Tenor Essentials

The 50 most important tenor saxophone albums in jazz history

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Joe Henderson
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EMAIL John Coltrane
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One of my all-time favorite magazine features can be found in the February 1996 issue of the long-defunct Guitar: For the Practicing Musician. “The Top 50 Albums That Changed Rock Guitar,” an unassailable list plucked by the magazine’s editors, turned me on to some classic fusion that became my primary gateway into heavy-duty acoustic jazz. Pre-Internet takeover, this sort of canonical breakdown was a more valued proposition, and the Guitar guys did smart work here. The list was informative, sure, but it also pointed up an unsung truth about music journalism, and music journalists’ penchant for list-making: On both sides, it can be a lot of fun.

The other thing that got me thinking about tenor LPs was the audiophile-quality turntable I purchased a couple years back. As vinyl consumed my basement, I noticed something: A lot of what I was spinning was tenor-based reissues. So in coming up with a cover-story concept for this June sax issue, I thought about the importance of the tenor and how it functions as a cultural icon for jazz. Ask the layman to draw you a picture of a jazz musician, and I’ll bet nine times out of 10 he or she will scribble a tenorman. The Selmer Mark VI is jazz’s “rock guitar”—its Gibson Les Paul or Fender Stratocaster, if you will.

With the Guitar issue as a template, I set out to create a definitive list of tenor albums, with a twist to my process: I would conduct an artists’ and critics’ poll rather than play God with my fellow JT editors. Almost 50 writers and players responded, including many of the instrument’s strongest practitioners. (We’ve published some of their lists and comments in the print magazine, and more will be available later at JazzTimes.com.

I asked voters to submit ranked lists of five to 10 albums, and used our Year in Review point system to calculate the results. (Toward the end of the calculations, when consensus ran thin, I gathered my ego and chose what I think aspiring tenor players need to hear.) I discouraged choosing compilations over original album releases, except when it came to pre-LP players working in swing and early bop. In certain cases, votes for single cuts became votes for an excellent comp containing that side.

There were no specific criteria for voting. As I wrote in my pitch, “The albums simply need to be great performances that helped shape the jazz tenor saxophone tradition. Influence and innovation are important: Think of albums that introduced new pieces of language to the tenor vocabulary, or offered new compositions that became benchmark repertoire. Still, innovation isn’t everything, so recordings that stand as brilliant examples of preexisting concepts are also essential to consider.”

The results, as you’ll see, mostly mine the distant past—specifically that of two men named Coltrane and Rollins. What that says about the current state of things is a discussion for another day, but I wouldn’t trade these records for anything.

EVAN HAGA, EDITOR

1. JOHN COLTRANE
A Love Supreme (IMPULSE!, 1965)
The modern saxophone vocabulary is summarized for all to hear, accompanied in spirit and virtuosity by the mighty rhythm section of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. DAVE LIEBMAN

2. SONNY ROLLINS
Saxophone Colossus (PRESTIGE, 1956)
Though Sonny Meets Hawk! is just as influential for me, Saxophone Colossus captures Sonny in a relaxed yet poised mood, and the performances here are the succinct, codified versions of all that Rollins was working with at the time. JON IRABAGON

3. JOHN COLTRANE
Giant Steps (ATLANTIC, 1960)
The next step in modern jazz tenor styling, teeming with standards such as “Naima,” “Mr. P.C.,” “Countdown” and, of course, the title track, a technical and harmonic benchmark. JAMES CARTER

4. COLEMAN HAWKINS
Body & Soul (RCA, COMPILATION 1996)
Hawkins’ 1939 recording of the popular song [included on this smartly compiled collection] established the tenor as a romantic and dynamic instrument—and Mr. Hawkins as the father of the jazz tenor. DAVID MURRAY

5. LESTER YOUNG
Classic Columbia, Okeh, and Vocalion: Lester Young With Count Basie (1936-1940) (MOSAIC, COMPILATION 2008)
This comp represents the many scattered, sometimes vague votes we received for Young’s ’30s work. You need more than this—the Decca stuff with Basie and Herschel Evans, for starters—but these four discs, with their revealing alternate takes and beyond-essential version of “Oh, Lady Be Good!,” are heavenly. EVAN HAGA

6. WAYNE SHORTER
Speak No Evil (BLUE NOTE, 1965)
Gorgeous playing, gorgeous writing, incredible tone. “The Wayne” is a singularity in the world of saxophone playing. Genius? Certainly. Poet? Yes. Artist? Absolutely. He seems to combine vocabulary that is somehow detached but also completely connected at the same time. Such a beautiful enigma. JEFF COFFIN

