I was playing alto saxophone when I was growing up and was not really connected to it. I didn’t want to switch to tenor, so my teacher suggested the bari. I said, “What are you, crazy? I don’t want to carry that thing around!” But the first time I tried it, three notes in I was connected. The first player he hipped me to was Pepper Adams, who became my biggest influence in terms of sound and approach. Then came Cecil Payne and Gerry Mulligan. As far as what makes an effective solo, something has to come to my mind when I’m listening to it, like I can almost feel what the story was that they were trying to tell. The baritone saxophone is often overlooked, but if you want something new to transcribe, why not do a bari solo?
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the selections in this Artist’s Choice:
Donald Byrd, At the Half Note Café (Blue Note, 1960)
When I listened to that solo I almost felt like I was there. Pepper was taking the listener to a place that he or she had never been to before. That was the first baritone solo I ever listened to, and my teacher at the time said, “This is going to make you want to play the baritone.” Just going back to Adams’ sound, his phrasing—for me it’s just a really powerful solo as far as the changes.
“Stop and Listen”
The Connection (Charlie Parker, 1962)
When I first got this record, I hadn’t transcribed any Cecil. I loved even the intro, when he’s playing that low C, just the sound. And then he goes into the head and it’s effortless. It’s so beautiful the way he shapes his lines. I’m just talking about the melody right now, but the solo has so much incredible bop language.
Nick Brignola and Pepper Adams
Nick Brignola Sextet featuring Pepper Adams, Baritone Madness (Bee Hive, 1978)
The first solo is Pepper. He’s burning, he’s killing it. Then they have a piano solo or something and then Nick comes in and I just felt like I got smacked in the face. He’s coming out of Pepper but he is also on something else: crystal-clear intonation, upper register, playing lines into the stratosphere and perfectly in tune. I heard that and I was like, I want to be able to do this.
“Venus de Milo”
Gerry Mulligan and the Sax Section, The Gerry Mulligan Songbook (World Pacific, 1958)
Everything that Mulligan ever played, solos especially, sounds like a song. It’s so lyrical and has that quintessential West Coast cool sound, which he invented. I like the solo but I used to listen to the melody incessantly. His composition and arranging influences his playing so much.
George Benson, The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia, 1967)
Aside from being one of the baddest baritone players on the planet, Cuber is an incredible musician. He plays drums, he plays flute, he plays tenor. “The Cooker” is just power. The baritone is no-holds-barred—the way he articulates. A lot of people would say it’s like a tenor or an alto. This solo proves that you can do anything on the baritone.
Duke Ellington, Ellington at Newport (Columbia, 1956)
I love the arrangement, and Harry soars and sings throughout the tune. Duke obviously wrote for members of his band, and when you hear everything that Harry puts into playing a melody the way that he does—sound, control—I don’t know if it gets any better than that.
“All the Things You Are”
Blue Serge (Capitol, 1956)
He would have been more of a household name had he lived past the age of 33. He had addiction issues and used to hang out with Charlie Parker and he played with Woody Herman’s Second Herd. He lived really hard—when he recorded this he had spinal cancer—but every time he put the horn to his mouth, you couldn’t stop him.
Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne
John Coltrane, Dakar (Prestige, 1963)
I like to think that John Coltrane, who was credited as the album’s leader when it was reissued in the early ’60s, loved the baritone and said, “Let’s do this, two baritones and a tenor.” It’s just a fun tune. I wanted to include this one because if you listen to Pepper and Cecil, both of them are playing so much language and so many ideas, but they’re so different. They’re so complementary to one another throughout the entire record.
Mingus Big Band, Live in Time (Dreyfus, 1996)
The reason I picked this one and not the original “Moanin’” by Charles Mingus, which is amazing in and of itself, is because when you listen to this recording you can feel yourself at the Time Café; it really takes you there.
Three Baritone Saxophone Band (Ronnie Cuber, Nick Brignola, Gary Smulyan)
Three Baritone Saxophone Band Plays Mulligan (Dreyfus, 1997)
Aside from the fact that everybody plays a brilliant solo, every time I listen to the melody I get chills. This record came out the year that I moved to New York City. I was in school and it was just overwhelming. I would listen to this record, and especially to this tune, and it made me feel like everything’s going to be all right. I really aspired to be at that level. We used to wear this one out, when you could actually wear things out.
[as told to Jeff Tamarkin]