Mr. LaPlaca sent jazz.com two horns for review: the SDA-1000 standard
curved alto, and the SDAS-1020 straight alto. The horns' retro-styled
hard wood cases are covered in khaki-colored tweed, with dark red
leather-textured rubber trim, and brass hardware. The straight horn's
case is necessarily of an odd size; long and narrow, it resembles a bass
clarinet case. Both cases are lined with plush burgundy velour. The
curved alto gets its own blanket attached to the interior, which lends
added protection when the case is closed. Both cases are rather heavy
and uncomfortable to carry, but look to be plenty sturdy and should
provide ample protection.
The horns are exceptionally well constructed and designed. Both have a
hand-finished, fast-tapered neck, a body made of 77% copper content
brass alloy, with black oxide steel needle springs and pivot screws. The
pads are made of soft merino leather with hardened tone boosters. The
keys in the lower register feature double arms, the better to insure
proper response. Key rods are made out of solid nickel silver, and the
octave key stop is made out of solid brass, as opposed to the cork used
on most horns a simple but very nice touch. The horn has precision
adjustment screws from top to bottom, which presumably makes it
receptive to extreme fine-tuning.
I tested the horns over a period of several weeks, privately and in an
ensemble setting. I used a Runyon 7 mouthpiece (orange, if you're
interested) with the "Spoiler" insert. Like most new horns out of the
box, the action on both was extremely high much higher than I prefer.
After a few hours, however, I was able to adjust, making evaluation a
fairly simple matter.
The first thing I noticed (after the horns' striking appearance) was
their heft; they are both heavy, substantial instruments. The action is
extremely smooth and tight. Of particular note are the left hand table
keys, which depress easily with a minimum of stretch and strain on the
pinky no trivial matter for someone (like myself) with small hands. The
key cups are shallow, requiring the use of a thin pad. As a result, the
act of depressing a key results in a distinct and nearly audible "pop."
Work the keys without blowing air and the horn feels almost like a set
of tuned bongos. There is little ambiguity when fingering a note; once
played, it's played, and all the better to unite tongue and fingers. The
horns blow extremely free and easy from top to bottom. The highs blow
without unwelcome resistance; the lows speak as loud or soft as
required. As far as intonation, both horns play in-tune as well as any
saxophone I've ever played.
It's in the character of tone that the two horns differ most noticeably
from one another. The curved SDA-1000 produces a strong, cutting tone
(emphasized by my mouthpiece, which emphasizes the sound's upper
partials ... and if you've read this far, I can assume you know what
"upper partials" means). By my reckoning, it would be well suited for
anything jazz-, rock-, or R&B-related.
In contrast, the straight SDAS-1020 produces an equally strong but
somewhat rounder, more focused tone a trifle dark and less
overtone-laden. The fact that the sound is directed nearer the floor
enhances the darkening effect. Playing it in a session with a bassist
and drummer, it seemed strange to have the sound emanate so far from my
ears, yet I got accustomed to it in short order. In fact, as someone
whose primary instrument is a straight soprano, the SDAS-1020 was
something of a revelation. It felt like a slightly fatter, longer
version of my Yamaha YSS-675. Going back and forth from soprano to alto
has always presented me with difficulties in terms of feel. Those
difficulties are much less pronounced with the SDAS-1020. I'm sure I'd
play a great deal more alto if I owned this horn.
I have only two small quibbles. First, the mother-of-pearl key inlays
are a bit flat for my taste. I would prefer that they be more contoured.
Second, the high F# key occasionally gets in the way of smooth
fingering in the right handa problem hardly unique to this brand. About
the only other problem I can imagine anyone having might have to do
with the horns' "futuristic" appearance. A traditionalist might prefer a
plainer instrument. The SDA-1000 comes in three different finishes,
none of them remotely "plain" (the SDAS-1020 comes in Gray Onyx, only).
Other than that, there's nothing not to love. Even the price is right:
the SDA-1000's suggested retail price is $2,950, and the SDAS-1020 lists
for $3,700 quite affordable when compared to costlier products from
such competitors as Selmer, Yamaha, and Keilwerth.
Ultimately, Mr. LaPlaca's decision to design such a distinctive horn
could prove to be a savvy move. Rather than reinvent the wheel and
manufacture a great horn that looked like all the other great horns,
he's devised one that's utterly unique. If Sax Dakota takes its place as
one of the elite brands (and there's no reason why it shouldn't, it's
that good an instrument), perhaps its style will be a template for
others to emulate: a cool, sophisticated gadget that speaks to both the
11 year-old and fine artist in every saxophonist.