Every Friday night we smooth our way into the weekend with music, the universal language. These selections demonstrate that despite what is being passed off as art today, there is plenty of really good music available. Come along and enjoy.
Kelsey McKinney writes on the website the Outline:
A saxophone screams. A saxophone honks. It doesn’t jam or shred or flow. The saxophone isn’t like a piano intro or a guitar solo. In modern music, it can feel, well, outdated. When this article was published, there was no song in the Top 40 with a saxophone solo. There’s hardly a defined saxophone part on any of those songs at all, which is incredible because for most of American popular music’s history, the saxophone was the backbone of making a song a hit.
But add a saxophone solo to your song today, and it’s likely to get hate. A 2007 A.V. Club article about 10 popular songs “nearly ruined” by the saxophone compared the instrument to cayenne pepper: A little bit is fine, but too much is painful. When Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” hit the charts in 2014, reviewers bemoaned its addictive, annoying saxophone hook. In 2015, Complex described the saxophone as “big, nasty, and damn near impossible to kill.” In today’s pop, the saxophone is used sparingly, because instead of seeming cool and propelling singles, it runs the risk of making you look corny.
The forgotten saxophone solo in the spot light this week. Let’s get screamin’ and honkin.’
Loggins and Messina didn’t think too much of their song but it became the one most synonymous with the pair, peaking at #4.
Once upon a time, every band had a saxophone section. This was before World War II. Before the men got drafted, and the big bands fell apart and then became bebop, which became R&B and soul and harlem jump. Before rock ’n’ roll showed up and ponytailed girls danced to doo wop at sock hops.
So many saxophones were needed that musicians who played other instruments switched to the big brass horn, and became famous on it. Charlie Parker, one of America’s most famous and innovative sax players ever, was so popular he was like a god. “Musicians did heroin in the hopes of playing like Charlie Parker,” Jeff Harrington, a professor of woodwinds at Berklee College of Music and a saxophone player, told me.
The saxophone was built to be a big sound. It was invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in 1840 to be used in European military marching bands.
“It took a lot of clarinets to match a brass instrument, so [it made more sense to] have one saxophone and the rest of the guys in the infantry,” Harrington explained. “It was much much louder and projected much better. The saxophone is always the loud-mouth at the party. It’s curvy and shiny, with a dramatic shape and an unmistakable sound. It blares, blows, growls.‘”
This do-wop song from 1957 went to #4 and is heard in the films American Graffiti, Stand by Me, and Joe Versus the Volcano. At the end of the sax solo you can make out the musician sneaking away from the microphone to create his own “fade-out.” The effect is called a “slap back,” an early recording technique used to evoke the sound of city alleyways.
The saxophone was an ideal instrument. It’s fairly easy to learn, and in the ’20s and ’30s the C Melody Saxophone was a popular parlor instrument because it could play off the same sheet music as a piano.
“The saxophone is probably the most easily adaptable instrument,” Thomas Erdmann, a professor of music and an orchestra director at Elon University, told me. “Because it ranges in category from soprano, through alto and baritone, the possibilities of what you can use it for are almost endless. The saxophone almost mimics a human voice. It’s very very expressive, and that comes from both how flexible the sound can be but also the sonic quality.”
That range carried the saxophone through dozens of genres of American music without interruption until the late ’80s. When rock ’n’ roll emerged in the ’50s, it gave the saxophone another boost.
“A strong hook can make a song, and it used to be that many of those hooks were created by saxophonists,” Erdman said.
Just as “Your Mama Don’t Dance” was a commentary on the teenage rebellion of the 1950’s, our next selection was a protest anthem for the younger set of the generation gap. It was written in 1958 by the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
“Going forward from the ’60s, the saxophone [was] on a decline,” said (Jeff) Harrington. “Sure you had some crazy wild artists and soloists, but there [was] definitely a downtick in overall saxophone use.”
By the time rock became the forerunner in American music, the saxophone had been replaced with guitars.
The year was 1961. Elvis, now a year out of the Army, goes into a Nashville studio just two days before leaving to film “Blue Hawaii.” The sax solo is by another legend, Boots Randolph. The King does the blues.
Elvis’s blues legacy has never been fully examined and is generally little appreciated. Given Joe Cocker’s statement that Elvis was the greatest white blues singer in the world this is a travesty, and another example of how the music establishment generally refuses to take Elvis’s musical career, post 1958, seriously.
Finally, from Kelsey McKinney:
The saxophone thrived in jazz fusion with guys like Grover Washington Jr., Tom Scott, David Sanborn, and Michael Brecker. But as the genre became gentrified, there was a definite move away from saxophone sections and horn sections, to the sexy saxophone solo. Of course, no one is more famous in the popular mind for the saxophone solo than Kenny G. He and David Sanborn ushered in a new age of ‘smooth jazz,’ an early-’80s genre that put the instrument back in the spotlight.
By 1990, the heyday of the saxophone in popular music was past, but it remained a cultural artifact. When Bill Clinton played a saxophone on a 1992 episode of The Arsenio Hall Show, the move was credited with rocketing him ahead of Bush in the polls and making him more popular to black and young voters.
“I’d say once we hit the 2000s, it’s almost like the saxophone had become extinct,” (Jeff) Harrington said. “It’s like a dinosaur now. We’re seeing a big evolution of production, of recording techniques, and of the actual sounds. Everything’s getting sampled and synthesized …” he added. “When we do have an acoustic instrument like a saxophone, it tends to get processed to where [it’s] almost unrecognizable.”
We don’t hear many acoustic instruments in pop music in general, be they saxophones, clarinets, or trumpets; and when we do, they often sound out of place.
That’s it for this week.
Have a great weekend.
Whenever a question is posed asking what’s the best whatever, a definitive answer is almost impossible because the topic is so subjective. Let me take a stab at it anyway. See if you agree.
Best sax solo in a pop record?
Does the name Helo Pinheiro sound familar?
She inspired “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The website www.performingsongwriter.com reports:
“Summer 1962. Rio de Janeiro. At the Veloso Bar, a block from the beach at Ipanema, two friends—the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and the poet Vinícius de Moraes—are drinking Brahma beer and musing about their latest song collaboration.
The duo favor the place for the good brew and the even better girl-watching opportunities. Though both are married men, they’re not above a little ogling. Especially when it comes to a neighborhood girl nicknamed Helô. Eighteen-year-old Heloisa Eneida Menezes Pais Pinto is a Carioca—a native of Rio. She’s tall and tan, with emerald green eyes and long, dark wavy hair. They’ve seen her passing by, as she’s heading to the beach or coming home from school. She has a way of walking that de Moraes calls ‘sheer poetry.’
Legend has it that Jobim and de Moraes were so inspired by this shapely coed, they wrote a song for her right on the bar napkins. It’s a good story, but it’s not quite true.”
From the Wall Street Journal :
“’It’s the oldest story in the world,’ says Norman Gimbel, who wrote the English lyrics. ‘The beautiful girl goes by, and men pop out of manholes and fall out of trees and are whistling and going nuts, and she just keeps going by. That’s universal.’
So reasoned composer Antônio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinícius de Moraes five decades ago. Stalled on a number for a musical called ‘Blimp,’ they sought inspiration at the Veloso, a seaside cafe in the Ipanema neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. There they remembered a local teenager, the 5-foot-8-inch, dark-haired, green-eyed Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, whom they often saw walking to the beach or entering the bar to buy cigarettes for her mother. And so they penned a paean to a vision.”
Stan Getz is one of the most popular and respected tenor saxophonists of all-time.
While we’re on the beach… Elvis and Shelley Fabares from “Girl Happy.”