It's clear that a sub-bass horn is going to have a lot of tubing, and it certainly has to go somewhere - and this horn is unusual in that it's squat and wide. Very squat, and very wide.
It's an imposing bit of kit - and the fact that it extends so far from your body makes it somewhat impossible to heft on a strap (though if you chose to do so there are some very substantial sling rings from which to dangle your, undoubtedly, substantial sling).
Stainer contrabass saxophonePete and I had to wait some considerable time to get our hands on this horn - it was 'occupied' by a gent who was spending a considerable amount of time playing a sort of Klezmer-style repertoire on it. It was only after he'd gone, and we got our hands on it, that we realised quite how magnificent a player he'd was an extremely difficult instrument to play.
I certainly won't dismiss it as rubbish - that would be disrespectful to the indisputable talents of the craftsman - but I feel it's fair to say that the horn needs some development.
The action is nowhere near as sophisticated as on the Tubax, and it really needs to be for an instrument where the key cups are so far away from the touchpieces - and bear in mind that some of the key cups are around 5 inches in diameter!
Many of the keys had an incredible amount of travel - you couldn't as much roll your finger between the low B and Bb touchpieces as get half your hand in the gap.
It also didn't have anywhere near the definition and clarity of the Tubax horns - fast passages tended to merge into a single note of indeterminate melody, and whilst it's fair to say that this horn is a completely different design and is therefore bound to sound quite different it's also fair to say that it could benefit substantially from being a little less different.
I noted that one of the pillars had fallen off the side Bb cup key, and someone had effected a temporary repair with an elastic band. These things happen...but if they had visited the classical strings hall they'd have found a German chap selling a range of advanced cyanoacrylates (that's posh superglue to you and me), any one of which would have ensured that pillar sat in place for the rest of the show...and beyond. (See? You gotta look beyond the obvious for the tools and gadgets!).
I hope the builder continues to develop this horn - it looks fabulous and I very much feel that it has great potential.

Saxonett and XaphoonsOnto something smaller now, much smaller.
Jupiter were exhibiting a new student instrument - the Saxonett (shown on left side of photo). This is essentially a Chalameau. It's an entry-level instrument that's small enough to be played by a very young child and both cheap and sturdy enough to make it a worthwhile proposition. The Saxonett, in spite of its name, is actually closer to a clarinet - it has a parallel bore, it's played with a standard clarinet mouthpiece and uses a standard clarinet reed. It's OK, but not terribly exciting - and it's an idea that has been going for some time in the shape of the Xaphoon (shown on the right of the photo), which is a far more interesting and flexible instrument.
The Xaphoon has an integral mouthpiece and uses a tenor sax reed - it's an easier blow than the Saxonett, it's more versatile, has a greater note range and comes in a wide variety of styles and finishes. It's about the same price too - so it wins hands-down on all fronts.
I suspect that not many woodwind players got to see these interesting instruments as they were tucked away in the sheet music hall - and the only reason I visited the hall was to check out a couple of publishers.

I was keen to see what the Chinese had been up to in the last year, but it seems 'not a lot' is about the best that I can come up with. Last year's quality has been maintained, but little improved upon in most areas. From what I hear 'in the trade' the improvements have been more about consistency rather than development, which is no bad thing. I still managed to spot a few duffers, which means that someone must be buying them. Heaven only knows why - it's entirely possible to hop from one stand to another and find better instruments at pretty much the same prices as the iffy ones.
I did manage to find an agreeable bass flute - but I found it required a bit of practice to get to grips with the embouchure. I might be getting my hands on an example for extended testing which point I'll see what it can do.
The alto flute is a far more accessible instrument, and I noted several very good examples from the Chinese at excellent prices.

Cupless saxophoneOne Chinese horn that caught my eye was this alto with synthetic pads. This was from the same company that exhibited a sax with cork joint on the tenon last year. That wasn't such a great idea - and I half expected this alto to be somewhat dismal, but I was quite wrong.
It was actually quite a decent blow.
The key cups have been reduced in size to a mere 'holding cup' and the pads sit on some sort of unspecified swivel mounting. This allows the pad to move quite freely - in effect a self-levelling (and thus self-seating) design. The pad itself appears to be composed of a thin metal disc that's about 5mm smaller in diameter than the sandwich of 'foam rubber' stuff that encloses it.
I had no problem getting a low Bb out of this alto, though it did require a little extra finger pressure.
I suspect that with a decent set up this horn's performance could be improved significantly - though it remains to be seen how durable the pads are. I noted a few had been picked at, probably by nosey repairers wondering what the pads were made of...but you could expect the same treatment to be dished out by schoolkids.
I'm thinking that perhaps some sort of protective lining might be in order...?
The idea certainly works - the manufacturers say the pads have a year's guarantee - and if it proves to be reliable it could make significant inroads into schools and the like. It would also be very easy to replace a pad...

