Setting the mood – the saxophone

Posted on February 20, 2013


The instrument was invented by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian born instrument designer. He learnt the basics of his trade in his father’s workshop, but from an early age he started experiment with new designs. Several wind instruments have benefited from his work, he patented an important improvement of the bass clarinet and experimented with valved bugles, which became known as saxhorns and led to the invention of the flugelhorn instrument family.


The saxophone was patented by Sax in 1846 in two series, tuned to B♭ and E♭ respectively.  Its body is most often manufactured of brass, with a reed generating the sound in the same way as in woodwind instruments. Wooden and bamboo instruments are also in use. Although the instrument was invented in the mid nineteenth century, the majority of the concert works composed for saxophone as a solo instrument was produced in the twentieth century by composers such as Debussy (Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone), Glazunov (Saxophone Concerto) Jacques Ibert (Concertino da Camera, per sassofono e orchestra), and Phillip Glass (Concerto for Saxophone Quartet).


Listening to these pieces it appears to me that in classical music the saxophone is the ideal instrument to create “atmosphere”. Being hybrid instrument (reed + brass), it combines the brazen sound of brass instruments with the softer tone of the woodwinds. Depending of the reed used, it can blend into the orchestra or emerge as a solo player. It’s sound is rich, vibrating and flexible, allowing for very fine sliding and bending between notes.


The saxophones have become favourite in jazz, due to their excellent capabilities as solo instruments. With their distinctive and tone colour, edgy sound and endless possibilities of modulation ranging from sweet to harsh and piercing, they serve as perfect platforms for long and complicated improvisations. Rather than creating intensive or extreme emotions, the saxophone will set the mood. In jazz the sound of the saxophone doesn’t blend into the orchestra, but rather creates its own ambiance, surrounding, seducing, entertaining, surprising and soothing the listener with sweet melodies often punctuated by sharp turns, jumps and changes in the tempo.


Starting from the higher register, we can find the soprano and the sopranino saxophone, which are less popular than the alto and tenor saxophones. It’s sound is similar to other high register instruments like the flute, clarinet and the oboe. The instrument was perhaps first introduced to jazz by Sydney Bechet in the early nineteen-twenties, and became an integral part of modern jazz in the hands of Steve Lacy, John Coltrane (in his early period) and Wayne Shorter, among others.


The alto saxophone is the most popular member of the instrument group, it has a warm and powerful tone. Prominent jazz musicians using the alto include Don Redman, Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond. After the sixties several branches of free jazz and avant-garde musicians emerged, such as Ornette Coleman and John Tchicai.


The tenor sax is also very popular, it has a warm, expressive, robust tone.  The line of notable tenor saxophonists would start with the charismatic Coleman Hawkins, followed by the every influential Fletcher Henderson and Ben Webster. After his initial musicianship with soprano saxophone John Coltrane became a master of tenor, having a sweeping impact on generations of modern jazz musicians playing on every instrument. Another idol of tenor sax players was Stan Getz, who virtually dominated the nineteen-fifties.


While there is a waste number of alto- tenor and soprano saxophone players, the baritone saxophone has attracted a lesser number of advocates. This could be attributed to the fact that it is a heavier instrument and more difficult to control. However, listening to the music of baritone saxophonist Harry Carney seems to contradict this statement. He dominated the realm of baritone for decades, being able to deliver powerful solos as well as strengthen the sound of the big band in Ellington’s jazz ensemble. Chronologically, he was followed by similarly influential Serge Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan and Bob Gordon.

Posted in: Part 3