A few weeks ago, "inspired" by a Supertramp video they saw on YouTube, Do The Math asked the semi-rhetorical question: "Whoops--is rock saxophone ever good?"
Before we answer, let us survey the landscape. Throughout the 1980's, every rock song played on the radio was required to have a sax solo. To those of you who are too young to have reached musical consciousness during the eighties, this probably sounds like the kind of urban legend your camp counsellors used to terrify you with, but I swear, it's absolutely true. For a remedial education, I highly recommend this site, which not only collects audio of some of the most egregiously bad eighties sax solos, but spells out exactly what went wrong in each case. There are even helpful pictograms for each musical violation, presumably so that even rock saxophone players can follow along.
Now, you all know how much I hate to perpetuate the self-serving myth that jazz-trained players are automatically better musicians than rock guys, but holy frijole are these saxophone solos bad. And yes, many jazz saxophonists have contributed middling-to-embarrassing solos to rock tracks, but I swear, the tenor player on "Hungry Eyes" is hors concours.
However, the question remains -- "Whoops--is rock saxophone ever good?"
By way of answer, the Secret Society blog proudly presents:
4. Maceo Parker on Living Colour's "Elvis is Dead"
Okay, this is admittedly not Maceo at his blistering best, but his prodigious R&B/soul/funk discography is ineligible -- remember, we're talking about rock here. So while Maceo's note choices in this outing aren't necessarily inspired, his reliably killing time feel and crisp articulation put this solo solidly in the coveted "tolerable" category. I'll also cop to including this partly for sentimental reasons -- this solo was my first exposure to Maceo's playing.
3. Clarence Clemons on Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland"
A controversial choice, I know -- a lot of people are turned off by Clarence's full-frontal assault. But even skeptics will usually admit that his playing is perfectly attuned to Springsteen's Spectoresque approach to this record. And seriously, if you're not down with Bruce's over-the-top romanticism in the first place, then Clarence's sax playing ought to be the least of your concerns. On the other hand, if you do buy in to Springsteen's concept here -- blissfully anthemic songs of escape, with lyrics that make it clear that any chance at actual escape is doomed -- then it's hard to beat Clarence's epic solo turn here. Part of what's so appealing about this solo is that it isn't just riffing over a static vamp or looping progression -- the solo section actually goes somewhere. That first drawn-out note heralds the arrival of the rhapsodic stop-time interlude, snakes into the wistfully soulful half-time groove, and eventually winds down into the simple piano chords that set up Bruce's vocal re-entry. Not flashy, but a coherent and heartfelt solo that, for once, actually helps tell the story of the song.
2. Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side"
The perfect coda to Lou Reed's famously laconic portrait of the transvestite hookers in Andy Warhol's entourage. Ronnie's solo sounds every bit as conversational (and as detachedly prurient) as Lou's vocals, and that moment where it unexpectedly emerges from those harmonized "doo, doo-doo's" is positively blissful. Ronnie's jazzy approach is a natural fit for the acoustic bass+brushes in the rhythm section, and, in this case at least, the fade-out doesn't feel like a cop-out -- short and sweet are the order of the day, here. Also, according to this post, Ronnie Ross was David Bowie's old sax teacher, and Bowie (who produced the record) was responsible for recruiting Ross to play on this track. Some blame this solo for making rock sax solos permissible in the first place.
1. Dana Colley on Morphine's "Buena"
It's cases like these what forced people to invent the phrase "the exception that proves the rule." Dana is pretty much the only sax player in rock history to be a fundamental part of his band's sound. Of course, it helps that he's totally killing, and that Mark Sandman somehow knew how to write songs that made this improbably bottom-heavy lineup sound like the most natural thing in the world. All of Dana's solos with Morphine are well above "tolerable," but this one is stunning. I still vividly remember the first time I heard this track -- I don't think I blinked once during the entire tune. Morphine were a fucking great band.
Feel free to add your own nominees in comments. I deliberately excluded some famous rock/pop solos by jazz musicians -- Phil Woods on "Just The Way You Are," Wayne Shorter on "Aja," Branford Marsalis on "Fortress Around Your Heart" -- because in order for a solo to be tolerable, the actual song needs to be tolerable, too.