Adolphe Sax may have had grandiose plans for the instrument he invented more than 200 years ago. The intrepid composer/arranger Wayne Alpern seems to have not only taken a profound look at what might have been in mind, but Mr Alpern has dug deep into the extremely deep tonal that emanates from the bell of the horn of the instrument. His idea of what it means to have the great invention in the orchestral employ has resulted in the album Saxology.
Mr Alpern is listed as “arranger” of this dizzy array of charts, all of which belong to different eras; certainly to a different genres – showtunes, songs for film, and popular songs [standards, if you will] that cannot be disassociated from the artists who wrote [and performed them]… or so one may think. But this is Wayne Alpern we are talking about, reviewing and being all-around dazzled by. If we consider what Mr Alpern has done – harmonically and rhythmically – with these tunes, one may as well consider the fact that by the definition of the word “reinvention”, it is eminently clear that the songs “speak” to Mr Alpern in a very special way. Indeed, the ghosts of [many of] the composers of the original tunes may have spoken their secrets to Mr Alpern in such a manner as to wonder if he is not – after all – the “new” composer of this music?
Truth be told the redoubtable [form of the] saxophone-only ensemble is not new. If astute listeners were keeping the score, then at the very least the great ensemble: the World Saxophone Quartet comprising in its original iteration, Oliver Lake, and the sadly deceased Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill and Arthur Blythe. The eminent Cuban Saxophone Quintet has formed around a group of eminent musicians who play brilliantly re-written charts in their own exquisite manner. And the magnificent Colorado Saxophone Quartet directed by Michael Pagán – to my mind – have produced the gold standard of saxophone-driven music on an album simply entitled 12 Preludes and Fugues to honour not only the instrument, but the great god of counterpoint: Johann Sebastian Bach.
Having said that, Wayne Alpern’s recording Saxology stands alone as a production like no other. To begin with Mr Alpern’s stirring re-arrangements of music from Gershwin and the Beatles, and from to Rogers and Hammerstein to Charlie Parker are nothing short of brilliant. The saxophone quartet delivers astonishing technical fireworks from – literally – mouthfuls of air. It certainly seems that for saxophonists Steve Kenyon, Todd Groves, Dave Noland and John Winder this appears to be very much home territory so much so that in their first entry in ensemble, right from their first entry together on All the Things You Are, the music breaks as if from early mist, before soaring aloft on L’il Darlin’, Joy Spring and Moten Swing to the ebullient When I’m Sixty Four. Everything is judged perfectly.
Wherever necessary, Mr Alpern leads the musicians to break with convention by extending themes and melodies familiar to the trained ear, with a series of expert, evocative arrangements. Although he doesn’t play on anything himself, Mr Alpern’s personal sense of identification with this music is palpable as he re-shapes these timeless phrases with a devoted intensity and folk-band rejoicing that is highly contagious. The performers themselves have picked up on showing off their noble acuity not only in terms of the original charts, but in Mr Alpern’s iterations of them. This recording ticks all the boxes and exceeds all expectations associated with top-tier musicianship, exhibited by four of the finest saxophonists that Mr Alpern could get his hands on, to make another benchmark recording like the Colorado Saxophone Quartet directed by Michael Pagán once did to lay down the marker for a recording of this kind.
Music – 1: All the Things You Are; 2: Anthropology; 3: Do Re Mi; 4: Fascinating Rhythm; 5: Hide Your Love Away; 6: It Never Entered My Mind; 7: Joy Spring; 8: Lady is a Tramp; 9: L’il Darlin’ 10: Lonely Goatherd; 11: Moten Swing; 12: My Foolish Heart; 13: Nessun Dorma; 14: People; 15: Rocker; 16: Turn Out the Stars; 17: Two Sleepy People; 18: When I’m Sixty Four.
Musicians – Wayne Alpern: arrangements; Steve Kenyon: soprano saxophone; Todd Groves: alto saxophone; Dave Noland: tenor saxophone; John Winder: baritone saxophone
Released – 2023
Label – Henri Elkan Music
Runtime – 54:49