Tag Archives: rock sax

Cover-ing the Standards

I spent quite a bit of time and effort last summer learning scores of new (for me) standards—listening, transcribing solos and parts, and making charts. These were all for tunes I’ve known as a listener for years but never learned on my instrument. It was enjoyable, frustrating, and rewarding work. These tunes weren’t jazz standards, however, but rather a broad cross-section of pop songs.

Last year I began playing with a working cover band in the area. (Like many others, we’ll resume performing as soon as it’s safe to do so.) After the initial meeting and introductory sit-in, I went to work on putting together my book based on the band’s repertoire, and I’ve continued to add to it as the band has further expanded its song pool. With few exceptions, the band’s catalogue really covers the bases as far as horn-based pop songs from the sixties onward. Selfishly, part of my wanting the gig was to have an excuse to play these songs—cheese and otherwise—live with a band, if nothing else to exorcise those demons a bit. I played with a cover band in the year I lived in Houston a decade ago, but hadn’t done so since and had been feeling the itch for a while. As a saxophonist, it’s one thing to hear Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” or Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love” in passing and either chuckle or cringe, depending on the recording. But it’s quite another to learn and then tackle them in performance. It’s not dissimilar from finally getting to play a jazz standard like “Stars Fell On Alabama” on the bandstand after putting in the work in the practice room. There are differences, of course, but in the end it’s about knowing the song and the style.

Style is key. Rock and pop can be deceptively difficult, particularly when approaching them from a jazz perspective. I’ve long felt comfortable as a saxophonist in a rock setting, be it covers or originals, as it’s the music I grew up listening to. It’s not that I always try to think like a guitarist, but it’s easy for a saxophone to stick out like a sore thumb if not careful, especially if it’s the solitary horn and not part of a horn section. Of course, that’s a consequence of nearly always being an auxiliary instrument—a novelty. After rock graduated from its rhythm-and-blues roots in which horns were common, only a handful of rock bands with full-time solitary saxophonists have hit the mainstream. And I mean full-time as in always playing the saxophone. For example, Mark Rivera plays a mean horn with Billy Joel and is a full-time member of the touring band, but he also plays guitar and percussion and sings a significant portion of each show because the horn solos aren’t so frequent. Seger, Springsteen, and Dave Matthews Band have done it with varying approaches, but they (and a few others) are the exceptions that prove the rule. (Of course, I learned parts for the former two for the current cover band gig.)

In keeping with style, there are myriad possibilities, especially for original music. But if you’re talking the notable horn solos of yore, it’s a narrower scope: an extension of the rhythm-and-blues flavors such as a big sound, growling, prolonged altissimo, a brash or honky timbre, and melodically sticking to pentatonic scales and the blues. One or more of these qualities are apparent in such saxophonic hits as “Money,” “Touch Me,” “Turn The Page,” “Bad To The Bone,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and on and on. I wrote a bit about this “rock sax” phenomenon here.) Alto Reed (Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band) and the late Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) are of this lineage. Even on a soft-rock ballad like “The One You Love,” Ernie Watts‘s fat tone makes his pentatonic melody a force to be reckoned with (and it’s great!), and ditto Jim Horn‘s outro solo (still great!). It’s a smoother, easy listening extension of those more rough-and-tumble forebears.

I should note that DMB‘s LeRoi Moore was of a different breed, as, at least in the first nearly two decades of the band’s run, the saxophone (along with the violin) fulfilled the role typically filled by a lead guitar. Consequently, the saxophone was more of an organic part of the band’s sound instead of the aforementioned novelty. And, coming from a jazz background originally, Moore eschewed many of the more obnoxious so-called “rock sax” trappings. The band’s sonic architecture changed after his death, but I covered that elsewhere.

Splitting the difference of the above two points (Moore vs. more traditional rock saxophone soloing), I think part of my strong affinity for Tom Scott has to do with his ability to straddle this divide. He seamlessly fits into both pop and jazz settings, and sounds great all the while. For example, here he is with Joni Mitchell (scroll to bottom) and here he is with the GRP Big Band (also with the aforementioned Ernie Watts).

The above is by no means a comprehensive survey of the horn’s history in rock. It’s barely a taste. However, it’s worth setting the stage to compare it to what most saxophonists do when learning standards: listening to and absorbing the nuances of the jazz greats who came before. Often when learning a jazz standard, once you have the melody and chord changes, many recommend learning the lyrics (if any) and a solo (often of a like instrument). That’s because the style is perceived to be inherently more demanding, and it is in a number of ways: harmonically, melodically (in navigating improvisational lines), chromatically (how to extend the existing harmonic and melodic structure), and rhythmically (degrees of swing, etc.). That said, there’s an almost religious devotion that’s expected when learning jazz standards. Not that I really disagree—I still regularly work on standards even though I haven’t had a steady jazz gig in years.

And yet, I feel that such preparation and reverence for The Great American Songbook, though justified, can often lead one to dismiss the inherent nuances of pop and rock, material that appears on first blush to be simpler, particularly in terms of harmony. The harmonies may be simpler on net, but that certainly presents its own challenges. For example, during a solo, running a flurry of notes riddled with chromaticism doesn’t really fit. It’s best to think more like a rock guitarist than a jazz horn player. I’ve witnessed and heard of this numerous times, a jazzer sitting in to solo with a rock band on something besides a blues and they just don’t gel. (I’ve heard rock guys complain more than once about saxophonists playing too many notes, followed by a version of “this ain’t a jazz gig.”)

Does that mean that a jazz musician should sit and learn all the rock and pop solos they can find? No. But a few wouldn’t hurt, particularly in terms of picking up the nuances that are sprinkled in. Even something like “Rosalita” that doesn’t even have a saxophone solo can be eye-(and ear-)opening. Clemons’s prominent saxophone melodies and countermelodies throughout are rife with those more traditional characteristics: big and brash sound, growling, scoops, and more. And though it may not seem like much, it can be a workout, especially if realistically playing loud enough to be heard in an amplified setting.

My digging into this other set of standards last summer and since has been a nice learning process. One notable aspect is just how gratifying it was (and still is!). Sure, the work itself was legitimately rewarding and good for the ears and fingers, but getting inside of the tunes and then being able to perform them with such a good band was and remains just plain fun.