As I opened up alto saxophonist Vincent Herring’s latest album something in the liner notes caught my eye: “On this recording, I used two different saxophones: A Selmer Mark VI (58000) and a Yamaha 875 EX.”
Curious. It’s not totally unheard of for a saxophonist to identify which model he or she played on a date. (One of my favorites was a Jerry Bergonzi album on which it clearly said he endorsed Selmer saxophones, but then in another place he revealed he played a Conn 10M on the record. I guess there was a limit as to Bergonzi’s endorsement of Selmer.) What is curious to me is that Herring played two completely different saxophones for the same record [peep the geeky footnote below]*. Being a saxophonist who made the switch from playing a Yamaha EX to a Mark VI, I know that there is an audible difference between the two horns, which can be heard on this album. As many sax geeks out there can testify to, a five digit Mark VI (five digit meaning a serial number below 100k), as Herring plays on some of Night and Day, is considered to be the be all and end all of saxophones. The Yamaha EX is a nice horn, but it is no 6, and the differences in tone quality, color, and character vary throughout the album. It’s not so much a difference of night and day, it’s more akin to day and dusk.
Herring’s Selmer has a much more complex sound than the Yamaha; it has more overtones, and is warmer and more dynamic. The Yamaha, on the other hand, is slightly harsh and the tone sounds a bit clipped, as if some of the overtones were stifled; it just doesn’t have the free sound that the Selmer does. Herring can do anything on the Yamaha he can do on the Selmer, and there is no difference between what he plays and how he plays it. His hard bop lines are just as musical and melodic and inventive and soulful on one horn as they are on the other.
I definitely have a preference for the cuts with the Selmer [note: the liner notes do not indicate which track features which horn; I’m basing this on my educated guess]. But just because there are some songs that have a tone color that I find less appealing does that mean I should lower my evaluation of the album? Would the album been stronger if Herring had played the Selmer on each song? It depends on who is listening I suppose. If one can’t hear the subtle differences, then this means absolutely diddly squat, and it’s all academic. And it depends on who the review of the CD is written for. Non-saxophonists won’t care, and I’m sure they’ve all stopped reading this post by now. If the review was for the Saxophone Journal, then perhaps it would be worth bringing up. But Downbeat or JazzTimes? Probably not.
Perhaps another way to think about it: What if Miles Davis had played two different trumpets on Kind of Blue, and the only difference between the real Kind of Blue and this hypothetical one was a slight difference in tone quality on, say, “Freddy Freeloader,” and everything else was the same? Surely that wouldn’t have any impact on what we would think of the album, would it? It would still be a masterpiece, right? And besides, there’s more to Kind of Blue than Miles – which is the case with Night and Day. Herring’s tone has no bearing on Jeremy Pelt’s searing playing on “Fly, Little Bird, Fly,” nor does it keep the rhythm section (Mike Ledonne, Brandi Disterheft, and Joe Farnsworth) from swinging its ass off.
At the end of the day I can’t decide if the different horns Herring plays impacts the album’s quality, and it’s such a minor difference. I love Herring’s playing, I’ve listened to the album a ton of times, I don’t skip over any of the cuts when I put the CD on (maybe that’s my answer right there). But there’s still something in me that wants to hear the Selmer all the way through. It’s a head scratcher indeed, and just another example of how tough reviewing records can be. Which criteria are important? Which will readers care about? What will the musician think? (I hope they would at least be pleased that I was listening that closely.) What is the best way to respect the music and the musician? All tough questions. No easy answers. And Night and Day – a very fine album that is definitely worth checking out – just gave me another way in which to approach these thorny issues.
*The first thought I had to mind was that Herring must be a Yamaha artist and has some kind of contractual stipulation that states he must play on the Yamaha alto “x” amount of times on any session. My second thought was that perhaps the Yamaha was his backup horn and something happened to his Selmer during the session that was not easily fixable, so he pulled out his Yamaha to finish the session. I did a quick search to see if Herring endorsed Yamaha. On his website he lists a gold plated Yanagisawa A991 as his primary axe, along with a different mouthpiece/reed setup than is listed in the Night and Day liner notes. Turns out he is a Yanagisawa artist. I wonder why he didn’t bring his Yani to this session?