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MUSIC REVIEW : West Coast Quartet Celebrates the Saxophone

The saxophone’s starring role in jazz and pop has sometimes tended to limit the perspective on this amazingly versatile instrument. In fact, it has appeared frequently in the concert orchestra for nearly a century, and the repertory of ensemble and solo literature--small in pre-World War II years--has begun to grow dramatically in the last two decades.

Sunday afternoon, at Santa Monica’s bright and cheery Back on Broadway Restaurant, the West Coast Saxophone Quartet--an 8-year-old ensemble dedicated to the presentation of a kaleidoscopic blend of saxophone music--provided a convincing glimpse of how eclectic the instrument can be.

Performing a benefit concert for the Office of the Americas (a nonprofit group whose professed goal is the principle of self-determination in Latin America), the ensemble played a set of pieces ranging from pop standards to concert quartet music.

The most successful works were those which directly dealt with the idiomatic qualities of the saxophone: Eugene Bozza’s Andante and Scherzo, the Scherzino from Paul Creston’s Suite For Saxophone Quartet, Phil Woods’ Improvisations for Sax Quartet.

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The Woods work, in particular, stretched the limits of instrumental technique while still retaining the inner movement and thematic development characteristic of good quartet writing. It is surely no accident that Woods is one of the world’s finest saxophonists, but his skills as a composer are a relatively new and impressive development in his career.

The Quartet’s playing was steady, if not always at the highest performance level. Woods’ piece, for example, caused far too many interactive miscues.

But leader and soprano saxophonist Phil Sobel exerted a strong if subtle influence upon the other musicians (Leo Potts on alto, Mark Costner on tenor, and Christopher Bleth on baritone) which for the most part resulted in a superlative display of concert saxophone playing.


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