Musings of the Past

In Appreciation Of The Saxophonist

Time for another installment of this infrequent feature, in which I republish select content that first appeared in the earlier stage of the blog when I had fewer followers. The following post about my favorite saxophone players originally appeared in November 2017. I’ve slightly edited it and also added a Spotify playlist at the end.

In Appreciation Of The Saxophonist

A list of some of my favorite saxophone players and solos

Music instruments have always fascinated me. I also have a deep appreciation for musicians who master their gear. Oftentimes, I wish I would have learned more than just the guitar and the bass. For regular readers of the blog or those who know me otherwise, none of this should come as a big surprise. I’ve written a bunch of posts on some of the gear I admire, from guitars like the Fender StratocasterGibson Les Paul and Rickenbacker 360/12, to keyboards like the  Hammond B3, as well as some of my favorite drummers and bassists. One of the coolest instruments I haven’t touched yet is the saxophone.

Let me address the big caveat to this post right away: Since I know next to nothing about jazz, I’m focusing on genres that are in my wheelhouse: rock, blues and pop. While many of the saxophonists I highlight come from the jazz world, it’s still safe to assume I’m missing some outstanding players. On the other hand, where would I even start, if I broadened the scope to jazz? With that being out of the way, following is a list of some of favorite saxophonists and sax solos.

Update: Since subsequently I’ve started to explore the jazz world, mostly in my Sunday Six feature, I’m going to add some tracks in the Spotify playlist featuring some additional outstanding jazz saxophonists.

Raphael Ravenscroft

I imagine just like most readers, I had never heard of this British saxophonist until I realized he was associated with a ’70s pop song featuring one of the most epic sax solos: Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. The breathtaking performance put Ravenscroft on the map. He went on to work with other top artists like Marvin Gaye (In Our Lifetime, 1981), Robert Plant (Pictures At Eleven, 1982) and Pink Floyd (The Final Cut, 1983). Ravenscroft died from a suspected heart attack in October 2014 at the age of 60. According to a BBC News story, he didn’t think highly of the solo that made him famous, saying, “I’m irritated because it’s out of tune…Yeah it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best.” The same article also noted that Ravenscroft “was reportedly paid only £27 for the session with a cheque that bounced while the song is said to have earned Rafferty £80,000 a year in royalties.” Wow!

Wayne Shorter

The American jazz saxophonist and composer, who started his career in the late ’50s, played in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet in the 1960s and co-founded the jazz fusion band Weather Report in 1971. Shorter has recorded over 20 albums as a bandleader and played as a sideman on countless other jazz records. He also contributed to artists outside the jazz realm, including Joni MitchellDon Henley and Steely Dan. For the latter, he performed a beautiful extended tenor sax solo for Aja, the title track of their 1977 gem.

Clarence Clemons

The American saxophonist, musician and actor was best known for his longtime association with Bruce Springsteen. From 1972 to his death in June 2011 at age 69, Clemons was a member of the E Street Band, where he played the tenor saxophone. He also released several solo albums and played with other artists, including Aretha FranklinTwisted Sister, Grateful Dead and  Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band. But it was undoubtedly the E Street Band where he left his biggest mark, providing great sax parts for Springsteen gems like Thunder RoadThe Promised Land and The Ties That Bind. One of my favorite Clemons moments is his solo on Bobby Jean from the Born In The U.S.A. album. What could capture “The Big Man” better than a live performance? This clip is from a 1985 concert in Paris, France.

Curtis Amy

The American West Coast jazz musician was primarily known for his work as a tenor and soprano saxophonist. Among others, Amy served as the musical director of Ray Charles’ orchestra for three years in the mid-60s. He also led his own bands and recorded under his own name. Outside the jazz arena, he worked as a session musician for artists like The Doors (Touch Me, The Soft Parade, 1969), Marvin GayeSmokey Robinson and Carole King (Tapestry, 1971). One of the tunes on King’s masterpiece is the ballad Way Over Yonder, which features one of the most beautiful sax solos in pop I know of.

Dick Parry

The English saxophonist, who started his professional career in 1964, has worked as a session musician with many artists. A friend of David Gilmour, Parry is best known for his work with Pink Floyd, appearing on their albums The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), The Division Bell (1994) and Pulse (1995). He also worked with Procol Harum  guitarist Mick Grabham (Mick The Lad, 1972), John Entwistle (Mad Dog, 1975) and Rory Gallagher (Jinx, 1982), among others. One of Parry’s signature sax solos for Pink Floyd appeared on Money. Here’s a great clip recorded during the band’s 1994 Division Bell tour.

