Tool’s ‘Lateralus’ at 20

Tool‘s Lateralus turned 20 on 05/15/21.

This is a big one. I’ve missed some other milestone albums on/around their big anniversaries, but, to reference the album’s opening’s minutes, I clutch this one like the cornerstone that it is. If I were to put together the fabled desert island list, this album would be one of the first listed. Lateralus is easily my favorite album by one of my all-time favorite bands.

Lateralus occupies an interesting space in the Tool discography. Some, including yours truly, consider it the band’s best album. Others, including some friends of mine, see it as the “beginning of the end” of the band’s original sound. While its predecessors Opiate (1992), Undertow (1993), and Ænima (1996) include some more progressive elements (mixed meter, exploratory instrumental sections, lengthy arrangements), the albums were generally leaner and featured shorter rockers in the aggregate, particularly the first two releases. Aside form the music, Alex Grey’s art and visual palette became closely associated with the band upon Lateralus‘s release, and has remained a fixture since. In short, the band became “artier” with Lateralus, and 2006’s 10,000 Days and 2019’s Fear Inoculum followed suit, culminating in the latter.

Lateralus sort of began the now-common tradition, at least among the rock community, of impatiently awaiting a new Tool album. Ænima was a smash hit, but it took another five years for Lateralus to surface. It then took another five years for 10,000 DAYS to be released, and then another thirteen years for Fear Inoculum. Personally, I went deep down the rabbit hole in 1997 starting with my first Tool concert, seeing the band again the following year, an excellent show that opened with “Flood,” featured Keenan in his Rev. Maynard attire, and included a rare performance of Tool’s cover of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” (featuring Buzz Osborne of The Melvins, no less). I spent many mental and emotional calories during the subsequent high school years devouring what I could: music, lyrics, endless tributaries on both Toolshed.down.net as well as the band’s “newsletters” on the official site. All that waiting and devotion, and I felt like I really accomplished something when news of Lateralus broke along with the release of “Schism,” the band’s first new single in years.

Anticipation for the new album was greatly compounded when Tool announced a mini “preview” tour scheduled for the week of the album’s release before a full North American tour that fall after a summer abroad. Theater dates (intimate for an arena-filling act) with an intermission and no opening act in four cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York. Though the Detroit show sold out in under two minutes, I was fortunate to snag a pair to attend with my cousin. The album would come out Tuesday 05/15, and on Friday 05/18 we’d see them at Detroit’s State Theater. I was ready for my head to explode come mid-May. I remember the countdown consuming many of my waking hours that spring.

My loitering at the local Meijer on Monday night 05/14 paid off, as I bought a copy once the album hit the shelf at midnight. And then I heard “The Grudge” for the first time, culminating in that epic scream toward the end. It hit like a ton of bricks in the best way possible.

Unlike Ænima, Lateralus has only a couple of of small, connective tracks (acting much like Einstein on the Beach‘s knee plays), and none including the more humorous aspects of those on Ænima (which was also dedicated to comedian Bill Hicks). Of course, there is the trademark entertaining hidden track, this time a chaotic emergency call from Area 51, but there’s nothing on the level of “Message to Harry Manback” or “Die Eier von Satan.” Whereas Ænima ends by opening the “Third Eye,” Lateralus spends much of its 79 minutes exploring the ramifications of such an awakening. Instead of the aforementioned knee plays, a number of the tracks on Lateralus flow come in pairs (“Eon Blue Apocalypse” into “The Patient” and “Parabol” into “Parabola”) or groups (the album’s exploratory final ~third of “Disposition” into “Reflection” into “Triad”). What’s more, the whole album flows pretty seamlessly from beginning to end almost as one large work. Even now, 20 years and countless listens later, I generally think of Lateralus more at the album level—or at least the “section” or “movement” level—than the individual songs.

[This isn’t technically an album review, so I won’t get bogged down in the minutiae. I’ll go ahead and note Tool’s trademark usage of mixed meter, as it’s often a focus of such articles. It’s true, and it’s compelling, but it’s also organic—it doesn’t sound forced. For example, Tool’s one of the few acts that can release “Schism” as the lead single—later a bonafide hit—which spends much of the time alternating between 5/8 and 7/8.]

