Gain Instant Inspiration with these 16 Unsung Tenor Heros
We’re all raised on a steady diet of the tenor greats, of which there are many. So many of the movers and shakers of jazz played this horn, people like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, and Wayne Shorter, continuing into more recent times with people like Michael Brecker, Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano.
I don’t think there are any jazz instrumentalists, period, who have not had a steady diet of these greats in their musical upbringing. But, like any great tradition, there are so many saxophone players who are so important to the lineage, yet are too often overlooked. These are musicians who were contemporaries of the greats, and who made massive contributions to this music, inspiring everybody around them. Many of them might have never made a name for themselves as leaders, instead preferring to work on the sidelines under the names of others, and others spent much of their careers living abroad or working in oblivion.
Still, their contributions were significant and they are well worth listening to. So many of today’s great players who are looking for a sound of their own have most certainly gone to these often unsung heroes for direction. Personally, as I’ve grown as a player and looked for new things to add to my own playing, I’ve sought more and more inspiration from them.
I thought it would be fun to give a list of 16 of them who have inspired me over the years, along with links to a great recording of theirs that you can start your listening adventure with.
Disclaimer: This is a very partial list. A complete list would be endless.
Also, I stuck only to players who are no longer with us. The list of unsung greats with us today would also most certainly be endless, and might even cause a lot of room for debate, a debate that I’m not particularly interested starting or being a part of. I’ll leave debates of who is greater than the others to the jazz magazines and cable sports networks.
(In no particular order…)
1. Don Byas (1912-1972)
Don was one of the great early tenor players, and a big influence on the early beboppers. In fact, he appears on a number of recordings with Charlie Parker. Although his style is more in the Coleman Hawkins tradition, the sophistication of his playing is stunning. He spent the last 26 years of his life living in Europe, and is often overlooked as a result. Most of his albums are out of print, but here’s a great compilation that’s out there:
Complete 1946-54 Paris Recordings
2. Lucky Thompson (1924-2005)
Lucky played with a stunning sound, and complete melodicism. He also played with some of the swing greats, such as Count Basie, as well as many of the best beboppers. His recording, Tricotism (‘56), featuring the great bassist Oscar Pettiford, blew my mind as a young player.
Lucky Thompson Meets Oscar Pettiford (Dig)
3. Roland Kirk (1935-1977)
Roland Kirk is most famous for playing multiple horns at the same time, including some very unusual woodwinds. While this was a breakthrough, especially considering he was blind from an early age, his tenor playing on its own is stunning. Big, blustery sound and just incredibly swinging. It’s rough around the edges, and probably not for everyone, but worth checking out.
Rip, Rig & Panic/Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith
4. Paul Gonsalves (1920-1974)
Best known for his 27-chorus blues solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, captured on the recording Ellington at Newport (‘56), Gonsalves was one of the creamiest, most creative saxophone players ever. He appears on a number of Ellington’s great recordings from the 50’s, and really shaped the Ellington sound alongside the other great saxophonists in that group.
5. Clifford Jordan (1931-1993)
Clifford was one of the great players from Chicago, steeped in rhythm and blues, and known for his playing with Charles Mingus and his three Blue Note recordings as a leader. Jordan died when I was first getting into jazz as a teenager, and I quickly found myself a copy of his recording Spellbound and learned several solos from it. His sound was completely his own, and the swing is incredible.
6. Johnny Griffin (1928-2008)
Nicknamed the “Little Giant” due to his small stature, he was another Chicago great. I was fortunate to see him play a few times as a kid and will never forget it. He could play lightning-fast tempos like nobody else, and had a huge sound. He played with Thelonious Monk briefly in the 50’s, and these recordings are some of my favorite Monk.
7. Gene Ammons (1925-1974)
Yet another Chicago great. The son of a famous Boogie-Woogie pianist, he could play a mean blues and bring that blues sense to everything he played. Check out his recordings with Sonny Stitt. He certainly didn’t match up with Stitt technically, but what a fantastic sound and feel.
8. Dewey Redman (1931-2006)
Born in Texas, he is most famous for his early recording with Ornette Coleman and later as a member of Keith Jarrett’s first quartet. He is also Joshua Redman’s father. His sound is a massive force, and his melodicism is stunning. He could play inside as well as he could play free, and the cry in his playing is infectious. He is a huge influence on some major players today.
9. Illinois Jacquet (1922-2004)
Although people know him for some of his more honking playing that influenced many of the rock players that would follow him, he could swing as well as anybody and break your heart with a ballad. He’s most famous for his solo on Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home,” which shook the music world.
Flying Home: Best of Verve Years
10. Sam Butera (1927-2009)
Best known as the singer Louis Prima’s saxophone sidekick, his solo on “Just a Gigolo” is a growly, blustery wonder, something that every saxophone player should know. His playing is such an extension of the New Orleans tradition that he and Prima came out of, and it’s totally infectious, full of humor, spirit, and soul.
