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The Saxophone

Article from International Musician & Recording World, May 1985

Music's most beautiful instrument has recently seen something of a renaissance. Richard Walmsley talks to some current saxophonists

The orchestral purists hated it, the Jazz fraternity loved it, and now the sax is back. Five top players blow the gaff...

"There's been a revolution in music, huh? You're telling me that you've got the whole of the LSO in that box, and that if I could see sound waves they'd look like what's on this telly? You're saying that if I fed my horn into that machine you could tame and control it with one finger? Now hold on. I like this horn. It may not look much to you but we've been through a lot of hard times together."

And so it goes on, the eternal battle between the old and the new, the boy with the DMX versus the old man with the spoons, LFO versus LSO, Trevor Horn versus Funky horn. Folks, this week I've been investigating the world of the saxophonist to see what part he plays in the revolution, and to find out the state of his art and how he lives.

People start playing the saxophone for many reasons. Wayne Shorter claims that he liked it because it was shiny and glittered like a Christmas tree. Stuart Matthewman, lyrical tenor player and co-writer with Sade, took it up for a different reason:

"I got laughed at quite a bit because I used to go to school with a clarinet case. But when I got the sax it was a bit more cool; I didn't get beaten up as much."

Unlike the violin or the piano, the saxophone is an instrument that can be picked up and learnt at almost any age. Larry Stabbins, a tenor player with a wealth of experience in Soul and avant garde Jazz bands, currently playing with Working Week, began playing as soon as he was "big enough to hold the thing." Whilst Steve Norman, sax-symbol (I had to get that one in somewhere) with Spandau Ballet only began playing some four years ago, changing from guitar to give the band a more Soul orientated sound,

Most people can play a tune on the saxophone after a few weeks, and would be able to reach all the notes on the instrument after a year. The challenge is in getting a good sound, and that can take 10 or 15 years. The prospective sax player might question the value of practising until the coming of the millenium, by which time (assuming no worse catastrophe has taken place) the livelihood of the sax man may well have disappeared in a puff of digital circuitry.

Ronnie Ross concentrates mainly on baritone, and is probably best known among IM readers for his baritone solo on Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side. A Jazz player by inclination, he nevertheless earns the greater part of his living from session work and is somewhat concerned by the advance of synth technology.

"They have made a difference to us. I think we've lost a lot of work. But people are going to get fed up with that. Even with a saxophone section of three, it's the individual sound of each instrument and the slight discrepancies in intonation that give it the richness."

"Larry Stabbins: The saxophone is a bastard instrument".

Larry Stabbins is less perturbed by such things:

"The saxophone is a bastard instrument. One of the reasons why it has become the Jazz instrument is because it's mechanically imperfect. All the great sax players have found an individual way of overcoming the problems working against them. At one time Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Albert Ayler all used a Selmer MK VI with an Otto Link mouthpiece, and all sounded completely different. The sound that good sax players have is a very personal thing, and I don't think that can be superceded by electronics because I think people want some sort of personal communication out of music." (In other words stick that in your Emulator and sample it!)

The union has tried to protect the supply of work among session men, using a system whereby if a player is asked to double himself he gets more than double the fee; ie they make it cheaper to book one player per part. But a synth player need not double himself even if he plays the notes of a whole brass section, therefore the threat to session work is a real one, making life harder for session men and for those who would like to get into session work.

Ronnie Ross: "Getting into sessions is really a matter of luck, you just build up your contacts and your reputation, there's no other way around it. It was a lot easier when I first started, but as the economic climate has got worse so has the playing situation; it's got more and more of a closed shop."

"Ronnie Ross: You don't have to go through music college, but it would be a very good idea if you did."

And if your aim is to become a session player, be warned; a high degree of versatility, to say nothing of technique, is demanded these days. Ronnie not only plays all the saxophones bar the bass, he also plays all the clarinets and all the flutes. Conventional training is also becoming more common among younger session players.

Ronnie Ross: "You don't have to go through music college, but it would be a very good idea if you did. A lot of young session players are going through college, then through NYJO, which seems to be quite a spawning ground."

