Let’s talk about the sax, baby: how one of music’s most maligned instruments won back pop and indie
WWhen an experimental independent band Black Country, New Road performs live, saxophonist Lewis Evans will often take center stage, occupying the hallowed place traditionally occupied by a lead singer. It’s partly a question of aesthetics. The seven London-based tracks relish the subversive madness of putting the saxophonist forward, relegating their singer, Isaac Wood, to the sidelines. But it’s also a commentary on the group’s egalitarian music, in which the human voice and saxophone are also part of the warp and weft. “It takes away from the setup of the conventional rock band,” says Evans The independent. “It’s quite refreshing to see a band that is not just two electric guitars, a bass and a drums.”
“Refreshing” is one way of describing the return of the saxophone. Historically, the instrument has been vilified as cheese was sprinkled over a soft drink in the middle of the road. Say “sax” and a lot of people automatically flash to Gerry Rafferty’s endless “Baker Street” solo. It was rock’s response to Alan Partridge – naff and oblivious to its own ridiculousness.
In recent years, however, the instrument has regained its relevance and credibility. And not just in the world of alternative music. Nick Jonas’ new album, Astronaut, is splattered with sax – the emotional crescendo of the March single “This Is Heaven” provided by a hoarse solo. “It definitely has that Steve Winwood, Michael Bolton feel,” Jonas told SiriusXM Hits 1. “It’s a good time.”
Then there’s North Shields blues-rocker Sam Fender, who went to Springsteen in his chart-topping debut. Hypersonic missiles deploying Clarence Clemons fills at every opportunity. Bat For Lashes’ 2019 album, influenced by the 80s Lost girls used the instrument to evoke the late summer emotion of a John Hughes film. The 1975, whose debut albums hit the charts thanks to their contagious and indebted funk-pop grooves from the 80s, included swaggering on songs such as “Love Me” and “This Must Be My Dream.”
“The ’80s are sonically back and the saxophone is part of it,” says London-based singer, producer and saxophone ace Kat Deal. “Nick Jonas’s record is very eighty. You can get away with using the saxophone this way. Horns in general have seen a resurgence over the past five years.
This rehabilitation was long in coming. Although an essential component of jazz and contemporary music, in mainstream pop, brass has rarely been cool. From Raphael Ravenscroft’s “Baker Street” solo to Steve Gregory on George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” the sax had become associated with a certain pomposity of the late 1970s – the musical equivalent of the frosted-tipped mullet. Yet these old prejudices are dissipating. Musicians and audiences are now developing a deeper understanding of the instrument’s utility and its heritage.
The Latin boom played a huge role in helping a resurgence in the mainstream popularity of brass instruments. Pioneers such as Augusto Coen in the 1930s had a major influence on the now ubiquitous presence of the saxophone in much of contemporary Puerto Rican pop. Ricky Martin celebrated this with his explosive 1999 sensation, “Livin ‘la Vida Loca” (widely regarded as the song that started the first explosion in Latin pop). The track incorporated elements of salsa that Puerto Rican musicians had helped popularize in the United States decades before, and are still heard in the charts today.
In hip-hop too, the saxophone makes a big statement. Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece in 2015 Pimp a butterfly introduced Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington to a new generation of fans. Washington’s interstellar playing style helped Lamar make a connection between Compton’s rap he was raised on to his wish to pay homage to jazz as an expression of African-American identity.
Lewis Evans of Black Country suggests that the age of streaming has opened up genres like jazz, salsa, and blues to people who otherwise might never have discovered it. “Spotify lets people fall for a lot of things, but there are a few benefits,” he said. “For example, people from anywhere could listen to an old Ornette Coleman record. It’s good for that. This is definitely one reason why you see more bands with saxophones.