Ronnie Ross

Albert Ronald “Ronnie” Ross was a British jazz baritone saxophonist. He started his professional career in the 1950s with the tenor saxophone, playing with jazz musicians Tony KinseyTed Heath and Don Rendell. It was during his tenure with the latter that he switched to the baritone sax. Outside his jazz engagements during the 60s, Ross gave saxophone lessons to a young dude called David Bowie and played tenor sax on Savoy Truffle, a track from The Beatles’ White Album. In the 70s, his most memorable non-jazz appearance was his baritone sax solo at the end of the Lou Reed song Walk On The Wild Side. I actually always thought the solo on that tune from Reed’s 1972 record  Transformer was played by Bowie. Instead, he co-produced the track and album with Mick Ronson. According to Wikipedia, Bowie also played acoustic guitar on the recording.

Walter Parazaider

The American saxophonist was a founding member of Chicago and played with the band for 51 years until earlier this year (2017) when he officially retired due to a heart condition. In addition to the saxophone, Parazider also mastered the flute, clarinet, piccolo and oboe. Here is a clip of Saturday In The Park and 25 Or 6 To 4 from Chicago’s great 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction performance, which features Parazaider on saxophone.

Alto Reed

Thomas Neal Cartmell, known as Alto Reed, is an American saxophonist who was a member of The Silver Bullet Band since it was founded by Bob Seger in the mid-70s. He toured with Seger and the band for 40-plus years, starting with Live Bullet in 1976. Reed has also performed with many other bands and musicians like FoghatGrand Funk RailroadLittle FeatThe Blues Brothers  and George Thorogood. Among his signature performances for Seger are the saxophone solo in Old Time Rock And Roll and the introduction to Turn the Page. Here’s a great live clip of Turn the Page from 2014.

Junior Walker

Autry DeWalt Mixon Jr., known by his stage name Junior Walker or Jr. Walker, was an American singer and saxophonist whose 40-year career started in the mid-1950s with his own band called the Jumping Jacks. In 1964, Jr. Walker & The All Stars were signed by Motown. They became one of the company’s signature acts, scoring hits with songs like Shotgun(I’m a) RoadrunnerShake And Fingerpop and remakes of Motown tunes Come See About Me and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). While Walker continued to record with the band and solo during the ’70s and into the early ’80s, one of his most memorable performances resulted from his guest performance on Foreigner’s 1981 album 4. His saxophone solo on Urgent is one of the most blistering in pop rock. Walker died from cancer in November 1995 at the age of 64.

Bobby Keys

No list of saxophonists who have played with rock and blues artists would be complete without Bobby Keys. From the mid-1950s until his death in December 2014, this American saxophonist appeared on hundreds of recordings as a member of horn sections and was a touring musician. He worked with some of the biggest names, such as The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd SkynyrdGeorge HarrisonJohn LennonEric Clapton and Joe Cocker. Some of these artists’ songs that featured Keys include Don’t Ask Me No Questions (Lynyrd SkynyrdSecond Helping, 1974), Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (John Lennon, Walls And Bridges, 1974) and Slunky (Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton, 1970). But he is best remembered for his sax part on Brown Sugar from the Stones’ 1971 studio album Sticky Fingers.

– End –

The original post, which was published on November 11, 2017, ended here. Here’s the previously mentioned Spotify list featuring all of the above and some additional saxophone greats.

Sources: Wikipedia; BBC; YouTube; Spotify

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On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 3

It’s time to take another look at music history. As always, these posts reflect my music taste and, as such, are not meant to be a complete account of events that happened on the select date. With that reminder out of the way, let’s take a look at February 3.

