The diabolical charm of the saxophone is caught in all its contentious glory by Segell, an editor at the New York Daily News and a newly baptized saxman.
In the mid-1800s, Adolphe Sax , an anarchistic soul living in Belgian with his instrument-maker family, fashioned a new horn. His curvaceous brass instrument had a remarkable versatility, able to mimic an English horn or an oboe or a clarinet, and beautifully express the player’s mood—happiness, sorrow, dread. Segell is under the saxophone’s spell, though he is also a clear-eyed student, both a player and a historian. He squires readers through the early years, when the saxophone took its place in military bands, then through its break-out period as a bulwark of dance bands, swing, blues, funk and, pivotally, jazz. Segell has great fun describing the malleability of the horn, the way each player finds a voice, the rebellious, subversive, Dionysian expression of Parker and Bird, Coltrane and Rollins, Mingus and Young, Jacquet and Mulligan, Getz and Sims and Coleman—characters so renowned you don’t even need to bother with first names. Segell revels in the various styles: bebop’s frenetic rhythmic framework; Paul Desmond wanting to “sound like a dry martini”; Bobby Keyes lending an improvisational vamp to the Rolling Stone’s “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” There is more—of the physiology of the sax, of crazed collectors, the neoclassical sax and quotes from players that are too good to miss, as when Sonny Rollins says of his playing that he feels almost an observer: “I’m just a conduit. I can’t tell where it’s coming from . . . some kind of definite higher power without trying to get too ecclesiastical about it.”
A story as much fun to read as listening to a sax master.