10 Essential Ballads That Every Saxophonist Should Know
How many times has it happened that you tell somebody that you play the saxophone, and the first thing that they say, with a glint in their eyes is, “Oh, I love the saxophone…”
Now, I hate to say it, but they probably aren’t thinking of Bird’s burning solo on Donna Lee, Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” or Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge when they say that. If only…
Rather, most people’s connection to the saxophone is through the incredible way that it can channel the human voice and convey romance in a way that few instruments can match, particularly on slow pieces, or ballads as they are often called.
One would be hard-pressed to find a saxophonist’s album without at least one ballad on it, and they should be a part of any good, balanced set of music. Surely, experienced players will tell you that they are one of the most challenging and rewarding things to play, and not just for the adulation that might be bestowed upon you by your listeners…
Here are ten essential jazz ballads that every saxophonist should have in their repertoire:
1. Body and Soul
The ultimate ballad for any saxophonist. It’s a relatively simple 32 bar AABA form that lays just about perfectly on the saxophone and gives room for infinite variations. Virtually every tenor player in jazz has recorded a version, and Coleman Hawkins’ version is said by many to be the beginning of modern saxophone playing.
- Coleman Hawkins – Body and Soul
- John Coltrane – Coltrane’s Sound
- Joe Lovano – From the Soul
2. In a Sentimental Mood
One of the many great and unmistakable ballads written by Duke Ellington. The simple six note pick-up gives room for endless expression, and the harmonies of this one are relatively simple for the beginning player.
- John Coltrane – Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
- Sonny Rollins – w/ the Modern Jazz Quartet
3. My Foolish Heart
One of the great ballads from American popular song, composed by Victor Young. It’s commonly played in Bb concert, but you’ll hear it played in some other keys as well. A beautiful, simple and lyrical melody with some great chord changes, with lots of room for bluesy playing in it.
- Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt – Boss Tenors
- Rick Margitza – Work It
4. Moonlight in Vermont
This one might not make a lot of top ten lists, but it’s a favorite of mine. Penned by the little-known John Blackburn, the A sections are a rare 6-bars, and it is one of the first popular American songs that doesn’t have lyrics that rhyme. (As a side note, it is particularly important to know the lyrics of any ballads that you play. They are are a great guide for your approach and phrasing.)
- Stan Getz – Getz for Lovers
- George Garzone – Alone
5. Round Midnight
There’s a little debate over who actually wrote this (both Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams are credited), but for our purposes it’s one of the most recognized jazz ballads you’ll ever find, with lots of interesting dominant chord movement and an ingenious harmonic shift from minor to major. And dig how the melody of the bridge comes directly out of the last two bars of the A section, a technique Monk used in many of his tunes.
And if you haven’t watched it already, the movie that is named after this tune that stars Dexter Gordon as the main character is well worth watching.
- Gerry Mulligan – Mulligan meets Monk
- Art Pepper – Art Pepper + Eleven
- Dexter Gordon – Round Midnight
6. These Foolish Things
Written by Jack Strachey, this very simple AABA song has been recorded by just about everybody. The melody is very repetitive, which leaves lots of room for variation, and the simple harmonies leave lots of room to stretch.
- Lester Young: These Foolish Things
- Dave Brubeck Quartet (feat. Paul Desmond): Jazz at Oberlin
7. Embraceable You
One of the many classic Gershwin tunes, this is one you can spend hours with exploring the rich harmonies and the subtle way that the melody builds. Also, check out the Charlie Parker’s Quasimodo, which is based on the changes to this tune.
- Frank Wess: Magic 201
- Zoot Sims: Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers
8. I Can’t Get Started
Written by Vernon Duke, this one is an absolute essential. Dig the descending ii-V progressions in the third and fourth bar that are usually played.
- Lester Young – The Complete Savoy Recordings
- Lee Konitz – with Warne Marsh
- Joe Lovano – Quartets (Live at the Village Vanguard)
9. Sophisticated Lady
Another of Duke Ellington’s great ballads, tailor-made for the great Johnny Hodges’ unique style of bending into notes. Lots of descending dominant chords in the A section to tackle, and the bridge has some of the most luscious eight measures of music ever written, great for developing your subtone.
- Duke Ellington – The Best of the Centennial Edition
- Ben Webster – Sophisticated Lady
Written by Ram Ramirez, this was one of Charlie Parker’s signature songs. And make sure to listen to Billie Holiday sing it. There’s a special cry to this song that’s very special.
- Charlie Parker: The Essential Charlie Parker
- Lee Konitz: Strings for Holiday
My One and Only Love, Infant Eyes, Peace (Horace Silver), Darn That Dream, Easy Living, Georgia on my Mind, When I Fall in Love, Misty, Chelsea Bridge, Prelude to a Kiss, You Don’t Know What Love Is, When Sunny Gets Blue, Angel Eyes, Skylark, Imagination, Blue in Green, My Romance, But Beautiful.
