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TJ Signature Custom (SC) RAW tenor

TJ SC Raw tenorOrigin: Taiwan, assembled in UK (www.tjsaxes.com)
Guide price: £2499
Weight: 3.5Kg
Date of manufacture: August 2011
Date reviewed: August 2011 (Gold RAW preview update March 2017)

The latest, and perhaps the greatest, pro model saxophone from the house of Trevor James

If you were in the market for a pro-level tenor a few years back and had drawn up a shortlist of brands to try, the name 'Trevor James' probably wouldn't have been on it.
To be sure, the TJ brand has been a solid performer down the years - they've made a very respectable name for themselves with their student range and many's the player who has started out on one of their instruments, such as 'The Horn' and the TJ Revolution. But it's been rather more of a struggle for TJ to break into the pro market.
Their Signature Custom range was introduced a few years ago in order to raise the bar, but despite being a decent enough horn it never seemed to really make it into the limelight. Probably because being merely 'decent enough' isn't quite enough - there's some hot competition around, and while such a sax might have cut the mustard a few decades ago, it takes rather more to stand out from the crowd these days.

The boffins at TJ were aware of this, and for the last couple of years have been working on a new model - the Signature Custom Raw.
What makes this horn rather different from its predecessors (and a great many other horns on the market) is the way in which it's been developed. Rather than come up with a design and put it into production, the SC Raw has been through a number of prototype stages - with each version being thrown out into the marketplace for review, criticism and feedback. I should know - they threw one at me.
To be honest it's not all that unusual for manufacturers to do this - review samples are often sent out for appraisal, but in most cases all the manufacturer really wants to know is whether it works or not. In other words it's a thinly-veiled rubber-stamping operation. Trevor James' approach differed in that they acted upon the comments fed back to them - from techs, players and dealers - in an effort to improve the product.
And they have.

The first model I saw impressed me very much, but I found a number of flaws. I passed on my comments, half expecting a polite 'thank you' and never hearing from the company again. How wrong I was. I did hear from them again, and what I heard sent a tingle down my spine.
And so what we have here is the finished product - and the question now is 'Is it good enough to stand out from the crowd?'

The body is nicely built, with level and smooth tone holes, and features a detachable bell section. The model featured here is the big-bell variant (159mm - 6 1/4") and there's a standard bell model available for £50 less.
The pillars and fittings are neatly made too and well-fitted with no signs of sloppy solderwork, and include all the modern features such as a removable side F# key guard, adjustable thumb hook and a triple-point bell stay.
The pillars are fitted to ribs - also known a 'ribbed construction' - and those that are standalone feature generously-sized bases, which will help prevent them being dislodged in the event of a knock.
I would have liked to have seen slightly larger guard mount feet though, as these are quite vulnerable and often prone to being knocked off.

TJ SC Raw thumb restI would also have liked to have seen a slightly beefier sling ring. It's strong enough as it is, but a little extra meat here never goes amiss and adds to a feeling of solidity.
No complaints with the thumb rest though - it's big and wide, and the logo carved into it helps to give a bit of grip when the going gets hot and sweaty.

The body finish is, well, it's not really a finish at all, which seems to be all the rage these days. As the horn's name suggests, it's bare-brass finish - it's simply dipped in a cleaner to remove the manufacturing grime and then given a coat of wax polish. At the time I reviewed this horn I had three similarly-finished tenors to hand, all from different companies. Some manufacturers appear to be better at it than others - the SC Raw looks quite good, I think - but if you take a few steps back they all look like brown saxes. I guess it's a finish you either like or you don't, but TJ have sweetened the pill a little with some rather nice engraving on the bell, as well as the model name engraved into the crook. Because there's no lacquer on the horn the finish will change over time with use - but because of the oxidisation from the dip and the wax polish it's unlikely to go green, as many plain bare-brass horns do.
But if you feel that even this pre-tarnished finished is too much, there's always the XS version (I've reviewed the alto here) - which is exactly the same horn but one that's been hand finished to bring the horn back to completely bare brass.

