Friday, February 04, 2005

I wanna sax you up. Yesterday as I was listening to the Honey Roll Megamix, I was thinking about the saxophone solo, which was so popular in the 80s. "Electric Blue" has a wonderful sax solo, as does "It's Still Rock'n'Roll to Me", although the latter is more 60s R&B-influenced. What was it about the saxophone that so strongly resonated with 80s sensibilities? I remember Rob Lowe's terrifying yet unconvincing rock-sax performance in St Elmo's Fire, where he had a sweat-soaked bandanna and a muscle singlet and was leaning backwards and pointing the sax in the air before leaning forwards and pointing it at the ground.

And let's not get into how Kenny G almost singlehandedly destroyed the saxophone's reputation. One of the first CDs I ever owned, thankfully stolen in the Great Burglary of '98, was Truth by Warren Hill, a guy who sounded like Kenny G and looked like a brunette Fabio with a saxophone. God, it was just so bad. My aunt and uncle gave it to me for Christmas one year saying "We heard you like jazz."

A while ago, I was reading how the readers of some overseas music magazine had voted "Sweet Child O' Mine" the best ever guitar riff, and I was asking my workmates what they thought was the best ever saxophone riff in a pop song. Here are some we thought of:

Infinity - Guru Josh
Never Tear Us Apart - INXS
Careless Whisper - George Michael
I Don't Wanna Be With Nobody But You - Absent Friends
Baker Street - Gerry Rafferty
Lily Was Here - Dave Stewart and Candy Dulfer

I am not including songs which sample saxophones, like "How Gee" by Black Machine, which samples Maceo Parker.

These songs demonstrate the fine line the saxophone walks from raw emotion to abominable cheesiness. I think that Kirk Pengilly's "Never Tear Us Apart" solo is probably the best one, because it's structured so well for the tonal qualities of the instrument and the place of the solo in the song. The way it punches in with a growl and then bends up to the next semi-tone, and the melody swings and syncopates until the last four ascending notes, whose straightness seems to lead inexorably into the sublime high note that underlines the return of the vocals.

But in "Infinity", the saxophone doesn't build emotion; it maintains a constant state of euphoria through the circular nature of the phrase, and the way it's repeated over and over in the song. Here, the saxophone evokes the essential transcendent quality of rave music.

Interestingly, I can't think immediately of any recent 'urban' songs that use the saxophone. The black tradition is there: people like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Lester Young made it synonymous with jazz, and then it was one of the mainstays of soul and R&B. I'm thinking not just of the JBs but songs like "Shotgun" by Junior Walker, and "Memphis Soul Stew" by King Curtis ("give me half a pint of horn").

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