Well, we’ve made it to the end of the official Burning Ambulance countdown of the 50 Greatest Saxophonists…EVER!!! Here are the Top Ten.
10. JOE HENDERSON. The key saxophonist of Blue Note’s mid-’60s “inside-outside” period, Henderson played on five albums of his own between 1963 and 1966, as well as crucial titles by McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill, and more. While his playing got fierce at times, it always maintained an essential calm and a stark discipline at its core. Henderson’s lines may seem diffident at times, like he’s mumbling into the horn, but it’s only because he’s omitting all unnecessary notes, honing his ideas to their core. One of the most meditative of all tenor players, but as capable of blowing the walls down as anybody out there. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Inner Urge, a 1964 release that’s the only one of his five Blue Note albums to feature him as sole horn.
9. DEXTER GORDON. A big man with a big sound, Dexter was a bebop pioneer who brought Bird’s idiom to Lester Young’s instrument—and paved the way for John Coltrane. He had a roomy, galloping sound that never sounded rushed or hasty, swinging slowly behind a song’s rhythm and giving it an instantly recognizable breathy tone. From heroin addiction to a long stint in Europe to a triumphant return home, Gordon had a sort of storybook jazzman’s career – as evidenced by the fact that he basically played himself in a thinly disguised version of his own life called ‘Round Midnight. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Our Man in Paris, a 1963 date with pianist Bud Powell, drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Pierre Michelot, burning through standards in the tightest way imaginable.
8. ALBERT AYLER. A revolutionary figure in the 1960s avant-garde and a towering influence to this day, Ayler combined seemingly unfettered free-blowing solos with melodies that went back to the earliest roots of jazz, drawing on gospel, marching bands and New Orleans polyphony. His stripped-down, blaring ESP-Disk albums made his name, but with John Coltrane‘s support he signed to Impulse! and began to experiment with rock instrumentation and more. In the last year or so before his death in 1970, he began to work in a more explicitly gospel-drenched manner than before, including pounding piano and vocals from his girlfriend. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Slugs Saloon, a two-CD set of live recordings from May 1, 1966 that features Ayler alongside his trumpeter brother Donald, violinist Michel Samson, bassist Lewis Worrell and a young Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums.
7. SAM RIVERS. A crucially important figure, Rivers was one of the “inside-outside” members of the mid ’60s Blue Note roster, releasing albums that blasted hard bop into shards while remaining melodic enough to avoid scaring away fans of tonality. In the ’70s, his Impulse! releases ran the gamut from furious trio improv to the massive, overwhelming big-band project Crystals, even as he ran one of the most important loft spaces, RivBea Studios. Oh, and he was a fantastic player, biting and dry with wit and imagination to spare. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: His Blue Note debut Fuschia Swing Song and Crystals couldn’t be more different, but they’re unmistakably the product of the same questing mind and fleet fingers.
6. ANTHONY BRAXTON. As renowned for his compositional and organizational talents as for his voice on the horn, this charter member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is a professor who also imparts lessons from the bandstand, demonstrating new ways to approach melody, rhythm, and the standard repertoire while engaging in wild, and likely unrealizable, flights of conceptual fancy when the mood strikes him. The popular perception that his music is dry and inaccessible is contradicted within about two minutes of listening to almost any of his literally hundreds of albums; the guy conveys a palpable joy every time he puts the horn to his lips, even as his compositional conceits are twisting listeners’ brains. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Dude, come on. His discography could fill a 40-foot trailer, with new releases arriving seemingly weekly. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and New York, Fall 1974, the first album of his astonishingly fertile streak on Arista in the mid-1970s, makes a great entry point.