7. SONNY ROLLINS
The Bridge (BLUEBIRD, 1962)
This album [Sonny’s comeback effort after his first sabbatical] got me way back and it still strongly influences me with its swinging, creative motivic development. But Sonny is great on all his albums. Love him. ANAT COHEN

8. DUKE ELLINGTON (PAUL GONSALVES, TENOR)
Ellington at Newport (COLUMBIA, 1956)
This is here because of the great tenorist Paul Gonsalves, who brought the house down with “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” This is one of the famous solos for all tenor saxophonists, because it lasted 27 choruses and opened the door for the extended solo on all jazz recordings.
DAVID MURRAY

9. JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET
Crescent (IMPULSE!, 1964)
Crescent is in many ways the consummate Coltrane Quartet recording. The writing and playing are so cohesive and inspired. You have these incredibly lyrical and spiritual melodies on one hand, and on the other, the great interplay and burning playing indicative of that era in Coltrane’s short 10-year solo career. BOB MINTZER

10. SONNY ROLLINS
Way Out West (CONTEMPORARY, 1957)
Such innovation, such soul. Sonny’s strolling-trio breakthrough established one of jazz’s most imposing formats—a wide-open harmonic atmosphere where melody, rhythm and tone can rule. And do we need to mention the impeccable program?
EVAN HAGA

11. SONNY ROLLINS
A Night at the Village Vanguard (BLUE NOTE, 1957)
I would argue that this is the greatest example of pure bebop tenor playing on record. ERIC ALEXANDER

12. LESTER YOUNG TRIO
Lester Young Trio (MERCURY, 1951)
Many saxophonists of Young’s era clearly wore the influence of Coleman Hawkins in their sound and approach, but Pres walked to the beat of his own drum. I think his sound would be radical even today. These trio recordings are a perfect example of a healthy Pres in tiptop form, full of grace.
JD ALLEN

13. MILES DAVIS (WAYNE SHORTER, TENOR)
The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (SONY LEGACY, COMPILATION 1995)
Another way to look at the tenor, as an extension of composition, motif building and use of a highly sophisticated harmonic language. DAVE LIEBMAN

14. DIZZY GILLESPIE/SONNY ROLLINS/SONNY STITT
Sonny Side Up (VERVE, 1958)
This record is worth its price for “The Eternal Triangle” alone, which, to my mind, has one of the most exciting tenor battles on record—some truly astounding reactive playing from Sonnys Stitt and Rollins. KEN PEPLOWSKI

15. MILES DAVIS (JOHN COLTRANE, TENOR)
Kind of Blue (COLUMBIA, 1959)
I first heard Kind of Blue in high school and, to this day, I am still blown away by Coltrane’s solos. His playing on “So What” epitomized modal improvisation and laid the foundation for this type of tenor work. His beautiful tone, freedom of movement within the harmony, and sophisticated and thoughtful phrasing really raised the bar. WAYNE ESCOFFERY

16. ORNETTE COLEMAN
Ornette on Tenor (ATLANTIC, 1961)
Alto saxophonist Coleman put everything he knew about the tenor into one recording. He still let his subconscious run free, but with a wilder rasp, a Texas gutbucket honk, even a soul-baring breathiness. On tenor he was not pretty, but he was beautiful.
THOMAS CONRAD

17. JOE HENDERSON
Inner Urge (BLUE NOTE, 1965)
This album represents the state of bebop during the mid-’60s, after the dust had settled from the previous 15 years. It’s in line with the work of Dexter, Newk and other tenor masters.
DAVE LIEBMAN

18. JOHN COLTRANE AND JOHNNY HARTMAN
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (IMPULSE!, 1963)
Some of the most romantic music ever recorded. Coltrane’s tone accompanies Hartman and vice versa so perfectly. Coltrane’s playing is incredibly beautiful—powerful yet understated—and it gives me goosebumps every time I hear this record.
NOAH PREMINGER

19. COLEMAN HAWKINS
Picasso: 1929-1949 (GIANTS OF JAZZ, COMPILATION 1998)
The title track is regarded as the first unaccompanied saxophone solo on record, setting the stage for contemporary players such as Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell.
JAMES CARTER

20. DEXTER GORDON
Go (BLUE NOTE, 1962)
Dexter in his prime and at his most comfortable. “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” alone is worth the price of admission.
JON IRABAGON

