Why make a straight alto? My guess is that it is done more for visual impact, less for acoustical reasons. A straight alto or tenor really does look sensationally different. Take it on the bandstand or stage and you're the centre of attraction before you play a note. In some branches of thye music profession that alone would be sufficient reason for investing in a straight instrument. Ian Kirkham, of Simply Red, plays a Keilwerth straight alto. Pinpointed in a special light onstage to draw attention to his unusual saxophone, Ian has played the instrument on two tours. "I absolutely love the thing," he told me.
"Great sound. Fun to play."
I have been intrigued by these instruments ever since seeing Mike Smith play one at an IAJE event in America. Later they appeared ever more frequently on trade stands around the world. When Julian Wheeler and Peter Beaumont of T.W. Howarth offered to provide a straight alto for review, I accepted with alacrity.
Keilwerth (Keil rhymes with smile, werth rhymes with flirt) could be regarded as the Mercedes Benz of saxophones - made in Germany, beautifully designed, engineering and craftsmanship are first class, the finish hardwearing and attractive, the design innovative without being eccentric. The luxury car analogy extends to the price. The model reviewed was an SX90R straight alto in black nickel plate, with a recommended retail price of £3290.00. The straight tenor in black nickel plate costs £3615.00. This is the expensive end of the market, the instrument's new-century modernity somehow underlined by the price being quoted in euros as well as sterling.
However, Keilwerth is no newcomer to instrument making. The family business began producing saxophones in 1925. Based at Nauheim near Frankfurt, Keilwerth joined the Boosey and Hawkes group in 1989. Straight altos were first produced by the company in the 1970s. Then, ten years ago, an American distributor asked for a straight alto, and the interest sparked by this instrument has influenced the sales of other models in the Keilwerth range. The company has produced a handful of straight tenors. "Only three or four so far," I was told.
A major feature of the model reviewed is that each tone hole edge appears to be rolled. The roll is actually a ring soldered onto the edge of the drawn tone hole. This is claimed to lengthen the life of the pads, and the wider seat for the pad gives greater security against air leaks between pad and body. It is said that the ring gives the saxophone a darker, more open sound, a quieter mechanical action and greater sound emission. "R" in the type designation indicates rolled tone holes; not all Keilwerth instruments offer this feature.
This model is also described as "including saxmover". At first I was unable to discover what a saxmover is. After much clicking about on the web I discovered a German language web site that offers Keilwerth saxophones, "Inklusive Koffer (Modell "Saxmover")". That is, "price includes the Saxmover model case". All became clear. A Saxmover is what you and I call a case.
The case supplied for review was a tough flight case in ribbed aluminium with reinforced corners and tough handle and clasps. Heavy but strong, it reminded me of cases used for photographic equipment. Also supplied was a sling, mouthpiece, adjusting spanner and Saxophonwischer - a pull-through.
Higher left-hand palm keys have a novel design of height adjusters (with a spanner supplied), a most welcome development. The left-hand little-finger keys have a new articulation mechanism. Also ingenious is the G-sharp pad cup lifting mechanism to eliminate G-sharp sticking.
Long rods are supported by guides, leather waterproof pads have metal resonators, and an auxiliary F-sharp key is fitted as standard. The black nickel plating is superb. It has an attractive pewter-like sheen to it and gives the promise of easy-care durability.
All screws are in stainless steel, the thumb hook adjustable in height and angle and the mother of pearl key inlays have no bezel. The bezel is the grooved ring in which the pearl is set.
Naturally the shape is a great novelty. There's much fun to be had in playing a game of first impressions - showing non wind players this horn and asking them to guess what it is from its appearance. When I did this, I was told "bass clarinet", "basset horn", "no idea", and "some kind of saxophone". Few guessed that it was an alto. Some saxophone players were mystified. All seemed to think that it was too large to be an alto and must be a tenor. Usually jazz saxophonists then referred to Roland Kirk and asked whether it was a stritch or a manzello. Almost everyone said that it was reminiscent of an alpenhorn.
All of the players who saw the instrument commented on its weight. About half said it was heavier than a conventional alto. The others said it was lighter. Weight is quoted in the catalogue as 2.6 kg (5lbs 12 oz), which is not significantly different from other leading makes. Perhaps the straight shape and the different weight distribution create the illusion of a different weight.
There was a similar division of opinion about the feel of the instrument on the sling. Certainly the sling has to be adjusted slightly longer than with a curved alto.
I was asked, "Is it a stritch?" The Buescher company offered a straight alto saxophone between 1927 and 1928, apparently making only a couple of hundred of them. The name stritch was coined much later by Roland Kirk when he found one of these rare Buescher altos early in his career. So, at a stretch it's a stritch, but this is Kirk's own description, which is not general. The correct description is straight alto. Since you're wondering, Kirk's manzello was a saxello with altered keys and an altered bell.
You're probably also wondering whether this alto has a Mercedes Benz performance to match its design and construction. Well, yes, it's luxurious, discreet, quiet, tasteful and smooth. All those adjectives are fine for saxophones, except for quiet. These days quiet isn't always good. Measuring such differences is not easy. With the instrument pointing down and away from the player it's bound to sound quiet. My own impression was that even accounting for this difference the straight alto is softer than my own Selmer Mark VI. In a solo or orchestral context this won't matter. Where I can envisage a need for player adjustment is when playing in a saxophone section in a big band. During my week spent with this instrument I didn't have an opportunity to have this experience. My opinion is that some player adaptation, maybe experimentation with mouthpieces, would be needed. I spoke to Andreas Gafke at the factory in Germany. His opinion is that the quietness is subjective. "The straight instrument has exactly the same body as the curved alto," he says, in his excellent English. "How can it be quieter?"
Have no misgivings about tuning or intonation. All is as it should be in that department.
However, there are disadvantages, and I'm not referring to unimportance of appearance when playing it on the radio. The first one is the physical awkwardness of this giant. The case is heavy and too long to go in the boot of my small car. So K the straight alto had to be transported on the back seat. It's worrying to leave the car parked anywhere with this beauty in her eye-catching flight case sitting in full view. During the week or so that K was my companion I had to remove her from the car and carry her with me wherever I went. So together K and I went to bank and broker, pub and post office, meals and meetings. If you are used to nothing bigger than a normal curved alto then the short message is to buy a larger car or be lumbered. The other effect of the length is that it is too easy to catch this long saxophone on furniture, walls or doors. That could be expensive.
In summary, this is a thoughtfully designed and beautifully made saxophone that will excite comment. The awkwardness of the shape will affect each saxophonist differently; some will want to own a straight Keilwerth purely because of its appearance. Others will regard it as an inconsequential downside compared with the considerable upside of an impressive instrument.
With graceful curve bananas grow,
Beelines always wander.
Directly rarely flies the crow,
And rural paths meander.
The goat's horn makes a graceful curve,
All hilltops undulate.
Appealing things in nature swerve,
- Should saxophones be straight?
John Robert Brown