About the Baritone Sax

About the Baritone Sax.

Alain Cupper

Although it has exceptional qualities (voluptuous register, warm sound, deep and expressive, rare dynamic and harmonic possibilities, speed and easy handling for an instrument with low tessitura, …), the baritone sax remains relatively unknown and unused. Its high price, its bulky size and a “column of air” difficult to control likely harm its popularity.

Used a few times in contemporary classical music, in Rock or Pop, it is especially in jazz that this wonderful instrument feels most comfortable. Much less often in the limelight as his little brothers, the tenor, alto and soprano saxes, it does have talentuous ambassadors talent to make its voice heard.

Harry CARNEY thrones high on the list. He was a pillar of the D. Ellington orchestra. Rightly regarded as the father of all baritones, he aroused a great number of vocations. Since 1927, he began some exploratory work on this instrument and succeeds with elegance and refinement to give the baritone its noble pedigree. At about the same time and in his legacy, Jack WASHINGTON plays the baritone sax for the C. Basie orchestra, with great success. Haywood HENRY plays with E. Hawkins. And Ernie CACERAS shows great mastery of the instrument with, for example, S. Bechet.

In the early ’40s, Serge CHALOFF becomes a major soloist and the first Be-bop baritone with highly innovative ideas, a unique sound and a great emotional discharge. Leo PARKER also plays in a bop style but grounded in the blues, he possessed a big sound and a powerful playing. Cecil PAYNE began his career around 1945, with a warm sound and a great ease, he plays with C. Parker, D. Gillespie and R. Weston. The most impressive of all is probably Pepper Adams, whose magnificent sound, thick and sharp, worked wonderfully in all contexts, from Coltrane to Mingus through Monk and L. Niehaus.

People started to talk about him in the ’50s, Gerry MULLIGAN remains in the collective memory the great baritone of the jazz history, in any case the most popular. A prolific composer and subtle arranger, he was a musician playing flexibly and soft but also more than anyone, he contributed to empower the baritone sax and make it recognized as a soloist voice in its own right. Bob GORDON unfortunately gone too soon (he died in 1955 at age 27), could have become the most important of its generation: his sharp and clear sound resulted, with apparent ease, a logical music, seductive and irresistibly swinging. At the same period, Boots MUSSULI and Virgil GONSALVES were musicians less well-known but very interesting. In a very intellectual style, Gil MELLE is an exciting and innovative musician. Jimmy GIUFFRE, before focusing on the clarinet, was an excellent baritone and Jack NIMITZ was a very good soloist who has played with “Supersax”. Better known on the tenor, Bill Perkins plays the baritone softly and with lyricism.

In a completely different style, Hamiet BLUIETT was once considered as “the new messiah of the baritone saxophone”. A perfect mastery of the instrument allowed him to push the limits and some of his solos are a true catalog of the different sounds possible. Pat PATRICK and Charles DAVIS have often played together at Sun Ra and are both admirable musicians, at ease in all registers. Sahib SHIHAB also known on the alto and the flute, has on the baritone an incisive sound and proves himself, like Jerome RICHARDSON, an improviser of great interest.

In the new generation Ronnie CUBER is most interesting, served by a remarkable technique, a wealth of ideas and great musicality. In the same spheres, Nick BRIGNOLA, who died in 2002, had an impressive ease and velocity. In line with P. Adams, Gary SMULYAN is a musician to follow closely. A little less known but equally captivating, Glenn Wilson plays the baritone with the lightness and velocity of a tenor and Denis DIBLASIO seems increasingly to be an important player, such as Dale FIELDER and Kerry STRAYER. Roger ROSENBERG served by a very good technique, has played, among others, with the “Bob Mintzer Big Band” and the “Manhattan Jazz Orchestra”. Jim HARTOG plays in the “29th Street Saxophone Quartet” and is a model of stability. Howard JOHNSON also known on the tuba, plays equally superbly the baritone sax and James CARTER plays with ease all types of saxophones. Claire DALY is one of the few women to play the baritone. Charles EVANS puts his beautiful sound in the service of experimental jazz and states in the title of one of his records that the baritone is “The King of all Instruments”. Three original ensembles bring together several baritone saxophonists: the”Baritone Saxophone Band” under the leadership of Ronnie CUBER, the”Baritone Saxophone Summit” with Jack NIMITZ and the”Baritone Nation” of Hamiet BLUIETT. All these musicians come from the land where jazz was born: the United States.

Around the world other voices are important. Lars GULLIN, major figure in the jazz of the 50s in Sweden was an outstanding baritone, and his son Peter GULLIN took up the same instrument as his father with equal enthusiasm. John Pal INDERBERG and Paroni PAAKKUNAINEN also come from Nordic countries and both have real personality. In England, George HASLAM often played in duet (with M. Waldrom) and John SURMAN has developed a very personal concept in a minimalist and impressionistic style. Alan BARNES who also plays the Alto, is particularly interesting when he takes his baritone. Ronnie ROSS, an excellent jazz musician did a great solo in “Walk on the Wild Side” by L. Reed. Born in Great Britain but pursuing his career in the USA, Joe TEMPERLEY plays in a style influenced by H. Carney. Dutchman Ton van de Geijn demonstrates a wonderful mastery. German Thomas ZOLLER has worked particularly with L. Konitz. In Italy, the excellent Bruno MARINI often marries his baritone with the sound of an Hammond organ and in Spain, there is Joan CHAMORRO Joan who also plays the bass saxophone. The French Michel De VILLERS was in the 50s, the great specialist of the baritone in his country. Currently the legacy seems assured by, among others, Xavier RICHARDEAU who, with a very good technique and a beautiful sound, is a most endearing musician. Eric SEVA is a fine soloist and an original composer. Francis CORNELOUP became a major musician of the French and European scene.

It is in Belgium that the saxophone was invented and that the first baritone notes were played. This country was also the birthplace of Jean-Pierre GEBLER emblematic figure of Belgian Jazz in general and particularly the baritone. With a certain nonchalance legacy of Lester Young, he played with D. Gordon, J. Pelzer, C. Baker, G. Mulligan and many others. Johan VANDENDRISSCHE has superb sound and excellent technique with which he wanders in different styles. Bo VAN DER WERF plays a complex music with a beautiful architecture played in a very personal way.

As a fermata, let’s quickly cite in no particular order other musicians who are all part of this small family of fans that are the “Baritone Saxophonists”: Jay CAMERON, Charles TYLER, Turk MAURO, Gil MELVIN, Tate HOUSTON, Eddie DE VERTEUIL, Fred PIRTLE, Maurice SIMON, Johnny DOVER, William BOUCAYA, Lukas HEUSS, Jan MENU, Jean ETEVE, Andy LASTER, Rik VAN DEN BERGH, Cecilia WENNERSTRÖM, Daunik LAZRO, Del DAKO, Nestor ZURITA, Andy PANAYI, Rony VERBIEST, Bill GRAHAM, Charles FOWKLES, …

There are, of course, many other baritone saxophonists of interest – all the musicians mentioned in this text are musicians that I had the opportunity to listen, analyze or even, for some, to meet – With all my respect and admiration,

Alain Cupper



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