This Week: Top Five Jazz Saxophone Solos

by Ben Kritikos

The saxophone was the first instrument I ever played.  I remember my teacher: an overweight, slightly Buddha-shaped man with a penchant for falling asleep with half-eaten doughnuts in his hand.  I don’t know why I took up saxophone (an alto, incidentally), but it didn’t last terribly long.  My parents supported me by not complaining of the racket I made; my teacher gave as much support as one can give to an easily distracted eight-year-old; but learning jazz standards didn’t hold the appeal of, say, setting things on fire, or making sling-shots out of wood and rubber bands.  In the end, I lost interest, a fact I’ve regretted ever since.

The saxophone came into this world through the efforts of a Belgian man living in Paris in the 1840s by the name of Adolphe Sax.  The son of instrument maker Charles-Joseph Sax, Adolphe studied flute and clarinet in Brussels, where his father sold instruments, including horns with modifications of his own design.  Adolphe Sax followed his father’s lead, designing and modifying instruments, and at the age of 20 he patented a modification to the bass clarinet.

Adolphe Sax created a range of what were called saxhorns, culminating in his most famous invention, the saxophone.  The saxophone range included instruments for marching bands, as well as orchestral instruments.  The idea behind the saxophone was to create a horn with the projection of a brass instrument and the acoustics of a woodwind.

But what started out as an instrument for marching bands and orchestras has come to be associated more closely with jazz.

Jazz is not for everybody.  Jazz is the kind of music that some people put on in the background at dinner parties, lending their event a sort of elegance not achieved with, I don’t know, the Scissor Sisters.  As such, the saxophone, for some, is connoted with lounge music, a sort of 1950s ambient music: it conjures to mind suited American men with buttered hair drinking scotch in rooms furnished with “modern” conveniences that never made it to the “future”, and women daintily hopping from one group of guests to another with faultless domestic equilibrium, their high heels and long dresses irreproachably gliding across linoleum and shag carpet alike.

Kill that saxophone, please!

I think of a music deeply rooted in African-American culture (I don’t like Kenny G), with a strong emphasis on improvisation.  You could argue until the cows come home about what constitutes “jazz” — many music writers do — but I’m more interested in classic jazz, the kind that people listened to in smokey rooms, jumping around excitedly, dancing to, howling as the musicians who played it sweated on stage, giving it their all.  The solo was everything, and that meant spontaneous ideas drawn from inspiration and the buzz created in a room.  Jazz, to me, isn’t that shit smug people play for smug people rubbing their perfectly goatee’d chins.  Jazz is hyper, inspired music, fuelled by imagination, humour, character and spontaneous inspiration.  These are my top five examples of those qualities in action.

(Tracks linked to Spotify where available. If you don’t have a Spotify account or it’s unavailable in your country, you can easily and cheaply buy the tracks on iTunes.  Or go find them on vinyl, which is a much better way to listen to music.)

“Lover Man” (1946) played by Charlie Parker

It’s fitting, I suppose, that the first saxophone solo I talk about is one played by Charlie Parker.  While he’s now considered, after Louis Armstrong, the most influential improviser in jazz history, in his time there were those who said he was “killing jazz”.

Bird (as Charlie Parker was known) lived a life famously plagued with addiction.  He became addicted to morphine (and later to heroin) in his teens; when he couldn’t score, he drank himself silly.  Listening to his improvisations, the speed and ingenuity of his solos, it’s almost impossible to believe that he performed in the condition he did.  But play heavily under the influence Bird most certainly did.

Bird’s 1946 recording of “Lover Man” serves as an example of both the impact his addiction had on his career, and also an example of how he could play through his intoxication.  At this session for Dial Records, Parker had come to California, where heroin was less abundant than in his home, New York.  To compensate for the lack of smack, he drank a quart of whiskey (that’s two pints, for those who’ve never used quarts).  Listen to the recording: the band starts, but Bird misses the first few measures.  When he does come in, it’s clunky.  The producer Ross Russel had to hold Parker up straight during the recording to make sure he didn’t fall over, or play away from the microphone.

The solo is sloppy.  When Dial cut the record, Bird never forgave the producer for releasing what he considered a sub-standard performance.

Charles Mingus thought differently.  Parker’s contemporary and collaborator (and all-round musical genius) counted this recording among the best of Parker’s work.  I agree with Mingus: it’s certainly got something.  Though it may seem a bit stupid to name this — an anomalous blemish on an otherwise flawless body of work — my favourite of Bird’s solos, it is nonetheless.  There’s a lack of pretension on this early recording of “Lover Man” that a more well-thought-out — more sober — player would probably have never let slip.  This solo sounds like the truth, like a drunk pouring out his/her heart because it’s too full of love, and he/she’s too full of liquor to keep it in.

“Picasso” (1948) played by Coleman Hawkins

“Picasso” by Coleman Hawkins is mistakenly called the first recording of an unaccompanied saxophone; but even so, it’s probably the best.  Through the grainy crackling, we hear a tenor saxophone doing with sound what Picasso did with paint.  It’s a freestyle improvisation without melody.  The notes twist and turn, change rhythm, change key, painting an abstract picture in which ordinary things don’t look so ordinary anymore.  Hawkins uses his saxophone to conjure an image, like Picasso, of the mundane in a way that forces us to look at it with new eyes.