Mind you, it's not like the Chinese don't have any competition.
The Taiwanese have been very active in the field of instrument manufacture for many years now, and most of their products are widely acknowledged to be 'of a standard'. In the last few years they've moved more upmarket - perhaps because they could, but also because the Chinese were destroying their lower-end customer base.
But it seems like they're rallying, and I noted a number of instruments of significant quality at really quite low prices.
Not as low as the standard Chinese fare, to be sure, but low enough to occupy the £400-£600 mark with ease - and give quite a lot of value for money.
There are few, if any, build quality issues; response and feel is better; finishes are smarter and there are some interesting small design features - including black 'roo skin' pads.
I doubt this will stop the Chinese in their tracks, but it does even the market up a little at least for a while - although it pretty much finishes off the major-name branded entry-level Taiwanese horns.
That said, the Taiwanese have competition from the Vietnamese manufacturers - who appear to be just as capable of turning out a decent horn for around the £450 mark.

Chinese bass saxophoneStaying with the Chinese for a moment, I managed to get a decent look at their bass sax this year.
Lots of people have asked me if these are any good, considering the affordable price they sell for, so I was very keen to give this horn a blow. Unfortunately it didn't work that well - the setup wasn't very good and it would have needed about an hour's worth of bench time to sort out properly. However, for the few notes it managed to produce it did quite well. As it wouldn't blow the full range I wasn't able to check if it was in tune, but it did OK between low and upper it sounds promising.
Build quality wasn't too bad, though the design of the horn is rather dated (most likely copied from an old Conn).
I think it's fair to say that if you bought one of these you could expect to have to spend a few quid having it properly tweaked and set up.

Moving considerably up the scale I checked out the Inderbinen horns. Yamaha fans have a head start with these saxes as they use Yamaha's 62 series keywork - so a decent action is a certainty.
These horns are incredibly expensive, but they both feel and play like they're worth every penny.
I don't imagine that players who prefer a more rounded or vintage tone would be all that impressed by them - but for those players who like a crisp, free-blowing contemporary horn, these saxes are a knockout.
Naturally, like any self-respecting sax player I tried to blag a freebie...but looking at the seriously impressive list of endorsees I could see that I was just about entitled to a brochure.
I was particularly impressed with the finish. It is, in fact, no finish at all. The dark coloration comes from the heating (annealing) process used during manufacture to soften the brass to make it workable. I liked it, and because the process oxidises the surface of the brass it should be a very durable finish.
Inderbinen saxesHere's a question though - how important do you feel the accuracy of a horn's bore is? I only ask because if you run a finger around the body of these horns you can feel ripples and flats in the brass from the hand-working manufacture. Would these horns play better with a more consistent bore...or is it because of these imperfections that they play so well??

Another company in the 'independent' sector that had some impressive horns was Rampone & Cazzani.
These horns are Italian, and very typically so - which means that the finish is slightly iffy in places, but the performance is unquestionable.
In some ways I found them a little reminiscent of Buffet horns in blowing terms - I wouldn't say they were all that gutsy, but they have great appeal for mainstream jazzers. Pete Thomas gave the baritone a good blow and felt it to be almost classical in its response. Similarly he found the alto to be a superb be-bop horn, and quite hard to put down - so much so that he almost missed his flight back!
I'd say that these were very individual horns - and they attracted a great deal of attention throughout the show...which perhaps points up the fact that lots of horn players are looking for something just a bit different these days.
Of course, it helps when you have enthusiastic staff on your stand to engage with the customers and chat with them - something that Borgani could have done with.
I found their stand quite by chance, rather unusually tucked away in the sheet music hall - along with the banjos, accordions and other assorted paraphernalia. I'd imagine that they weren't all that busy through the show, so you'd think that they'd positively pounce on someone wearing a sax sling and a trade pass who appeared to be taking an inordinate interest in their horns.
Not a chance - and after five minutes of intent key-wiggling and studious stubble-scratching I wandered off to laugh at a fat man playing a banjo.

I checked in at Antigua's stand to see how their quality control is shaping up. It's looking good, I'm pleased to say. The keywork issues I raised in my review of their soprano have been sorted and these horns will square up well to the competition (of which there's likely to be a lot quite soon, I suspect).

As for the majors, well, my focus this year wasn't on them so much - but I did note that Yamaha have a new Custom soprano out with a top G. I didn't blow it, but it felt good - and being a Yamaha it's unlikely that it'll be anything less than great (if you like Yamahas, of course).

And finally we come to Keilwerth.
Readers of this site will know all too well of my history with this brand - and my disappointment with their quality it might surprise you to know that if I had to award a 'best in show' medal it would go to the Keilwerth 20th Anniversary Shadow tenor.
Yep, it's a beauty. It's perhaps not my choice of horn when it comes to the action or the tone, but I know a good horn when I get my hands on one. Free-blowing, responsive, rich, precise - definitely the best SX90R I've played...and I've played a few!
Naturally, I had a damn good peek at the toneholes - which appeared to be level enough to pass a visual examination. I seriously hope that Keilwerth make every effort to ensure all the Anniversary series horns (at least) are up to scratch...but on past performance I wouldn't put any of my own money on it.
Definitely worth a try...but make sure you thoroughly check those toneholes.

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