By Andrew Hadro
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I would like to present a list of essential baritone saxophone albums. This list is meant for relative newcomers to the baritone saxophone or jazz and those looking to become familiar with the most common and perhaps most influential baritone saxophonists and recordings. For the existing fans of the baritone, I have compiled a list of ‘deeper listening’ albums that may be much less known as suggested by some of the leading baritonists of today. 
 
Of course the hardest part of developing this list is whittling it down and deciding what precious few albums to include. I invite and encourage you all to comment below with your favorite baritone recordings, please be sure to include why they are your favorite too! Special thanks to Frank Basile for consulting on this article. On top of being an incredible baritonist, he is a wealth of information.
 
For this list I first chose 5 albums/musicians who I think have been most influential for the baritone saxophone in jazz. If I were to boil down the baritone to two main roads it would be the Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan dichotomy. They roughly fit into the classic and perhaps tired trope of ‘East Coast’ vs ‘West Coast’ where in the west coast, or cool jazz is known for more harmonically simpler and more melodic focused. The East Coast style being more known for faster tempos, technique, harmony and in general almost a more combative vibe. Seasoned listeners are already shaking their fist at the computer saying “What About Harry Carney?!” and I would argue that Harry Carney precedes both and is the father of the baritone saxophone. While Pepper maybe has more direct influence from Carney, both Mulligan and Adams acknowledged that they were influenced by and appreciated of Harry Carney.
 
So I present to you my humble recommendations for those looking to get started with the baritone saxophone. For further listening I have included “Next Step” albums that are well worth checking out, and are perhaps more obscure, or maybe more artistically valuable.
 
-Andrew Hadro (May, 2020)
Curator, JazzBariSax.com

5 Essential Albums From 5 Essential Baritone Saxophonists

1) Gerry Mulligan – Gerry Mulligan Quarter, Volume 1

Gerry Mulligan is the first introduction to the baritone saxophone as a soloistic instrument for many people. This is due to his general popularity as well as his amenable sound and approach to melodic playing. Mulligan was primarily a band leader and a soloist, escaping the fate that falls to most baritone saxophonists as that of a sideman or under-used part of a big band saxophone section. Mulligan had a long career and first came to prominence with his ‘piano-less’ quartet with Chet Baker. He and Chet both had somewhat of a playboy personality that no doubt helped feed their popularity. Mulligan can also be found on the Miles Davis album ‘Birth of the Cool’, both as a player and as an arranger. This no-doubt also helped send him to the forefront of baritone saxophone soloists.
 
For me the Concert Jazz Band was the most interesting of Mulligan’s projects (See below). This could somewhat be due to the great writers he had working with him. Indeed Bob Brookmeyer is behind a lot of the music here. I once read that when the Concert Jazz Band was out of work some of the musicians, including Brookmeyer and Mel Lewis got together on their own and began a large ensemble. This ensemble became the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and eventually the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra that still exists today.

Next Step albums:

 

 

 


2) Pepper Adams – Encounter!

Pepper Adams‘ playing is biting and intelligent. His sound is huge and aggressive, and he was part of many well known and well regarded recordings as a sideman in groups small and large. Most Junior Highschool baritone saxophonists know the opening line to the Mingus song ‘Moanin’ But I’m not sure they all realize that it was Pepper that originally stated it and performed it. Adams can be found on many incredible recordings as a sideman. As a long standing member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, with Charles Mingus, Donald Byrd, and even John Coltrane. He may not have achieved the mainstream popularity that Mulligan enjoyed but I think he has a greater influence in general on dedicated baritone saxophonists, through his sound and approach to the horn.
 
From all accounts Pepper was an incredibly humble, witty and soft spoken musician. Many of the greatest baritonists around today are very much in debt to the lineage he created.

Next Step albums:

 

 

 


3) Harry Carney – Far East Suite

Harry Carney was Duke Ellington’s baritone saxophonist. The only one he ever really had. He joined Duke’s band at 17 and stayed for 47 years, passing away 6 months after Duke himself. He was very close to Duke, often driving him from gig to gig in Carney’s own car,  whereas the rest of the band would be in a separate bus. Duke was at different points one of the most recognizable musicians in the world, and as such Carney had a lot of opportunities to shine. Carney was an able soloist, and there are plenty of recordings that include his solos. But he is far and away more revered for his sound. It is simultaneously the biggest yet most beautiful sound the baritone can make. Whenever I hear Duke’s band I often think of it as ‘Harry Carney, and the rest of the band’ as you can always prominently hear Carney’s beautiful sound adding incredible weight to the band.
 
Harry had many features with the Ellington band, and is even credited as writer for a few songs. His most well known feature was ‘Sophisticated Lady’ A ballad that featured his lush tone. My personal favorite album to hear Carney’s sound is the “Far East Suite” The whole album is rich with his sound and in particular ‘Agra’ is a great feature for him. He did not record much as a leader, but there is an album he recorded featuring him with lush string arrangements. The improvising is not the most sophisticated but his sound is worth the price of admission.

Next Step albums:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

4) Nick Brignola, Ronnie Cuber, Gary Smulyan – Three Baritone Band Plays the Music of Gerry Mulligan

Boiling down a list of your heroes is tough. So I’m going to go ahead and cheat here. I’m going to include these three titans of the baritone saxophone in one entry, and justify it because there is an album that features all three of them. The album features songs composed by, or associated with Gerry Mulligan. Ironically I’d say all three of these guys fall more closely to the Pepper Adams school of baritone. The album is great and all three of them deserve to be checked out in full. Both Gary and Ronnie are still with us and if you get a chance to see them perform you should absolutely take it.
 
4A) Nick Brignola
is a self taught fiend of the baritone. His technical skill, speed, and use of altissimo are thrilling, as well as his command of bop language and interesting album concepts. He had a very strong, projecting sound, along with a mastery of be-bop language and fluency over the whole horn. He was especially known for his ability to play very fast tempos.

Next Step albums:

 
 
 
 

 

4B) Ronnie Cuber

Ronnie is one of the greats. He has made great recordings in a number of genres, straight ahead jazz, blues-centric popular recordings with George Benson, Latin Jazz, Fusion, and plenty of Hard-Bop. He has anchored the saxophone section of a number of great big bands but always turned heads when he stepped out front as a soloist.

Next Step albums:

 
 
 

 

 
4C) Gary Smulyan
Gary is a direct musical descendant of Pepper Adams, though he has developed a unique sound and style that can be easily differentiated. Gary is an incredible soloist, master of harmony, obscure songs, as well as a very long standing member of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (since 1980!).

Next Step albums:

 

 
 
 
 

5) Serge Chaloff – Blue Serge

Serge Chaloff is another well known historical baritone saxophonist. He had a more delicate approach to the baritone with a beautiful tone and very melodic approach. Though he pre-dates mulligan by a bit, people often compare his approach to Mulligan’s Despite pretty serious drug and alcohol problems he did have some success and notoriety. Both for this albums and solo work, but put perhaps more so for his membership in Woody Herman’s big band, and being the baritone on the original “Four Brother” Recording. He was one of the earliest people to step out and become a band leader and soloist solely on the baritone sax. Despite passing away at age 33 Serge made a lasting impact on music and specifically the baritone saxophone.

Next step albums: