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Best Jazz Saxophonists: 20 Icons Who Blew Their Way Into History
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Best Jazz Saxophonists: 20 Icons Who Blew Their Way Into History

Using their instruments to tell stories of love, loss and life, the best jazz saxophonists express what it is to be human…

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One of the most expressive instruments in the woodwind family, the saxophone is capable of communicating a kaleidoscope of human emotions – everything from carnal desire to spiritual exaltation and all feelings in between. It’s been around for much longer than most people think – it was invented in 1846 by a Belgian instrument maker called Adolphe Sax – but took many years to gain acceptance and be taken seriously as an instrument. Though it’s been employed by some classical-music composers (among them Bizet, Rachmaninoff and Ravel), the saxophone is most associated with jazz music and, since the 30s, has reigned supreme in the genre that has produced most of the instrument’s most skilful players. In this countdown of the 20 best jazz saxophonists you’ll come across all kinds of players, from intrepid avant-garde trailblazers and dedicated hard bop apostles to soulful jazz-funk crusaders and more…

Best Jazz Saxophonists: 20 Icons Who Blew Their Way Into History

20: Joshua Redman (1969-)

The son of the noted avant-garde saxophonist Dewey Redman, who was part of Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet in the 70s, Berkeley-born Joshua Redman is a versatile and technically gifted musician who alternates freely between alto, tenor and soprano saxophones. After winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991, he began his recording career in earnest, spending the first decade of his career at Warner Bros Records, where his music ranged from explorative post-bop outings to a more soulful and accessible type of R&B-tinged fusion.

Must hear: Jazz Crimes

19: David Sanborn (1945-)

With its unique throaty squeal, Florida-born David Sanborn’s soulful alto tone is one the most easily identifiable saxophone sounds in jazz. After playing in two successful but very different groups – The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, in the 60s, and the funk-oriented Brecker Brothers, in the 70s – Sanborn embarked on a solo career that saw him traverse soul, funk, gospel, fusion and straight-ahead jazz, and brought him great renown as well as prodigious commercial success. One of the best jazz saxophonists of his era, he has also had a profound influence on several generations of musicians, especially those in the smooth-jazz domain.

Must hear: Maputo (with Bob James)

18: Grover Washington, Jr (1943-1999)

Famous for the distinctive way he bent notes on his instrument, Buffalo-born Grover Washington, Jr, was a pioneer of what became known as smooth jazz. He started out playing as a sideman for soul-jazz musicians Charles Earland and Boogaloo Joe Jones in the early 70s before a stroke of good fortune saw him drafted in as a last-minute replacement for Hank Crawford on a session for producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label. It resulted in Washington’s debut album, Inner City Blues, which was a hit record and catapulted him to instant stardom. In 1978, he moved to a slicker, more commercial sound at Elektra Records, which culminated in his influential 1980 album Winelight, which drew the blueprint for smooth jazz.

Must hear: Winelight

17: Eddie Harris (1934-1996)

This multi-talented Chicago-born musician could play piano and vibraphone with a high degree of skill, but, with his soulful tenor tone, is remembered among the best jazz saxophonists for pioneering a gadget called a Varitone, which electrified his horn. Eddie Harris hit a rich vein of form in the 60s, taking a haunting ballad version of the movie theme Exodus into the US singles chart as well as serving up funky soul-jazz grooves such as the Latin-tinged Listen Here. Between 1965 and 1976, he enjoyed a fruitful stint at Atlantic Records which, as well as yielding successful solo albums such as The Electrifying Eddie Harris, produced Swiss Movement, a classic live recording with pianist Les McCann. Arguably the most famous of Harris’ many compositions is Freedom Jazz Dance, which Miles Davis immortalised on his 1967 album Miles Smiles.

Must hear: Listen Here

16: David “Fathead” Newman (1933-2009)

Corsicana, Texas, was the birthplace of this hard-blowing, versatile saxophonist who could switch between the baritone, alto and tenor varieties of the instrument with consummate ease, and who was also handy with a flute. David Newman’s big break came when he joined Ray Charles’ band in 1954; the blind R&B singer/pianist also encouraged Newman’s solo career, and was instrumental in the saxophonist signing his first record deal with Atlantic Records, four years later. Though mostly an exponent of bluesy soul-jazz, as his 1960 album Straight Ahead showed, Newman was also adept at playing hard bop (the album featured pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers, from Miles Davis’ then band).

Must hear: Cousin Slim

15: Hank Crawford (1934-2009)

Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, Benny “Hank” Crawford was an alto saxophonist with a bluesy and bittersweet tone who had been steeped in the language of gospel music as a child. A university graduate in music theory and composition, Crawford briefly played rock’n’roll in the 50s before making his mark later the same decade as the music director of R&B sensation Ray Charles. In 1960, he began his solo career at Atlantic Records, where, during a fertile ten-year spell, he cut some of his most enduring records, ensuring his place among the best jazz saxophonists in the process. Crawford’s distinctively soulful timbre was a huge influence on a later alto saxophonist, David Sanborn.