Looking at the more micro level, though, the individual songs and sections are formidable. “The Grudge” sets the stage for the rest of the album by previewing many of its different facets: roiling mixed meter; contemplative nuance; loud rhythmic, lyrical, and sometimes guttural assaults; and straight-ahead driving rock. It served as an effective opener in concert for many years after its release. “The Patient” scratches me where I itch every time. It’s a type of slow burn at which the band is particularly adept, much like Ænima‘s “Pushit,” another favorite. (When I wrote briefly about Fear Inoculum a while back, I used “The Patient” as a reference point.) “Parabola” is the album’s lone straight-ahead rocker, the sole banger in 4/4, and it serves as a great release after the slow build that is “Parabol.” “Ticks & Leeches” is a sonic assault and almost serves as a reset for the rest of the album.

“Lateralus” is not only the album’s namesake but this fan’s favorite Tool song (and one of my favorite songs, period). It was after the first time I heard it, and my appreciation has only grown throughout the years. (Yes, again, mixed meter and Fibonacci and all that jazz…) The music is great, and, as someone lost in their own thoughts much of the time, the lyrics and message only get better with age. I could go on and on (and perhaps I will at some point down the line), but suffice it to say it’s the album’s crown jewel for me. The rest of the album features some psychedelic exploration via the triptych of “Disposition,” “Reflection,” and “Triad” (followed by the Area 51 exploits of “Faaip De Oaid”). I think for some the album really ends with “Lateralus,” but it’s noteworthy that “Disposition” and “Reflection” (and sometimes “Triad”) were fixtures of the live show for years—so, the material was clearly more than studio experimentation to the band.

I mentioned having tickets to see Tool days after the album’s release for what was to be my third time seeing the band. Suffice it to say it was the best concert of any type I’d seen at that point. And now, 20 years later, I easily put that in the top five or even top three shows of any type I’ve ever attended. (There are others I’d have to think about, but that one’s an automatic “yes.”) It was a great concert, but it also was one of those experiences in which the event matched the moment. It exceeded the immense hype. And, given how quickly it sold out, the entire audience was deeply invested in the band, the new album, and the evening as a whole. (Also there were the added touches, such as going with my cousin, a fellow die-hard fan, and running into an old friend with whom I had previously lost touch.) Maybe someday I’ll gush over that show at length. (I did on fan forum days after the show…I wrote one of the site’s longer concert reviews, at least at the time…not going to link to my adolescent adrenaline-fueled ranting though.)

For the record, the 05/18/01 (20 years ago today) setlist included:

“The Grudge”
“Stinkfist”
“Forty Six & 2”
“Prison Sex”
“Schism”
“Pushit”
“Disposition”
“Reflection”

(intermission)

“Sober”
“Parabol”
“Parabola”
“Aenema”
“Opiate”
“Lateralus”

Beyond the excitement that was release week, I saw Tool a number of times on afterward for album support tours the next couple years. Notably my next show was on 09/13 in Grand Rapids, which was actually postponed from two days before on 09/11/01, then a few days later in Detroit (including “Undertow”!). Fall of 2002 had quite a run of shows within weeks of one another: Detroit, Moline (IL), Kalamazoo (including “Cold & Ugly,” “H.,” and “Third Eye”!), East Lansing (my future home for a decade, unbeknownst to me at the time). Of course, my interest and passion has continued through to the present. I won’t go through a thorough accounting of each show—those listed above and those not—but there’s something notable I can recall about each one.

Lateralus‘s successors are cut from a similar cloth. Both 10,000 Days and Fear Inoculum share the overall sonic and visual (i.e., Alex Grey) aesthetic, making Lateralus a definite turning point for the band. While there are detractors, I consider it just another step (arguably a giant leap) in the band’s gradual evolution.

Anniversaries of other album releases haven’t struck me in way that makes me “feel old,” but this one does to a small degree. Possibly because it was coupled with a great concert-going experience that made an indelible mental time-stamp, making it more of a “life event” than my running to the store for a new CD (of which I have many fond memories also). Who knows.


Other notable album anniversaries:
Dave Matthews Band’s Everyday
Dave Matthews Band’s Crash
Tool’s Ænima
Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

[NOTE: The original post was lost in a site error. This is a reconstruction/re-posting.]

Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Everyday’ at 20

Personally, I think about this Dave Matthews Band album’s release every February. I recall various other release dates from time to time, but Everyday made a particular temporal impact on me for whatever reason. I distinctly remember driving to a local Meijer at ~11:00 p.m. on Monday 02/26/01 and then loitering around waiting for the employees to stock the newly released CDs at midnight. There were several others doing the same, but I believe I bought the first copy from that particular location. A real historic achievement.

davematthewsband_everyday

Memories and personal minutiae aside, there was also a lot of commercial hype surrounding the album’s release. Atop the usual fare of interviews and guest appearances, there were also larger items such as an episode-length feature on The Charlie Rose Show. Aside from DMB being a commercial juggernaut generally, Everyday garnered particular interest because it ended up “replacing” an entirely separate fourth album that was mostly recorded in 2000 and on its way to completion. Tapes of that “lost” album eventually made their way online and became known as The Lillywhite Session (named for producer Steve Lillywhite, who produced that as well as the band’s first three studio albums). Adding to this fiasco, many songs from The Lillywhite Session were regularly played during the 2000 tour (and since then)—leading many fans to consider the 2000 summer tour a kind of album support tour for an album that was never released.

The fourth studio album was finally released in February 2001: Everyday, featuring (mostly) completely new songs written after The Lillywhite Session. (New songs for the abandoned album would largely fill out 2002’s Busted Stuff.) Everyday‘s writing process was a marked contrast from what came before. Less of a collaborative group effort, Dave Matthews wrote much of Everyday with producer Glen Ballard, with the band fleshing them out in the studio. This writing process, together with the album’s overall sound as well as hardcore fan base’s familiarity with songs from The Lillywhite Session (the full “album” would be leaked online shortly after Everyday‘s release), has, in my opinion, totally eclipsed the actual songs on the album. The 2001 summer tour featured songs from both Everyday and The Lillywhite Session along with the usual fare. (Yes, The Lovely Ladies were included, but they had also been performing with the band since 1998.)

Though controversial among fans upon its release–and arguably still so–it’s long been my contention that it’s far less anomalous substantively than it may have sounded at first. I’ve discussed this a bit more in depth elsewhere. But to quickly summarize: Yes, Everyday features shorter songs with tighter arrangements, a prominent electric guitar (but not a lead guitar, per se), and a mix featuring that prominent pop sheen. However, many of the songs are still built upon that trademark DMB architecture: a prominent and/or repetitive guitar riff alongside melodies, countermelodies, and solos played by saxophone and violin. (This structure really started to deteriorate with the release of 2009’s Big Whiskey and the Groo-Grux King, where DMB is more of a traditional electrified rock band with a horn section. Oddly enough, 2012’s Away from the World, produced by the mythically returned Steve Lillywhite, continues further into the rock-band-and-horn-line territory instead of returning the band to its original sound, which a number of fans foolishly hoped for.)

All that context aside, it’s worth address addressing Everyday on its own terms. About 1/3 of the album remains in regular rotation at live shows: “Everyday,” “The Space Between,” “When The World Ends,” “So Right.” (Pandemic notwithstanding, as there are no tours by anyone in the U.S. at present.) Others such as “What You Are,” If I Had It All,” “Fool To Think,” and “Sleep To Dream Her,” pop up now and again, occasionally in spurts. “Angel” was played a lot for the first few years, but not since 2003. “Dreams Of Our Fathers” was given a few live chances in 2001, and “Mother Father” has yet to see the light of day. “Everyday,” which continues to be a live staple, was in 2001 a “new” song built upon the same guitar part as another of the band’s live staples, “#36.” Since Everyday‘s release, each performance of the title track now includes an interpolations of its predecessor at the beginning (by the fans) and end (by the band), a symbolic nod to the joining of pre- and post-Everyday legacies, whether intentional or not.

