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The Baritone Saxophone: Bop and Beyond
The Baritone Saxophone: Bop and Beyond
After 20 years of domination by the legendary Harry Carney, who anchored the wondrous Ellington reed section and was the first major baritone soloist, the big horn entered the modern era in the late ‘40s. While the credit for this usually goes to Gerry Mulligan, citing his work on the classic Birth of the Cool sessions with Miles Davis and Gil Evans in 1949, he was actually predated by two men, Serge Chaloff and Leo Parker.

Chaloff, the first major baritone soloist since Carney, blurred the line between Swing and Bebop. After earlier stints with Boyd Raeburn, Georgie Auld and Jimmy Dorsey, Chaloff played with Woody Herman from 1947-49, becoming one of the notorious Four Brothers (along with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz) in the popular clarinetist’s transitional Second Herd. Ironically, after spending much of the ‘50s working and teaching in his native Boston and overcoming the drug habit that plagued his earlier career, he contracted spinal paralysis, dying in 1957 at 33.

Leo Parker, on the other hand, created a blend of Bebop and R&B. With a big, meaty sound and fluid technique, he brought a gutty blues feel to the complex, progressive harmonies of bop. Switching from alto to bari in Billy Eckstine’s famous bop band in 1946, he later played with Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon and Fats Navarro. Also hampered by the bop world’s drug epidemic, his career kept derailing. Two excellent comeback records for Blue Note in 1961 successfully blended blues, gospel and bop, but Parker died of a heart attack only a few months later at 36.

Unquestionably, Gerry Mulligan was an extremely influential baritonist, especially as one of the foremost proponents of the cool style that was launched with Birth of the Cool. Rooted deeply in the smooth swing approach of Lester Young, Mulligan was one of the first musicians to eliminate the use of chordal instruments in his ‘50s quartets with Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer and Art Farmer. Although he also employed the soprano sax later in his career and was a fine composer-arranger, it’s his work on the bari that makes him a Jazz immortal.

Overshadowed by Mulligan during the fifties, Pepper Adams was quite different stylistically. With a driving energy, a switchblade-sharp rhythmic sense and a vibrant, hard-edged tone in the upper register, Adams became one of the few baritone saxophonists to flourish in the highly demanding hard bop realm.

A fixture on the strong Detroit scene in the ‘50s, he played regularly with emerging stars like Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd and Kenny Burrell. Settling in New York in 1958, he worked intermittently with Charles Mingus until 1963, while co-leading a burning quintet with Byrd. Always an individualistic soloist and rock-solid anchor of a reed section, Pepper was an important member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra for 13 years (1965-78) and toured worldwide until his death in 1986 at 56.

His influence is heard in the work of two of the best baritonists of the past 30 years, Nick Brignola and Ronnie Cuber. Both men are powerful improvisers with fluid and vibrant sounds and are probably the two most dominant straight-ahead players on the instrument.

Two other excellent and underrated baritone saxophonists are Cecil Payne and Sahib Shibab. A fluid and versatile player, Payne switched from alto to bari with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band (1946-49), then worked with Tadd Dameron, James Moody and Illinois Jacquet in the early fifties and beginning a longtime association with Randy Weston in 1956; his burly sound ideal for the great pianist’s Pan-African-spiced Jazz. Payne toured with Machito, Woody Herman, Count Basie and others, and continues to perform in his late 70s.

Shihab had already established himself as a fine flautist and alto saxophonist with Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron in the late ‘40s, but in the early ‘50s emerged as a formidable baritone stylist, playing and recording with artists like Dizzy, Jacquet, Oscar Pettiford and John Coltrane. Living mostly in Europe from 1959 to 1986, Shihab was a regular in the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band for nine years, and a popular freelance musician on multiple reeds, but it’s his baritone work that’s most noteworthy. He died in 1989.

Charles Davis, who these days is playing tenor (and a lot of it) on his own projects and with Larry Ridley’s excellent Jazz Legacy Ensemble, made his first impact on baritone, straddling the territory between hard bop and the structured avant-garde, although he’d worked earlier with such mainstream heavies as Billie Holiday, Ben Webster and Lionel Hampton. But it’s his work with Philly Joe Jones’ tribute band Dameronia, Abdullah Ibrahim, the experimental Jazz Composers’ Orchestra and a 25 year on and off convergence with Sun Ra’s Arkestra that provided the best setting for Davis’ solidly rooted and adventurous bari work.

Pat Patrick, often in baritone tandem with Davis in the Arkestra, was the Harry Carney of Sun Ra’s various large and small intergalactic aggregations, playing almost exclusively with the interplanetary traveler from 1954 until Patrick's death in 1991. Combining a strong rhythmic thrust with a free-blowing style that could either swing nicely or scream wildly, Patrick was the premiere baritone saxophonist of the ‘60s avant-garde.

But that was before Hamiet Bluiett. With a deep-rooted prayer meeting blues sense that made him a natural fit in one of Mingus’ last great groups in the ‘70s, and the free form theatricality of his St. Louis BAG (Black Artists Group) experience, it was only fitting that Bluiett would become a major presence on New York’s ‘70s avant-garde scene. A founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet and a leader in various formats from solo to baritone quartet to orchestra, Bluiett has a big burly sound equally powerful on low notes that you mainly hear in your stomach to high notes beyond the normal range of the flute. Sometimes his baritone produces amazing music, at others it’s a prop for a bizarre form of performance art, but either way, Hamiet Bluiett is one of the instrument’s most provocative creators.

Another notable in the avant vein is Britain’s John Surman, an evocative stylist whose unique approach to the horn can both swing with muscle or create hypnotic moods.

In recent years, few musicians seem willing to take on the big horn’s challenges. One who has is the fine young player Claire Daly, who after her recent appearance at the Kennedy Center’s annual Women in Jazz Festival, was favorably compared to the great Ben Webster by someone who should know, Dr. Billy Taylor.

Another is Gary Smulyan, a veteran of Woody Herman's final herd and current member of the Mingus Big Band, whose baritone sax and strings recording on Criss Cross, successfully proved that the deep, robust sound of a baritone with a string section could be both sensual, as well as crisp.

George Lane

Recommended CDs:

Serge Chaloff - Blue Serge - Capitol/Blue Note
Leo Parker - Rollin’ With Leo - Blue Note
Leo Parker - Let Me Tell You ‘Bout It - Blue Note
Gerry Mulligan - The Original Quartet (2 CDs) - Blue Note
Gerry Mulligan - Meets Ben Webster - Verve
Pepper Adams - Encounter - Prestige/Original Jazz Classics
Pepper Adams - 10 To 4 at the Five Spot - Prestige/Original Jazz Classics
Nick Brignola - Like Old Times - Reservoir
Ronnie Cuber - Love For Sale - Koch Jazz
Cecil Payne - Cerupa - Delmark
Sahib Shihab - Conversations - Black Lion
Charles Davis and Pat Patrick - (Sun Ra’s) Jazz in Silhouette - Evidence
Charles Davis and Pat Patrick - (Sun Ra’s) Nubians of Plutonia - Evidence
Hamiet Bluiett - Liberation for the Baritone Nation - Justin Time
Claire Daly - Swing Low - Koch Jazz
Gary Smulyan - Gary Smulyan with Strings - Criss Cross

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