Ah, the romantic, saccharine, sexy, saxophone. Its unique, velvety sound has made it the star of the show in jazz, big bands, and solo performances for ages now.
The instrument comes in 8 different sizes, but if you master one, you have mastered them all. There have always been a line of extraordinary talent in the saxophonist department with each passing generation.
Over the years there has been (in no particular order) Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Kenny G, and more as far as the greatest of their respective times.
But what about the present day? Worry not, we have a list of the 10 best saxophone players today, in case you’re curious.
1. Branford Marsalis
Branford is not only a saxophonist, but also a composer and bandleader. He has been in the music business since 1980, performing with musical acts such as Public Enemy, Sting and Phil Collins (both at Live Aid, in London), and Dave
Matthews Band, among others.
While he frequently performs as a solo artist, Mr. Marsalis is primarily known for work as the leader of the aptly named Branford Marsalis Quartet, originally formed in 1986.
Ever the boundary pusher, he has experimented with an assortment of styles, including: post-bop, traditional jazz, classical, funk, hip-hop, and rock.
Of course, playing with acts like Public Enemy and Sting, we suppose having a background like that would definitely come in handy.
We mentioned before that his career began in 1980, but he is still working and still riding on a career high, he and his quartet peaking at number three on the Billboard Jazz as recently as 2019. Definitely one of the best we have today.
2. Joshua Redman
Mr. Redman is the son of legendary saxophonist Dewey Redman, exposed at a very early age to a variety of music and instruments, including the recorder, piano, guitar, gatham, and gamelan.
He began playing the clarinet when he was 9, but soon after followed his father’s footsteps and switched to what would become his primary instrument, the tenor saxophone.
After college, Joshua immersed himself in the New York jazz scene after moving to Brooklyn. He eventually ended up paying his dues by jamming regularly with some of the leading jazz musicians of the time.
After winning the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, he began touring and recording with masters of jazz, his father among them.
This would be the beginning of a very fruitful and steady career, with Redman forming his own quartet, releasing more than 20 solo albums, and eventually co-founding the non-profit jazz-presenting organization SFJAZZ.
He’s also been nominated for a Grammy at least 3 times.
3. Chris Potter
He was born in Chicago, but spent his formative years in Columbia, South Carolina. He showed an early interest in a variety of music, learning several instruments along the way. He eventually realized the saxophone was his instrument after hearing Paul Desmond.
Mr. Potter is a composer and multi-instrumentalist that has worked as a sideman with trumpeter Red Rodney, drummer Paul Motian, and trumpeter Dave Douglas, among others.
He has recorded over 20 albums as a leader, with his album Vertigo in 1998 being named one of the year’s top ten jazz CDs by publications like the New York Times.
His last album, Circuits, was released in 2019.
4. Ravi Coltrane
His last name is probably familiar to you. Yes, he is related to the late, great, John Coltrane. Though he was unde
r two years old when his father died, he still ended up a great jazz musician and saxophonist in his own right.
After thirty recordings as a sideman, Mr. Coltrane recorded his first album as a leader, “Moving Pictures”, which eventually led to touring.
Cerebral and engaging, Ravi has a rich, harmonic approach to his sound, setting him apart from his legendary father.
He, too, has been nominated for three Grammys, interestingly enough.
5. Eric Alexander
Another winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, Eric Alexander has worked with a lot of significant jazz members over the years; pianist Harold Mabern, drummer Idris Muhammad, and bassist Ron Carter among them.
He’s recorded more than 40 albums for over 3 decades as a leader, making him the busiest musician we’ve named on this list, by far. In 2019, he put out two albums: “Leap of Faith” and “With Strings.”
6. Joe Lovano
The first Grammy Award winner on the list, Mr. Lovano is not only a saxophonist, but an alto clarinetist, flautist, and drummer.
He records and performs with his wife, Judi Silvano. He’s worked with both Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith before working with the Woody Herman orchestra for three years.
Joe has been putting out albums since 1985, and has recorded no less than 4 albums in the near four decades after, including the 1980’s. His latest album, “Trio Tapestry”, was released in 2019.
7. Donny McCaslin
Son of a high school english teacher turned jazz musician, Mr. McCaslin has been an active saxophonist in the music industry since 1978, and is still active today.
He’s played for David Bowie; once in 2014 on Bowie’s single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”, and again in 2016 on Bowie’s “Blackstar” album. Later that year, McCaslin worked with the same band he played with on the album and released “Beyond Now”, which was inspired by the experience of recording “Blackstar.” He, too, has been nominated for 3 Grammys.
8. Kenny Garrett
Mr. Garrett is a post-bop jazz saxophonist and flautist who was a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra when he was only 18, which is how he first gained recognition. He has played with greats such as Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and Woody Shaw before becoming a leader. He has recorded more than 15 albums as one.
He has 5 Grammy nominations and 1 Grammy win for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.
9. Eric Marienthal
Another Grammy award winner, Mr. Marienthal started his professional career with trumpeter Al Hirt, before returning to L.A. and becoming a member of the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and this was only the beginning.
He’s also the lead alto chair of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. He’s put out 15 albums since 1988.
10. David Sanborn
Mr. Sanborn is an alto saxophonist that usually blends jazz with instrumental pop and R&B, though, those two genres are as much as the only genres he deals in as much as the saxophone is the only instrument he plays (he is also a pianist).
David also dips into jazz fusion, rock, and funk as well, on occasion.
He has been a highly regarded session player since the late 1960s, having worked with big names like: Eric Clapton, James Brown, Billy Joel, Steel Dan, and the Eagles, among many others.
Sometimes it feels like we have missed out on all of the greats in all of jazz because of the stories that have been told.
But if you truly resign yourself to that thinking, odds are, you’re missing out on a lot. There are at least 10 greats in the here and now, each with their own sound and history. Feel free to get familiar with them..