A noteworthy aspect of Everyday is how few additional personnel are included: producer Glenn Ballard on keys, Carlos Santana and percussions Karl Perraza guest on “Mother Father,” and Vusi Mahlasela sings on the title track. Compare that to Before These Crowded Streets, which featured enough guest musicians to crowd a small street: Kronos Quartet, Alanis Morissette, Bela Fleck, John D’earth, Tim Reynolds, Butch Taylor, Greg Howard, and The Lovely Ladies (Tawatha Agee, Cindy Myzell, Brenda White-King). It makes for an interesting juxtaposition when fans say they want an album that sounds “more like the band” (BTCS, which was rife with guests) when referencing an album that supposedly doesn’t sound like the “real” band (Everyday).

Yes, I admit that a definite distinction can be made between an album’s spirit or ethos and its technical content, and there are certainly arguments to be made as to how Everyday fits within DMB’s oeuvre. That said, the album isn’t quite the nadir it’s portrayed to be.

Admittedly, Everyday wasn’t what I initially expected, but not negatively so. I listened to the album continuously for months, and a couple of the songs, “Fool To Think” and “So Right,” immediately became all-time favorites. The latter has especially evolved over the years, with an extended outro jam included in live performances. It’s not played nearly enough, in my opinion. (Perhaps I’m in the minority.) But when it is, it’s glorious. Regarding the studio recordings of both of those songs, especially “So Right,” Roi places some excellent phrases in such a short space.

As mentioned, there aren’t nearly as many solos or extended instrumental sections on Everyday. There are a few instrumental solos (saxophone on “So Right,” “Angel,” and “Fool To Think”; Santana on guitar on “Mother Father”; some violin effects in the outro of “Everyday”), but not many. Something I often wonder is what would’ve happened had everything remained the same except for more solos throughout. Would the fan base’s negative reaction have been nearly as aggressive? For example, if Boyd Tinsley’s vocal part were removed from “I Did It” and replaced with a saxophone or violin solo that lasted 2-3 times as long, how would that have been received? Given the overall structure of the song, it’d possibly be considered more like some electrified cousin of “What Would You Say” than an aberration.

Anyway, those are some thoughts on the twentieth anniversary. As I’ve done throughout the week, I’ll give a listen or two this weekend, and hopefully by 2022 I can hear one or more of the songs in person again.


Other notable album anniversaries:
Dave Matthews Band’s Crash
Tool’s Ænima
Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

[NOTE: The original post was lost in a site error. This is a reconstruction/re-posting.]

Tuning Out

What a time to be alive. I’m absolutely exhausted.

The reasons are myriad and obvious, and I know I’m not the only one. The endless parade of news headlines reads like something from a slightly absurdist movie. Nearly everyone on social media is engaged in an endless, all-consuming culture war on all fronts. (Of course, that’s not to say that it’s not for righteous reasons. But, at the end of the day, if all you’ve done is pushed out some snarky comments and tweets, what do you have to show for it? What have you done?) Many lives are turned upside down for a litany of reasons.

I’ve tried quite hard over the last decade or so to keep this blog music-focused rather than an all-encompassing personal diary. That said, I’m veering off that some here. Mostly because it’s on my mind. Also, in my “day job” I work remotely from a home office and have done so for a number of years. Between that and being the primary caregiver for our son, I’ve been living a version of “pandemic life” for years before it was the new normal. (Of course, at-home kindergarten wasn’t in the plan years or months ago, which has been the biggest complication for me personally, but here we are.) So, below are a couple cents’ worth of notions if things are all turned around and you’re drowning in the mania.

With everything going on, it’s hard for me to focus or care enough about a music topic to attempt to write at length. I’ve attempted to start dozens of posts for this site, only to abandon or trash them. I’ve even found it difficult to properly publicize and plug my most recent album with Matt Borghi. (Read about it here!) Gigs have dried up, of course, as they have for everyone else. Dozens were canceled for me this summer, though we managed to keep a small handful in the end, and I doubt there’ll be another until the spring. It’s just been a lot of time practicing punctuated by a little recording here and there for a nascent endeavor. I dove deep into the classical literature for a few months during the strictest parts of quarantine, which was refreshing, and I’ve also explored a number of new-for-me jazz standards. But ultimately it’s not worth discussing too deeply at present.

