Who’s On First: Lead Altos and Jazz Tall Tales

Dance music of the twenties and thirties: dreary, colorless and filled with musicians diligently playing dull written parts, until an improvised break or solo allowed them to display their individuality and inject a brief moment of “jazz” amidst all that “commercial” music.

Except when it wasn’t.

Comparing Frank Trumbauer leading the sax section on C melody saxophone for “Baltimore”

with Chester Hazlett’s lead alto on “Lila”

the difference isn’t just about instrument or arrangement. These are two entirely different approaches to timbre, phrasing and section balance: Trumbauer’s dry tone sliding in and out of the theme from between his reed section colleagues, versus Hazlett’s buttery, vibrato-laden and slightly (deliciously) nasal sound providing a lush melody statement on top of the other saxophones.

Both players fashion entirely distinct and deeply personal approaches despite (perhaps even through!) written parts.  Neither tune was the cream of the compositional crop, and the chance to shine with multiple improvised choruses on Rhythm changes was a few years and at least one stylistic revolution away. Yet whatever the difference between “jazz” and “commercial” music, there’s clearly a difference between the music on paper and the music at work in these two recordings.

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4 thoughts on “Who’s On First: Lead Altos and Jazz Tall Tales

  1. tronepone says:

    Great post! Yet another aspect of “Lila,” my favorite (of the last few months) Trumbauer OKeh, brought forth. The YouTuber also picked out some attractive images — especially the contrabass lute for us to gaze upon during the Lang-backed vocal.

    • M. Figg says:

      “Atticus70” always provides great images to go with their stunning audio restoration, pretty much providing a jazz public service for us all.

      Thanks for reading, very glad you enjoyed!

  2. Nice post. Thanks for focusing my ears on the sax section approaches.To put it in slightly different words, Tram’s section cushions his obligatti, while Hazlett’s section is almost all soli.

    • M. Figg says:

      Glad you enjoyed this, Steve, and thanks for reading/commenting.

      I like your description. Tram’s lead on (the infamously debated) “Sugar” is another great example of that cushion approach, especially with Tram tossing out one of his most coyly beautiful licks at the end of the chorus.

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