Breaking Free From the Legendary Saxmen

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The saxophone has produced so many powerful and influential jazz figures--from Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane--that it's a bit hard to accept the dearth of similarly dominant artists active today. (Rollins, who will be 69 in September, is still doing first-rate work, but it largely consists of ruminative excursions through familiar territory.)

There are, nonetheless, benefits to the existence of a relatively wide-open playing field--primarily the opportunity for imaginative jazz artists to pursue their own visions, unencumbered by the omnipresence of a musically commanding stylist. Here are a few who are staking out their own territory:

Soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom has been following a determinedly individual path for the past two decades. Like Steve Lacy, she is one of the rare performers concentrating solely on her instrument without making occasional forays into the lower-pitched alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. "The Red Quartets" (***, Arabesque) positions her in a particularly felicitous setting, accompanied by a marvelously empathetic trio consisting of frequent associate Fred Hersch on piano, with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Bobby Previte. Typically, the album roves across areas that appeal to Bloom's inquisitive musical mind, with passages recalling Philip Glass, a witty emulation of Thelonious Monk, and a number of originals filled with her characteristically interval-leaping melodies (many a bit reminiscent of Eric Dolphy) and fascinating use of Doppler effects produced by passing her horn rapidly past the microphone. But Bloom is equally appealing in the CD's two standards--"Time After Time" and "How Deep Is the Ocean"--performing with a feeling for tone and color that makes the most of the soprano's timbral qualities.

Kenny Garrett won the 1999 best alto sax player awards in both the Jazziz and Jazz Times magazine readers polls. The former Miles Davis sideman has a long string of solo albums behind him, ranging from a John Coltrane tribute to funk-driven, pop-tinged outings. "Simply Said" (***, Warner Bros.) follows the path of his eclectic "Songbook," with a program of originals balancing some surprisingly sweet, melodic themes with straight ahead blowing and a few foot-tapping, riff-driven tunes. Garrett's playing adapts comfortably to each of the pieces--laid-back and velvety smooth in the ballads, riff-happy in the funk tunes (including a bit of rap) and brilliantly inventive in the up-tempos. Still, he stretches into the edgy, outside playing most often associated with his work only on a few pieces. And, amazingly, several of the tracks are easygoing and accessible enough to have a shot at smooth-jazz radio airplay.

With nearly 50 albums, years of critical support and a credit as co-founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, David Murray has been, for years, one of the most adventurous musicians of his generation. To his credit, he has never been content to simply crank out another set of tunes in repetitious circumstances. Last year, he recorded "Creole" in Guadeloupe, and 1997's "Fo Deuk Revue" was rooted in African rhythms.

His latest album, "Speaking in Tongues" (***, Justin Time), dips into his own roots. The pieces are both compelling and, on occasion, filled with surprises. Vocalist Fontella Bass adds her twisting, turning, gospel-drenched lines to five of the tracks--especially a hypnotic "Don't Know What I Would Do" and the stunning "A Closer Walk With Thee." "Amazing Grace" is transformed into a rocking funk piece featuring Murray's bass clarinet. And "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" features Bass' vocal underscored by a shuffling New Orleans rhythm, interspersed with solos from Murray and trumpeter Hugh Ragin and the electric feeling of a spontaneous jam. In the midst of all these disparate elements, Murray abandons none of his avant-garde techniques, and it is testimony to his skill as a leader and an improviser that he somehow manages to mold everything into an irrepressibly entertaining package.

One might have expected the release of an album featuring alto saxophonist Greg Osby and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano--two of the '90s most high-visibility players--to have its own irresistible qualities. And there is indeed some fine individual playing in "Friendly Fire" (** 1/2, Blue Note). But the basic jam session format of theme statement followed by solos, occasionally interspersed with joint improvising, simply fails to sustain interest for the entire album. In a number of cases--Eric Dolphy's "Serene," Ornette Coleman's "Broadway Blues," Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Mood," Lovano's "Idris" and Osby's "Alexander the Great"--the themes are as intriguing as the soloing. And the overall results suggest the Osby and Lovano--instead of producing the album themselves--might well have benefited from the presence of a presumably more objective, independent producer.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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