[One exception on music topics is my most recent contrarian hot take. I’ve long been a firm believer in separating the art from the artist (or, if possible, the person from the artist), so the constant arguments over whom to cancel don’t interest me much. That said, if I were to partake, given the relatively arbitrary nature of where people decide “the line” may be, my vote would be to cancel J.S. Bach on account of seemingly being a bad parent. Let’s face it: between his work obligations, his extra-curricular musical pursuits, and voluminous progenitorial endeavors, I have a hard time believing he could’ve been an engaged, attentive parent at the individual level. And yet: great contrapuntal technique nonetheless!]

Ultimately, it helps to just tune out, unplug, and focus on the micro. Though everyone has their own method, the following combination works for me (and admittedly I’m not as good at them as I’d like to be), in no particular order:

  • Limiting my social media consumption and engagement.
  • Reading my (paid for!) newspaper articles straight from the source instead of dealing with scores of comments.
  • Keeping at the horn, learning and exploring new material.
  • Exercising in the fresh air.
  • Saying no.
  • Getting involved in my local community.
  • Connecting.

“Limiting my social media consumption and engagement.”
This helps. Greatly. If you can—and you certainly are able to!—keep these things off your phone or tablet, or at least strictly limit when they’re allowed to be on there. There are seemingly no areas of the internet that aren’t infected with some level of infighting or riling up. Even my supposedly music- or arts-only feeds are littered with bile-spewing all around. Ultimately you’re just doom-scrolling, raising your blood pressure, and likely regretful when you see how much time has passed.

“Reading my (paid for!) newspaper articles straight from the source instead of dealing with scores of comments.”
If nothing else, start with your local paper. That national horse races and scandals-of-the-hour are sexy, but they often have little to do tangibly with what’s going in your backyard. If you can get multiple news sources outside of social media, then you’re ahead of the game.
— A related note: don’t make socio-political leanings the end-all of humanity. I have deep convictions on a broad array of topics, but as the years pass I tend to not really care to casually discuss them with most people. I’m perfectly fine engaging on far less visceral topics. As an example, in the cover band I belong to, I’m the odd one out politically, but we still get along nicely and play a tight rendition of Chicago’s “Make Me Smile.”
— Another related note: I’ve made a point to read more books over this year and last. Again, it takes time—sometimes only 20 minutes per day—but it’s a nice distraction that helps me unwind.

“Keeping at the horn, learning and exploring new material.”
For me, it’s music-making. Whatever your interest is (professional or amateur or hobby or otherwise), focus on it and shut everything else out as consistently as you can, even if for short windows of time. It doesn’t have to be Productive, but if it’s far removed from the constant daily noise, that’s best.

“Exercising in the fresh air.”
Go for a walk. Get outside. (The gyms are likely closed or at reduced capacity anyway.) Whatever it is you’re partial to or tolerate. For me, I’ve always been a walker, but I’ve been running quite faithfully the last ~16 months. It took a couple months for me to make it an iron-clad routine, but now it’s a reliable part of my week. Listen to something if that helps. (I’m in that minority of folks who don’t listen to anything while doing so. Partially due to aural health, and also because I prefer the quiet and to be lost in my thoughts.)

“Saying no.”
This is the biggie. I’ve always been a “yes person” by default—always wanting to participate and not miss out, or feeling like I don’t want to disappoint. Now, though, between family and work and my own well-being, I only have so much time. “No” is still challenging to say sometimes, but I’m quicker with it than I used to be. It’s helped far more than it’s hurt, even when I’ve turned down something I wanted to do.

“Getting involved in my local community.”
This is a big one, particularly in the age of online activism. Sharing articles with your peers (like-minded or not) is fine, but, again, what are you actually doing? I’ve long had a strong interest in municipal politics, so I guess it’s easy for me to recommend this. But, even if you’re not that interested, the village/town/city, county, and state actions and decisions are the ones that most often affect you directly, whether you’re aware of it or not. A lot can happen at your local school board or town board or city council meeting, especially when almost no one from the public attends or cares. Volunteering time or money or both is great if you can too. If you don’t care at all about this sort of thing, then all right. But if you find yourself endlessly awaiting the next !BREAKING NEWS! alert on your device, check out what’s happening at town hall.

“Connecting.”
Stay connected to those whom you’re close with, including yourself. The former by making time, and the latter via some of the above.

Time to log off.

[NOTE: The original post was lost in a site error. This is a reconstruction/re-posting.]