The life is uncertain to say the least. Whilst the minimum union rate of £50 per three hours sound like good money, you've got to bear in mind that there may be long periods when the phone doesn't ring. During the first two months of this year, for instance, there was hardly any studio work.

Ronnie Ross: "When you have a good year you hopefully put some money away, but it never works out like that. Not for me anyway!"

Although Ronnie's baritone playing on the Matt Bianco LP Whose Side Are You On? has attracted much attention, the contributions of session players are often shamefully ignored.

Ronnie Ross: "When I did Walk on the Wild Side I didn't even know who Lou Reed was. That record was issued twice and both times it sold millions. I got £9 for that solo, and disc jockeys used to just play the solo and not the whole record, so that was a complete rip off."

This kind of thing is all in a day's work; there is no point getting upset about it. However the traditional anonymity of the session player does lead to some ironic situations:

Ronnie Ross: "Years after that, I did a TV show with Wayne Sleep and he did Walk on the Wild Side, and I played the baritone solo. The producer stopped me and said 'Can you make it a bit more like the guy on the record?!"

"Stuart Matthewman: Very good session men can play like Sanborn... but I just want to have my own sound."

Funny, huh? Session men get a lot of stick for supposedly being technicians, hired hands etc, but their creativity often forms an indispensable part of the final recording.

Ronnie Ross: "Sometimes they book a saxophone and play you a track and say 'What do you think? You need to play somewhere on the track.' I like it if they've written some sort of guideline down. I mean, they would get into a terrible strop if you asked for a cut for having arranged the track. Sometimes when you do a solo, the producer says 'Keep the bit at the beginning in, then make the next bit a bit faster, then move the bit you did at the end up a bit.' They don't seem to realise that it's meant to be spontaneous."

It is this type of creative constriction that makes players like Larry Stabbins and Stuart Matthewman content to work mainly in bands.

Stuart Matthewman: "Very good session men can play like Sanborn, or do mad solos or forties solos, or whatever the producer wants. But I just want to have my own sound really."

If you were to eavesdrop on a conversation between saxophonists, you'd almost certainly hear the names of David Sanborn and Michael Brecker mentioned. But the influence of these American super session men and their army of clones is not all pervasive.

Stuart Matthewman: "I don't like them at all, because although they're both brilliant Jazz players, they only seem to do what's commercial."

Larry Stabbins: "I'm not very impressed by that super commercial session man mentality, although I've always liked David Sanborn's playing simply because he's got such a beautiful sound."

Both Larry and Stuart cite Junior Walker and King Curtis as great influences, as does Steve Norman:

"Speaking to other sax players, it always seems to be this thing of you must like Coltrane, you must like Charlie Parker. But I get more enjoyment out of listening to Grover Washington and Junior Walker."

It is, of course, in Jazz that the saxophone is king, so how important is a study of Jazz to a player working in more Pop orientated styles? Por Ronnie Ross, Jazz exercises are a more than adequate preparation for anything he might have to read in a session. Conversely, Stuart Matthewman discontinued his Jazz study in search of a more lyrical approach.

Stuart Matthewman: "When you learn through the scales rather than through a Blues or Soul feel, you look at the chords in front of you and you know exactly what notes you can and can't play. But I just hear the chords and hear what I play over it, rather than working it out technically. My favourite sax player is Art Pepper. He wasn't a great technician, and I think he made a conscious decision not to sit down and practise all the scales and modes for so many hours each day. I can't do that either to be quite honest!"

Traditionally most saxophonists are self-taught, and are likely to go on being so as long as the saxophone retains its low down image.

Steve Norman: "I've mainly learnt by ear so far, so I'm probably doing a lot of things technically wrong. But if it sounds good it doesn't bother me."

Larry Stabbins: "I'm not so sure about teaching because I was never taught. I found myself in a Palais band once with a lot of really hard charts in it which I was stumbling over. So for the first six months I'd sit in bed late at night with a pile of this music, tapping out four to a bar with a ruler and singing the rhythms to myself. That was how I learned to read properly. I used to know off by heart every solo on the first three albums that Junior Walker made."

