Solo Saxophone

When I was kicking around ideas for a final project in my acoustics class last semester, I toyed with the idea of comparing sonic profiles of different saxophonists in a solo saxophone context. The project was pretty quickly shot down after my professor pointed out the obvious problem of dealing with the slew of variables beyond my control: different mics, mic placements, recording environments, etc., which I'd only be able to isolate if I did my own recordings (definitely not interested in checking that out). 

Although the project ended up being a nonstarter, it ended up as an excuse for me to dig through my library to find instances of extended a capella performances. I found plenty of lengthy cadenzas, but far fewer solo tracks from records.

One of the first that came to mind was Joe Henderson's "Lush Life" from Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (1991). There are plenty of transcriptions of this solo floating around the Internet, and I've found myself playing fragments of the solo when I have the chance to play to a large, empty space before soundchecks (the recording itself has substantial reverb).

Sonny Rollins on "Body and Soul" from Sonny Rollins & the Big Brass (1958), to contrast, is a very dry recording with a forceful declaration right from the top that sets the tone for the entire solo. I can't mention solo Sonny Rollins without bringing up his The Solo Album, which was an entire concert recorded solo at the Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden. It's gotten some notably negative reviews, but from my brief impression after listening to it once through, it's a fascinating document of a free improvisation rooted in idiomatic bebop.

A discovery while looking through the library was Joe Lovano on "Chelsea Bridge" from Rush Hour (1994), which closes the record elegantly. Lovano's statement of the melody the first time through is direct and relatively unadorned, but the second pass is a masterful demonstration on embellishing and extending a melody.

Michael Brecker on "Naima" from Directions in Music (2002) was utterly jaw-dropping the first time I heard it, and it still is. There are a number of videos of Brecker performing "Naima" solo on YouTube, and each one is captivating. 

Recently, I picked up Roscoe Mitchell's Sound Songs (1997), a double-CD release of solo saxophone and "little instruments," which I haven't had the chance to properly check out yet. I've been trying to get my hands on a copy of Anthony Braxton's For Alto (1970), too, of which Phil Woods said in a 1971 Downbeat Blindfold Test after hearing a track: 
"That was terrible, I can't imagine the ego of a person thinking they can sustain a whole performance by themselves, when they can't really play the saxophone well.... It should be called 'the trill is gone.' If you're going to try and play—and it's a classically-oriented way of playing, that kind of sound he's trying to get—you should have the training to carry it off. Its not jazzy, it's not's's not well done, he doesn't breathe properly.... There's a lot of primitives that play and get a lot of exciting music; but this is such an ego trip, that you can think that you're that much of a bitch that you can do a solo album."
Music that elicits this sort of a response from a widely respected professional must be worth hearing—at least once—and I'm hoping to check it out sometime in the near future. I'm also aware that Evan Parker and other experimental saxophonists have done some incredible solo saxophone recordings (recommendations, anybody?), and Colin Stetson, of course, might be one of the most widely known solo saxophonists of recent times. 

I'll end with a performance by Mark Turner: "Berkeley Street" I came across on YouTube some time ago, and I'm not aware if it's on any of his records. 

If you have any other solo saxophone recommendations, please let me know!

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On an unrelated side note, after hearing Henry Threadgill's inspiring saxophone and flute playing at the Jazz Gallery last night, I posted a facetious tweet about Ron Burgundy picking up some ideas or two from Threadgill re: flute playing. As it turns out, the flutist who recorded the solo from Anchorman is named Katisse Buckingham, as I was informed by Walter Smith III. There's some pretty astounding playing on his website; check it out!


  1. There's Lee Konitz's "Blues for Bird" at the Charlie Parker 10th Memorial Concert. Before he begins, he jokes, "I feel a little presumptuous standing up here all alone. If you feel like joining in, please do." (Of course, he did a whole solo album, "Lone-Lee.") And if I may branch out into unaccompanied duets, there is a great Dexter Gordon - Al Cohn duet "On the Trail" (on Silver Blue) and the Zoot Sims - Al Cohn, "Improvisation for Unaccompanied Saxophones" (on You and Me)

  2. Brian SimontacchiJuly 8, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    the Mark Turner SOLOS sessions have been released via the internet.

    the great and powerful Steve Coleman made one....i have to check my library to find the name....Invisible Paths: First Scattering. at least one....there've got to be others.

    off the top of my head, there are two indelible duet records that leave me speechless after every listen. the first is Greg Osby and Andrew Cyrille's Low Blue Flame. out of print, for sure, but very, very involved, as you can imagine. another is Jackie McLean and Michael Carvin's Antiquity. a very potent look into the slave trade via music. very potent.

    thanks, Kevin!

  3. Brian SimontacchiJuly 8, 2013 at 5:05 PM stumbled upon this over a month ago. it's amazing what can happen to someone of that generation if they choose to keep learning.

  4. Cool article! Have you checked out any of Steve Lacy's solo albums? "Weal & Woe" is interesting and wide-ranging. It's all originals or improvisations -- hard to tell which is which in any given piece. Then "Only Monk" and "More Monk" are both solo albums of Monk tunes. In all of his playing, he bores deeply into one minuscule idea at a time until he has no choice but to move on to the next thing, and that approach suits the Monk tunes well.
    Also, Dave Liebman has some great solo recordings. "The Tree" is a representation of the roots, trunk, limbs, branches, twigs, leaves and back down again, so that the form of the album is loosely palindromic. "Colors" is similar in that he includes two improvisations for each of the colors he attempts to evoke.
    I'm always looking for more examples of solo saxophone performances, as I started doing occasional solo shows for the challenge of it when I was in school. I'm always amazed at limitlessness of the possibilities when I hear what's out there.

  5. michael in san fraciscoDecember 29, 2014 at 7:31 PM
    I'm sure you're familiar with , but just in case
    Sam Newsome


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