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Five Songs, Ten Classic Tenor Titans

Ben Webster.
William P. Gottlieb
Library of Congress via Flickr
Ben Webster.

The tenor sax is a powerful instrument. This is especially apparent in music created by mighty jazz masters whose skills shaped sounds still reflected in present-day compositions.

This week's Take Five manages to squeeze 10 classic tenor titans into five selections, including several great pairings, "battles" and studio jam sessions.

For more entries in the Take Five series, click here. And don't forget to subscribe to the Jazz Notes newsletter.

Dexter Gordon & Ben Webster

Ben Webster was one of the most prominent tenor players of his time -- he was the first major tenor soloist for Duke Ellington's band in the 1940s. Dexter Gordon, about 14 years younger, began his career in big bands led by Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine, but progressed as bebop did. Through Webster and Gordon had relatively different styles, the two always had a great respect for each other. This live recording, produced by the Danish Broadcast Corporation, was made while both were living in Copenhagen, Denmark. On their 15-minute version of the Duke Ellington classic "Perdido," Webster and Gordon sound comfortable and happy to be in good company.

Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, John Coltrane, Zoot Sims

This Prestige Records jam-session recording pulled together four tenor sax players from the label's growing roster of jazz stars, some of whom were just coming into their own in the mid- to late 1950s. When you look at the names of the artists on display, it seems an interesting, maybe even strange juxtaposition of individual styles, if you're familiar with the work of each man. But when you listen, it makes perfect sense. Pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor, though accompanying powerful players, somehow manage not to get lost in the mix.

Sonny Rollins feat. John Coltrane

This song is called "Tenor Madness," but there's more developing genius than insanity displayed on this track. Rollins and Coltrane throw down on this in-studio battle in fine style. The two never recorded a full album together in the course of their careers -- maybe the collaboration of these tenor icons would have proved too powerful, though on this recording it isn't "overblown" in the least. "Tenor Madness" offers a glimpse of what might have been.

Gene Ammons & Sonny Stitt

Tenor saxophonists Ammons and Stitt were frequent collaborators during their careers -- this CD reissue combines two of their Soul Summit LPs. Every song featured was recorded in only one or two takes, a testament to the greatness of both men's talents. Organist Jack McDuff adds to the infectious nature of this Stitt tune: "Dumplin' " opens with the saxmen playing together, moves into individual solos and then evolves into a fun back-and-forth exchange. This spirited session is a joy.

David "Fathead" Newman

David "Fathead" Newman's primary sound was that of a clear "Texas tenor" -- a tone as wide as the Lone Star State. Newman's name doesn't immediately spring to mind when thinking of the greatest-of-the-great saxophonists, but the longevity of his career alone makes a good case for that "greatest" label. (He was active until his death in early 2009.) Newman spent about a decade of his formative years perfecting his craft as the primary soloist with Ray Charles in the 1950s and '60s. After that, he worked on some individual projects with little fanfare. In the early '80s, he recorded two excellent albums, Still Hard Times and Resurgence!, both of which are combined on Lone Star Legend. "Still Hard Times" finds him with the alto-sax great Hank Crawford, with whom he worked in Ray Charles' band. The pair captures the essence of that time with a renewed spirit.

Copyright 2010 90.5 WESA

Shaunna Morrison Machosky