Welcome back to our countdown of the 50 Greatest Saxophonists Ever. Let’s get right to it. And don’t miss guest contributor Jon Irabagon‘s list of his 5 favorite saxophonists, at the end!
40. JOHN GILMORE. A brawny, forceful tenor player whose vibratoless sound and thoughtful improvisations made him stand out, Gilmore was Sun Ra’s right hand man for decades, which means his non-Ra discography is extremely thin: fewer than 10 albums as a sideman and none as a true leader, though he’s co-billed with Clifford Jordan on 1957’s Blowin’ In from Chicago. He was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for a while in 1965 and ’66, with only a single studio date, 1965’s obscure ‘S Make It, to document his tenure in the group. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Compulsion, maybe the most out-there album pianist Andrew Hill (who used Gilmore as a sideman twice, in 1964 and ’65) ever made. The 14-minute title track is a blood-boiling journey into half-restrained madness.
39. JACKIE McLEAN. The son of a musical family, Jackie McLean was being taught by the likes of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker when he was still a kid, and by the time he was a teenager, he was blowing in bands with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey. He moved past his early hard-bop tendencies into a rich, multi-faceted modal style in the 1960s; his playing was characterized by a deep, soulful blues tone, a sharp and commanding pitch, and an undeniable emotional intensity. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Let Freedom Ring, McLean’s 1962 Blue Note album, where he makes an astonishing break from the past and launches fully into avant-garde sounds of huge expressiveness.
38. HANK MOBLEY. A solid player and an undervalued composer, Mobley was a perfect partner to trumpeter Lee Morgan: Both had a muscular, strong playing style, a keen ear for pop compositions, and an ability to blend catchy melodic play with improvisational swing. What his playing lacked in flash and intensity, it made up for in subtle clarity, and only the bad luck of making his best albums during a spectacularly fertile period for bop-influenced saxophonists kept him from being a household name. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Mobley’s entire 1960s output with Blue Note is spectacular, but 1960’s aptly titled Workout, a relentlessly swinging hard bop masterpiece, might be the best of the lot.
37. BRANFORD MARSALIS. A chameleonic player with much more wit and charm than his frequently didactic younger brother Wynton, Marsalis has made a string of excellent post-bop records starting in the 1980s and, perhaps surprisingly, his recent work is even better at times than his best-known releases. It’s occasionally difficult to discern his own personality as a tenor player when he starts explicitly imitating Sonny Rollins or Charlie Rouse, but on the soprano saxophone, at least, he’s an undeniable master, with a fuller and richer tone than most who pick up that instrument. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Crazy People Music, a 1990 quartet date with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts that offered an utterly modern take on classic(ist) hard bop.
36. DAVID MURRAY. A serious polymath, Murray emerged from the ’70s loft scene as a post-Ayler titan, blowing like a hurricane (sometimes with present-day arch-conservative critic Stanley Crouch on drums!). But as the decade ended and the ’80s began, he went in a much more straight-ahead, even retro direction, combining his appetite for multiphonics and “wrong notes” with a thick, fuzzy tone reminiscent of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins. Astonishingly prolific, he injects his instantly recognizable voice into wildly disparate circumstances, coming up a winner more often than not. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Ming, the 1980 debut of his Octet, an all-star band (Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, Butch Morris, George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Wilber Morris, Steve McCall) that swung freely with tremendous force; Shakill’s Warrior, a thoroughly Murray-ized approach to the Hammond B-3 soul jazz form.
35. MATS GUSTAFSSON. This Swedish player works with multiple reeds, and even sticks a saxophone mouthpiece on a flute and calls it a “fluteophone.” When absorbing his barrages of sound, the urge to make comparisons to Albert Ayler and Peter Brötzmann (he’s a member of Brötz’s Chicago Tentet) will be strong, but he’s definitely got a style all his own, particularly when playing the baritone sax, as he does with one of his best-known groups, The Thing. That trio’s ability to blend rock energy (and covers of songs by the White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and PJ Harvey, among others) with free jazz fervor has made it one of the most exciting groups around, but frankly, Gustafsson can get listeners’ pulses racing in almost any context. He’s capable of subtlety when the mood strikes him, of course, but that’s something of a rare occurrence—he’s a blaster at heart, and that’s a damn good thing. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Bag It!, The Thing’s 2009 CD, recorded by Steve Albini.