Must hear: Angel Eyes

14: Stanley Turrentine (1934-2000)

Originally from Pittsburgh, the man dubbed “Mr T” played his tenor sax with a gruff intensity and was a major architect of soul jazz, an accessible style of music which drew on blues and gospel influences and was popular in the early 60s. Heavily influenced by the R&B saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, Stanley Turrentine’s career kicked off at Blue Note Records, where he established his reputation as a tough but soulful tenor player before he moving on to cut more sophisticated jazz records for the CTI label in the early 70s. Unafraid of changing with the times, he also dabbled with disco-funk, R&B, Latin jazz and fusion during a four-album stint at Elektra Records in the early 80s.

Must hear: Hamlet (So Peaceful)

13: Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977)

Once described by his longtime producer Joel Dorn as looking like “a Christmas tree from Pluto” due to the array of musical instruments that hung around his neck, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was an idiosyncratic blind genius famed for playing three saxophones simultaneously – a feat which, in itself, is enough to establish him among the best jazz saxophonists. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, he was at home performing a variety of styles, from jaunty ragtime to bluesy hard bop and explorative free jazz. He arguably produced his most memorable work during an 11-year association with Atlantic Records, where he often married soul-jazz tropes with socio-political commentary.

Must hear: The Inflated Tear

12: Charles Lloyd (1938-)

A soulful tenor saxophonist who also plays flute, Memphis-born Charles Lloyd was raised on blues and gospel music but was drawn to jazz after hearing bebop altoist Charlie Parker on the radio. He first made an impact on the US jazz scene after moving to Los Angeles in the mid-50s and becoming a key member of drummer Chico Hamilton’s pathfinding modern jazz group. In the mid-to-late 60s, he led a famous quartet on Atlantic Records that included pianist Keith Jarrett, whose groundbreaking music found acceptance with rock audiences and the counterculture generation. After a fallow period in the 70s, Lloyd enjoyed a career resurgence in the 90s that cemented his reputation as one of the best jazz saxophonists of all time.

Must hear: Forest Flower

11: Joe Henderson (1937-2001)

From Lima, Ohio, Joe Henderson produced a gruff, earthy tone from his tenor saxophone, but could also conjure up eerie and otherworldly sounds. He provided a stunningly robust solo on Horace Silver’s famous track Song For My Father, which was recorded for Blue Note, the label that gave Henderson his start. After four albums for the label, he went on to enjoy stints at Milestone and Verve. As a sideman, he appeared on recordings by everyone from Grant Green to Alice Coltrane, and also worked live with the Miles Davis Quintet in the late 60s. One of Henderson’s finest moments in a supporting role, however, can be heard courtesy of the solo he delivered on Hippodelphia, by cornet player Nat Adderley, taken from the 1966 Atlantic album Sayin’ Somethin’.

Must hear: Hippodelphia

10: Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)

One of the most controversial figures in the history of jazz, this Texas-born alto saxophonist jettisoned the long-established musical conventions of melody and harmony on his iconoclastic 1959 album The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Some musicians, like Miles Davis, were suspicious of Ornette Coleman, while others, such as the classical conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, hailed him as a genius. What can’t be disputed is his place among the best jazz saxophonists: Coleman’s profound influence ignited a musical revolution.

Must hear: Lonely Woman

9: Johnny Griffin (1928-2008)

Like fellow tenor titans Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster, Chicago-born Johnny Griffin decided to widen his horizons by leaving the US for Europe in the 60s. Dubbed the “Little Giant” because of how his small physical stature contrasted with his big tenor sound, Griffin mainly played hard bop and was famous for his scorching solos. He was also a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and recorded several noteworthy collaborations with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Among the many labels he recorded for was Atlantic, where he cut the hard-swinging blues-soaked album Soul Groove with trombonist Matthew Gee in 1963.

Must hear: Twist City

8: Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)

Possessing a big but warm and caressing sound with a tremulous vibrato, Coleman Hawkins – nicknamed “The Hawk” or “Bean” – was an influential Missouri tenor player who legitimised the concept of the improvised saxophone solo with his groundbreaking 1939 recording Body And Soul, elevating what was already a standard to immortal status among the best jazz songs. After briefly stating the main theme on the record, he went famously off-piste, traversing a rangy melodic excursion that set a template for future approaches to jazz improvisation. Though perceived as a swing-era musician, Bean Bags, his 1958 collaboration with The Modern Jazz Quartet’s vibraphonist Milt Jackson, showed that Hawkins was able to bridge the divide between swing and bebop with aplomb.

