Our week-long countdown reaches its midpoint, as we offer you #s 30-21 of the 50 Greatest Saxophonists Ever. And don’t miss a bonus list at the end – Darius Jones‘ five favorite saxophonists! Shall we begin?
30. HENRY THREADGILL. An alto saxophonist of searing intensity, Henry Threadgill is also one of the most imaginative composers on the planet. His early musical history coincides with the mid-’60s inception of Chicago’s legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; through the organization he met key collaborators such as Muhal Richard Abrams (whose Young at Heart/Wise in Time marked Threadgill’s recorded debut) and Anthony Braxton. Threadgill also soaked up gospel, polka and classical music at an early age, and he soon began dreaming up his own fantastical, stylistically boundless aesthetic, first showcased as part of Air, a collective trio that reconciled ’60s-style free jazz with ragtime. From there, Threadgill’s palette broadened exponentially, yielding a series of unconventional ensembles, including the double-drum Sextett, the two-tuba and two-guitar Very Very Circus, and Threadgill’s current working band, an entrancing sextet known as Zooid. Threadgill continues to double on flute, but his signature instrument remains the alto sax—the mercurial x-factor in his obsessive, micro-detailed sound world. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Sextett is Threadgill’s most accessible band, and its dazzling string of ’80s albums is a great place to get acquainted. Rag, Bush and All, from 1989, may have a slight edge on its predecessor, 1987’s Easily Slip Into Another World, but both are outstanding.
29. BEN WEBSTER. A contemporary of Coleman Hawkins and a product of the rich Kansas City jazz scene, Webster lacked the easy expressiveness of some of his rivals, but had a fat, ragged sound all his own, and the ability to sweeten it up when called upon to do so. A stalwart of Duke Ellington’s orchestra for several years, his stormy playing is less known today thanks to a limited number of releases as a bandleader, but he’s well worth exploring for the distinct quality he brought to the instrument. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Some of Webster’s best playing is on hard-to-find live dates from his European years, but Soulville, a 1957 exercise with the Oscar Peterson Trio, is a good a place as any to get into his earthy, rough tone.
28. LESTER YOUNG. Young was a game-changer, his light, floating style a near-total counterpoint to the dominant saxophone voice of the time, the blustering Coleman Hawkins. His crucial recordings were all made during the swing era of the late 1930s toe early 1940s, though his career continued until his early death in 1959. His partnerships with Count Basie and Billie Holiday inspired him to most of his greatest heights, though he made some excellent records as a leader, notably the 1956 album The Jazz Giants, which offers a mix of extended, hard-swinging tunes and brooding balladry. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Count Basie’s Complete Original American Decca Recordings shows you what Young was doing between 1937 and 1939.
27. STAN GETZ. A hugely influential tenor player with an impeccable and extraordinarily beautiful tone, Getz began his career during the swing era of the 1940s, but first achieved major popularity in the early 1950s. A few years later, he began combining jazz with Brazilian bossa nova and had a huge hit with “The Girl from Ipanema,” featuring vocals by Astrud Gilberto. He kept working right up until his death in 1991, rarely losing a step and often making surprisingly challenging albums. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Quintets: The Clef & Norgran Studio Albums, a three-disc compilation of early ’50s masterpieces, cool and lush without resorting to strings, vocalists or other crutches.
26. DON DIETRICH/JIM SAUTER. These two are paired because they’re difficult to imagine separately. As two-thirds of Borbetomagus, they’ve blended free jazz, improv and noise for over 30 years, and while the Borbeto sound is almost instantly recognizable (in the kind of circles where people have heard of this stuff at all, obviously), discerning Jim from Don within the swirling storm can be difficult even for the men themselves. Besides, one of their major innovations—the “bells together” technique, which is exactly what it sounds like—requires two horns to execute. So really, symbiosis and collaboration are the point. But if you must separate them, Jim’s the one with the beard and Don’s the one with the glasses. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Barbed Wire Maggots, originally a two-track LP expanded on CD; like sandpapering your eardrums, but in the best possible way.
25. CHARLES GAYLE. A hurricane disguised as a tall, thin old man, Gayle is post-Albert Ayler, post-Pharoah Sanders, even post-music at times. His raw, totally improvised entreaties to God are the equivalent of an Old Testament prophet crying out in the desert, his ever-shifting rhythm sections scuffling and talking mostly to each other as he barrels ahead, mostly on the tenor but sometimes on alto or even bass clarinet, fierce intensity and self-taught but still impressive technique combining into a sound unlike any other free jazz player on Earth, old or new. He also plays the piano sometimes, and isn’t all wild roars—his ballads have a remarkable desolation. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Touchin’ On Trane, where he restrains himself somewhat to pay tribute to the John Coltrane of Interstellar Space and Stellar Regions, backed by bassist William Parker and former Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali.
