Brian revisits four records that have had a profound influence on his guitar playing.
As I've mentioned in previous Guitar Notes, listening to, being inspired by and borrowing ideas from other instruments is a great way to expand your guitar-playing ear. Among those instruments, the saxophone is a unique voice. Its legato sound, quick melodic flexibility and singing vibrato have made it arguably the most important go-to improvisational instrument in jazz.
Guitars and saxophones have been sharing the instrumental spotlight for decades. Here a Selmer Balanced Action tenor shares the stage with a Gibson hollowbody
As you listen to great sax players, try and hear the saxophone as if it were a guitar. When you get back to your guitar, try and make it sound like a saxophone. Hammer ons and pull offs are great for this, as is trying to mimic the vibrato of a horn. Try to also mimic the time feel and rhythmic motion of saxophone phrases. In the end, the best single thing you can do to get hip to the saxophone sound is to do lots of listening. As you become familiar with the sound of the sax, it should naturally begin showing up in your playing.
Let’s take a look at four saxophone records I rate highly for the inspiration they offer guitarists:
Charlie Parker - The Essential Charlie Parker
Alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker is Kansas City’s own international jazz legend. Alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Bird revolutionized jazz by introducing bebop. This sophisticated style of improvisation brought virtuosic technique, rapid chord changes and burning-fast tempos into jazz.
Charlie Parker was not only a great improviser, he was also an important writer. Many of his classic songs are still played in jazz clubs and practice rooms around the world. I typically don’t go for compilations and greatest-hits packages, but in the case of Charlie Parker, you can get a good, healthy dose of his style on The Essential Charlie Parker. This CD has 16 bebop classics including many of Charlie Parker’s original tunes. Many of the greats are heard playing alongside Bird on this CD, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. As you listen to Parker, pay close attention to his composed melodies that are usually stated at the outset of each song. These conceptually more organized sounds can be a little easier to grasp than his more stream-of-consciousness solo flights.
Sheet music for Bird’s compositions is widely available and, although challenging to learn, these composed melodies are very easy to hear and fairly short in length. Also, listen to how Charlie Parker plays over an F blues like “Now’s The Time” as well as his liberal use of steady streams of swung eighth notes.
John Coltrane - Lush Life
John Coltrane was so influenced by Charlie Parker that he switched from alto saxophone to tenor so as not to sound like Bird. Like Parker, Coltrane also worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis when the latter left Charlie Parker’s quintet and started his own. Coltrane was admired as a virtuosic improviser whose journey through music was marked by continuous evolution. He began by playing jazz standards, moved to playing over very sophisticated, original chord progressions such as those found in “Giant Steps,” but then started exploring modal music with strict form but few chord changes. Eventually Coltrane would abandon playing over changes altogether, making several free jazz records. Coltrane got very deep into harmony and then seemingly abandoned it.
Lush Life is very good early Coltrane. This record has four standards and one slow blues. Three trio tracks and two quintet tracks. Listen to the form of the songs and the way Trane improvises over them. Pull up the chord changes for these tunes and play along with the form. Listen to the lyrical quality and passion Coltrane uses when playing the melody of these songs. Coltrane is my favorite sax player to listen to for legato phrasing. Try mimicking his sound with hammer ons and pull offs. Also check out his time feel and use of eighth-note lines.
John Coltrane - Coltrane Plays The Blues
This album is a really good study for any musician. I enjoy listening to improvisers play over chord progressions that I know and this album offers a variety of blues progressions that are fairly easy to stay with as a listener. Coltrane Plays The Blues also features pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones—each would become a large part of the Coltrane sound as he developed into a more modal player.
Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil
In jazz circles, Wayne Shorter is arguably better known and revered as a composer than as a tenor player. His compositions have a distinctive, often dark side. As an improviser he relies less on licks and more on motif-based melodic development and pure improvisation. He also uses very advanced scale concepts over chord changes that can be difficult to hear at first. With time, though, Wayne Shorter grows on just about everyone.
Speak No Evil made this list because of the vibe, concept and feel of Shorter’s compositions and the sympatico group he assembled for the date. Wayne Shorter composed all six songs for this Christmas Eve session, supported by Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard. Reflecting on his compositional process in the liner notes Shorter remembered "…thinking of misty landscapes with wild flowers and strange, dimly-seen shapes — the kind of place where folklore and legends are born. And then I was thinking of things like witch burnings too."
Check out how Wayne’s melody notes fit over the chords to his songs and also how his solos progressively develop upon themselves. Notice how the compositions flow together and what strong imagery they produce in the listener. The time feel, tone and spirit of drummer Elvin Jones is also a big part of this record.
So there you have it. Four great jazz saxophone albums to inspire us guitar players to improvise and compose in new ways. Listening attentively will help you move in new directions.
Best of luck, and until next time, keep playing!
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Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.