Techniques that would have been considered highly unusual 20 years ago are becoming prerequisites for any player attempting to all-round professional approach to the instrument. The most obvious example is harmonics which are used to extend the upper range of the instrument.

Larry Stabbins: "For every saxophone player it is a normal technique to play harmonics; I think it's mandatory now."

"Steve Norman: I've mainly learnt by ear so far, so I'm probably doing a lot of things technically wrong"

Ironically, a lot of players can actually go higher on the tenor than they can on the alto. This is because harmonics tend to become easier on larger instruments.

Ronnie Ross: "I find harmonics easier on the baritone than on the rest of the saxophone. My range is a fifth above top F, I've never bothered to go higher than that. On any saxophone I think you need to be able to go at least a minor third above your range."

Coltrane used harmonics in very fluid figurations so that you hardly realise he has gone beyond the normal range of the instrument. Junior Walker tends to use them like highballs, suddenly shooting upan octave for effect. Stuart Matthewman uses them in a similar way: "I'm not brilliant at the harmonics, I mean I can't do all the scales on them, but I can hit certain notes that are useful."

For those wishing to get a handle on harmonics the standard tutor available in this country is Eugene Rousseau's High Tones for Saxophone, the study of which not only increases your range but also (so I am reliably informed) improves playing over the whole range of the instrument.

Another very useful technique is circular breathing which enables you to keep a note or a phrase going indefinitely, without having to pause for breath. Anyone who has heard a George Coleman solo will know just how exciting this can be. However, unlike harmonics, it can't really be learnt from a tutor.

Larry Stabbins: "The technique of circular breathing is so simple that it's not something you can actually be taught. Basically you hold a reservoir of air in your mouth and throat, and as you breath in through your nose, you lock off your throat and force the air out of your mouth and the top of your throat. You just work out how to do it and keep practising it without a sax. Then all of a sudden one day you find you can do it, and then you never forget, like learning to swim."

The huge reputation that Yamaha have achieved as instrument manufacturers extends to saxophones these days, with Yamaha saxophones being strong contenders for the favours of top players and session men. Stuart Matthewman uses the classic combination of a Selmer MK VI tenor with a metal Link mouthpiece.

"I didn't know what it was until someone said 'That's a Selmer MK VI, that's great.' I use plastic covered reeds because when I get a reed I like to keep it. If you're blowing a lot with a normal reed you usually have to change it after every other gig."

The Selmer MK VI range has now been discontinued and replaced by the S 80 range, whose prices go from £1200 for the alto, to £2017 for the baritone. Good beginners instruments, such as the East German Meister range, begin at around £300 for an alto, and you could expect to pay about £750 for a new baritone.

Ronnie Ross uses an old Conn baritone which goes down to a D flat. New baritones go down to a C, but most of the good American soloists are still using instruments that only go down to D flat, because the extra tubing on the newer instruments seems to adversely affect the sound as a whole. Ronnie uses a plastic Berg Larson mouthpiece on the baritone, and a metal Berg Larson on the tenor.

"A lot of people use the Dukoff on the tenor because Mike Brecker uses it, but it's very wild; you squeak all over the place."

Steve Norman uses the Buffet (Boosey and Hawkes) Prestige range of instruments, which are made of copper, and are hence very delicate. This type of instrument is much favoured by classical players, so Steve's choice is quite surprising since he aims to produce a very unclassical sound:

"To get the sort of raunchy sound I like on the tenor, I use a metal Link mouthpiece with a wide lay; it's a 2½ reed. I had a really good mouthpiece which fell into my hands, I think it was a Heinmann, and it was 50 years old. It was so old that it almost had barnacles growing off it."

One of the biggest problems facing sax players in bands is miking. Air mikes are still the most successful method as far as sound reproduction goes, but they do bring problems of feedback especially if the sax player wants more level in the monitors. The fact that most sound engineers have been brought up on Heavy Metal guitars doesn't exactly help matters.

