Friday, January 27, 2006

The Devil's Horn

All Reedy, Then...

How can one not be interested in a musical instrument banned by Nazis, Communists and the Catholic church? It's also just about the newest of the major musical instruments, dating from 1843 when Adolphe Sax built the first one. Not only that, but the saxophone family of instruments has become a ubiquitous element of jazz and popular music. W.C. Fields once said, "A gentleman is one who knows how to play the saxophone, but refrains from doing so." Today, it seems everyone wants to play the saxophone. It's cool and hot and like a woman with a past, the sax is controversial to this day.

To fully appreciate the colorful history of the saxophone, one should pick up a copy of "The Devil's Horn," by Michael Segell. It gives a highly entertaining account of the birth of the saxophone through its invention in 1843 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian craftsman who was every bit as colorful as the events surrounding his namesake instrument. His early prototypes impressed the musical elite of the day, composers Berlioz and Lizst, for example. But they tended to horrify certain types of non-musicians. Perhaps it was because the saxophone had a particularly human sound, one that was described as "carnal," and "voluptuous." It became known as the "Devil's Horn."

Opponents of the saxophone and rival instrument makers decried the unnatural union of reed and brass. They physically assaulted Sax on numerous occasions. They attacked his instruments rendering them unplayable in attempts to discredit the inventor and his mysterious horn. The Vatican declared the instrument "profane" and forbade believers to listen to it for fear of falling into sin. The Nazis heard something else--revolution. So they described it as "unpure" and "devisive." Ultimately, their condemnation of the sax in particular led to the banishment of jazz in general. Clearly, saxophones were revolutionary since they provoked such abandonment of inhibitions and encouraged creativity and frivolity.

Despite the prohibitionist pressure, saxophones prevailed and proliferated in all their amazing forms from giant contra-bass saxes to bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano and tiny sopranino variations. The range and color available from saxophones has led to the formation of saxophone orchestras, The London Saxophonic, The Nuclear Whales and Saxemble to name a few modern organizations.

Of course, it was the playing of jazz greats Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond that established the saxophone's virtuosity as an instrument of improvisation. Then there is the big band factor and the undeniable impact of the pliable, customizeable saxophone ensemble sound on the bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman, to name but a few.

Most people would assume the popular tenor or alto saxophones were the first born of the Sax family. Not true. Good old Adolphe started off with a bass clef instrument. He had already come up with his family of saxhorns (from which are born todays brass band instruments) and redesigned the bass clarinet to a greatly improved standard, but he also wanted to produce an instrument that played in octaves rather than twelfths. His first goal was to replace the squaking and squally tone of the well-named hecklephone and the obstreperous bass oboe. So, the first sax out of the womb was the bass saxophone, an instrument of formidable proportions. It stands around six feet tall and must be played at an angle (with a sturdy harness) or on a stand with the player sitting on a stool.

Although originally available in either B-flat or C (the latter for orchestral use), the modern bass saxophone is pitched in B-flat. Music for bass sax is written in treble clef, just as music for the other saxophones is written, but for the bass instrument, it sounds two octaves and a major second lower than written. Like the other members of the saxophone family, the lowest written note is B-flat below the staff; for bass saxophone, this note is a concert-pitch A-flat. The low notes have a rich roundness that make your ankles wobble ( as does holding the thing up after a while ).

The bass saxophone is not heard much today and that is a shame. Perhaps it is a matter of size and weight. The thing is a monster! Or, it could be the expense of purchasing one. A vintage horn from Selmer (successor to the Adolphe Sax Company) or Conn command $20,000 or so. There have been a few new horns, but they are usually commissioned from instrument makers and you don't want to know what the going price is! So, there aren't that many bass sax players out there compared to the tenor-alto-soprano crowd.

Still, there are good recordings available and I highly recommend you check out the incredible, unforgettable sound of the bass saxophone at full steam. Adrian Rollini is the name associated with the bass sax in its dance band heydey of the 1920's and 1930's. He is heard to best advantage on "The Goofus Five," available at a reasonable price through Amazon. It's a rollicking record that also includes Rollini on novelty instruments such as the Goofus (today's Melodica) and the "Hot Fountain Pen," an oddball that most resembles penny whistle with a sax mouthpiece, but who really knows?, the instrument has been lost to antiquity.

My recommendation for a "modern" bass saxophone recording is "Thinking Big" by Scott Robinson. He plays a mean bass saxophone on the jazz quintet recording as well as all the other members of the sax family, including a rare and raucous relative called the Contrabass Sarrousaphone. This is party and dance music with tunes like "Sleepiy Time Gal" (bass sax) and Duke Ellington's "Ko-Ko" (contrabass sax).

Once you get the bass sax in your head, you will lust for more. After all, it IS the Devil's Horn.

The Stickler


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