165 years after Belgian musician-inventor Adolphe Sax first presented his brass-woodwind hybrid instrument to the world, and 18 years since the birth of the format which would become smooth jazz, the saxophone reigns as the most iconic, identifiable and popular sound in both the traditional and contemporary realms. Four of the genre’s top sax-playing veterans think they know why — and all come up with the same essential answer.
“I heard a gentleman say once that it is the instrument closest to the human voice, and there’s definitely something to that,” says Najee. “There’s a flexibility in its sound that allows it to adapt to the personality of the player. We all go through our time of imitation, and I could play some of the things that David Sanborn did on alto, Grover Washington, Jr. played on soprano and Michael Brecker hit on tenor, but at the end of the day, I still play like Najee.”
In the late 80s, building upon the groundwork laid by Washington and Sanborn, Najee was one of the first players to hit paydirt by floating sweet soprano melodies over funky R&B rhythms. His Grammy nominated 1986 debut Najee’s Theme and Day By Day both sold platinum; while his star has dimmed slightly since then, he sees his diverse Heads Up debut My Point of View as a way to reconnect with old fans and perhaps gain a few new ones as well.
“The sax creates a distinctive mood in many different genres of music besides jazz, including Latin, pop, rock and R&B,” he adds. “These days, with radio programming so formulaic, when people have heard it all, the only way to stand out is having a personality tied to the instrument. There’s a reason people run out and buy the latest Sanborn CD after he’s been away for a few years. Whatever the trappings, they know his voice.”
Euge Groove, a road warrior with pop icons like Tina Turner and Joe Cocker who launched his solo career in 2000, agrees that the notes he plays on sax have a similar vibration to that of the vocal cords. “I think what excites me as a musician and fans of the sax in general is the wide palette the horn offers. The soprano has a light and feminine sound, and the alto and tenor are more husky and aggressive. I enjoy the different degrees of tension release and the opportunity to express myself. Looking back through the traditions of jazz, I think the sax was big because of its sheer volume in the days before we had P.A.s for amplification. It was the loudest instrument in the room!”
Groove’s latest Narada Jazz offering Just Feels Right offers a playful sense of history that fans who grew up when he did in the 70s will appreciate. Tired of the endless series of “programmed tracks, programmed shakers and high hats and those other artificially bright sounds in smooth jazz,” he invoked the “Spirit of ’76” and created an organic recording using only real instruments and vintage recording gear from the era before our Bicentennial. Catching his reference to “Afternoon Delight” in the liner notes will bring as big a smile to the listener’s face as the Rhodes and Wurlitzer harmonies he plays behind his feisty tenor on “Get ‘Em Goin’.”
“I wanted to get back to the human side of making records,” Groove says. “I figured out why I liked those sax records I was listening to 20 and 30 years ago. Pulling out Sanborn’s Taking Off, Grover’s Mister Magic and Stanley Turrentine’s Mr. T, I was struck by the emotion they put into those. They weren’t slick and they didn’t take out every flaw. The vibe was good, and they weren’t afraid of radio programmers telling them to keep the songs short. Plus the human interaction of musicians jamming together in the studio was awesome. Sonically speaking, they weren’t as bright but you could hear every instrument.”
Eric Marienthal is one of contemporary jazz’s most adaptable sax voices, best known for his associations with Lee Ritenour, Chick Corea, David Benoit and The Rippingtons; he released his first solo album in 1988. “The sax has an emotional connection to people that runs deeper than piano and guitar ever could,” he says. “I can pick up the same horn and same reed one day and it’ll sound one way based on how I feel. If I’m in a different mood the next day, it’ll sound totally different.”
Funny he should mention “mood,” as his softly candlelit take on “Moody’s Mood For Love” (based on James Moody’s famed 1949 improvisation of “I’m In The Mood For Love”) is the most personal statement of many on the saxman’s third Peak Records release, Got You Covered! While the album title may invoke responses of “no more covers, please!”, Marienthal will quickly win skeptics over with a brilliant, stylistically challenging sweep through music history — tackling everyone from Bach and Sinatra to Gipsy Kings, The Beatles and Billy Joel (“New York State of Mind”). Refreshingly, his approach is even more organic than Groove’s, a mostly one and two take live in the studio date with Russell Ferrante, Dave Carpenter, Peter Erskine, Luis Conte and some of album producer Russ Freeman’s most dazzling and intimate guitar work ever.
Before Kirk Whalum — celebrating two decades since his Bob James-produced debut Floppy Disk — delves into the issue of his own incredible success doing cover songs admidst a catalog of very personal original recordings, he chimes in on the technical side of the sax/human voice issue. “The sax’s dynamics and flexibility match the inflections of the voice, the way you can attack and release, and bend notes,” he says. “You play a single note with a more personal stamp than you can on piano or guitar. This is my issue with the homogenization of smooth jazz now, finding players who create a distinguishable voice. In the eras gone by, how many notes did it take you to figure out that it was Lester Young, Dexter Gordon… let’s go back to Sidney Bechet. When I hear my peers and fans say they can recognize my sound, I know that just like my speaking voice, it’s my own unique gift from God.”
In 1998, Whalum at first resisted then Warner Bros. executive Matt Pierson’s overture to balance the release of his first gospel album with For You, an album of all classic R&B covers; the album’s monstrous commercial and artistic success made Whalum’s current project, Kirk Whalum Performs The Babyface Songbook (his debut for the Dave Koz co-owned label Rendezvous Entertainment) a playful and engaging no brainer, with Pierson behind the boards.
“Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds’ songs have defined the cooler side of R&B music for more than a decade, and I really enjoy balancing my more innovative and spiritual projects with being an interpreter celebrating great songwriting in ways people haven’t heard before,” he says. “I take both very seriously, as did my musical idols like Miles and Coltrane. If smooth jazz artists only do covers, then we’re taking a serious step backward, but if we do them on occasion in such a way that celebrates the composer, then we’re carrying on a classic jazz tradition.”
1) Jimmy Sommers, A Holiday Wish (Gemini Records) – Like Rod Stewart tackling the Great American Songbook, the saxman best known for his crackling urban grooves takes a gloriously romantic chill pill on this crisply arranged, lushly produced Christmas date, recorded live in the studio with some of L.A.’s top jazz musicians. The best holiday sax this year.
2) Alex Wurman, March Of The Penguins Score (Milan)
3) Wicked Original Broadway Cast Recording (Decca)
4) Carole King, The Living Room Tour (Rockingale/Concord/Hear)
5) Maceo Parker, School’s In (BHM Productions)
New And Noteworthy
1) Marc Antoine, Modern Times (Rendezvous Music)
2) David Benoit, Orchestral Stories (Peak Records)
3) Warren Hill, Pop Jazz (Native Language)
4) Gregg Karukas, Looking Up (Trippin’ N Rhythm)
5) Kyle Eastwood, Paris Blue (Rendezvous)