We’re heading into the home stretch with our countdown of the 50 Greatest Saxophonists…EVER!!! Here are #s 20-11, followed by a bonus list: Rudresh Mahanthappa picks his 5 favorite saxophonists!

20. PHAROAH SANDERSPharoah Sanders went from being one of the screamingest of the 1960s screamers (particularly when he was a member of John Coltrane’s final band in 1966 and 1967) to a more subtle, but still forceful, player in the early 1970s, as his large bands began to blend open-ended modal vamping with pan-African percussion and Indian drones, creating a globe-spanning spiritual clatter and roar that’s still some of the most unique and hypnotically fascinating “jazz” ever made. He got a little lost in the latter half of the decade, but never truly lost the fire, and when put into an interesting context, like his mid ’90s Bill Laswell-produced collaboration with North African Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, The Trance of Seven Colors, can still blow the walls down. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Live at the East and Village of the Pharaohs, neither among his best-known Impulse! records, but each containing some of his most emotionally potent playing.

19. JOHN ZORN. Instantly recognizable, John Zorn is not only a fiercely talented alto saxophonist capable of making the horn produce just about any sound he likes, at any tempo of his choosing; he’s also a skilled composer who can pastiche and collage his way from conceptual japery to genuine beauty. Marrying Ornette Coleman to hardcore punk (and not just on the album where he did exactly that, 1988’s Spy Vs. Spy), his language of squawks, screams and ultra-fleet bebop phrases is entirely his own, unmistakable and unforgettable. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Zorn discography is vast and sprawling, but he’s best heard in the context of some of his long-running bands, so: Naked City’s Complete Studio Recordings; Pain Killer’s Collected Works; Masada’s Vol. 1.

18. CHARLIE ROUSE. Best known for his decade-plus partnership with Thelonious Monk, particularly during the pianist’s 1960s tenure on Columbia Records, Rouse also worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and Duke Ellington, but he made a few albums of his own as well. His big tone and fluid yet forceful lines made his playing instantly recognizable, and an ideal foil for Monk’s jagged and thumping approach to melody and rhythm; he slips phrases around the corners, ducking in and out of the band as it lurches forward, like a child running through a parade. At the same time, his voice on the horn is never tentative, and always strong, without ever tipping over into bar-walking bluster. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Takin’ Care of Business, his debut under his own name, released on Jazzland in 1960 and pairing him with trumpeter Blue Mitchell and a rhythm section of pianist Walter Bishop, bassist Earl May and drummer Art Taylor.

17. ERIC DOLPHY. One of the very first jazzmen to veer sharply away from standard forms and into the uncharted territory of free play, Dolphy may have one of the most distinctive sounds of any avant-garde sax man, and was a divisive figure almost immediately.  Before a far too early death overseas, Dolphy left behind a handful of fascinating recordings under his own name and multiple brilliant collaborations with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, using his instrument to redefine space and time in a musical sense, inject atonal and modal developments in concert music into a jazz framework, and make the saxophone into an entire army of sounds and not just a single rank-and-file soldier.  ESSENTIAL LISTENINGOut to Lunch is Dolphy’s finest recording, and unfortunately, his last.  Its alarming leaps, squawks, dances and flows give an indication of just how amazing his music might have become had he continued in that direction.

16. MARION BROWN. This Georgia-born alto saxophonist made his recorded debut on John Coltrane’s Ascension, and worked with many other key figures of the ’60s avant-garde, including Bill Dixon and Anthony Braxton. His music delved deep into the roots of jazz and precursor forms, from blues to the rawest sort of back-country folk as well as African and Caribbean rhythms, and he could veer wildly from far-out blowing to tender ballad murmurs. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Geechee Recollections and Sweet Earth Flying, recently reissued as a single disc. Folk meets poetry meets free jazz in a pastoral dream world.

