I’ll admit that I listen to a lot of NPR when I’m driving to and from work. Every now and then, the local station plays musical interludes between segments. About once a week or so, and never at predictable intervals, the music is that of a saxophone quartet (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone). Every time I hear it, It always strikes me as odd. Not necessarily odd in a bad sense, but rather odd in a sense of “Hey, I’ve never heard that kind of sound from a saxophone before.” Because I can’t predict when the saxes will play, I never know when I’ll be able to analyze their sound.
Then one day, everything aligned, and I was able to hear the sound of that specific quartet and figure out what was going on. The quartet is the Washington Saxophone Quartet (I found out after a quick Google search).
It was the vibrato.
The quartet was not playing with any vibrato at all.
And this, is probably the sound that was first expected from the saxophone, because wind instruments usually didn’t use vibrato until the early 1900s. There is good evidence that vibrato was almost taboo until the 1930s in some places. In fact, wind vibrato is almost unheard of in places today like Vienna. The Berlin Philharmonic didn’t use vibrato as standard for any instrument until around 1935.
Then the thoughts started swirling in my head. Should saxophones even use vibrato? When? What kind?
I admit to being a second-rate saxophonist (mainly Alto and Baritone). However, my approach comes from a schooling in Bassoon, so therefore, I’ve never been of a pure saxophone background. Bassoon is one of those weird wind instruments that is a go-between on vibrato. Sometimes we use it, and sometimes we don’t. Saxophone, at least modern-day saxophone players and playing schools, don’t seem to have this mindset. The vibrato is on all the time – not unlike flute playing.
But, the sound of the saxophone quartet without vibrato was refreshing and new. It evoked the sound of a beautiful reed organ. It was homogeneous and harmonious. Which leads to my conclusion that I think that the saxophone, as an ensemble instrument is best done with a minimum of vibrato – completely contrary to modern performance practices.
I went and listened to several performances of various Bach pieces on saxophone to listen for various styles of vibrato. These performances ranged from amateurs to professionals. To a person, every player used it. When I was studying Baroque performance practices on period instruments, I was routinely chastised every time even a hint of vibrato entered my sound except on the occasional 7th appoggiatura. Sax players should be held to the same level of scrutiny even if they are playing an anachronistic instrument.
By playing without a constant vibrato, saxophones can more effectively fill in the role that they naturally fall into, which is not, as some thing, between the woodwinds and brass, but as a bridge between the double reeds and the clarinets.
I leave the readers with the question, should saxophones use vibrato as a matter of fact? More to the point, when large groups of wind instruments – not just saxophones – get together, is constant vibrato even necessary?