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Monday, December 28, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It's Politically Correct To Play The Horn That Actually Talks

Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. - Nobody is saying you have to play the saxophone to understand the next four years of American history.

But it wouldn't hurt to know, for instance, that Paul Desmond always said he wanted his alto to sound like a dry martini. Or that Stanley Turrentine's father insisted that young Stanley practice only one note per day.

Or that Lisa Simpson plays baritone.

The main thing you want to know is that Bill Clinton, like Turrentine, plays tenor. In Clinton's case, the choice of tenor probably reflects the heavy dose of Elvis-era rock 'n' roll, when the big honk of such tenor players as King Curtis ruled the earth.

"Did you ever hear a tenor sax, swinging like a rusty ax?" the Coasters inquired in one of their songs.

If you really wanted to get ready for Clinton, a former All-State high-school musician in Arkansas, you could even take a sax lesson from Eugene Cantera, who teaches in the community program of the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford.

Cantera, 33, is Central Casting's idea of a sax player-teacher. He has a jazzman's modified Van Dyke beard, a license plate that reads "SAXPHNE," and a baby son named Parker, as in Charlie. (If you think this is excessive devotion, consider that Parker disciple Phil Woods went as far as to marry Charlie Parker's widow.)

When you follow his fingering and bleat out your first G, he smiles encouragingly and says, "You're happening!"

When your first attempt at a C sharp sounds like the ritual sacrifice of a vicuna, he urges you to try again. When you do and the note sounds a little better but still far short of the mark, Cantera cracks, "Close enough for rock 'n' roll."

Cantera checks a list of his students for next term. About a third are girls. Could be the Lisa influence, but there are, in addition, a number of women sax players who cook, from ex-Yalie Jane Ira Bloom to Sue Terry.

"I was thinking about Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, listening to Sonny Stitt on the phonograph. Then I heard David Newman, the sax player in Ray Charles' band. What a thing, to have invented, finally, the horn that actually talks? I shouted."

Thus run the musings of Harry Monroe, a character in Barry Hannah's 1972 novel "Geronimo Rex." (For what it's worth, Hannah was born in Clinton, Miss.)

Adolphe Sax, a Belgian band leader, invented the saxophone around 1840, apparently fusing a clarinet top with a straightened-out trumpet. He didn't patent it until 1846, but the 150th anniversary was celebrated at a festival in Angiers, France, in 1990.

Sax probably intended the saxophone for rather formal band and orchestral music.

"Then real people got ahold of it and said, hey, you can bend notes on this thing," Cantera said.

Actually, post-1850 serious composers - Berlioz, Bizet, Saint-Saens, Elgar and Villa-Lobos among them - found things for the sax to do, but never quite enough.

"There are very few parts. A lot of orchestras don't even have a saxophone player. They'll have somebody on call in case a part comes along," said Mark Gridley, a saxophonist, jazz historian and professor of psychology at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio.

Rock 'n' roll kind of gave up on the sax, except for occasional blips: Chris Wood with Traffic, Clarence Clemmons with Springsteen, Cornelius Bumpus with the latter-day Doobie Brothers and guest solos by virtuosos such as Phil Woods. (That's him on Steely Dan's "Doctor Wu" and Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are.")

Gridley, a perceptual psychologist, studied the way people perceived saxophone sounds by players such as John Coltrane and Johnny Hodges, and, in 1987, published the article "Trends in Description of Saxophone Timbre" in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills.

Gridley concluded that people used a lot of cross-modal, amodal and cross-material language to describe saxophone music, which means they used a lot of language associated with other activities (such as "cutting"), other senses (such as "bright"), and senses "in which certain invariant properties of stimulus configurations such as density of smoothness can exist outside of sense modality."

That's happening.

Clinton has picked Kenny G to play at his inauguration, which jazz types see as a decidedly mixed blessing. The G man is probably the most commercially successful sax player who ever lived, but the hardcore jazz world doesn't dig the sugary mush he plays. A recent issue of Downbeat magazine devoted a major spread to agonizing over G-mania, with one sax player concluding that Kenny G is to music "as Mr. T is to acting."

Still, said Gridley, one of Kenny G's albums may post more total sales than everything Parker, Coltrane and Hodges sold combined. By picking Kenny G, Clinton is sort of showing he's plugged into where a lot average people are at.

Dig?

If there is a common thread running through the character of sax players, they can't see it.

Most of the players interviewed for this story denied that saxophonists, as a group, have any traits in common. Bill Baker, president of Child and Family Services in Hartford and a sax man for four decades, went out on a limb.

"This'd be right out of the blue," he said. "I'd like to think there's something mellow about the instrument, and that the people who play it can lay back a little bit. They're not so intense as a trumpet player."

If it's a key to anything, maybe the sax tells us why Bill Clinton sometimes talks a little too much. His speeches run long, maybe, because he's wailing.

You know? Like, is Jack Kerouac describing a sax solo here, or a Clinton convention speech?:

"Here's a guy and everybody's there, right? Up to him to put down what's on everybody's mind. He starts the first chorus and lines up his ideas . . . and then rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. . . . Time stops. He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehash of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT -"

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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