05/18/11

Yamaha’s Custom Z Soprano Sax: Look at Little Sister

Yamaha’s Custom Z soprano sax is a sharp new horn from a company that’s had it right since day one

Many years ago, a young musician roamed Music Row on 48th Street in New York City in search of the ideal soprano saxophone. After trying virtually every straight horn on the street, he decided that far and away the best available option was the newest model from Yamaha. The cash-strapped twentysomething cobbled together enough money and bought the horn. He would not regret his choice.

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Yamaha's YSS-8ZZR Soprano Saxophone

Twenty-odd years later he would audition another Yamaha soprano, a new addition to the company’s highly regarded Custom Z Series. Forced to compare the horns by the circumstances of this review, he has reason to ask: Is this bewitching ingénue a match for the now-middle-aged beauty with whom he fell in love so long ago?

It’s a little surprising that it’s taken Yamaha so long to introduce a soprano version into their successful Z Series. The Z Series alto and tenor have been around since 2003 and are widely considered superb instruments. Perhaps the success of Yamaha’s other line of sopranos factored into the wait. Whatever the reason, Yamaha took its time and got it right.
Unlike recent Yamaha pro sopranos, which feature detachable curved and straight necks, the YSS-82Z is a one-piece neck-through-bell design. It comes in both straight and curved versions; I was given the latter to review, the YSS-82ZR. The body is made of French brass and the keys are cast in yellow brass with mother-of-pearl buttons. The horn has front F and high-F-sharp keys, an adjustable plastic thumb hook and blue steel needle springs. The pads are made of waterproof leather and wool felt with plastic tone boosters. The hand engraving on the bell is rather common but attractive enough. The horn comes in four finishes: gold baked epoxy lacquer (YSS-82ZR), silver-plated (YSS-82ZRS), black lacquer (YSS-82ZRB) and unlacquered (YSS-82ZRU).

According to Yamaha, the Z Series soprano was designed “in the spirit of the classic Yamaha 62 Series,” and indeed, it feels very much how I remember the old 62—specifically, it’s much lighter than the YSS-675 and YSS-875EX models that essentially replaced the 62. If you like to play without a neck strap, this reduced weight is a good thing. On the other hand, lighter-gauge brass seems less resonant. Yamaha makes a semi-big deal in its promotional literature about the horn’s “distinctive designs” offering “players beautiful tonal colors.” The horn does that, but no more or less than the 675 and 875EX.

In fact, aside from the lighter weight, the 82Z plays very much like its most immediate forebears, and, in turn, very much like the company’s altos and tenors. The key layout of a Yamaha soprano is always very much like that of its brother and sister altos and tenors. The hands lie similarly, making it easy to move from one to the other. This wouldn’t matter if the action was lousy, of course, but the action of this horn is quite the opposite: It’s wonderful—solid and quick, with optimal spacing for the fingers and a comfortable all-over feel.

A curved neck offers more resistance than a straight neck, so naturally the curved 82ZR will feel somewhat less free-blowing than a straight horn. However, my 675 with the curved M1 detachable neck gets a ballsier, throatier sound than the one-piece curved 82ZR using the same Meyer 7 mouthpiece and Alexander D.C. Superial 2 1/2 reed. (The horn comes with Yamaha’s hard-rubber 4CM mouthpiece, a fairly closed piece that splits the difference between a round classical tone and a more open, buzzy jazz sound.) Admittedly, my evaluation is thoroughly non-scientific, but I suspect the lighter brass used in the 82Z has something to do with that. But the newer horn has its own, somewhat lighter sound, different from but no better or worse than the older. Different strokes. The evenness of scale, top-to-bottom, that has long distinguished Yamaha sopranos—and what ultimately prompted me to buy one over a similarly priced used Selmer Mark VI back in the day—is present here as well. While sopranos are notoriously difficult to play in tune, intonation problems are minimal with this horn.

If there’s one drawback with the 82Z, it might be the price. At $3,899.99 street, it runs a bit higher than some of its challengers. (Silver, black lacquer and unlacquered finishes make the horn cost a bit more.) Given the increasingly high quality of some of the horns now coming out of Taiwan—many of them considerably less expensive than this one—a Yamaha doesn’t provide the same bang for the buck that it once did. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the 82Z is as good a soprano as there is on the market. I’m not going to dump my still-beautiful partner of 20-odd years, but I’d be happy to introduce her lovely and refined younger sister to a friend.

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