21. SONNY ROLLINS
Our Man in Jazz (RCA VICTOR, 1962)
The quintessential freewheeling outing, this album gave us extended standards such as “Oleo” and “Doxy” and inspired us to exercise more freedom within a structure. JAMES CARTER

22. JOE HENDERSON
Mode for Joe (BLUE NOTE, 1966)
If I had to pick one recording that combines great tenor playing with great writing and arranging, it’s Mode for Joe. The instrumentation is outstanding—almost like a little big-band at times—and all the soloists are on fire. WALT WEISKOPF

23. WAYNE SHORTER
JuJu (BLUE NOTE, 1964)
The Coltrane comparisons are inescapable—the “support” here is, after all, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman—but Shorter moves beyond the similarities in tone and approach and finds his way toward his own iconic voice, in writing and playing. JEFF TAMARKIN

24. JOHN COLTRANE
The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard
Recordings
(IMPULSE!/GRP, COMPILATION 1997)
The original Impulse! album, recorded in November 1961, is magnificent, but with this comprehensive box we gain even more insight into what Trane was investigating with his classic quartet at the time. He was finishing up one of his most prolific years, and the music is consistently at the highest level. JON IRABAGON

25. JOE HENDERSON
In ’n Out (BLUE NOTE, 1964)
Great tunes, and my favorite recording of this amazing frontline featuring Henderson and trumpeter Kenny Dorham.
WALTER SMITH III

26. SONNY ROLLINS AND COLEMAN HAWKINS
Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA VICTOR, 1963)
Imagine two conflicting histories of the world running concurrently. In the left channel is reality as we knew it, pre-Einstein. In the right channel is atonal relativism. The two truths never reconcile, but their stark juxtaposition is breathtaking. THOMAS CONRAD

27. CHARLES LLOYD
Forest Flower (ATLANTIC, 1966)
Listening to Lloyd play is like listening to a great poet recite Rumi: His spirit shines through in everything he does, and this recording is awesome. He has always played with the best cats, and here he’s joined by Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. His tunes aren’t overly complex, but what he makes out of them is remarkable. JEFF COFFIN

28. DEXTER GORDON
Our Man in Paris (BLUE NOTE, 1963)
I dare any modern tenor saxophonist today to say they haven’t been influenced by Gordon in one way or another. This record taught me that a great tone has no era or date. We are all Dexter Gordon’s children. JD ALLEN

29. STAN GETZ/JOÃO GILBERTO
Getz/Gilberto (VERVE, 1964)
A historic multiple Grammy winner and artistic triumph, this prodigious meet-up between Getz and the Brazilians Gilberto (guitar) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (piano, composer) took the bossa nova craze to dizzying heights, putting jazz improvisation into living rooms it had never before visited. JEFF TAMARKIN

30. JOE HENDERSON
The State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard (BLUE NOTE, 1986)
Joe, Ron Carter and Al Foster are so playful in their performances of these familiar tunes, as Joe rides freely in and out.
ANAT COHEN

31. BEN WEBSTER
Cottontail: The Best of Ben Webster
1931-1944 (ASV, COMPILATION 1995)
Any solo that is so memorable audiences insist on hearing that same solo every time a particular tune is played … is an influential solo that should be appreciated and studied. On “Cotton Tail” with Duke in 1940, Webster took the listener on a journey, building slowly, developing motifs and using chromaticism in a unique way.
WAYNE ESCOFFERY

32. CLIFFORD JORDAN/JOHN GILMORE
Blowing in From Chicago (BLUE NOTE, 1957)
This inspired Windy City hard-bop session finds tenor titans/ex-schoolmates Jordan and Gilmore (the latter moonlighting from Sun Ra) sharing a telepathic rapport, with sizzling support from Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Curly Russell. Their take on Bird’s “Billie’s Bounce” is positively explosive. JEFF TAMARKIN

33. COLEMAN HAWKINS/BEN WEBSTER
Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (VERVE, 1957)
A brilliant Norman Granz idea: uniting these two firmly established, albeit very different, tenors in the studio with the Oscar Peterson Trio. From the gruff, proto-R&B of “Blues for Yolande” through the Latinesque “La Rosita” and a handful of delicate ballads, this “encounter” brings out the best in everyone.
JEFF TAMARKIN