Coleman Hawkins established the tenor saxophone as a jazz instrument at a time when clarinets, trumpets and banjos were the norm, paving the way for some of the great horn players of the future.  He pioneered the instrument to such an extent that jazz sax players refer to the Coleman Hawkins style of using the mouthpiece (as opposed to the Lester Young style).  Hawkins embraced changes in the jazz scene, too, keeping himself relevant even when the big band and swing era he was originally associated with came to an end, and new players like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie broke into the foreground with Be-bop.  Here’s a video of Coleman Hawkins playing with Charlie Parker. Unfortunately, there’s no footage of him performing “Picasso” that I know of; but you can watch a very young Coleman Hawkins  playing “I wish I were twins” in 1935 here.

“Picasso” stands, with precious few others, as a piece of music that I would call great and important art; not just a saxophone solo but a genuine masterpiece painted in sound.

“Lester Leaps In” (1949) played by Lester Young

This recording documents Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic session from 1949, at Carnegie Hall.  Lester Young is the first of a bunch of soloists on “Lester Leaps In”, including Charlie Parker and trumpeter Roy Eldridge.  But it’s Lester Young — Prez as he was called — who really steals the show.

In this world, some people do original things.  Sometimes they do original things so originally, you can’t imagine what their minds must be like.  It’s almost freakish.  Charlie Chaplin is like that.  Lester Young had it like Chaplin: a bit weird.  This solo sums it up.  It’s weird, almost comical — but in a bad-ass way.  Lester Young’s friends all knew he was eccentric.  He had a way with words, you could say.  If there were strangers about, or somebody Lester suspected of being not his type, he devised an intricate lexicon of slang that only his nearest and dearest would understand.  This solo has that kind insular lexicon to it.  Prez could play the language children speak to their imaginary friends, I’d guess.

If the solo doesn’t do it for you, the pork-pie hat should.  Or the angle he blows into his saxophone.

“Take Five” (1959) played by Paul Desmond

Even people who don’t like jazz know this song.  It’s totally iconic.  And while loads of people associate it with Dave Brubeck, whose combo it was recorded this seminal jazz tune in an unorthodox time signature, it was Brubeck’s alto saxophonist Paul Desmond who penned it.

Paul Desmond’s sound stands alone.  There’s nothing abrasive about it.  In Desmond’s playing, you can hear everything in there: jazz, popular music of the day, baroque, classical.  It’s all in there.  More importantly, it sings, like a voice of purity on a filthy city street.  Desmond’s playing on “Take Five” does what the best jazz should: it takes the newspaper vendor, the prima donna with her arias, and the whole world in between, warts and all, and melts them into a groove you can dance to.

“My Favorite Things” (1961) played by John Coltrane

When I listen to “My Favorite Things” I think of birds.  I guess people say that about saxophone solos — and we’ve already spoken about Bird.  But really, I can’t escape it; John Coltrane’s soprano sax solo on this recording is like a waterfall of cascading, swooping, flapping birds from some paradise where, if nothing else, at least the music is good.

Lots of jazz musicians play standards, or turn contemporary pop tunes into something we instantly recognise as jazz.  “My Favorite Things” goes even further, taking a well-known tune from The Sound Of Music and turning it not only into a jazz tune, but a modal jazz tune with a very intricate, very free (and therefore somewhat noisy) saxophone solo.

“My Favorite Things” is beautiful and surprising.  The tune is so well-known that I at once want to sing along — which, unlike most “free jazz” treatments, is entirely possible.  The melody is always present, even if the song and chord structure is not.  The melody even shines through the sheet of sound Coltrane makes with his instrument.  If you hold onto the thread Coltrane leads out to you, you can find yourself pulled through the eye of a musical hurricane.  Kind of like in a kid’s film, you come out exhilarated, rather than injured, homeless and traumatised.  Then again, people who don’t like jazz might disagree.


Sorry for the delay this week.  And I’m aware that this Top Five is not quite as substantial as the usual order.  What can I say?  It’s harder than you might think writing regularly about things you like.  Maybe I should start talking about the 214 more often.

Next week’s Top Five will be good and long, and better.  I’m going to publicly humiliate myself.  It’ll be great.  You’ll love it.  I promise.  It’s always a good laugh when some one comes out looking stupid.  Just look at these:

See?  Isn’t that funny?  I’ll be doing that.  Well… not exactly that.  I won’t be a head of state, or nude (um… no, I will be nude at times).  But the storytelling/blog equivalent of that.  Now go away, you’re embarrassing me.


Filed under Music, Top Fives

3 responses to “This Week: Top Five Jazz Saxophone Solos

  1. Love it! I will enjoy reading your blogs :) Saxaphone, studio Ghibli and irish bands my favourites ;)

  2. thank you for your write up.

    i came across jazz precisely because of it’s frenzied, hyper and totally out o control aesthetic…. the more out of control, the deeper into its own spiral the solo goes the more i go wild, the more i fall in love.

    and i came across this searching for people’s beloved free jazz solos.

    • Hi Magda,

      Thanks so much for your comment. Sorry for the late response!

      It’s such a delicate balance in jazz, especially when it’s totally inspired and almost delirious jazz, between out of control and completely in control. When I listen to the solos I’ve listed here, and just about any solo by a truly inspired player, I always feel like I’m seeing the crazy, fucked-up way people’s minds work — but put to really good use!

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