June 2001

Selmer Reference 54 and 36 Tenor Saxophones

Saxophonists have been wailing for years, and not always on a blues or ballad. Often the wail has sounded more like: “Why won’t Selmer just make the Mark VI again!” Selmer has responded to the laments by bringing out two new tenors, the Reference 54 and the Reference 36, that are made in the spirit of the Mark VI and the Balanced Action, respectively. These horns are neither reproductions of the classic models nor are they meant to replace Selmer’s top-of-the-line saxophone, the Series III. The idea behind the Reference tenors is that they have the great tone quality of the Mark VI and Balanced Action but they take advantage of modern improvements in intonation and key work.

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Selmer Reference Saxophones

Since 1974, when the Mark VI was discontinued, a mythology has grown around the classic horns involving everything from the hoarding of horns by dealers in Japan to the formulation of complicated theories surrounding the original metal used by Selmer to make the VIs. One story has the Selmer Company buying church bells that were confiscated during World War II and then using that metal, tempered by years of being rung by Quasimodo, to make the arcane blend of alloys that became the Mark VI. Another version was that the metal came from the spent casings of artillery shells fired from tanks during the war that were then recycled into saxophones. True or not, the stories were so fabulous it seemed virtually impossible to reproduce the classic horns. Fortunately, Selmer has somehow found the magic formula again and come out with two top-notch instruments.

Since both new instruments were made to appeal to players who enjoy playing the Mark VI or Balanced Action, I thought it fair to place the horns up to my own tenors, a Balanced Action (serial #50K) and a Mark VI (serial #159K) and play all of them back-to-back over the course of about a week.

The Reference 54 is noticeably heavier than the Mark VI. This is probably due to the more extensive key work on the new horn that includes extra supports for the longer rods and thicker metal for the keys. The keys on the body of the horn and the spatulas for the little fingers on both hands feel very close to my Mark VI. The palm keys are low, however, and feel more like a Balanced Action. The Reference 54’s biggest improvement over the VI is a remarkably even scale and excellent intonation through the entire range, especially in the high register, where it is aided by the addition of a high F-sharp key. The sound of the horn is clear although slightly less resonant than both of my older Selmers. It projects well, though, and is much closer to the old Selmers than any horn I’ve played.

The lacquer is unique and part of a new process that Selmer is using only on this model in order to give it a vintage look. The horn is put through an oxidation process that turns the body and keys black. It is then brushed to remove most of the black color (a little is left in the nooks and crannies around posts and such places) and then coated with a matte lacquer that makes the horn look something like an old VI without its lacquer. There is no engraving anywhere on the horn except for the Selmer logo on the bell.

The Reference 36 is Selmer’s tribute to the Balanced Action. One big difference between the Balanced and this horn is the key work. It doesn’t feel much like a Balanced Action. According to Selmer, the keys are lighter weight than those of the Reference 54. I didn’t notice much difference, however, in the way the two horns felt as I played them. Another variation from the original Balanced and the 36 is the addition of a high F-sharp key. The sound of this horn reminded me more of the Super Action horns made between 1947 to 1954 than the older Balanced Action made between 1935 to 1947. It has a more open, free-blowing sound than the 54, but still has the same excellent intonation and scale. The main difference in the body of the two horns is that, like the Balanced Action, the 36 has a bigger bore in the lower part of the horn around the bottom curve and a bigger bell. Unlike the 54 it has traditional lacquer that has a beautiful light-rose color.

Selmer has finally given tenor players what they’ve wanted: a horn that carries on the tradition of the Mark VI and the Balanced Action. Selmer hopes to have alto prototypes available for the IAJE conference in 2002. The baritone and soprano models are still on the drawing board.

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