Most of us have shown a timeless fascination with the coolness of the saxophone’s sound, and we very much enjoy listening to it. Not all, however, who play saxophone deliver excellent performances, for not all saxophonists are great. Nevertheless, several saxophone virtuosos have distinguished themselves from the rest, and in this post, you will know more about them.
If you are currently not doing great with saxophone, you can always take inspiration from the saxophone greats who spent much time mastering the saxophones. Moreover, it will be helpful to remember that nothing substantial is achieved without sacrifice. Thus, if you want to be a great saxophone player, it will help if you take a cue from the masters.
List of Best & Famous Contemporary Saxophone Players
If you sift through the names of great saxophonists, you will find that some have solidified their legendary statures as saxophonists. Many have also become influential in making saxophone popular among us. Below are the best saxophonists of our present age, looked up to by those aspiring to become great saxophone players:
1) Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett Whenever a discussion about the best saxophone players arises, Kenny Garrett’s name will always crop up. Why? Because many consider him to be one of the most refined saxophonists of our time. He’s an American saxophonist, born on the 9th of October, 1960, and is considered a post-bop jazz saxophonist, who had already gained a stature of being a great player of the saxophone from his youth. He was once a member of Duke Ellington Orchestra and that of Miles Davis’ band. After his stint with Duke Ellington Orchestra, he went solo.
While still in his youth, he had already worked as a sideman to famous figures like Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis, while appearing on Davis albums. He was also mentioned as among the Young Lions school, which has arisen in the 1980s. The Young Lions school was headed by Brandford Marsalis and Wynton, who were spearheading then a going back to the straight-ahead acoustic jazz.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Garrett started his career as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1978, headed by Mercer Ellington. In 1984, as a bandleader, he recorded his primary album, Introducing Kenny Garrett. He also co-founded the Out of the Blue, an American Jazz ensemble. He also became The Jazz Messengers’ member. Later, Garrett signed to Warner Bros. Records label and recorded 8 albums starting with Black Hope in 1992. In 2006, Garrett’s Beyond the Wall was nominated for Grammy. Beyond the Wall manifests his Asian influences.
He also became a member of the Five Peace Band made of Chick Corea, Christian McBride, John Mclaughlin, and Brian Balde/Vinnie in 2008. Later on, in 2011, he was presented with an Honorary Doctorate in Music by the Berklee College of Music. He also received a nomination to the Soul Train Award in 2012 and other significant nominations. Garrett is considered the most famous and influential saxophonist of this generation and a very admired one.
2) Melissa Aldana
Among the famous tenor Saxophone players worldwide, Melissa Aldana’s name always comes to mind. Born on the 3rd of December 1988, in Santiago, Chile, she performed with her band and as a soloist. She first played the saxophone at the age of six, as influenced by his saxophonist father. She started with the alto and was influenced by Charlie Parker, Michael Brecker, and Cannonball Adderley. However, she switched to tenor upon listening to Sonny Rollins’ music, using the Selmer Mark VI of her grandfather. In her early teens, she was already performing in the jazz clubs of Santiago.
Danilo Perez, upon meeting her, invited her to perform at the Panama Jazz Festival in 2005. She was also invited to audition at several music schools in the United States. She then attended college in Boston at Berklee College of Music.
Soon after, she further honed her playing skills under great tutors like Joe Lovano, Frank Tiberi, George Garzone, and many others. After graduating from Berklee in 2009, she relocated to New York City to learn under George Coleman. She also recorded Free Fall, her first album released in 2010. Soon she was performing live in Blue Note Jazz Club and at Monterey Jazz Festival. Her second album was entitled Second Cycle, which was released in 2012.
There was no stopping Melissa Aldana’s growing popularity, and soon, she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, winning the $25,000 scholarship prize and a Concord jazz recording contract. She also received various awards like Chile’s Altazor National Arts Award, Martin E. Segal Award of Lincoln center. She also played alongside Jimmy Health during the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Award Ceremony. Moreover, Wynton Marsalis also invited her to the Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Melissa Aldana also formed the Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, which also released a self-titled album. This group had its second album, Back Home, in March 2016. In 2017, Melissa Aldana formed the Melissa Aldana Quartet.
