Gerry Mulligan

The other day I wrote that the baritone saxophone can be a lyrical instrument. No one has proffered more evidence for this than Gerry Mulligan. I mention this because I just fortuitously ran across some interesting program notes from a 1963 Mulligan concert in England.

I’m not sure who besides me would make a good audience for it, but it does a good job setting up the history of jazz baritone sax and explaining Mulligan’s innovations. (Though I’m not sure everyone would agree with his Lester Young hypothesis.) The anonymous author also touches on what made Mulligan’s improvised solos stand out in a post-Charlie Parker world. This is hard to put in words, but I award his attempt a tie for first prize. Continue reading

Disney World Sax Quartet

When I’m at the Magic Kingdom I usually try to catch the saxophone quartet. It’s not necessarily easy, because their schedule isn’t published. If you ask Guest Relations they will usually tell you some times, but

  1. If you ask when the saxophone quartet plays, they probably won’t be able to tell you. You need the ensemble name, which seems to be Fantasyland Woodwind Society but has also been Toontown Tuners or Cinderella’s Royal Saxophonists. Even so, they probably won’t tell you about the joint performances with the barbershop quartet.
  2. The schedule must be subject to change, as sometimes they don’t show at a quoted time. (Various online schedules are often even less accurate.)
  3. They traipse around the park, so even if you have the correct time they can be hard to find.

bass saxophoneWhat’s unusual about this quartet is that instead of the usual soprano/alto/tenor/baritone they employ soprano/alto/tenor/bass. The bass saxophone can descend a half-octave lower than the baritone, which I suppose is handy for the bass lines of the short arrangements of Disney tunes they tend to play, but it may be that they were going for the eccentric visual appearance.

There’s also a bass saxophone on display in the balcony overlooking the lobby of the Grand Floridian hotel. (See photo, right.) You can almost get close enough to touch it. Note that the band that sets up around it probably won’t play it unless you make a request.

I’m a fan of the bass saxophone, but I’ve always thought it was a shame that the Disney World saxophone quartet didn’t have a baritone as well. The baritone saxophone can be quite a lyrical instrument, but in a typical quartet it’s usually tied to the bass line. A bass sax in the ensemble would free the baritone from the bass line. Plus the bari sax could occasionally take the bass line so the bass sax could be featured.

Well, as it turns out, when I saw them last week the quartet had been augmented to a quintet with baritone. Continue reading

Don Ellis – Invincible

In the mid-80s I made a couple mix tapes of my favorite songs. I still occasionally listen to them today. One of my selections was Invincible, by Don Ellis. The album containing it, “Soaring” from 1973, has never been released on CD. I own a copy on vinyl, but a guy named Lionel Ballet has made it available as part of his Don Ellis site.

The tune is basically a solo vehicle for Vince Denham on alto saxophone, who I otherwise don’t know anything about. The ensemble is a big band augmented with a string quartet, french horn, tuba, and extra rhythm.

[edit: Hmm, the embedded mp3 widget thing doesn’t seem to be working. Listen to the tune by clicking here, if your browser is set up for it. Or save the file and listen to it from outside your browser.]

Here are my thoughts as you listen along via the embedded mp3 widget thing.

Soloist plays the theme at ballad tempo, accompanied by string quartet.
Soloist restates theme, but the string accompaniment is more complex. The tempo is steadier, but still rubato.
String quartet plays the theme pizzicato at a brisk tempo while the soloist noodles subtone sixteenths. It’s almost flight-of-the-bumblebee-esque. It’s not until here that it becomes apparent that the tune is in 7.
Sax section soli. It lasts only 20 seconds, but it’s glorious. The bari is really honking along with the lead alto. This is my favorite part of the piece.
Brass section takes the theme, softly, with some nice organ fills. This is the only time the brass get to do anything besides section hits and whole notes. Sometimes the clam in the trumpet bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t.
This section builds tension by diatonically ascending the F minor scale, one step every two measures. It’s asking a lot of the soloist to keep our attention here while nothing else happens for an entire minute, and he doesn’t completely succeed. I wonder if it might have been better to run through the scale only once instead of twice.
Reaching the top of the scale, the accompaniment now plays the same two-bar figure over and over. To continue building tension through to the cadenza, the soloist delves into the altissimo and expels wild growling lines. I’m not a huge fan of these techniques, but they are effective here.
This is the climax of the piece and the beginning of the unaccompanied cadenza. I like how the soloist uses the entire range of the horn. He does a good job making the transition from wild ferment to calm restraint.
Reprise of the beginning, with only soloist and strings, but with more of an 8+7 feel.
The strings have been laying down a heavy F minor feel, so it’s a delightful surprise when the soloist ends the tune with an embellished F major 7th arpeggio. The final note in the bass is a nice touch.

It’s a nice tune, eh?