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Tenors Of Our Time: Five Saxophone Modernists

<em>Folk Art</em> is Joe Lovano's 21st recording for the Blue Note label. He gives a generous nod to Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango on the stand-out track, "Dibango."
Jimmy Katz
Courtesy of the artist
Folk Art is Joe Lovano's 21st recording for the Blue Note label. He gives a generous nod to Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango on the stand-out track, "Dibango."

Coleman Hawkins may have helped to thrust the tenor saxophone out of the novelty arena and into the anti-gravity space of jazz improvisation, but even he could not have predicted how the tenor would become so centrally identifiable with jazz.

While you won't find many concertos written with the tenor saxophone in mind, you will find the instrument in a place that matters — at the forefront of modern music. Five of today's leading tenor players have new releases in 2009, each with his own take on the shape of jazz to come.

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Tenors Of Our Time: Five Saxophone Modernists

Branford Marsalis Quartet

Singer Billy Eckstine and his stellar big band may have introduced the "Jitney Man" in the 1940s, but this new take from the Branford Marsalis quartet features a decidedly more adventurous driver. Jeff "Tain" Watts sets the breakneck tempo for a careening chase scene between Branford and pianist Joey Calderazzo that would make a nice accompaniment to Bullitt, if Steve McQueen were driving a gypsy cab. This is another burnout classic from Branford and his ultra-tight collaborators.

Joe Lovano

This year, Joe Lovano releases Folk Art. It's his 21st recording for Blue Note Records, which is marvel of longevity in the jazz recording business. You won't hear the tenor until midway through "Dibango," but until then, you'll be captivated by Lovano's use of the aulochrome, a polyphonic woodwind instrument created by fusing two soprano saxophones together. This nod to Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango comes from Lovano's new quintet, which includes a two drummer configuration. The late drummer Ed Blackwell would have had a field day playing this tune.

Fly with Mark Turner

Never mind that the title could signify some exotic eggplant dish. Saxophonist Mark Turner's wife is Elena, and these two words make a nice sound when you put them together. The same can be said for Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, a.k.a Fly. Five years after their first recording, the collective reunites for another recording chock full of harmonic puzzles. The songs brim with their own inner logic, each one extending into one long, open melody. You may not be able to hum along to "Elena Berenjena," but you'll dig it nonetheless for the trio's communal approach to making music.

Joshua Redman

Joshua Redman's Compass extends the sax-bass-drums trio concept of his previous recording, Back East, with an augmented cast sometimes including two trios happening at the same time (Redman plus two bassists and two drummer). It's no mere stunt, especially when such strong individual personalities are lending their skills to the session. "Un Peu Fou" is Redman's French kiss on Bud Powell's modern masterpiece, "Un Poco Loco." Bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Brian Blade help the self-directed Redman create his own sweet insanity.

Ravi Coltrane

Blending Times is a further exploration of Ravi Coltrane's working quartet. But the album's last song, "For Turiya" is a meditative prayer for Alice Coltrane, or "Turiyasangitananda" as she was known at the ashram she founded in California. Turiya was a harpist who devoted her life to communing with divinity through music, and finding the curative, spiritual aspects that lie beyond the notes. Bassist Charlie Haden, a longtime associate of Mrs. Coltrane, and the brilliant young harpist Brandee Younger assist Ravi's simple and beautiful contemplation.

Copyright 2009 WBGO

Josh Jackson
Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for content at WRTI in Philadelphia.