A musician’s “voice” is not simply a metaphor. No two creative instrumentalists ever sound quite alike. Even on the piano, the touch and attack of Ashkenazy are immediately distinguishable from those of Brendel or Gould. And so it is, right through the orchestra, even if it takes a certain refinement of perception to tell one oboe soloist from another.
The saxophone represents a special case. It is an instrument that, for reasons of design and history, almost entirely depends on the personality of the player. The peculiarities of its manufacture–the saxophone family is all conical-bored and overblows at the octave–and its emergence at a time when the basic language of the classical instrumentarium was well established, bequeathed it a curiously marginal status. Despite the enthusiasm of Hector Berlioz and occasional appearances in the nineteenth-century orchestra, the saxophone’s apparent destiny was to play a down-market role in vernacular music: marching bands, pit orchestras, bal musette and, of course, jazz.
All instruments–Strads, Gazzelloni’s titanium flute–have “wolf tones,” places on the instrument where the specific design or that particular instrument’s history requires the player to alter technique to keep it in pitch. The saxophone has nothing but. A basic scale played on a tenor saxophone has less character than those same notes written on a stave, and yet most jazz fans will identify the great saxophonists from the shortest phrase or measure. Their voices are as distinctive as the whorls and loops of a fingerprint, or the particular cadence and timbre of a speaking voice.
Who would not immediately recognize Johnny Hodges, that high, erotic wail that rose out of Duke Ellington’s ensembles; or Sonny Rollins’s muscular street orator’s discourse; or Lester Young’s wounded grace; or John Coltrane’s hard-toned intensity? The list goes on: Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, Jan Garbarek–all of them possessed of a rich idiolect. If Charlie Parker had lost his passport, and he was erratic enough to do just that, a single tone on his horn would have been enough to get him past immigration.
Among saxophonists, Roscoe Mitchell is an anomaly. Although he is one of the most innovative and important of the current senior generation, few could describe with any confidence what is distinctive about Mitchell’s “voice” or reliably recognize it in any of its multifarious contexts. Of course, that may be part of the problem. Mitchell’s dogged commitment to experiment has led him into projects far removed from the conventional jazz combo. Or it may be that, since he has spent a large proportion of his career as part of the most successful “avant-garde” jazz group of modern times, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), we hear him only as part of an ensemble voice. Or it may be that because of Mitchell’s dedication to multi-instrumentalism, playing a full range of horns from the soprano to the bass saxophones, as well as flutes and noncanonical instruments, we are liable to be misled by an unfamiliar tonality or sound color. Yet Anthony Braxton, another multi-instrumentalist with a very similar background and philosophy, always sounds like himself whether playing alto saxophone, the unfeasibly large contrabass or, indeed, any of the more exotic varieties in between.