When John Coltrane’s blistering soprano sax led in on “My Favorite Things,” audiences were captured by Coltrane’s investigations into modal jazz and his complex re-workings of harmonies. More fascinating still, is that Coltrane chose to leave bop behind and explore this new musical territory- seen in hindsight as a pivotal turning point in the history of jazz – on an instrument that had almost become obsolete in jazz, the soprano sax. Seemingly out of nowhere, the soprano sax returned to center stage once again and proudly claimed its unique position in the story, tone and texture of jazz. Although Coltrane is one of the most famous players in jazz’s history and the history of the saxophone, there are countless more who made waves in different ways on both the alto and soprano. For this week’s Evolution of An Instrument we take you from Sidney Bechet, arguably the first jazz saxophonist, through the beautiful alto tones of Lee Konitz, and up to the Carnatic intensities of Rudresh Mahanthappa. Thanks to Marcus Strickland and Jaleel Shaw for their incredible insight for this piece! We wanted to bring you a comprehensive list that reflects the scope of jazz history. It by no means includes everyone, but we tried to hit on players who played a distinct role in shaping the evolution of the saxophone! We hope you enjoy this segment and stay tuned for Tenor and Bari next week!

Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) Soprano

*Sidney Bechet was arguably the first notable jazz saxophonist. A less-showy contemporary of Louis Armstrong, Bechet was known for his lyrical style and aggressive delivery.

Johnny Hodges (1906-1970)Alto/Soprano

*Best known for his work with Duke Ellington’s big band, Hodges transformed the capabilities of jazz saxophone with one of the most beautiful tones in the genre’s history.

Benny Carter (1907-2003) Alto

*Benny Carter was a skilled alto player and arranger. Throughout his career he did band arrangements for Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Spike Hughes and more.

Charlie Parker (1920-1955) Alto/Tenor

*Charlie Parker was a pioneering leader in the development of bebop. Parker had an incredible harmonic sense and an ability to snake through changes with long complicated lines.

Lee Konitz (1927- )Alto

*Lee Konitz introduced a warm soft alto sound and was one of the driving forces of the cool era.

Paul Desmond (1924-1977)Alto

*One of the most popular musicians to come out of the West Coast’s cool scene, Desmond gained fame from playing with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and penning the classic “Take 5.”

Lucky Thompson (1924-2005)Soprano/Tenor

*Lucky Thompson was one of the first to bring soprano back as a relevant instrument in jazz.

John Coltrane (1926-1967)Soprano/Tenor

*Although known mostly for his tenor playing, Coltrane was instrumental in bringing the soprano sax out of obsolence with his blistering take on “My Favorite Things.”

Wayne Shorter (1933- )Soprano/Tenor

*One of the greatest living composers in jazz’s history, many of his songs have become standards. Originally a tenor player, Shorter started to focus on soprano on Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

Jackie McLean (1931-2006)Alto

*Jackie McLean was a leader in the Hard Bop school of jazz and later in modal jazz, a type of jazz that uses musical modes rather than chord progressions as the harmonic framework.

Cannonball Adderley (1928-1975)Alto

*Cannonball Adderley was known for his huge, animated sound.

Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)Alto

*Eric Dolphy was a player who was always notorious for bending tradition. Although considered to be part of the “free jazz” movement, Dolphy’s compositions and solos were always rooted in standard bebop harmonies and chords, albeit stretched to their conventions by Dolphy’s choice of intervals and abstractions.

Ornette Coleman (1930- )Alto

*Ornette Colmena was the torchbearer of the free jazz movement in the 1960s.

Gary Bartz (1940- )Alto

*Gary Bartz started his career working with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop where he was introduced to Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner. Bartz has had a quiet, steady career.

Branford Marsalis (1960-  )Soprano/Alto/Tenor

*No one played soprano like Branford.

Kenny Garrett (1960- )Soprano/Alto

*Kenny Garrett always played in an intentional and forceful style and adapted to jazz,R&B or the blues, a growing occurrence among musicians of this time.

Donald Harrison (1960- )Alto

*Donald Harrison is a post-bop player who has played with Terrence Blanchard, Art Blakey’s The Jazz Messengers and more recently delved into smooth jazz.

Wessell Anderson (1966- )Alto

*While playing with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, Anderson developed his own unique style of playing influenced by traditional New Orleans jazz and big animated blues sounds.

Jane Ira Bloom (1955- )Soprano

*Jane Ira Bloom is famous for her use of electronics in her compositions and live performances, sometimes simulating a chorus of soprano saxophones behind her.

Eric Marienthal (1957- )Alto/Soprano

*A key leader in the smooth jazz scene, Marienthal often incorporates the improvisational nature of jazz with the feel of pop and R&B.

Steve Coleman (1956 )Alto

*Steve Coleman employs a complex understanding of rhythm that contains cycles of varying lengths and metres that push the envelop of contemporary jazz.

Antonio Hart (1968- )Alto

*Hart gained fame touring with Roy Hargrove.

Miguel Zenon (1976- )Alto

*Zenon challenges the conventions of jazz by merging the indigenous sounds of Puerto Rico over a jazz harmonic chord structure.

Dave Binney (1961- )Alto

*Dave Binney challenges modern ideas of structure and minimalism in his compositions, always leading the listener in unexpected directions.

Greg Osby (1960-  )Alto/Soprano

*Greg Osby is known for his distinct complex rhythms and his fusions of hip-hop and jazz.

Jaleel Shaw Alto

(via WBGO)
*Studying under Roy Haynes and playing with the Roy Haynes Quartet, Mingus Big Band, and his own Quartet and Quintet, Jaleel Shaw has become a distinctive voice in the New York scene.

Rudresh Mahanthappa (1971- )Alto

*Rudresh Mahanthappa delves deep into Indian Carnatic traditions to create a honest blend of Western harmony and South Indian traditions that pays respect to both musical perspectives.

Yosvany Terry (1971- )Alto

*Yosavny Tery melds Afro-Cuban, bebop and funk in his compositions.

Steve Wilson (1961-  )Alto

*Steve Wilson played many years as a sideman for Dave Holland, Chick Corea and many many others. This helped Wilson’s sounds become adaptable to almost any setting he played in, truly a complete player that could handle any musical soundscape.

As always, please leave us your comments, thoughts, ideas and players that you feel are part of the Evolution of the Alto & Soprano Sax!


3 Replies to "Evolution of the Instrument: Saxophone (Part 1 – Alto & Soprano)"
fred joiner says:
May 17, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Matana Roberts, i think would make a nice addition to this list

Tim says:
May 23, 2011 at 6:11 am

Will Vinson should be up here. Soprano and alto. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnaSyEgxoRo

Sonny Stitt, too of course, but I can see why he was omitted. And if you’re talking evolution of the instrument, you can’t leave out the classical side. Sigurd Rascher, Marcel Mule, Larry Teal (taught Joe Henderson) Donald Sinta, Eugene Rousseau, Frederick Hemke, Claude Delangle, Tim McAllister, Raaf Hekkema ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mmG5qT_kno )

Tim says:
May 23, 2011 at 6:57 am

More of Will: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiXiUDDy23c

Steve Lehman is another Saxophonist doing big things. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYTsTtmw5lY&feature=related

Maceo Parker is important too.

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