No one has ever gone broke exploiting saxophonists’ infatuation with the Selmer Mark VI-from the folks on eBay auctioning vintage ’60s horns for reserve prices of eight grand and up, to the many contemporary sax manufacturers (Selmer included) who do their darndest to produce a reasonable facsimile of the iconic instrument. RS Berkeley falls under the latter category. The company now has its own Mark VI-inspired line, the Virtuoso Series, which was designed with input from such luminaries as Tim Ries-the Rolling Stones’ favored sax player-and the late Michael Brecker, and is manufactured in China. Yet its major inspiration seems to come from the workshop of the Selmer Company circa 1954.
The Virtuoso website touts such features as a “custom neck” (available in multiple finishes, and the company says it can customize the neck to fit the artist), “ergonomic keywork” and an “engraved bell”; “Vintage Personified,” or so they call the horns-which in sax-speak usually means “just like a Mark VI.” In this case, it’s not all hype. The company sent me two horns for review: the VIRT1001M alto (the “M” signifying its matte finish) and the VIRT2006DL tenor (“DL” for dark lacquer). In both cases I used the neck that matched the body of the horn.
I knew nothing about the horns beforehand. The first thing I saw upon opening the tenor case-a nice if typical lightweight hard case covered in blue fabric with shoulder straps, a handle and two outside pockets-was the black plastic end plug. “Hmmm, looks just like the end plug of a Selmer,” I said to myself, and that was only the first of many similarities. From the design of the key guards to the shape of the octave key and the circular brace that connects the bell to the body, both the alto and tenor bear an undeniable resemblance to the Mark VI.
That said, the horns are physically attractive in their own right. To my knowledge, there is no Mark VI parallel to the Virtuoso alto’s matte finish, but the tenor’s dark lacquer has a copper-tinged hue somewhat reminiscent of certain aged Selmers. (The tenor and alto models are also available in gold-plated, silver-plated, regular lacquer and black nickel finishes.) The engraving-while certainly well done-is nowhere near as elaborate or intricate as that of the older horns, yet all in all both are easy on the eye. Of course, beauty is only skin deep. How do they play?
Pretty well, it turns out. The Virtuoso in both its alto and tenor versions is well built from top-to-bottom: a heavy, substantial instrument made with heavy-gauge brass. It seems the promo literature’s reference to “ergonomic keywork” is but another way of saying it feels like a Mark VI. The way the left hand wraps around the front of the body to reach the keys, forcing the player’s hand very close to the palm keys, is characteristic of the Selmer, as is the way the right hand lies naturally, without stretch or strain.
Berkeley makes a bit of a big deal about how the horns were designed without a high-F-sharp key, a “feature” not generally found on the Mark VI. Some technically inclined sax players think the key skews the intonation; as for myself, I couldn’t possibly say. On its site, Berkeley says the extra key can be included upon request, and the alto I received had one, although the tenor did not. I’ve always been able to do without a high F-sharp on my horns. In the long run, a sax is probably better without. At the very least, it makes for one less pad to spring a leak down the road.
The horns are as tight as the lid on a jar of Smucker’s. The pads have large metal resonators, the better to project in a jazz or commercial setting. The action was stiff-like a good pair of leather shoes, a sax needs some breaking in-and set very high for my taste (the tenor less so), making it a bit awkward for someone who plays fast; of course, any dealer would have his or her technician set up the horn to the buyer’s liking. The buttons are imitation mother of pearl, a bit raised with slightly beveled edges that provide a rather small indentation for the finger tip. I initially found this a bit annoying, although I got used to it in fairly short order.
The sound is focused; the scale is very consistent. Remarkably little embouchure adjustment is required in order to play in tune, which I frankly found a bit disconcerting at first, since I play a very old tenor and alto (neither made by Selmer) and a great deal of soprano. I’m used to a bit of mouth-flexing, but none is needed here: The Virtuoso nails pitch with minimum fuss. Both horns are very free-blowing. Interestingly, the alto’s sound isn’t all that reminiscent of a Mark VI; using my Meyer 5 mouthpiece, it’s less bright, a bit darker (perhaps because of the matte finish). On the other hand, the tenor, with my Otto Link 7* hard-rubber mouthpiece, gets a bright-but-not-too-bright sound-ballsy, but not harsh.
The horns’ prices-in the low-to-mid $2,000 range at online retailers-are reasonable, making the Virtuoso a lot of sax for the buck. These are excellent horns, yet a customer shouldn’t expect to be getting a Mark VI on the cheap. There’s no substitute for a genuine vintage sax, be it a Selmer, a Martin or any other legendary model of yesteryear. Still, as new horns go, the Virtuoso is a superb instrument.