After 5 action-packed days in Los Angeles, I’m rejuvenated. Yes the beaches were amazing, the sunsets made for beautiful sky porn* (like this shot I took after almost running out of gas just north of Malibu), and the sushi was scrumptious. But even better was the music. All three shows I checked out while visiting were inspiring, so I thought I’d share some crappy iPhone recordings I took.
Ben Wendel Quartet
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty much in love with pretty much anything Ben Wendel. Pretty much. But I had the privilege of hearing him with Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti, and Harish Raghavan at the Blue Whale. Ben’s compositions and playing were tasty, Eric Harland and Taylor Eigsti obviously blew me away, but I was most taken by how elegantly Harish was able to hold everything down on bass.
Preface: The following list represents a group of today’s amazing jazz saxophonists. This is by no means the gold standard, it’s entirely my opinion, and the exact rank order should be taken with an extra-large grain of chunky sea salt; it’s just a guide. There may be 50 other guys who I’ve never heard or I’ve inadvertently omitted who are equally deserving of praise. Regardless, you should still check these fine players out.
The aim is to provide a window into some of the top guys on the scene today.
Sorry, no Charlie Parker here. This is meant to be representative of how each musician is currently playing, which means every individual is living and making incredible music.
Hopefully this helps you discover new artists. If any one of these guys is playing near you, please go check them out!
Seems like every saxophone player today wants to sound like Mark Turner. But who can blame them? With a beautiful sound, mastery of the altissimo, and a full and warm tone that’s consistent throughout the horn, the guy is a gentle giant. In his latest release, Lathe of Heaven, Mark explores new ways of writing for 2 horns and creates a dark, intriguing aura that, after a short period of adjustment, is a delight to listen to. He’s moving the music forward.
Like Tuner, Seamus has a lot of idols. He seems to play as if singing through his horn, soaring through altissimo lines with the same ease that he wails through a funky or bluesy riff.
Walter Smith III
A supremely stylized improviser, Walter develops ideas and explores harmony in a fascinating way.
Ben has his own thing going on, and it’s a pleasure to hear. Like Cannonball Adderley did before him, Ben plays with such conviction that he’s able to mold he harmony to fit whatever insane line he’s concocted. He’s also incorporated extended sax techniques in a very musical manner. Thanks, Ben. I’ll be checking him out tomorrow night at the Blue Whale when I touch down in L.A., come join me if you’re in town!
Potter is truly a saxophonic beast. A master of the saxophone craft, his fluidity across ideas and lines is breathtaking. As a stylist, Potter has blended funk and bop in a manner unseen since the days of Michael Brecker.
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A technical beast, Donny is able to get around the horn as well as anybody on the scene today. His latest writing is compositionally forward-thinking and has some great moments.
Super under-rated, super saxophonist. I think he’s from London originally but now resides in NYC. With a beautiful, warm sound and sense of harmony, this guy really plays the alto!
I just recently saw Redman live, and I was again blown away. His sound has gone from full to slightly brittle over the last 15 or so years, but Josh will still develop ideas, squawk all over the axe, and pay homage to the history of the saxophone better than most anybody in the business. See Yaya3 to hear what I deem his best work ever.
Blah blah shadow of this dad (John Coltrane) blah. Ravi can PLAY. He’s got his own thing going on, and it comes to you with a complimentary side of buttery rich tone an pointed rhythmic angularity.
New Orleans sings through his essence, but Ellis is so much more. An abundance of soul comes through this guy’s horn.
Joel is somewhat underrated, but he’s a true master of the saxophone. I think of him as a more articulate, modern day Hank Mobley. He plays what you want to hear and then surprises you with perfectly packaged little nuggets of harmonic gold.
Great saxophone player with an interesting, angular take on modern jazz.
Extending his reach beyond his Puerto Rican roots, David [Dah-vEEd] has evolved into a rhythmically compelling improviser with one of the most succulent tones on the scene.
Rich plays what he hears, plain and simple. And it’s a joy to see his imagination unfold.
You might not be quite as hip to Ralph’s stuff as some of these other guys, but despite his post-Coltrane/Brecker tendencies, and despite the fact that he is completely still when he plays the horn, Ralph will blow your mind with his accuracy, harmonic vision, and ability to build a beautiful, exhilarating solo. Please, please check out this clip of Ralph building a stupidly good solo over a fast minor tune on Chicago pianist Jim Trompeter’s “Live at the Green Mill” (solo starts at 1:43).