Matt Borghi & Michael Teager’s ‘Subterranean Bearings’ and “Vanishing Point”

Some news on the ambient front.

Subterranean Bearings, the new Matt Borghi & Michael Teager album, is out now. Years in the making, it’s our first LP since 2014’s Shades of Bending Light. While reminiscent of our ambient recordings from 2013-2014, Subterranean Bearings explores new sonic terrain for us.

The material was recorded gradually from 2017 to 2018. Unlike our previous recordings, which were all live free improvisations, the guitar and saxophone parts were recorded separately in our respective home studios in East Lansing, MI and West Seneca, NY over many months. Borghi’s trademark sonic beds are often ornamented here by more active, overtly melodic gestures. Additionally, my contributions include multiple simultaneous horn lines. We tried to keep spontaneity at the core of our new collaborative process. As such, for each piece on the album, each saxophone track was recorded in a single isolated take, without regard for the other saxophonic textures. The horn lines at times complement and agitate one another in intriguing ways. These more actively polyphonic textures combine to offer a new take on the traditional Borghi | Teager aesthetic.

This release will be digital only and is now available for purchase from Bandcamp. It will be available for streaming via Spotify, Apple Music, and other outlets in the coming weeks.

borghiteager_subterraneanbearings
Subterranean Bearings

To coincide with this release, we recently recorded a long-form piece in the vein of our previous work. The piece, “Vanishing Point,” will be released Tuesday 06/30 via the Ambient Soundbath podcast.

borghiteager_vanishingpoint
“Vanishing Point” via the Ambient Soundbath

We’re happy with the new album as well as its accompanying podcast appetizer. We hope you give a listen.

Find Subterranean Bearings on Bandcamp here.
More information on where to listen to “Vanishing Point” and the Ambient Soundbath here (https://ambientsoundbath.com).
More information on Matt Borghi & Michael Teager here.

(The photographs for the album art were taken by me in Austria’s Bregenzerwald [2016] and at Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon, MI [2019], respectively.)

[NOTE: The original post was lost in a site error. This is a reconstruction/re-posting.]

Planting Seeds

A thought I return to periodically is: When it comes to the saxophone, who are my patients zero? In other words, who are the earliest saxophonists I heard that I, to at least some degree, still listen to?

I’m taken with the question because I wasn’t particularly drawn to the saxophone at a very young age, at least not more so than other instruments. (Or, at least, I don’t recall such an attraction.) A few years before choosing the saxophone for fifth grade band, I took guitar lessons for a couple months. A broken arm ended that brief career just as I was finally learning a couple classics by Buddy Holly, an early musical hero. So, the horn wasn’t on my radar in any notable way beyond the occasional cameo in the rock, pop, and musical theater I was exposed to and a fan of. And yet, a few notable folks planted seeds that I’d come back to in some form years or decades later.

The second part of that original question—folks to whom I still listen, at least to some degree—helped provide a good cutoff for this exercise. There are some early examples I clearly remember but chose not to include below. Examples are Danny Flores in “Tequila” by The Champs and Hank Carter in “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers. For the former, it’s a recording I like to this day, but it’s not one that stuck out to me through the years as an active interest for whatever reason. For the latter, I’ve never warmed to Thorogood beyond the singles. That said, I’ve heard the sax solo more times than I can count.

Another one who didn’t make the cut is Ernie Watts for his melody on Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love.” I seem to have been aware of that song and horn line for as long as I can remember, and I actually didn’t know the song’s title until last summer when I finally transcribed it (with utter glee, might I add). While I’ve listened to Watts in other contexts (e.g., GRP Big Band), neither that song nor my interest in his playing specifically seemed to warrant inclusion in the list proper. Still, I have to make a note of it. While “Careless Whisper” and “Baker Street” tend be the invincible force and immovable object of iconic pop saxophone riffs of the late ’70s and early ’80s, for me it was always “The One You Love” that came to mind first. Even if I didn’t know what it was called, I could sing it.

Having occasionally pondered this over the last several months, I’ve narrowed it down to three plus an additional four honorable mentions. Perhaps I’m retconning myself, but I think I’m relatively accurate here. For the first three, It’s worth noting that I didn’t know who these saxophonists were at the time, and it’d be many years before I learned their names. In two cases, it was a matter of learning that someone I was a fan of separately was sitting in with another band. The honorable mentions came later in life, but they were early saxophonists who stood out to me as musicians in their own right instead of just another element in a song.

Junior Walker — “Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & The All-Stars
I grew up listening to a lot of oldies music, because both it’s what my mom listened to and I genuinely enjoyed it. At that time, “oldies” consisted of songs primarily from the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. While a lot of those songs featured horns to varying degrees, one prominent saxophone feature that stood out to me was “Shotgun.” And how could it not? After the syncopated snare drum intro, it’s the first prominent instrument before the verse, with a solo mid-song and again at the end. Such infectious rhythm-and-blues playing by Walker: riffing, roaring flutter tongue, bombast, and the blues. At the age of ~6 or so, I didn’t know that Junior Walker was both the singer and the saxophonist, nor did I know of his Michigan roots and connections (recording for Motown and living in Battle Creek, ~100 miles from my hometown). But I did know that I liked the song and whatever he was doing on that horn.

When I started to think about this topic of my earliest saxophonic memories, “Shotgun” was one of the first songs that came to mind. It’s unique in that the saxophonist and singer are one, and it perfectly distills that rhythm-and-blues approach on the horn. While transcribing a bunch of rock and pop horn parts last summer, I had to include “Shotgun” even though it wasn’t on the song list. I’d been hearing it for over three decades, so I figured it was time. And it’s one I’ve willingly returned to and sought out time and again through the years. Here’s some great live footage of Jr. Walker & The All-Stars showing how it’s done:

Michael Brecker — “Same Old Song And Dance” by Aerosmith
I’m guessing I first got Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits on cassette around 1991 (around 8 years old). I listened to it constantly for years. Consequently, “Same Old Song And Dance,” including Michael Brecker’s burning, bluesy solo, was burned into my brain at a young age. The first seed this planted was my affinity for Aerosmith. Eventually I’d graduate from my hits compilation to having all the studio albums (even the clunkers, for completist purposes). Years later I was re-reading the liner notes for Get Your Wings (perhaps my favorite Aerosmith album?) for the brass personnel and put two and two together: the Michael Brecker listed as playing saxophone was the Michael Brecker. Of course, in retrospect, it shouldn’t be a shock, given Brecker’s voluminous studio work. At the time, however, I unwittingly got my first dose of someone who I’d become so taken with years later. When I realized the unintentional continuity, from “Same Old Song and Dance” to Pilgrimage, I thought it noteworthy. To be honest, remembering this fact was the inspiration for this list.

One of the things I really appreciate about Brecker’s playing generally is that, even though he was quite adept at the post-Coltrane vocabulary and calisthenics, he had enough pop sensibility to adapt to whatever style he was called for. For this Aerosmith cut, Brecker eschews jazz conventions and channels the likes of the aforementioned Junior Walker: raucous blues from top to bottom. I’m not a Brecker-phile necessarily. I wouldn’t put him in my personal top 5 favorite saxophonists, but he’s definitely up there. For example, when perusing albums at a store, if I see his name as a sideman I’m more inclined to purchase the album than not. Here, though, it was simply fate.

Branford Marsalis — “I Love Your Smile” by Shanice
This one’s a bit of a curveball. Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile” came out in 1991, meaning this song was in my aural ether around the time of Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits. Aside from some obligatory MTV viewing, the other radio station I listened to at the time besides the local oldies station was the pop hits channel. Shanice’s single was all over the latter station and MTV. I never purchased the single nor the album, but the song was inescapable for years (I don’t mean that pejoratively), and it’d rear its catchy head every so often afterward. It’s one of those songs, for me, that whenever I hear it, I want to listen until the end. It’s catchy with a lot of moving parts, and it’s no surprise that the song made its way into the jazz world, with drummer Jerome Jennings recently delivering an excellent cover that’s worth highlighting here in full:

I can’t really say whether, at a young age, the original recording’s saxophone solo itself made a huge impression on me separate from the song. I definitely noticed and enjoyed it. I do know that the times I heard the song after years of not, I remembered the sax solo was coming and I looked forward to it. If anything, early on, it probably stuck out to me as being different from what I was used to hearing in pop/rock contexts: that aggressively gritty and bluesy archetype demonstrated by Walker and Brecker in the above songs. In hearing “…Smile” regularly over the last few years thanks to SiriusXM’s ’90s on 9 channel, I had another small epiphany: when Shanice says “Blow, Branford, blow,” she’s cheering on none other than Branford Marsalis. Similar to Brecker, Marsalis knows how to tastefully fit inside non-jazz styles (e.g., Sting, The Grateful Dead and its later iterations, and many more). With Shanice he’s melodic, diatonic, and borderline “smooth,” and it’s excellent. My personal interest in Branford is similar to Brecker: a fan but not obsessively so. It’s worth noting, though, that Marsalis’s Contemporary Jazz was one of the first modern jazz saxophone albums I owned in high school.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in roughly chronological order of first noticing them by name)
Lou Marini
I know I’m not the only one of my generation who saw The Blues Brothers at a young age and fell in love with both the movie and the music. Given my deep familiarity with the aforementioned oldies and my interest in musicals, my mom must’ve known I’d get a kick out of it. (That, and my obsession with Ghostbusters and Star Wars gave me an in with Dan Aykroyd and, via cameo, Carrie Fisher.) Given that, “Blue” Lou Marini was one of the first saxophonists I could identify, even if I didn’t know upon early viewings that I was watching an actual musician (as opposed to just an actor playing a part). Eventually I’d see him on television sitting in with other bands as a session musician, and it started to click that his job was to just play the saxophone wherever needed. It was a treat for me to finally see Marini live as part of James Taylor’s band years back.

Tom Scott
Piggybacking off of my interest in The Blues Brothers, I was introduced to Tom Scott at an early age. Little did I know it at the time, but he’s on the film’s soundtrack even though he’s not in the film. He did tour with the group, however, and I remember hearing his name when listening to the band’s live album and thinking, “Who’s that? He wasn’t in the movie.” These days, I’m a big, longtime fan of his, both as a leader with The L.A. Express as well as his prolific sideman work. (His work with Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan are some personal favorites of the latter.) I’ve brought him up here, here, and here (w. the Blues Brothers), among others. As for his time with The Blues Brothers, his bat-out-of-hell solo on “Going Back to Miami” is one of my favorite solos to this day. Bringing it full circle, taken from Standing in the Shadows of Motown, here’s a hard-to-beat recording of Tom Scott with Gerald Levert and The Funk Brothers performing Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun” (in a different key). (When I learned years ago about a Funk Bros. documentary that also included Tom Scott, I had to get it. Highly recommended, particularly if you’re not familiar with The Funk Brothers by name, though you certainly already are by ear.)

(To bring it full circle in another manner, Tom Scott played with the aforementioned Ernie Watts in the GRP Big Band, which I also referenced in my last post.)

LeRoi Moore
Roi. What is there to say that hasn’t been already discussed? In short, I disqualified him from the primary list above because of when I started listening to him. I know I heard DMB before 1996’s Crash was released, but not in a way that stuck out to me too strongly. I got Crash the year it came out and was immediately hooked. I listened to that album several times daily for months after I bought it, and Roi’s solo on the studio cut of “#41” was the first saxophone solo I remember really obsessing over. I could sing it from memory. I found his playing so refreshing. Here was a saxophonist playing with a rock band who succumbed neither to the rhythm-and-blues pyrotechnics nor the jazz trappings. After that, the rest is history. Go here for arguably my favorite Moore saxophone solo, with a short flute solo as an appetizer. The opening lick from that solo was one of the first things I transcribed after I started getting into jazz and improvising.

Dick Parry
Similar to Roi, I disqualified Parry because of getting into Pink Floyd (with whom he most notably played) at a later age—around the time I got into DMB, actually. It’d be a couple more years still until I bought a Pink Floyd album, but the classic rock station was part of my sonic diet at this point, and I knew his tenor solo on “Money” well. I doubt I noticed such qualities early on, but eventually I found that Parry’s rhythm-and-blues style (a la Walker, etc.) is an odd fit, stylistically and sonically, with Pink Floyd. I mean, it ultimately works within the songs in question (“Money,” “Us and Them,” “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pt. 1),” etc.), but his approach is a bit of an anachronism when compared with the albums at large (The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, etc.). Still, he left an impression.