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EXPLORING MUSIC: PLAYED BEAUTIFULLY--InNOVAtions featuring the Nova Saxophone Quartet

The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987

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David M. Greene


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Though it is 150 years old (more or less), the saxophone has never become an in­tegral part of the symphony orchestra or attained full legitimacy in art music. In his dystopia Brave New World, Aldous Hux­ley refers contemptuously to the "sex­ophone" bands, supposed to have an aphrodisiac effect on the grimly hedonistic participants in its nightlife. But at the time the novel was written the saxophone was a relatively new phenomenon in jazz bands, having established itself there only after the Black migration from the South to the big cities.

As far as I know, the saxophone has nothing to do with sex. It takes its name from its inventor, who may also be respon­sible in part for the cloud that seems to hang over it. Born in 1814 in the oddly at­tractive fortress-town of Dinant on the River Meuse (now Belgian), he was baptiz­ed "Antoine-Joseph Sax," though he came to be known as Adolphe. His father was a manufacturer of wind instruments whose products were highly regarded. Adolphe trained as a musician at the Brussels Con­servatory before entering the family business, where he exhibited not only unusual skill and knowledge, but also a questing and inventive mind.

In 1842 he struck out on his own, set­ting up, with the aid and encouragement of Hector Berlioz and his friends, a shop in Paris. Here in short order he invented the saxhorns, the saxtrombas, and the sax­ophones, and made many improvements on standard wind instruments, some of them successful, some quite visionary. No one is quite sure what he had in mind when he dreamed up the saxophone (which he conceived of as a "family" ranging from high soprano instruments to deep bass), but a reasonable guess is that he was seeking a sound to link woodwinds and brasses. Sax was working on it when he left for Paris, and in 1846 he patented the princi­ple as it applied to present and conceivable future instruments.

But already in 1844 an Alsatian com­poser named Jean-Georges (or Johann Georg Kastner had called for a saxophone in his now-forgotten opera Le dernier roi de Juda (The last king of Judah). French military bands also took it up, and Sax hit on the notion of gaining a monopoly in that quarter. The War Minister arranged a test pitting a band playing Sax-made instruments against one of the big army bands; the jury voted overwhelmingly in favor of Sax, making him, sub rosa, purveyor to the government. Later he also became professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatory.

But his rivals and enemies were having none of this. They harassed him in every way, challenging the validity of his patents in court, hiring his workmen away, spreading all sorts of malicious gossip, and even apparently sabotaging his factory and having him beaten up. Unfortunately, Sax was egocentric, proud, eccentric, and vengeful. The result was that he several times went bankrupt, and a collection had to be taken up to support him in his old age. He died at 79.

Too many of us tend to think of the sax­ophone in terms of the glutinous sounds produced by the likes of the Lombardo or­chestra or of the horrid squawks of certain soi-disant avant-garde jazzmen. Played "straight" it can be a beautiful instrument. The Nova Quartet plays it about as beautifully as you will hear. Altoist Richard Lawn was a member of the original Nova Quartet along with three fellow graduate students at Eastman a decade ago. After he migrated to Texas, he hooked up with Douglas Skinner, Gregory Wilson, and James Warth in 1982 to form the present group.

With one exception the selections they play here are American and contemporary (but not "far-out"). Two of them are jazz. based. Q.T. is by Eddie Sauter, arranger for the inventive Sauter-Finnegan Band in the 1950s--though the jazz elements are far to seek. "Jazzier" are Phil Woods' Three Im­provisations, and the players know that idiom too.

Lightly neoclassical is the quartet by Seymour Barab, familiar as a cellist and one-time member of the lamented New York Pro Musica Antiqua. Somewhat similar is the quartet by Douglas Walter, who so far has eluded the biographers. The single "classic" is an arrangement of the Debussy Rhapsody, commissioned by a Boston lady ordered to play the sax for her health, and left unfinished. This arrange­ment of an adaptation by Sigurd Rascher sounds very little like the piece I've known for 50 years, but perhaps my memory is slipping.

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