This freedom to rediscover the past has revealed a secret saxophone history, highlighting figures like James Chance. The experimental saxophonist was a significant presence in the 1970s New York no wave scene, performing with radical musicians such as Lydia Lunch. “People like Chance and Roxy Music are coming back into the conversation,” says Evans. “And maybe get more attention than they’ve been in the past 20 years. The musician thinks, ‘Oh, that sounds cool. Why not imitate this? “. Groups are inspired to add the saxophone to their normal setup. “
The sax also has the ability to bring instant happiness. Nothing stirs people’s minds like a saxophone in flight. Consider E-Street’s Clarence Clemons and the emotionally charged play on Springsteen classics such as ‘Born To Run’, where the instrument vividly conveys the desire for a small town and the thrill of the road. Or the suspicious vertigo of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel, a piece which owes its irresistible quality to the saxophone strokes of Max Rivera. And more recently there’s the example of Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”: four and a half minutes of exuberance in the bottle fueled by a triple hit of saxophones, including former Sharon Jones and Dap-Kings mainstay Ian. Hendrickson-Smith.
“It’s the funniest instrument,” says producer and musician Brendan Mills, whose latest single, “We Can Have It All,” is a mood-enhancing collaboration with singer Tess Burrstone. “He has this sound that is instantly recognizable and sonically stimulating. It is such a summery, pleasant and romantic instrument.
The saxophone’s reputation for corniness belies its versatility, as Mills proves when he plays to uplifting house rhythms. It’s several worlds removed from Evans and Black Country, the beginnings of New Road, For the first time, where the saxophone brings an avant-garde, slightly disturbing sensibility. There is, it turns out, a saxophone solo for each season. “I don’t play in a particularly ‘saxophone’ way,” says Evans. “When you have your own business with the instrument, it is easier to take it more seriously.” He doesn’t play “Kenny G-type stuff” on top, he points out. “But if I did, it would be funny.”
For years, the curse of the saxophone was that it was seen as a novelty supplement, Lewis says. “’Oh, look at this band, they have a saxophone. Which is fair, I guess. I understand why it sounds like this crazy thing. But it never seemed like a big deal to us to put a saxophone in the mix. He takes music into a more “contemporary music” domain. What is really effective – it gives us an added advantage. “
With this surge in the instrument’s popularity, amateur musicians are giving it a second chance, especially during lockdown, as they search for new ways to be entertained. Jules Lawrence, deputy director of Sax.co.uk, says the lockdown has caused a “huge upsurge” in people taking their sleeping hobbies more seriously. “The last big upsurge that I can remember as a specific thing was a massive increase in the popularity of baritones shortly after Amy Winehouse released ‘Rehab’,” he says.
Saxophone players tend to have an intense relationship with their instrument. Often they talk about discovering the sax, as people remember meeting their future spouse for the first time or seeing a movie that changed their life. “I was 18 and already a singer. I was in a vocal harmony group and we sang with a saxophonist, ”says Kat Deal. “It was a tenor sax. The sound was so human. I found it to be very similar to voice in a way. I thought, “Oh, I want to play the saxophone”. My parents didn’t want to buy me one. Initially, I had to rent one.
For Brendan Mills, the saxophone was a way to cope with his parents’ breakup. “My mom and dad separated when I was very, very young – five years old. When they sorted things out, I had to go down to a summer camp in Somerset. “There was this guy playing the saxophone on stage. I remember doing “wow”. And he obviously understood it. He looked at me and said: “One day you are going to play the saxophone”. I went back to mom’s house and said, “I have to play the saxophone”. It’s the only thing I’ve done since.
The pure enjoyment of the saxophone goes beyond mere sound considerations. When a saxophonist comes out, the crowd straightens up. “People love it,” says Kat Deal. “Every time I play the saxophone people are like ‘ooh…’ You don’t understand that with the trumpet or the guitar. There is certainly a performative element that you don’t have with other instruments. You can dance while playing the saxophone. You cannot do this behind a keyboard or a battery. “
“The saxophone is so versatile,” adds Brendan Mills. “It lends itself to all genres – from jazz to Ibiza house. It is a timeless instrument.