Blues Saxophone (Hal Leonard)
Nashville saxophonist Dennis Taylor has been studying and playing the saxophone more than 25 years, 18 of them as a prolific session contributor and soloist. He has played on four Grammy-nominated albums, made numerous television appearances, and toured with artists as diverse as Duke Robillard, John Hammond, Shelby Lynne, Kenny Rogers and the Goose Creek Symphony. He’s equally proficient working in either a blues or jazz settingsomething unusual for saxophonists.
As a devotee of blues saxophone in particular, Taylor recently became curious about the general lack of knowledge about this small but potent subgenre. The result of that inquiry is a new book, Blues Saxophone: An In-Depth Look at the Styles of the Masters (Hal Leonard), which blends biographical anecdotes with stylistic analysis, providing a detailed technical breakdown of the music of 18 prime reed men. The list includes Eddie Shaw, A.C. Reed, Noble “Thin Man” Watts and King Curtis, artists well known for their blues, R&B and soul exploits.
“I’d read so many stories over the years about guitarists who were directly influenced by horn players,” Taylor says. “What I wanted to do was actually take a look at the blues, how different players approached it, how they sounded and find out who really were the great blues soloists. Over the course of about eight months, I listened to a lot of players and found out that the major influence on blues saxophonists came from the Lester Young side. His playing was so fluid, and the solos were based on scalar development, rather than just making chord changes.”
Taylor found himself eventually eliminating some people that might be viewed as blues staples, among them [David] Fathead Newman (“I could never find a solo of his in a key that wasn’t done better by someone else”), Houston Person, Joe Houston and J.T. Brown. Conversely, he did include jazz players who aren’t typically associated with blues: Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Rollins. “He’s a great blues player,” Taylor says of Rollins, “even though his primary influence is Coleman Hawkins.
“You can really tell a lot more about a saxophonist’s ability when you hear them play the blues.” He continues. “There are guys who are great technically and can fly up and down the horn, but they can’t really tell a story. They may have more harmonic sophistication, but they fall apart on the simple songs. The great blues saxophonists can take a few notes and make them sing, make you hear things that you weren’t aware existed within the music. That’s what makes people like Stanley Turrentine, Willis Jackson, Gene Ammons and Jimmy Forrest so great, even when you have critics saying they aren’t that good. They can tell a story.”
Each chapter includes a transcribed solo characteristic of the featured artist, plus a selected discography. There’s also a companion CD on which Taylor interprets each player’s approach himself, quoting favorite licks and giving listeners the essence, if not exactly the tone, of these players. In addition, listeners can remove the sax tracks on the CD by turning the balance knob all the way to the leftallowing anyone who purchases the disc to play along with the band, whether following the transcribed solo or adding his own.
When asked his own choice as the greatest blues saxophonist, Taylor’s selection may surprise some people. “Charlie Parker...he’s all blues; every solo he ever did, you can hear the blues running through it.”
Taylor hopes his book will help bring some needed attention to blues saxophonists. A two-time Nashville Music Awards nominee for Miscellaneous Wind Instrumentalist of the Year, he recently contributed to forthcoming discs by local bluesmen Johnny Jones and James Nixon. He’s currently teaching at the Music and Arts Center in Cool Springs and also doing private instruction in improvisation at Richmond Tutors in Green Hills.
“The blues have provided the basics for so many different styles,” he says. “It is at the forefront of so much. Even modal playing in jazz can be traced back to the blues, while it is certainly the foundation for rock ’n’ roll. A lot of sax players don’t have a background in the blues. I hope this book will at least give them a start in improving their knowledge of the idiom and their facility with the music.”
Dennis Taylor’s Blues Saxophone is available locally at Cotten Music in Hillsboro Village and at the Music and Arts Center in Cool Springs. Available online at musicdispatch.com, barnesandnoble.com, and amazon.com.
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