Collectors Series: Louis Prima
11. Warne Marsh (1927-1987)
The greatest disciple of the Lennie Tristano school, he was one of a kind, and has become a huge influence on young players of the last ten years. He was one of the truest improvisers to play this music, and this is undoubtedly some of the most sophisticated and delicate playing in the saxophone lineage.
12. Charlie Rouse (1924-1988)
Many great saxophone players played in Thelonious Monk’s band over the years (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Steve Lacy, Johnny Griffin), but Rouse played with him the longest and perhaps played Monk’s music more like it was intended to be played. The unique swing, use of space and dry humor in his playing delights.
13. Sal Nistico (1938-1991)
I was first introduced to Nistico’s playing by Dick Oatts, one of the true saxophone heroes of today. Known for a long association with Woody Herman, where he shines, the depth of his lines is incredible.
14. Eddie Lockjaw Davis (1922-1986)
Best known for his playing with Count Basie as well as the two-tenor groups he lead with Sonny Stitt and Johnny Griffin. This is some bigtime saxophone playing.
15. Stanley Turrentine (1934-2000)
The most masterful and elegant of the blues players, here is complete mastery of the instrument, an incredibly identifiable sound, and an amazing soulfulness. He is most known for his commercial successes of the 70’s on CTI, but check out some of his earlier work for some more revealing tenor playing, especially this collaboration with the great Oliver Nelson (another great and unsung saxophone player).
16. Eddie Harris (1934-1996)
Another player who had some commercial successes, but is too often overlooked by saxophonists. His playing is so spare and understated, even with his extensive and refined use of the altissimo register and extensive use of lines based on fourths. Nobody else could do so much over two chords as Eddie when it came time to be funky, and the opening notes of “Shadow or Your Smile” on this record still make me melt.
If you have some players to add to the list, I would love to see your thoughts in the comment section below.
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Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others.
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May 1, 2013 @ 9:19 am
Nice list! And don’t forget Oliver Nelson.
May 1, 2013 @ 10:31 pm
Harold Land (1928-2001) Best known for his stint with Clifford Brown and Max Roach. A combination of classic sound and modern ideas comparable to Sonny Rollins, and a vital, if overlooked, player through the ’60s and beyond.
Don Menza (1936-) Big band arranger and tenor player extraordinaire. Iconic player with the Buddy Rich Big Band. Still sounding great.
Ernie Watts (1945-) Perennial sideman for rock, R&B, and Jazz sessions who started to shine as a leader in the 1990s. His sound is huge and deep, with an edge that gives it a Coltrane-esque emotional urgency.
May 1, 2013 @ 11:55 pm
Cool list. I’d add Pharoah Sanders to this though. He is one of the most overlooked and under appreciated saxophonists in the world. I can’t stress enough how much people overlook him. Here is one of the many fantastic songs that he has written. I hope you all enjoy this song just as much as I do.
Pharoah Sanders – The Light At The Edge Of The World.
May 2, 2013 @ 2:12 pm
Good catch, and thanks for the link.
May 2, 2013 @ 12:25 pm
George Adams. His playing on the Mingus albums from the 1970s and on the records he made with Don Pullen is terrific. Reminds me of Dewey Redman a bit, a player who can play pretty straight ahead but go off on avant garde flights of fancy that give his playing great variety.
May 2, 2013 @ 2:06 pm
All great suggestions! Graham, I really do love the George Adams stuff with Don Pullen. It’s totally straight ahead stuff, but then Don Pullen brings in the Cecil Taylor-ish vibe, making for some very interesting music.
May 2, 2013 @ 11:59 pm
How about Booker Ervin? Great sound. Recorded with Mingus on classics such as Mingus -Ah-Um. Also played with Sonny Stitt on Soul People.
May 3, 2013 @ 5:02 am
For those who do not know him i’d like to mention Ernie Krivda.He is only unknown because he lives in Cleveland Ohio.He has one of the most unique tenor sounds in jazz and mind boggling tecnique.Check him out.
May 3, 2013 @ 9:03 am
Nobody ever remembers Tina Brooks.
May 3, 2013 @ 8:53 pm
thought provoking list… can’t believe you left off Hank Mobley
May 22, 2013 @ 7:24 am
I’m surprised about Mobley too.
And don’t forget Wardell Gray & Chu Berry
June 11, 2013 @ 4:32 pm
And Sam Rivers! One of Miles’ most overlooked sidemen; unfortunately there are not many recordings of them out there. His solo stuff is also wonderful.
June 22, 2013 @ 3:33 pm
Nice list, I just wanted to add to your details about Don Byas. He made a few recordings in Europe in the 60’s which are incredible, some of which are available. His playing on them is so swinging and original.
