April 6, 2023
Blog by Thomas Lack
Today we are launching the Baritone Saxophone, “Barry” in Soundpaint! It was recorded in the same space and style as one of our first H.A.L instruments - the Tenor Sax Spectralius. We also have the Soprano Sax Moonlight, the highest of the 4 most common saxophones. The Bari sax is the lowest common saxophone (there are lower instruments, down to the enormous subcontrabass sax, but it is pretty rare), with a strong, agile, and even brassy sound.
We also have the Saxophone Fire, which is a bit less refined than Barry and Spectralius. Some of you have also asked us why the Saxophone Fire is in the brass category on Soundpaint, but Spectralius, Moonlight, and now Barry are both in the woodwind category. The short answer is that the saxophone fire is part of the fire trio (along with the Trumpet and Trombone), so stylistically it fits in with those brass instruments. But there is an argument to be made for categorizing saxophones as brass instruments.
Why do we categorize Saxophones as both Woodwind and Brass?
By definition, the saxophone family are all woodwind instruments, from the tiny sopranissimo to the goliath subcontrabass (which you should definitely look up if you’ve never seen one). Even though they look a lot like brass instruments and are mostly made from similar materials, they use single reed mouthpieces very similar to clarinets, and keywork very similar to flutes and oboes. They don’t have any valves like brass instruments. So, why did we put the 1992 Saxophone Fire in the Brass section?
As we noted above, the obvious answer is that it sounds pretty brassy, and the other Fire instruments are undeniably brass (trumpet & trombone). Brass instruments are quite a bit louder than woodwinds, but the saxophone can almost match them in volume because of its materials and design. When Adolphe Sax created the saxophones in the 1840s, his goal was to make an instrument that could play fast and agile like woodwinds, but loud and proud like brass. So from the initial design, saxophones have been a hybrid instrument, sometimes called a “brasswind.” (Brasswind is sort of a nebulous term that can mean different things, so this is by no means universal).
Saxophones were most popular in military bands initially, since any other woodwind would require many players to be heard among all the brass and drums. It is not a regular part of most symphony orchestras, even to this day, but some 20th-century composers added the saxophone to their orchestral repertoire (Prokofiev and Ravel, to name a few). The Sax sounds great among the orchestra in works like Bolero and Romeo and Juliet (which demonstrates how the sax can fit inbetween woodwinds and brass pretty well), so it is rather lamentable that it isn’t used in that realm more often. As a newer instrument, it does lack some of the history and tradition of most orchestral instruments. Still, the tone of the sax in works like these lines up more with woodwinds overall.
Throughout the 20th century, the saxophone continued to be popular in various styles of music, including rock, funk, and soul. Of course, saxophones are very popular in jazz. One might even say the saxophone is a defining element of a lot of sub-genres. Saxophonists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Stan Getz helped to establish the saxophone as a solo instrument with its own unique voice and virtuosity. In jazz, especially big band, other woodwind instruments are comparatively rare. In these cases, it is easy to argue that saxophones are functioning in a more brassy role, given the style (just like the Fire Sax).
Jazz offers a lot of freedom compared to older genres, which means that different saxophones can be featured more depending on the group. Tenor and Alto sax are probably the most common, but the Baritone has plenty of opportunities to shine. Harry Carney, a member of the Duke Ellington orchestra, was among the first popular bari players. Gerry Mulligan was a popular “cool jazz” bari sax player, in groups such as the Charles Mingus band. Leo P is a more modern bari saxophonist who’s been memeified and gone viral in the past decade a number of times for his high energy playing and dancing. All of this to say, the saxophone can do a lot of different things really well. Maybe it deserves its own category…
Anyway, we know that saxophones are technically woodwinds. But, in spirit, sometimes they just feel more like brass. As the new kid on the block, the saxophones don’t belong to the woodwind or the brass cliques, so they can hang out with both. They might not have the greatest range of notes, but their range of character is really something special. They can be sweet, bold, aggressive, sexy, and just about anything in between.
What do you think? Are saxophones woodwinds, brass, neither, both, or something else? Does it even matter? If you have any strong opinions, we would love to hear them over on the Soundpaint Discord!