Saxophone. In the context of rock or pop music, it is largely presumed to be a thing of the past. When we hear “saxophone,” we think Bruce Springsteen, Kenny G, or, most damningly, “the ‘80s.” (It’s easy to blame the ‘80s for crimes of bad taste, but I beg you to remember that Dave Matthews made spectacular use of the saxophone all through the ‘90s.) These days, anytime saxophone wanders too far outside the (admittedly fluid) confines of jazz, it is at best hopelessly retro, at worst unbearably cheesy. To whit:
Truthfully, saxophone kind of belongs in that song. I can’t imagine it any other way. But it’s still hard to take seriously, and whenever someone tries, I want to grab them by the collar and shout, “What are you thinking??! DON’T YOU KNOW YOU’RE PLAYING WITH FIRE?!” This will sound like sacrilege to my fellow banjo-lovers, but Béla Fleck might be the worst. As far as I can tell, the Flecktones are just playing really complicated Weather Channel music.
But I didn’t bring this up just to rip on the saxophone (only the Flecktones). No, I am here to say that I have CHANGED MY TUNE (pun intended!). Sax is back, and I’m kind of loving it.
The recent surge of saxophone ardor is, I think, partly a symptom of the ‘80s nostalgia that lingers persistently in popular culture, despite a generation of twenty-somethings who are a little too young to remember that decade clearly. On their recent albums, both Lady Gaga (who was born in ’86) and Katy Perry (’84) invoke the soaring, unabashedly corny sax solos of yore. Gaga tapped Clarence Clemons, of the E Street Band, to perform on the lovingly-crafted, Springsteen-esque “The Edge of Glory,” and Perry, in a slightly more farcical gesture, cast Kenny G as a wayward, white-suited saxophonist in the music video for “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” itself an affectionate send-up of ‘80s teen movies.
But it’s more than just arch, self-referential saxophone that has made a comeback. The sax seems to be a pretty popular instrument with indie-rockers these days, and two of my favorite records from last year make admirable use of the saxophone. It’s all over the tUnE-yArDs album w h o k i l l, and a force to be reckoned with. On the fierce, percussive “Gangsta,” two saxes enter in unison with a low, menacing drone, and then veer apart, honking and squawking through a series of unsettling melodic leaps towards the song’s chaotic conclusion.
Bon Iver also makes great use of saxophone on his self-titled new album, which is a bit of an ode to unusual instruments of all kinds. Banjo and pedal steel guitar feature prominently in a lush sonic landscape so deep you could almost drown in it. Unless you listen closely, you might not even notice the saxophone, a warm echo straining to be heard above the roiling undercurrent of percussion and synth. But it’s there.