The Changing Face of the Saxophone

The Future is Female

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The Changing Face of the Saxophone

While jazz has historically been something of a “boys club,” women trailblazers have crashed that fraternity since its inception. As we begin a new decade, Carla Bley, Maria Schneider, Anat Cohen, Terri Lynne Carrington, and Esperanza Spaulding stand among the top names in the jazz world, but much of the current excitement stems from newer artists who are starting to gain attention. Recently we’ve seen a flurry of recordings by female saxophonists who seem destined to shake up the jazz world with playing that’s inspired, edgy, and uncompromising. Talent like this will not go unnoticed.

Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana broke through in spectacular fashion in 2010 with Free Fall. Her command of the horn on that debut album was staggering, and her passion ran deep, marking the 21-year-old as a talent deserving of wider recognition. She followed in 2012 with the equally impressive Second Cycle, then jumped to Concord Jazz for 2014’s Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio. On last year’s Visions (Motema Music), featuring original music inspired by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, the saxophonist-composer delivered her most fully-realized statement to date. Indeed, Visions appeared on many Top Ten lists for 2019. A work of remarkable depth and crystal-clear intention, executed with Michael Brecker-ian facility and intensity, the album stands as her most profound statement to date and begs the question: What’s next for this 31-year-old rising star? 

Dynamic alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin pays tribute to two towering icons, John and Alice Coltrane, on Pursuance: The Coltranes (Ropeadope). Her third release as a leader, this powerhouse outing features an incendiary take on John Coltrane’s “Acknowledgment” from A Love Supreme, a funkified reading of “Central Park West,” a modernist take on “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” and a stirring rendition of Trane’s Civil Rights elegy “Alabama.” Benjamin also turns in a funky interpretation of Alice Coltrane’s “Om Shanti” and puts a soulful spin on Alice’s spiritual anthem, “Turiya and Ramakrishna.” From start to finish, Benjamin takes the listener on a magnificent journey, with memorable guest appearances by fellow alto saxophonists Gary Bartz, Greg Osby, and Steve Wilson. Benjamin’s mentor, the legendary bassist and former John Coltrane sideman Reggie Workman, appears on three tracks and co-produced the session.

Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino wowed the critics last year with Winds of Change, her auspicious debut as a leader on Posi-Tone Records. A member of the all-female jazz sextet Lioness and lead alto for the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra, Tarantino is also a member of the new cooperative Works for Me, which finds her in the company of pianist Caili O’Doherty, guitarist Tony Davis, bassist Adi Meyerson, and drummer Joe Strasser. Their chemistry is apparent on 2020’s Reach Within on Posi-Tone. Highlights include the uptempo burner “Mr. M” and the darkly evocative ballad “Your Smile (Keeps Me Sane)” along with fresh interpretations of Joe Henderson’s “Jinrikisha” and Stevie Wonder’s grooving “Send One Your Love.”

A former member of Terri Lyne Carrington’s all-female Mosaic Project from 2011, Dutch alto saxophonist Tineke Postma plays with rare command of her instrument and an ability to sing melodies through her horn. An expressive soloist with dazzling dexterity, soulful phrasing, and a robust tone, she began moving away from the straight-ahead post-bop leanings of her earlier albums by pushing the envelope on 2011’s The Dawn of Light and 2014’s Sonic Halo. On Freya, her new Editions Records release, Postma explores more avant-garde terrain with fellow risk-takers Ralph Alessi on trumpet, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Dan Weiss. The musicians strike a like-minded chemistry on the open-ended “Scáthachs Isle of Skye,” the gentle “Aspasia and Pericles,” and the blistering free-boppish “Parallax,” and edgy numbers like “Juno Lucina” and “Geri’s Print” reflect the inspiration of Roscoe Mitchell and Chicago’s AACM. This new free-rider direction suits her well.

Other noteworthy releases from the past few years include When We Are by Britain’s tenor sax sensation Nbuya Garcia, the aptly-titled The Future Is Female by tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss, the highly experimental Vol. 1: Inter-Be by alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger, and some Mack Avenue sessions led by Tia Fuller. Coming this Fall is the Blue Note debut of the potent sextet Artemis, featuring pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Alison Miller, and a powerhouse frontline of tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and clarinetist Anat Cohen. Named for the Greek goddess Artemis, protector of young girls and goddess of wilderness and the hunt, this all-star ensemble is poised to become the flagship in women’s jazz.