The saxophone is an instrument of seemingly unlimited musical possibilities. It can declaim like a trumpet, whisper like the human voice, rhapsodize like a violin, and scream like Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” I will never forget hearing John Zorn play Piram with his Masada band for the first time, such a sick combination of bop and free jazz that jumps out of your headphones and scratches up your walls before swanking its way off into the night. Everyone knows the saxophone also has fantastic sex appeal. I remember going to a Boney James concert a few years at a park in Tampa, FL with some college friends. He brought down the ampitheatre about half-way through his set when he danced around and seduced a blonde in the crowd while playing his well-known “Into the Blue.” The saxophone is also a symbol of academic music. People love to explore the timbral possibilites and spectral characteristics that accompany the instrument. Having studied the instrument from this perspective, I can say by sheer experience it definitely has its nerdy side. Some people treat it like a lab specimen to be prodded and experimented on with reams of pedagogy, dissertations, and performance practice opinions.
Having played different styles of music using the instrument I wanted to put together a definitive list that represents the instrument as I know it today. In this internet age and for your learning convenience, I choose only artists that are found on the great equalizer, YouTube. I stick with what I know and ask you to post something you think maybe should be added on. Who knows, maybe I can learn something from you!
1. John Coltrane-Giant Steps; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kotK9FNEYU
Giant Steps is the ultimate equalizer for jam sessions. No one calls this extraordinary chart unless they know it and know it well because the chord changes are simply grueling. It’s the perfect way to make an impression or sneak a quiet exit if someone else calls your bluff. When I was learning it, I often heard that Coltrane planned the riffs he played for this solo. It was at this point that I realized improvising is not a matter of playing chord changes but a matter of employing rhythms and patterns to make a statement. Giant Steps simply must be known, slowly and with lots of patience.
Coltrane is known for his sheets of sound, rapid arpeggios up and down the instrument, but I also love him for his ballads like Naima. He knew how to play melodically when it counted most and was sensitive to the musical environment around him. It’s important to note that he was not known as a saxophonist until he reached his late 20s and not as a featured soloist until his early 30s. Just goes to prove sometimes the later bloomers are the best.
2. Artur Mendes-Balafon; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQhI7l_YGeE
Mendes just got a job teaching at the superior conservatory in Lisbon, Portugal, which is significant considering he is only 24. I know little about him save that he collaborated heavily with the composer of the piece, Christian Lauba. And he’s my Facebook friend with a bright musical future. A balafon is, of course, a Malinese xylophone made of bamboo that sounds with an exotic flair and a characteristic rattling sound that sets it apart from western xylophones. Listening to the composition with that instrument in mind is important to understanding how it’s supposed to sound—endless melody.
This piece is important because it explores a new way to play the instrument. It isn’t macho and it doesn’t bring the house down with flashy fingers at first. But try to play it and you quickly realize it has to groove, breathe, and sound effortless in between awkward intervals and stamina-challenging phrases. Some people say this kind of writing for saxophone will redefine the way people hear the instrument much like Chopin redefined the piano with his études. I just like listening to it! It grooves in a way I’ve never heard before.
3. Andreas van Zoelen-Glazunov Concerto; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVDVhu1OBRw
Glazunov had an identity issue as the ‘other’ Russian composer in Paris. He stuggled for years to get recognition, and this was the last piece that he wrote before he died in 1934. He did not love the saxophone. He did not love expressionism and the modern new styles developing in the 20th century. And he missed Russia. Voila, you have the perfect recipe for the only Romantic saxophone concerto in the repertoire. A jaded, bitter, alcoholic Russian who wants to go home and just do something, anything, to distinguish himself from that Stravinsky guy. The bulk of his compositional efforts had ended two decades earlier after a somewhat implicit realization that his seemingly conservative music was becoming a whisper of times past.
There are a million different interpretations for this piece because saxophonists try and superimpose their own style on top of the Romanticism, which is a different issue. I do not endorse the man playing this piece as much as I do the actual work. Most (all) of the recordings are poorly counted or have a lousy tone or are played out of tune one YouTube. But it’s still a beautiful piece, and Mr. van Zoelen puts a great effort into it. Eugene Rousseau’s recording of it is also quite well known.