34. HANK MOBLEY
Soul Station (BLUE NOTE, 1960)
This wasn’t simply Mobley’s finest LP; it’s among the greatest quartet works in jazz, particularly hard bop. Mobley’s playing is disciplined and emphatic, warm and swinging. His tone is lush and full, his ideas superbly expressed and executed. He’s in top form as an interpreter, romantic and saxophone combatant.
RON WYNN

35. STAN GETZ/KENNY BARRON
People Time: The Complete Recordings
(SUNNYSIDE, COMPILATION 2010)
Getz is at his most naked on these 1991 Copenhagen live sets—all saxophone and piano duets—taped three months before his death. At times he struggles, but his patented buttery tone is intact and he’s lost none of his class or intuition. JEFF TAMARKIN

36. JOE HENDERSON
Page One (BLUE NOTE, 1963)
I’ve always said that this might be the best debut recording ever made. On future standards like Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” Henderson’s style is fully formed. ERIC ALEXANDER

37. JOE LOVANO QUARTETS
Live at the Village Vanguard (BLUE NOTE, 1996)
“Beauty” is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Lovano’s sound, and this double-disc release featuring two different bands is my favorite J-Lo recording. His approach to playing the American Songbook is so unique, and his version of “I Can’t Get Started” on this record still stuns me. His line phrasing is unlike anyone else’s. I love it. NOAH PREMINGER

38. THE JOHNNY GRIFFIN AND EDDIE “LOCKJAW” DAVIS QUINTET
Tough Tenors (JAZZLAND, 1960)
Gruff tones and edgy solos abound as the two macho tenormen go toe-to-toe. In classic cutting-contest fashion, they spar on swaggering burners like “Tickle Toe,” “Twins” and “Funky Fluke,” then chill on the lovely “Imagination” and the easy swinger “Soft Winds.” BILL MILKOWSKI

39. DEXTER GORDON
The Chase! The Complete Dial Sessions, 1947 (STASH, COMPILATION 1995)
This potent 1947 document captures the energy of Central Avenue, L.A.’s equivalent to New York’s 52nd Street, at the height of the bebop movement. Highlights include Gordon’s two-tenor battles with Wardell Gray on “The Chase” and with Teddy Edwards on “The Duel.” BILL MILKOWSKI

40. JOHN COLTRANE
Lush Life (PRESTIGE, 1961)
I think “I Love You” may be my favorite take on the record: I love the way Trane breaks up his double-time lines at the beginning of his solo. (It’s what they called “pecking.”) The whole record is a great example of Coltrane’s incredible lyrical and melodic sense, which is what I’ve always admired most about him.
GRANT STEWART

41. STAN GETZ/CHARLIE BYRD
Jazz Samba (VERVE, 1962)
This album helped introduce bossa nova to the U.S. on a large scale, forever changing the jazz musician’s repertoire.
HARRY ALLEN

42. ALBERT AYLER TRIO
Spiritual Unity (ESP-DISK, 1965)
Everything that made Ayler an absolute game-changer is here: the heavyweight tone, the trembling vibrato, the singsongy melodies, and the almost unnerving sense that to play this music this way was his lifeline. EVAN HAGA

43. LESTER YOUNG WITH THE OSCAR PETERSON TRIO
Lester Young With the Oscar Peterson Trio (NORGRAN, 1952)
Young was not Buddy Bolden, but it is hard to find records that support his reputation. Here, on “I Can’t Get Started,” it is clear that Young’s music came from pain, and that he transformed it into elegance—a defiant, courageous human affirmation.
THOMAS CONRAD

44. PHAROAH SANDERS
Karma (IMPULSE!, 1969)
Boasting one of the most breathtaking openings in all of jazz, Sanders’ half-hour-plus modal magnum opus, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” continues Trane’s cathartic searching on sunnier terms. EVAN HAGA

45. DON BYAS
Savoy Jam Party (ARISTA, COMPILATION 1976)
Byas at his finest before heading to Europe. He was truly an unsung giant—and his centennial is this year! Byas was that bridge into modern sax playing, just as Roy Eldridge was for the trumpet. JAMES CARTER

46. CHU BERRY
Classic Chu Berry Columbia and Victor
Sessions (MOSAIC, COMPILATION 2007)
Essential listening: “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.” In my opinion, this is Chu’s “Body and Soul”! A great performance with Cab Calloway’s orchestra, from start to finish.
JAMES CARTER

