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The Saxophone in Jazz

One of the great joys of listening to jazz is in the constant discovery of individual style and subtle nuances in the expressions of the artist. The saxophone being as closely associated with jazz, as the guitar is with the blues, it represents a rich and varied tapestry of style and flair. In the early […]


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One of the great joys of listening to jazz is in the constant discovery of individual style and subtle nuances in the expressions of the artist. The saxophone being as closely associated with jazz, as the guitar is with the blues, it represents a rich and varied tapestry of style and flair.

In the early years of jazz, the saxophone was a ‘commoner’ in the overall context of the band. The sax players in the band would get the occasional solo, but the instrument did not hold a special place in the scheme of things. That changed in the Thirties with the advent of the big bands such as those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and others.  Band arrangements featured the eminent saxophonists of the era, notably, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster among others.

A quantum leap in the status of the sax took place in 1939, when the aforementioned Coleman “The Hawk” Hawkins recorded Body and Soul with his nine-piece band with the tenor sax in the lead. It was at once an amalgam of romantic and creative tenor sax playing and remained his masterpiece, even though he kept evolving as a tenor player throughout his playing career.

Of Hawkins’ contemporaries, Lester Young was a study in contrast of style. It was almost as if The Hawk had laid down the rules of how to play jazz on tenor, and along came Lester Young questioning the rules. Hawkins was more floral, played multi-noted lines as was the prevalent style, while Lester Young (nicknamed “Prez”) played in a subtle style with fewer notes and clever use of space in his phrasing. Although Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Don Byas and others were truly masterful tenor men from that era, the dominance of The Hawk and Prez, was obvious.

Around 1942, Charlie Parker (also known as “Bird”) was at the centre of a jazz musical revolution called bebop. Bird, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie devised this new sound of bebop by extending the harmonic range of jazz. On an existing tune, Bird would retain the old chord structure but his new melodic lines changed them into new tunes. Bebop caused such a jazz revolution at that time, that old timers like Louis Armstrong called it “Chinese music.” Charlie Parker was always the supreme stylist. His alto saxophone sounded like none other ever has. Bird never made a bad recording. Indeed his playing on the very lyrical recordings he made with a string section, are among the best jazz albums ever. Such was Bird’s influence on jazz that pianist Lennie Tristano said in 1960, that if Parker wanted to invoke plagiarism laws, he could have sued almost everybody who made a jazz record in the last ten years!

John “Trane” Coltrane stamped his great influence on saxophone playing with his iconic style. As a sax player, Coltrane evolved several times from his days with Miles Davis in the Fifties, ultimately attaining a spiritual quality in his tenor and soprano sax expression. Trane’s influence can be heard to this day among the saxophonists who followed him.

Some great sax players such as Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins and others, have enriched and embellished jazz and have their own die hard fan following but Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane have been the pivots on which the jazz saxophone has evolved. Just listen!

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