15. JOSEPH JARMAN/ROSCOE MITCHELL. While each of these two men has recorded impressively and at length as a leader, they’re best heard as part of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the collective that bridged gaps between all eras of jazz, from New Orleans polyphony to free skronk, and funk, soul, pure unfettered improvisation and pretty much anything and everything else you could ever file under “black music.” Mitchell’s dry, intellectual rigor (occasionally leavened with a weird, almost alien sense of humor) was perfectly paired with Jarman’s Buddhist openness to any sound. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Les Stances A Sophie, a movie soundtrack that’s one of the Art Ensemble’s funkiest, rockingest, and most experimental albums, all at once.

14. COLEMAN HAWKINS. What Louis Armstrong did for the trumpet, Coleman Hawkins did for the tenor saxophone. He was there at the beginning (1924-25), setting the rules and cutting records that would influence generations after him. His harmonically complex, hard sound was basically the sound of the swing era, and even when bop took over, he became an important bandleader, hiring young players like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Max Roach as sidemen in the 1940s. He’s also credited with the first unaccompanied sax solo, on “Picasso,” from 1948. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: The Essential Sides 1929-1939, a four-CD box including over 100 tracks; despite the earliness of these recordings, Hawkins’ style was already quite fully formed.

13. FRED ANDERSON. A testimony to the power of localism and perseverance, Anderson’s instantly recognizable tenor style wasn’t his sole contribution to jazz; from the 1970s to the 2000s, he ran the Velvet Lounge, a club in his native Chicago that hosted and husbanded the city’s avant-garde scene. His decades-long relationship with drummer Hamid Drake birthed some of the most swinging, bluesy free jazz albums in American history. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: 2 Days in April, a double-disc set documenting the first gigs by a group featuring Anderson, fellow saxophonist Kidd Jordan, bassist William Parker, and Drake.

12. WAYNE SHORTER. Shorter’s career, spanning seven decades, may be the most diverse in jazz outside of his former boss Miles Davis, bridging hard and post-bop into modal, progressive, pop and fusion, and he left a mark in every style. Primarily known today as a skillful and thoughtful composer, he’s also an excellent player, with sneaky, insinuating runs that keep his songs moving. The mere fact that he’s so adept at translating his own material to performance is a testament to his ability—nobody plays Wayne Shorter like Wayne Shorter. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Speak No Evil, a 1965 release on Blue Note with a devilishly good band, is a great place to see Shorter’s transition from bop to avant-garde take shape.

11. DAVID S. WARE. It could be said that David S. Ware was the tenor saxophonist of the 1990s. Though he got his start back in the loft jazz scene with the trio Apogee and a mid ’70s stint with Cecil Taylor, he didn’t truly hit his stride until forming his own quartet. His massive, leonine tone and utterly disciplined mastery of phrasing and harmonics, which arose out of the language of Sonny Rollins but journeyed far out into realms of post-Ayler, post-Sanders cosmic exploration, made him an awe-inspiring live act. His studio albums, though often extraordinarily powerful, rarely captured his full majesty. In the wake of recent health problems, he’s become a more introspective, spiritually questing improviser, though he can still blow the walls down when he feels like it. ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Live in the World, a three-CD set documenting three mid-2000s concerts with three different drummers; Live in Vilnius, a double LP capturing the quartet in full flight on its final European tour.


CHARLIE PARKER. The Savoy Recordings changed my life. On a bad day, Bird sounded better than most folks do on their best days.

JOHN COLTRANE. The original Impressions album is a beautiful study in modern approaches to improvisation. I always go back to Trane for inspiration.

BUNKY GREEN. An underground hero of the alto saxophone who conscientiously developed a new vocabulary and a new voice worthy of study by generations to come.

GARY BARTZ. Gary sings the truth every time the horn touches his lips.

STEVE COLEMAN. Quite possibly the most important alto saxophone player of the last 20+ years.

8 Comment on “The 50 Greatest Saxophonists…EVER!!! 20-11

  1. Pingback: 50 Greatest Saxophonists « Avant Music News

  2. Pingback: RIP David S. Ware « Avant Music News

  3. Pingback: Roscoe Mitchell | Burning Ambulance

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: