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)
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.
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.)
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.
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.