Five Tenor Saxophone Performances that Changed Jazz

The tenor saxophone has enjoyed a position of honor in the lexicon of jazz solos. Initially being celebrated in the tradition of Kansas City- jam session, riff-tune, solo all night, tunes the tenor quickly become a unique solo voice in jazz. The following five performances set that course in motion, guided it, and provided its evolutionary fuel. Of course this list is arbitrary, it is opinion, feel free to add yours and chime in on the most influential performances of the tenor saxophone.


1. Coleman Hawkins - Body and Soul - 1939

From the very first statement of the melody, this performance is in a league of its own. Perhaps it is the way Hawkins balances disparities: a tone that is both sweet and husky, and performance that is as tender and lyric as it is virtuous and technical. A melodic performance that is rooted in tradition and highly improvised. This solo literally set the template for how jazz musicians approached ballads for years to come.



2. Ben Webster - Cottontail - 1940

Duke Ellington's career is full of not just peaks, but entire ranges of mountains. One of those ranges was the early 1940's when Ben Webster was a featured voice in the band. Everything about Cottontail is a gem from the opening statement of the melody to the way the Ben Webster is "introduced" with a shorter A-section, to the saxophone soli, and brass shout chorus. And of course, there is Ben's solo driving, lyrical, melodic, it is everything a jazz solo should be and yet Webster is relatively economical by squeezing everything into two choruses.


Solo @ 0:29


3. Sonny Rollins - St. Thomas - 1956

Anytime the concept of thematic or motivic improvisation is brought up, Rollins solo on St. Thomas is the shining example. This Album, and St. Thomas in particular, set Rollins apart from other improvisers of his time in the way that he constructed solos around short musical themes sometimes, as is the case with St. Thomas, only involving two notes.



4. Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins - Eternal Triangle - 1957

There is a legend here that prior to the recording date Dizzy Gillespie called Sonny Stitt to discuss some of the specifics. Then, informed Stitt that Rollins seemed to be taking the aspect of a Tenor Battle to a whole new level, that he was "loaded for bear." After that phone call, he called Rollins and basically said the same thing regarding Stitt. So with the flames of rivalry clearly stoked these two titans of the tenor entered the studio. The entire album is superb, but the tenor battle that was orchestrated over Eternal Triangle stands above all other tracks and may be one of the better recorded examples of the famed cutting contests that occurred some decades earlier!


5. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, 1965

Beyond being one of the most influential recordings on tenor saxophone, or one of the most influential recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme is a transcendent album and is widely considered one of the most influential albums of all-time. Coltrane embarks on his greatest endeavor connecting music to the spiritual side of humanity. This four-part work set the course fo the remainder of Coltrane's career as well as the direction of jazz.


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