In defense of the saxophone

Concord

By Carly Snider, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 16, 2014

Take a moment and imagine the coolest, most jam-worthy instrument you can think of. Is it a hard-rocking electric guitar? A piano? Drums, possibly? For me, it might have to be the saxophone. Yes, saxophone, as in that Kenny G guy. In the past, the saxophone has been reserved for background music at stuffy dinner parties or the soundtrack to torturous car rides with parents who refuse to change the radio station from the smooth jazz station. But with its incorporation into more modern music, the stigma of the saxophone is slowly being erased.

Pop artists such as Katy Perry, Jason Derulo, Lady Gaga and Pitbull have all featured the saxophone on some of their most successful tracks, with Kenny G himself making a cameo in Perry’s “Last Friday Night.” The millennials have embraced the sax. Using new editing techniques to change or enhance the sound, listeners may not even be aware of the real instrumentation behind some of their favorite hits. Oftentimes the sax replaces what used to be the entirely electronic drop or bridge to the song. Working with the same medium, comparing Pitbull’s party anthem “Fireball” to anything relating to a smoky jazz club is still almost entirely out of the question. These variations just go to show the versatility of the instrument.

While more popular artists still shy away from blatant saxophone use, some groups embrace, and ultimately benefit, from it. One of my favorite songs ends with a lengthy saxophone solo. The song, M83’s “Midnight City,” is one of the last places you would expect any kind of raw instrumentation as the group’s sound is almost entirely electronic and processed. The element of the surprise gives the instrument its strength. Its sound is similar to that produced by synthesizers, but far more raw and powerful.

Going in the opposite direction, more EDM-based groups have started to manipulate the instrument to fit their sound — most notably, Big Gigantic. The Colorado-based duo uses saxophone and drums in their tracks to give them a more jazz/hip-hop sound that sets them apart from other electronic artists. Initially, listeners may not realize the main melody is coming from a saxophone; it is so processed and blends so well with the other elements. However, there are standout moments in which the instrumentation is obvious. One of the coolest elements of this combination is seeing the group perform live. For the most part, EDM shows consist of a DJ standing on stage pressing play on his or her computer, accompanied by fancy flashing lights. With Big Gigantic, there is more of an actual performance as front man Lalli plays the instrument on stage. You get all the benefits of a sick light show on top of the excitement of live music.

With all of its new uses, the saxophone has escaped its stereotypical place among elevator music and Michael Bublé holiday CDs. It has transcended its original genre and become something much more versatile. While it may never reach the rock/pop status of drums or guitar, its place in popular culture gives hope for other instrumental changes in the future. Who knows what will come next — maybe Drake’s next album will feature heavy flute. We’ll just have to wait and see.