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The Most Famous Saxophone Players – Part 1

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Everyone has different favourites, so rather inflict Simon’s own subjective ranking on you, we decided to take a different approach! Instead, we’ve looked at the popularity of saxophone players in the eyes of Google searches. While the results are still mostly jazz oriented, this list does give a broad picture of epic sax performers past and present. Over coming weeks, we’ll briefly profile these great saxophone players with biographical notes, clips and links to lead you to further listening.

We’ll begin by sharing the top ten in our popularity list, then look in more detail at the most popular saxophone player on the internet today!

The Top Ten Most Famous Saxophone Players

In time-honoured fashion we’ll start at number 10:

  • 10. GROVER WASHINGTON JR. One of the founders of Cool Jazz.
  • 9. CANDY DULFER – Born in the Netherlands, the only female saxophone player on the list
  • 9. STAN GETZ – the man who played sax on The Girl from Ipanema
  • 9. DAVE KOZ – Smooth jazz specialist
  • 6. CLARENCE CLEMMONS – Bruce Springsteen saxophone player
  • 5. WAYNE SHORTER – Winner of 11 Grammy awards
  • 4. CHRIS POTTER – A modern take on the Coltrane style of playing
  • 2. CHARLIE PARKER – ‘Bird’ – bebop leader.
  • 2. JOHN COLTRANE – one of our ‘Favourite things’.

…and – drumroll please – the most famous saxophone player, it’s…

KENNY G – receiving 90500 searches a month, three times as many hits as anyone else!

Photo Caption: By Angela George, CC BY-SA

There’s no doubt that Kenny G is phenomenally successful, regularly charting in the 1980s and 1990s with his mellifluous smooth jazz, typically on soprano sax, although he does also play alto, tenor and flute. Because of his melodic style, his broad appeal extends far beyond the world of jazz into that of pop and with his striking image, this crossover has gained him worldwide appeal.

Simon Says:

While Kenny G has a lower reputation in the eyes of many professional saxophonists, he has forged a massive public appeal for his style of playing. One of the most common phrases searched about him by the public is “what instrument does kenny G play?” The answer is soprano saxophone and Kenny has a beautiful and consistent sound throughout the range of his instrument, which is very hard to record because of the shape being straight and not curved.

A feature of his performance is circular breathing only rivalled by Roland Kirk. Kenny uses mainly the blues and pentatonic scales and is the richest instrumentalist in the world netting $100 millon.

Kenny G’s Saxophone Setup: Selmer Mk VI Soprano with a Dukoff D8 mouthpiece. The Dukoff mouthpiece is favoured by Smooth Jazz and R&B players because it can cut through loud stage environments such as guitars and drums. Most of the jazz greats play the Selmer Mk VI, top quality French manufacturing from Paris.

Back to his biography. Everyone has to start somewhere… For Seattle-born Kenny Gorelick, that was with Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, which he joined while still in high school. He played with other local bands, and made two albums with Jeff Lorber Fusion before signing a solo contract with Arista records in 1982. It was his fourth studio album Duotones that made him a star with its big hit, ‘Songbird’. In 1992 he was awarded a Grammy for best instrumental composition for ‘Forever in Love’.

Here’s Kenny G’s Songbird – the official video from the album Duotones:

He has guested with many great vocalists, Aretha, Whitney and more recently on his 2004 Duets Album with Chaka Khan and LeAnn Rimes. The latter album also features duets with jazz pals, saxophonist David Sanborn and pianist David Benoit. He has returned to pure instrumentals in subsequent albums, with big band and then bossa nova influences in his 2015 album Brazilian Nights.

You can check out his version of The Girl from Ipanema here

Did you know?  

  • Kenny G holds the world record for for playing the longest note ever recorded on a saxophone. Using circular breathing, he held an E-flat for 45 minutes and 47 seconds at J&R Music World in New York City in 1997.
  • Kenny G is also an avid golfer, playing since high school. With a handicap of +0.6, he has played in many pro-am tournaments.

You can read more about Kenny G at Wikipedia.

Whatever stage you’ve reached in learning to play the saxophone, the Newbury Sax School online teaching programme can help. 

As you begin to experiment with new styles and perhaps some improvisation, you’ll find that watching and listening to the saxophone greats in action will really help. It will also complement the Newbury Sax School lessons and allow you to choose the direction you want your sax playing to take. Discover your preferred musical genre, sax register, playing style by exploring some of these players below.

Next time in this series – we’ll look at Charlie Parker

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