As I’m sure many of you realize, there are lots of amazing songs that are not on this list that might be among your favorites. As I was putting together this list I discovered so many more great songs that I hadn’t played in a while, so please feel free to add your favorite ballads or recommended recordings in the comment section below.
June 18, 2014 @ 5:22 pm
This is awesome, thanks, Sam!
June 21, 2014 @ 8:45 am
Some ballads I like to play that were not mentioned are Polka Dots and Moon Beams, Try A Little Tenderness, Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, Stardust, Angel Eyes, My Old Flame, A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square and Everything Happens To Me among others.
March 15, 2015 @ 10:04 am
Stormy Weather is also really awesome.
December 25, 2021 @ 2:59 am
At last a saxophone post I can agree with. I also particularly love All Of You (especially the Miles Davis Quintet versions) and Weaver of Dreams (the Coltrane version).
March 16, 2015 @ 3:18 am
Nice list. As it happends I know of a good version from 1961 of In A Sentimental Mood by one of the best former Yugoslavian saxophonists Eduard Sadjil so I’d like to share
Eduard Sađil – In A Sentimental Mood (U Sentimentalnom Raspoloženju): http://youtu.be/m1KR7NavUuo
December 25, 2021 @ 10:55 am
Beautiful rendition!!! Thanks for sharing!
March 16, 2015 @ 7:02 am
Are guitarists allowed to contribute? “You don’t know what love is”
August 2, 2016 @ 1:41 am
only if they turn down ;)
March 16, 2015 @ 2:11 pm
Nice article.. But “Loverman” was not Gershwin. It is attributed to Roger “Ram” Ramirez and Jimmy Sherman.
March 24, 2015 @ 7:25 am
wonderful thoughts. I just want to comment on tune “My Foolish Heart”. Sometimes we shouldn’t just listen to sax players. I can’t imagine playing that tune w/o listening to Bill Evans playing it first. (and for saxophone, Stan Getz on Label M-My Foolish Heart, Live at Left Bank Jazz Society will BREAK your heart) Also, there are SO many great tunes, this was an admirable task to undertake.
June 28, 2015 @ 5:41 pm
You should of included some pieces from James Carter.
June 14, 2021 @ 1:17 am
December 7, 2015 @ 5:15 pm
Soul Eyes is my No.1 favourite ballad… also like Days of Wine and Roses and If you could see me now
December 12, 2015 @ 11:49 am
Leaving off “Cry me a River” is just a crime.
January 13, 2016 @ 10:22 am
Jungleland best sax solo ever by Clarence Big Man Clemons
January 17, 2016 @ 6:41 am
One of my favorite are: Everything happens to me, Here is that rainy Day and I fall in love too easily :)
March 30, 2016 @ 9:46 pm
How about Lush Life and Soultrane?
August 2, 2016 @ 9:29 am
Three ballads I love to play are ‘You belong to me’ , ‘Sleep Walk’ and ‘Unchained Melody’ beautiful on the tenor sax,????
August 27, 2016 @ 1:06 pm
Great to see ” my foolish heart “. The Sam Buyers version evokes a whole era. IMO, I would put stardust in place of loverman. But hey, they are all great.
August 27, 2016 @ 1:08 pm
Predictive texting….aaagh !! Sam Butera
August 28, 2016 @ 12:50 am
the Getz take of ” My foolish Heart ” ; not one to argue, but I find his tone unbearable. Really no idea what was going down on that night. Any thoughts. Modern ballads ? Lilac wine ; Love is a losing game….etc. More coffee, its too early for such stressful disciplines as thinking. Ho ho ho.
August 28, 2016 @ 10:43 am
Just finished for today. I have been mentally wondering. So ; off of the top of my head
2. Body and soul
3. I love you Porgy
4. In a sentimental mood
5. My foolish heart.
6. Lush life
7. In the wee small hours
8. Goodbye pork pie hat
9. Folks that live on the hill
10. Moon river.
These will change on a daily basis. As long as your playing, its all GOOD
May 11, 2018 @ 2:03 pm
Another great ballad for the Saxophone is “The End of a Love Affair” by the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
November 11, 2018 @ 1:17 pm
Please correct your article. Ram Rameriz wrote Lover Man NOT George Gershwin
June 24, 2021 @ 8:57 am
Sharon, you are absolutely correct, thanks for pointing that out! The article has now been corrected.
Quelle est la chanson la plus difficile à jouer au saxophone ? - Taj.ma
November 23, 2022 @ 1:44 pm
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