Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1955 Selmer Centered Tone

Many have called the Centered Tone (CT) the ultimate jazz horn, with its large bore and well-known Benny Goodman endorsement.  But the music biz is filled with stories of players selling one product in magazines while playing another on the stand.  Knowing that most of Benny's legendary recordings were made on earlier Selmers, and that by the time the CT came out, he was focused on classical repertoire and lessons with Reginald Kell, I wasn't so sure.

Then this horn practically fell into my lap. I saw it on Ebay this summer, with exactly what I was looking for: According to the Selmer Centered Tone Brochure (posted here by the good folks at Clarinet Perfection), it's a model 802: 17 keys, 7 rings. For me the seventh ring is nearly essential, and with the auction price of this horn so low, I just couldn't pass it up. Now buying horns on auction sites is always a gamble, and I've been burned before, but this one paid off: When I got it, the horn was still virtually unplayed and in excellent adjustment, with original pads and springs--some conscientious collector must have owned it and kept it carefully. To have a new 1955 CT come my way was something very special--I'll probably never experience it again.

1955 Selmer Centered Tone Model 802

Now for the specific playing qualities:
The chalumeau: Excellent depth and body. The CT, like my 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer, holds firm to pitch and timbre, regardless of volume down low. The subtone remains full, round, and 'jumps' like no other horn I've played. Articulation turns on a dime while maintaining bouyance and shape.

The clarion sings in matched timbre to the chalumeau. Of all the problems I've had with smaller bore instruments, the biggest is a tendency to timbral change between registers. This CT maneuvers and jumps like my 1981 10S, but without as much of  pitch downturn at the bottom of the chalumeau, and without as much pressure difference over the clarion/chalumeau break.

The altissimo is huge, full, and "fretless." Fantastic. Pinpoint precision, huge sound, great dynamic range, glissando flexibility to match the later 10S. This horn is one smooth instrument from top to bottom.

I once wrote that Fritz Wurlitzer's clarinets seem built to 'voice' the German repertoire perfectly: Brahms sings more easily through a Fritz Wurlitzer than any other horn I've played. The keywork of this CT has a similar disposition for jazz. Because of the unique placement of the throat Ab and A keys, I could actually swing easier over the break (Test tune: Artie Shaw's intro to "My Blue Heaven").

Now as to timbre, even if Benny didn't play this on his old legendary recordings it's immediately obvious that he could have: the CT is clearly the old Selmer sound. It yields the style and substance of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman quite easily on a number of mouthpieces (I've tested it with several Pomarico crystals, a Selmer C85 105, a Portnoy, a Charles Bay, a Viotto, and a Richard Hawkins). The one thing it doesn't yield quite as easily as a Fritz Wurlitzer is a sound I associate with some of the old NOLA players: the earthy chalumeau quality of Edmond Hall and others.

The old Selmer swing sound of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman is here though, and with a twist: this horn has the precision and punch to play bop as well. I've never played a horn that delivers quite as much for jazz as this Selmer Centered Tone. Since buying it last June, the CT has become my main horn.

I hope someone at Selmer is reading, and a Reference CT is in the works. If they need a horn to serve as a template, I'll gladly let them take the specs of mine.