It is dangerous to speculate on a person’s intentions in a creative act, but I think it’s a fairly safe bet that Adolph Sax didn’t foresee the genesis of jazz while he was developing the saxophone. Sax no doubt expected his instrument to be incorporated into contemporary western art music, but while players from Coleman Hawkins to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane have made the sax central to jazz, it has not been until very recently that composers rooted in European concert music have begun to take it up. Philip Glass is perhaps the most prominent composer to consistently write parts for saxophones, and the excellent collection Saxophone
on his Orange Mountain Music label collects several of his compositions where saxes of various stripes are the lead instrument.
The four movement "Concerto for Saxophone" is heard here in a quartet format performed by the Raschér Saxophone Quartet, who commissioned it along with an orchestral version. Each movement features a different a different saxophone, either soprano, baritone, tenor or alto. The second movement has the ‘jazziest’ feel, opening with a scherzo played by the baritone and the other three instruments behind him combining to create a hybrid of minimalism and Dixieland. Next on the program are twelve "Melodies for Solo Saxophone," pieces created as incidental music for a production Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love
. Several of these would work very well as themes for avant-garde jazz. "Melody 5" (written for tenor), for example, would be a natural for Roscoe Mitchell and the line on "Melody 9" (also tenor) has the playful earnestness of early Ornette Coleman. Of course, this highlights the cross-pollination between two sets of musical avant-gardes; Glass comments in the disc’s liner notes on the influence that seeing players like Coltrane had on his music, while several jazz artists including Mitchell and Coleman have been involved with modern classical music, bringing their jazz to that idiom and vice versa.
There is perhaps no other instrument more closely associated with jazz than the saxophone. Though the short list of the music’s great composers seems weighted towards pianists and the trumpet seems to have produced an inordinate share of icons, the saxophone just seems to sound like jazz. This is obviously the case when you are listening to, say, Coleman Hawkins or Ornette Coleman, but it’s almost equally true when saxes crop up in rock and roll--the effect of a Red Tyler solo on a Little Richard record or of Clarence Clemmons’ blowing on a song by Bruce Springsteen is to inject a little bit of jazz into the proceedings. Glass uses the instrument and the jazz element more subtly, but several tracks on this CD underscore how important those influences are in his music. The saxophone has left an indelible mark on jazz, jazz has left its mark on Philip Glass and contemporary art music generally. Somewhere, Adolph Sax is smiling.