Sometimes, it seems like the saxophone is underrated outside of its beginnings in classical music and its jazzy tendencies. This alone should make it clear that Saxophone Day, on the 6th November, deserves to exist and should be celebrated. “But there seems to be a day for everything now!”, you may proclaim, but I am here to tell you that the saxophone requires a day to be appreciated. Am I biased towards sax to the point if I see one on stage I just presume the band must be good? Yes. But is Lisa Simpson a musical icon? Of course. So, here is a brief selection of some of the best uses of our brass friend in popular music.
Gentleman – Fela Kuti
It feels like it would be a sin to write an article about the saxophone without mentioning ‘Gentleman’. It puts the saxophone at the forefront, introduced by an unaccompanied, improvised solo, letting the instrument speak for itself in its full glory. This song marks Fela Kuti picking up the saxophone after the original band saxophonist departed in 1973, but it’s hard to tell on this record that he had been playing for such a short amount of time. The song ascends into a 14-minute masterpiece of the band together at their finest intertwining instrumentation with the flair of Kuti’s politicised lyrics: “I no be gentleman at all o / I be Africa man original”.
Person to Person – Virginia Wing & XAM Duo
There’s a perfect unity in this track, balanced between both bands’ quirky, experimental takes on electronic music, starting off with a slow percussive chugging that soon becomes the accompaniment to the saxophone that sings all the way through, shining at the forefront with a gorgeous reverberation. Flourishes of vocals from Virginia Wing and soft synthesisers make the song float like a dream while still staying grounded with the strong beat that drives the softer elements forward.
Transition 2 – Joy O & Ben Vince
Joy O has maintained a well-established name in dance music where you can track a progression from his dubstep roots to then taking some of its stylistic embellishments into new territories. This collaboration with Ben Vince, who edges onto the more avant-garde side of the saxophone, combines grooving bass with an atmospheric, disorderly sax riff. The nuances of Vince’s signature style floating in the background of this track create something where you’re not sure if you’re uncomfortable or just want to dance. It works effortlessly with Joy O’s signature bass/techno crossover backing it up.
Jungle Man – Viagra Boys
Looking into this Stockholm band’s discography, they put their saxophonist to use creatively, often accompanying the borderline-scary crescendos of their most violent tracks with unsettling improvisation. Guitars screech over a deceptively simple structure as frontman Sebastian Murphy’s vocals growl. ‘Jungle Man’ features a punchy, aggressive sax riff, which is simple yet affective, proving Viagra Boys are bringing something new to their genre with their impressionistic use of the instrument.
Blackbird – Fat Freddy’s Drop
Fat Freddy’s Drop’s crossover of reggae, dub and jazz culminate at their peak in their seminal single, ‘Blackbird’, which can only be described as a journey. From the beginning, where the sax contributes an ominous sensation amongst the flirtation of echoing piano and an unnerving bass, to its driving procession as the song progresses, the band’s general use of brass deserves endless admiration. This song’s sax solo towards the end needs a special mention for the perfect demonstration of what is so beautiful about the saxophone, as it descends into a punch of funk.
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