A central mystery surrounding this music lies in the dual listing of Glazounov and an A. Petiot as composers of the work. Since Glazounov was living in Paris at the time after the Russian Revolution, he found in Petiot a way to obtain royalties for his work in the face of diplomatic tensions between France and Russia. Today, the two names are intertwined with this music to such a degree impossible to separate because of international copyright and author’s rights.
4. Charlie Parker-Donna Lee; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hANODMX9c5g
New York City. Minton’s Playhouse. 1940s. This piece defines Bebop. Written by Miles Davis, just about everyone gives Charlie Parker the credit for it. It makes up the kind of repertory that had cutting contests where people like Roy Eldredge and Dizzy Gillespie would compete on stage to see who could play the best solo. Some people might say they were being egotistical and big-headed but maybe they were just tired of listening to bad musicians. Much like Giant Steps, people will not call Donna Lee unless they have something meaningful to say on stage. Both charts are tough for different reasons—Giant Steps has more exotic changes based on major 3rd intervals with a relatively simple melody while Donna Lee has burning head (melody) followed by traditional and quickly modulating changes
Anyway, Charlie Parker is the genesis of modern American jazz. If you’re reading this and don’t know what I’m talking about, he’s the most important name I have on this list.
5. Ornette Coleman-Lonely Woman; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNbD1JIH344
The first time I heard Ornette Coleman, he was playing with Pat Metheny on their duo album, Song X. I had no idea what they were doing. Ornette Coleman has made his career out of doing things people don’t always musically understand. While playing gigs in Texas clubs, it is said that he was once beat up and had his saxophone destroyed for his playing style.
Although he doesn’t sound as eccentric as he did in the 1960s, his mark on American jazz is singular. He strove to play between the cracks of chords instead of playing all of the “right” notes and plays with a raw yearning quality few saxophonists of his generation dared pursue. Lonely Woman is a snapshot of one of many highlights of his career from the 1959 album, The Shape of Jazz to Come.
6. Tim McCallister-William Albright Sonata; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=attN9Z2B32k
Tim McCallister is a bright face in the world of the American academic saxophone. He teaches at Arizona State University, but his real gig is exploring the artist’s path, which means he is a very busy performer. After debuting at 16 with the Houston Civic Orchestra, he has played all over North America and Europe. Most notably, he performed with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic in the premiere of John Adams’ City Noir.
Of all the movements, the second movement of this Sonata perhaps most deserves comment. It is dedicated to the memory of composer George Cacioppo who died unexpectedly on 8 April 1984. Cacioppo was co-founder of the ONCE group, an extraordinarily prominent avant-garde Ann Arbor group that achieved international notoriety for several seasons in the 1960s, and mentor to two generations of composers. His music and personality rest at the foundation of Albright’s thinking. His Sonata provides lasting testimony not only to an important contemporary mentor, but also to an abiding interest in historical models and a fascination with new adventures for the virtuoso alto saxophonist. “La follia nuova,” like its Baroque antecedents, is in a chaconne-variation form, although at one point the sections jumble together, or intersect. The Sonata explores some of the more haunting, brutal, and passionate possibilities of this instrument within an Apollonian/Dionysian aesthetic.
Two-time Fulbright Scholar William Albright spent the vast majority of his professional career at the University of Michigan, where he played a significant role in the ascension of the composition department to world-class status. A student of Olivier Messiaen, Max Deutsch, and George Rochberg, Albright’s music stands out for its vibrant eclecticism and convincing use of tonality or atonality to convey the music at hand. There is no wasted space nor wasted notes here; his music remains concise, passionate, and compelling.
7. Rudy Wiedoeft-Saxophobia; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yMwc8olTLE
Rudy Wiedoeft played saxophone before it was cool or even known as an instrument. Even though he played in New York, his sound typically reminds me of the Storyville and ragtime era that existed in New Orleans as jazz was developing. It may be a stretch, but I think of his role as comparable to the pioneering work Scott Joplin did for ragtime piano although their social status’ were, unfortunately, worlds apart.
The sound is tinny, laughing, virtuosic, and a reflection of the flapper era of the 1920s when cultural excess was the norm. Unfortunately, Wiedoeft outlived his own musical usefulness and found himself out of work by his 40s. Today, his music enjoys a renaissance, especially among saxophonists in Europe who still remember his style with the same vogue it enjoyed at the beginning of the 20th century.
