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…