Who’s this youngster? Wait, is that the guy backing Taylor Swift? Yes. And Chad is the real deal. Check out Clarence Penn’s “Monk: the Lost Files,” and you’ll see for yourself. He’s definitely influenced by the likes of Donny McCaslin and Brecker, but he carries a heavy dose of Lefkowitz-Brown as well. Look out for this guy.
Tony is one of the most intuitive and adaptable musicians playing jazz today. Also one of the most chill.
Wayne had to make this list, lest I live in constant fear for my saxophonic credibility. But he’s undoubtedly one of the best bandleaders today. Wayne’s gone just a bit beyond my comfort zone for tonal expansion at this point in his career, but if you can catch him live there are still moments of pure, mind-blowing Wayne.
He’s thinking about how to move the music forward, and for that we are grateful.
Hailing from Chicago, Geof means business. At home in any context, from throwback to forward-looking, Bradfield displays supreme control, effortlessly soaring through the harmonic landscape throughout.
Robert Glasper’s man is more than a vocoder. Casey gets down on some saxo-mo-phone.
Apparently Miguel is a genius. The MacArthur grant definitely gave his popularity a bump, but he’s got a fantastic sense of rhythm, fast fingers, and a gorgeous sound to boot.
Bill has a sensibility that allows him to roam in both straight-ahead and farther-reaching scenarios.
This soon to be well-know recent grad of the Monk Institute plays so mush alto saxophone and with such grace.
Up and coming, I love what I’ve heard from him and need to dig into his stuff more.
Terrence Blanchard has had this guy locked up for some time, but Brice is starting to spread his wings as of late: check out Child’s Play.
I do love his Requiem late 90’s sound the best, but Branford still brings it.
Bob doesn’t get nearly enough credit for developing the round tone and softer approach championed by so many of today’s saxophonists. And he can still burn through some mean post bop.
Digging what Dayna has been throwing out recently.
Ok, I’ll say it, Kenny used to be one of my absolute idols. Since the Pharoah Sanders era he’s let me down just a bit, as his albums sound relatively uninspired compared to the rhythmic and sonic beastliness he demonstrated on albums like Triology and Songbook. Real shame, since he’s an unbelievably gifted musician.
Check out Marcus’ playing back
Tunes are our shared language. One of the most beautiful and unifying aspects of jazz is this common musical familiarity that enables any group of seasoned musicians to get together and immediately start making music. I’ll cover the pros and cons of learning tunes as well as the right approach to building a solid base of tunes in your arsenal. At the end I give a list of tunes to learn, separated out by their importance based on the frequency with which they get called at sessions/gigs.
Say what you will about Roy Hargrove’s current lifestyle choices; the man has blown some serious trumpet in his day. Roy’s ability to effortlessly glide between playing “in” (playing notes that fit the harmony) and “out” (creating tension by playing notes that don’t fit) has always impressed me, so I recently decided to pick a few lines to analyze his various harmonic devices.
Although he released a slew of post bop material throughout the 90’s, I reached for his more groove-oriented stuff in order to cut to the core of his soulful harmonic concept. His solo over Rich Man’s Welfare off RH Factor’s “Strength” fit the bill nicely.
But First, A Few Observations
Before getting into the meat of the analysis, I want to note a few keys to Hargrove’s playing in this era that made it all work. His time is impeccable, he shapes his lines with clean, clear articulations, and his style is…well he really swings.
Even more pertinent to the the analysis of his harmonic concept when playing outside the changes, RH could play nearly perfect bop, meaning that his “inside” playing is really fantastic. When Hargrove wanted to lay down a line to outline the changes, it was his for the taking.
Now, on to the solo!
Let’s dig into 2 excerpts from his solo and try to see if we can figure out what he’s thinking. Roy opens by stating some great dorian minor and blues-infused lines. These are firmly rooted in the groove and harmony, and they are the wonderful “in” that make his out playing “out”.
In measure 6 (see transcription below), he starts to play against the Em (concert Dm) tonality. Roy first moves into a F7 concept (could also be C7), then chromatically wanders to end the line implying Eb. He then continues that Eb thought, then moves down another whole step to imply a Db7 in bar 8.
Bar 9 starts with a hint of returning to the Em6 sound, but then moves back out to a Eb major sound, but that could also be interpreted as an F7. The latter would make sense given the next line, which moves from Em quickly to F7(#11). Not sure what that line is at the end…
Excerpt 1: Audio & Transcription