5 players I’m listening to at the moment. (and what I’m taking from them).
Updated: May 15, 2019
I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while, so some of the players I list here are not in my playlist at present, though I do revisit them from time to time. A while back I tried keeping a listening journal. It was a good practice while it lasted. It gave me the opportunity to really chew on the sounds I liked and didn’t. Whilst writing this post I was reminded of that habit and think I’ll make the commitment again.
This list is limited to saxophone players only (in no particular order) for ease of shortlisting. I consider all the artists and tracks influential to my work at the moment and hope you’ll take something from them too.
If you like this post and have any thoughts or listening suggestions, feel free to drop them in the comments below (you'll need to sign-up with an email address first).
1. Ben Wendel, The Seasons (2018) – March
This album is on repeat in the house at the moment. Is a beautiful narrative of intricate melodies and explosive performances that weave into and out of one another to form a complete cycle through 12 months. My favourite listen is track 3, March which starts on a cyclical piano motif based around a static harmonic centre. Ben Wendel’s (ts) tone is lush, wide and breathy (like a romantic landscape). With it he knows how to do very little and to do little well. His delivery of this simple melody is resonant and filled with emotion. This track is rich, delicate and delightful, with a sneaky element of curiosity that shows itself every now and then. All this builds up eventually to Ben’s solo in the outro, during which he really takes his time to dance over the lush bed of textures laid down by Gilad Hekselman (g) and Aaron Parks (p).
2. Walter Smith III, Live in Paris (2009) – Aroca
Whenever I hear Walter Smith III (ts) I’m immediately taken by the clarity and confidence of his delivery and execution. He works very intentionally through ideas, whether in the translation of a written melody or through improvisation. This recording is incredibly present and hangs together very loosely by a spiritual energy on the record, particularly notable between Ambrose Akinmusire (composer + tp) and Walter Smith III. It’s one of the few live recordings that doesn’t sound like a barrage of chops (although there’s a lot of that too). The rhythm section (Marcus Gilmore – drums, Matt Brewer, bass and Aaron Goldberg, piano) is incredibly hip and responsive to the evolving landscape of the tune with their collective contributions throughout. It’s clear that they’re really, really listening to one another. Walter doesn’t hold back on the solo which is also deeply aware and present. He explores a variety of ideas through deliberate rhythmic displacement and a subtle interplay of space and sound. Through the entire arc of the solo, he’s present and aware, listening to the idea that’s just passed through the horn and leaving enough space for the next.
3. Marcus Strickland’s Twi-life, Nihil Novi (2016) – Sissoko’s Voyage
This tune is a tip of the hat to Malian kora player Bazoumana Sissoko. The track sits tightly in the pocket, such that when I listen to it I always picture myself walking, likely bouncing over this 5/4 rhythm underpinned by Meshell Ndegeocello’s tight bassline (and generous deviations from it). The unison melody delivered by Marcus Strickland (ts) and Keyon Harrold (tp) similarly dances over the sparse rhythm section. The solos somewhat come as a surprise after the repeated melody. Halfway through the track you’d almost think there weren’t any. But when they do arrive they’re short and waste no time getting to the point. Marcus follows an improvised setup by Keyon Herrold. His phrases are incisive with a clear link between melodic ideas in form and content. His tone and expression is texturally linked to the overall sound and groove strongly underpinned by the bass and guitar.
4. Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Yakhal Inkomo (1968) – Dedication
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with the late Winston Mankunku Ngozi (ts) over the past few weeks. As a saxophone player in South Africa, listening to Winston is a staple and despite being told many times over as a teenager to check out Winston, only recently do I feel as if I’m ready to develop the connection. This tune is a dedication to Wayne Shorter and Coltrane. It is a 1960s spiritual meditation on a brotherhood across the Atlantic delivered with a vigour, prowess and tone that only Winston could. The complex pentatonic based melody is built over an extended call-and-response blues form. The cyclical arrangement is the foundation for his solo, in which he emulates a ritual conversation with a higher self through his acute awareness of space and form. It is a masterpiece that I deeply respect.
5. Nubya Garcia, Nubya’s 5ve (2017), Contemplation
It’s difficult to pick a tune off Nubya Garcia’s debut EP (2017) as the listening experience for me is really start to end, however, Contemplation (McCoy Tyner) stands out as an exemplary recording that personifies her approach toward improvisation and the tenor saxophone. This is a vivid departure from the clear-cut linear approach to improvisation so popular on the NY scene (see Ben Wendel above) and it stands on its own as a work of spirited intensity and higher logic. Nubya pulls no punches and whilst her lines may not all be as crisp as other contemporary saxophone players, they are definitely backed by a clear narrative intent, which is always connected, folding and unfolding. She takes this tune in paces and to many places.