10 Essential Ballads That Every Saxophonist Should Know

Photo by Tom Marcello
Photo by Tom Marcello

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.

Suggested listening:

  • 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.

Suggested listening:

  • 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.

Suggested Listening:

  • 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.)

Suggested Listening:

  • 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.

Suggested Listening:

  • 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.

Suggested Listening:

  • 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.

Suggested listening:

  • 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.

Suggested listening:

  • 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.

Suggested listening:

  • Duke Ellington – The Best of the Centennial Edition
  • Ben Webster – Sophisticated Lady

10. Loverman

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.

Suggested listening:

  • Charlie Parker: The Essential Charlie Parker
  • Lee Konitz: Strings for Holiday

Honorable mention:

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.