3) Mindi Abair
There is no scarcity of great female saxophonists in the world. Mindi Abair, for example, is among the top female saxophonists in the world. She is from Florida, United States, and her genres include rock, pop, soul, contemporary jazz, and smooth jazz. Besides playing the saxophone, she is also a vocalist and an author, and a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ National Trustee.
She produced ten No. 1 radio singles and two No. 1 Billboard Jazz CD. Her other four solo CDs have landed her to No. 5 slots in the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Charts. From 2011 to 2012, she was the American Idol’s featured saxophonist. She also got to perform with Aerosmith.
Abair started her musical career in Los Angeles, California, where she moved after college in 1991. She began performing with her band at some clubs, coffee shops, and hotels there. She also played solo on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and piqued Bobby Lyle’s attention, a jazz keyboardist, who then hired her to record his Power of Touch CD. She also toured with him. She made an appearance on Adam Sandler’s HBO special. She also recorded on What’s Your Name? CD of Adam Sandler.
In 1999, she joined the Backstreet Boys in their Millennium World Tour and was their saxophonist, keyboardist, and percussionist for almost a year and a half. She also assembled Mandy Moore’s first band and worked as the musical director, background singer, and keyboardist for Moore’s television shows and appearances.
She released the album It Just Happens that Way, which reached the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart at No. 7 in 2003. Her 2004 release Come As You Are also peaked at No. 9, while her Life Less Ordinary peaked at No. 1 in 2006. True Blue and Bloom also hit No. 1 on R&R.
In 2007, she released Stars, which peaked at No. 4. Then, she had released Hi-Fi Stereo in 2010, and it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Jazz Album chart. This album has the Be Beautiful, which reached No. 1. Mindi Abair is a prolific artist and a multi-awarded one.
3) Lenny Pickett
Lenny Pickett was born on April 10, 1954, in New Mexico, U.S. He was the Saturday Night Live band’s musical director and was a Tower of Power member from 1973 to 1981. He was skillful and is well-known for his altissimo register. He had no formal music training, nor did he attend college. However, he took lessons under Bert Wilson’s tutelage, which is well-known for his altissimo register’s know-how. Other than those lessons he got from Wilson, he is a self-taught saxophonist.
He led Tower of Power’s horn section from the 70s to the 80s and Saturday Night Live Band in 1985. He was also a prolific composer for his group, Borneo Horn and had written much for his group.
4) Greg Abate
Greg Abate was born on May 31, 1947. He is a versatile musician who can play the saxophone and flute. He’s also a prolific composer and arranger. He was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and learned how to play the clarinet in his fifth grade. After finishing high school, he went to Berklee College in Boston, where he finished his education.
He was then hired to play in Ray Charles’s band as an alto saxophonist from 1973 to 1974. After that, he formed a sextet named Channel One, which released its only album Without Boundaries in 1980. He also became a Sax Odyssey’s member, spearheaded by Tony Giorgianni.
Moreover, he became a member of Duke Bellair’s Jazz Orchestra. Dick Johnson also hired him in 1986 as a tenor saxophonist, and he also appeared in some shows. He then taught music at Rhode Island College. He was recently included in the eight inductees to the Music Hall of Fame of Rhode Island in April 2016.
5) Greg Banaszak
Greg Banaszak was born on the 23rd of June, 1966. He specializes in jazz and classical music as a saxophonist. He performed in jazz and classical music styles through solo, concerto, and chamber music recitals and in many jazz festivals in the U.S., Middle East, Asia, and Western Europe. He studied at Hartt School of Music and received his bachelor’s degree from that school. He also received his master’s degree from the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Poland, while also receiving an Artist Diploma in France from the Centre Musical d’Annecy.
He taught at the University of Case Western Reserve, Cleveland Institute of Music, and Lutheran High School West. Moreover, he became an Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ voting member for the yearly Grammy Awards. He also produced albums for Open Loop, Chanson, and Hyperion.
