The secrets of sax appeal

A horn's raucous history - and one man's passion



The Devil's Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool

Michael Segell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 324 pages

In his historical and deeply personal tribute to the saxophone, author Michael Segell explores the instrument's mysteries through the people who have played and loved it, from its Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax, through contemporary masters such as Sonny Rollins and David Murray.

Many who have tangled with the instrument have commented on its near-human characteristics: its curved, sensuous lines, its unpredictable temperament, and an acoustic flexibility that enables the player to sing and even speak through the horn with a distinctive voice.

These qualities are a persistent theme of this book, which will reward and surprise readers who may have thought they knew something about the horn simply because they've spent a lifetime listening.

Fortunately for the reader, Segell, a freelance writer who weaves through the book his own adventures in horn playing, has the descriptive powers to express what musicians and fans have, perhaps subliminally, found so alluring.

"Lush, rich long tones morph into gurgling screams and hoarse wails, which in turn coalesce into terse runs of harmonic improvisation," Segell writes of Pharoah Sanders, the avant-garde tenor player. "His vocabulary is unique: somehow he manages to play high and low notes simultaneously."

Lee Konitz, an alto player whose sound is as refined as Sanders' is earthy, says the horn "is basically like a megaphone that you sing through. So why would you want to sing like someone else?"

Rollins, who is said to tell a story with every note he plays, speaks of reaching a zone of virtuosity where he's not sure if he's playing the horn or vice versa.

Murray says that, of all the saxophones, the tenor is closest to the human body. "Have you ever put on earplugs and listened to your inner self?" he asks. "The pounding of your heart, the fluids flowing through your body? The tenor has something to do with that, it's close to the body's pitch."

As Segell points out, some saxophonists spend years searching for the horn - be it a Selmer Mark VI or a vintage Conn "Naked Lady" - that best suits their personality and technique. More frustrating is the search for the right mouthpiece, a tapered barrel made of plastic, rubber, metal or wood that many regard as the fundamental determinant of sound.

Readers can learn how a mouthpiece's subtle angles and shadings affect the reed's vibration, which happens several hundred times a second within the space of a few millimeters.

Not everyone will follow Segell's explanation of mouthpiece physics, but he makes it easy to understand what he calls "the collective agony" of saxophonists who hunt, often in vain, for the perfect mouthpiece or make adjustments that can turn disastrous.

"When John Coltrane, who practiced obsessively, once made a minor alteration to his favorite mouthpiece of the moment and ruined it, he couldn't bring himself to play for weeks," writes Segell.

Whether Adolphe Sax anticipated the magic of his creation is open to question. One of Europe's top instrument designers of the mid-19th century, he set out to meld a clarinet's delicacy, a stringed instrument's flexibility and a brass instrument's, well, brassiness.

He succeeded beyond his dreams, but his invention caused him endless heartache. Rivals stole his tools and claimed his invention as their own. They may have been behind a fire that destroyed his workshop and a bomb that blew up his bed - happily, before he had gotten inside.

Though musicians, repairmen and inventors populate Segell's tale, the book's main character is the instrument, which found itself repeatedly at the center of political intrigue and musical innovation. Banned by France's Second Republic and by Hitler and Stalin, the sax nonetheless insinuated itself into one musical idiom after another - military and dance music, ragtime, swing, bebop, jump blues, rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll.

By his own admission, Segell is "saxo-centric." He has a tendency to ignore the roles played by other key instruments such as the trumpet, which, at the lips of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Bix Beiderbecke, reigned supreme during the jazz explosion of 1920s Chicago.

Segell never lets us forget that the sax won his heart, so we forgive his excesses. His italicized accounts of learning the horn may seem self-indulgent at first but are ultimately charming, and they convey in faux real-time the instrument's powerful hold on those who play it.

In one of his last entries, he writes: "I'm singing through this crazy brass medium just the way I've read about, the harmonics are perfect, and it's utterly glorious. That familiar warm flush creeps over me, the godhead winking a dazzle of light, jazzing every endorphin in my head ...

"Every day, this thing finds a way to strengthen its grip on me. It really is like being madly in love."

Jonathan Bor covers medicine for The Sun and writes about books related to music.

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