Welcome to the official Burning Ambulance countdown of the 50 Greatest Saxophonists Ever. The list was determined by means we shall not disclose, though a number of jazz critics and musicians offered their opinions at various points along the way. Clifford Allen, Leonard Pierce, and Hank Shteamer contributed blurbs.
This countdown will be running all week, so let’s get started! Here are #s 50-41.
50. KAORU ABE. This self-taught Japanese maniac died of a drug overdose at 29, but left behind a string of albums, mostly live recordings and mostly solo. He also collaborated with some notable skronk-minded improvisers, though, including guitarist Derek Bailey, trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, and drummer Milford Graves, among others. While he could muster an unholy screech, his command of the saxophone’s dynamic range allowed him to teleport between melancholy, genuinely beautiful melodies and a sinus-clearing, post-Ayler shriek almost instantaneously. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Mass Projection and Gradually Projection, twin live duels with guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, recorded at a single epic show.
49. STEVE LACY. Most saxophone greats register as part of a continuum, but the rare soprano specialist Steve Lacy always seemed like an isolated point in space. It wasn’t that Lacy cut himself off from tradition; he idolized Sidney Bechet, and he devoted himself to Thelonious Monk‘s music with unparalleled rigor. But Lacy’s mature aesthetic, realized with his Paris-based working band (active in one form or another from the early ’70s through the early ’90s), was sui generis: a blend of Ellingtonian warmth, playful eccentricity and bracingly unfettered experimentation. Lacy’s droll melodies and peculiar, honk-like timbre, as well as his obsession with avant-garde poetry—which inspired the vocal pieces he composed for his wife, vocalist Irene Aebi—helped make up one of the most rewarding acquired tastes in jazz history. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Gleam (1987) shows off Lacy’s signature sextet in top form. Another standout is Trickles, a 1976 quartet date that includes longtime Lacy collaborator, trombonist Roswell Rudd.
48. JOSHUA REDMAN. Dewey Redman’s son came out of the gate hyped to the skies, but it wasn’t until album number three, 1994’s MoodSwing, that he started to get interesting. His tone and style couldn’t be more different from his father’s; he’s a descendant of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and pre-1960 John Coltrane. But he’s comfortable experimenting with a variety of rhythms, and seems to really enjoy trading ideas with other saxophonists, including Dewey on 2007’s excellent Back East. A strong, middle-of-the-road player, Redman has shrugged off the hype and is now a player consistently worth hearing. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Back East and 2009’s Compass, on which he occasionally fronts a double rhythm section.
47. KEN VANDERMARK. A Chicagoan with a mechanic’s haircut, Vandermark’s powerful tenor (he’s a multi-instrumentalist, but the tenor is his primary and best-known horn) has burst out of records by groups as disparate as the Flying Luttenbachers, his own DKV Trio and Vandermark 5, and Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet. He’s also made solid friendships/partnerships with important players on the Scandinavian free jazz/improv scene, collaborating frequently with players like drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, reedist Mats Gustafsson, et al. His sound is muscular, blustery, capable of high-powered skronk but also firmly committed to melody and swing, and tunes. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Fred Anderson/DKV Trio, a 1996 collaboration that showcased the modern Chicago sound at full power; Double or Nothing, a partnering of the DKV Trio with AALY Trio for some extended clatter ’n’ blare.
46. MATANA ROBERTS. A Chicago-raised alto player who’s making quite a reputation for herself as a composer and conceptualist, Roberts first came to many listeners’ attention as a member of the jazz-funk-rock conducted improvisation ensemble Burnt Sugar. As a leader, she combines a biting, fierce tone on the horn with a broad artistic palette, a need to tell larger stories and present multi-media shows rather than just collections of tunes, and a willingness to hire any kind of instrumentalist she feels will help her get her point across. Roberts is a woman who recognizes no external limitations on her creativity. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Roberts’ latest album, Coin Coin Part One: Gens de Couleur Libres, is the first stage of an intense multi-part journey into history: hers, her family’s, and America’s. It’s also astonishingly beautiful and emotionally affecting music.