34. JOE McPHEE. Though Joe McPhee may be known for his tenor and soprano work, he’s also a formidable pocket trumpeter, valve trombonist and clarinetist. McPhee is a musician with a vast conception, drawn from peers like Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, whose searing approach early on was countered by an extraordinary degree of spaciousness, not exactly the prevailing method of late 1960s New York improvisation. McPhee lives in Poughkeepsie, NY, and/but much of his notoriety came from Europe and a close working relationship with Swiss label Hat Hut Records, which was initially formed to distribute his music. And while some of McPhee’s significant collaborations have been with barnstormers like The Thing and Peter Brötzmann, he’s brought a steely and almost self-effacing patience to those proceedings. That’s been further borne out across myriad solo recordings, some of which—like Tenor (Hat Hut, 1977), Soprano (Roaratorio, 1998/2008), and Alto (Roaratorio, 2009)—focus on a specific instrument or range, while others like Graphics (Hat Hut, 1978) or As Serious as Your Life (Hat Hut, 1996) seem all-encompassing. And what is that which is encompassed? Openness, stark and long-held tones, rousing honks and cries, or “The Death of Miles Davis” presented in tight Bill Dixon-esque trumpet chuffs. McPhee has always seemed like part of the “younger generation” of improvisers, even though he came up alongside the progenitors of the new jazz. Perhaps it’s his youthful face and demeanor; perhaps it’s just the particular contemporary vibrancy that his playing has, but McPhee is a bright link between the unquestionable “now” and a not-too-distant history. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Nation Time, a 1971 release that’s either the funkiest free jazz record or the free-est funk record you’ll ever hear.
33. FRANK WRIGHT. Frank Wright’s music was full of ecstatic, funky shouts and had a bit more bar-walk than his major influence Albert Ayler’s, though it was shot through with a similarly explosive and glossolalia-filled energy. In New York, Wright’s searing and declaratory free blues was creating its indelible stamp just as many improvisers were leaving the disinterested American environment for hopeful appreciation in Europe, and he was part of the wave of free jazzmen landing in Paris in 1969. The recordings Wright made with a cooperative quartet consisting of Muhammad Ali (drums), Bobby Few (piano), Noah Howard (alto saxophone) and, later, bassist Alan Silva, are incredibly powerful documents of the expatriate Afro-avant-garde. Billed as the Center of the World, they were a publishing cooperative as well as an improvising unit, and acted as a European analogue to stateside self-reliance projects like Strata-East. A fascinating player who, while not necessarily a self-editor, put forth spontaneous spiritual offerings of music and life, Frank Wright’s sizable discography demands attention. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Your Prayer (ESP-Disk, 1967); Church Number Nine (Calumet, 1970), Last Polka in Nancy? (Center of the World, 1973)
32. NOAH HOWARD. Born in New Orleans, alto saxophonist Howard made his name in New York, where he recorded for ESP-Disk, and Paris, where he collaborated with Frank Wright on albums that blended fire-music blare with heartfelt melody. His best-known work, The Black Ark, is one of the fiercest free jazz records ever, by anybody, but his sensitive side is better exposed on records like Space Dimension and his self-titled debut, on which he seemed to be adapting Ornette Coleman’s ideas about freedom to an almost chamber-jazz context. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Noah Howard Quartet, an introspective and genuinely lovely statement; The Black Ark, a fist-in-the-face free jazz assault that remembers to give the listener actual tunes to hang onto when things get really wild.
31. JULIUS HEMPHILL. Few saxophonists married earthiness and refinement as successfully as Julius Hemphill. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1938, he made his first key recordings in the early ’70s, as part of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group. Early efforts such as the self-released Dogon A.D. and Coon Bid’ness—both featuring cellist Abdul Wadud, a career-long foil for Hemphill—presented spiky avant-funk alongside tender, chamber-folky melody, while showcasing the leader’s urgent, blazingly fluid alto style. In 1977, Hemphill, along with his BAG peers Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, cofounded the World Saxophone Quartet, a hyper-versatile, rhythm-section-less ensemble that could simulate an orchestra. Hemphill’s Sextet, active throughout the ’90s, continued in the sax-choir format, but he also made innovative overdubbed solo recordings (featuring his soprano and flute work in addition to alto), composed for settings ranging from big band to classical piano quintet, and worked in an ongoing duo with Wadud. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: There’s a reason why Dogon A.D. is unanimously acclaimed among open-minded jazz aficionados. Start there, then try the World Saxophone Quartet‘s Live in Zurich, or Raw Materials and Residuals, a trio with Wadud and Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer Don Moye.
BONUS LIST: JON IRABAGON’S 5 FAVORITE SAXOPHONISTS
RUDY WIEDOEFT. An under-appreciated virtuoso from pre-jazz times. Dazzling techniques and possibilities that even today can be mined further.
COLEMAN HAWKINS. The father of the current way saxophone is thought of in jazz. “Body and Soul,” from 1939, is a masterpiece.
JOHN COLTRANE. Took jazz further in a short career span than anyone before or since. The continual searching of his music has saxophonists perpetually on their toes.
ORNETTE COLEMAN. In addition to the cry of the blues that defines him, Ornette’s expansion of the relationship between melody, harmony and rhythm changed the possibilities of jazz.
EVAN PARKER. Evan Parker has created his own extended saxophone language that has influenced countless modern improvisation musicians, not only saxophone players.
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