Must hear: Close Your Eyes (with Milt Jackson)

7: Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)

Renowned for his robust but warm sound and ability to play ballads with great sensitivity, Los Angeles-born Dexter Gordon was one of bebop’s first tenor saxophone stars but, after his career began promisingly in the late 40s, heroin addiction threatened to end it the following decade. Miraculously, Gordon got his life and career back on track in the 60s, leaving the US for Europe and settling in Denmark, where he lived until 1976, reclaiming his reputation as one of the best jazz saxophonists. Prolific in the studio, he recorded for jazz’s two biggest indie labels, Blue Note and Prestige, but in his final years he recorded for major labels, including Elektra, where he cut his penultimate album, American Classic, in 1982 at the age of 59.

Must hear: Skylark

6: Ben Webster (1909-1973)

With its intimate, breathy attack and warm vibrato, Ben Webster’s husky tenor saxophone tone is one of the most distinguishable sounds in jazz. From Kansas City, Webster began his career in the 30s but gained greater notoriety after joining Duke Ellington’s orchestra in the 40s. In the following decade, he established himself as a solo star, recording memorable sessions with fellow saxophonist Coleman Hawkins as well as pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Like Dexter Gordon, Webster found Europe more conducive to his creativity and settled in Denmark in the 60s, where he lived until his death.

Must hear: Stella By Starlight

5: Hank Mobley (1930-1986)

Overshadowed by the paradigm-shifting exploits of John Coltrane and the athletic melodic fluency of Sonny Rollins, Georgia-born Hank Mobley was never regarded as a serious heavyweight contender in the hard bop era’s hierarchy. In recent times, however, Mobley’s stock has risen considerably, and his smooth, soulful, and well-rounded tenor sound is now more widely appreciated, seeing him rise among the ranks of the best jazz saxophonists. He spent most of his recording career at Blue Note, where he cut an astonishing 25 albums that blurred the boundary between bluesy hard bop and R&B-inflected soul jazz. Mobley, who was a prolific composer, was also a sought-after sideman, and wrote and played on HM On FM, which appeared on drummer Elvin Jones’ 1966 Atlantic album, Midnight Walk.

Must hear: HM On FM

4: Wayne Shorter (1933-)

Affectionately dubbed the “Newark Flash” – a nickname which acknowledges the New Jersey-born saxophonist’s love of comic-book superheroes – Wayne Shorter is not only a supreme tenor saxophonist but also one of jazz’s greatest ever composers. Starting out with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, he rose to fame as the main songwriter in Miles Davis’ trailblazing quintet of the 60s – a time that also saw him establish a viable solo career at Blue Note with a series of astounding and original albums. In the 70s and first half of the 80s, Shorter enjoyed substantial commercial success co-leading the fusion group Weather Report. Though initially influenced by John Coltrane, Shorter quickly developed a singular approach to the saxophone that was both soulful and ethereal.

Must hear: Infant Eyes

3: Sonny Rollins (1930-)

No list of the best jazz saxophonists would be complete without the man famously dubbed the “Saxophone Colossus”. That’s because Sonny Rollins is one of the greatest improvisers on the tenor sax, renowned for his ability to conjure up seemingly endless melodic permutations when engrossed in a solo. He made his recording debut in 1949, with bebop pianist Bud Powell, and quickly established himself as a saxophone master. In the late 50s, he was famous for playing without a piano in his band, which allowed greater harmonic freedom in his improvisations. Rollins hung up his horn in 2012, due to respiratory problems, but his sound and influence continues to cast a huge shadow over contemporary jazz.

Must hear: Bags’ Groove (with the Modern Jazz Quartet)

2: Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

Alto sax specialist Charlie Parker’s short life was a tale of triumph and tragedy – an explosive cocktail of musical genius combined with destructive lifestyle choices that ended his life prematurely at the age of 34. Even so, Parker’s huge influence continues to live on; any jazz saxophonists who have come after him will have been touched by his innovations. As an architect of bebop, a virtuosic style defined by high-velocity improvisation, complex chords and highly syncopated rhythms, Parker changed jazz forever. His alto sound was distinguished by a light, bluesy tone and mercurial melodic runs packed with surprising twists and turns.

Must hear: Summertime

1: John Coltrane (1926-1967)

Topping our list of the best jazz saxophonists is the man whom many regard as the musical equivalent of a deity. Born in North Carolina and raised in Philadelphia, “Trane” started out as a journeyman R&B hornblower whose stature grew as he underwent several notable transformations during an extraordinary musical journey that took him from hard bop through to modal jazz and, finally, into the realm of spiritually-inclined avant-garde soundscapes. On his classic 1960 track Giant Steps, John Coltrane took tenor saxophone playing to a new level of virtuosity, while on his version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things, recorded a year later, he helped to popularise the obscure soprano saxophone.

Must hear: My Favorite Things

You know the best jazz saxophonists of all time, now find out our pick of the best jazz musicians.

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