No, not this kind of tenor. I'm talking about the kind of saxophone that was played by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Frank Foster, and Hank Mobley, just to name a few of my favorites.
When it comes to tenor solos, I'm pretty particular. I love Wayne Shorter's playing (and I love his composing even more), but he was not one of the great soloists. Getz might have been the most original (well, after Trane), but he's not one of the top soloists, either.
Not surprisingly, my selections for the three best tenor soloists are also the three tenorists who are generally acknowledged as the three best of the hard bop era: Trane, Dex, and Sonny. I have listened extensively to the output of all three of them, to the point where if I hear a solo by one of them that I don't already know (which is rare), I can almost always identify the player immediately.
But which of their solos are the best? I know, it's a silly exercise, but I like doing it. Actually, I think the absolute best is by Sonny, even though I think he ranks (slightly) below Trane and Dex (in that order) overall.
So which solo am I talking about? I'ts on a Blue Note album titled Volume Two. The tune is Monk's essential Misterioso. As if having solos by Monk and Horace Silver on the same track wasn't enough, Sonny invented new melodies that have to be heard to be believed.
Next, one that most listeners are more likely to have heard: Trane on Freddie Freeloader from the justifiably famous Miles Davis Quintet album, Kind of Blue. It's a melodic exploration, but with the harmonic elements that only Trane ever mastered.
What about Dex? Actually, this might be the easiest to pick of the three: Cheesecake, from Dex's Blue Note masterpiece, Go. I have long thought that this is the standard by which all tenor playing must be judged. Nobody could lay back while going a mile a minute like Dex could. If you don't understand what I mean, listen to this solo a few times and you'll get it.
I must confess, however, that I might be biased toward Dex by the fact that I actually met him in person. I'll have to tell that story sometime.
Physical Graffiti has been occupying my attention lately. I mean that literally. The songs have been in my head all day, every day, since I listened to the whole album twice last weekend. It has always been, for me, that kind of an all-consuming work.
First and foremost, this album cements (to the extent it had not happened already) Led Zeppelin's place in history as the single most important band after the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Sorry, it isn't even close. Just think about all the music, good and bad, that follows the trail first blazed by Led Zeppelin. Good: Van Halen with Dave. Bad: hair bands. Good/bad: Ozzy Osbourne; Van Halen with Sammy.
By the time Physical Graffiti was released, of course, Led Zeppelin's influence was already pretty well recognized. I'm not sure anyone was ready for this one, however. Epic track after epic track, played louder than anything before or since. Robert Plant's shriek reaching new heights. Jimmy Page's lead now fully formed. And the best rock rhythm section ever assembled, with the possible exception of Gibbons/Hill/Beard.
My personal favorite? In My Time of Dying. I didn't even know until years later (how many years later? Well, I learned it from Wikipedia) that this was an adaptation of a blues first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson.
Wait, maybe my favorite is The Rover. It's unbelievable that this track was recorded two years prior to the sessions that produced most of the songs on the album. A power trio + vocal performance by which all others must be judged. This wasn't good enough for Led Zeppelin IV?
No, my favorite (or at least the one that is the most impossible to get out of my head) has to be Ten Years Gone. The guitar solo positively swings.
I guess I can't decide which track is my favorite. I'll have to listen to the album some more.
Most great bands have a great rhythm section. Led Zeppelin wasn't great just because Robert Plant was unique. Jimmy Page was hailed as a guitar idol, but he wasn't really even that great as a lead guitarist. He was a dynamic rhythm guitarist, however. Page's rhythm playing combined with a very solid bassist in John Paul Jones and a brilliant drummer in John Bonham created a rhythm section that was the perfect backing unit to be matched with a groundbreaking vocalist and make music that changed the direction of rock.
John Bonham is worthy of special mention in this discussion. He was able to play very firm tempos, but with a laid back feel, better than just about anyone. My friend Mario once described him as sounding like he's playng in the next room. That's better than any description I have been able to come up with.
Where can you hear what I'm talking about? You need only listen to The Lemon Song on Led Zeppelin II. Page starts with a great riff, Bonham completely overloads the mics with his first cymbal crash, then Jones joins in and they simply cook through six minutes at three different tempos while Plant wails in the foreground. After hearing that track you know why Led Zeppelin became superstars, and it wasn't just because of Robert Plant.
In future posts I'll discuss similar characteristics of other great bands, and talk about how those characteristics cut across different genres.
A lawyer who likes to write music commentary.