Sax Appeal Everything you ever wanted to know . . . without having to ask

January 15, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Normally, when a presidential candidate turns up on television to blow his own horn, it's no big deal. That's what voters expect a candidate to do. But when then-Gov. Bill Clinton showed up at "The Arsenio Hall Show" to blow an actual horn -- a tenor saxophone -- America watched with amazement.

Never mind that his tone was flabby and his phrasing was, as one reviewer politely put it, "rhythmically challenged." What excited the folks at home was that Clinton was honking away on a genuinely hip instrument (and playing an Elvis tune, to boot). In the context of presidential musicality, where musical talent usually extends no further than playing show tunes on the piano, Clinton came across as downright funky.

No wonder, then, that the saxophone has become the symbol of Clintonite cool. And so, to help you keep up with the tenor of the times, here's everything you always wanted to know about sax (but were afraid to ask).

Man behind the horn

Belgian-born Adolphe Sax was the man behind the horn. A talented maker of band instruments, he already had a hit of sorts in his saxhorn, a family of brass instruments that prefigured the cornets and baritone horns of modern marching bands, but felt that there should be a reed instrument capable of bridging the gap between the clarinets and the lower brass. Working at his Paris workshop, he developed the saxophone in the 1840s, and was granted a French patent in 1846.

Hector Berlioz described Sax's new 'phone as looking like someone had taken the mouthpiece off a bass clarinet and jammed it onto an ophicliede (a keyed bugle modern musicians can't even pronounce, much less play). Historians believe this was meant as a compliment.

There are seven voices in the saxophone family, but only four turn up regularly: Soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. The tiny sopranino sax (tuned a fourth higher than the soprano) and massive bass sax (which stands four feet tall) are relatively exotic saxes, while the world's supply of contrabass saxophones (6 feet tall and blessed with a bottom reaching a full octave below the baritone) barely reaches into the dozens. There also used to be something called the C-melody saxophone -- Bix Beiderbecke's sax man, Frankie Trumbauer, played one -- but it faded away with the Coolidge administration.

Telling them all apart is fairly easy, once you learn to identify

primary and secondary sax characteristics.

* SOPRANO: Even though some curved sopranos exist, most are long and straight, looking rather like a big, brass clarinet. Its tone can be sweet and high, but jazz players tend to go for a slightly nasal sound, which makes the soprano seem like a more muscular oboe. Sidney Bechet, the first jazz saxophonist of note, was a soprano man, as is Clinton-favorite Kenny G. Also, alto and tenor saxophonists often double on soprano, like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis.

* ALTO: By far the most popular saxophone, alto is the horn of Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and David Sanborn. Classically curved, it is distinguished from the tenor sax by its smaller size and straight neck, which juts at a 30-degree angle from the instrument's body. The alto sound is light and dry; think of Paul Desmond's tart presentation of "Take Five" with Dave Brubeck, or Phil Woods' feathery solo in Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are." But it can also have quite an edge, as Sanborn's squalling counterpoint in David Bowie's "Young Americans" makes plain.

* TENOR: This is the powerhouse of the sax family, larger than the alto, and with a neck curved like an angle-pose lamp. The President-elect plays one, and so did Prez -- legendary Basie saxophonist Lester Young. Back during the Big Band era, tenor men tended to go for a round, mellifluous tone softened with vibrato (think of Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians). But once bluesy bruisers like Illinois Jacquet and Red Prysock came into fashion, tough tenors became all the rage. That's why the sounds most associated with this horn today tend to be big and beefy, from King Curtis' honking break in the Coasters' "Yackety Yak" to Jr. Walker's frenzied scream in "Shotgun," to Clarence Clemmons' epic wail in Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland."

* BARITONE: Big and gruff, the baritone is at the low end of any sax section, and on the short end of saxophone popularity. Much bigger than the others, its bell is often almost as long as its body, and its neck looks like the trap at the bottom of a sink. That's not to say the instrument is without heroes; Gerry Mulligan plays the baritone, and so does Lisa Simpson. Usually, the baritone's role is more rhythmic than melodic, as with the stuttering basso grunts that punctuate any Tower of Power horn arrangement. Still, baritone soloists do occasionally have their moments of glory, as with Mike Terry's gruff, swinging solo on the Four Tops' "It's Same Old Song," or Steve Douglas' growling break in the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron."

Sexy sax

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