A Guide to Playing in a Big Band Saxophone Section

Big Band Saxophone Section Playing
Photo by William Brawley

This article is a guest post from Jeff Rzepiela, whose transcriptions of saxophone solos by the greats can be found at www.scooby-sax.com.

Playing in a big band’s sax section can be a thrilling experience. When the section is in synch, it can be like the Blue Angels flying in perfect formation. On the other hand, when the section is not working together and it’s every man for himself, it can make for a very long evening.

In this article, I share some of my thoughts about playing in a sax section. In particular, I examine the section from the perspective of the lead alto chair. The majority of my playing in a section is as lead alto, so I have some thoughts about what makes the lead player’s job easier or harder. While I primarily play lead, I also play three of the other four chairs (I leave bari playing to the experts), so I can offer some thoughts from those perspectives as well.

Lead Alto

While the role of the lead alto probably requires a dedicated feature of its own, I’ll offer a few comments here.

As you’ll realize in the process of reading this article, there is a common theme of listening and blending with the lead player. That means as lead player, the responsibility is on your shoulders to provide a clear and consistent way of playing that the other members of the section can count on. Consistency is extremely important – phrasing, dynamics, intonation, note lengths, etc. need to be clear.

Another point is playing in a stylistically correct way depending upon the situation in which you find yourself. A recent interview with several lead alto players (e.g. Dick Oatts, Steve Wilson, etc.) for JazzEd magazine gave their perspectives on playing lead. One common idea many of the players mention was careful listening to recordings by the great lead players. I can suggest just a few of my favorites – Marshal Royal with the Basie band, Phil Woods with Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson, Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, and Dick Oatts with different incarnations of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band.

Another common theme that emerged in the interview with the lead players was to look for as many opportunities to play in as many different bands as you can to learn a wide repertoire. As Dick Oatts said, “Experience is, by far, the most important learning tool.”

2nd Alto

I think this is definitely the “Goldilocks” chair in the section. You can’t play too hard or too soft; it has to be just right! The best 2nd players play right up to the lead player but don’t go past that. Trouble usually arises when the 2nd player either plays too much or too little.

In the first case, it makes the lead player’s job so much harder when the 2nd player keeps grabbing the steering wheel so to speak. If the second player is dominating, it is difficult for the lead player to set dynamics, phrasing, time-feel, etc. In this case, the section sounds disjointed as the other players are unsure which player to follow and can quickly devolve into 5 people playing on their own rather than together.

On the opposite extreme is when the 2nd player is non-committal – the notes may be correct, but the dynamics never escape a gray area between mp and mf, the articulation is mushy, and the rhythm just plods along without any sense of swing or drive. In this case, the sax section can sound hollow since the important 2nd voice is missing.

While I primarily play lead, on those occasions when I get called to play 2nd, I try to keep my ears wide open and continually adjust to the lead player. I try to match their intonation, phrasing, dynamics, etc.

I recently subbed in a band playing 2nd. The gig started and we played a couple of tunes which gave me an idea of the lead player’s style. The next tune came up and in the split second before the downbeat he tapped the second page and said to watch out for this section since it was an exposed part for the altos. When we got to that section, my radar was on high. I held back just a hair at the beginning to see where he was going to set the volume and then quickly came right up under his part. It was a nice piece of writing that covered a good part of the range of the horn (roughly low E to palm-key E), had a lot of dynamic markings, varied articulation, a scooped note, etc. All the while, I was making constant adjustments, matching the lead note for note. As we got the next chart up, the lead player turned to me and said “Geez!” That was followed by silence while I tried to read his poker-face to determine if he meant, “Geez, that was pretty good” or “Geez, remind me not to call you to sub ever again”. He then smiled and said “That sounded like one guy playing. We were in perfect synch!” I breathed a sigh of relief and knew the rest of the gig would be just fine – provided I kept my ears open like that all night.

1st Tenor

A common theme I will return to throughout this article is keeping your ears open and following the lead player. This point applies to the lead tenor as well. A wide-open set of ears will allow you to match the intonation, dynamics, and phrasing of the lead. On certain charts (e.g. Bill Holman’s “Yesterdays”), there are sections where the 1st tenor has the lead – this is a moment to shine and lead the section.

Depending on the arrangements and band, the 1st tenor can have the majority of the solos. While not intending to tell someone how to solo, I will mention one point. Part of section-playing (and big band playing in general) is adjusting your playing to match the situation in which you find yourself. When it comes to improvisation, if you are in a band playing modern arrangements and you have the solo on a Maria Schneider arrangement, cut loose! On the other hand, if you are playing a dance at the Elks Club, a 16 bar solo on an old Big Band-era favorite might not be the best time to show off the multiphonics tricks you have been practicing. I recall a dance gig where the 1st tenor player had a ballad feature and proceeded to tear into his solo with an Ascension-era Coltrane-like fervor. It’s the only time I’ve seen someone clear a dance floor! So, a word to the wise, there is a time and place for everything.

2nd Tenor

The 2nd tenor part can be a particularly challenging chair to play well. Depending on the arrangement, this part can be tricky to play musically. Dexter Gordon is quoted as saying how musical Tadd Dameron’s arrangements were and that even the 2nd tenor parts had beautiful melodic lines.

A lot of times, we’re not so lucky. Examining a score might show that all the notes of a 2nd tenor part are playing an important harmonic role, but when viewed as a single line, the line is not particularly melodic. A good arranger can tweak the voicings to improve the playability of all the parts, but sometimes no matter what combinations are tried, it is hard to make every part melodic all the time. Frequently the 2nd tenor part gets the short end of the stick.

I used to play in a rehearsal band where I specifically wanted to play the 2nd tenor part. I was committed to learning to play that chair well, not because I specifically wanted to be a full-time 2nd tenor player, but because I thought it would make me a better lead player. I worked to understand how that part fit into the overall context of the section, learned to balance my part between the lead alto and lead tenor, and tried to play as melodically as I could. Now when I play lead on a Thad Jones chart and hit a tricky soli section, I can’t complain about my part since I know what the 2nd tenor player is dealing with!


While I don’t play bari myself, I have been lucky to have played with some excellent bari players. How they approach their part can make the lead player’s life a lot easier.

In one scenario, if there is a soli voiced in a standard 4-way close, doubled lead configuration (a la Supersax), then bari player is doubling the lead part an octave lower. If this part is played well, the lead player can relax a little. The doubling at the octave adds weight to the line, so the lead player can focus more on phrasing, articulation, and swing.

On the other hand, if the lead and bari are not in synch, then playing the lead line can feel like walking in quicksand as the weight of the bari drags everyone down. In the case of a 5-way voicing, the bari has an independent line. Again when well-played, the 5th voice adds a richness and depth to the section.

Another possibility is that the baritone has an independent line that plays against the other horns in the section. Perhaps it can be a funky, Tower of Power-like ostinato in the bari part which the lead alto line plays against. If the bari part is laid down with a rhythmic confidence, the alto part practically plays itself. If not, it can feel like the whole section just stepped in wet concrete.


I hope this article has presented some ideas about playing in a saxophone section from the perspective of the lead player. Playing in a great section in which everyone’s ears are open can be thrilling. Keep the visual image of the Blue Angels in mind and keep the sound of the Ellington and Basie sax sections in your ears as you work together to collectively make the music come alive!