Friday, September 9, 2005

Oppenheimer's Horn, or, the Sax Perilous

Is there any instrument quite so dangerous as the common saxophone? Is there any musical device more deadly when misapplied or more affirming when used wisely?

A trumpet is almost always welcome - bright, forceful, and gregarious - it is the vivacious coed of noise, brilliant and beloved.

A saxophone (already of the moodier woodwind family) is another creature altogether. It does not play well with others, preferring to solo and to warble and waddle through scales that swoop dramatically from low to high and high to low. Many is the song that has had to hold on with white knuckles while the sax uncoils and sonically elbows the other instruments out of the way. One is always fearful that the whole thing will bobble out of alignment.

Thing is, when used sparingly and judiciously, the saxophone solo can be plaintive and triumphant and anguished and sexy. But when used recklessly, when used with abandon, or without a firm hand insistent on restraint, the sax solo is an aural oilslick, spreading and seeping into every corner of a song and leaving mold cheese in the corners.

A badly deployed sax solo can be a melismatic tumor.

A well deployed saxophone riff can be a joyful wail, at once more complicated and more human that all but the finest cornetist can coax from his or her instrument.

A Clarence Clemons may be worth a hundred Kenny Gorelicks, but am I wrong to cringe with anxiety when the first blast or burp of a sax pours into a ballad (or even a jump number)?

I would place the saxophone under glass and give, among living musicians, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison the only keys. Those who would like to borrow the saxophone for a song here or there would have to appeal to them. Jazz musicians would have free access, but would need to sign out and file the proper forms stating their intent and indemnifications in the event of a cheese-spill.

The soprano sax would be declared a violation of human rights.

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