Tenor Madness has been a staple in the saxophone community for many years. Based out of Waterloo, Iowa, it has become a go-to destination in-store and online for vintage and modern saxophones as well as mouthpieces, cases, accessories, along with quality repair work and customization.
A few years back Tenor Madness got into the custom saxophone market with the introduction of the TM Tenor, which comes in a few models. They have quickly become a major player in the tenor saxophone game; their 500SL and Session tenors are very fine instruments indeed. Building on that momentum they introduced the TM Custom Baritone Saxophone.
For the last few weeks, I have played the TM Custom Baritone in a variety of settings. I have become an inadvertent baritone specialist over the last few years – I play baritone in a saxophone quartet, in local big bands, and frequently at my own gigs. For the uninitiated, baritone saxophone can be a honking unwieldy monster, straining the neck and needle of the tuner. Poor quality baritones abound, and well-built ones often stretch the pocketbook. Luckily, for those of us searching for the right nexus of price and quality, Tenor Madness has come to the rescue.
My baritone gear has been pretty standard for the last several years. Unlike the revolving door of tenor mouthpieces that all tenor players seem to struggle with (isn’t that the real tenor madness?), I have been fortunate to have locked in a great setup for both jazz and classical. My classical setup is a vintage Selmer Soloist C*, coupled with either an Ishimori Woodstone Copper Ligature or a vintage Selmer two-screw. My jazz setup is a vintage metal Berg Larsen 95/2 M. On both pieces I use a Legere Signature 3. My personal baritone is a Selmer Mark VI from the 1970s. Throughout the years I have used or tried Yamahas, Buffets, P. Mauriats, other Mark Vis, and modern Selmers. So how does the TM Custom Baritone stack up? As it turns out – very well!
Let me start with the construction. The TM Custom Baritone is a solidly built horn, a bit heavier than my Mark VI. I can’t say for sure where this added mass comes from, as I’m sure the materials and lacquer between the two are vastly different, but it’s SOLID. The website touts a new brass alloy; whatever it is it works. The lacquer on it goes by “cognac” and it was a fine brown, beautifully engraved. The ergonomics are quite fluid, although awkward for me at first. I would chalk this up to coming from the VI; players switching between vintage horns and this one will need some time to adjust. After about a half-hour I was quite comfortable with the ergonomics. I want to particularly single out the low A key on the TM baritone. Many modern baritones have over-engineered the low A key to depress at the slightest whisper. The TM Custom Baritone’s low A key feels more like the other keys, or more specifically the octave key. The tiny bit of extra resistance is more in line with the tactile experience one would be used to with all the other keys.
One of the key points made in the description of the horn on the Tenor Madness website is the quality of the intonation, that it is “voiced in the shop.” Listen – there’s a lot of snake oil and nonsense out there in the saxophone world. We all know this. Quality products float to the top, and bad ones die off. In the past few years, I have been wrong about so many things I thought were flashes in the pan. “Voiced in the shop” sounds like snake oil but I can tell you it’s not. The folks at Tenor Madness go to great lengths to make sure each saxophone (tenors as well) are “voiced” with the proper key heights, necks, and pads. And I can tell you that this baritone blows my VI out of the water in terms of intonation (granted, my VI badly needs an overhaul). From the very bottom to the very top it is even and full. Every saxophonist on earth has felt the beads of sweat form over having to tune a middle or high E; on this baritone, fear not. You will love the intonation on this horn.
The TM Custom Baritone is also a remarkably flexible instrument. I use remarkably because modern saxophones seem to want to corral players into one path or the other. It has gotten to the point that I can walk through the practice rooms at a conference and tell exactly who is playing on a Yamaha, a Mauriat…why is this happening? We play an instrument with so many capabilities, why settle on a horn that pushes you into a box?
This, to me, is the lure of vintage instruments and why I play them. The reality for most saxophonists is that they must lead a life of dualities. On any given day I must play classical and jazz back and forth constantly. I found the TM baritone to be just as flexible as my Mark VI. It resonated gracefully through Bach’s first cello suite and absolutely roared through Mingus tunes. This to me is the main selling point – for players on vintage instruments looking for something a little more in tune, a little more affordable, but don’t want to lose that flexibility this is the horn for you.
Let’s talk about that price tag. The horn I played had a shiny yellow placard on it listing the price at $4995. As of this writing, I assume that’s the current price. If it is and you’re looking for a baritone RUN AND DO NOT WALK. This is the most flexible baritone you will find for that price. Considering that most pro horns run anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 you just can’t beat this deal. This is a horn you could buy a college freshman that they could use all the way through multiple degree programs, performance experiences, military bands, cruise ship gigs – it is the real deal.
The TM Custom Baritone comes with a Pro-Tec style soft case that includes wheels and backpack straps. The case is quite sturdy and the wheels and straps are a huge bonus for me. You only need to lug a vintage VI through one NASA conference in a coffin case to look upon the TM case with envy. There’s also plenty of storage in and out of the case. I particularly appreciated the side pockets that unzip and open all the way around, allowing you to open the flap and place your accessories face down in any configuration you choose. A bonus for those of us cramming our gear into dark pockets and hoping for the best.
Us bottom end folks are blessed with an abundance of fine modern horns at affordable prices, and the TM Custom Baritone Saxophone is among the finest. I would highly recommend it for players of any stripe, as well as school programs of every flavor.