Sax Magic the Masters Demonstrate How It's Done at the Chicago Jazz Festival's Saxophone Summit

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Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Staff Writer

The saxophone murmurs like a lover one moment, and shrieks like a harpy the next.

It whispers. It coos. It shouts. It grumbles.

No wonder it intrigues.

It sounds just like us.

"The saxophone is close to the human voice," says tenor saxophonist Ari Brown. "It's an expressive horn. There's a lot of warmth to it."

As mercurial as jazz itself, the saxophone alternates from mournful and delicate to exuberant and abrasive.

It speaks in different voices, just like Brown and his colleagues: altoist Eric Schneider, tenorist Duke Payne and baritonist Mwata Bowden, the renowned reed men who will gather along with pianist Ken Chaney, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Kobie Watkins for the Chicago Jazz Festival saxophone summit next week. The summit is part of the Chicago Jazz Festival, which runs Thursday through Sept. 1 in Grant Park.

Each sax master plays as distinctly as his instrument sounds.

"It's like when people talk," Brown says. "You can always recognize them. They have a way of expressing themselves so that you know it's them."

Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone in 1846 to balance the woodwinds, brass and strings. It found a home first in military bands and later in dance bands.

Jazz musicians discovered it during the early 1900s and by the 1930s, pioneers like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young had turned it into jazz's leading instrument. Their successors - Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter - carried on the tradition as they broadened its scope.

"The saxophone can do so many things," Brown says. "(It's) a very wide-ranging instrument, not only in tone color, but in the way the notes are expressed."

"The soprano sounds different from the alto, which sounds different from the tenor, which sounds different from the baritone," Schneider says.

For every sound a trumpet or cornet makes, from muted to shrill, from bold to introspective, the saxophone goes it one better, he says.

But while Schneider agrees the saxophone comes closest to imitating the human voice, he thinks the comparison pales.

"Unless the vocalist is Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald I'd rather not hear the human voice," he says. "I'd rather hear a saxophone."

Jazz composers arrange saxophone harmonies the way choral composers arrange voices in a choir, Bowden says, from the bottom up. That leaves the baritone, the lowest in the saxophone family, holding up the foundation upon which a composer builds.

"Being the low voice in the section, it's not thought of as a solo voice," says Bowden of the instrument, which demands enormous strength and control from those who play it.

Solo instruments must have distinct diction, Bowden says. Unlike the massive baritone, they tend to be supple and agile, making it easier for them to soar above the ensemble. Over the years, baritone players have worked to free the instrument from its supporting role and bring it to the forefront.

"Our challenge is to produce enough sound so it can be heard, and then give it that same diction and emotion when it speaks," he says.

Ground-breaking baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett, who expanded the instrument's range to include musical acrobatics generally reserved for alto and soprano saxophones, has led the charge. Like Bluiett, Bowden, who stretched its register from three octaves to four, plays the baritone at its extremes.

"My approach is to explore this music and not be afraid to take risks," he says.

For most of these musicians, the Aug. 31 performance marks the second time they've converged. The first summit, featuring Bowden, Brown, Payne, Schneider and Von Freeman, took place in February on Chicago's South Side.

Chaney, a member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago's jazz and heritage program committee, organized the February concert as part of JIC's JazzCity series, which introduces people to Chicago-style jazz. …