24. LOU DONALDSON. This funky, bluesy alto player’s been leading bands since the mid-1950s, beginning as a hard bopper (he worked with Art Blakey immediately prior to the drummer forming the Jazz Messengers) and moving in a more soulful, groove-oriented direction at the dawn of the ’60s. His organ-driven dates like Alligator Boogaloo and Midnight Creeper offer thick slabs of funk, the occasional ill-advised cover tune surrounded by one foot-tapping original after another. Some might say a little of this stuff goes a long way, but Donaldson’s got enough of a fan base among blues, R&B and soul listeners that frustrating jazz nerds was likely never a big concern for him. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Natural Soul, a 1962 soul-jazz workout featuring trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, guitarist Grant Green, organist Big John Patton and drummer Ben Dixon.
23. JD ALLEN. A sharp, expressive tenor player whose reputation has grown rapidly in recent years, Allen got a slow start as a solo act, releasing two discs in 1999 and 2002 that went nowhere. Following several years as an in-demand sideman, he formed a trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston that’s made four terrific albums to date. Allen’s compositions are concise, introspective vignettes (2011’s Victory! packed 12 tracks into 36 minutes) that showcase his Coltrane-in-’64 tone and his focused interplay with his bandmates. He can also be heard regularly backing two adventurous trumpeters: in Jeremy Pelt’s quintet and David Weiss’s Point of Departure. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Victory!, the trio’s shortest and/but most potent statement to date.
22. CANNONBALL ADDERLEY. This burly alto saxophonist, who also played soprano in his later years, combined hard bop and soul into a funky, melodic, hard-swinging sound that brought him chart hits (“This Here” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”) and steady work on the road. In the mid-1950s, Adderley and his cornet-playing brother Nat had an unsuccessful band; after Cannonball did a short stint with Miles Davis (he’s on Kind of Blue and Milestones), they formed a new band which carried them through the 1960s. In addition to keyboardist Joe Zawinul, the group featured a second saxophone for a while—first played by Yusef Lateef, then Charles Lloyd. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, a joyful, hard-swinging 1959 live date that includes “This Here.”
21. ARCHIE SHEPP. Shepp rarely gets the credit he deserves for having been an early adapter of avant-garde ideas (he partnered with trumpeter Bill Dixon in 1962), possibly because he figured out early on what he wanted to do with the music and stuck with it. One of the first players to deliberately break with the established hard bop style of the day, he settled into a rich and identifiable groove by combining Afrocentric rhythms and themes with leaping, sometimes extravagant free jazz sax lines. Though he rarely went as far afield as the lines of Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, he could not have found a more effective way to deliver his chosen message. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: 1974’s Kwanza, released on Impulse! during a particularly strong period for Shepp, finds him laying some seriously spastic sax cuts over a fierce band as well-versed in Afro-pop and hard funk as jazz improv.
BONUS LIST: DARIUS JONES’ 5 FAVORITE SAXOPHONISTS
DEXTER GORDON. Dexter is my home base. His sense of sound, phrasing, harmony, and attitude as an improviser is so inspiring. It completely centers me when I am lost in a sea of esoteric madness.
HENRY THREADGILL. In many ways Henry is what I am striving to be as an artist. He has a very distinct sound/language on his instruments and as a composer. Henry is so down to earth and unique in his perception of life too. I love how he approaches music like an artist of any discipline. Also no matter how sophisticated his music is it still retains soulfulness. He is a major influence.
MACEO PARKER. Joy and happiness is what I think of when I hear Maceo. That is something I don’t feel from a lot of players. Also his sense of phrasing and groove is unbelievable. His commitment to the music that he wanted to play is also inspiring. You can hear the ability to play anything in his playing. But he chose to play music that makes himself and other people happy. So deep!
THOMAS CHAPIN. Thomas was the saxophonist that got me really thinking about expressing my personality through my instrument. I can’t help but to feel this deep sense of connection to self when he plays. He is totally putting himself out there. No matter the perception or context. Just getting off on himself and the band.
JAN GARBAREK. Patience is what I think about every time I listen to Jan. Totally lyrical. Nothing to prove. Completely allowing the music to unfold in the manor that it wants to unfold. His sound is unbelievable. Plus he is not afraid to just play a melody. Beautiful musician.