1959: Sadly, the first item here is the tragic and untimely death of early rock & roll star Buddy Holly at age 22. During a short 7-year professional career, the man from Lubbock, Texas recorded such original gems as That’ll Be the Day, Words of Love, Everyday, Not Fade Away and It’s So Easy, as well as great tunes penned by other songwriters like Peggy Sue and Oh, Boy! On January 3, 1959, Holly and his band embarked on the Winter Dance Party tour. Following a gig in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were supposed to travel to their next show in Mason City, Iowa. After Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch had been hospitalized for frostbites in his toes due to icy conditions on the tour bus, Holly decided to look for alternate transportation and chartered a small propeller plane. But the four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza never reached its destination. In the early morning hours of February 3, it crashed into a frozen cornfield close to Mason City, instantly killing Holly and the three other people on board: Fellow rock & roll artists Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper), as well as the pilot Roger Peterson. In 1971, the tragic event became known as “The Day the Music Died” in American singer-songwriter Don McLean’s tune American Pie.

1967: The Beatles were at Abbey Road’s EMI Studios to add overdubs to A Day in the Life, one of my all-time favorite tunes from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band studio album. According to The Beatles Bible, the session began at 7:00 pm and finished at 1:15am the following morning. Each of the overdubs replaced previously-recorded parts: Paul McCartney’s and Ringo Starr’s bass and drums parts they had recorded on January 20. McCartney then overdubbed his lead vocals to correct a wrong word sung during the previous session. Starr’s drum part recorded that night became one of his most- admired upon the album’s release in May of the same year. Here’s a neat clip.

1973: Elton John hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Crocodile Rock. According to Songfacts, John said the retro tune contains flavors of a lot of his favorite early rock songs, including “Little Darlin'”, “At The Hop” and “Oh Carol” as well as songs by The Beach Boys and Eddie Cochran. The title is a play on the Bill Haley song “See You Later Alligator” – Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” even gets a mention, as that’s what the other kids were listening to while our hero was doing the Crocodile Rock. With music written by John and lyrics penned by Bernie Taupin, Crocodile Rock was John’s first no. 1 hit in the U.S. It also topped the charts in other countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland, and became a top 5 hit in Australia, the UK and a few other European countries. Crocodile Rock was also included on John’s sixth studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, which had been released in January that same year.

1979: The Blues Brothers featuring comedians and actors John Belushi (“Joliet” Jake Blues ) and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood Blues) proved they were no joke, topping the Billboard 200 in the U.S. with their debut Briefcase Full of Blues. Capturing a live gig in Los Angeles from September 1979, the album also featured a formidable backing band. Among others, it included guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, both formerly of Booker T. & the M.G.’s., and blues guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy who had worked with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy and Etta James. Belushi, Aykroyd, Cropper, Dunn and Murphy all would appear the following year in the cult comedy picture The Blues Brothers. Here’s their rendition of the 1967 Sam & Dave classic Soul Man, a tune written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.

1986: Dire Straits were on top of the UK chart with their fifth studio album Brothers in Arms. The British band’s second-to-last studio release turned out to be their most successful one. It also reached no. 1 in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and various other European countries. Additionally, with more than 30 million copies sold globally, Brothers in Arms is one of the world’s best-selling albums. It also holds the distinction of being one of the first albums recorded all digitally (DDD). One could argue its extremely clean sound gave it a bit of a sterile feel. Here’s the beautiful Your Latest Trick penned by Mark Knopfler, the group’s leader and main songwriter. The stunning saxophone part was played by American jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music Calendar; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts; This Day In Music; YouTube

John Mayall’s New Album is a Sizzling Late Career Blues Gem

They don’t call John Mayall “The Godfather of British Blues” for nothing. If you’ve paid attention to the blues legend, which I admittedly haven’t as much as I probably should have as somebody who digs the blues, you realize the now-88-year-old has been on an incredible late-stage career roll. Between 2014 and 2019, Mayall has released four albums and just came out with yet another one. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s not only about quantity but more importantly, it’s about quality. In my book, Mayall sure as heck continues to deliver on both!

The Sun is Shining Down, which appeared last Friday, January 28 via Forty Below Records, is Mayall’s close-to-70th record overall, including his releases with The Bluesbreakers. Even if you leave out the live and compilation records, you still easily get to 50-plus albums, which have come out over a 57-year recording period. The picture below taken from Mayall’s website captures his remarkable catalog.

Sure, The Sun is Shining Down, is blues and there are only so many ways you can play the blues. While as such it’s fair to say Mayall doesn’t reinvent the genre, he still has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, which I will get to when taking a closer look at some of the album’s tracks. Mentioning the guest artists may give you a hint or two: Mike Campbell (formerly with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Marcus King, Buddy Miller, Scarlet Rivera, Melvin Taylor and Jake Shimabukuro.

