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Yanagisawa T901 tenor saxophone

Yanagisawa 901 tenor saxophoneOrigin: Japan (www.yanagisawasax.co.jp)
Guide price: £2200
Weight: 3.13Kg
Date of manufacture: 2005 (approx)
Date reviewed: February 2015

A fine tenor that competes on every level with the renown Yamaha 62

I've always felt that the £2000 price point marks the sweet spot for saxes. In years gone by (when £2000 was more like a grand or so) it was generally accepted that this was what you had to pay for a professional horn. Anything below it was clearly for amateurs, anything above was unnecessary. Life was simple, times were good.
And then everything changed. 'Supersaxes' appeared on the market, costing half as much again...sometimes twice or even three times as much. Players who'd bought what they thought were pro horns suddenly found their pride and joy had been downgraded to 'entry level pro'. At least that's what the manufacturers (and the retailers) wanted you to believe - but not everyone was fooled.

It all boils down to the law of diminishing returns. If you drew up a graph of the cost of a horn against its playability you'd see a fairly steep rise as you went from, say, £300 to £600, and a reasonably steep rise in the £600 to £1000 bracket. Thereafter the curve flattens out somewhat, and by the time you're at the £1500 mark it should start to become clear that everything above this price point is generally pretty good.
By the time you get to £2000 the price v quality curve is starting to run out of steam, and the gain you could have had for £500 at the lower end of the scale will now cost you double or triple that amount. The more you pay, the less you gain.
That's why the two grand mark is the sweet spot - and it's why horns like the Yanagisawa 901 and the Yamaha 62 have proved to be so incredibly popular. It's also why the Taiwanese chose (wisely) to invade this price point in recent years.
In this price raneg I've reviewed the venerable 62, and a Mauriat or two...and the remarkable TJ RAW - now it's the turn of the Yanagisawa 901 to get a good shakedown...

The body has all the usual features of a contemporary horn; detachable bell, triple-point bell stay, adjustable thumb hook (metal, with those dubious dimples on the base), titling bell key table, removable side F# key guard and a large, slightly domed thumb rest.

The construction is single pillar, and each pillar has a suitably wide base. This makes the horn more reliable - those large bases will shrug off a casual knock, and it's unlikely they'll ever pop off due to internal stresses (a common problem with many Chinese and cheap old East German horns).
The compound bell key pillar is a standalone too, but with a very generously-proportioned base.
Yanagisawa 901 tenor sax  spatulasIt's a slightly different affair at the palm keys though, which feature box (or U-channel) pillars. They should be sturdy enough, but my biggest concern is that there's not much meat on the threaded end of the pillar. It's probably not much of a concern - but you know me, I like a pair of braces with my belt - and from an aesthetic point of view they look a bit industrial.
No such problems with the bell key guard stays - nice and beefy. These will spread the load of a light knock with ease, and won't pop off on their own accord.

As per the modern standard, the tone holes are drawn from the body - and I'm pleased to say they're nice and level.

The bell key guards feature adjusters for the bumpers, and these are made from plastic. My initial reaction was 'cheap and nasty' - but in fact it's probably quite a good idea. First up there's the weight saving. OK, so it's not going to be much - but a gramme saved here can be used elsewhere. Then there's the anti-rattle properties. Bumper adjusters often seem to work loose, and when they do they tend to add a slight buzz to the lower notes. Not many players are aware of this and often won't address the problem until the things start to rattle.
And then there's the anti-seize properties. A brass thread in a brass socket that doesn't see much use can lock up solid over a period of time - but there'll be no such issues with a plastic thread. And anyway, they look kinda cool.

The lacquered finish is excellent. This particular example is ten years old, and only had a couple of minor blemishes. This should be par for the course for a horn of this age, though it should be noted that it hadn't seen that much use. I have to say, though, that I'm never surprised to see the odd brown spot under the lacquer of a Yanagisawa...

Yanagisawa 901 tenor sax  top stackThe keywork is very nicely built and finished - with the standout features being a very slick teardrop-shaped touchpiece on the front top F key and a sculpted octave key that's very comfortable under the thumb...and all powered by a set of blued steel springs. I was also very pleased to see proper mother-of-pearl touches. It's a small thing, but it makes such a difference to the feel when things get hot and sweaty.

The pads are decent enough, and fitted with plastic reflectors/resonators. I like these - they shrug off the dirt and are easy to clean, and they're less inclined to turn the leather green beneath them. Some players claim the material the reflectors are made from makes a difference to the tone - and you can believe that if you like...but I don't.
As I had to change a couple of pads I took one apart and noted that they're not fitted with a waterproof cellophane disc beneath the leather. I wouldn't be particularly concerned about that.