6) Emilio Castillo
Emilio Castillo was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 24, 1950. He is a saxophonist and a composer and is known for founding the Tower of Power. He studied saxophone, guitar, and piano lessons and also studied music theory from Norman Bates. His first gigs were with the Extension Five, which was later named Gotham City Crime Fighters, with whom he played both sax and organ. This band released a song in 1966, Who Stole the Batmobile. After getting acquainted with the Spyders, as a soul band, he switched to playing the saxophone.
Later, he formed the Motowns, which played soul music covers. Moreover, he met Stephen “Doc” Kupka, who encouraged him to make original materials. Thus, he changed the name of his band to Tower of Power. The band produced their primary album, East Bay Grease. He played as a second tenor saxophonist in that band, as well as being the leader of the band. He also collaborated with other artists like Jose Feliciano, Frankie B., Carlos Santana, and many others.
7) Jeff Coffin
Jeff Coffin was born in Massachusetts, United States, on August 5, 1965, and is well known as a saxophonist, educator, and composer. As a member of Bela Fleck and Flecktones, he became a three-time recipient of the Grammy Awards.
He began touring in July 2008 with Dave Matthews Band, which he later joined in 2009. He also led Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet group. In the late 1990s, Coffin was touring and recording with his band and had released some albums.
His philosophy is encapsulated in his chosen name for his band Mu’tet, which signifies that music should mutate to evolve. He collaborated with other artists like Jeff Babko, Everyone Orchestra, Vinnie Colaiuta, R. Prasanna, J.D. Souther, Jonathan Scales, and Boyd Tinsley.
8) Amy Dickson
Amy Dickson was born in 1982 in Sydney, Australia, and began playing the piano when she was just two years of age. She also learned to play the sax when she was six. She played some Jazz while still a teenager but shifted to the classical repertoire as she matured.
She debuted at age 16, playing Pierre Max Dubois’ Concerto pour Saxophone Alto with the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra with Henryk Pisarek. He was awarded the James Fairfax Australian Young Artist of the Year Award. Soon after, she moved to London and accepted the Jane Melber Scholarship at the Royal College of Music. She also further studied at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. She was the first saxophonist to be awarded the Royal Overseas League Competition’s Gold medal.
As a musician, she had performed in many distinguished venues in front of many distinguished audiences, like in the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meetings and Scottish Parliament, St James’ Palace, and Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
She was handed the Breakthrough Artist of the Year award. She is a prolific arranger and worked with famous personalities like John Tavener and Philip Glass. At present, she resides in London and serves as the Prince’s Foundation for Children and Arts and Australian Children’s Music Foundation’s ambassador.
9) Wayne Escoffery
Wayne Escoffery was born on February 23, 1975, in London, England. As an England-born American, he was based in New York City since 2000. Moreover, he had worked with Carl Allen, Mingus Big Band, and Eric Reed. He also performed with other musicians like Ben Riley, Ralph Peterson, Ron Carter, Bill Charlap, Rufus Reid, Bruce Barth, Eddie Henderson, and Jimmy Cobb. Besides, he also collaborated with Cynthia Scott, Mary Stallings, LaVerne Buttler, Nancie Banks, and Carolyn Leonhart. He also performs with his band that features Ugonna Okegwo, David Kikoski, and Ralph Peterson.
He is currently touring with Monk legacy Septet by Ben Riley and the Mingus Band, along with Ron Carter’s Big Band, Amina Figarova, Monty Alexander, and many other artists. He also co-produced with Harrell.
Many saxophone players around the world know how to play the saxophone. Yet, there are not many who could exceptionally play it well. This is because it usually takes a lifetime to become a great saxophone player, and the process of becoming a great saxophone player never stops.
The abovementioned saxophonists are true virtuosos when it comes to playing the saxophone, and they have proven themselves great over time. Some of them may be prodigious, like Amy Dixson, who could play sax at the age of six. Some, however, have honed their skills through continuous practice and many sacrifices. In the end, they were able to cement their statures as the best saxophone players of our present generation.