Show #45: Short Geneology of the Tenor Saxophone

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On this week’s Rhythm Planet program, we focus on the modern evolution of that most jazzy of instruments, the tenor sax.

Years ago I saw an ad in Down Beat magazine for knit shirts of the Lacoste variety where you could have a logo of a musical instrument sewn on. I play flute, so first I chose a flute. But then I thought, ‘why do a flute when the saxophone is the true jazz instrument?’ So I got one with a sax on it.

The saxophone, named after Adolf Sax who invented the horn in the 19th century, is the true jazz horn. How many classical works feature it? A rhapsody by Debussy, Ravel’s Bolero, an aria by Poulenc and a few other compositions by French composers. Other than that, there’s just not much there.

During Stalin’s time, saxophones were banned in favor of clarinets. Saxophones weren’t considered Russian enough. Ditto for Hitler, who compared jazz to grunts made by our simian ancestors. This was all because they hated jazz and its creative freedom.

Whereas it was a Frenchmen who invented the sax, American jazzmen put it on the world map. What follows is a sort of loose genealogy of the tenor sax, with some newer geniuses at the end.

Branford Marsalis, no slouch on the instrument, once told me that sax came in two flavors: crunchy and creamy. I think you’ll find more of the creamy kind here. Crunchy players like Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Roland Kirk aren’t on this list. So are a multitude of other players–you can’t fit it all into an hour.

Saxophone (or any other improvised jazz solo) have certain individual traits: in a good solo the improvisor follows a certain arc: intro, climax, and denouement. There is musical language, sound and syntax that enables the astute listener to divine who is playing. Whereas it is often difficult to distinguish one classical soloist from another, the creative freedom of expression inherent in jazz music makes it a less formidable task.

We start with Coleman Hawkins, who rewrote the book on tenor sax solos in 1939 with his solo on “Body and Soul”. After that, Lester Young, nicknamed “Pres” in the 1940s because he was the next big sax artist and was declared “president” of the tenor. Next, the revolutionary alto sax of Charlie Parker, who devised a whole new approach to harmonic progressions and how to solo over it. Coltrane was next with his epochal 1959 solo on “Giant Steps”. Then Sonny Rollins plays his signature song, “St. Thomas” from a 1964 RCA session. His parents came from the Caribbean, hence the song’s title.

Three great sax players follow, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. Wayne’s sound and musical language is mysterious and introspective. Dexter, like Stan Getz, had a big sound marked by a legato and rubato style influenced heavily by Lester Young. Then an excerpt (sorry it’s a 10″ cut) from a very rare album cut in Copenhagen by Stan Getz, who also followed Pres’ lead and sound.

Next a 1977 recording that put the late Michael Brecker on the map: “Caprice” from Claus Ogerman’s LP Gate of Dreams. Like Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Coltrane, Brecker was a huge influence on modern sax players today, both in conception and sound.

We wrap up the hour with two top modern players, Eric Alexander and Chris Potter. Honk if you like saxophones!


Rhythm Planet Playlist: 3/7/14

  1. Coleman Hawkins / Body And Soul / Body And Soul / Blue Bird
  2. Lester Young / Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid / The Complete Aladdin Sessions / Blue Note
  3. Charlie Parker / Now’s The Time / Now’s The Time / Verve
  4. John Coltrane / Giant Steps / Giant Steps / Atlantic
  5. Sonny Rollins / St Thomas / Now’s The Time / RCA
  6. Dexter Gordon / Love For Sale / Go / Blue Note
  7. Wayne Shorter / Go / Schizophrenia / Blue Note
  8. Joe Henderson / Without A Song / Big Band / Verve
  9. Stan Getz / Night And Day / At Large Plus! / Jazz Unlimited
  10. Claus Ogerman Feat. Michael Brecker / Caprice / Gate Of Dreams / Warner Brother
  11. Eric Alexander / She’s Out Of My Life / Don’t Follow The Crowd / Highnote
  12. Chris Potter / Wayfinder / The Sirens / ECM Records

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