07/20/14

Alto Essentials

The most important alto saxophone albums in jazz history

For our June 2012 sax-themed issue, we polled dozens of top tenor players and jazz critics, asking them to rank between five and 10 of what they believe to be the most important tenor recordings in jazz history. From those lists we calculated a queue of 50 LPs, CDs and box sets, a checklist of crucial recordings by Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and others. Rather than a curated critics’ tally, this musician-informed Top 50 reflected a different sort of reality: Almost inarguably, this was the music most responsible for the state of jazz tenor playing in 2012.

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Sonny Stitt
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Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn from the Verve recording session for Billy Strayhorn & The Orchestra featuring Johnny Hodges.
By Chuck Stewart
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Benny Carter
By Enid Farber
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John Zorn
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Ornette Coleman
By Jimmy Katz
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Bunky Green and Rudresh Mahanthappa at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival
By Ken Franckling
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Lou Donaldson
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Eric Dolphy (left) and Kenny Dorham, March 1964
By Francis Wolff

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Reader response for that article was so strong that we’ve reprised the idea for this year’s sax issue, taking on alto recordings this time out. Nearly 20 critics and well over 20 musicians—from avant-gardists to contemporary jazzers—participated, offering lists based on our inclusive criteria. The alto player can be the leader or a sideman, and the recordings simply need to be “great performances that helped shape the jazz alto saxophone tradition,” whether innovative or working brilliantly within preexisting concepts. While the logistics of calculating such a list were challenging, there wasn’t much editorial interference here. For artists recording before the LP era, votes for certain compilations were funneled into the results for better or more popular CDs and box sets. Toward the end of the list, we chose representative albums for artists who were mentioned repeatedly in individual ballots but didn’t garner any consensus in the way of a definitive work.

We hope you enjoy the results and commentary. We’re displaying the results numbered 30-50 here. The rest are of the list is available in the June 2014 print edition. EVAN HAGA, EDITOR

30. DUKE ELLINGTON (JOHNNY HODGES, ALTO)
The Great Paris Concert (ATLANTIC; REC. 1963, REL. 1973)
This superb double-LP obliterates the cliché that Duke Ellington’s early ’60s orchestras couldn’t duplicate the magic of past eras. It was also a showcase for several longtime Ellingtonians still in their prime, especially Johnny Hodges, with his gorgeous tone, exemplary control and vividly expressive sound. RON WYNN

31. CANNONBALL ADDERLEY WITH BILL EVANS
Know What I Mean? (RIVERSIDE, 1961)
Note to aspiring players: As unassuming a date as this is, you could spend a lifetime learning from it. A standards-based early ’60s quartet LP featuring Evans, Percy Heath and Connie Kay, it’s a great place to hear Cannon as a lone horn player—no Trane, Miles or brother Nat to distract your studies. EVAN HAGA

32. CHARLIE PARKER
South of the Border (VERVE; REC. 1948-’52, REL. 1995)
A lot has been said about Bird’s ability to navigate through any rhythm and/or style of music, and this album shows him speaking another musical language without any accent—sounding strong and authentic, like he was born in the Caribbean. YOSVANY TERRY

33. THE CANNONBALL ADDERLEY QUINTET
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at “The Club” (CAPITOL, 1966)
I actually heard Cannonball’s later, funky recordings before I heard his earlier recordings. This one is somewhere in between. He’s playing some hard-swinging tunes as well as some funky ones. Cannonball’s one of my favorite alto saxophonists when it comes to soulfulness and swinging hard, and the compositions on this recording are some of my favorites by Cannonball and his quintet. JALEEL SHAW

34. THE PHIL WOODS SIX
“Live” From the Showboat (RCA VICTOR, 1977)
This is the Phil Woods document. Fluctuating between incredibly precise lines played at breakneck tempos (“I’m Late”) and lushly dry tones invoked on the ballads (“Superwoman”), Woods shows a variety of influences and demonstrates a remarkable musical range. The leader allows each band member to shine, but as this lengthy set concludes, it is the alto saxophone one remembers best. TOM WILMETH

35. JOHNNY HODGES WITH BILLY STRAYHORN
AND THE ORCHESTRA
Johnny Hodges With Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra (VERVE, 1962)
Hodges played a big part in my becoming a huge fan of ballads. He uses a lot of space in his solos, and the blues is everywhere on this recording. This album taught me a lot about phrasing and sound. JALEEL SHAW

36. DUKE ELLINGTON & JOHNNY HODGES
Play the Blues: Back to Back (VERVE, 1959)
For all of the sophistication and depth they brought to their larger works, Ellington and Hodges never sounded more content and downright earthy than on this small-group blues date. Hodges, his tone mellifluous and his playing intimate, is nonetheless fierce and swinging as he and his piano partner reexamine the well from which jazz emerged. JEFF TAMARKIN

37. MILES DAVIS
(CANNONBALL ADDERLEY, ALTO)
Milestones (COLUMBIA, 1958)
Before Kind of Blue there was Milestones and its title track, a sort of manifesto for the open space and soothing temperament of modal jazz. But this LP also contains some of Cannonball’s most burning playing in a postbop setting, no doubt stoked by John Coltrane. EVAN HAGA