47. LEE KONITZ (WARNE MARSH, TENOR)
Subconscious-Lee (PRESTIGE, 1950)
Sure, Subconscious-Lee would be far closer to No. 1 if this were an alto countdown, but Konitz’s early success owed so much to the svelte, snaky hookup he shared with Warne Marsh. In the context of bop bluster and R&B honking, Marsh’s even-keeled delivery and Tristano-derived smarts were revelatory. EVAN HAGA

48. AL COHN/ZOOT SIMS
Complete Original Quintet/Sextet Studio
Recordings (LONE HILL, COMPILATION 2007)
Brothers sprung from Pres, Zoot and Al were not duelers. Zoot, ever the rhythm man, tap-danced through performances. Al complemented with his composer’s melodic sense and Jewish moan, which was more happy than sad. They always made you feel better. OWEN CORDLE

49. SAM RIVERS
Fuchsia Swing Song (BLUE NOTE, 1965)
The late Rivers became one of jazz’s most unique composer-bandleaders, with large-ensemble work that flaunted adventure, ambition and order equally. But on this Blue Note debut, which contains his classic “Beatrice,” it’s his quintessentially inside-outside improvising that hits you hardest. EVAN HAGA

50. EDDIE HARRIS
The In Sound (ATLANTIC, 1965)
This record has absolutely flawless tenor playing of many types: gutbucket gospel-blues, traditional straight-ahead playing and modal playing using larger intervals—plus beautiful soul compositions (one of them is “Freedom Jazz Dance,” an iconic tune if there ever was one). Then there are the beats; Eddie Harris wrote beats.
DON BYRON

Originally published in June 2012

9 Comments

  • Jul 17, 2012 at 02:10PM Blake Meynig

    In my opinion, "Dexter Calling!" should have made the list.

  • Jul 17, 2012 at 02:12PM Blake Meynig

    As well as Mike Brecker's "Pilgrimage."

  • Jul 19, 2012 at 02:16PM MG JAZZ

    Great list! See David Murray listed as describing some of the top albums but not named as a performed. How about adding David Murray's deceptively apparently simple "Morning Song".

  • Jul 23, 2012 at 09:10PM Steve L

    Ornette Colman? Seriously? No Gene Ammons, Lockjaw Davis, Charlie Rouse, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips just to name a few great tenor players.

    Thomas Conrad gets a say at who to add to a tenor essentials list and he picks Ornette Colman? What an asshole.

  • Jul 25, 2012 at 01:51PM Warren Clark

    How about Sal Nistico instead of Ornette? I dig Sal a lot.

  • Aug 17, 2012 at 04:05PM ffridiejr

    Dexter Gordon "Manhattan Symphonie"

    Gene Ammons "Boss Tenor"

    Ben Webster "Soulville"

  • Aug 20, 2012 at 10:53AM flat9

    Warne Marsh is not on the Prestige recording of "Subconscious-Lee" (front line is Konitz, Tristano, and Billy Bauer).
    But some other great Warne Marsh recordings include
    "Release Record, Send Tape" (Mode Records)
    Lennie Tristano Quintet "Live at Birdland 1949" (Jazz Records)
    Lennie Tristano Sextet "Intuition" "Digression" (Capitol) "Wow" (Jazz Records)
    "Warne Marsh" (Atlantic)
    "Warne Out"
    Lee Konitz "Live at the Half Note" (Verve)
    Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh "Two Not One" (Storyville)
    the list goes on..

  • Nov 17, 2012 at 06:33AM David Leonnig

    I'm late to this party, but having listened to almost everything on this list, I don't know how you can ignore guys like Warne Marsh and Pete Christlieb. Marsh is without a doubt one of them most incredible improvisers I have ever heard, and his recording output is substantial. He does not fit the "mold" of the east coast bruising tenor, but neither does Getz. I suggest that Joe Henderson's sound changed in his later years as well. And despite his Grammy win, no "Lush Life" for Henderson? It was his best selling album for a good reason. But I do love Blue Bossa.

  • Nov 17, 2012 at 06:44AM David Leonnig

    One more note: After looking at the pros name their favorites, my response is mostly blah, blah, blah. John Coltrane had ears for a lot of guys, but most of the current crop of musicians don't hear as much I'd prefer. Branford Marsalis, God Bless Him, named Marsh as did Chris Kelsey. The musicians with the broadest range of styles impressed me. And virtually no one chose Lucky Thompson, who was flat out great in every setting, from Dizzy to Stan Kenton. Glad to see people still listening to Chu Berry. And seeing Gene Ammons and Arnett Cobb on the list - Good job. Sonny Stitt still needs more love.

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