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Monday, August 29, 2022

Solo sax - The Overview I

By Stef Gijssels

All these solo sax albums! They keep coming, possibly as a result of Covid-19, possibly because they're fun. 

This year we've already had three solo sax reviews with Masayo Koketsu's "Fukiya", Robbie Lee's "Prismatist", and Joe McPhee's "Route 84 Quarantine Blues." Last year we've been spoiled, with Evan Parker's "Winns Win", Darius Jones' "Raw Demoon Alchemy", Patrick Shiroishi's "Hidemi", Dave Rempis 's "Scratch and Sniff", Erin Rogers' "2000 Miles", Jon Irabagon's "Bird with Streams & Legacy", Jean-Luc Guionnet's "l'épaisseur de l'air", Rachel Musson's "Dreamsing", which brings us to our previous "Solo Sax" overview from April last year. 

I'm sure we missed some, so please inform us if we did. The reviews are short, just trying to capture in a few words what you can expect. 

Alexandra Grimal - Refuge (Relative Pitch, 2022)

A beautiful album by French reedist Alexandra Grimal - here only on soprano - recorded in the famous double revolution staircase in the castle of Chambord in France. 

On eight improvised tracks, she explores sound and space, including some multiphonic wizardry. Strangely enough, the sound is often damped, despite the stone surroundings, with little echo or spacial resonation, giving a very intimate and fragile closeness to the listener. Her improvisations can vary from the lyrical, as in "Salamandre" to the unexpected, as in the short bursts of surprise in "Martinets". 

She again confirms her skills as well as the power of her imagination. She has a daring vision on music, and has tried several approaches in the past, some of which I truly liked and others less, but this one is a winner.

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Ken Vandermark – The Field Within A Line (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2021)


Despite Vandermark's humongous output - 670 albums on which he appeared, if we can believe Discogs - this is just his fifth solo album, after "Furniture Music" (2003), "Mark In The Water" (2011), "Site Specific" (2015) and the "Snapshots" (2021) series on Kilogram records. And it is a welcome one. Very few saxophonists have the versatility, the mastery of so many reed instruments, and the musical archival knowledge to expand and to be build on the great work of other artists. 

Like on most of his other albums, all compositions/improvisations are dedicated to artists he admires (not necessarily musicians, but also movie directors, painters and poets. 

The liner notes capture the album well: "The compositions, which are platforms for invention, are dealt with in relatively economical, almost stripped-down fashion, ringing with a kind of bell-like clarity and focus". Yet, the title of the album can also mean the opposite: a simple linear structure (a phrase, a core concept, a chord progression, ...) can expand into a broader field of exploration, opening up the simple form to a more elaborate but coherent creation. 

Whatever the concept, there is much to enjoy here, and a must-have for Vandermark fans, of which I'm sure, there are many. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Josh Sinton - b. (Form is Possibility, 2021) 

Josh Sinton’s b., his first solo saxophone album, is a record that "took two days to record but thirty years to prepare for" according to the liner notes. The b. stands for baritone, the sax that has Sinton's preference. Sinton is a well-recorded musician, but less so as a leader. To listen to him here, in perfect isolation, is interesting, especially because he uses some basic forms for the different tracks to elaborate on, to develop and to improvise on. He refers to some inspiration words by Charles Olson, a poet who also wrote an influential essay called Projective Verse in 1950: "He discusses writing poetry as an act of venturing into an 'open field' and the form of a poem being an extension of its content. This immediately struck me as a very practical approach to both improvising and making music generally." Sinton does the same here: using personal insights, feelings and ideas that are confined by self-imposed format, scales and techniques. 

His playing is very personal, with apparently no objective to perform for an audience, but rather to work on the material as a individual quest. This gives the overall sound its intimate and unhurried nature, with barely any use of power or force or even energy. There is nothing to show, only music to explore, and silence. Some of the tracks have moments of silence around which his baritone 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Stephen Gauci - Solo Improvisations (Gaucimusic, 2022)


New York tenor saxophonist made a great decision to start his own label, called Gaucimusic, to get some more exposure. This has resulted in quite a list of albums on Bandcamp over the past years, including this solo album by him, which is I think his first. We are used to his playing in smaller ensembles, in duo or trio format. This album is the direct result of the covid-19 lockdown. 

Gauci's playing is true free jazz, authentic, intimate, personal and soaring. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Lao Dan - Self-destruct Machine (Hou Wa Records, 2022)


Chinese virtuoso alto saxophonist and flautist Lao Dan presents his fourth or fifth solo album. He is a classically trained musician, who was admitted with the highest score to Shenyang Conservatory of Music in 2007, and who served as the principal flute player of Youth Chinese Orchestra thoughout his college years. He was titled the outstanding graduate in 2011.

I am not sure what his teachers may think of his music today, but for free jazz fans there is a lot to appreciate and admire. The first track brings fierce and fluttering, often bird-like sounds, but full of intensity and anguish, and is in stark contrast with the calmer nature of the second piece, starting on flute (dizi) and voice for a meditative introduction, but changing in nature when he switches to alto. 

Apart from mixing different levels of intensity and power, he also alternates between authentic and deep emotional outbursts, pure lyricism and moments of fun, a little rebellious in nature. 

The concert was recorded live concert in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan in 2019. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Albert Cirera & MuMu - Âmago (MuMu, 2021)


We get another great treat from tenor and soprano saxophonist Albert Cirera and the mysterious MuMu who is responsible for half the compositions. MuMu's only other findable album is "Five Pieces For Stones" but with no further information available. Cirera's four extensive and intense circular breathing improvisations bookend the album, while the shorter, sound art by MuMu is concentrated in the middle section. 

