Three Great Saxophonists You May Have Missed

Photo courtesy of plasjohnson.com
Sax great, Plas Johnson (photo courtesy of plasjohnson.com)

When you think of great saxophone players, who comes to mind – Coltrane? Parker? Brecker? All great, to be sure. But there are other wonderful musicians worthy of your exploration. Here are 3 that I came across simply by happy accident. One via a late night DJ, the 2nd having a chance to meet, and the 3rd via a great film documentary called the Wrecking Crew.

1. Sonny Criss

One snowy evening when I was fresh out of college and living in a Bohemian attic apartment in Hartford, CT, I heard an astounding sound coming from my radio.

Art Pepper? A young Phil Woods perhaps? Maybe Jackie McLean?

The saxophonist was swinging so hard and had such a fantastic sound that it literally stopped me dead in my tracks. I listened for a few moments then went to the phone book (remember those?), looked up the radio station number and called. I was very surprise that the DJ answered and then he immediately put me on hold. A few moments later he clicked back on and said “How can I help you?”. I asked him “who’s playing that amazing saxophone?”. He said….”ahhh, that’s Sonny Criss, do you like it?” I told him I attended the Hartt School as a music education major and was astounded by the sound, warmth, passion, and feel of his playing. He was very pleased and I sensed that on this otherwise slow night at the station, he could hang a “mission accomplished” banner on his shift.

Unfortunately, the Sonny Criss story did not have a ‘happy’ ending. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1977 after developing stomach cancer at the young age of 50. But his legacy of fantastic playing is documented in about 20 recordings dating back to 1947. If you haven’t heard him, I suggest you begin with one of my favorite cuts; “Smile” from 1967, as seen in this video below.

You’re welcome :)

2. Richie Cole

I’m really not sure how I came to be so close to the stage one evening at a Richie Cole performance. The little restaurant and bar held maybe 50 or 75 people and I was right up front. From the moment he took the stage I was astounded at his sound and lightning fast playing. Hearing my idols on records was one thing, but seeing a (jazz) performer live tearing it up from a yard away was a completely new experience for me.

Born in 1948 and still playing, he was mostly known for being somewhat of a bad boy in jazz circles. Extremely gifted musically but with a propensity to ‘party’ back in the day, some think he may have undermined his own success to a degree. His 1977 recording appropriately titled ‘Alto Madness’ propelled him onto the scene and he enjoyed every minute. His sound, articulation, and technique are reminiscent of Phil Woods …perhaps on a case of Red Bull…lol.

Cole remains an eager to please performer known for a adding a few parlor tricks into his shows (“Everybody call out a tune, I’ll play them one after another without stopping!”). In more recent years Richie has been involved with the National JazzService Organization and he was on the Board for the National Endowment for the Arts where he served as chairman for one year. He is a charter member of the International Association of Jazz Educators and still considered an incredible saxophone virtuoso. Check out his version of the I Love Lucy theme from his acclaimed “Hollywood Madness” album:

3. Plas Johnson

Remember the cool solo on the theme from the TV show The Odd Couple? How about those great horn parts on hits by Marvin Gaye and the Supremes? No? How about the Pink Panther theme?

Ahhh yes, I know that rings a bell. Bet you didn’t know however, they all feature Plas Johnson’s great tenor playing. In 1964, Johnson was featured on a groundbreaking album that had saxophone as its lead “voice” surrounded by a full string section. “Blue Martini” contains some of Johnson’s best and most innovative playing but it is his work with the legendary Wrecking Crew that had most music “insiders” noticing his playing.

The Wrecking Crew were a loose combination of roughly 20 studio and session musicians who played in relative anonymity on literally thousands of records, films, and television series during the 1960s. Plas was one of their go-to sax players and wound up being the purr-fectly smoky voice of Mancini’s Pink Panther.

Plas’s playing can be heard on albums by Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt and Sarah Vaughan. And at 83 Plas continues to record and perform at jazz festivalsaround the world! Here is his very soulful sound on Georgia on My Mind:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onEDS2kksp0

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