It’s Bird, It’s Trane, It’s Saxophone

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

The saxophone hardly needs advocates. Jazz would be impoverished without it. One of the greatest musicians, in any genre, of the past 50 years was saxophonist John Coltrane. President Clinton plays the sax.

But none of that, not even when you factor in a Charlie Parker or a particular current favorite of mine, the rarefied Steve Lacy, means much to classical music. Most music for classical saxophone has been lightweight. The standard repertory includes nothing for solo saxophone. No classical saxophonist has ever become a major star.

There are many reasons for this, but the main one is probably that classical music simply got it wrong--and jazz and popular music got it right--when it comes to appreciating what the saxophone does best. Invented by Adolphe Sax in Brussels in the mid-19th century, the saxophone was designed for military bands as a blend of the reedy sound of the clarinet and the might of brass instruments. The result is a powerful, dexterous woodwind with a timbre, both sweet and raucous, all its own.

Band musicians (John Philip Sousa was the first composer to make the sax really popular) and jazz players have always appreciated the sax’s hybrid nature, its honk as well as its honey. In classical music, the French and Russians were the most attracted to the new instrument (the saxophone is the only major new acoustic instrument of the past 150 years) but mainly for its suave, golden lyricism. The best known saxophone concerto is a slight one by Glazunov. Debussy wrote a lovely miniature rhapsody for sax and orchestra only because he was commissioned by a Boston surgeon whose wife took up the instrument for therapeutic reasons. Ravel featured the saxophone in “Bolero.” Webern surprisingly used it in a severe quartet.


But only lately has classical music explored the saxophone with anything approaching jazz’s creativity, as four new CDs demonstrate. In three out of the four cases, it’s thanks to determined saxophonists who not only have hounded composers for new material but who also have developed the instrument in ways that get composers thinking. And while much of the music, or its inspiration, is American, the saxophonists are all European.

The most radical of the new breed is a young performer, improviser and composer from Berlin, Ulrich Krieger, whose first CD on an American label is “Walls of Sound” (00 Discs). Krieger has a particularly lively mind and a riveting technique, and he takes the saxophone places it has never been before. Not even the most experimental of the jazz players, say Albert Ayler or Anthony Braxton, have come close to producing the extraordinary sounds found on this recording of four pieces by American composers.

In one of them, “Saxony” by James Tenney, Krieger overdubs soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones adding up a harmonic series to create a room-filling resonance that feels like what would happened if the Notre Dame bell chamber was filled not by ringing bells but resounding saxophones. This is the kind of CD that makes one want to run out and buy the biggest, most ostentatious speakers in the showroom.

At the opposite extreme, but not quite so opposite as it seems at first, is the playing of the Swiss virtuoso, Marcus Weiss, on his CD “Conquest of Melody” (hatART). Weiss’ starting point is the Second Viennese school, and, joined by a host of colleagues, he includes the Webern Quartet, Opus 22. Also on the disc is Stefan Wolpe’s Quartet for Trumpet, Saxophone, Piano and Percussion, which was written in the early 1950s by the German emigre composer who found equal (and at the time remarkable) inspiration in Webern and jazz.


Weiss’ playing is the epitome of the clean continental style, a sound smooth as butter with only a trace of the vibrato-laden syrup typical of French and Russian saxophone music. The CD opens with a fascinating transcription of Elliott Carter’s short, recent solo oboe piece, “Inner Song,” written in memory of Wolpe (who died in 1972), in which the saxophone’s tonal richness and Weiss’ exceptional ability to nearly match the oboe in elaborate melodic tracery is altogether winning.

Both discs feature one of John Cage’s rare pieces for saxophone, “Four5,” which was written for four saxophones in 1991, and how different it sounds in these two versions and contexts. For Weiss (and his colleagues), it is delicate, abstract music, the end result of the musical modernism begun by Webern. For the hipper Krieger, who does massive overdubbing of all the parts to create his trademark wall of sound, Cage is just the starting point for exploring lavish and spectacular sonic masses, which are also the essence of interesting pieces by Joseph Celli and Phil Niblock on the disc.

Saxophones are most common in the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone sizes--although there are also sopranino and bass saxes--and make fine quartets. The most notable such ensemble today is the Rascher Quartet, which premieres much new music, including Philip Glass’ Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, which has now been recorded (Nonesuch). Glass follows the French tradition of writing for the saxophone as a smooth instrument, but there is a moody, dark side to his music and the saxes make it seem like sophisticated, burnished jazz. The melodies are attractive, and the performance compelling. The concerto is joined by Glass’ Symphony No. 2, a big, burly, almost Brucknerian score, and only the symphony is listed on the front of the CD.

If the saxophone is not as popular as the electric guitar with today’s rebellious young composers, that is, of course, because most young composers grow up with rock, not jazz. However, Mark-Anthony Turnage, the brash British composer of loud and brilliant orchestral music and the successful opera “Greek,” turns to lurid, gritty urban jazz for his raw 68-minute suite “Blood on the Floor.”


The packaging of this Argo CD, which features the German new music group Ensemble Modern along with sax, guitar and drum soloists, shocks and disturbs with images of blood and needles and distorted photographs of Turnage. But that is what the music is like. The jazz influence is overt, a complicated, intellectual jazz that is inventively orchestrated, thrilling and thrill-seeking. The saxophone (played by Martin Robertson) is integrated into the ensemble, but one solo, “Junior Addict,” is a smoky, bluesy ballad any jazz composer would be proud of.

Yet the American wing of PolyGram, which releases Argo, is not proud at all. This recording is for Europe only, available here as a high-priced and rare special import only. It appears that the saxophone and what it stands for still has to fight the classical establishment, which can be particularly fearful and censorious in America.