The Greatest Saxophone Players – Our Top 10
Given that we have a little bit more time on our hands and realising that our readers and listeners likely need a bit of a pick me up – we’ve decided to embark on the challenging task of bringing you our list of the greatest saxophone players!
What follows is a list of our favourite sax players – ones which hopefully many of you agree with, but also a few curveballs which you didn’t expect. So much of music and love for music is situational – meaning that we may hold certain artists in a special regard based on having grown up listening to them, or associating their music with a special memory – we hope the below list reflects a little bit of that too!
For the purposes of this list we’re not limiting ourselves to just classic jazz – we hope to bring you a broader set of players spanning different decades and sub-genres. So, without further ado – here’s it is…
Top 10 Greatest Saxophone Players
10. Kamasi Washington
We’ve put Kamasi into 10th place because we feel that we need some new blood in these kinds of lists – and Kamasi is certainly a force to be reckoned with nowadays! We like to think of him as almost a modern-day Coltrane given his breadth of styles and soloing ability that can take you into the stratosphere!
His ability to combine jazz with so many other types of genres develops a very unique fusion which sounds absolutely terrific! If you haven’t already – be sure to listen to The Epic front to back and you’ll get a sense of what we’re talking about!
While maybe not everyone agrees he’s “all time greatest”, for us today he is one of the greatest saxophone players.
9. Hank Mobley
We like Hank Mobley a lot and there’s a pretty good reason that he was nicknamed The Middleweight Champion of the Tenor Saxophone.
His tone was extremely balanced, and his improvisation style and voicing were absolutely on point. While nowhere near as aggressive as Coltrane or Rollins, we think that’s exactly what played to his advantage.
He’s great to listen to and you simply won’t get bored or tired as he’s got plenty of tricks up his sleeve for us listeners.
8. Dexter Gordon
Standing at a towering height of 6 feet and 6 inches, it’s no wonder that Dexter had a sound so full and so powerful that he was dubbed the Sophisticated Giant.
He was one of the first tenor sax players in the bebop movement and his extensive career lasted over 40 years, featuring a number of comebacks. Having gotten into some drug trouble and short jail time during the 50s, he really came back in the 60s and spent long time in Europe, notable Paris which was seen as Europe’s jazz center at that time.
His body of works is extensive and ranges from hard bop to some of the sweetest ballads. He’s a favourite of ours and definitely deserves to be in this list of the greatest saxophone players!
7. Maceo Parker
Every time James Brown would yell out “hey Maceo!” you knew that something big was about to happen. Just the name Maceo is synonymous with funk music.
Whenever you hear Maceo you cannot help but start tapping your feet, loosening the shoulders and bobbing your head to him! Having played with both James Brown and George Clinton in Parliament Funkadelic, he later went on to have a very successful solo career as well.
In between, there was what he consider his golden period when he played alongside Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley. In our view – one of the greatest saxophone players of funk!
6. Cannonball Adderley
The first time that you hear Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s music you’re likely to be a bit dazed and think to yourself “what just hit me?”. You just got hit by the cannonball, baby.
Adderley’s freely flowing melodic style, complimented by his balanced approach gave rise to a very unique style – it’s crazy, but controlled – like nuclear energy in a power plant. It’s no surprise that he’s played on some of the greatest jazz recordings ever including Kind of Blue and his own Somethin’ Else – which we featured as part of our Jazz and Soul Records of the Month in July 2020.
5. Stan Getz
Getz is one of those players who has such a distinctive sound that you can recognize his smokey tone in an instant of hearing him. His sound has been described by Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddens as “a paradoxical blend of light and heavy”, and we tend to agree with that.
Although he has graced many albums spanning different genres from bebop to fusion, our favourite Getz is Bossa Nova Getz. Having worked with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, he pretty much brought Brazilian jazz into mainstream and recorded a number of incredible Bossa Nova albums with them. For more on that album, check out article on some of our favourite albums to groove to while you may or may not be stuck at home
We’ve featured Stan as part of our Jazz & Soul Records of the Month in April 2020!
4. Sonny Rollins
One of the finest improvisers that is still alive today, Sonny Rollins has had an extensive career spanning seven whole decades! In that period, he has certainly established himself as one of the most important jazz musicians and visionaries of our time (not to mention greatest saxophone players).
Having been on a pretty self-destructive path due to drug abuse, his life turned around after the tragic and premature death of his band mate Clifford Brown. Sonny is certainly a titanic force and, in every way, deserves the nickname of Saxophone Colossus!
We’ve featured Sonny previously together with Clifford Brown and Max Roach as part of our Jazz subscription Records of the Month – September 2020.
3. Wayne Shorter
We feel like Wayne deserves to be in our top 3 because he’s simply a guy who has played everything with everyone. At 86, he’s likely one of the most influential sax players alive today.
We feel that Wayne has always been front and center at every one of jazz’s evolutionary leaps. It’s a long list, but some of the highlights include having started out with Art Blakey, he’s also played with both Miles and Herbie Hancock in their more experimental and acid jazz phases, as well as the rock-funk group which was Weather Report.
His versatility and ability to solo are absolutely incredible and it feels that every note he blows is coming from somewhere deep within him and reaching up to the clouds.
2. Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker is probably one of the most important figures in music, not just jazz. He’s single-handedly one of the greatest bebop artists and was also one to bring depth to the profession.
What we mean by that is that his character was so expansive that was viewed by many as so much more than merely an entertainer. The way that he attacked every phrase he played was so unique and very few players have since been able to play at the lightning speed he could and still sound incredible.
As with many on this list, he unfortunately had developed a serious drinking and drug problem, which ultimately led to his premature death at the age of 34. Even more sad is the fact that the coroner had estimated his age at between 50 or 60 judging by the state his body was in.
We’ve featured Charlie Parker’s incredible Jazz at Massey Hall album previously as part of our Jazz subscription Records of the Month – June 2020.
1. John Coltrane
It’s hard to put someone on top on a list like this, but since we have to – we have to say it’s Coltrane. Although we appreciate that Parker is the one who started bebop, it was really John who took everything he learned and then took it into a completely new direction.
We also feel that everything he touched, he managed to conquer – be that sub-genres, the tenor and the soprano sax! While he had great successes with both Thelonious Monk and later with Miles Davis, he was also carving out an extremely successful solo career for himself as well.
Blue Train remains one of our most favourite records ever, while My Favourite Things showed us that he soprano sax can sound just as big and powerful as the tenor when it’s in Coltrane’s hands.
And finally, there’s A Love Supreme, which we love because it is the perfect combination of energy, spirituality and incredible technique. His later recordings delve into the more avant-garde nature of jazz and may not be for all listeners, but it’s hard not to appreciate the impeccable technique he plays with and the energy he puts into every single note. He’s been an inspiration for many a young saxophone player and carries on to influence so many others today. As such, we’ll put him in No.1 of our list of greatest saxophone players!