The idea for our second season concert, Bird in the Reeds, began with my love of the sound of the saxophone quintet. I was reminded of this instrumentation when we were playing some of the saxophone quintet arrangements from the Terry Gibbs Vibes on Velvet albums in the Wes’ Coast Vibes concert from last season.
The typical saxophone quintet is the same lineup you see in the front row of the jazz orchestra: two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and a baritone saxophone. The combined sound of these five saxophones is a thing of beauty. Occasionally in a big band tune you will hear the saxophone section play a soli where the saxophones play a melodic line that is harmonised through the section. One of my favourite early examples is the saxophone soli in Cottontail. Check it out at in this recording. The soli starts about 2 minutes into the recording. Another favourite saxophone soli is the one in Benny Carter’s Symphony in Riffs. You can check out a recording here. The soli starts about 39 seconds into the recording and continues throughout most of the piece interspersed by various solos.
One of the things that gives these saxophone soli such a unique shimmering sound is the vibrato that the players use. Just like string players do when they pivot their left fingers back and forth, the saxophone players must rapidly move their jaw up and down to vary their embouchure, the shape of their lips around the saxophone mouthpiece, in order to rapidly oscillate the pitch up and down. It’s such a critically important technique because it’s often essential to a certain sound but it can sound terrible when overused. Furthermore, when multiple instruments are playing together, they have to match the depth and speed of their vibrato to achieve a uniform sound.
Once I had decided that I would like to feature a saxophone quintet, it took less than five seconds for the incredible music of the Supersax group to rise to the top of the list of candidates. Although they played jazz from previous decades, Supersax was actually formed in 1972 by saxophonist Med Flory and bassist Buddy Clark. It’s particularly interesting that the primary goal of the group was to play harmonised versions of Charlie Parker’s improvised solos. By harmonising Bird’s solos, they were effectively arranging and orchestrating, in written form, melodies that Parker improvised in real-time. In a way, this is somewhat similar to the art of vocalese in which Jon Hendricks and others would pen lyrics to improvised solos of various musicians.
The Supersax arrangements are a wonderful reminder of the brilliance of Bird’s soloing. His improvised melodies have been played and sung by so many people over the years. Most jazz musicians, and many listeners, can quote some of his solos verbatim. By harmonising these solos Med Flory showed us and reminded us of just how strong Parker’s melodic compositions were. Many of the arrangements were also an incredible example of the virtuosity, not just of Bird, but of the players in the Supersax group.
There’s so much interesting history about the Supersax group and it’s leader Med Flory. Although the group didn’t really come into public existence until 1972, the origins go all the way back to 1956. Flory began transcribing some of Bird’s solos and then wrote arrangements in which he harmonised the solos. He and saxophonists Joe Maini, Joe Kennedy, Richie Kamuca, and Bill Hood played them for fun. When bassist Buddy Clark heard them he suggested Flory write more arrangements. However it wasn’t until the 1970s when the Supersax group really became a thing. The group apparently rehearsed in Flory’s home for over a year until Flory’s wife suggested they play at a Los Angeles club called “Dontes.” The crowds loved what they heard and the group ended up recording Supersax Plays Bird for Capitol Records and went on to tour all over the world and record nine albums, with one of them winning a Grammy award in 1974.
Oh yeah and Med Flory was also an actor who appeared in TV shows such as Maverick, Gomer Pyle, Perry Mason, Daniel Boone, and in movies such as The Nutty Professor with Jerry Lewis!