Culture: The Joy of Sax; Peter Bacon Traces the History and Current State of That Magical, Curly Bit of Brass, the Saxophone -and the Part It Plays in This Year's Lichfield Festival
Byline: Peter Bacon
Musical instruments may have relatively short gestation periods -there was surely only the wink of a stone-age eye between the thought of beating a bone against an animal hide and the sound of the drum -but the development of an instrument can take centuries. Not so with the precocious saxophone.
Adolphe Sax invented it in 1841, but although the modern saxophone is continually being tweaked with subtle improvements, what you see today in the hands of a saxophone quartet or a jazz player is remarkably similar to the ones the French army were using in their marching bands, under an exclusive contract with Adolphe Sax, in the mid-19th century. That suggests lack of imagination by subsequent instrumental inventors, or, more likely, a remarkably complete vision on the part of its Belgian creator.
Although some composers were quick to embrace the new instrument -Bizet, Richard Strauss, Berlioz, Saint-Saens and Debussy among them -it was often seen as something of a novelty.
Sax would not live to see just how prominent a place the saxophone would come to occupy in all kinds of popular music, and he would certainly be amazed at the way in which, in the minds of advertising copywriters and image consultants for everything from whisky to nail varnish, the saxophone is the epitome of cool and sophistication.
He would perhaps be more impressed with the measure of security it has attained in the recital room thanks to the enthusiasm of the classical players and a growing body of music written with the instrument specifically in mind.
As the most successful modern creation of a consort of instruments, the saxophone quartet can be seen as the string quartet of its era; the range of the instrument in dynamics and colour, coupled with the unity of timbre and articulation, give it vast expressive potential, a potential being admirably realised by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, who peform at the Lichfield Festival in July.
The classical saxophone group must supplement its repertoire with transcriptions of older work -Bach, for example, as will be heard at Lichfield -but there is an evangelical tendency among saxophone players that brings them together and ensures that they commission work -as the Raschers have of Philip Glass.
But it is still with jazz music that the saxophone is most closely linked, although here the instrument was something of a latecomer. The jazz of the early 20th century favoured the direct cry of the trumpet or cornet; it was only with the emergence of the dance bands of the '30s and more fully fledged jazz orchestras like that of Duke Ellington that the highly adaptable sound of the saxophone came into its own.
From Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster and Charlie Parker, through Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Wayne Shorter, to David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Jan Garbarek, Joe Lovano and James Carter, the saxophone has held sway in jazz ever since.
Although Britain was home to a number of strong saxophonists in the middle years of the last century -Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott the brightest stars -it could just be that we are now living in a golden age of the saxophone in Britain. …