Saxophone in the Band
The saxophone is really the odd man out in the woodwind section. There is no orchestral equivalent for which to draw from for inspiration. Yet, the saxophone family is the most well-balanced, most harmonious, and has the largest usable range of all of the reed families. In bad bandestrations, I have seen some really atrocious scoring for saxophones. The Altos are continuously scored for with the Horns, while the Tenors and Baritones are made to blend with the low brass. In this kind of scoring, we break up the unified family, and thus lose the one sound than can make the band’s woodwind section a cohesive unit.
For illustration purposes, let’s assume that both the oboes and the bassoons from a single double reed section (remember though that the oboe and the bassoon families have little to do with each other than their means of sound production). In the sound of the double reeds, we have a nasal, reedy sound with a beautiful vibrato. Their opposite is the clarinets who have a warm, cool sound without any hint of a vibrato. They are mirror images of each other, and when we try and blend then, it is like oil and water. But, add the saxophones, whose characteristics are exactly midway between the double reeds and the clarinets, and we instantly get a harmonious mixture.
But, there is a problem with this blending, and it lies in the modern saxophonist’s conception of sound. The modern saxophonist wants a big, almost strident sound that can cut through an amplified jazz ensemble or a rock band. This simply will not work in a band. What most saxophone players do not realize is that their closest kin, at least timbral-wise, is not the clarinets, but the double reeds. The double reeds are gentle beasts for the most part, and so should be the saxophone. I can just imagine a beautiful Bach choral played on a saxophone choir in my head. It is organ-like, sonorous, rich, but I cannot imagine a saxophone player having the sensitivity in today’s world to pull it off. Modern saxophone players have almost entirely eschewed the one player who tried to rectify this situation, Sigurd Rascher, who emphasized a beautiful rich sound. Instead, they have aligned themselves with the school of thought that technique is far superior to sound.
My own thoughts on saxophone sound aside, let us now take a look at the constitution of the saxophone section in the band, and the potential possibilities that lie within. The traditional saxophone section is made up of either two Altos, one Tenor, and one Baritone; or one each of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone. The later of these make-ups consists of the only section in a traditional band that is perfectly balanced from high to low. The use of two Altos or one Alto and one Soprano is one of timbral choice. Both ensembles have their merits. The two Alto group is warmer in sound, while the group with the Soprano is brighter with a larger range.
Older scores, pre-1950 almost always include a part for a Bass Saxophone. The scoring for Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is rather unusual in that it calls for six saxophones (Soprano, 2 Altos, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass). In this work, each member is integral and plays an important part. However, as so often happens, one or two members of the section are left out (usually 2nd Alto and Bass). To leave out a part in an orchestra is sacrilege! Why then are bands allowed to get away with it? We should strive at all times to make sure to include every instrument a composer specifies.
From Grainger’s section of six saxophones, I’d like to build one step further to a larger section of eight. As all saxophone players are able to play multiple instruments (or should!), we can think of doublings, and even triplings within the section. Here is a hypothetical scenario for eight competent players.
Player 1 – Sopranino, Alto
Player 2 – Soprano, Alto
Player 3 – Alto, Piccolo
Player 4 – Alto, Tenor
Player 5 – Tenor, Baritone
Player 6 – Baritone
Player 7 – Bass
Player 8 – Contrabass
Note that the basic makeup is Sn,S,A,A,T,B,Bs,CB, which is a perfectly balanced section from high to low. We can also have a section of P,Sn,S,A,T,B,Bs,CB when the 1st Alto player switches to the Piccolo. On the top end, we can have all four higher players playing Alto at the same time, or even a high quartet of Piccolo, Sopranino, Soprano, and Alto. There are opportunities for two Tenors, as well as a low quartet of the Baritones, Bass, and Contrabass. Also note that I do not have the Bass and Contrabass players doubling. The size of their instruments alone makes doubling much harder. A creative bandestrator can take this scenario and tweak it to their own needs, but it does serve as the basis for a realm of possibility.
With this list of possibilities, what you must remember is that the saxophone is a full member of the woodwind section, and in no way should it support the brass (i.e. the use of them being further members of the Horn section). Proper use of saxophones should fill out the sound of the entire band from soprano to bass, not just the middle octaves. I find it best to think of the saxophone section as a cohesive unit rather than a mixture of individual parts. Think choir, not soloist.
Bach’s Fugue in G minor
Rascher Saxophone Quartet playing Philip Glass’ Concerto for Saxophone Quartet. Listen carefully to the timbre produced by these four players using vintage instruments with round chamber mouthpieces, and compare that to the sound produced by most modern players.
Finally, this may be one of the most impressive videos I’ve ever seen. It is an entire orchestra made up of saxophones from Sopranino to Contrabass playing Respighi’s Roman Festivals. There is never a single moment where the sound of the strings is missed.