Mayall (vocals, keyboards, harp) is also backed up by his longtime Chicago rhythm section of Greg Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums), along with Austin-based guitarist Carolyn Wonderland who has been part of Mayall’s band since April 2018. And let’s not forget about the neat horn section featuring Mark Pender (trumpet), Richard Rosenberg (trombone) and Ron Dziubla (saxophone). I’d say ’nuff with background and let’s get to some music, and it’s going to be great!

John Mayall and his core band (clockwise from top left): John Mayall, Carolyn Wonderland, Greg Rzab and Jay Davenport

Here’s the album’s first track, Hungry and Ready, one of six tunes written by Mayall. The remaining four songs are covers. Mayall couldn’t have picked a better opener, which features Chicago blues guitarist Melvin Taylor. The title says it all. Mayall and his backing band clearly were ready to play some sizzling blues, and it all sounds incredibly fresh. The vibe of the tune is somewhere between Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy and the soulful Sweet Home Chicago, Blues Brothers-style. If you dig the blues, how can you not love this!

Since I previously wrote about the excellent Can’t Take It No More featuring rising roots and blues rocker Marcus King on guitar, I’m skipping it here and go right to I’m As Good As Gone, one of the aforementioned covers. Written by Bobby Rush, the tune was first recorded for his 2011 studio album Show You a Good Time. Mayall’s rendition features Americana artist and guitarist Buddy Miller. Nice!

Next, let’s get to something you don’t frequently hear when it comes to the blues – a tune featuring a violinist playing fill-ins commonly provided by a guitar. And we’re not talking any violinist here, we’re talking Scarlet Rivera, of Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue 1975-1976 concert tour. Among others, she played that great violin part on Dylan’s Hurricane. Here’s Got to Find a Better Way, another Mayall composition. The title surely doesn’t refer to the music- check out how cool a violin can sound playing the blues!

Another highlight on the album is Chills and Thrills, a tasty funky tune written by Bernard Ellison as the title track for his 2008 album. You can check out the original here. Now let’s listen to Mayall’s rendition. I think he wisely chose to stay close to the original – why mess with something that’s perfect! This cover features the talented Mike Campbell on guitar. This is some groovy shit with a great guitar solo!

I guess by now you’ve noticed I love this album and could go on and on. The last track I’d like to call out presents another surprise. How ’bout a blues solo played on an electric ukulele? Enter Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso, Jake Shimabukuro. The song is One Special Lady, another tune penned by Mayall. The ukelele solo action starts at around 2:14 minutes. The tune also showcases Mayall’s fine skills on keyboards. Amid all the first-rate artists he has played with throughout his career and, frankly, helped nurture, Mayall oftentimes doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a musician. My only criticism here is Shimabukuro should have been given a bit more room. That ukelele blues action is super cool!

Here’s the entire album pulled from Spotify.

The Sun is Shining Down was recorded in Los Angeles, where Mayall has lived since the late ’60s, at Robby Krieger’s Horse Latitudes studio. And, yep, that’s the Robby Krieger who used to be with The Doors. The album was produced by Eric Corne, founder and president of Forty Below Records. According to his website, apart from Mayall, Corne’s impressive credits include Walter Trout, Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Glen Campbell, Lucinda Williams, Nancy Wilson (of Heart) and Krieger, among others.

“I couldn’t be happier with the new record,” said Mayall in a statement. “I can’t wait to share it with my fans. Each one of these special guests brings something unique to the album and our team works so well together. I think you can hear that chemistry in the music.” I couldn’t agree more!

Unfortunately but quite understandably, Mayall separately announced he will substantially scale back his touring schedule, citing the pandemic and his age. Fans will still be able to see him at local shows “and the occasional concert further afield.” Southern California is a bit far for me, but if Mayall will ever return to the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut tristate area or Philadelphia, I’d seriously consider seeing him – unfortunately, I never have. Heck, I might even return to Boston where I saw Neil Young solo in July 2018!

Sources: Wikipedia; John Mayall website; Eric Cone website; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: October 21

After more than two months, I thought this would be a good time for another installment of the recurring music history feature. These posts are driven by happenings that sufficiently intrigue me, which limits their number, plus I’ve already covered numerous dates. But it seems to me there is still plenty left to explore.

