A nice profile of jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins in the current New Yorker reminded me of a parlor game my friend Ward and I play on long trips in the car. We often listen to jazz radio on these trips (WRTI in Philadelphia, or WBGO in Newark), and to pass the time, we try to guess who’s playing.
You might think that’s difficult, but it’s not that hard. Imagine you’re hearing a new release by your favorite band on the radio. I’m confident you would recognize the work as theirs immediately. With jazz it’s slightly more difficult, but only slightly. Most jazz musicians have a distinctive set of qualities (such as tone, phrasing, and note choice) that makes up their “style.” Singers, of course, are easy to recognize. Instrumentalists are more difficult (with bassists and drummers being the toughest), but hardly impossible.
I have a special heuristic for saxophonists I don’t recognize. If it’s a tenor saxophone, I usually guess Stanley Turrentine. That’s not to say that Stanley doesn’t have a recognizable style, but I’ve never been able to discern any distinctive “hooks” in his playing that are memorable to me. His playing isn’t quirky in any way, it’s just good. And since he made tons of records, it’s always a safe guess. Sometimes I’m even right.
Sonny Rollins is certainly one of the greatest players ever on the instrument. If I hear a tenor player with a huge tone just pouring out strong, original ideas, then I automatically guess Sonny Rollins. Again, sometimes I’m even right. When I’m wrong, who do you think it is? It’s usually Dexter Gordon. I should never mix those two up, but I do. Hmm.