Yanagisawa 901 tenor sax F# helper armI was disappointed to find that no adjusters are fitted to the main stacks. On a horn of this quality I'd have liked to have seen regulation adjusters at least...and height adjusters would have been nice. It makes the job of setting the stack regulation so much easier, and allows the confident home tweaker to make small adjustments inbetween service schedules.
Adjusters are provided for the Bis Bb, G# and low C# - and there's an additional one on the F# helper arm. I remain sceptical about the value of the latter, given that the arm is quite long and therefore quite flexible (unlike, say, the one fitted to the Keilwerth SX90R, which is short and stout).

Proper point screws are used, and these are secured with threadlock - which means there's a bit of adjustment built in. When the time comes to take up any play in the keys that pivot on them, all that'll be needed is for the screws to be given a quarter of a turn or so. As a rough estimate I'd say you'd get about three or four goes at this before the pillars will need reaming (to allow the points screws to go in further). When that might be necessary depends on how much you use the horn and how well you keep it lubricated, but for the casual player it might be decades before such work is required.

Yanagisawa 901 tenor sax  side keysThe side top E and F# key barrels are fitted with an anti-whip clamp. When such long keys are pressed, there's a tendency for the barrels to flex under the strain - and the clamp prevents them from doing so. It would be far more effective were it fitted to the low B/Bb key barrels, where 'whippage' will compromise the seat of the pad. Still, at least it serves to protect the side key barrels from bending due to incautious handling.

The whole outfit comes in a very nice box case, complete with proper catches. It's perhaps a tad bulky, but it's very well padded. My only real point of note is that the outer covering of the lid and base has a layer of padding beneath it, and as such is more inclined to tear if you run into something sharp. Just avoid doing so and you'll be fine.

In terms of feel the 901 fits nicely under the fingers. Yanagisawa have always had a good reputation when it comes to ergonomics, and certain aspects of the design show that much thought has been put into this area. The action is undoubtedly very good, but I still feel that Yamaha have the edge here. I can't explain it in any meaningful way, but no matter how much I fiddle with and tweak the action I can never quite get that 'oh yeah' feeling I get from a Yamaha. It'll probably be down to something daft, like the cup angles or the position of the key pearls - but either way it's there. For me, anyway.
It's also worth mentioning that the 901 is quite a light horn. At 3.13Kg it's about the same weight as the Yamaha YTS23 - which makes it one of the lightest tenors on the market.

Tonewise the 901 is what I'd call a very confident horn; its presentation is bold, even strident - and yet there's and underlying warmth to it. It puts me in mind of a city slicker, dressed in a sharp suit, with an armful of carefully presented reports and graphs...but if you look very closely at his tie you'll see there's a little teddy bear embroidered on it.
It's also a very even-tempered tone, which means it's quite uniform up and down the scale, though it opens out a little at the top end. The advantage of this approach is that it makes for a very versatile horn, but the payoff is a slight lack of fizz and crackle. And it is only slight, but it's there nonetheless.
I think this explains why I'm seeing more classical players turning up with Yanagisawas these days. Its not that the 901 is staid, or particularly 'serious', it's perhaps more about it being a steady and stable performer at all volumes - though it has plenty of response to allow it to kick off nicely when you push it.
And the tuning is spot on, as you'd expect.

The obvious competitor to the 901 is the Yamaha 62. It's around the same price but the tone and presentation is brighter...more forward. There was a time when I'd have said it was an even toss-up between the two in terms of build and ergonomics, with the only real difference being your preference for tone and response - but the recent Yamahas I've worked on have not been as well put together as I'd expect, which puts the Yanagisawa a little way ahead in the running.
But picking up the city slicker analogy, the 62 would have the same sharp suit (though it would be Italian), he'd be missing a couple of reports and if you looked closely at his tie you'd see where he once spilt a Martini on it. 901 man prefers to go into a meeting with all the facts and figures laid out on paper - 62 man prefers to wing it a little.
Up until a few years ago that would have been the end of the analogy, but with the arrival of the new TJ Signature Custom range this sector of the market has had a bit of a kick up the pants. The basic lacquered model comes in at around £2300 and combines the build quality and depth of tone of the 901 with the zing and fizz of the 62 - and, frankly, you can't ignore it.

The 901 is a solid horn, both in terms of build quality and performance. Sure, I have a few niggles - but then that's my job, but my overall impression is that you very definitely get what you pay for. At a touch over two grand, that's quite a lot...quite a lot indeed.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015