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Olds (Pierret) Parisian tenor saxophone

Olds Parisian tenor saxophoneOrigin: France
Guide price: £350
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Late 1950s/early 60s
Date reviewed: August 2007

A curious French stencil saxophone made for an American company

If you're looking for a decent old saxophone on a budget, a 'stencil' brand is often the best choice.
A stencil is a instrument made by one company and sold under a seller's brand name. To a large extent it doesn't matter so much what the seller's name is, what's really important is who made the instrument - and in some cases that might be quite a well-known and highly respected maker, such as Conn or Martin.
There's a slight catch though; a stencil horn is unlikely to have been a top model. It's most likely to have been one of the maker's older models, or a specially produced 'cut-down' or student model. Even bearing that in mind though, such instruments can often be bought quite cheaply and can be quite a bit better than the selling price would suggest.
The Olds Parisian is a stencil horn built by the little-known French company, Pierret.
Having recently reviewed their Competition alto sax, and found it to be a little gem, I had very high hopes for the Parisian tenor - as did the buyer, who figured if the alto was so good, so might be this tenor.

First impressions weren't that promising, particularly the slightly crude plastic rollers and key pearls - which straightaway conjured up the supposition that this might be a student level horn. Still, rollers and pearls can wear and require changing - and perhaps this might have been the case.
The bodywork follows much the same pattern as the Competition alto; there are those curious blocky pillars which have no provision for adjusting the point screws (a very important consideration on a vintage horn, where the action is likely to be quite worn); the bell stay is a plain and thin bar; there's no detachable bell or adjustable thumb hook and the bell is soldered on.
The bell key guards are simpler, with only the B/Bb guards bearing a single example of the pillar-mounted screws as featured on the Competition.
Overall build quality is similar too, not too bad - but with some of the pillars being noticeably scruffy.

Olds Parisian tenor bell spatsThe keywork is simple and relatively uncluttered. It's not quite the same design as that on the Competition - it looks rather less well designed, though with none of the quirks I found on the alto (so it's not all bad).
The layout of the bell key spatulas is very basic, with the one concession to design being the double taper on the Bb touchpiece.
The table itself is far smaller than that found on the Competition, and this was to prove problematical later on, in the testing stage of the review.
The octave key system is simple, yet effective - as are the side Bb/C trill keys - and so is the front F key, the touchpiece of which is positioned quite some distance back from the C key pearl. You'd be hard put to hit this key if you rolled your forefinger up - it's a fair old jump and you'd need a finger about the same width as your average pork sausage!

By far the most bizarre feature of the keywork was the angle of the low C and Eb spatulas, as seen on the right.
I've never seen these keys set quite so low as on this tenor - so low, in fact, that it was almost impossible to make them work properly...you just couldn't get any leverage going with your little finger. I initially suspected that the keys had been deliberately bent down, but in the process of adjusting them it became clear that this was indeed how they'd been built.
I've since seen an example with level touchpieces, so the ones shown must have been deliberately put in this position by someone who took great care to maintain the alignment of the key arms and connecting bars.

Olds Parisian tenor C and Eb keyThe C key, on the right, shows the original position - the Eb key shows the modified position. I had to sweat a bit to get it to this position (not that the keys are tough, they're actually quite soft), and lining up the two spatulas proved to be almost impossible. To really resolve the issue both spatulas would have to be unsoldered and removed, repositioned and resoldered...which is quite a lot of work. Sensibly the owner settled for having them manhandled into a position that made them at least mostly effective.

The action wasn't terribly slick under the fingers even after a setup. The main stack action wasn't too bad, but the bell key cluster proved to be something of a nightmare.
The G# is articulated (which means that the G# touchpiece is connected to the low C# and B touchpieces) in such a crude fashion that it makes it all but impossible to operate the low C#. This is often something of an issue with older horns, but I've never come across a horn that's been quite this bad.
It's all down to the geometry of the keys - no amount of tweaking the spring will help (you can only slacken springs off so much before they fail to do the job they're supposed to do), and the only real fix would be to remove the articulation...or extensively modify the spatulas.
Such a job is quite involved (and thus expensive), but could be worth it on a horn that plays exceptionally well.

The trouble is, this isn't a horn that plays exceptionally well.

I'll deal with the physical problems first, before expanding on my playing impressions.
The first thing I noticed was a muted low B. This isn't an uncommon problem - indeed, plenty of older Selmers seem to suffer from this. It's usually only noticeable to the listener when the player is working subtone (those quiet, breathy low notes, a la Stan Getz), but even at full blast I noticed a very distinct resistance to the note.
To be fair, it improved a little after some time spent blowing the horn - but the note still didn't sit evenly with the comparatively rich low C and Bb.

Likewise, the mid D was very noticeably pinched and stuffy - raising the height of the low C key cup didn't help either.

I had some tuning problems too, with a tendency for the horn to blow a little sharp in the upper octave.
Normally I'd say that minor discrepancies like this are part and parcel of the compromises that exist in the design of the saxophone - and that with a little practice the player will soon form an embouchure that suits the characteristics of the horn...but this horn was still blowing sharp when other horns would have fallen into line. I gave it more time though, and eventually I found the octaves came into tune.
That said, there's quite a difference between the tuning of the normal top F and the auto or front F, with the latter being noticeably flat. Strangely enough, the false fingered top F# (front F+BisBb+side Bb) is bang on.

So, those were the problems which anyone who plays one of these horns is likely to come up against.
It looks bad on paper, and an inexperienced player might find this horn a bit of a challenge for a while, but someone with a few more bars under their belt should be able to tame this horn in a couple of hours.

Tonewise I was a little unimpressed. It wasn't a bad tone by any means - a touch on the medium-bright side, which is a preference of mine anyway, and reasonably even save for the aforementioned glitches - but I just felt it didn't fully develop.
There's just a hint of boxiness about it, it doesn't quite fully fatten out.
In a sense, this is a classic symptom of playing a student horn whilst having pro-horn expectations. I suppose that shows up the natural optimist in me - I tend to expect the best before I settle for less, and often find that this gives a horn a better chance to impress. I rather feel that people who blow horns expecting them to sound bad will nearly always get a bad sound.
But - even with the best intentions I found myself having to knock down my expectations time and again...and on that basis, along with the issues posed by some of the keywork, I'd place this horn fairly and squarely in the student camp.

Before I set to reviewing this horn I decided not to do any research on it - it's always interesting to review a relatively unknown horn on its own merits before finding out what others have thought about it. As it happens, my findings seem to echo the general consensus.

It's a disappointing result considering the tour-de-force of the Competition alto, and whilst I would love to be able to find at least something upon which to pin a medal I'm afraid the bottom line on this horn is that I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but the most dedicated Pierret collector. There are far too many far better horns out there for the same money.

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