Why Saxophonists are so Annoying

Last week a friend, who remembered me from back in the day when I used to play saxophone, invited me to come on a gig with him in Paris. I wondered how come he didn’t know any sax players in Paris. He said he never played with sax players, because they were “so annoying”, but the client had insisted on having a sax; so he had thought of me.

With little more than a week to go for the gig I took my tenor out of its case, where it had gone decidedly musty, and starting brushing some of the rust off my rudiments, finger exercises, and one or two MOVES exercises of my own devising.

Never far from the back of my mind was what my friend had said about saxophonists being annoying. I decided to take my panpipes along as a back-up. (Panpipes can get annoying too – but in a different way.)

A while back on this blog, I looked at what makes an awesome lick and used this passage from Coltrane’s tune One Up One Down as an example:


Rumour has it that Trane used to practice a lot reading from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns. The scales and patterns in this compilation are arrived at by the same permutational methods used in MOVES exercises, but are written out in full, and not in MOVES, so taking up vastly more space.

Reverse-engineering from the above passage, we can surmise that Trane was probably familiar with two patterns from the Slonimsky book, namely {-1 +4 -1 -3} and {-1 +2 -1 -1} both with a linksum* of -1, which translated means they descend in semitones.

Here is a line of each pattern written out in full, continuing from where they appear in the above example. Obviously, if we wanted to to cover all the houses, we could fill a book, which in effect is exactly what Slonimsky did – in the days before score-writing software!


A cursory glance reveals that these two belong to a larger family of chromatic patterns {-1 +m -1 -n} where m = n+1.  And of course as with all MOVES exercises you simply reverse all the signs to find your way back to the top – or bottom as the case may be.

So the conscientious saxophonist will end up trying out all these on his horn, or if he doesn’t feel like working them out for himself, he will probably find them in Slonimsky:

{-1 +2  -1 -1}

{-1 +3  -1 -2}

{-1 +4  -1 -3}

{-1 +5  -1 -4}

{-1 +6  -1 -5} … and you get the idea.

And this is where saxophonists get annoying.

Such chromatic patterns are a powerful answer to the challenges peculiar to woodwind instruments, and practising them methodically ensures you can get your fingers round the melodic cell in any key.  But the temptation, especially after all the work you put into mastering them, is to play the pattern through as many houses as you can get away with in your solos.

This something Coltrane managed to avoid. When you listen to his solos, you keep hearing things that sound like the beginning of a pattern, but the pattern never continues predictably.

Resisting that temptation to unpack in public all those exercises you practised is a higher level of mastery, and stops you being annoying. Something Trane’s many emulators could usefully bear in mind.

Of course I’m guessing that’s what my friend hated about saxophonists. Such show-offs!

* See the MOVES page for definitions of MOVES terms.

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About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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