Even today, in 2020, many of the most influential jazz saxophone players are the legends who pioneered the development of the style.
But if you go to a jam session in any major city with young, conservatory-educated saxophonists in attendance, there’s a good chance that you’ll notice the influence of Mark Turner, Joshua Redman or Chris Potter almost as often as you’ll hear echoes of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or Wayne Shorter.
For this article, we chose 10 of the great modern jazz saxophonists to highlight, along with our pick of an essential album for each.
Discussion of the greatest saxophonists of all time tends to be centred around musicians who came to prominence during the ‘golden era’ of jazz: the major swing era soloists of the 1930s; the bebop and hard bop pioneers of the 1940s and ‘50s; the 1960s Avant-gardists.
Of course, those saxophonists laid the foundations for the improvisational language that is widely used by jazz musicians today.
But while it may have shifted further away from mainstream public consciousness, jazz has continued to develop, with innovations in technique, composition, rhythm, harmony and melody.
As we mentioned, go to jam session or jazz club in any major city in the world and you’ll hear many of these modern influences at work.
So, here’s our list of some of the greatest saxophone players to emerge since the 1990s (approximately). And the good news is: they’re all still performing, recording and sounding great!
- 1 Kenny Garrett
- 2 Mark Turner
- 3 Chris Potter
- 4 Melissa Aldana
- 5 Joshua Redman
- 6 Donny McCaslin
- 7 Miguel Zenón
- 8 Greg Osby
- 9 Seamus Blake
- 10 Kamasi Washington
After playing saxophone in The Duke Ellington Orchestra (then under the leadership of Mercer Ellington, following Duke’s death) whilst still a teenager, Garrett did sideman work with major figures like Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis, appearing on various Davis albums including Amandla.
Kenny Garrett has sometimes been mentioned as part of the ‘Young Lions’ school, which emerged in the 1980s, spearheaded by the Wynton and Branford Marsalis and heralding a return to the popularity of acoustic, straight-ahead jazz.
Certainly he is comfortable playing standard material in a swinging small group setting, as evidenced by his debut, Introducing Kenny Garrett, which features Woody Shaw, but his bright-toned, funky alto style is equally at home in more fusion-orientated contexts.
His influence can be heard upon alto players around the world, and he remains incredibly popular as a touring artist.
The New York Times called him “one of the most admired alto saxophonists in jazz after Charlie Parker“.
Recommended Kenny Garret album: Triology
Other Garrett albums, like 1997’s Songbook, might have more crowd-pleasing original music, but Triology (1995) showcases the alto saxophonist in an exposed trio format with just double bass and drums for company. It includes a burning rendition of John Coltrane’s famously tricky ‘Giant Steps’.
Since his emergence in the mid-1990s, Turner’s cerebral, highly evolved tenor saxophone style has proved particularly attractive to young jazz musicians, making him one of the most imitated saxophonists of recent years.
He has a dark, pure sound across the whole range of the saxophone, and his mastery of the altissimo register is particularly impressive. His long, snaking lines are influenced, somewhat unusually, by the Tristano-school tenor player Warne Marsh, but Turner has also undertaken deep study of the work of John Coltrane and Joe Henderson.
He has spoken of his love of sideman work, and has collaborated with leading lights of his generation including Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel and FLY Trio, as well as older masters like Billy Hart and Lee Konitz.
After a long gap between albums as a leader, he returned as an ECM artist in 2014 with Lathe of Heaven, which features a harmony-less quartet with Avishai Cohen, Joe Martin and Marcus Gilmore.
“I think Mark Turner is one of the most important players that has come along in the last 20 years, easily the most influential. He never seems to have any doubt about what he’s doing” – Ravi Coltrane
Recommended Mark Turner recording: In This World
This 1998 recording sees Turner accompanied some of the best musicians of his generation. It includes a number of original compositions, including the Tristano-influenced ‘Lennie Groove’, the standard ‘The Days of Wine And Roses’ and the Beatles song ‘She Said She Said’.
Potter was a teenage jazz saxophone prodigy (there are YouTube videos to prove it), and he is blessed with phenomenal technique.
He worked as a young sideman with Red Rodney, who played trumpet in Charlie Parker’s quintet in the early ‘50s. Potter has also featured in bands led by Paul Motian, Dave Holland and John Patitucci, and has released 21 albums as a leader.
His supercharged playing is rooted in the classic tenor tradition, but he also leads his Underground project as an outlet for complex contemporary fusion compositions.
Recommended Chris Potter album: Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard
This adventurous live recording from New York’s Village Vanguard (listed here in our best jazz clubs in NYC) includes memorable original compositions and interesting takes on standards, like the clever arrangement of Mingus’ ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’, with the leader stretching out in impressive fashion.
Aldana shot to fame in the jazz world when, aged 24 in 2013, she became the first female instrumentalist and the first South American to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.
Originally from Santiago, Chile, her father is also a renowned tenor saxophonist, who was a semifinalist in the 1991 edition of the Monk Competition. Her grandfather played too, and Melissa continues to play his Selmer Mark VI tenor.
Now based in New York, she released a number of albums with her Crash Trio, before opting for a quintet, with Sam Harris on piano and Joel Ross on vibraphone, on 2019’s Visions, an homage to the visual artist Frida Kahlo.
A Berklee College of Music Graduate, her playing is notably influenced by Mark Turner and Sonny Rollins, who inspired her switch from alto to tenor as a teenager.
Recommended album: Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio
The recording contract with Concord that resulted in this 2014 album was part of Aldana’s prize for winning the previous year’s Monk Competition.
It features the Harry Warren standard ‘You’re My Everything’ and the Thelonious Monk classic ‘Ask Me Now’, alongside Aldana’s compositions. Bassist, fellow Chilean and longstanding collaborator Pablo Menares, and Cuban drummer Francisco Mela complete the sparse trio lineup.
