Steve Wilson introduces five alto saxophonists who've mastered this beast of a horn.
Steve Wilson introduces five alto saxophonists who've mastered this beast of a horn. John Abbott
Again and again, Steve Wilson has been a "first-call" saxophonist for some of the biggest bandleaders in jazz, including Christian McBride, Maria Schneider and Dave Holland, to name just a few. But he's also a first-rate leader himself, as heard in his recent live concert from the Village Vanguard. In advance of his appearance on JazzSet this week, NPR Music asked Wilson to give an introduction to the orneriest of horns, the alto sax. —ed.
While the tenor saxophone is the most popular woodwind instrument in jazz and American music, the alto saxophone holds a unique position. Most players start on alto and "graduate" to tenor — or, less frequently, the baritone — yet most practitioners will agree that the alto is the hardest to master. It has inherent intonation issues, and its range or tessitura is in between that of the tenor (male) and soprano (female) range, making it tricky to perform many standard tunes in their original keys without sounding too shrill or too cumbersome.
In my 35 years of playing the alto, perhaps it has been only within the last 10 years that I feel I have found a personal sound on this "devil horn." I'm still refining it in every way possible.
With that said, it is fitting to sample five of the all-time greatest altoists and musical innovators, all of whom were grand masters by their early to mid-20s. From these five players, we can trace virtually every altoist that has come after them.