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A Celebration of The Finest Alto Saxophonists

top Alto Saxophonists

The saxophone was invented by Belgian Adolphe Saxe in the early 1840s.

The main saxophones, classed by range from low to high are Baritone, Tenor, Alto, and, Soprano, with the Tenor and Alto being the most commonly played.

While there is the classical repertoire and some true virtuoso instrumentalists, the saxophones found their place, first in marching bands of the late 19th century and later in the big bands of the 1930s.

With the advent of bebop in the 1940s, the saxophone entered the modern era as a solo instrument.

Saxophones can be heard in every style of music from Metal Rock to Free Jazz to Contemporary Classical Saxophone Quartets.

In this article we look at five alto saxophone players who changed how the instrument was played and sounded

Johnny Hodges

Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges (July 25, 1907 – May 11, 1970)

Johnny Hodges

When Johnny Hodges passed away unexpectedly Duke Ellington had this to say in the eulogy:

Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes—this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.

“Rabbit” as he was nicknamed, influenced generations of not only alto players but jazz musicians in general, for his lyricism, economy of notes, and rhythmic precision.

Hodges, a uniquely individual player, admitted that his only real influence was the great and influential soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet.

Like all jazz musicians, Johnny Hodges’ vocabulary was based on the blues as can be heard in Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be

Further Recommended Listening:
In a Mellow Tone and I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.

Cannonball Adderley

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (September 15, 1928 – August 8, 1975)

Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley was born and raised in Florida. He studied music at Florida A&M and directed the Dillard high school band in Ft. Lauderdale before he decided to move to New York City in 1955.

It didn’t take long before his strident, hard bop sound and vocabulary got him noticed. In 1958 he became the sixth member of the Miles Sextet alongside John Coltrane on Tenor.

His solos on the seminal jazz recording Kind Of Blue, are reason enough to put Cannonball high up on any list of Alto Saxophonists.

In 1966, Capitol Records released Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at “The Club” featuring Joe Zawinul’s song Mercy, Mercy Mercy. By 1967 it reached Number two on the Billboard Soul Chart and number eleven on the Hot 100, which led to international tours and television appearances.

Recommended listening: Mercy Mercy Mercy – Live and All Blues.

Charlie Parker Jr.

( August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955)

Charlie Parker Jr.

Clearly, the most influential alto player of the bunch, Bird as he was affectionately known, was one of the true innovators in all of jazz music, let alone his “voice” on the alto.

He completely revolutionized the way the instrument was played and used by expanding the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic vocabularies of the day into what came to be called Bebop.

Bebop was a move away from jazz as dance music towards a more intellectual approach.

Small groups usually piano bass drums and one or two horns took songs of the day and adapted them with alternate chords and other devices. The subculture that arose around these gigs became the first real hipsters.

Bird’s recorded output has been thoroughly analyzed. There are complete transcriptions of every solo he ever played. Record companies have released out-takes from sessions that ultimately ended up on the editing floor and these too have been transcribed. Bird’s command of the instrument, the art form, and the language, still reverberate through our ears.

Every generation of aspiring jazz musicians has the same reaction when they first hear Charlie Parker. It’s as if a light goes on and an entire world of possibilities opens up.

Bird is THAT important. Listen to his solo break on “A Night In Tunisia”.

Further Listening

Koko (Original Take 2) and Cool Blues.

Randolph Denard “Ornette Coleman”

(March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015)

Ornette Coleman

It happens in all art forms. Someone comes along and creates a body of work so unique and powerful that it influences generations of artists to come. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, appears someone else who is able to see/hear things from an entirely new perspective.

Ornette Coleman grew up in Texas playing rhythm and blues and bebop on tenor saxophone. He went on to pioneer what is known as the Avant-Garde or Free Jazz movement.

In 1958 he recorded “Something Else” and in 1959 “The Shape of Jazz To Come”, two records that changed the jazz world forever.

While he was branded a fraud by many of the beboppers, much of the music pays clear homage to the bop language. “Broadway Blues” and ‘The Turnaround” are anything but free instead utilizing the same compositional techniques that other composers employ.

Known for his alto playing, he also performed on trumpet and violin, and on later recordings embraced the world of electronics. His 2007 release of “Sound Grammar” won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music that year.

Subsequent generations of musicians who were influenced by Ornette include Pat Metheney, Dave Holland, Joshua Redman, and Kamasi Washington.

Recommended listening: Lonely Woman and The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Lee (Leon) Konitz

(October 13, 1927 – April 15, 2020)

Lee Konitz

Alto Saxophonist Lee Konitz covered a lot of musical territories, from bebop, to cool jazz to the avant-garde.

He was one of very few who managed to not directly imitate Charlie Parker, choosing instead to develop his own language and style.

His approach is characterized by long melodic lines, polyrhythmic note groupings and cross-meter implications played with a dryish, clear sound.

His playing on Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool cemented his reputation as a unique voice.

His album Subconscious-Lee. (Prestige, 1955) is considered a cornerstone of the Cool Jazz movement

Recommended tracks include I Remember You and Subconscious-Lee.

Each of these alto saxophonists left indelible marks on both the instrument and the music they dedicated their lives to.

Thankfully there are thousands of recordings to listen to and in many cases today, actual video footage of these artists in their prime.

Happy Listening.