As on previous occasions, this post is an arbitrary selection of events, not an attempt to capture everything that happened on that date. For example, while as a parent I find child birth a beautiful thing, I don’t include birthdays of music artists’ children. However, birthdays of the artists qualify. But if you die to know, Jade Jagger, daughter of Mick Jagger and Bianca Jagger, one of eight children Mick has with five women, was born on October 21, 1971 in Paris, France. With that important factoid out of the way, let’s get to some other events that happened on October 21 throughout rock & roll history.

1940: Manfred Mann was born as Michael Lubowitz in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1961, he moved to the U.K. and began his long music career. He initially became successful with a band named Manfred Mann and a series of hits in the mid to late ‘60s like Do Wah Diddy DiddySha La La and Pretty Flamingo. Immediately after that band’s breakup, Mann formed experimental jazz rock outfit Manfred Mann Chapter Three. They lasted for two years and two albums before Mann found long-lasting success with progressive rockers Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. They had hits throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially with covers of Bruce Springsteen tunes like Spirits In The Night and Blinded By The Light. After a hiatus in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the band still appears to be active to this day. Mann has also released various solo albums. Here’s a clip of Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Mann’s first number one single released in July 1964. Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the song was first recorded in 1963 as Do-Wah-Diddy by American vocal group The Exciters.

1941: Steve Cropper was born as Steven Lee Cropper on a farm near Dora, Missouri. An accomplished guitarist, who is ranked at no. 39 on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time, Cropper got his first guitar via mail order as a 14-year-old. At the time, he was already living in Memphis, Tenn. where in 1964 be became A&R man of Stax Records and a founding member of the label’s house band Booker T. & The M.G.’s. Together with the band, be backed soul legends, such as Otis ReddingSam & Dave and Wilson Pickett, and co-wrote some of their songs like (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, Soul Man and In The Midnight Hour. Booker T. & The M.G.’s also released their own music. During the second half of the ’70s, Cropper became a member of The Blues Brothers. He has also worked as a producer with many artists. Here’s a great clip of a Sam & Dave performance of Soul Man from 1974 – always loved that tune and Cropper’s guitar work on it!

1957: Steve Lukather was born as Steven Lee Lukather in the San Fernando Valley, Calif. The prolific session guitarist is best known for being a longtime member of Toto, which he co-founded with David Paich (keyboards), Steve Porcaro (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums) in 1976. Lukather also is a songwriter, arranger and producer. He played guitar and bass on various tracks of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album from 1982. While Beat It was among those songs, he did not play the killer solo on that tune, which was performed by Eddie Van Halen. Lukather has also released seven solo records to date. He is currently on the road with Toto for their 40th anniversary tour. Here’s a clip of I Won’t Hold You Back, a ballad Lukather wrote for Toto IV, the band’s most successful album released in April 1982.

1965: As part of the recording sessions for their sixth studio album Rubber SoulThe Beatles were working at Abbey Road Studios. Following an unsatisfactory attempt to record Norwegian Wood 10 days earlier, they did three additional takes on October 21, of which they ended up selecting the last. Lyrically influenced by Bob Dylan and credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the tune is an early example of a Western pop song featuring Indian instruments. In this case, it was the sitar played by George Harrison, who had been inspired by sitar maestro and his friend Ravi Shankar.

1976: Keith Moon performed his last public show with The Who at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada. It was the final gig of the band’s 1976 tour. Moon’s lifestyle had begun to impact his health and performance several years earlier. In perhaps the most infamous incident, Moon passed out on stage at Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif. during the first U.S. date of The Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia tour. Prompted by Pete Townshend who asked whether anyone in the audience was good at playing the drums, Scot Halpin, a drummer, stepped forward and played the rest of the show. Moon also faced challenges during the ’76 tour. By the end of the U.S. leg in Miami in August, a delirious Moon was treated in a hospital for eight days. When The Who performed a private show at a theater in London in December 1977 for The Kids Are Alright, a visibly overweight Moon had difficulty sustaining a solid performance. Moon passed away in September 1978 at the age of 32 from an overdose of a medication to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Here’s a clip of Moon in action with The Who during a raucous 1967 performance of My Generation. As a guitar lover, I’m glad Townshend no longer smashes his gear these days.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Rock, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, YouTube