My New H. Couf Superba II Bari

I have now owned my H. Couf Superba II bari for around six weeks now, and I realized a couple of days ago that I hadn’t yet written the actual article about this horn. This is likely a first for me, because I normally write about a new horn within the first couple of weeks. 😉

As most musicians know, this is a crazy-busy time of the year. Christmas and holiday shows are a staple, and for me they started in the middle of November already. (Two weeks after I got the Couf.) Add to that, that I have been busy researching and writing the soon-to-be-published H. Couf page for my website. The result: I totally forgot to write an article about this really great bari that is now my main bari in the big band I play in.

How I ended up with a H. Couf baritone

When I started to look for a low A bari, I wasn’t all that serious about the task. I wasn’t in a hurry because I have two very different, but killer low Bb baris already, and knew I wanted just the right horn that would last my lifetime.

The relatively local shops that deal with vintage saxes just didn’t have anything that interested me, so I looked a bit further afield, and there it was… a stunning, black nickel beauty listed on the website of one my favourite vintage sax dealers: PM Woodwind.

A quick phone call to Paul Maslin confirmed that the horn was still available, and a sound file later convinced me that indeed this baby would be right for the type of playing I do now.

Then came the logistics of shipping such a stunningly good-looking, closet horn thousands of miles from the Midwest to the West Coast. Paul of course specializes in shipping saxophones around the world, but shipping large instruments always carries a bit more of a risk.

One of the things that made this baritone so special was that it literally was a closet horn. Although it was 50 years old, it had seen relatively little playing time, and had spent most of the last half century stored in the same man’s basement, attic, or wherever he stored his collection of saxophones.

Getting a bari to the West Coast

I have friends who live just across the line in WA State. I decided what made the most amount of sense for a whole host of reasons, was for Paul to send the horn to their place, and for me to stay there for a few days. This way I could bring the horn back into Canada myself—thus eliminating the customs brokerage fees. I would only have to pay the applicable taxes on my purchase at the border upon my entry back into Canada.

Within the US Paul uses UPS for parcels of this size, since the USPS doesn’t handle a parcel this large. He worked with me to figure out a date that would work for my schedule, yet would allow the horn to arrive during the week and not sit over a weekend in one of UPS’s warehouses.

To give the bari the best chance of making the trip unscathed, I decided to not have the horn shipped in its original case. (Another first for me.) I opted instead to buy a BAM HighTech bari case through Paul.

Despite knowing that Paul personally packed the horn, and that all the proper precautions were taken, I was still pretty nervous during the week of October 22-26. Lots can go wrong. Accidents happen. I was never as relieved as when I saw the UPS truck coming up the driveway.

Success! This H. Couf Superba II bari made the trek from Evanston, IL to just outside of Bellingham, WA with no ill effects. I spent the weekend with my friends while their sighthounds howled, and their parrots screeched any time I made any effort to play-test my new baby.

I went home just in time the following week, to attend my weekly rehearsal with The Moonliters (the big band I play with). That of course would be the test. How would the Couf do anchoring the sax section? In a word: marvellously.

Given that I had a grand total of under 3 hours of actual playing time on the horn, my intonation came in surprisingly well when playing with everyone. While the horn’s ability to be heard by everyone in the band—a hallmark of great big band bari saxes—was obvious right from night 1.

Because The Moonliters were performing on November 17 at a big band festival, I had very little time to decide which of my very fine baris to use. At the encouragement of our musical director, I used the Couf. I didn’t think I would have it totally figured out, but our director thought it sounded great, and even better than my Committee III that he had asked me to use previously.

Go figure…We sometimes are our own worst critics.

Yup, I used the Couf on November 17, and the horn kicked ass. I got a lot of compliments that day from people about my horn—because let’s face it, it is beautiful—and about the way it sounded. Yes, it has been mistaken for new by quite a few people. When I tell them that it’s 50 years old, they are pretty much speechless.

Pictures are worth 1,000+ words

I have managed to take a series of HDR shots of the Couf. I offer these up for you now. It is without a doubt among the prettiest saxophones I own. I am an extremely lucky bari owner.

Unfortunately like my other large horns, it does not fit into the light box we built. I apologize for the reflections. I did my best to hide the mid-century European teak décor from our dining room, and of course the tripod, etc. I did try to minimize the distractions from the sax porn. 😉

Specs

  • Keyed from low A to high F
  • Serial #: 61XXX (1968)
  • Finish: black nickel-plated with gold-plated keys and bell (This finish was available from JK for 20% more than their regular lacquer horns.)
  • Manufacturer: Julius Keilwerth (modified stencil of their Toneking)
  • All but 2 of the pads are original
  • All resos are original

Set Up:

  • M/P: Berg Larsen Stainless Steel 110/2 M
  • Ligature: Rovner Dark
  • Reed: Rico Plasticover 2 1/2 or 3

An overhaul light

Because this horn had been sitting for most of its 50 years, and since I would be using it as my primary bari for ensemble work—and with a jazz festival less than three weeks away—I phoned my tech David. (When I bought the horn from Paul I knew it needed a bit of work, but I wanted my tech to look after it for me. It would be cheaper because I would pay all this in Cdn. as opposed to US dollars.)

In case you’re new to the party and don’t know, I LOVE MY TECH! He is amazing, and I have seen work miracles on the most damaged instruments you can imagine. David is also a great machinist, and can make any part you might need for a vintage horn. He is also simply the best, nicest, kindest, and most honourable man I believe I have ever had working on my vintage babies.

David had seen the photos of my new bari on the PM Woodwind website, and was really looking forward to seeing the horn in person. The horn did not disappoint. When I told him what I had noticed in the week that I had it, he did something I didn’t expect, he took the entire bari apart.

This is a partial listing of the work he did while I waited:

  • All corks and felts replaced;
  • Removed some rust on the springs;
  • Removed all the fog on the mirror resos;
  • Cleaned all the pads;
  • Greased and oiled all the springs, screws, rods, etc;
  • Removed any excess play in the keys;
  • Reassembled it with no new scratches on either the gold or black nickel plating.

When my H. Couf Superba II bari left David’s shop that Friday, it was played just as well as (if not better) than when it left the JK factory back in 1968.

Idiosyncrasies

The overhaul light that David did for me doesn’t mean that this is an easy blowing, easy playing horn. Far from it. I would call it anything but a beginner’s saxophone. It is a bari for a player with some chops, but more importantly, some serious lung power. I joke about it needing almost as much air as my bass. Truth be told, that’s not that far off the mark.

  • This horn needs a TON of supported air to play well. Although I am a bari player, my Mark VI and Committee III are like playing altos compared to the Couf. Long tones were and continue to be a must for me anytime I’ve laid off the horn for a few days, in order to get that big, fat sound that these horns are known for.
  • There is no key guard for the chromatic F# key. WTF were JK and Herb Couf thinking? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been playing when suddenly my horn craps out on me. Then I realize I have caught the chromatic F# key on my pants, so the air is escaping out the body tube at that tone hole. The Superba I baris have a guard, and the Superba II altos and tenors have a guard. Why not the baris????
  • Like every other German horn I either own or have played, the D2 is very sharp. So sharp in fact, that when I play long sustained tones on the note, I don’t use the octave key. I use an old bass saxophonist’s trick and play D2 either with the D3 palm key alone, or vent D2 with the D3 palm key instead of the octave key. Either one will get D2 100% in tune on the horn. Depending on the song, I choose the option that gives me just the right tonal colour for the piece.

This particular H. Couf bari’s back story

According to Paul, this horn was one of a number of saxophones he currently had for sale that belonged to the estate of a man who had bought quite a few over the years, but didn’t really play them. He had horns he did play, but most he just considered investments of sorts.

He stored these investment horns, and when he passed away, they were left to his daughter. She then had Paul sell them through his shop.

I would be lying if I said this H. Couf Superba II bari didn’t get me thinking about my own saxophone collection, and what will happen to them when I no longer walk this earth. Since I don’t have children to leave them to, I really need to figure this out and have my lawyer draw up a codicil for my will.

I must admit I am very curious as to the origins of this horn. Yes, it came from the estate of this man, but where did it come from before that?

Paul believed that the gentleman bought it directly from Herb Couf’s store in Detroit. That would make sense, but given that this finish was a custom order, I’m wondering if the store had had it as a display model for a while.

What I do find interesting is that the only real wear on the black nickel plating is on the left side, where it would rub against a player’s right hip. Although no longer in fashion now, for decades jeans had rivets in them, and specifically, 5-pocket jeans had a rivet in that particular spot where the horn rubs. Mmm….

Well no worries now. This bari is treated like a queen. Although it is now a regularly working horn, I look after it extremely well, and do my utmost to ensure that no harm comes to it will I’m its guardian.

It will get its regular trips to my highly skilled and careful tech—just like the rest of my gigging horns—and now gets the chance to do what all great horns should get to do: perform for the public. It’s doesn’t get much better than that.

© 2018, Helen. All rights reserved.

Helen

Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.

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