Jun 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons may be gone, but in jazz there are plenty of great sax players waiting to be heard

John Coltrane
Clarence Clemons may very well have been the greatest rock saxophonist who ever lived. Anyone who's ever hummed along to "Jungleland" or "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" is familiar with his soaring, exuberant solos, and in that sense the big man was not only an enormously talented and charismatic musician but also an ambassador for the instrument itself.

But while the sound of the sax has been fading from rock and pop in recent years, in jazz it is and always has been an elemental part of the music. And why not? Depending on who's behind the reed, the saxophone can be many things. Charlie Parker's alto was a precision instrument of stunning virtuosity, played with a speed and skill that, even decades later, through the haze of scratchy, primitive recordings, is still astonishing to behold. Listening to Parker's solo on "Koko,"  where he's joined by trumpet player and fellow bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie, it's impossible to convey his masterful blend of technique and musicality without the word "genius" coming to mind.

John Coltrane, on tenor (and sometimes soprano) sax, played not just with speed - what one critic called "sheets of sound" - but with an immediacy and power that evoked deeper, spiritual dimensions to the music. Trane, especially in the late stages of his career, composed pieces imbued with this spirituality (his masterpiece "A Love Supreme" is probably the best example), but he accomplished his depth of purpose no matter the source material. Just listen to how he transforms Richard Rodgers' bright and somewhat schmaltzy "My Favorite Things" into a darkly nuanced exploration of the very soul of the music. Kenny G it's not.

Fast forward to the present, and there are plenty of established players and young turks making great music on the sax, from Branford Marsalis reworking Trane's "A Love Supreme" to Joe Lovano's sensitive ballad work to Tineke Postma, a young woman straight outta Amsterdam, playing with lyricism and restraint on original compositions that are just gorgeous. Clarence Clemons may be gone, but for saxophone lovers willing to explore the beauty and complexity of jazz, treasures abound.

-Tony Rogers

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