Tag Archives: Bob Mintzer

Random Thoughts On The Sax Section

VincentLopezSaxSection1926VerticalIn trying to describe what makes Bennie Moten’s saxophone section so wonderfully different from any other in the continuum, I started to think about what jazz listeners have come to expect from the entity known as a “saxophone section.” The following began as an introduction for the Moten posts, went in its own direction and then turned into some random thoughts on this very important part of the jazz orchestra. The reader may be able to extract some larger point, or at the very least enjoy the music and photos.

jazz-consortium-bandleaderblogdotcomPaul Whiteman called the saxophone section the string section of a big band. There’s more to his comparison than plush harmonies and fast scales. Just as the string section of a classical orchestra identifies the group as another link in a particular musical tradition, while distinguishing the best orchestras as unique members of that particular musical community, so does the saxophone section of a jazz big band. That’s not to diminish the distinct sound of a particular brass or rhythm section. Yet what instrument signifies “classical” like the violin, or “jazz” like the saxophone?

http://archive.org/details/BenPollack-91-100Think of Benny Goodman’s well-drilled but warm foursome under Hymie Schertzer’s transparent lead, or Earle Warren’s searing alto atop the twin tenors of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, with Jack Washington anchoring it all on baritone. Duke Ellington’s saxophone sections patched together various reeds in different combinations yet remained instantly recognizable despite, or because of, their versatility. Whiteman wasn’t just commenting on notes in a score or crafting good copy: how much does a single note from this instrumental part reveal about the musical whole?

Walter Thomas, Andrew Brown Arville Harris, Eddie Barefield in 1934The modern saxophone section lives and thrives by concerted blend and drive as well as the power of its soloists. Woody Herman’s “four brothers” section is best known for solos by Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, but their famous titular number shows how well they work(ed) together as well as individually. The best sax sections are their own band within a band. There’s enough differentiation of register and timbre between the two to three instruments that comprise the section to create a self-contained ensemble. At the same time, solid improvised solos splintering out of the unit are a given. Several “Meets the Sax Section” albums illustrate the idea, as well as how powerful that idea has remained for listeners.

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra c/o nj.comThe swing era may not have introduced the concept of a saxophone section (which was already de rigueur for dance bands by the twenties), but it did codify a certain conception of it. From the big, rich sound of Count Basie’s new testament saxes, through the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band grooving under Jerome Richardson’s greasy soprano, to the thick, ultra-precise reeds directed by Bob Mintzer and other contemporary players, there’s a clear expectation of what a saxophone section should “do,” which still allows individual texture and growth.

Mingus Big Band JazzTimesUnlike the classical string section, where individual tone is incidental to the “ideal tone” taught and striven for in conservatories, the ideal tone in a jazz band is the musician’s tone. Individual timbres may balance one another but never disappear into the mix. Every metaphor has its limits…

Thomas County Central High School Saxophone Section

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Bennie Moten’s Sax Section

library-umkc-edu

This is the first of a two-part post on one of my favorite musical experiences. As usual, it’s probably not most listeners’ first choice for a good time, but think of it like the first time you tried sushi, or whiskey…

Jazz lovers can debate their picks for “best saxophone section,” but chances are their selections share some similarities: tight unison playing, rich harmonies with the ability to turn creamy smooth or biting at the drop of a dime, and a distinctive sound both as a section and via soloists spinning out of the unit. There is a certain idea(l) of “saxophone section” in place after decades of well-oiled, multi-hued saxophone sections. Given that tradition, Bennie Moten’s three-man, pre-1930 reed team may sound more like a gap in the chain than a link.

For starters, its modest size comes from an earlier and supposedly developmental stage of big band arranging (with the five-man sax section viewed as the final step in the inexorable evolution of the jazz orchestra). Moten’s saxes also play more like a combination than a section, with a less-than-airtight blend and everyone’s part clearly audible. Finally, the Moten section’s lush sound would simply never pass in the modern age of more cutting sax timbres.

Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington’s ensemble work is actually quite successful, in its own sweet way, because of their inability (refusal?) to ever jell. The Moten sax section sounds like three people playing, in both the musical as well as recreational sense of the word, rather than reading a part or letting muscle memory rehash what they practiced. The ragged sax soli on “That Certain Motion” would probably have most band directors turning red, but it’s hard to imagine such a deliciously gooey, lazy feel arising after hundreds of rehearsal hours:

Moten’s saxes are also incredibly transparent, perhaps to a fault. Missteps are out there for all to hear. Yet they’re also completely earnest and anything but stiff. “When Life Seems So Blue,” is slightly neater, but as if to avoid the monotony of cohesion, lead alto Leonard pipes in some ecstatic filigree between the full ensemble’s statements:

“Small Black” and “Won’t You Be My Baby?” sound much tighter, but the section’s lush, honking sound makes them seem like one of Botticelli’s zaftig figures compared to today’s lean, mean supermodel sax sections:

It’s easy to hear their sound as some vestigial element, but Moten’s saxes provide as unique a reed aesthetic as anything by the World Saxophone Quartet, Bob Mintzer or Dead Cat Bounce. Sound is never old or new; it’s always in the present and has no expiration date. Whether or not the Moten sax section belongs in the pantheon of great saxophone sections, they make room for themselves as a completely unique experience. That has to count more than playing every note at exactly the same time.

More on the Moten sax section, specifically the Moten sax soloists, next time…

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