by Neil Tesser
Source:New York Times

Saxophonists are collectors; it’s an occupational hazard. They amass boxes of reeds to find one that works perfectly; their closets bulge with the secondary saxes, clarinets and flutes they are expected to play in bands and orchestras.

And if the home of a professional saxophonist often resembles a small-town music shop of decades past, with perhaps a dozen instruments, Frank Catalano’s home is more like a saxophone Wal-Mart.

Mr. Catalano’s 60 or so instruments, 45 of which sprawl across three floors of his house in Bucktown, include more than 20 models of his main horn, the tenor sax, and several of the big baritone saxes popular in rock ’n’ roll. He also has more than a dozen soprano saxes — many of them the lovely little curved ones in vogue until the 1950s — and some flutes.

He owns two dozen alto saxes alone — and he does not even play alto, at least not in public.


“I do practice on alto and study it a lot, because from a clarity-of-voice standpoint, it’s the best,” he said. (He also played a lot of alto while getting his degree in classical composition at DePaul.)

Part of this cache results from being a clinician for Yamaha, the Japanese motorcycle giant and leading maker of musical instruments. Mr. Catalano consults on saxophone designs and receives pre-production versions of new models. Yamaha also sends him a finished version of each horn. That alone keeps his collection growing.

Mr. Catalano, who at 34 has performed professionally for more than two-thirds of his life, has also become a savvy appraiser. He owns an alto that was played by the brilliant saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and a tenor saxophone that is rumored to have belonged to the iconic tenor man Lester Young.

As a musician, Mr. Catalano is known for the exuberance of his solos, and he speaks with rapid-fire energy in a high-pitched voice, barely finishing one sentence before hitting the next.

“Look at this gold-plated Buscher C-melody saxophone,” he said during a tour of his musical estate. “It had to be a special order, because it has the high-F key that they never used, so this is one-of-a-kind, from 1924, which is why I purchased it. If this was a true special order from 87 years ago, and you figure at that time it would have been $700-$800 — I’m guessing it belonged to a really happening player.”

The pièce de résistance is a straight soprano saxophone played by John Coltrane on the eve of one of his most famous recordings.

“In July 1960, just before he recorded the album ‘My Favorite Things,’ the Selmer Company made a handful of sopranos for him to try out, and this was one of them,” Mr. Catalano said. “I have a letter confirming this from the district manager at Selmer at the time.


“I’ve never played a soprano that had this dark of a sound. If you’re talking about probably the most influential saxophonist and what he liked, and you pick up this horn, your hair gets all tingly.”

Mr. Catalano, who has recorded six albums under his own name, has played all the saxes in his collection and uses several of them regularly, depending on the occasion.

On his late-night set at the Green Mill (2 a.m. to 3 a.m. each Thursday), he uses his current workhorse, a Yamaha Custom-Z with silver plating that helps generate a big, flexible tone. On the Grammy-winning album “Get Lifted” by the crooner John Legend, and with the metal band Ministry, he used horns whose materials lent sounds more appropriate to those projects.

Mr. Catalano said he prefers instruments whose keys feel most comfortable to the middle finger of his right hand, the one he severed while working on a car engine when he was 16. After surgery, he started looking for saxes that best fit his reattached finger. That search led him into collecting. (Today, he said, he has nearly full range of motion in the finger but no feeling.)

Picking up steam as he described each instrument, Mr. Catalano proved himself an astute historian as well as an amateur metallurgist. He reeled off the model numbers, years of manufacture and other differentiating features imperceptible to those who do not play sax, and the distinctive qualities that brass, gold and silver each lend to a horn’s sound. Pointing to the pearl inlays on one instrument or the use of gold of various weights on the bell of another, he revealed his inner jeweler.

He showed his knowledge of Art Deco design as he noted the intricacies of engravings that glorify the bells of older horns. One showed a cabin in the woods, another had a commissioned portrait of the owner’s daughter and the oddest one in his collection depicted a Kewpie doll kicking a football from the front of the horn to the back.

“I do consider myself somewhat of a sax historian,” Mr. Catalano said. “And part of my challenge is to restore some of these instruments, so that instead of them turning into a lamp at a Cracker Barrel or something, people can make music on them and actually hear what these things sounded like when they were new.”