August 15, 2013 @ 1:55 am
Here are additions to the list I think should be considered: Chico Freeman, Von Freeman, Arthur Blythe, Ernie Watts, George Adams, Kenny Garrett, Benny Golson, Sam Rivers and Nathan Davis.
December 11, 2013 @ 1:33 pm
Pete Christlieb – Somebody once gave me a tape of him playing Night Has a 1000 Eyes when he was very young and it was amazing)
December 11, 2013 @ 1:24 pm
How about Bud Freeman, Georgie Auld and Bill Perkins.
February 6, 2014 @ 10:01 am
Great list – know most of them but what about Sonny Stitt and Al Cohen, who shuffled onto the stage, parked himself on a stool and proceeded to blow us all away. A more than memorable night
April 4, 2014 @ 10:25 pm
Two forgotten players who could stand with anybody: Shafi Hadi (aka Curtis Porter) and Joe Alexander (check him out on Tadd Dameron’s Fontainbleau date on Prestige OJC).One more:Percy France.
June 13, 2016 @ 11:40 am
George Coleman’s Apache Dance is just wonderful. Also, Hank Mobley!
March 28, 2018 @ 12:43 pm
JR Monterose, “the greatest tenor you never heard of” from Utica, NY.
April 27, 2019 @ 5:36 pm
Thanks for the list, but please, you left out a crucial addition: Mr. George Adams who played tenor with Mingus, McCoy Tyner and pianist Don Pullen. Adams (1940-92) played one of the most incredible solos ever heard on tenor sax. Please listen on Youtube to McCoy Tyner album “The Greeting” and the song is “Fly With The Wind” on that recording. George Adams plays what no one since (or before) has done: He plays with incredible passion and creativity, using multiphonics and various textures through the changes. It is rare to hear a musician play freely and texturally over chord changes…and to so utilizing all the root traditions of the music: spirituals, blues, lyricism etc.
I saw Mr. Adams play on this song in 1977 at UCLA’s Royce Hall and it was unforgettable. I was able to see him again and meet him in Spring of 1988 when the Adams-Pullen Quartet (with Cameron Brown, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums) played at Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Los Angeles.
As a professional musician myself on woodwinds, I have never heard anyone play like George Adams. His approach is not only unique but innovative. His creativity, energy, imagination and musical/technical concepts are completely his own. I am hoping by his inclusion on such lists as yours, he will receive the recognition he so richly deserves. He is survived by his son Quami who lives in the Los Angeles area.
G-d bless Mr. George Adams for his amazing contribution to music! See also “Song Everlasting” (Adams-Pullen) and Mingus “Changes”.
April 27, 2019 @ 5:43 pm
Here is the incredible George Adams solo referred to in my comment above.
I also agree that Pharaoh Sanders must be included on this list along with David Murray, a remarkable innovator whose bass clarinet work is unmatched since Dolphy. Also, I would hope you’d include Albert Ayler. Did you know he used to practice Charlie Parker solos backward and forward? He had a complete mastery of the horn. His innovations musicially along with his spiritual devotion must be more widely known. John Coltrane himself was an admirer of Ayler’s work and went to hear him in NY. You can hear on Coltrane’s last recordings a much heavier, devotion filled vibrato that may have come from listening to Albert Ayler.
April 27, 2019 @ 5:46 pm
I also highly recommend that you include Archie Shepp. His work over many years is quite notable. He did two duet recordings with pianist Horace Parlan “Goin’ Home” (spirituals) and “Trouble in Mind” (Blues). He also did “Looking at Bird” a duet with bassist NHO Pederson. His mastery of the idiom, warmth, sincerity and depth along with a very distinguishable sound make him a necessary addition to this list. This along with his compositions: “The Cry of My People”, “Steam” etc.
April 27, 2019 @ 6:04 pm
Please also listen to Hank Mobley’s tenor solo on Lee Morgan’s Ceora. It is a gem:
Also, listen to his solos with Miles on Old Folks and I Thought About You. Everything about this work is masterful, brilliant, poignant and beautiful. Thank you, and G-d bless Hank Mobley!
January 20, 2020 @ 5:37 pm
Great list, especially the inclusion of Don Byas.
I also love the additional comments.
My two cents: I would include Zoot Sims and Lew Tabackin
January 20, 2020 @ 8:39 pm
Dig Arnett Cobb…hear him on “Smooth Sailing”…swinging with a SOUND
May 12, 2020 @ 6:59 pm
Kind of surprised Joe Henderson is not here. A great string of albums, early and late in his career, as well as an absolute monster as a sideman.
January 1, 2022 @ 8:52 am
Often overlooked is Tubby Hayes, maybe because he’s British.