38. LOU DONALDSON
Blues Walk (BLUE NOTE, 1958)
Still an underrated living legend at age 87, Donaldson recorded his masterpiece with pianist Herman Foster, bassist Peck Morrison, drummer Dave Bailey and, perhaps most important, conguero Ray Barretto. The title track is a bop classic, as is “The Masquerade Is Over,” which points toward the alto icon’s more groove-oriented 1960s output. BILL MEREDITH

39. LEE KONITZ
Subconscious-Lee (PRESTIGE, 1955)
The fact that Lee and Warne Marsh, on tenor, were playing like this in 1949 is astounding. Their phrasing remains unique and original, and the compositions were very modern for the time. And it has been hugely influential—especially now, with young players. It took a while for people to catch up. DAVID BINNEY

40. STEVE COLEMAN & FIVE ELEMENTS
The Tao of Mad Phat: Fringe Zones (NOVUS/RCA, 1993)
A journey into the heart of the mad scientist’s laboratory, Tao captures Coleman and his formidable Elements exploring the intricate clave-funk-fusion that undergirds so much of his music. The rhythmic innovations paved the way for some of the most interesting music of recent years—I’m looking at you Miguel, Yosvany and Vijay. ANDREW GILBERT

41. FREDDIE REDD QUARTET WITH JACKIE MCLEAN
The Music From “The Connection” (BLUE NOTE, 1960)
McLean fully realized his distinctive, personal sound on this recording, which is the program they played every night onstage for the groundbreaking play The Connection. All subsequent alto players have had to reckon with the great Jackie Mac, and this recording, to me, really marks his emergence. STEVE SLAGLE

42. ERIC DOLPHY QUINTET
Outward Bound (NEW JAZZ, 1960)
Out to Lunch! might be Dolphy’s masterwork, but Outward Bound, his debut as a leader, features a greater representation (three out of six tracks) of his unique alto voice: fast, occasionally irascible and always inventive—especially when it comes to inserting some trademark dissonance into every solo. MIKE SHANLEY

43. BENNY CARTER & HIS ORCHESTRA
Further Definitions (IMPULSE!, 1962)
Carter was arguably the first major alto saxophonist in jazz, and he sounded unshakably timeless even in the wake of Bird and Ornette’s revolutions. Further Definitions, recorded at what would turn out to be the midpoint of his 70-year career, nevertheless serves as a powerful summary of his music. MICHAEL J. WEST

44. ART PEPPER
Art Pepper + Eleven (CONTEMPORARY, 1959)
Pepper always conveyed conviction. His swing feel was infectious. With challenging, perfect-for-Pepper charts by Marty Paich, this 1959 set catches him in inspired form not only on alto but on clarinet and tenor saxophone as well. No one conveyed down-and-out loneliness better than Pepper, and few conveyed emotional highs with such expressiveness. OWEN CORDLE

45. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA & BUNKY GREEN
Apex (PI, 2010)
On this awesome cross-generational summit, Mahanthappa invites unsung alto great Green into his post-postbop fold, with its penchant for Eastern melody and harmony and rhythmic concepts descended from Steve Coleman. As a frontline, Mahanthappa and Green are so compatible their seamlessness is jarring. EVAN HAGA

46. STRATA INSTITUTE (STEVE COLEMAN & GREG OSBY, ALTOS)
Cipher Syntax (JMT, 1989)
This album blazed new trails for the alto saxophone as an instrument of innovation. The writing is superb in all of its intricacy, and the improvisations are soulful and heartfelt in their conveyance. The saxophone playing is frighteningly virtuosic, a continuation of Bird’s legacy. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA

47. SONNY STITT
Stitt Plays Bird (ATLANTIC, 1966)
Stitt loved Bird’s music so much he was unfairly dismissed in some circles as merely an acolyte. A versatile and extremely gifted player, he would frequently switch to tenor or baritone to demonstrate both flexibility and individuality. But he reaffirmed his roots on this 1963 session, a rare tribute that establishes stylistic independence while at the same time celebrating influence. RON WYNN

48. ORNETTE COLEMAN
Dancing in Your Head (HORIZON, 1977)
This LP represents a historic departure for Ornette and thus for jazz as a whole—his first offering of electric “harmolodic” funk, which held all the excitement of jazz-rock but none of the corniness. And “Midnight Sunrise” finds his alto invoking ancient spirits. EVAN HAGA

49. GIGI GRYCE AND THE JAZZ LAB QUINTET
Gigi Gryce and the Jazz Lab Quintet (RIVERSIDE, 1957)
During his short career, Gryce sought to broaden the language of hard bop with multi-layered arrangements and unanticipated harmonies. This release is one of his most successful statements, and his tandem playing with the young Donald Byrd on trumpet is particularly satisfying. JEFF TAMARKIN

50. JOHN ZORN (ZORN & TIM BERNE, ALTOS)
Spy vs Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman (ELEKTRA/MUSICIAN, 1989)
As if Ornette’s music couldn’t already inspire panicky bewilderment, downtown patriarch Zorn matches Coleman’s folky, genius melodies to the energy of hardcore punk and extreme metal. Fellow avant-luminary Berne makes essential contributions to the tight, rapid-fire assault. EVAN HAGA

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