Ronnie Ross: "If you have a foldback engineer, the last thing in the world they bother about is the saxophone. It's often hard to hear yourself on stage and you end up blowing much harder so that you know what's happening."

Contact mikes don't seem to provide a solution to the problem either, since they only reproduce the sound of the mouthpiece.

Stuart Matthewman: "When we were doing the support of BB King on the Tube I used a bug on the mouthpiece, and it was a disaster. It sounded great through the PA, but the actual flat sound that went out on the telly was like a comb and paper job."

Speaking to Steve Norman on tour in Vienna, he told me that after some three years of experimentation he has finally perfected his stage miking system:

"I tried lots of bugs and things, and I wasn't getting any level. Now I've found a very small directional Sennheiser mike, and my roadie made a clip so that it goes on about two inches from the end of the bell. Any movement in and it will feed back, and if you were to take it out a bit you wouldn't get any level. I've got a transmitter clipped to my belt and a receiver on stage somewhere, so I've got freedom. On the True tour in the States I was getting radio signals coming over the saxophone signal, so we had to knock that on the head and use a stage mike. We haven't had that problem this time. I think Sennheiser have designed it to bypass all that."

On stage and in a studio sax players face different problems, requiring sometimes a different style of playing.

Larry Stabbins: "When you play live you have to project. A good thing is to play outdoors, because you've got no help. The first time you do it sounds absolutely horrible, but if you work at it for a few days and then go back into a room again you've got this fantastic, enormous sound. A lot of really good session players have a sound that only carries for about three foot, cause that's all it needs to."

Stuart Matthewman: "In the studio you've got to spend quite a lot of time to get the sax to sound real. As well as using reverb, we use a mike in front of the sax, and then another mike at the far end of the room to pick up the ambience."

"Gary Barnacle: Most sax players have a very purist attitude to the instrument; they're in love with the Jazz image"

Few sax players seem to be overly enthusiastic about using effects and electronics in conjunction with their sound. An exception to this is Gary Barnacle, probably best known for his work with Ross Middleton in Leisure Process. Gary has concentrated a great deal on combining his saxophone with the facilities of the synthesizer, and currently does a lot of session work involving these kind of electronics. Another admirer of King Curtis and Junior Walker, Gary uses electronics to build on the big sound that is a hallmark of those two players:

"Eddie Harris was the first to pioneer the use of electronics in conjunction with sax, but no-one seems to give him any credit for it. It's this thing of a black guy does it, then a white guy copies him and takes all the credit for it. He used the Gibson Maestro set up, which was designed by Gibson specifically for use with the sax."

Gary's set up involves taking a signal from a Marcus Berry pickup on the mouthpiece, into a Roland Pitch to Voltage converter. The CV and Gate outputs are then put through an 0P8 interface into the DCB port on a Jupiter 8, thus enabling him to control the oscillators in the Jupiter 8 from his saxophone.

"A lot of people bought the Roland Rack Mounted series which had things like a Dimension D on it. But they never used the pitch to voltage converter, mainly because although it accepts any mono signal, it has to be set up differently for each instrument. It took a long time for me to set it up to work right with my sound."

One would have thought the MIDI would be a godsend to someone like Gary, but so far he has not been able to find a MIDI set up which can translate note bending the way his present set up does; they all seem to work by step. The last time he used the set up live was on tour with Elvis Costello when, using layered type effects on the Jupiter 8, he had to substitute for a whole brass section.

"I don't know of any other sax players who are doing this. If they do, it's generally when I've done a session and they get another guy in after me and ask him to recreate the sound. Most sax players have a very purist attitude to the instrument; they're in love with the Jazz image. A lot of people are into recreating the sound of John Coltrane, and if they keep at it they could probably do it very well. But if Coltrane was alive now, this is what he'd be doing, extending the instrument through all its possibilities."

Well comrade, revolution or not, I think people are still going to carry on blowing, honking and squawking. I am at any rate, so just give me a B flat and then switch that thing off. It does do B flats I suppose?

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - May 1985

Donated by: Neill Jongman



Feature by Richard Walmsley

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> Noise Reduction

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