45. TIM BERNE. Quick-witted and sharp of tone, this master of the alto and baritone saxes leads acerbic, urban bands that blend R&B grooves, extended compositional forms, and stinging barbs of noise via keyboards or electric guitar. A former student of Julius Hemphill, Berne’s music combines the earthy and the abstract into something totally unique. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Fulton Street Maul, an out-of-print Columbia release(!) featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Hank Roberts on cello and Alex Cline on percussion—almost the same instrumentation as Hemphill’s Dogon A.D.
44. DEWEY REDMAN. Probably best known for his partnerships with both Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett in the 1970s, Redman made more than a few brilliant albums under his own name, too. His tone was one of the most piercingly human in jazz; he frequently sounded like tears were going to start leaking from the horn’s bell, but he could also leap and squawk with the best of the free players, and he was every bit as willing to explore sounds from across the globe as Pharoah Sanders or Don Cherry. A major voice not always recognized as such. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: All the mid ’70s Jarrett albums, plus his own Tarik, recorded in Paris in 1969 with Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Ed Blackwell. And don’t sleep on Momentum Space, his 1999 three-way collaboration with pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Elvin Jones.
43. JOHNNY GRIFFIN. A hard bop tenor player originally from Chicago, Griffin is notable for his brief tenure with Thelonious Monk (check out the twin live albums Misterioso and Thelonious in Action), but he also had a decades-long solo career including albums on Blue Note and Riverside in the 1950s. His hard-charging style (for a time he was known as the world’s fastest saxophonist) was oddly well-suited to Monk’s lurching compositions, while on his own he combined fierce and swinging blues with a furrowed-brow tenderness on ballads. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: A Blowin’ Session, a tremendous 1957 Blue Note album on which Griffin more than holds his own against John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Blakey on drums.
42. IKE QUEBEC. Tenorman Ike Quebec came out of the Coleman Hawkins school, a throaty and keening player who, while a “man without a country” among the modernists of the early 1960s, nevertheless was a major asset to Blue Note. He was one of the slightly older players who encouraged Alfred Lion to record the new music of Thelonious Monk, Elmo Hope and Bud Powell in the late ’40s (Quebec had recorded with Tiny Grimes and J.C. Heard for the then-fledgling label). Incidentally, his cousin, altoist Danny Quebec West, recorded with Monk on the pianist’s 1947 Genius sessions. Quebec had an impressive run between 1959 and 1963, working with Sonny Clark, Bennie Green, Freddie Roach, Grant Green and Milt Hinton over six albums as a leader and a handful of jukebox singles. 1961’s Heavy Soul (with Roach, Hinton and Al Harewood) is the first of these records and probably the strongest of the bunch, Quebec velvety and wide-open across a spry rhythm section on the opening “Acquitted,” but it’s on the spectral ballads that he and the vibrato-heavy Roach stretch out into gorgeous, taffy-like and unhurried brilliance. Both sandblasted and caressing, Quebec has one of the most affecting tenor tones I’ve heard, and it’s no wonder that his art embodied the soul-jazz mainstream saxophone to an unhurried “T.” ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Heavy Soul and the two-CD set The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions.
41. JEMEEL MOONDOC. A veteran of the New York loft jazz scene who saw his rhythm section pilfered by his former teacher, Cecil Taylor, Moondoc has one of the most recognizable alto saxophone sounds around: an amalgam of Ornette Coleman’s bluesy crying with the sharp edge of Jackie McLean and the ferocity of 1960s “fire music” free tenor players. His band Muntu made crucial albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but it wasn’t until he returned from economic exile in the mid ’90s that he truly got his due. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Muntu Recordings, a three-disc NoBusiness box that gathers rare 1970s material; New World Pygmies, a 1998 set of duos with bassist William Parker, on Eremite.
Come back tomorrow for #s 40-31!