The last thing you would expect to find when you enter the beautiful, renaissance town of Macerata, nestling peacefully on a hilltop near the Italian Adriatic coast, is a saxophone factory. Even more surprising is to discover a factory that builds saxophones the old, traditional way - by hand. This is what we found when myself and top repair-men Remy and Friso, co-owners of Amsterdam Winds, visited the Borgani factory at the request of the proprietor Orfeo Borgani. We left Amsterdam at 05.00 one cold and windy morning on a trip that turned out to be a journey into the history of saxophone making.
Like many saxophone players I first heard of Borgani saxophones a couple of years ago when Joe Lovano started playing a Borgani tenor, and again later when Michael Brecker switched to the Borgani soprano. During the summer of 2003 when I was in Italy at the Siena Jazz festival I heard from tenor player Pietro Tonolo (who plays a Borgani Vintage) how he happened to introduce Joe Lovano to the Borgani horn. Apparently Joe, who was touring in Italy at the time, liked Pietro’s sound and asked him if he could try his instrument. Having tried the horn at Pietro’s house he was so impressed with the tone and feel of the Vintage tenor that he wanted to buy one immediately. On our recent trip to the factory we were picked up at Ancona airport by Marco Collazzoni, the technical advisor for Borgani. During the drive to Macerata I mentioned these events to him and he told us the rest of the story: “Joe Lovano came to the factory to try out some saxophones. After trying out different models he saw a tenor tucked away in a corner and asked me which horn that was. ‘That’s my own personal tenor,’ I replied. Lovano insisted on trying it and liked it so much that he told me, ‘I’m going to buy this horn and keep it until you make me a better one’. So in order to get my own tenor back I had to design and make a better one for Lovano - and that was how the Joe Lovano model was born.“
On reaching Macerata we met Orfeo Borgani who told us over dinner about the history of the family company. It soon became very clear that we were dealing with a manufacturer whose first priority has always been quality rather than quantity. The next morning we were shown around the factory and introduced to the small 15 person work force. We were then invited to see the entire instrument manufacturing process from the raw material to the finished product. What impressed us immediately was how much care was taken at every step of the assembly process. Everything was done carefully by hand (even the machines used for fitting and measuring the saxophone parts were made by Borgani). The shaping process of the saxophone body was done slowly so as not to cause stress in the metal, which would affect the quality of the sound. The bell was hand beaten into shape by Ruggero, a skilled artisan who has worked 53 years for the company spanning three generations of the Borgani family. The tone holes were slowly and carefully formed so as not to stress the brass, and even the keys were hand made and specially fitted to each individual instrument. Everything, up to and including the engraving and final assembly, was done by hand by individual workers with care and precision. Seeing this process first hand and comparing it to what I had heard from Remy and Friso about the fast, automated, conveyer-belt manufacturing methods used by the large modern saxophone factories, it was not difficult to understand why Borgani saxophones sound so special. They sound like the way they are made.
In Amsterdam I had already tried out a Borgani Vintage alto sax lent to me by Amsterdam Winds and was very impressed with the responsiveness of the horn. I felt that there was almost no limit to its possibilities. And now, here in the factory itself, we had the opportunity to try out the different Borgani models and put them through their paces. I had brought two mouthpieces with me for the alto sax: a Meyer 6, medium chamber and an old rubber Berg Larsen 85/0 M. For the soprano I brought my old, trusty Lawton 8* rubber mouthpiece. The reeds I used for alto were Vandoren Java 2 ½ & 3 and La Voz Medium (I also used Rigotti reeds 3 supplied by Borgani) and for soprano Rico Royal 3.
The models we tried out were the three models we considered most suited for jazz: the Vintage model, the Pearl Silver and the Pearl Gold 24k. At this point it is perhaps advisable to remind the reader that each players’ physical build and individual embouchure amounts to a personal graphic-equaliser. These factors plus a players’ mouthpiece and reed set up can make a noticeable difference to the sound of an instrument. But we were there to assess the quality of Borgani instruments and quality is unmistakeable. Discussing our findings later all three of us (both Remy and Friso play the saxophone) generally agreed on the conclusions below.
I found the Vintage altos and sopranos to be very flexible and responsive with a full tone combined with the attack and projection that alto and soprano saxes need. There is a tremendous amount of control available to the player. The sound can be round and warm or incisive and bright depending on the embouchure and the attack used. As with all Borgani saxophones the mechanism is excellent and very responsive; every note pops out of the horn at all speeds. With a metal mouthpiece the Vintage model would also make a very fine fusion horn.
The Pearl Silver has many of the same qualities as the Vintage but with the darker, warmer tone of silver. Perhaps this darker sound is the reason this model feels slightly less agile than the others. The necessary articulation and attack are all present but the silver horn projects a little less than the Vintage or the Pearl Gold. In compensation the sound is very warm and full. Like all the Borgani models the Pearl Silver retains its rich tone when played quietly or sub-tone. The full, darker tone would make this a perfect horn for more traditional players looking for a broader, rounder sound. Players wanting to get more brightness from the horn could do so by changing their mouthpiece/reed set up.
Pearl Gold 24k
Compared to the Vintage and Silver models this model has a more vibrant tone and a lot of power in reserve. The more you put into this horn the more you get out of it. It is a very flexible instrument with seemingly limitless possibilities, limited only by your own capacity. Once again the horn is what the player makes of it. As Orfeo Borgani put it, “With Borgani instruments it is the player who is in charge”. Like the other models the Pearl Gold also retains its full sound when played quietly or sub-tone and the articulation is excellent in all registers. The lower register plays easy and smooth and the upper register is lively and bright. The extended third register has a big sound and plays easier than on any other horn I’ve tried. In general this model has all the requirements to make a first class, all round jazz instrument.
The Pearl Gold soprano also comes with a detachable and interchangeable bell. This useful and unique idea allows the gold bell to be replaced by a silver one. The difference between the two materials is immediately noticeable. What is already a powerful soprano with a big tone increases it’s projection by around 25% (!) with a silver bell.
On all of their models Borgani will make and fit the keys to suit the individual player’s requirements at no extra cost. Anyone who is lucky enough to be in the area is welcome to visit the factory to meet the team and try out the saxophones. Another useful extra is that a hard case is provided already the size and shape of a gig bag – no extra case needed.
A couple of days later at the end of our stay Orfeo Borgani drove us through
the beautiful, sunny Italian countryside on the way back to Ancona airport.
It was easy to see why tradition and quality survive in these rolling hills
rich in history and culture. Discussing our impressions with Orfeo he told
us once again how important quality and sound are for the company: “As
you would expect from a modern, top of the range instrument the mechanism
and the tuning are excellent. But I believe what puts Borgani saxophones
in a class of their own is the quality of sound. I think it is for this reason
more than anything else that musicians appreciate our instruments.”
That summed up our conclusions perfectly. Borgani saxophones have a tone you can only associate with a few great instrument makers of the past but with the advantages of a modern mechanism and precise tuning. I’ll leave the last words to Orfeo Borgani: “To put it in a nutshell, Borgani make saxophones the old way – and that will always be the best way.”