Tag Archives: When Life Seems So Blue

Bennie Moten’s Sax Soloists

Here’s the second and final part of my discussion of Bennie Moten’s pre-1930 sax section…

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The range of ensemble colors is directly proportional to the sum of instrumental voices, so that more players equal more instruments and therefore more orchestral possibilities.

At first glance it seems like simple musical mathematics, borne out by jazz history: big bands developed from Jazz Age tentets to the fifteen-piece plus ensembles that are now industry standard. The saxophone section alone started as a three-man operation. Now five players (two altos, two tenors and a baritone) is the norm. The math says that three horns can’t produce the same variety as five, and history paints these changes as a natural and inevitable evolution. Usually the underlying assumption here is that twenties bandleaders were either bad at orchestral arithmetic or good with a bottom line. The idea that musicians just chose the right sidemen and did a lot with what was only later deemed “a little” rarely enters the equation.

For example, Bennie Moten’s sax section does usually stick to the two altos plus tenor arrangement that was standard for most twenties bands. Yet whatever this section may lack in terms of variety as a concerted unit, it more than makes up for in solo permutations. Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington each play with distinct, contrasting styles. Factor in different approaches to different types of musical material as well as instrumental doubling, and you get a surprisingly broad musical palette.

Leonard plays both bright lead alto and bluesily rococo solos with a delightfully nasal edge. He tosses in fills between the ensemble on “When Life Seems So Blue,” while “Oh! Eddie” and “Mary Lee” include tantalizingly short but hot bridges:

Leonard’s soprano sax is a refreshing alternative to Sidney Bechet’s towering presence as well as the brass clarinet approach many of his contemporaries took to the instrument.  On “Boot It,” he plays with a with a joyous hoedown feel, recalling early jazz’s intersection with country and other folk art forms:

Clarinetist Woody Walder is often demonized for his novelty solos on the earliest Moten sides. Walder’s arsenal of whinnies, pops and barnyard onomatopoeia might be an acquired taste (personally I think he was just anticipating the Art Ensemble of Chicago) but his clarinet solos with the late Moten band deserve more attention. He plays some simple but direct blues in a sandy low register on “That Too Do,” with a few inflections thrown in as a type of musical signature:

Walder interpolates more passionate blues on the non-blues form of “New Vine Street Blues” and plays jittery, high-octane clarinet on faster numbers such as “Sweetheart of Yesterday” as well as shouting obbligatos to close numbers such as “Oh! Eddie.”

Doubling tenor, Walder seems hell-bent on sounding just as massive and brawny on the larger instrument as he is fleet and piercing on the smaller one. On “Everyday Blues” and the jerky, tongue-in-cheek “New Goofy Dust Rag”, he smears notes in a sweaty, agitated style. There are traces of Coleman Hawkins, but none of his harmonic sophistication. This is greasy saloon stuff without any hint of the conservatory:

Jack Washington is best known for anchoring Count Basie’s sax section, but as a younger man he played second alto with Moten and got much more solo space on baritone sax. He displays a burnished, gargantuan sound on baritone that’s closer to a bass saxophone, even pumping out effective bass lines for “That Too Do.” Washington’s unique tone is already put to effective use at this early stage, for example creating dark contrast behind the flashy trumpet on “Rit Dit Ray” and playing lead on baritone for a few tunes. This effect can be heard in other bands from the time, but Washington adds his own unique density:

Washington’s solos are all bottom and darkness, subterranean parties in a delightfully archaic vein. He takes slap tonguing to a whole new level, for example on “New Vine Street” but never forgets to swing; take his solo on “Mack’s Rhythm” or the way he dances all over “Mary Lee”:

“Mary Lee” also includes another Leonard bridge as well as Walder’s percussive clarinet and tenor honks.  Given its sheer range of colors, Moten’s sax section could have been its own band, a front line unto itself. It’s not a Gil Evans affair but neither is it just three players, or five instruments, or even eight if you include the fact that everyone doubled clarinet. It is simply incredible that this was just one section of a band. Then again, who’s counting?

direct proportion

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Bennie Moten’s Sax Section

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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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