Readers familiar with "Lisboa’s Work" (Multikulti Project, 2017), Cirera's other solo album, will find this one more welcoming and accessible. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Catherine Sikora - Corners (Self, 2021)


I have once been in the situation that I was the only member of the audience when a free improv trio was expected to perform. Something must have gone wrong with the promotion of the concert, or people had other things to do, I don't know. The musicians were friendly and agreed to give me a private audition, not an entire concert but half an hour, which I thought was more than generous on their part, and also a unique experience as a listener. 

On "Corners", saxophonist Catherine Sikora does the same, but here deliberately: on a beautiful Sunday in May 2021, she gave 14 private improvisations at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, each time for only one person. It's a long album, with each piece clocking around 7 to 8 minutes, but worth listening to. I imagine the open space of the room, the interested and possibly somewhat uncomfortable listener, and Sikora's effort to bring her music, the listener and the space into a coherent whole. 

It was her first concert since her performance in Paris in 2020 at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, released as "Sanctuary". With "Jersey" (2016) and "Warrior" (2019), this makes it her fourth solo album. Performing solo is the backbone of her work, even further reinforced by the digital single track release of "Backbone" on Bandcamp last year. 

Her skills are excellent, navigating complex runs with agility and determination, with a warm and pure tone, but her strongest quality is the lyricism and melodiousness of her improvisations. Her music sings, soars, sometimes jubilates, and all this in a very gentle and welcoming tone. There are meditative moments, sometimes a little sadness or melancholy, but more often than not there is a feeling of joy, possibly because of being able to perform after lockdown, and probably because that's in her nature of her music. There are never violent outbursts of very expressive moments of overblowing. Her style is more intimate, focused on the miniatures of her art, the play with form and structure. 

The 14 listeners on that Sunday in May must have had a great listening experience. We can be happy to be part of it now. This is an excellent album. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Aaron Burnett - Correspondence (Relative Pitch Records, 2022)

Possibly best known as the saxophonist of bassist Esperanza Spalding's band, Aaron Burnett deserves wider recognition for the quality of his playing and his sense of musicality. The fact that he performed with Wynton Marsalis, may be good evidence of his technical skills in traditional jazz. 

Aaron Burnett began studying classical saxophone at the age of 9 and became interested in jazz music around the age of 16. He studied classical and jazz performance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro from 1999 - 2001, then studied classical composition at the Berklee College of Music, graduating in 2008.

"Correspondence", his first solo album, is nothing less than fascinating: his compositions/improvisations are complex, with lots of counterpoint, as if he's dialoguing with himself, and creating a kind of natural tension in the music, and the incredible speed at which he plays makes it even more exhilirating to listen to. 

Even if all the pieces are improvised, they are still structured around musical concepts that remain for the length of each track. 

Somehow, he mentions that "this is his final avant-garde record", which is in itself a bizarre statement, and one we also deplore. This is a very promising record and I wish we could hear more from him in this abundant and exploratory environment. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Massimo Magee - Toneflower (577 Records, 2022) 


Massimo Magee is a British writer, visual artist and musician, whose artistic output is abundant and diverse. As a musician, he is equally versatile, performing on sax, clarinet, piano, trumpet, electronics and percussion. His first solo album, called "Seven Solos" dates from 2009, with each solo played on another instrument. Other solo albums are "Music in 3 Spaces" (2016), "Tenor Tales" (2018), and "Poussez" from 2014 is his first solo alto album. 

This is his second solo album, clearly the horn that he is most comfortable with. His playing is intense and focused, exploring the legacy of great jazz saxophonists and musical innovators. Even if all tracks are improvised, they are still built around a core structural concept that gives the pieces solid anchor points around which to explore. This gives the album both variation and freedom. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Adam Pierończyk - Oaxaca Constellation (Self released, 2021)


Adam Pierończyk is among those virtuoso Polish musicians who feel at home in any context, and who thrive in the various forms of jazz. 

There are 35 tracks on this album, each one a few seconds longer than the previous one, starting at 1 minute and ending at 3 minutes. It was recorded in 2016 at a 16th Century Dominican monastery of Oaxaca, Mexico. Like in the music of John Butcher, the actual space of the performance plays an important role, resulting in a strong resonance of Pierończyk's crystal clear pure tones. The reverberation adds a strong quality to the music, and a more timeless quality to his playing, in contrast to the more intimate closed space of his previous solo soprano album "The Planet Of Eternal Life" (2013). The inspiration for this performance is now also to be found in nature and the stellar universe.

Pierończyk is not a timbral explorer. He stays within the sonic boundaries of traditional jazz soprano, but the real treat is the lyrical and melodic power of his musical poems. 

Available from the label


JD Allen - Queen City (Savant, 2021)


JD Allen is not a real free jazz player, but this album still nicely fits in this list of solo albums. JD Allen is possibly best known as a sideman with many jazz ensembles - and when you hear him play you understand why - and his own work is strong and high quality modern jazz. It is therefore a pleasure to hear him in a solo setting, the first of his career. 

His playing is jazzy, rhythmic often, with a warm round tone. His playing is gentle, unhurried and relaxed.  The compositions are nice, the sound quality is great. "Queen City" (named afer Cincinnati, where the album was recorded, makes for pleasant listening. 

Will Vinson - Solo (Whirlwind Recordings, 2021)


British altoist Will Vinson offers us his ninth solo album (although I could not find any information about the other eight), a gentle and welcoming record with 18 tracks that were composed/improvised and recorded during the lockdown, while he was visiting his family in Australia. The quality of the playing is excellent, yet it stays on the safe side. He writes in the liner notes that the music was created duing"an intense period which began with the death of my beloved father and was closely followed with an intense and wretched 31 days of solid police-guarded hotel isolation". I wish the music expressed that intensity and sense of grief and revolt.

Listen and download from Bandcamp



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