5. PETER BRÖTZMANN. A titanic figure in European free improv and American free jazz alike (particularly the Chicago practitioners), Brötzmann’s career has been astonishingly varied, from the scrabbling three-way interplay of his trio with pianist Fred Van Hove and drummer Han Bennink to the funk-metal-noise assault of the 1980s Brötzmann/Sonny Sharrock/Bill Laswell/Ronald Shannon Jackson supergroup Last Exit. His voice on the horn may be instantly recognizable, a blustering hurricane that can almost literally stagger listeners back a step, but he’s capable of true sensitivity when the moment calls for it, and he listens carefully to his collaborators, as evidenced by the surprisingly intricate work of the Chicago Tentet. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Machine Gun, a 1968 all-star octet date that still makes almost everything else feel like Kenny G by comparison.
4. ORNETTE COLEMAN. A liberator turned one-man school, Coleman’s recordings from 1959 and 1960 broke (or just ignored) jazz’s rules of chords and harmony; he preferred to play based on the melody and mood of the piece. His wavering, sometimes crying tone on the alto can make you feel like your fillings are going to shake loose, but his playfully circuitous solos create a suspense rarely found in the work of more chordally bound musicians. Whether with an acoustic band or his electric ensemble Prime Time, Ornette Coleman always sounds like Ornette Coleman, and that’s never a bad thing. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Shape of Jazz to Come, not Coleman’s debut but nonetheless his public coming-out. Unpredictable, but almost always swinging, and frequently as joyous as a man singing to himself when he believes himself unobserved.
3. CHARLIE PARKER. What would jazz be had Charlie Parker never been born? His influence is incalculable; generations of saxophonists grow up studying his compositions and solos, but that’s just the beginning—the entirety of bebop springs from work he did with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s. The seven years that marked his creative peak—1944 to 1951—saw him develop and demonstrate an approach to improvisation based not on melody, but on chords, allowing him to pillage standards and in the process create new standards that are still played today. His creativity was matched by an astonishing level of technical skill, unprecedented in his time and rarely equaled today. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes, a three-CD set gathering up all the material Parker released between 1944 and 1948. (There’s an eight-CD version, loaded with rehearsals and alternate takes, for obsessives.)
2. JOHN COLTRANE. Maybe (OK, almost surely) the most important saxophonist in jazz history. Beginning in the mid ’50s, he graduated with astonishing speed from conventional hard bop to displays of technical wizardry (“Giant Steps”); spent the early ’60s driving a quartet to the brink of human stamina; and in his final years, exploded beyond jazz entirely, performing marathon concerts filled with screaming solos of vein-popping intensity. His recorded and philosophical legacies are still being grappled with to this day; his tireless exploration and willingness to constantly push forward are both an inspiration and a challenge to all who pick up the horn after him. Though the earnestness of pretty much everything he did after 1960 can occasionally be intimidating, the beauty and power of his playing have an impact no other player can match. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Crescent, the immediate prelude to 1965’s A Love Supreme. Balancing power and focus (“Crescent”) with light-hearted hard bop (“Bessie’s Blues”) and dreamlike balladry (“Wise One”), this is possibly the most purely beautiful album Coltrane ever made.
1. SONNY ROLLINS. Anyone calling himself—or even willing to accept the title—“the Saxophone Colossus” better be one hell of a player to justify it. Luckily, that’s not a problem with Rollins. One of the first true masters of the hard bop sound, Rollins’ grounded, bluesy tone accompanies a melodically ambitious sensibility that has led to a number of his compositions becoming part of the standard jazz repertoire. Never afraid to reinvent himself and learn new tricks, and confident enough to have become the first major sax player to put his own playing front and center with no piano to support the melody, Rollins has been one of the most enduring players of the last 60 years. Even now, in his 80s, his shows are frequently breathtaking, offering the chance to watch a leonine master show players half his age how it’s done. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: It’s an obvious choice, but the aforementioned Saxophone Colossus is the best of his early recordings, and is still startlingly fresh after over fifty years. On the far opposite end of the spectrum, his mid ’60s confrontations with the avant-garde, Our Man in Jazz and East Broadway Run Down, are ferocious, relentlessly exploratory titles that blend free blare with unstoppable swing.