Redman is the son of legendary tenor player Dewey Redman, who played on pioneering free jazz records with Ornette Coleman in the 1960s, and in Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet in the ‘70s.
But he was actually on the path to a legal career, having just graduated from Harvard and been accepted by Yale Law School when he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991 (above Eric Alexander and Chris Potter in second and third places respectively).
As his career took off he made sideman appearances on albums by Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Elvin Jones and others, and formed a particularly popular quartet with Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on double bass and Brian Blade on drums, all of whom have gone on to be recognised as being amongst the finest players of their generation.
After last recording together on MoodSwing in 1994, the band reformed 26 years later to release RoundAgain in 2020. Other projects and releases include organ trio sets, the orchestral Walking Shadows, a duo album with Mehldau, a collaborative effort with The Bad Plus, and Still Dreaming, a tribute to his father’s band Old and New Dreams.
Key Joshua Redman album: Spirit of the Moment – Live at the Village Vanguard
Redman’s passionate, highly energetic playing style has won him a large fan base, and the audience’s excitement is plain to hear on this live album from 1995. Yet another killer album from New York’s Village Vanguard!
McCaslin moved to New York in the early 1990s and replaced Michael Brecker, one of his saxophone idols, in the fusion band Steps Ahead.
He then developed a reputation for his work in complex contemporary jazz, recording as a bandleader and as a sideman with the likes of David Binney, Danilo Perez and Dave Douglas. He is also a long standing member of Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra.
He found a wider audience when he was asked to play on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar in 2016, after the singer heard McCaslin’s band at the 55 Bar in New York.
Key Donny McCaslin recording: Blow
Capitalising on his musical relationship with David Bowie, McCaslin takes his music in adventurous art-rock direction on 2018’s Blow. Multitracking is used liberally, and the tenor saxophonist also doubles on clarinet and flute.
Zenon was born and raised in San Juan, Peurto Rico before a move to Boston, USA, where, like a number of modern sax players on this list, he studied at Berklee College of Music.
The alto saxophonist has been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and the McArther “Genius Grant”, and his music explores the influence of various Latin American folk traditions within a sophisticated contemporary jazz framework. He has also appeared on albums by leading lights of left-field jazz including Miles Okazaki, Guillermo Klein and Jeff Ballard.
A renowned jazz educator, he holds teaching posts at the Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory, and has lectured and given workshops around the world.
Recommended Miguel Zenón album: Jíbaro
The original compositions on this 2005 album are inspired by La Música Jibara, a folk style from rural Peurto Rico. It was released on Marsalis Music, Branford Marsalis’ label.
Osby came to prominence, along with Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman and Geri Allen, as part of the M-Base Collective, the exact ethos of which is somewhat mysterious, but which is generally associated with a rhythmically complex brand of funky contemporary jazz.
His searing alto saxophone sound has been heard with elder statesmen like Jim Hall and Andrew Hill, as well as with forward-thinking contemporaries including Jason Moran and Gary Thomas.
His personal, highly modern sound comes out of deep study of the jazz tradition, and the New York Times called him one of the most “provocative musical thinkers of his generation”.
He founded a record label of his own, Inner Circle Music, which has released albums by promising young musicians, including Melissa Aldana’s first two records.
Key Greg Osby album: Banned in New York
This live recording was recorded with a MiniDisc on a table in front of the bandstand, but the low fi sound gives it a classic charm, as the quartet takes a highly exploratory look at standards by Monk, Ellington and Rollins.
Pianist Jason Moran was just 22 when it was recorded in 1997. Osby’s St. Louis Shoes is also excellent, and may prove slightly more accessible.
Blake is another winner of the Thelonious Monk Competition: he took first prize above John Ellis and Marcus Strickland in 2002.
As well as releasing 16 albums of his own, he has played with The Mingus Big Band, Victor Lewis and John Scofield, who called him “extraordinary, a total saxophonist.” He was born in London, raised in Vancouver, made his name in the clubs of New York, and is now largely based in Europe. His powerful and versatile tenor sound is increasingly detectable as an influence upon young, conservatory-educated saxophonists.
Key Seamus Blake album: Reeds Ramble
Blake had a funky jazz-rock band called The Bloomdaddies in the 1990s, which included brilliant fellow tenor player Chris Cheek.
This 2013 album features the pair in a more straight-ahead two-tenor setting, playing an engaging mixture of material by composers ranging from Elmo Hope to Brian Wilson. Ethan Iverson, of The Bad Plus fame, is on piano.
Washington reached a level of fame that few jazz musicians can dream of when his third album, The Epic, was a surprising breakout hit in 2015, attracting the attention of mainstream music journalists and listeners.
His intense brand of spiritual jazz carries shades of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders (both featured here in our free jazz guide), and seems to work particularly well in big venues and at festivals.
Washington, along with a number of other Los Angeles jazz musicians, contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s multi Grammy-winning rap album To Pimp A Butterfly.
Interestingly, his playing style and career trajectory are somewhat different to that of the typical jazz saxophone star: most of the players on this list have attended an elite conservatory in Boston or New York, before establishing themselves as bandleaders and sidemen or women with major names in the jazz world.
Whilst Washington’s playing has had its detractors inside the jazz community, its wider appeal is perhaps explained by its communal feel, with arguably less of a focus on the individual soloist.
Recommended Kamasi Washington album: The Epic
Released on Brainfeeder, a label that has generally released experimental electronic music, The Epic is a remarkable three hours long. The 13-piece band features electric bassist Thundercat.
Thanks for reading and hope you found some new music to check out from this roundup of modern jazz saxophone greats. Of course, there are a lot more we could have included, so let us know your favourites in the comments section, ahead of the next update.