The possibility of a bigger, louder Coleman Hawkins may seem like a blessing or a nightmare, and the idea of a humbler Hawkins welcome but preposterous. Yet his bass saxophone playing encompasses all of these possibilities. During the twenties the musically extroverted, relentlessly competitive Hawkins doubled on the instrument with varying results.
Hawkins never sounds entirely confident on the bass saxophone, committing some clams that would be unimaginable on his regular horn of tenor sax. Yet even with a few slips towards the end of his solo on “Spanish Shawl” with Fletcher Henderson, his power and sheer heft make an impression:
Hawkins lacks the agility and tonal colors of bass sax legend Adrian Rollini. Unlike Rollini, he also doesn’t impress with bass lines behind the ensemble. He leaves the heavy lifting of the rhythm section to Henderson’s piano and Charlie Dixon’s banjo but comes alive for breaks and solos. His lines are an extension of his chugging, arpeggiated tenor, with some burbling low notes adding humor and force. His sound is burry, metallic and at times slightly cutting.
It’s also very personal and deeply effective (boxy acoustics notwithstanding). Pushing the beat behind Charlie Green’s trombone before barreling in on the bridge, Hawkins seems to take “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” literally, from out of dance band repertoire and into jam session territory:
Hawkins supposedly enjoyed the bass sax despite its background role and its difficulties. Rex Stewart tells of Hawkins struggling with it in the studio, desperately trying “to make the beast sound musical” before storming out of the session. The fact that Hawkins enjoyed this elephantine double far more than the smaller clarinet says a lot about his musical priorities as well as his personality. Hawkins wanted to be heard, and adding the darker tone, louder volume and sheer bark of the bass sax must have seemed like a no-brainer.
“Hop Off” ends up sounding tailor made for Hawkins’ bass sax. He inserts gutty pops underneath the martial fanfare of the introduction before segueing into a pumping two-beat feel alongside the band:
Hawkins’ interplay with the ensemble, his accents behind the bursting second theme and his accompaniment behind Buster Bailey’s clarinet also stand out. He closes the side with a dirty break in his deliciously vertical late twenties style (and on “Rough House Blues” he adds a similarly funky atmosphere with another bluesy break). Hawkins would later disavow these sounds as a youthful novelty, but then again there really is no accounting for taste.