TJ SC Raw tenor lower stackThe keywork is nicely made, and features an interesting approach to the popular double-arms on the key cups.
You can see from the main image that they're present on the low C and C# key cups, but not on the low B and Bb. Given that the larger the key cup the more likely it is to suffer from twisting, it would have made more sense had the arrangement been the other way round - but then since twisting key cups are seldom that much of a problem it's probably a moot point.
So is there an argument for using them on the lower stack keys?
Possibly. I'm certainly used to having to adjust the low F and D keys on saxes, where years of use on the side-mounted key pearls has resulted in a little bias to the key cups - so I can see the benefit of beefing up these key arms.
It adds very little weight to the horn (or the action), but I've a slight concern that the additional arm on the low F key will hinder any swedging the key might require in the future.

The rest of the keywork is pretty much standard fare, and I'm pleased to see that TJ have been sensible and stuck to a simple fork and pin linkage on the side Bb/C keys and a well-placed teardrop touchpiece for the front top F key. A nice touch is the slightly domed pearl on the Bis Bb key, which makes for a comfortable and swift transition between the B and the Bb.
TJ SC Raw bell keys spatsThe bell key spatulas feature a tilting table, and the keys are mounted on a semicircular pillar - again, a popular modern design.
There's no extra brace for the pillar though, as seen on quite a few other horns that use this type of arched design - and as TJ have gone to all the trouble to add extra arms to the lower stack keys I feel it would have made sense to continue the 'beefy' theme by adding a brace here.

One feature that's worthy of comment, if only because you probably won't notice it, is the quality of the regulation buffers fitted to the main stack keys. Most manufactures fit a piece of cork and leave it at that - but it makes sense to use a material that doesn't compress as much as cork and yet remains quiet and smooth in action. TJ have done exactly that. It's a small point, granted, but it makes quite a difference - and I was pleased too to see that regulation adjusters are fitted to both stacks.

TJ RAW point screwAt the time of writing this review the RAW was fitted with pseudo point screws. I had my usual moan about them, but noted that TJ intended to switch to proper point screws once a few design tweaks were in place. Well, that time (as of March 2013) has come - and here it is - a proper point screw fitted to the RAW.
Granted, it doesn't look like much - but believe me, this will make a big difference to how the action feels and responds, and it will add a measure of adjustability to the keywork so that wear-and-tear can be taken up with relative ease. It's a considerable advantage that puts the TJ RAW some way ahead of the competition.

And if you've already bought one of these horns you're going to be delighted to know that these screws will retro-fit onto your RAW. I think it's fair to say that it'll be a little bit more involved than simply taking the old screw out and popping the new one in, but it won't be too difficult.
I should also mention that the screws won't be available to the general public for a little while yet, so don't go badgering TJ for them. I would imagine that there'll be some small cost involved too, but it'll be a fraction of what you'd have to pay to have a repairer take up the play in a key pivoting on a pseudo point screw.

In the hands the horn feels solid and well-balanced. It's not a particularly light horn, but it's also not that heavy. What gives it the feeling of solidity is the action - those double arms on the lower stack really seem to make a difference. These, coupled with good-quality pads and blued steel springs, give the action a very stable and responsive feel. Very nice indeed.
Everything is where you'd expect it to be - I had no particular problems reaching any of the ancillary keys, though my personal preference would have been for a slightly larger G# touchpiece. It's not so small that it's a problem, but I'm used to having something a little larger to reach for. Once I'd got the feel of it I didn't find myself missing the note.

At present the horn comes in a large, semi-soft box case. It's big, it's tough, and it's a bit on the heavy side. No real complaints there, but TJ say they're working on a shaped case - so I'll keep you posted as and when I hear of anything.

So far then, what we have is a well-built modern horn with a few nice features. On paper I could probably name at least half a dozen other horns that could compete on features and price - and what TJ needs is for this horn to be different from all the others. Special, even.
And by heavens it is.

TJ SC Raw bellI began this review by focussing on TJ's reputation as a manufacturer of decent, solidly-built student horns - and mentioned one of the models...the Revolution. I think they missed a trick with the SC Raw - they should have named it the Revelation.
When all is said and done, what really matters is how a horn plays - and the Raw plays. It really, really plays.
Tonewise the SC Raw is reassuringly complex but beautifully balanced. The early prototype had a touch of instability that made it an exciting but unpredictable blow - the sort of horn you'd really have to learn to live with - and what I most wanted to find in the new version was the same sense of excitement but without the need to wrestle with the horn. I wasn't disappointed. In fact I was delighted.

It's actually quite hard to describe the tone. Most horns have a 'central character', be it warmth, darkness or brightness - but this horn's centre seems to be whatever you want it to be. It has all these typical tonal characteristics, but they're balanced in such a way that a mere shift in your embouchure can bring one out in favour of the other. So I could tell you it's a dark horn, or a bright horn, or a warm horn - and it could be any one of those, or all of them. Your choice.

You know that taste sensation you get when you eat certain foods like, say, Parmesan cheese? Well, there's a word for it. It's called umami, and it's sort of the 'sixth sense' of flavours. Unlike sweet, sour or salty it's much harder to define, but the literal translation is something along the lines of 'tasty' and 'morish'. It's that pleasant combination of taste sensations that makes you smack your lips in anticipation and usually ends up with you eating far more than you planned.
Some saxes have this quality, an indefinable something that makes you want to keep on playing them - and a sense that there's always more to be got out of them.
The TJ Raw has it, there's an edge to the tone that's draws you in and suggests hidden treasures waiting to be found. And it has it in spades.
Such complexity is usually the province of horns that are quite resistant to blow, but this horn bucks the trend by being fairly free-blowing. In many respects it follows in the footsteps of the remarkable Mauriat 66R, which also manages to pull off the free-blowing-but-complex trick...but where the TJ Raw pulls ahead is in its versatility. It's not the one-trick pony that the 66R can be, it doesn't sulk when you back off - the tone stays the same, it just gets quieter...as it should.

The evenness is impressive too, there isn't that feeling that the horn is divided up - you don't get a dramatic change over the octave break, it doesn't get shrill at the top and the low notes don't boom excessively. It still has a wide tonal spread - it's not an introverted horn, but it's also not over-focussed either.

Long-term readers of this site will know of my love for my trusty old Yamaha YTS23 tenor - a humble horn with a price-tag to match, and yet for me it's one of the most 'alive' horns I've ever had the pleasure to play. Some people have been quite surprised by my preference, incredulous even - but some have been curious enough to try one out, and have been more than a little surprised by the results. It's still a tough act to beat, even today - and while I've played a great many horns that I've liked, I've not yet been moved enough by them to consider changing (excluding a few £5000+ horns that were divine but crushingly expensive)...until now.*
But this horn comes in at less than half the price of these fabulous horns, and yet easily squares up to them in terms of build quality and response. That's quite something to think about.
I could compare the RAW with the 23, but I guess many people would consider it an unfair comparison - so I tried it next to a Yamaha YTS62. Now, the 62 is a great horn - a modern classic - and easily capable of squaring up to the competition...if not seeing it off. Against the RAW though it sounds almost muted. There's just more of everything from the RAW.

The TJ boffins were looking for a horn that would break them into the pro market. They've found it, and in so doing have rewritten the shortlist. It's not just a good horn, it's a great horn - and for the price you'd have to be utterly, utterly insane not to try one before buying anything else.

*After much deliberation, play-testing and not a little soul-searching I've taken the plunge and got myself a TJ RAW tenor.

 

TJ RAW gold tenorUpdate March 2017

Not quite a review - more of a preview - of the new Signature Custom tenor.
I was recently contacted by the boffins at TJ to ask whether I'd like a sneaky peek at the new SC while it was en route to Andy Sheppard for a spot of hard play testing.
Well, what's a guy to do?
I figured I might refuse - given that I like to spend some time with a horn before running up a proper review - but that might have meant having to wait months before I'd get another chance to lay my sweaty palms over this rather lush-looking horn. I was also keen to see what changes had been made to the original RAW design, and how they impacted both the feel and the playability.
And I was expecting changes. One of the things I like about TJ is that they're very good at responding to feedback. Most of the other companies will come up with a design, run it past their team of endorsers, make a few tweaks and then leave it at that. For TJ it's an ongoing process - and better yet, it's not just players they listen to...as we'll shortly see.

The important stuff first, then.
Fans of the marque will be pleased (and relieved) to hear that the basic design hasn't changed. What we have here is, essentially, a 'face-lift' model.
There is, however, one significant difference - and it's in the design of the crook. They've altered the approach angle and lowered it so that it's more like that on a vintage Selmer MkVI. I can't honestly say that I noticed the difference, but then this is something I tend to do myself to all my horns as a matter of course - which means I very probably tweaked the angle on my RAW's crook, and then promptly forgot about it.
Changing a crook in this way always has some kind of an effect on the playability and the overwhelming impression I got from this one is how much more 'booty' the sound is. It's bigger, it's wider - it's more of everything. Took me about eight bars before I said "You're going to make these crooks available as an aftermaket option aren't you...because I want one".
I wondered whether the horn itself has changed, but a quick swap of the crooks between the gold and my RAW shows it's all in the crook.

The crook now sports a shield - a la Selmer stylee. I'm told that this adds mass and thus alters the tone. Here at SHWoodwind we don't hold with such things - so as and when (or indeed if) I get hold of one of these crooks I will be whipping that shield off in a trice..and then we'll really see if it makes a difference.
Nice to see, though, that they've added the TJ logo to it. It's about time.

In response to feedback from players the low C/Eb spatulas have been flattened and re-angled, and the side Bb/C touchpieces have been rounded and shifted slightly for more speed and comfort. They've also been strengthened - which will be good news for all those heavy-handed players.
Another player tweak is the change to the G# touchpiece arm. On the RAW (as you can see just up the page), the arm forms a pronounced 'dog leg' as it meets the touchpiece. Seems that players were catching their finger on this. I never noticed it until it was pointed out to me...and then I saw that the patina on my RAW is slightly worn at this point - so I must have been hitting this arm without even noticing it. And speaking of the G#, the touchpiece is now slightly longer. This was one of the niggles I fed back to TJ after my review of the RAW, so I'm delighted to see this change.
Similarly, the rather mean pillar base on the top F# upper pillar has been beefed up a treat. I always felt this pillar was particularly vulnerable, so a wider base is a great improvement for long-term robustness.

There's an added helper arm off the low F over the Aux. F key cup.
I feel such things have very limited use - there's simply too much flex in an arm that long and thin. It would work on a soprano, it just about works on an alto - but by the time you get to a tenor the keys are practically flapping about in the breeze But it doesn't add much weight, and if your pads are starting to fade I guess there's half a chance that it might keep things going for a little longer.

TJ Signature Custom gold tenor palm keysOf much more use are the round cups fitted to the palm key feet.
This is a very nice improvement. These keys take a lot of punishment and we repairers are forced to fit quite firm buffers if we want to ensure the opening height of the keys remains consistent over a long period of time. Fitting cups means that a softer buffer can be used with no loss of regulation. It makes for a nicer feel under the hand - and it also looks a lot nicer.

But one of the major upgrades can't be seen at all.
It's the use of synthetic inserts in the point screw key barrels. This eliminates the traditional metal-to-metal contact that always results in wear to the key barrels (and sometimes the point screws too), which means the action will be quieter, will run more smoothly and will be a great deal easier to maintain in the long term.
TJ's chief boffin, Dave Farley, sent me some of these inserts sometime back for testing - but made me swear on a copy of the Charlie Parker Omnibook that I wouldn't breathe a word about them.
I'm not sure what the material is (possibly a PTFE tube?), but it seems to be a very effective (and cheap) solution to the perennial problem of wear and tear. How it stand up over time remains to be seen, but my own tests seem to indicate it's more or less a fit and forget thing.

When all is said and done I feel this is a very worthy update to what's fast becoming a modern-day classic horn. So many manufacturers have trodden the update path before, but have often thrown the baby out with bathwater and changed the essential nature of what was once a highly-regarded product. This is why people still hunt down vintage Selmers and purple logo Yamahas (though Yanagisawa seem to be very good at making all the right update choices). The changes improve upon what were really quite minor niggles, and throw in a few extras for good measure (one of which, the crook, may be available separately quite soon).
But most importantly the thing that sets the RAW apart from the competition remains untouched...it's sheer playability.

As and when it comes to market (it's in the last stages of player testing) I hope to be able to get hold of a model for a proper shakedown - but at this stage I really can't see how it could get much better.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015