Phillips: Sax and rock 'n' roll: a romance rekindled

Phillips: Sax and rock 'n' roll: a romance rekindled

July 22nd, 2011 by Casey Phillips in Chattnow Music

With all the saxophone's moving parts and curves, I've always thought it looked irresistibly alien, like a metallic snake coiled up in the brass section.

Maybe I'm fascinated because I grew up playing the more mundane-looking viola or because the sax is Belgian, thus putting it one degree of separation closer to waffles.

Whatever the reason, it has always fascinated me.

Like it or hate it, when the sax starts playing, you're definitely aware of it. While some instruments struggle to get your attention, a sax solo can burst through a band's wall of sound like a missile through tissue paper.

For all those reasons and more, I'm excited by the instrument's recent resurgence into popularity thanks to a pair of superstar cameos.

It's easy to get so caught up in the hypnotically catchy beat of Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night," for example, that the 15-second sax solo by former Tower of Power member Lenny Pickett catches you off guard.

While I applauded her use of an unexpected instrument, I assumed Perry was just being intentionally off-kilter. As "Jurassic Park" taught us, however, if someone brings a dinosaur back to life, others will want to do the same.

On her latest album, "Born This Way," Lady Gaga incorporated sax into the song "Edge of Glory," which features a lengthy solo by Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Sadly, Clemons suffered a stroke and died on June 18, less than a month after "Born This Way" was released.

After nearly 20 years in hibernation, the saxophone seems to once more be making its way into the limelight, a spot it abruptly disappeared from in the '90s after lending character to classic-rock hits ranging from Pink Floyd's "Money" to Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street."

If you miss the sax, blame the '80s because that's when the sax was used to add "drama" to soft-rock songs so often it became a caricature of itself. As a result, the instrument was all but banished from the mainstream during the '90s and '00s, with the notable exception of The Dave Matthews Band's LeRoi Moore, who passed away in 2008.

Thankfully, the pendulum of public opinion is on the back swing. The sax has even started making waves in Chattanooga.

Saturday, experimental jam rockers The Velvet Hand will release their self-titled debut album at JJ's Bohemia, and saxophonist Jon Elliott plays on all 16 tracks.

While audiences are pleasantly surprised by the sax, the negative image the sax earned from soft rock can make playing it feel like running uphill, Elliott said.

That image is something he hopes to change.

"I want to create a sound that's different, that goes against that grain of what's traditional or typical of the saxophone," Elliott said. "It's just a different sound and something that we've been playing with."

Suffice it to say, the sax is back, and long may it reign, I say. Next up: The flute.