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Alto Essentials

The most important alto saxophone albums in jazz history

Sonny Stitt
Benny Carter
Ornette Coleman
Bunky Green and Rudresh Mahanthappa at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival
Lou Donaldson
Eric Dolphy (left) and Kenny Dorham, March 1964

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.

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.

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