8. David Sanborn-Pearls; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q948PTJCMa0
With six Grammy awards, a platinum album, and 6 gold albums, commercial saxophonist David Sanborn has a musical output that simply cannot be ignored. In the late 1980s he had his own Late Show with NBC and has engaged in film scoring on occasion during his career. Sanborn developed into something beyond just a saxophonist, but a musical icon and ringleader for discovering new and talented acts. For all his success, it’s important to understand that Sanborn is not a jazz musician. He doesn’t view himself that way and most of his critics don’t either. He picked up the saxophone as a therapeutic remedy for childhood polio and simply let his sound develop out of his appreciation for the musicians he heard around him such as Red Prysock, Jackie McClean, and Cannonball Adderley. The end result blends R&B, Rock, Funk, and whatever else catches his ear at a given moment.
Pearls is the title track from the first album of his I heard while in high school. It has a yearning imploring quality that reminds me of something saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo would do, but on a more intimate and commercial level. To close your eyes and listen to it is to embrace everything this Tampa-born saxophonist has to offer. Sanborn has become the face of the instrument for fans around the world. Known exclusively as an alto player, he plays with a characteristically laser-like sound that cuts to the forefront of the mind and captures the attention of his audiences. I have grown up loving his music, and although I’ve distanced myself from emulating his sound in recent years, his musicianship (and success) must be respected.
9. Michael Brecker-The Mean Time; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIP3dmCMNqo
Michael Brecker was a college freshman from Philadelphia who dropped out of Indiana University and dared to move to New York City instead of staying at the Jacobs School of Music. He stands alongside Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins as one of the most influential tenor saxophonists of all time. Some of the highlights of his career include his work with his brother, trumpetist Randy Brecker in their Brecker Bros. group of the 1980s. He also is one of the seminal members of Steps, a fusion band founded by Mike Mainieri. For the Return of the Brecker Bros. album of the early 90s, he was heavily influenced by Paul Simon’s African bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco to distinguish music from Northern and Eastern Cameroon, or the difference between music from Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Ultimately, he became known as a soloist who defined the fusion jazz tenor saxophone sound. His style and approach are admired by saxophonists and the public alike. He died of leukemia in 2007, but not before he came out with a final album released with an all-star cast of Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, and Brad Mehldau. “The Mean Time” comes from this final album entitled Pilgrimage. Brecker was an authentic musician; it didn’t hurt that he was a class act human being either.
10. Kenny Garrett-Sing a Song of Song; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCqaAUI1c78
In yet another example of elite saxophonists who skipped the academic track, Kenny Garrett stands as one of the most influential alto saxophonists of his generation. Hundreds of saxophonists just like me spend years of their lives trying to emulate his sound. He got his first break playing in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band and became especially well known after he got a call to play with Miles Davis.
I am particularly drawn to Garrett’s musicianship because, much like Davis, he has consistently refused throughout his career to rest with one particular sound that works with his audience. He has an album which calls to roots in Africa, a tribute to John Coltrane, a live recording featuring groove-oriented crowd pleasers, a disc full of original music inspired by his draw to the orient and especially Japan, and even a piano-less trio album. Whether the music calls for bebop, funk, gospel, or just a jam session, Garrett consistently pushes the envelope to express himself in a new way and connect with his audience.
Two things that I appreciate about him most come from the concerts where I have seen him at work. It was the end of the concert in Madrid and he was playing his last song he often calls to close out a night, “Happy People.” As the song was heating up, he called for the sound technician to turn on the lights so he could see the people. He had to repeat himself at least five times until someone went up and translated to the booth what he was saying. What ensued was a unique connection between artist and audience that I will not soon forget, a joyful celebration of music and humanity, and a great excuse to dance too! Garrett also reaches out to the next generation. When I saw him in St. Louis, he had found a 23-year-old drummer named Ben Nicolas to hire for the tour. He was working his first gig outside of the church and brought a major injection of youth into the group. By reaching out to talented young musicians, Garrett ensures that jazz will continue as an influential beacon in American music.
“Sing a Song of Songs” has a catchy melody that engages and shows off a great deal of musicianship without appearing frivolous.