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Couesnon Monopole Conservatoire II tenor saxophone

Couesnon Monopole II tenorOrigin: France
Guide price: From £450 (get 'em while you can folks!)
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1960's
Date reviewed: February 2007

A decent horn from a relatively obscure (to most) maker

It's been a good year (so far) for unusual and delightful horns in the workshop - such as the Pierret alto, recently reviewed - so when this particular tenor found its way onto the workbench I was more than a little curious to see how it compared considering its pedigree was similar to that of the Pierret (i.e. French built, circa 1960).

It's perhaps understandable, inevitable even, that one would immediately draw a comparison with the Selmer MKVI - so let's see how the Couesnon fares.

First up, it's worth discussing the pronunciation of the maker's name.
It's not immediately obvious, and I freely admit to having pronounced it 'Kooosnon' in the past - but I'm reliably informed that the correct pronunciation is 'Kwennon'. If you want to add a hint of an accent you can also get away with 'Koowennon' - though it helps if you lose interest by the end of the word and mute the final 'n'.
In terms of history, Couesnon are perhaps rather better known for their brasswinds - in particular their flugelhorns - and for the invention of a remarkable instrument known as the Couesnophone, nicknamed the 'Goofus'. It's essentially a harmonica.
I recall seeing one of these things for the first time in a junk shop many years ago, and when I asked the owner what it was called he said 'Fred'. I suppose I had it coming...
They were also responsible for the Saxie - a sort of basic 'novelty' sax, which, frankly, was about as nasty as it sounds.
One might suppose that the company spanned the divide between the sublime and the ridiculous...which might tell you something about the Monopole II tenor...

The body is very well put together, with substantial straps and pillar bases. Some aspects of the design are quite simple - there's no detachable bell, for example; the thumb hook isn't adjustable and the bell brace mount on the body is quite small. In other aspects though it's quite fussy, what with the inverted double socket on the crook (as seen on the alto review) and the slightly delicate-looking bell key guards.
Beware of loose crooks on these horns (not impossible to fix, but tricky and expensive), and in particular check for cracks around the locking screw mounts.
The body also features rolled tone holes - which, save for a few adjacent to the odd dent, were level.
The bell rim is folded; that's to say that, unlike most other horns where the rim is simply rolled, it extends about 8mm down the bell. This makes the rim quite sturdy - though the flipside to that is that if the horn takes a substantial whack to the rim it's quite a job to straighten it out again.

The keywork too is quite sturdy - with perhaps the emphasis having been placed on functionality rather than style. It's what I would call 'blocky' in places, particularly the low C/Eb touchpieces, the side trills and the palm keys.
In a similar fashion the octave key mechanism is quite basic. Proper point screws are used throughout, so taking up the inevitable wear in the action on a horn of this age won't be too much of a chore.

Couesnon Monopole II tenor G#The most intriguing aspect of the action is the curious G# mechanism.
This is a very unusual design - the lower half of which can be seen on the main picture, just above the bell brace. Note how the G# lever sits over the top of the key cup arm.
Not that there's anything wrong with this design - in fact it works very well, and allows the G# cup spring to be set quite hard without making the touchpiece action overly heavy. A real boon for a sax with rolled tone holes.
It's the articulation mechanism though that's the real point of interest. It's 'switchable' - you can choose to have the G# connected to the bell keys, or not. The chief advantage of this is that it helps to keep the Bb/B/C# action light and responsive - though at the cost of losing the ability, when playing bell notes, to leave your fingers where they are if you want to nip up to pop out a quick G#.
The way in which it does this is via a sprung flip-up bar attached to the G# key arm. It works quite well, though it's obviously dreadfully complicated when compared to a similar mechanism found on some cheap horns (such as the Czech built Cortons and Lafleurs) that used a simple plate that slid out from under the G# touchpiece.
Perhaps the biggest problem with selectable mechanisms like these is that there's a good chance that you'll forget how they're set - which could lead to some G#/C# related embarrassment on a gig.
In my experience players usually end up leaving the things either permanently on or off.

It's good though to see some thought applied to the action - even though it might have been better directed at, say, placing the front F key within easy reach of the forefinger (much tweaking is needed here to bring the touchpiece close enough to the B key to make it anywhere near usable at speed), and perhaps a more modern bell key spatula arrangement.

Couesnon Monopole II tenor palm keysIn term of feel the action is remarkably light and swift under the fingers.
My only stumbling blocks were the aforementioned front F key and the placement of the palm keys.
These keys follow the functional pattern of the rest of the keywork, but I'm not so sure that this actually works that well - and I can envisage many players opting for palm key risers here, if only to make the feel more comfortable.
The bell key spatulas, although basic, seemed to work fine - though much improvement was noted when the G# mechanism wasn't linked to it (as you'd expect).
Similarly, the octave key worked fine - though with the touchpiece being a simple rectangular block it's rather less comfortable than those that allow you to slide to the right to operate the key.

The Monopole II is an easy blow - quite free, but with just enough resistance to get your teeth into. The tone is surpassingly contemporary - but then its build date places it in that period when the shift was underway from the rounded tones of the pre-1950's horns to the edgier tones of the post 70's. As such it sits between the two camps and seems quite comfortable in either.
It has a relatively focussed tone - there's isn't that sense of the sound being 'wide' like you'd find on a modern horn; this sax is a little more introspective, but by no means timid.

The low notes at subtone are gloriously rich - and at full volume they're as crisp as you'd want them to be. As you rise up the scale the tone rounds out and warms up, leaving the top notes nicely rounded but with enough cut to make them useful if you wanted to push the horn somewhat.
There's perhaps a touch of dullness about the low and mid D, but that's pretty common on a horn of this vintage - and something that can be lifted with a little time spent on your embouchure.
I was particularly interested in the tuning as the horn's last owner had sold it on because of problems with the top D.
The major cause of this turned out to be the lack of sufficient cork on the palm D foot, which allowed the key to open about twice the normal height - and palm key heights can be crucial when it comes to tuning.
One new piece of cork later and all was well, with the tuning being even across the range.

All in all I'd say this was a well-balanced horn tonewise and should appeal to vintage and modern fans alike, with its ability to span the divide to the player's preference.
So how does it compare to the Selmer MKVI? Actually, I feel it compares better to the earlier Super and Balanced Action horns. These earlier Selmers have a more focussed, narrow tone - which lends these horns a more intimate feel. The Couesnon certainly fits within this category, but with an ability to extend a little further. In that sense it touches upon the sublime - though the fussy bell key guards and the curious G# key could perhaps border on the ridiculous.
But, a decent action, a versatile tone and a touch of the unusual make this tenor a rare little beauty in terms of playability - and given the relative obscurity of the make and the correspondingly low price, a proper bargain for the discerning player.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015