On solo sax

Free musical improvisation involves playing an instrument without the restraints of traditional imposed rhythm or tonality. Free improvisation, at least in the context discussed here, developed from jazz-oriented thinking in the early 1960s. Musicians well versed in be-bop jazz such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman began to disassociate their music from jazz structure, tonality, and time signature, creating a completely new genre of music.

Since that time, many musicians have used “free improv” as a vehicle for exploring a boundless array of sonic realms. Most still make use of the group setting in which members of an ensemble play together and thus inform each other’s playing. There are those who play alone, however, and therefore produce music that is informed solely by the mind of an individual. Much of the work that employs this method of playing can be viewed as a sort of musical free-association upon which the individual can decide how much, or how little, restraint to impose. Playing solo in this fashion is clearly a very personal endeavor, and extends musicians the opportunity of creating a very powerful final product. Solo free improvisation that employs the saxophone as a medium has an especially powerful body of work attached to it, due partly to the saxophone’s wide sonic range as well as its historical significance in the setting of jazz improvisation (e.g. the work of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, etc.).

The first-ever freely improvised solo saxophone album was Anthony Braxton’s For Alto. Recorded in 1969, less than a decade after the term “free jazz” was coined (by Ornette Coleman, with the 1960 release of Free Jazz), For Alto was remarkably ahead of its time. Though free improvisation was well-established by the time of its recording, the jazz aesthetic still weighed heavily in the hearts of most free musicians. For Alto adheres far less to jazz influence, and is therefore a more pure free association.

European saxophone players Peter Brtözmann and Evan Parker experimented with solo improvisation a few years later and yielded some of the most challenging and incredible albums of all time Solo and Saxophone Solos, respectively. More removed from the jazz setting, both musicians bring the saxophone to its sonic limits and further expose the enrichment that lies at the intersection of free association’s great power and the astounding expressive quality of the saxophone.