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A visit to Yanagisawa. "Always be sure to do up your zip"

John Robert Brown

Perhaps that is not the sort of advice you'd expect to find in Reed Clinic. However, the speaker was Keizo Yamada, repair engineer for Yanagisawa Saxophones in Japan. The zip is the one on your soft saxophone case. Mr Yamada tells me that many damaged saxophones he sees in his repair department at Shinjyuku-ku, in the centre of Tokyo, are the results of unzipped cases. As the careless saxophonist energetically shoulders his open bag, the saxophone flies out and hits the ground. Instruments bounced to the floor in this way are usually badly bent. So...do up your zip!

During October I spent a couple of weeks working in Japan. Wally Evans, of the British company Barnes and Mullins, helped me to contact Yanagisawa's Manager of International Trade, Mr K Sakurai. Thus I spent a saxophonist's dream afternoon, enjoying a personal guided tour of the world-famous Yanagisawa saxophone factory.Our first stop was at the Yanagisawa Sax Studio, the repair premises and first-floor showroom where Keiko Yamada works. This is the Yanagisawa company's Tokyo showroom, just a few steps from the large Shinjyuka railway station. They display their entire range of saxophones here and, in one of several soundproof booths, you can try before you buy. There are no other wind instruments here, for Yangisawa make only saxophones. They offer only the main members of the saxophone family, no C Melody, no bass.

However, there is a sopranino, the choice of either curved or straight soprano and the option of a baritone to low Bb, made to special order. They make saxophone bodies in brass, bronze or silver, and Yanagisawa have led the way in offering a choice of crooks (necks) to go with each instrument.

After briefly trying a beautiful new soprano (don't you hate playing in shops and repair places?), and chatting to Mr Yamada, we said our farewells and headed down the stairs to the street to take a taxi to the north part of the city of Tokyo, to visit the factory. As we left the premises, I casually remarked to Mr Sakurai that many internationally famous saxophonists must have climbed these stairs. "Yes", he replied, and went on to recite a list of the young players who had visited. These included Antonio Hart, Greg Osby, Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring and Anton Rooney. All possess a Yanagisawa saxophone. Mr Sakurai displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of which player plays which horn. Antonio Hart has a solid silver instrument; Vincent Herring has a gold-plated alto and soprano; Greg Osby has both soprano and alto in solid silver. There is a trend towards solid silver instruments among the younger players. They all seem to find that the projection is excellent, and the quality of sound is good. Solid silver instruments are fitted with brass keys.

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Tokyo is an enormous city. Thirty million people live within thirty miles of the city centre. That is a quarter of the total population of Japan! To write of the city centre is a little misleading. The city is a jumble of high-rise buildings, concrete flyovers, extensive underground shopping malls - and people, people, people. It seems to have no centre. Though not quite as centreless as Los Angeles, it does remind one of the Californian sprawl. The recorded music heard when out in the city is most interesting. The background music in shops and restaurants is usually western, and mostly of good quality. During one week in Tokyo I dined to the recorded sounds of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse, James Galway playing French chamber music, and one breakfast bar entertained me with a complete Haydn string quartet. Ten minutes before shops and public buildings close, an orchestral version of Auld Lang Syne is played, to warn visitors that it is time to leave. Why Auld Lang Syne? Well, it is a pentatonic (five-note) tune, in common with much traditional Japanese music.

It is a farewell song, and therefore appropriate to use for dropping a polite hint to customers that the shop will soon be closing. Here, all is politeness. I have no explanation whatever for the frequent occurrence of John Brown's Body, heard in several stores. The most unlikely setting was in a state-of-the-art computer shop. As customers browsed futuristic hardware and software, gazing longingly at computer screens that were flat and slim, at mobile phone-linked palm-top computers and dazzling portable printers, they were treated to the cheesiest two-beat version of this tune imaginable. Perhaps the clue lay in the Japanese words, which I couldn't understand.

The Yanagisawa factory is in the suburb of Itabashi-ku, a twenty-minute cab ride away from the densely packed downtown area. During the journey Mr Sakurai told me how he develops the suggestions of the major saxophonists he meets. For instance, it was Lew Tabakin who mentioned the importance of the saxophone neck. It is almost as important as one's mouthpiece, as anyone who has swapped crooks with a friend will have discovered. Mr Sakurai took the hint. Yanagisawa now offer a choice of four crooks with many models of their saxophones.

