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Artist’s Choice: Grant Stewart on Big Tenor Sounds

The swinging tenorman picks giant-toned tracks

Sonny Rollins with Coleman Hawkins at Newport, 1963
Grant Stewart
Tenor saxist Lester Young and pianist Count Basie in the foreground; behind (l-to-r) Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Coulson, trumpets; Leo Parker, alto sax; Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Kansas Fields, drums; and Junior Raglin, bass

I started on alto saxophone and to this day I still love the sound of that instrument. However, from the age of about 12, when I got my hands on a tenor sax for a few minutes and heard Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon on “The Chase,” I fell in love with the bigger horn. I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s something in a good tenor sound that can move you almost physically. Jimmy Heath told me he could feel the vibrations from Gene Ammons’ sound on the floor of a theater balcony.

Here are some examples of great sounds-in no particular order of importance-that have influenced and inspired me over the years.

Don Byas

“(London Donnie) Danny Boy”
The Best of Byas 1938-49 (Future Noise, 2009)

I don’t know the exact frequency that his horn is vibrating at on this recording, but I feel my organs buzzing, and I think it’s from the tenor. Yep, it’s definitely from the tenor. If we could somehow beam this sound down onto the general populace, I believe there would be an end to all need for anti-anxiety medications. All of the tracks on this compilation are equally amazing (check out “Laura”).

Dexter Gordon

“Scrapple From the Apple”
Our Man in Paris (Blue Note, 1963)

Dexter’s always been a favorite, and here’s a great example of his giant sound at full power. It’s also a good example of jazz rocking harder than rock music.

Gene Ammons

“A Stranger in Town”
Gentle Jug Volume 2 (Concord/Prestige, 1995)

This album is a compilation gathered from several Prestige recordings. Most of the people who were around to hear all of the greats agree that Jug had a sound bigger than anyone. This is an example of a giant tiptoeing; even at pianissimo, his sound is enormous.

Ben Webster

“I Surrender Dear”
Big Ben, Disc 3: 52nd Street Days (Proper, 2002)

The master of embellishment. Once again the depth of his tone and density of his sound are truly amazing.

Coleman Hawkins

“Think Deep”
The Hawk Flies High (Riverside, 1957)

This is some of my favorite Hawk. It’s a little later than what a lot of people consider to be his prime, but to me it’s some of his greatest playing. Quite a bit more edge to his sound, but still warm and resonant.

Coleman Hawkins

“Here I’ll Stay”
Good Old Broadway (Prestige Moodsville, 1962)

I couldn’t neglect this one. If you don’t have this record (or Concord’s 1997 compilation On Broadway), run, don’t walk, to get it. It’s even later and gruffer than “Think Deep” but still so beautiful. I don’t know what was in the air in the studio that day, but this recording has something sonically that I don’t think any other recording has, plus the selection of tunes is incredible.

Sonny Rollins

“Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”
Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders (Contemporary, 1959)

Sonny’s sound influenced me more than any other saxophonist. He’s one of my favorites. This is a strange recording audio-wise-it always sounded very dry to me-but you can hear Sonny like you’re inside his horn.

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass (MetroJazz, 1958)

Alright, one more from Sonny…

Jones-Smith Incorporated

Lester Young, tenor

“Oh, Lady Be Good”
The Essential Count Basie Volume 1 (Columbia, 1987)

Prez in his prime, recorded in Chicago in 1936.

Lester Young

“Sometimes I’m Happy”
The Complete Lester Young: The Essential Keynote Collection I (Mercury, 1987)

Recorded in 1943, this cut arrived a little later than the last one. I couldn’t just list one Prez recording!

Grant Stewart is a saxophonist and composer whose latest recording as a leader is Live at Smalls (SmallsLive). Visit him online at

Originally Published