Whenever the question of the greatest jazz saxophonist arises, a few names immediately come to mind. The pantheon includes such musicians as Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, and Dexter Gordon, among others. All these players have contributed greatly to the reputation of their instrument and the history of jazz. Above and beyond this list, though, stand five saxophonists who have offered something more.
5. Joshua Redman. If you want a lesson in the history of the saxophone, you could do worse than look to Redman’s career. After more than twenty albums, Redman is still playing strong, with almost every composition a nod to the music that has come before him. Redman plays with a sincerity and focus few others can muster. At times, this combination has prompted critics to label his work “too studied.” However, one attentive listen to Moodswing shows how knowledge of the tradition can lead to remarkably new compositions played with true feeling.
4. Ornette Coleman. The recognized extreme avant-gardist of the saxophone is Ornette Coleman, who was an innovator and founder of the “free jazz” movement. His ability to push the instrument beyond all expectations is well documented and often the cause of much controversy in jazz appreciation circles. Some argue Coleman blew away every rule, every barrier to finding the essence of jazz and then pushed beyond that essence. Others protest he did not reveal its true core but tore apart everything that made it recognizable—and enjoyable. His work, such as on Change of the Century, is a challenge of the best sort.
3. Sonny Rollins. There are few jazz musicians, on any instrument, who combine as much pure talent and pure joy as Sonny Rollins. He is simply the most fun to listen to of anyone on this list—a powerful player who manages to make you hear the smile he wears on his face. At the age of 83, Rollins is still touring and releasing music that charms almost anyone who listens. About once a week, I return to A Night at the Village Vanguard to enjoy the humor and strength with which Rollins plays.
2. Charlie “Bird” Parker. Charlie Parker is pure energy. He plays with a ferocity no one has matched since he came on the scene. The inventor of Bebop, Parker changed jazz by forcing us to hear the saxophone as the center of the music, rather than as an instrument carrying the melody through to the end. One of the best samples of his work is Charlie Parker—Verve Master Edition, a collection of his finest playing peppered with false starts and wrong turns that let us hear every new direction he was trying to take us.
1. John Coltrane. John Coltrane once said, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being. When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people…. I want to speak to their souls.” Only a player of such force and transcendent ability could make such a claim and live up to it. Coltrane’s music does touch our souls. On one level, you can hear the method and intense practice. On another, you begin to experience the inspiration and almost religious revelation as it occurs. Sometimes, an album like A Love Supreme gives you glimpses of acoustic purity. At others, it bombards you with waves of sound that fill you from the inside out. Coltrane is the greatest jazz saxophonist because his music comes at you on two planes—the immanent and the transcendent—and because it transports you, your faith, your knowledge, and your being.
With the most recent generation of saxophonists continually pushing the range of their instruments, it will be exciting to see if one of them one day claims a place on this list.