Sax and Being


ratliff-saxThe soothing sounds of the seventies, and beyond.

By Phillip Ratliff

Although no one expects a return to a pre-1990 level of popularity, the saxophone has made a sheepish comeback lately. This newfound interest in the only woodwind to successfully bridge the gap between rock and the marching band rests squarely on its ability as a surrogate bass line. I can think of two examples. First, there’s Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” which features a pre-emo version of the pop heroine performing a sparse duet with a tenor sax. Second, there’s Macklemore’s pimped out jank-fest, “Thrift Shop,” featuring a baritone sax line on the verge of sounding like a middle school band audition.

In replacing the bass’s subtle thud with a bellow, both Swift and Macklemore have invested their songs with a jaunty irony. This stands in contrast to yesteryear’s sax solo, which tended toward sincerity. That kind of solo those of us who grew up on 1970s and ’80s era FM radio remember is probably lost, at least for now.

To mark the sax’s unmooring, I paused with Facebook friends to consider, at times celebrate, the instrument’s golden age. Our commemoration took shape as an impressive list of songs. (To be clear, it was the list that was impressive; some of the songs, we’d admit, were far from it.) From the list, a  distinct sax solo typology could be detected, and from this typology, a strange resemblance to modes of human existence. Perhaps this says something greater about where music is today, stuck in a happy postmodernism, having sloughed off both the joy—and despair—of earlier times.

The Noire Banshee

In the right hands (and embouchure) the saxophone is capable of evoking soul-crushing abandonment. “Careless Whispers” and “Turn the Page” are workable B-level examples in this category, but the archetype is Raphael Ravenscroft’s cavernous wailing in the 1978 hit “Baker Street.” The sax solo for the Gerry Rafferty hit is the subject of conspiracy theories about who played it (there’s an urban legend that the player was actually a British journalist named Stuart Maconie) and how much it earned Ravenscroft (some say nothing, which Ravenscroft denies).

The Atlantic’s Adam Chandler dubbed “Baker Street” as “the top song to idle to in a driveway before cutting the engine to your Dodge Aspen.” The sax line, cycling over a recurring death moan from an electric guitar, can indeed occasion moments of suburban crisis. I suspect there have been a few hard cases of listeners backing out of their driveways and assuming new identities in other states.

Pop Riffer

Existential gloom is not the only mode for the sax solo. In 1970s and ’80s era pop music, the sax solo could supply a certain sort of tune with a reference to a more innocent, self-assured time. The sax solo in “The Heart of Rock and Roll” is a ham-fistedly obvious specimen. Clarence Clemons’ exuberant break in “Born to Run” is this category’s pinnacle. Clemons’s solo accentuates the “Born to Run” subtext: here we are in the 1970s, inching toward our late 30s, still postwar-era teenagers at heart. It’s important that we keep our chronological bearings: Just as American Graffiti and Happy Days are laden with two layers of nostalgia today, so too are these old sax-heavy songs. Ritchie Cunningham playing his sax on the platform at Arnold’s is not a bad visual, though, come to think of it, it’s the negative image of this category of sax solo.

Artisanal Blend

It’s fair to say that, sometime around 1970, mainstream rock got a little tired. I’m not sure why this was. Perhaps the musicians were growing older and more world weary. Or perhaps the drugs and mayhem of the 1960s drained the creative sap out of the music industry. One way musicians countered this depletion of energy and confidence was eclecticism — borrowing from more established genres, especially classical music and approppro to this section, jazz.

Enter the jazz saxophonist, pinched from the acoustic environs of the smoke filled club and plunked into the amped-up worlds of the recording studio and the concert stage. One lovely example is Richie Cannata’s artsy solo in the Billy Joel pastiche, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Longtime Steely Dan collaborators Peter Christlieb and Tom Scott successfully underwent this sort of jazz-rock conversion, supplying high quality work in such tunes as “FM,” “Deacon Blues,” and “Aja.” Christlieb and Scott accomplish a difficult task, satisfying the whims of the pop audiences without totally laying waste the tender feels of jazz purists.

Freak Show

As far as I can tell, the field of psychiatry hasn’t even scratched the surface of the saxophone’s psychoacoustics. When researchers get around to this long-neglected topic, I hope they consider the use of saxophone as an emblem of, if not the cause of, insanity. The sax lends itself to abrasive, angular lines, or, put another way, to sounding pretty damn annoying and effed up. Such are the voices in the madman’s head. What better to capture these voices than the rasp of a sawtooth wave?

The sax licks in Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” and Foreigner’s “Urgent” in their own ways address certain compulsions—one situated between the ears, the other, the legs. Both feature disjointed sax solos heavy in baroque grotesqueness and the tendency to leap and trill. Unlike the sax solos in the aforementioned categories, these solos exist primarily to make us glad that they’re over.

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