When we arrived at the factory, it surprised me that the Yanagisawa works is neatly housed in what appeared to me to be a series of interconnected city houses, in a residential suburb. Mr Sakurai led me from room to room, upstairs and downstairs, each work area an example of efficient space use. The production methods are a model of clinical tidiness and good practice. The central conical section of the saxophone is rolled from the flat sheet, and heat joined. Tone holes are first cut as an ellipse, with the long axis of the ellipse vertically in line down the body. The narrow axis is across the body. This was a surprise to me. Because the tone holes are not joined on, but are integral, the ellipse of the hole cut in the cone allows for the drawing up (bending up, if you prefer) of the part of the pipe that meets the pad - the 'chimney'. This taught me that I had never really thought carefully about the geometry of a cone and the requirements of a flat junction where chimney meets pad. Think about it. At the stage where the cups and pads are fitted to the body, a light-on-a-stick is used to check for leaks. There is no testing by blowing, Just a pair of steady cotton-gloved hands and a leak light. A weak flame is used to play on the pad cups and adjust any ill fitting pads.

All the workshops were surprisingly quiet. There was little conversation, hardly any industrial clatter, and no music. A few of the forty or fifty people working on the premises had a Walkman and earpieces for private entertainment. I wondered whether they were listening to saxophone music. Perhaps they could have had an appropriate CD? The Milestone Alto Summit with Phil Woods, Vincent Herring and Antonio Hart would be an good choice!

In the mouthpiece room three men were working on pieces in both brass and ebonite. They automatically mill the brass pieces to approximate shape from bar stock, and then hand-finish. The hand work throughout the manufacture of both saxophones and mouthpieces is considerable. Mr Sakurai offered the opinion that the only way that a company such as Yanagisawa can prosper is by offering a top quality product. Stick to quality and you can't go wrong, as the old saying has it. Considering the high living standards in Japan - and therefore presumably high costs of skilled labour - it surprises me that they can produce and export saxophones for the prices that they currently charge.

One advantage of the individual craftsman approach is that a degree of custom building is possible. I have already mentioned the choices of materials and finishes. They can also vary the height of the left-hand palm keys to special request. So if - like me - you have long fingers, they can raise the palm keys to fit the size of your hands.

Next we came to a small room where two men worked alone. For once this was a room that was not crammed with dozens of instruments. Work here was on a one-off basis. Mr Sakurai explained to me that this was the development department. Here they introduced and tested modifications and improvements, some of which are still secret. There was very little electronic equipment, and no evidence of computer-aided design (CAD). Mr Sakurai confirmed that development work is done largely on a traditional cut-and-try basis, and by asking the players. "The sound is the most important thing," he said.

This wasn't the first time I have seen common sense and practical experience used to develop a world-class saxophone product. It is similar to the approach used by world-famous English mouthpiece maker Geoff Lawton, who calls it using 'horse sense'. "You can go a long way by using a little horse-sense," he once said to me. Quite. Incidentally, it was pleasing to see Lawton mouthpieces on sale in Tokyo, and hear that Japanese musicians acknowledged that they were a very high quality product.

Finally we mounted a flight of steep stairs to the office of Mr Yanagisawa himself. Mr Yanagisawa senior, the founder of the business, died last year, and his son, Mr Nobu Yanagisawa, now runs the company. He is president of the company, and his wife also works in the administration. I talked to Mr Yanagisawa through the interpreting skills of Mr Sakurai. This wasn't the first time that I regretted my very limited ability with the Japanese language. You can guess what one of my New Century resolutions is going to be!

My own job in music calls for a considerable amount of travel, but this was my first trip to Japan. Novel experiences were plentiful, from heated toilet seats to seaweed-wrapped biscuits, from delicious take-away lunch boxes (bento boxes) to the Japanese version of Macdonalds, from the 270 km/h Shinkansen bullet train to free Internet access at a local science exhibition. The relative prices of goods were not always consistent with Northern European prices. On one occasion I paid more than four pounds fifty pence for one cup of coffee (maybe coffee is regarded as a delicacy?), and I saw melons on sale at prices upwards of thirty pounds each! I didn't dare say that I regularly eat half a melon for breakfast in England. The thought occurred that one could take a suitcase full of melons, rather than luggage, to finance a Japanese visit!

Those are extreme examples. At the other extreme the Japan Rail Pass would be a bargain anywhere. It gives unlimited travel anywhere in the country for seven days, for around 150 pounds. One of my train journeys, a sleeper from Osaka to Sapporo, took 22 hours, so the Rail Pass was a true money-saver, and much appreciated. The route goes to the northern island of Hokkaido via the Seikan Tunnel, the world's longest undersea tunnel, an eerie 53.85 km long. Much of this Reed Clinic was written during that train journey - the first Reed Clinic written underwater!

Throughout all of this shone the kindness and good manners of the Japanese people. There is no tipping at all, and constant good service, helpfulness and much thanking and bowing. Ask the way to a local store or restaurant and you are likely to be escorted along the street to ensure that you are heading in the correct direction. It was this spirit that characterised my unforgettable visit to the Yanagisawa saxophone works. Thank you, Wally Evans. Thank you, Mr Sakurai. Thank you, Mr Yanagisawa. And thank you, Mr Yamada, for the advice about the zip.

This article first appeared in Crescendo magazine. Not to be used without permission.
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